Eight of the league’s 32 teams are still alive in the playoffs and free agency won’t begin for another two months. We’re still six weeks away from hyping various collegiate underachievers who smash the scouting combine. The window for clubs to announce franchise and transition tag decisions won’t open for another month.
We’re also two weeks out from the marquee event on the NFL calendar: Pro Bowl Skills Showdown.
In short, the offseason is still a far-off thing. We certainly don’t need to rush into it, not while there’s still meaningful football to be played.
But if you’re a hardcore fantasy manager — or a fan of one of the league’s 24 eliminated teams — perhaps you’re ready to take a quick peek at the shifting NFL landscape ahead of next season. Our objective today is to review the list of players most likely to define the 2024 offseason. At the top, we find a pair of quarterbacks currently attached to NFC North teams ...
Justin Fields: Trade candidate
Fields is exactly the sort of QB that another team’s coaching staff and fan base can get excited about as a fixer-upper, a reclamation project with elite traits and obvious upside. The Bears have trapped Fields in a terrible cycle of misuse and coaching malfeasance. In each of his three seasons, the team has created an unnecessary offensive mess for itself, then slowly and stutteringly corrected a few things over the closing weeks and called it progress.
Statistically speaking, Fields’ 2023 looked almost exactly like his 2022. He again had by far the league’s highest time-to-throw, he took too many sacks and he produced nearly identical numbers in terms of Y/A, completion percentage and rating. It is also true, of course, that the best moments delivered by Fields were among the most impressive we saw all year. He has a very live arm and he’s clearly one of the league’s most inventive and dangerous rushing threats.
He’s also fantastically likable, he’s earned the full support of teammates and the man never deflects blame. There’s nothing complicated about rooting for Fields.
And still, more likely than not, Chicago will seek the best possible trade package for Fields and use the draft’s top overall pick on a potential transformational quarterback. We can’t guarantee that’s gonna happen, but if the team’s front office shares the consensus opinion on Caleb Williams and/or Drake Maye, it’s the clear path.
It should also result in a pretty fierce bidding war, because Fields is a serious talent, not yet expensive and he won’t turn 25 until March. The Steelers, Raiders, Falcons, Seahawks and probably three or four other teams should be motivated buyers. If Fields lands in a spot with a solid supporting cast and a creative, sensible play-caller, there should be zero doubt that a top-three positional finish is within his range of outcomes in fantasy.
Kirk Cousins: Unrestricted free agent
For the purposes of our game within a game, we definitely want a healthy Cousins returning to Minnesota, throwing to Justin Jefferson, Jordan Addison and T.J. Hockenson for the remainder of his career. It’s the cleanest and best choice for all parties.
Recently, Cousins made a few comments that resulted in headlines suggesting he might take a hometown discount to remain with the Vikings, but it’s worth noting that he didn’t actually declare it explicitly. To paraphrase, he basically said he’s already rich and environment matters and, well, he’s gonna let his agent handle the details. He may not wring every dollar out of his next team, but his side will likely still extract most of them nonetheless.
Among available quarterbacks, Cousins is really in a tier of his own in terms of projected 2024 value, assuming a full recovery from the Achilles injury. When he went down in Week 8, he was halfway to a stellar statistical season, plus he was coming off wins over the Niners and Packers.
Just a friendly/sad reminder that Kirk Cousins was halfway to a MONSTER season. He was gonna be one of the right answers. pic.twitter.com/xZYUbhEP5T
— Andy Behrens (@andybehrens) January 8, 2024
Any team with even a hint of a shadow of a doubt about its current QB should kick the tires on Cousins. But, again, the best-case fantasy scenario is that he’ll simply run it back in Minnesota under Kevin O’Connell, feeding a game-breaking 2,000-yard season from Jefferson.
Russell Wilson: Pending release
After benching Wilson at the end of the year so as not to risk any further financial commitment, Denver can’t realistically go back to him. Some franchise is going to talk itself and its fans into a short-term commitment to Wilson and … well, I’m just glad it’s not gonna be my team.
His surface-level numbers were perfectly fine this year (26 TD, 8 INTs, 66.4% completion rate), but Sean Payton was definitely not interested in watching him cook. Just take a look at these passing charts. Wilson spent most of his season throwing at or behind the line of scrimmage, with occasional deep shots. It didn’t exactly appear that he was working with a full, normal NFL playbook. Despite all the dinking, Wilson still ran himself into 45 sacks.
While there are a handful of teams that might be better off with him at the controls, he’s not the guy to get the most out of a receiving corps. From a fan’s perspective, Wilson is an offseason bullet to be dodged.
Josh Jacobs, Saquon Barkley, Derrick Henry, Austin Ekeler, various others: Unrestricted free agents
It’s actually wild that so many of the league’s most familiar running backs are UFAs in the same offseason. An incredible game of backfield musical chairs is about to take place.
In addition to the four names bolded above, the following players are also headed into free agency: Tony Pollard, D’Andre Swift, Ezekiel Elliott, Gus Edwards, Devin Singletary, J.K. Dobbins, A.J. Dillon, D’Onta Foreman, Zack Moss, every Chiefs back who isn’t Isiah Pacheco, Rashaad Penny, Antonio Gibson, Karee—
Gah. You know what? Here’s the full list. Peruse at your convenience.
It’s really a remarkable number of backs who’ve been useful-to-elite fantasy contributors in the recent past. Additionally, we should mention that it’s not a given that Joe Mixon, Alvin Kamara and other assorted vets will remain with their current teams. A massive shuffling of rushing talent is about to go down. Running backs are both vitally important and entirely replaceable in the modern NFL, as the upcoming offseason should make clear.
In our fantasy lives, we should probably be most interested in the backfield decisions made by the Ravens, Cowboys, Texans, Eagles and Chargers. It felt like Henry-to-Baltimore was this close at the 2023 trade deadline, so perhaps that particular union finally happens.
Mike Evans, Calvin Ridley and Marquise Brown: Unrestricted free agents
Tee Higgins and Michael Pittman Jr. are UFAs as well, but it would be a pretty significant surprise if both receivers weren’t either tagged or signed to long-term deals by their current teams. And if I had to place a Ridley bet, I’d say he stays in Jacksonville. It’s also pretty difficult to picture Evans in a different uniform, but anything is possible.
Basically, I’d just like to see the receiving crisis in Kansas City fully addressed, soon. We cannot allow that team to enter 2024 with only Rashee Rice and an aging Travis Kelce inside the circle of trust. Adding a downfield threat who can actually catch would be a huge improvement over the current MVS-Toney-Hardman fiasco.
And if it’s not gonna be a veteran free agent, then it better be an early-round rookie. We simply cannot have another year of game-changing drops in KC like this one and this one and, um … whatever these were. It’s not as if Evans, Ridley and Brown haven’t dropped a few deep shots, but at least they make enough plays to allow us to forgive the occasional misses.
Tyler Lockett: Release candidate
At 31, Lockett led the Seahawks in both targets (122) and receptions (79) this season, plus he managed to play in every game despite dealing with a multi-week hamstring issue. He may not be vintage Lockett at this stage, but he certainly isn't cooked. He also happens to be a very expensive piece for a team in transition, and the Seahawks just drafted an exciting, ascending receiver in the first round in 2023.
Fantasy managers (and analysts who aren't Matt Harmon) have been curiously dismissive of Lockett, but the man had a five-year run as a top-15 scorer at his position. He's been connected to the Chiefs via trade rumors in the past and he was reportedly on the team's radar way back in the day when he entered the league. If Lockett finds his way to KC, we should all be interested.