Fantasy football team preview: New England Patriots
The last time we saw the Patriots they were engineering one of the most remarkable comebacks in Super Bowl history. And you know what the scary part is? This year’s edition of the team could be even better. It’s tough to pin down the Patriots’ constantly evolving offensive scheme, but Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels run an Erhardt-Perkins system that aims to exploit matchups on a weekly basis. It’s a zig-when-zag approach that last year resulted in one of the most run-heavy offenses in the league. Whether that trend continues this year is tough to say, but it’s reasonable to expected continued productivity out of the New England skill position players.
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You may have heard of this Tom Brady guy. After serving a four-game suspension to start the year, Brady posted one of the best seasons of his career. From his return in Week 5, Brady posted 28 scores and just two picks and ranked third among quarterbacks in fantasy scoring. Despite being on the lower end of average depth of throw (7.61 yards), Brady’s five passing touchdowns of 40-plus yards led all quarterbacks from Week 5 on. The addition of Brandin Cooks will only help Brady’s big-play upside. While he’s entering his age-40 season, Brady is still locked in as an elite-level fantasy option and very likely will be the second quarterback taken in your draft.
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With LeGarrette Blount out of the mix, the Patriots brought in Mike Gillislee to handle the early-down work. Serving as LeSean McCoy’s understudy last year, Gillislee scored an impressive nine total touchdowns – eight as a runner and one as a receiver – and finished as a surprise RB3, ranking 27th among running backs in fantasy scoring. That’s an impressive feat considering he ranked just 42nd in carries (100). In New England, Gillislee won’t have the benefit of playing behind the Buffalo offensive line that averaged the most yards before contact per attempt last season, as Blount saw an average of just 1.40 yards before contact on his 299 carries last season. Still, Gillislee is in a great situation to produce and should be consider a breakout candidate in 2017.
The one knock on Gillislee is that he’s unlikely to get much work in the passing game with James White, Rex Burkhead, and Dion Lewis also in house. White finished third in the league among running backs in targets last season with 76, and is the favorite to lead the backfield in targets yet again. His minimal work as runner makes White a better PPR option where he deserves flex consideration. The third running back spot will come down to Lewis or Burkhead. Lewis flashed serious upside two years ago, but injuries have limited his workload as a pro. Burkhead comes over from the Bengals where he was lightly used with 121 touches over the last three seasons.
New England made one of the biggest roster move splashes in the offseason, acquiring Cooks in a trade from the Saints. Cooks brings to the table a very different skill set than the Patriots had in their receiver corps last season. He’s coming off career highs in yards per catch (15.1), yards per route run (1.92), and average depth of target (13.3). Cooks also posted a top-10 fantasy season in both standard and PPR after finishing 12th in standard scoring and 14th in PPR in 2015. While it may be a bit ambitious to lock Cooks in as a WR1 this season, he isn’t that far off. With Brady throwing him the ball, Cooks possesses ideal fantasy upside and should be considered a front-end WR2.
Cooks’ arrival means we’ll likely see a slight downturn in Julian Edelman’s volume. He saw 146 targets last season, which tied for fifth in the NFL and accounted for 29.1 percent of the Patriots’ targets. Only Mike Evans saw a higher share of his team’s targets. Despite the heavy volume Edelman managed a somewhat disappointing 22nd-place finish in fantasy scoring with just two top-10 weeks on the season. With his somewhat limited fantasy ceiling and the presence of Cooks, Edelman is best considered a WR3 option this season.
Beyond Cooks and Edelman, the Patriots still have Chris Hogan and Malcolm Mitchell. Hogan is the favorite for No. 3 duties. Despite his late-season heroics, Hogan isn’t likely to see enough volume to sustain viable fantasy production on a weekly basis this season. But don’t be surprise if he manages to surface on the DFS radar once or twice this season. Mitchell remains a hold in dynasty leagues but isn’t worth re-draft consideration unless injury hits this group or he manages to leapfrog Hogan.
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When he’s on the field, Rob Gronkowski is utterly dominant. So far in his career, he’s managed to play 15 or more games four times. He finished No. 1 overall in three of those seasons. Last year, Gronk was essentially only active Weeks 4-10. Over that span, only Delanie Walker scored more fantasy points, and he did so with one more game played. Gronkowski has five double-digit touchdown seasons in seven years as a pro. He’s also topped 1,000 yards three times. The only thing really holding Gronkowski back is his health. If he’s able to stay healthy, Gronkowski is unquestionably the top fantasy tight end.
It’s rare to handcuff a tight end, but Dwayne Allen is about as close as it come this year. The Patriots let Martellus Bennett walk and traded for Allen this offseason. With Gronkowski on the field, Allen’s opportunities are likely to be limited. This isn’t likely to be a revival of the two-tight end sets of earlier in Gronkowski’s career. However, if Gronkowski went down with an injury, Allen would vault up into the TE1 conversation. That being said, he isn’t worth drafting outside of the deepest leagues.
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