2015 Fantasy Football Outlook: New England Patriots
August 10, 2015 | Chet
After a “sky is falling” 2-2 start, 2014 ended as just another season of cashing checks for the New England Patriots as they went 12-4 and won the Super Bowl. It was their fifth consecutive season with 12 or more wins and their 12th straight season with double digit wins. For 2015, will we see New England hit any decline or can we just keep investing into this team as usual?
2015 Patriots Schedule
Always tread lightly over looking forward on the season with a backwards look at how opponents stack up, but there’s not much here to give you shivers at night in regards to potential pitfalls for offensive production. I do believe the AFC East is where passing games will go to die this season for teams not facing New England, so the six inter-division tilts pose an ounce of potential down weeks, but you only have the Jets in week 16 to contend with in a high leverage spot and the games outside of their division project to be pleasant.
Since their league blistering season of 2007, the Patriots have been an offense that has remained heavily efficient year in and out while constantly evolving around changes in personnel outside of Tom Brady. 2014 was no different as they remained one of the league’s most potent offenses for fantasy owners to grab a share of.
The biggest reason us as fantasy owners have tolerated and have just now come to expect some ambiguity within this offseason is simple. The Patriots score a ton of points regularly. New England has been the steadiest team of the last decade in regards to creating scoring opportunities and cashing them in. Over the past 10 years, here’s where they rank across the board in red zone opportunities and scoring rate in the league.
Is Brady’s Stock Deflated?
2014 was another top-10 scoring season for Tom Brady, his eighth over the past nine seasons. For fantasy, however, he was still more of a lower QB1 option as his production was uneven from start to finish. Brady finished 12th in average weekly finish (14.0) with six top-6 scoring weeks, ranking only behind Andrew Luck, Aaron Rodgers, Peyton Manning and Russell Wilson. But he also had just one other top-12 scoring week outside of those ceiling weeks, the same amount of top-12 weeks as Jay Cutler, Tony Romo, Philip Rivers and Ryan Tannehill to go along with six weeks in the bottom half of scoring.
That jagged production can be explained to a degree because Brady’s high end output recently has been hitched to a healthy Rob Gronkowski. Over the opening four weeks when Gronk was still playing himself up to a full regiment of snaps after sitting out the preseason, Brady posted weeks as the QB26, QB28, QB25, and QB27. Once Gronk was right, Brady ripped off six top-7 scoring weeks over his next seven games and averaged 21.5 points per game over his next 11 games before week 17. As long as Gronk is healthy, he’s been the key to unlocking the ceiling for Brady and outside of Gronk, every other Pats receiver has essentially been the same guy to Brady.
The most pressing issue circling Brady in fantasy is the four game suspension he’s been given and what does that mean for his fantasy outlook? Brady is currently the QB10 in drafts, sitting around the eighth round. Factoring in those four games he may sit with replacement level production from a later round quarterback or waiver play (QB15 averaged 15.6 points per week in 2014), you’d still be getting the QB8 overall from a seasonal stance from what I am projecting for Brady. Since the Patriots have such a large turnover on their back end defensively, I expect New England to throw in a similar fashion to their 2011-2013 totals (an average of 625 pass attempts per season) as teams are able to throw on them once again. Pat Thorman highlights Sam Bradford as an ideal pairing if investing into Brady at his cost, but also offers wisdom to set up a contingency plan. If that suspension is reduced somehow, I expect Brady to jump into an area where I just won’t be taking a quarterback. Brady still has the weekly ceiling right below those high end quarterbacks which gives him the edge over other mid round quarterbacks, so that’s still a fair price point if you’re shopping in that area. I’m most likely to wait on the last quarterback from that tier to fall, so if it happens to be Brady, I’ll grab him spots.
If the suspension holds, Jimmy Garropolo opens with Pittsburgh and gets Jacksonville week three. If you really want to get loose with full on quarterback streaming, by all means knock yourself out, but there’s no need to invest capital in a player that has little to no big picture outlook unless you have a deep player pool being drafted.
As stated, this passing game starts with Rob Gronkowski. Once fully healthy after four weeks, Gronk was the TE9 or better in 10 of his next 11 games, averaging 20.0 points per game with a low of 11.8 points. That point per game output trailed only Odell Beckham (24.8), Demaryius Thomas (23.5), Antonio Brown (22.9) and Dez Bryant (20.5) from week five through the end of the season out of all receivers and tight ends. Inside his own position, Gronk has been in his own weight class. Throughout history, Gronk owns four of the top-12 seasons in points per game from a tight end and last season pretty much lapped the field in most efficiency categories.
Gronk is well within his apex to keep producing and his high end production comes from his ability to score touchdowns. Still only 26 years old, he is tied with Antonio Gates for the most seasons with double digit touchdown receptions (four) for a tight end ever, and his 54 receiving scores through five seasons is tied for the fourth most ever with fewer games played than the three players above him. His scoring juice comes from the Patriots consistently creating so many short scoring opportunities for themselves, an area of the field where Gronk has been the best player recorded. Since target data was tracked back in 1999, Gronk ranks first of all players in red zone conversion rate of all players with at least 50 targets there.
|Antwaan Randle El||54||10||18.52%|
|Steve Smith (NYG)||60||10||16.67%|
Now the question of where Gronk should go in drafts comes into play. If you’re someone whose draft approach is centered in value based principles, then Gronk is going to be a neon watt target for you. 14 Team Mocker highlights that while in a vacuum that number is alluring, it’s also misleading. The issue in that approach is VBD is only accounting for the baseline of the position, not factoring in the cost of that baseline in regards to supply and demand at the other skill positions. The average 24th running back and receiver come off the board in drafts in the fifth round, while the 12th tight end is a 10th round selection. There’s a lot of opportunity cost in bypassing positions you need more bodies at not only to fill your weekly lineup, but also insulate yourself from busting at in regards to taking a tight end with premium draft capital. This largely is why taking a tight end really early has only worked out maybe once ever. Gronk aided a lot of teams to victory last season, but those teams were also able to secure one to two other alpha players before investing into Gronk himself. That’s not an option this season.
The other argument against taking Gronk with a late first or early second is he just is unlikely to score as many fantasy points as the wide receivers around him in regards to ADP. In leagues that are adding flex spots, the more flex spots you add, the higher supply and demand you’re in turn creating for running backs and receivers over the tight end position. The way I’m handling Gronk is that I’m definitely not using a first round pick on him because I believe his ceiling is matching lead receiver totals at his apex but I still need more receivers to fill out my roster. The spot amongst wide receivers in which he would push me to think hard about coming off of that stance is if he’s still there once Jordy Nelson was gone, or that last WR1 tier. The same applies to running back, but you need less of those in most circumstances for your roster. Once DeMarco Murray is gone at that position, that’s where I’d slot Gronk. Those scenarios put him in the mid-second round range for me, which will be an unlikely landing spot, but if by some chance he gets there, that’s when I’ll look to strike.
As noted when looking at Brady, outside of Gronk, the other pieces in the pass game have been nearly interchangeable sets of hands. That doesn’t mean there isn’t value, however. Only Antonio Brown (239) and Demaryius Thomas (203) have more receptions than Julian Edelman’s 197 over the past two seasons. He had only four weeks outside of the top 36 at his position, showcasing his safe floor, yet still had five weeks inside the top-12, showcasing an ability to hit a ceiling as well. That ceiling is in play when he finds the end zone, something that hasn’t happened very often. On 285 targets the past two seasons, Edelman has found the paint just 10 times total. That 3.5 percent touchdown to target rate ranks 30th of the 37 receivers with 200 plus targets over the past two years.
Edelman is reliant on stacking receptions and yards after the catch to produce. 45.8 percent of his yardage came after the reception, which ranked ninth of all receivers. He’s a fantastic add as a roster smoothing third option if you can land him there, but his WR19 price tag won’t always comply with that wish. This role in the offense has consistently provided stable fantasy production, so paying in on that sticker price stills holds water if he’s your second receiver. All things considered, I’m inclined to pass on him if he has to fill that WR2 slot as you can get a proxy of his production and volume in Keenan Allen, Golden Tate, Jarvis Landry and Jeremy Maclin at cheaper costs.
Brandon LaFell is coming off of the best season of his career, notching highs in targets (119), receptions (74), yards (953) and touchdowns (seven). LaFell was a boom or bust option, with six weeks at WR17 or higher, yet another seven weeks at WR42 or lower. His high end ceiling might be compromised a touch if Danny Amendola continues the usage he had when Julian Edelman missed the final two regular season games and over the three postseason games when the entire unit was healthy.
Judging by the snap share, the statistical ambiguity here could all be coincidence. LaFell is good in the run game which keeps his snap share so high and keeps Amendola as just a complimentary part of the offense still at his best. At WR42 pricing, there’s still a big gap in terms of where LaFell’s ceiling was as a player last season and his cost. Even if LaFell provides uneven production again, you’re buying in on the ground floor still.
I mentioned Edelman scoring just 10 times over the past two years on 285 targets, but Amendola has scored just 10 times in his career on 418 targets. The other reason to buy into LaFell at that cost is while he hasn’t been a red zone juggernaut; he’s still the second best touchdown producer in the passing game on a team that gets a lot of chances to score.
|Player||Year||RZ Tgt||TD||TD %|
Brian Tyms and Aaron Dobson are likely competing for the final receiver spot of relevance here and both offer some vertical variance over the other plays at the position. That would carry a lot more weight in another system, because Brady has been in the bottom third in deep percentage over at Pro Football Focus each of the past two years. Keep your eyes on who wins the competition between the two and if their snaps counts overtake Amendola’s, but there’s no need to invest in them today.
Light the Blount
New England has recently placed low financial investment into the running back position and in 2014 it showed itself a bit in results as the Patriots finished 17th in rushing yardage (1,727 yards), their lowest total since 2011. They also ran for just 13 scores, their lowest total in a season since 2003 after averaging 20.2 rushing touchdowns per season over the previous six years.
After an in-season release, LeGarrette Blount returned to the Patriots and was their lead back during their Championship run. Blount was retained and there’s little competition on board with the departure of Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen. Blount was with the Patriots in 2013, and when Ridley was benched and seen his playing time cut way down that season Blount stepped in and was effective. From that point on in 2013, Blount played 26.7 percent of the offensive snaps to Ridley’s 19.1 percent.
That 2013 information is pertinent because we now essentially have a full season from Blount as a Patriot over the past two seasons. Taking those final nine weeks from 2013 and the eight weeks from last season, in Blount’s past 17 games with New England he’s carried 219 times for 1,102 yards and 15 touchdowns.
As you can see, Blount’s totals are anchored by three massive games, a couple of good ones and have some low points. That ceiling production is week tilting and makes Blount a very intriguing option for fantasy this season. There’s still some rhyme and reason to nailing his big performances, though (you probably want to play him in DFS week 6). All five of Blount’s lowest fantasy games came against high end rushing defenses and nearly all of the good ones versus light competition. Five of his lowest snap percentages also come with the same correlation. His high end games against better rushing defenses are buoyed by touchdown production, but again, those opportunities will always exist weekly for Blount in this offense.
There’s some added risk with Blount in that he’s suspended for week 1 from his marijuana arrest with Le’Veon Bell last preseason. Jonas Gray, Tyler Gaffney or maybe even Brandon Bolden will fill that role at least to start and we’ve also seen a big ceiling game from Gray before, meaning this role could carry more weight than talent level. The opener does set itself up to be a passing heavy gameplan given Pittsburgh’s strengths, but Brady’s absence could skew a more balanced approach. If one of these backs goes bananas week one, things will be interesting.
There’s definitely some warranted pause with drafting a player that’s in a consistently ambiguous situation tied to game script- or in this case, game planning- but you want exposure to those type of ceiling numbers somewhere. First thought is that Blount is an ideal Best Ball player, which is absolutely true since you don’t have to play weekly roster roulette, but at RB31 pricing in the late sixth round, there’s a decent amount risk priced into his cost. Blount could be the supreme Zero RB candidate given his already displayed ceiling if he’s someone garners an even bigger share of the pie. I like targeting Blount on teams in which I take one alpha back early on and then hammer wide receiver for the next four to five picks, missing out on that surplus of backs in that area of the draft. Under that scenario, I’m top heavy at receiver while also having a stable floor and ceiling at running back and can mix and match floor and ceiling plays at my RB2 spot how I see fit.
Blount isn’t going to catch any passes, leaving James White, Travaris Cadet, Brandon Bolden and Dion Lewis all competing for the vacant pass catching role left open with Vereen leaving via free agency. White, their fourth round draft pick from a year ago has the buzz of being the front runner, but whoever claims this role is relevant as well with Blount. Pats backs combined for 13 top-26 scoring weeks in 2014 and Danny Woodhead posted fantasy finishes as RB25 in 2010 and RB23 in 2012 with Vereen finishing as RB35 in 2013 in just eight games played and RB20 a season ago. New England targeted backs 108 times last season and 115 times in 2013. If you believe the buzz surrounding White to be true, he’s an ideal Mr. Irrelevant pick in Best Ball leagues, especially if you already have Blount. Whoever wins this job should see their ADP jump into lower single digit rounds, so getting in early there can pay off. The issue in weekly leagues is that latching on to pass catching only backs is far more frustrating than the banging reliant backs because they don’t offer the big ceiling. So now you’re facing a headache for a player you’re hoping hits an RB15-20 week for your lineup, but also has a replaceable floor. If you’ve owned Vereen, you know this pain. That’s a headache I’m going to let another have unless the winner of the competition remains at such a low cost.