- In an offseason of upheaval, three major fantasy stars changed teams. Will they be even better in their new homes? In two cases, that’s highly doubtful.
This story appears in the 2019 Fantasy Football special issue of Sports Illustrated. For more great storytelling and in-depth analysis, subscribe to the magazine—and get up to 94% off the cover price. Click here for more.
It’s rare for an offensive superstar to change teams while at the height of his powers, so what happened in March was the NFL equivalent of an appearance by Halley’s Comet. In the span of four days, three of the best nonquarterback skill players hopped rosters. Running back Le’Veon Bell signed with the Jets as a free agent, while wide receivers Odell Beckham Jr. and Antonio Brown were traded to Cleveland and Oakland, respectively. Those moves have made this as disruptive an offseason as the fantasy world has known.
Change is not always a good thing, though. Talent, opportunity and environment are the three requirements for fantasy greatness. These three players all have talent in abundance, but will they perform up to their historical levels as well, when surrounded by new sets of teammates and coaches?
One star is set to go supernova. For the other two, the shine could be dulled.
ODELL BECKHAM JR.
It has been a long time since a player’s prospects improved by going to Cleveland. Then again, Beckham has always been a trendsetter.
His biggest boost will come because of a change in quarterbacks, from Eli Manning to Baker Mayfield. Despite Manning’s obvious slippage over the last five seasons, OBJ still succeeded with the Giants, averaging 6.6 catches, 92.8 yards and 0.74 touchdowns a game. That translates to 106 catches, 1,485 yards and 12 touchdowns across a 16-game season. The two other receivers who have been atop the fantasy rankings in that span, Brown and Julio Jones, have worked with top-level quarterbacks in Ben Roethlisberger and Matt Ryan. In 2019, Beckham will finally do so as well.
Mayfield lived up to his status as the No. 1 pick last year, passing for 3,725 yards at 7.66 yards per attempt and setting a rookie record with 27 touchdowns. He was especially effective after the Browns made a coaching change midseason, elevating Freddie Kitchens from running backs coach to offensive coordinator. In those eight games Mayfield threw for 2,254 yards, 8.57 yards per attempt and 19 touchdowns against eight picks. With Kitchens now installed as head coach, Mayfield should only improve.
Not only is Mayfield an upgrade from the Manning of recent vintage, but the Browns’ skill-position talent is far better than New York’s, with running back Nick Chubb, tight end David Njoku and receivers Jarvis Landry and Antonio Callaway—not to mention RB Kareem Hunt after he returns from his eight-game suspension. Simply put: Beckham will be the centerpiece of one of the NFL’s deepest and most explosive offenses. He has averaged 10.5 targets per game in his career, and he should hit that mark again, but those targets will have more value. How much more? Last year Beckham was ninth among WRs in fantasy points per game; in our 2019 wide receiver rankings (page 52) he is No. 1.
Let’s start with the good. This is still Le’Veon Bell. He’s the prototype of the modern back, 6' 1" and 225 pounds, powerful enough to run inside and skilled enough to catch passes out of the backfield. He’s the forerunner to Todd Gurley, Alvin Kamara, Ezekiel Elliott and Saquon Barkley, and he picked up the torch once carried by Marshall Faulk and LaDainian Tomlinson. That doesn’t change because Bell, 27, sat out all of last year in a contract dispute.
In five years and 62 games with the Steelers he racked up nearly 8,000 yards from scrimmage, 312 receptions and 42 touchdowns. He averaged 86.1 rushing yards, 5.0 receptions, 42.9 receiving yards and 0.7 TDs per game. Those numbers translate to a 16-game pace of 1,377 rushing yards, 81 receptions, 686 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns.
After signing a four-year, $52.5 million deal, Bell will obviously get plenty of opportunities in New York, but his new team has many more question marks than he was accustomed to in Pittsburgh. The biggest one is quarterback Sam Darnold. The No. 3 pick in last year's draft showed flashes of brilliance as a rookie, putting up four games with at least 9.0 yards per attempt and multiple touchdown passes, including a season-best 341-yard, three-touchdown, 9.74-YPA effort against the Packers in Week 16. But he also had only 17 touchdowns against 15 interceptions in 13 starts. Darnold is more likely to hit than to whiff in his second season, but he doesn't offer anything near the certainty of a mature Roethlisberger.
The Jets also have a new coach in Adam Gase, who presents a potential problem for Bell owners. Gase has brought along his offensive coordinator from Miami, Dowell Loggains, and hired Jim Bob Cooter, the former OC in Detroit, as his running backs coach. They led two of the NFL’s most plodding offenses last year: The Dolphins ranked 31st in pace in neutral situations (game within one score), while the Lions ranked 29th. Slow play could limit Bell's touches, which is an issue he never encountered with the Steelers.
Bell will almost certainly be a late-first- or early-second-round pick in most fantasy drafts, slotted behind Barkley, Elliott, Christian McCaffrey, Kamara and Melvin Gordon at running back and in a tier with Gurley (depending on his knee issues), James Conner, Joe Mixon and Chubb. New York is not a horrible landing spot for Bell, but his prospects simply aren’t as assured as they were in Pittsburgh.
Of the three superstars to change teams this offseason, Brown wound up in the worst spot. In Pittsburgh he spent his entire nine-year career catching passes from Roethlisberger, who is sure to be a first-ballot Hall of Famer. Derek Carr is decidedly not that level of player. In his five NFL seasons Carr has put up decent numbers: a 62.8% completion rate, 18,739 passing yards, 6.69 YPA, 122 touchdowns, 54 interceptions. But he has never once finished above league average in YPA.
The surrounding talent in Oakland is even more of a comedown. By himself, Brown is a dangerous enough receiving threat to distract defenses and help lesser talents shine. But there’s no question that Bell and WR Juju Smith-Schuster were also elite talents who kept defensive coordinators preoccupied. Oakland has no one at their level. Brown’s targets with the Raiders won’t be nearly as valuable as they were with the Steelers because defenses will be able to focus more intently on limiting his yardage.
This is why Brown's fantasy value will be the lowest it has been since before his breakout 2013 season. Brown has rated as a first-round fantasy pick in each of the last four seasons. This year he should drop into the middle of the second round.
The trade did net Brown a new three-year contract with $30.1 million more in guaranteed money. So he won in that regard. But for fantasy owners looking to cash in this year, Brown’s change will be costly.
MORE FACES IN NEW PLACES
MARK INGRAM, RB, RAVENS
The 2009 Heisman Trophy winner will have the chance to be a true workhorse in Baltimore after honing his pass-catching chops over the last two seasons in New Orleans. Ingram has RB1 potential.
JORDAN HOWARD, RB, EAGLES
Howard was no longer a fit for the Bears, but the bigger back was a needed ingredient in Philly’s backfield mix. He’ll be the thunder to the lightning of Corey Clement and Miles Sanders.
GOLDEN TATE, WR, GIANTS
New York threw a lot of money at Tate ($37.5 million over four years), but it’s hard to get too excited about a slot receiver on a bad offense. Still, Tate, who turns 31 in August, will rack up targets.
DESEAN JACKSON, WR, EAGLES
The 32-year-old former Buccaneer won’t be one of the top three options in Philadelphia’s offense, but he will have a defined role as the primary deep threat. Jackson can turn that into fantasy relevance.
NICK FOLES, QB, JAGUARS
The MVP of Super Bowl LII for the Eagles signed on for the starting job in Jacksonville, but he would be more appealing if he had Philly-quality pass catchers around him. He’s a fantasy QB2.