2021 Player Moves

By Bob Harris
Bob Harris

2021 Player Moves

The Year Of The Blockbuster Will Change Fantasy Fortunes

Some offseasons, the moves are mundane. This offseason, they were anything but as we saw tectonic shifts in player movement, most notably in the form of blockbuster trades. Beyond that, free agency was also active with copious moves across the full range of talent levels. To find the complete list of player moves (along with the articles/analysis on each), hit the FootballDiehards.com Free Agent Moves page.

For now, I'll highlight the moves that must be on your radar heading into fantasy drafts this summer, starting with the Top 5.


1. Rams, Lions Swap QBs (And Bust Moves) In Free Agency

In the first and biggest blockbuster deal of 2021, Matthew Stafford and Jared Goff switched teams as Detroit dealt Stafford to the Rams in exchange for two future first-rounders, a third-rounder and Goff.

Stafford, who turned 33 in February, was the first-overall pick in the 2009 draft. He made the Pro Bowl in 2015 and is 0-3 in playoff appearances. Of course, other than receiver Calvin Johnson, Stafford has never played with a surplus of talent.

Nonetheless, he's passed for 45,109 yards and 282 touchdowns, with 144 interceptions. In 2020, he passed for 4,084 yards and 26 touchdowns, with 10 interceptions.

The Rams, meanwhile, refused to give Goff a vote of confidence after their playoff loss to the Packers, and it became clear the team no longer wanted to be on the hook for QB's contract, which carries more than $43 million in fully guaranteed payments in 2021 and 2022.

As SI.com's Eric D. Williams suggested, in Stafford, Sean McVay gets a playmaker and a veteran who will take better care of the football than Goff. Of course, there were some ancillary moves worth noting for both teams that will impact the play for the respective signal callers.

For the Rams. ... Adding the speedy DeSean Jackson gives Stafford a deep threat that will allow the veteran gunslinger to make use of his big arm. McVay, Jackson's offensive coordinator during his three-year run in Washington, reportedly reached out personally to the former Pro Bowler with the intention of adding proven speed on the outside.

Jackson joins a receiving corps that includes Robert Woods, Cooper Kupp and second-year pro Van Jefferson. The Rams also utilize tight end Tyler Higbee in the passing game. However, the Rams have lacked a true deep-threat receiver since trading Brandin Cooks to the Houston Texans after the 2019 season.

Even at age 34, Jackson can still stretch the field, if he stays healthy. Which is a big if.

As NBCSports' Peter King put it, "I think if the Rams get eight games out of Jackson -- who has played eight games in the last two seasons combined -- they'll be lucky. But he has the speed to make a few plays in those eight games, and to run down a couple of Stafford rainbows. I'm just saying, be realistic."

Also worth noting, Malcolm Brown's departure adds to the belief that Cam Akers is in line for a true featured role in the Los Angeles backfield this fall. ...

For the Lions. ... We were all in on D'Andre Swift heading into free agency. Then the Lions sign former Packers running back Jamaal Williams to a two-year, $6 million deal.

Does this matter?

New coordinator Anthony Lynn seems to think that Williams will become the primary tailback in the team's new attack.

Speaking with TheAthletic.com, Lynn suggested that Williams could well be the team's top tailback, with Swift serving in a complementary role. "Jamaal is what I'd call a classic 'A' back," Lynn said. "I like to break the backs down into A and B. My 'A' backs are normally my bigger backs. They can run between the tackles, block probably a little better than a 'B' back, they can also run the perimeter. I can leave those guys in there for all three downs.

"My 'B' back comes in, he's a guy that sometimes I want to use in space more. He's my speed-in-space guy. I feel like Jamaal would be an outstanding 'A' back. I like his energy, I like his pad level and the way he runs the football between the tackles."

All of which is rather surprising given Lynn's previous comments about Swift and assistant head coach Duce Staley's assertion that Swift is a 25-touch a game player. Does Williams ruin that? Maybe, but remember that Austin Ekeler sounds more like the "B" back described above, and he fared quite well in that role under Lynn in Los Angeles.

Meanwhile, the Lions moved on from free-agent wideouts Kenny Golladay, Marvin Jones Jr., Danny Amendola, Jamal Agnew and Mohamed Sanu.

So, there will be open targets. Who fills them?

Breshad Perriman, the son of legendary Lions receiver Brett Perriman, signed with his father's team as a free agent. His most productive run came in 2019, when he had 36 receptions for 645 yards and six touchdowns, including a three-score game against the Lions. Should we get our hopes up here?

ESPN's Matthew Berry put it like this: "Under the Brandin Cooks 'someone has to catch it' rule, Perriman has only Tyrell Williams, rookie Amon-Ra St. Brown and Quintez Cephus to compete with for targets. The Lions were about as good a landing spot as you could ask for the talented Perriman, who is very much worth a late-round flyer."

The same could be said of Williams.

Williams is an outside-the-numbers vertical threat. He's a big target (6'4, 205 pounds) with good strength at the catch point and Lynn used Williams' impressive long speed quite effectively in the Chargers' offense. He caught 153 passes in three years (2016-2018) as the No. 3 wideout for the Chargers, good for a 15.9 yards per reception average.

If Williams is healthy, he will have every opportunity to be the same guy in Detroit -- a 40-catch, 650-yard field-stretching threat on the outside.


2. Falcons Ship Julio To Titans As Both Teams Make Big Moves

Tennessee had a boatload of targets to replace when Corey Davis and Jonnu Smith moved on in free agency (see below), but the Titans found a way to fill them in fine fashion brokering a trade to bring star wideout Julio Jones into the fold. Atlanta received a second-round pick next year and both a fourth-round and sixth-round pick in 2023.

As a result, Jones, who wanted out of Atlanta, got his wish. So did young Titans wideout A.J. Brown, who had lobbied his team to make the deal.

Jones, the seven-time Pro Bowler, has been the league's most prolific receiver over the past 10 seasons. His recent play doesn't suggest he's in decline, either. He'd made five consecutive All-Pro teams prior to laboring through a 2020 campaign with a strained hamstring. Despite appearing in just nine games last season, Jones still collected 51 catches for 771 yards, his 15.1 yards per catch right in line with his career average (15.2).

The future Hall of Famer leaves Atlanta with an array of franchise and NFL records on his resume, including receiving yards per game (95.5).

He'll arrive in Tennessee as a fascinating piece in what could be a championship puzzle. The Titans are defending AFC South champs and just one year removed from a conference title game appearance. But their early exit in last year's playoffs combined with key defections -- Arthur Smith shedding his offensive coordinator duties to become the Falcons' head coach tops the list -- have altered outside expectations for Tennessee.

Jones joins an offense that boasts Brown and the NFL's premier workhorse running back, Derrick Henry. Along with underrated quarterback Ryan Tannehill, the Titans have the firepower to keep pace with any offense -- and overcome a still-questionable defense. Jones said opponents will have to choose to either stack the box or drop back in the secondary in an attempt to slow the Titans' offense.

"I mean, defenses, you're really going to have to pick your poison," Jones said.

He is not wrong.

The Titans also added former Ram Josh Reynolds, whose anticipated role as WR2 immediately diminished with Jones' arrival. ...

For Atlanta, the deal allows Calvin Ridley to continue his ascent to true WR1 status from both an NFL and fantasy football standpoint. Russell Gage, who fared very well during Jones' absence late last season, also stands to gain. But mostly, incoming rookie Kyle Pitts, who appears to be more wideout than tight end, will also earn ample targets this fall.

In addition, with Todd Gurley and Brian Hill both free agents, the Falcons had a hole atop their RB depth chart. They filled that hole by poaching from a division rival.

Mike Davis signed a two-year contract worth $5.5 million, with $3 million fully guaranteed. As Profootballtalk.com's Myles Simmons reminded readers, Davis essentially served as Carolina's starting running back in 2020, with Christian McCaffrey limited to just three games with various injuries. Davis recorded 1,015 yards from scrimmage and eight total touchdowns, netting 642 yards rushing and 373 yards receiving on 59 catches.

Davis, now with his fifth NFL team, has appeared in 62 games (with 22 starts) in his career, rushing for 1,531 yards with 11 touchdowns. He's recorded 125 receptions for 803 yards with three touchdowns.

As NFL.com's Kevin Patra suggested, given Smith's run-game proclivity, Davis could be in line for a heavy workload.


3. Wentz Reunites With Reich In Indy In Hopes Of Regaining Past Form

The Eagles traded Carson Wentz to the Indianapolis Colts in exchange for a 2021 third-rounder and a conditional second-rounder in 2022. The latter could turn into a first-round pick if Wentz plays at least 70 percent of the snaps and the Colts reach the playoffs.

With the deal, the Eagles take a $33.8 million dead cap hit -- the largest any team has ever taken for a player -- while the Colts assume the balance of Wentz's $128 million extension.

With the retirement of Philip Rivers, the Colts were a natural destination for Wentz, who has familiarity with head coach Frank Reich from their shared time in Philadelphia. Reich was Wentz's offensive coordinator for the first two years of his career from 2016-2017. In addition, the Colts recently hired Press Taylor, the Eagles' former quarterbacks coach and passing game coordinator, who is also close to Wentz.

As Profootballtalk.com's Mike Florio notes, for the Eagles, the compensation is not as grand as the "Matthew Stafford package" they reportedly desired. In addition, regarding the above-outlined conditional pick, if Wentz is not performing well by midseason, Indianapolis would have a strong incentive to bench him and avoid giving up first-round draft capital.

Still, the trade represents a fresh start for a quarterback who was at one point an MVP candidate, but in 2020 ended up riding the pine in Philadelphia.

Meanwhile, the move clears the way for Jalen Hurts to build on a strong close to his rookie season as the Eagles' de facto starter heading into 2021.

If all goes well here, we could have two top-10 quarterbacks created by this move.

That said, Wentz underwent foot surgery the first week of August that will keep him out of the mix from five to 12 weeks. It's a situation you'll need to watch before investing.


4. Darnold Gets A Fresh Start In Carolina; Bridgewater Moves On. ... Again

The Jets traded Sam Darnold to the Panthers in exchange for a sixth-round pick in 2021 along with second- and fourth-round picks in 2022.

The trade ends Darnold's stay in New York after only three seasons.

With the Jets Darnold's passing line reads 729-of-1,219 passing (59.8 percent) for 8,097 yards, 45 touchdowns and 39 interceptions and a 78.6 rating. He also ran for 417 yards and five touchdowns on 114 carries.

Robby Anderson spent two seasons with Darnold in New York. The wideout sees something different in the signal-caller following their reunion in Charlotte. "I saw like a new energy out of him, a glowing charisma that I didn't really see in New York," Anderson said. "You know when a person, you can see a glow in them, their energy, an aura -- I can see that when I walked into the building and just being around him."

The wideout believes that Panthers coach Matt Rhule's system will help unlock Darnold's talent.

"The New York system was a little more complex and had a lot of nuances and things like that that was more difficult for everybody, not just him or me," Anderson said. "I think this system is a little more graspable."

The supporting cast, with Christian McCaffrey, Anderson and D.J. Moore among the primary weapons, is certainly more graspable too. ...

The Panthers' 2020 starter, Teddy Bridgewater, was subsequently traded to Denver, where he'll compete with Drew Lock for the Broncos' starting job.

In his one season in Carolina, Bridgewater largely performed as expected. He completed 69.1 percent of his passes for 3,733 yards, 15 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. He also rushed 53 times and had five rushing touchdowns.

The Vikings' first-round pick in 2014 has bounced from team to team over the last several years of his career, now with his third team in as many seasons. The Panthers were his latest chance at a permanent starting role after a devastating injury in Minnesota caused him to miss nearly two seasons (2016-17). He's now part of the picture in Denver, where Lock seems to be on very thin ice.


5. Patriots Looking To Recreate Past Two-TE Success

The Patriots signing the top-2 tight ends on the free-agent market signaled Bill Belichick's desire to get back to dominating 2-TE sets. First, the Pats agreed to a four-year, $50 million deal with Jonnu Smith. The next day, New England agreed to a similar $12.5 million-per-year, three-year deal with Hunter Henry.

The Patriots desperately needed to upgrade the position.

No Pats TE had more than 14 catches in 2020 and Ryan Izzo led the way with 13 catches for 199 yards. It was one of the worst groups in the league.

In the past, Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels have proven that 2-TE sets can cause problems for defenses. The ability to run or pass out of identical formations can cause havoc for opponents who prefer to spend most of their time in nickel defenses.

As No. 1 tight ends with their respective clubs in 2020, Smith and Henry combined to catch 101 passes for 1,061 yards and 12 touchdowns. It's not unrealistic to anticipate them combining to do something similar in New England, where Cam Newton could use a couple of reliable targets, especially in the red zone, to jumpstart New England's passing attack. At minimum, opponents will have to devise an effective approach to limiting Smith and Henry.

Of course, fantasy managers will have to hope each are productive enough to roster without reservation.

In addition, the Patriots gave former Raiders receiver Nelson Agholor a two-year, $26 million deal and former 49ers wideout Kendrick Bourne a three-year, $22.5 million deal.

Once the Patriots brought Newton back, they were committed to adding more weapons around him. Enter Agholor, who averaged 18.7 yards per catch last season in a breakout season for the Raiders. He is fast and explosive, and while he has been plagued by drops at times, he immediately lands near the top of the WR depth chart in New England.

Bourne, meanwhile, is a precise route-runner who plays multiple spots, and should help the Patriots on third down, where he has excelled by showing a knack for creating separation.

The Patriots were 17th in the NFL on third down last season, converting 40.7 percent of the time.


Other Noteworthy Changes

While most of the Top 5 involved high-profile change or quarterback moves, they obviously weren't the only moves. Others of great fantasy interest include:

In Washington. ... Following four seasons in Florida where he appeared with the Buccaneers and then the Dolphins, 38-year-old Ryan Fitzpatrick heads to D.C.

Fitzpatrick now finds himself amidst an exciting supporting cast of skill players that includes running back Antonio Gibson along with receivers Terry McLaurin, Curtis Samuel and rookie Dyami Brown.

As Profootballtalk.com reminded readers, Richard Sherman felt that Football Team wide receiver Terry McLaurin would be a "special player" with some help around him at the position; Washington reached an agreement with the aforementioned Samuel to find out if that is indeed the case.

It won't be the first time that Samuel and McLaurin are part of the same receiving corps. They were both at Ohio State in 2015 and 2016. Washington wanted to add speed at receiver and accomplished that mission with Samuel, who ran a 4.31 40-yard dash at the 2017 Scouting Combine. McLaurin ran a 4.35 two years later.

In Houston. ... Tyrod Taylor didn't catch any breaks with the Chargers last year, but he's on track for better luck this season. Deshaun Watson's status for the 2021 season is in question due to multiple lawsuits alleging sexual misconduct. He's also asked the Texans for a trade, so one way or the other, it looks like Taylor will get another shot to start.

Taylor opened the 2020 season as the Chargers' starting quarterback, but a poorly-delivered painkilling injection before Week 2 punctured his lung. Justin Herbert took over, played great and Taylor played a backup role for the rest of the season.

Taylor's last extended run as a starter came with the Bills in 2017, and the best way to earn another one would be to come out of the gate fast for the Texans this fall.

The Texans added nearly 50 players in free agency. Of the non-QB moves, the most interesting for fantasy managers was Phillip Lindsay, who agreed to a one-year deal worth $3.25 million. Lindsay joins veterans David Johnson and Mark Ingram at the position.

In three seasons with Denver, Lindsay rushed for 2,550 yards and 17 touchdowns. He also notched 77 receptions for 465 yards and a touchdown. It won't be a surprise if the former Bronco emerges as the best back on this roster once the dust settles.

In Las Vegas. ... Not every free-agent move yields the fantasy-friendliest outcomes. The prime example was Las Vegas, where, as NFL.com's Nick Shook framed it, "The Raiders already have one Alabama running back, so why not add another?"

This after the team signed Kenyan Drake to a two-year, $14.5 million deal.

Yes. This is a problem.

Las Vegas used a first-round pick on another Alabama running back, Josh Jacobs, two years ago and seemed to like using him as their lead back, although last season they spelled him with Devontae Booker on passing downs. But they let Booker leave and sign with the Giants for $2.25 million a year. Then they signed Drake for literally twice that much.

As the first Raider ever to rush for 1,000 yards in each of his first two seasons, Jacobs remains the proverbial bell cow in this backfield, but Drake opens the door for more personnel variety (i.e., two-back sets) that can create misdirection and confusion for opposing defenses. But it's also a limiting factor for managers in PPR leagues hoping that Jacobs' target share and receptions could increase this year. ...

In Arizona. ... ESPN.com's Josh Weinfuss put it like this: "The Cardinals added much-needed depth in the backfield" when James Conner agreed to terms on a one-year contract.

From a fantasy perspective, that's key.

Arizona was in need of another running back after letting Drake move on and Conner will now be paired with Chase Edmonds to form the Cardinals' 2021 backfield. It's expected that they'll split time in coach Kliff Kingsbury's offense that asks running backs to be both rushers and receivers.

Veteran receiver A.J. Green is also headed to the desert on a one-year, $8 million deal.

According to Pro Football Focus, "Age and injury have likely robbed us of the player who was once one of the most dominant receivers in the game, but Green can still be a useful part of a team's receiving corps, and he showed that at times for the Bengals in 2020."

Conner and Green join a team that appears to be loading up for a run at the playoffs (they also added defensive end J.J. Watt, cornerback Malcolm Butler, kicker Matt Prater, safety Shawn Williams, guard Brian Winters and center Rodney Hudson) after wilting down the stretch last season. This prompted NFL.com's Nick Shook to contend both newcomers will be expected to contribute from the outset, as Arizona has clearly moved all-in for 2021.

In New York. ... Kenny Golladay signed a four-year, $72 million contract with the Giants, as an unrestricted free agent. Golladay was the Lions' top receiving option the past three seasons, including a Pro Bowl berth in 2019, when he amassed 1,190 yards and 11 touchdowns. He had hoped to improve on that in 2020, but hamstring and hip injuries limited him to five games and just 20 catches for 338 yards and two touchdowns.

Golladay joins an offense led by play caller Jason Garrett that features QB Daniel Jones, a pair of formidable wideouts in Sterling Shepard and Darius Slayton, Pro Bowl tight ends Evan Engram and Kyle Rudolph and a motivated Saquon Barkley, who is coming off a torn ACL.

In Miami. ... The Dolphins added much-needed game-breaking speed to their receiver corps when former Texan Will Fuller signed a one-year deal with the club worth more than $10 million.

When healthy, Fuller offers blazing speed to stretch the field. He averaged a whopping 11.7 yards per target in 2020, tops in the NFL (minimum 60 targets), per NFL Research. He's the type of deep threat that makes life easier on all his teammates. He opens up underneath routes for fellow receivers and can get open for bombs to score in quick order.

He should be a boon to young signal-caller Tua Tagovailoa.

In New York. ... Former Titans first-round pick Corey Davis hauled in the best season of his career in 2020 with Tennessee, and the Jets are banking on that production continuing.

As noted above, Davis left Tennessee and signed a three-year deal for $37.5 million to join the Jets.

Last season, Davis formed an impressive, though somewhat overlooked, tandem with A.J. Brown in the receiving corps for Ryan Tannehill. Gang Green hopes for much the same in 2021, after Davis turned in career-highs of 65 catches for 984 yards and five touchdowns last season.

All of those numbers would have led a beleaguered Jets receiving corps in 2020, and -- whether it's rookie Elijah Moore or veteran Jamison Crowder who steps up as the WR2 behind Davis -- positive change seems afoot.

In Jacksonville. ... The Jaguars and Marvin Jones Jr. agreed to a two-year, $14.5 million deal that reunites the veteran wideout with former Lions offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell, who holds the same position on coach Urban Meyer's staff. The 31-year-old Jones flourished in his five seasons with the Lions, tallying 289 catches for 4,296 yards and 36 touchdowns, including his only 1,000-yard season in 2017.

As SI.com noted, Jones has been a high-volume touchdown receiver in his career, collecting 51 in 88 career starts. He has also benefited from being paired with other top receivers in his career such as Green and Golladay. In Jacksonville, he'll return the favor, working alongside promising youngsters D.J. Chark Jr., Laviska Shenault Jr. and Collin Johnson.

-- Follow Harris on Twitter @footballdiehard.