Fantasy Depth Chart Review - New England
The defending Super Bowl champions enter 2015 embroiled in controversy, but remain one of the league’s elite teams. New England was relatively quiet in free agency, but they’re still chock full of fantasy relevant players.
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The Deflategate fiasco was one of the biggest stories of the offseason, and as things currently stand, Tom Brady will sit out the first four games of the season. Brady’s appeal is scheduled for June 23, and there’s certainly a chance the suspension could be reduced.
However, as of right now Brady won’t see the field until Week 6 due to the Patriots’ Week 4 bye, and Jimmy Garoppolo will open the season as the starter.
New England’s 2014 second-round pick out of Eastern Illinois, Garoppolo impressed last preseason, throwing for 618 yards and five touchdowns. Of course, much of this work came against second- and third-string defenses. Garoppolo played 69 snaps in the regular season, with most of that coming in Week 17 when he completed 10-of-17 passes for 70 yards.
While much of the news surrounding Garoppolo has been glowing, recent reports out of New England OTAs tell a different story. In particular, the young quarterback struggled in the two-minute drill throwing four picks while Brady went 14-of-15 with one drop.
It’s never wise to overreact to one bad performance, but this news verifies what many have been suggesting since the Brady suspension broke: This isn’t going to be a seamless transition for the Patriots and the ripple effect will impact the fantasy value of all New England skill position players.
The Garoppolo effect isn’t enough to significantly move Pats players down in your rankings, but it’s something to carefully consider when you build your draft board. You’re going to have these players on your roster for the first five weeks of the season without Brady. That’s 38.5 percent of a 13-game fantasy regular season.
Perhaps the only player who doesn’t move on draft boards is Rob Gronkowski. Sure, his fantasy ceiling isn’t nearly as high with Garoppolo, but he’s still arguably the single most dominant player at his respective position for fantasy purposes. His fantasy points per opportunity (PPO) of 0.41 in standard and 0.60 in PPR paced tight ends last season as Gronk easily outscored the field.
Some, including yours truly, have advocated a taking Gronkowski in the first round. While taking a tight end in the first round would have seemed outlandish just a few years ago, a value-based approach would suggest this is a viable strategy in 2015. We’re currently projecting Gronkowski to outscore the No. 2 tight end by 69 points. That’s an average of 4.3 more points per week, which is a huge advantage at the position. Gronk’s current ADP is 2.02, so if you want him, you’re going to have to pull the trigger in the middle to end of the first round.
At wide receiver, nothing changes from last season, with Julian Edelman, Brandon LaFell, and Danny Amendola projected to start. Aaron Dobson, Brian Tyms, and Brandon Gibson also project to make the 53-man roster, but a word of caution to those trying to score deeper value here. Last season, the Pats used their first three receivers almost exclusively. After Amendola’s 466 snaps, Tyms came in a distant fourth with just 127 snaps in the regular season.
As I mentioned earlier, Garoppolo’s presences depresses Edelman’s and LaFell’s fantasy value, but I wouldn’t make significant changes to my draft board. This is more a matter of moving both players down in their respective tiers.
Edelman is coming off back-to-back solid seasons where he’s emerged as the Pats’ go-to underneath receiver following Wes Welker’s departure. While Edelman’s low aDOT (7.6) and yards per reception (10.6) aren’t ideal for standard scoring leagues, his high target volume makes him a strong WR2 in PPR formats. Edelman finished 17th in PPR scoring last season despite missing two games.
Following four years of mediocre production with the Panthers, LaFell joined the Pats last season and was largely a fantasy afterthought. Of course, that all changed in Week 4 when he exploded for 119 yards and a score on six catches. From that point on, LaFell was fantasy’s No. 14 wideout. He saw a career-high 114 targets (10 fewer than Edelman) and is in line for another healthy workload this season.
With a current ADP of 9.03, LaFell is the 39th wide receiver coming off the board. Even with four Garoppolo games, that’s just way too low for a player who finished as the No. 22 fantasy receiver last season in essentially 14 games.
Amendola had a nice stretch in the playoffs scoring three times during the Pats’ championship run, but don’t get too cute here. While he’d be the next man up if anything happened to Edelman, Amendola just doesn’t see enough of the field to put up consistent fantasy numbers. Besides when Edelman was sidelined in Weeks 16 & 17, Amendola saw more than 50 percent of the Patriots’ offensive snaps in just 4-of-14 games.
Moving to running back, New England parted ways with Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen in the offseason, which leaves LeGarrette Blount as the lead back. Like Brady, Blount will open the season on suspension, though he’ll only serve one game for violating the league’s substance abuse policy.
After an uninspiring stint with the Steelers that concluded with him being waived after Week 11, Blount rejoined the Patriots and hit the ground running with 78 yards and two scores against the Lions. He went on the absolutely annihilate the Colts in the playoffs just as he did in 2013. However, the problem with Blount for fantasy purposes is just as it has been for most all Patriots running backs in recent memory – consistency. Bill Belichick running backs can be maddeningly frustrating to own in fantasy leagues, and odds are that trend continues this season.
Behind Blount there’s a stockpile of backs including Travaris Cadet, Brandon Bolden, James White, Jonas Gray, Tyler Gaffney, and Dion Lewis. It isn’t clear at this point which of these players will make the team, though Gray best fits the Blount role in the offense.
Pass catching duties will come down to the remaining players. Cadet comes over from New Orleans where he caught 38 balls last season despite playing just 209 snaps. Bolden is a Patriots mainstay who saw just 92 snaps last season. Both Gaffney and White are entering their second season. Former sixth-rounder Gaffney spent 2014 on injured reserve, but has apparently made a good impression on Belichick. White was the higher draft selection, and some on the Patriots beat view him as the heir-apparent to Vereen. Still others have talked up Lewis as a viable option in that role. The only thing for certain here is this should prove to be an interesting camp battle.
Shifting to the defensive side of the ball, there’s been some debate in the fantasy community as to whether the Patriots will run a 4-3 or a 3-4 base defense. We’re currently anticipating a 4-3 alignment, which means good things for Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich in IDP circles. Both players should remain classified as DLs on league commissioner sites.
Jones is coming off an injury-plagued season where he missed six games. However, he was extremely effective when he was on the field. From Weeks 1-7, Jones recorded 4.5 sacks and was the No. 5 fantasy defensive lineman. His ability to rush the passer in addition to an above-average tPOP of 8.5 last season give Jones one of the highest fantasy ceilings among defensive linemen.
You’re not going to get that sort of ceiling out of Ninkovich, but few defensive linemen offer a higher fantasy floor. He’s topped 60 total tackles in four of the last five seasons (he had 58 in 2012). Ninkovich has also posted eight sacks in each of the last three seasons and had fantasy finishes of 7th (2012), 7th (2013), and 10th (2014) in balanced scoring leagues.
Should something happen to either Jones of Ninkovich, the Pats also have ex-Browns DE Jabaal Sheard and rookie Trey Flowers waiting in the wings. Sheard was forced to play out of position as an outside linebacker for most of his career in Cleveland, but he flourished at times, especially in 2013 when he recorded a QB pressure on 12.1 percent of his pass rush snaps. Flowers played at Arkansas, and was the most productive pass rusher among draft-eligible 4-3 defensive ends last season with 61 QB pressures in 365 pass rush snaps.
Questions linger for the Patriots at linebacker, though not for Jamie Collins, who is coming off a breakout season where he put up 116 total tackles and finished as fantasy’s No. 6 linebacker. Collins remains locked and loaded as a top 10 fantasy option.
However, both there’s a chance that Jerod Mayo and Dont’a Hightower aren’t on the field for the Patriots in Week 1. You’ll notice that we’re projecting Brandon Spikes as the starter in the middle as Mayo is returning from torn pectoral and has played just 12 games over the last two seasons. Before his injury last season, Mayo was racking up tackles at an elite-level tPOP of 18.3 percent. However, entering his age-29 season Mayo’s injury history makes him a risky proposition as a fantasy linebacker.
If Mayo isn’t able to suit up, we’re unlikely to get any fantasy value of Spikes. Despite grading out well at PFF, Spikes hasn’t proven to be a viable three-down option in his career. That’s unlikely to change if he gets a chance to start this season.
Update: Spikes won’t be playing any downs for the Patriots in 2015 as the veteran was released on June 8th following his being investigated for a hit-and-run incident.
Hightower had shoulder surgery to repair a torn labrum immediately following the Super Bowl and was given a 6-7 month timetable. That means he’s unlikely to be ready for the start of Patriots camp on July 29th, but should be on track for the season opener.
Like Collins, Hightower really blossomed in 2014. In fact, Hightower and Collins came in as our Nos. 2 and 3 ranked 3-4 inside linebackers last season. Where Hightower was especially effective was as a pass rusher. He racked up six sacks on the season and recorded a QB pressure on 22.8 percent of his pass rush snaps.
Collins was the more productive tackler with a tPOP of 16.0 compared to 13.8 for Hightower, but both players figure to stay on the field for all three downs this season. Better yet, consider this: following Mayo’s injury in Week 6, Collins was 2nd and Hightower was 10th in fantasy points per game.
There isn’t much fantasy value to be had in the Patriots secondary. Devin McCourty is an elite player on the field, but his low tackle numbers resulted in a 50th place finish among fantasy defensive backs. However, those in deeper leagues may want to give Patrick Chung a quick look. He was back with the Pats last season after a disappointing stint in Philly, and he performed surprisingly well. From Week 6 on, Chung was the No. 26 fantasy defensive back averaging 9.3 fantasy points per game. While that isn’t mind-boggling production, Chung’s performance certainly earns him a place on our list of priority streamers at the defensive back position.
Jeff Ratcliffe is the Assistant Managing Editor and resident IDP maven and DFS junkie of PFF Fantasy.