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Is There a Winner’s Curse in Free Agency? (Pass Catchers)

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Michael Dolan

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With NFL free agency cooling off, we can start to evaluate the fantasy impact of players who switched teams. While landing spots aren’t everything in fantasy football, we can’t deny they make a difference. In order to figure out how severely we should (or shouldn’t’) let landing spots impact our evaluation, we first need to understand how much impact we should give to a change of scenery. 

 

There’s a perception that pass catcher is the position most impacted by a change of scenery. Receivers and tight ends can only produce as much as their quarterbacks and schemes allow them, and often a player’s ADP will heavily swing as a result of his landing spot. Is this swing warranted though? To measure this impact, I looked at historical data to identify the highest-drafted receivers and tight ends (per FantasyPros ADP) who switched teams, evaluated their year-over-year change in ADP, and determined whether the hype (or lack thereof) was warranted. To close everything out, I predicted what that’ll mean for some of the top names changing teams in 2023.

(Tuesday, I looked at the same information for running backs.)

2020 to 2021

After the 2022 offseason, it’s easy to forget that massive turnover at the top of the WR market isn’t the norm. The biggest name that changed teams two years ago was Julio Jones, who saw his ADP go from WR4 (14th overall) in 2021, to WR 18 (45th) in 2022. At that point in his career, Jones ended up being more name value than on-field production. This was the beginning of the end for Jones, who averaged a very pedestrian 5.6 PPG in half-PPR and left fantasy managers who drafted him as their WR2 very disappointed.

The next big-name WR who experienced a change of scenery was Kenny Golladay, who was the highest-paid receiver on the open market that year. After some great years in Detroit, including a 2020 season where his ADP was WR7 (25th), the fantasy market wasn’t buying the change of scenery as good for Golladay, and they were right. His ADP dropped to WR29 (74th) in 2021, and his production fell even further as he averaged just 5.1 PPG that season. The market was correct that Golladay would see a dip in value, but they were off on just how far he should have fallen. 

There wasn’t a ton of TE movement this offseason either. The biggest name to change teams was Jonnu Smith who saw his ADP go from TE16 (158th) in 2020 to TE15 (140th) in 2021. Not a substantial change, and the fantasy impact Smith had on his fantasy teams wasn’t substantial either. Smith didn’t even finish the season as the best TE on his own team (Hunter Henry), and he simply wasn’t involved at all in the New England offense. He finished the season averaging a lousy 3.5 PPG.

 

2021 to 2022

The scale of WR movement in the 2022 offseason was unlike anything we’d seen before. There were three premier receivers involved in blockbuster trades – all three of whom possessed top 10 ADPs at their position in 2021. All three also saw those ADPs experience a decrease in 2022.

The highest-ranked player referenced here was of course Davante Adams. Adams was the first receiver off the board in 2021 (8th overall), but the move to Las Vegas caused him to drop down to WR4 (11th) – primarily due to questions surrounding the dropoff in quarterback play. While Adams wasn’t the WR1 again in 2022, I can’t imagine many of his fantasy managers were upset with his falloff as he dropped all the way down to… *checks notes* WR2. Adams was still elite, and fantasy managers who avoided him due to the landing spot surely regretted that decision. 

Next up is Tyreek Hill, who much like Adams saw a substantial downgrade at QB. Also like Adams though, Hill’s production didn’t miss a beat. 2021 was Hill’s last season with Patrick Mahomes, and his supreme talent paired with being Mahomes’ best weapon had his ADP at WR2 (11th). In 2022, the change of scenery caused Hill’s ADP to drop down to WR7 (20th), but his production didn’t drop at all as he finished the year as the overall WR3.

We see a similar song and dance with A.J. Brown, whose ADP declined from WR8 (25th) to WR11 (30th) from 2021 to 2022. Just like the names before him on this list, the decline in ADP didn’t reflect his production. Brown had a career year in 2022, finishing the season as the overall WR5. There were fears of Brown entering a run-centric offense with a yet to be proven QB in Jalen Hurts, but the $100M contract he was given should have been a solid indication that the Eagles had big plans to make him a focal point of their offense.

I had to cheat a little bit to get a tight end in this group, because there was very little movement at that position last offseason. Zach Ertz however was a midseason trade in 2021, so his ADP that year reflected his former team where he was drafted as TE14 (160th). He saw a sizable jump in 2022 as he was drafted as TE10 (95th) and performed well prior to getting injured. Ertz was averaging 9.2 half-PPR PPG up until getting injured, which was good for sixth among tight ends on a per-game average. 

 

2022 to 2023

So what are our key takeaways based on the last two seasons?

2021 and 2022 were drastically different offseasons at the receiver position, but the major takeaway is that elite receivers are going to stay elite. Guys like Adams, Hill and Brown didn’t let a change of scenery slow down their production, and any fantasy managers who bought the dip in ADP were pleased with their production. Meanwhile, the top receivers who changed teams in 2021 were a tier or two below in terms of talent, and the hype that followed their change of scenery wasn’t followed by an uptick in production. Golladay and Jones (at that stage of his career) simply weren’t on par talent-wise with the big names in the 2022 offseason, and their movement ultimately wound up disappointing any fantasy managers who drafted them highly that year.

This offseason, it’s important to ask yourself if some of the guys who are moving teams are in that elite category or not. DJ Moore is the biggest name and he’s right on the fringe. If his ADP goes up, I’d likely avoid drafting him, but if it decreases, he could be a sneaky value pick. Another big name who hasn’t changed teams yet but might soon is DeAndre Hopkins. Hopkins is getting up there in age and might be in a similar territory to Julio Jones, but depending on where his ADP winds up, it could be worth trying to squeeze another great season or two out of him as he looked good when he played in 2022.

At tight end, the movement at the position was once again fairly quiet. Not many of the elite players have changed teams (unless you want to count T.J. Hockenson’s midseason trade, and in all likelihood a change of scenery here won’t have a massive impact). The one exception is Darren Waller, who appears to not just be the TE1 in New York, but also the team’s top target overall. History indicates the landing spot here may cause more hype than is actually warranted, and while Waller may have a good season in 2023, that doesn’t necessarily mean that he’ll return great value. Depending on what it costs to acquire him, fantasy managers should proceed with caution.

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