Let the free-agent madness begin!
Alright, so most people are getting their brackets set for the NCAA's March Madness, but this promises to be an exciting week in the National Football League as well. March 13 marks the first day free agents can sign with new teams, and there are plenty of big-name fantasy players that could be wearing new uniforms in 2012. The biggest name, of course, is Peyton Manning, who wrapped up visits with the Arizona Cardinals and Denver Broncos and is now contemplating his future. Ultimately, Manning's decision will have a domino effect of sorts in fantasy land.
If Manning signs with the Cardinals... He would be a top-eight player at his position and worth an early-round selection in fantasy drafts, barring any setbacks in his return from multiple neck surgeries. The Cards would also sign Reggie Wayne, which would put a spark back into his fantasy appeal. With Manning at the helm, Larry Fitzgerald would become the second-rated fantasy wideout behind Calvin Johnson. The Broncos would be back at square one with Tim Tebow as their quarterback, and someone like Vince Young would be signed to compete with him in training camp.
In Miami, the Dolphins would enter a bidding war of sorts with the Cleveland Browns for the services of free-agent Matt Flynn. The best fantasy destination is in South Florida, though, as Flynn would be re-united with his former offensive coordinator and new head coach Joe Philbin and becomes a fantasy sleeper. All wouldn't be lost for the Browns, as the Cardinals would release Kevin Kolb making him an unrestricted free agent. Because of his offensive background, Kolb would be a nice fit in Cleveland - where he would take over the top spot on the depth chart from Colt McCoy.
With Kolb under center, the Browns would next look to add offensive skill position talent in the rookie draft. With the expectation that Andrew Luck (Colts) and Robert Griffin III (Redskins) are off the board, Alabama's Trent Richardson would be a solid fantasy fit. The team could let Peyton Hillis walk as a free agent and allow Richardson a chance at a rare featured role. In that scenario, Richardson would be worth an early-round fantasy choice. Their second pick in Round 1 would be a wide receiver - Griffin's collegiate teammate Kendall Wright would be a very nice option.
If Manning signs with the Broncos... He would remain a surefire No. 1 fantasy quarterback, and the team would also bring in Wayne as a free agent. The biggest beneficiary would be Demaryius Thomas, who has the tools to be a top-10 fantasy wideout and would now have a signal-caller that could help him reach his statistical potential. As for Tebow, the Broncos would trade him to the Jacksonville Jaguars where he would become the favorite to start ahead of Blaine Gabbert. Back in Florida where he played his college ball, Tebow would breathe new life into a stagnant franchise.
The Cardinals would have to go back to the drawing board with Kolb as their quarterback, though it's hard not to expect John Skelton to be in the mix as well. Neither would be more than a No. 2 fantasy option. Fitzgerald would remain a top-five fantasy wideout, but he wouldn't be No. 2 behind Megatron. The team would also attempt to re-sign Early Doucet, though in this case his best destination would be with the New Orleans Saints. Remember, Marques Colston and Robert Meachem are both slated to become free agents. If Doucet lands in the Big Easy, he'd be a nice fantasy sleeper.
In Cleveland, McCoy would remain the top option at quarterback unless the team makes a huge push for Flynn. But again, his best fantasy situation would be in South Florida. The Richardson and Wright scenario would remain the same, though the Browns might be more inclined to go after a signal-caller like Texas A&M's Ryan Tannehill if Flynn signs elsewehere. Oklahoma State wideout Justin Blackmon will also be an option if the Browns decide Richardson isn't worth a top-four overall selection.
Talk about a domino effect, right? Clearly, Manning's final destination is going to have a major impact on what happens around the rest of the league - and in the world of fantasy football. Here are some other non-Manning free-agent moves that fantasy owners should hope for in the weeks to come.
Michael Bush signs with the Cincinnati Bengals: The Bengals are done with Cedric Benson and will look to add a lead back this offseason. Will Richardson fall to them at No. 17 in April? I'm not so sure anymore, so the Queen City cats could decide to pursue a free agent to bolster their backfield. The best of the bunch is Bush, who could come in and fill Benson's role while posting far better stats both on the field and in fantasy circles. This move would make Bush, Darren McFadden and Taiwan Jones all more valuable from a fantasy perspective.
Vincent Jackson re-signs with the San Diego Chargers: Personally, I don't think this is going to happen. But San Diego is the best spot for Jackson to retain his current fantasy value. The problem is there are a ton of teams looking to add a No. 1 wideout that have more room under the salary cap than the Chargers, including the Bears and Redskins. In fact, NFL insider Jason La Canfora expects those two squads to enter a possible "bidding war" for his services. If he's not a Bolt, I'd prefer Jackson to sign with Chicago and Jay Cutler.
Marques Colston re-signs with the New Orleans Saints: Much like the Jackson scenario, I don't think Colston will remain with his current team. The Saints won't have a ton of cap room to play with this offseason, and their first order of business is to lock up Drew Brees. With Griffin all but assured of landing in D.C., Colston could be a nice addition for coach Mike Shanahan. Playing on grass will help save his knees, and his targets should rise as a true No. 1 wideout in the offense. The downside, of course, is that he won't have Brees throwing him the football.
Mike Wallace re-signs with the Pittsburgh Steelers: The Steelers didn't have the cap room to franchise Wallace, but he was extended a first-round tender. That means any team that signs him would surrender a first rounder. However, no restricted free agent with a first-round tender has signed an offer sheet in the last decade - that's an advantage for Pittsburgh. While a team hungry for a wideout could make him an excessive offer, I expect Wallace to remain with the Steelers. If there's a best-case fantasy scenario, though, Wallace will go to the New England Patriots.
Brandon Lloyd signs with the Patriots: Lloyd was never a true fantasy option until he played under Josh McDaniels. In 2010, he came out of nowhere to lead all wide receivers in fantasy points. In fact, his 77 catches were more than he had in his previous four years combined! So with Deion Branch slated to become a free agent and Chad Ochocinco a candidate to be released, Lloyd would be a perfect fit for the P-Men - that's a topic I discussed with him during a recent 1-on-1 interview. I also think Lloyd to the Pats is more realistic than Wallace, who would cost a first-round pick.