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2014 Fantasy Football Outlook: New England Patriots

Rich Hribar

Rich Hribar is a husband, father, sports meteorologist and a slave to statistics. A lifelong sports fan and fantasy gamer.
Tom Brady Shane Vereen
David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Despite having a lot of moving parts on both offense and defense, the Patriots finished 12-4 in 2013. It was the tenth consecutive season in which they posted double-digit wins and they have won nine or more games in 13 of the 14 seasons under Bill Belichick. For 2014, they are revamped on defense as they look to make the postseason for the sixth consecutive year.

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2014 Patriots Schedule

Week   Opp
1 @ Miami Dolphins
2 @ Minnesota Vikings
3 Oakland Raiders
4 @ Kansas City Chiefs
5 Cincinnati Bengals
6 @ Buffalo Bills
7 New York Jets
8 Chicago Bears
9 Denver Broncos
10 Bye Week
11 @ Indianapolis Colts
12 Detroit Lions
13 @ Green Bay Packers
14 @ San Diego Chargers
15 Miami Dolphins
16 @ New York Jets
17 Buffalo Bills

 

We’re nearing the end of the run here as far as team outlooks go, but it still needs to be said. Be cautious when analyzing the schedule big picture. There’s nothing treacherous about the Pats’ slate on paper and they should be involved in some higher scoring tilts when they get to face the NFC North. It’s business as usual when it comes to this outfit for fantasy, they are going to score points in 2014. Even with a revolving door and running back and receiver last season, here’s where this offense ranked in efficiency areas.

Category Total Rank
Points Per Game 27.9 2
Average Scoring Margin 6.5 6
Yards Per Point 13.7 6
Points Per Play 0.397 9
Points Per Drive 2.18 5
RZ Att. Per Game 4.1 2

 

Josh McDaniels returns for his third consecutive season as offensive coordinator, which will be his second three-year stint calling plays in New England after stops as a head coach in Denver and a season running the offense in St. Louis. In his recent run with the Pats, this offense has been about balance and tempo, leading the league in offensive plays over the past two seasons. Here’s a look at the play calling splits for offenses attached to McDaniels.

[table id=196 /]

Tommy Boy

2013 was a bipolar season for Tom Brady and a far cry from the quarterback we had grown accustomed to seeing for real and fantasy purposes. He had his lowest completion percentage (60.5 percent) since 2004, his lowest adjusted yards per attempt (6.9) since 2008 and posted his lowest touchdown rate (four percent) of his entire career.

For fantasy purposes, he notched an FPAT (fantasy points per aimed throw) of .42, which was tied with Jake Locker and Matt Cassel and he tallied only six top 12 weekly finishes and had a quality start percentage equal to E.J. Manuel. Even operating with frequent offensive leverage didn’t aid Brady a great deal as he was a pretty lateral performer in all game situations a year ago.

A lot of what transpired last season can likely be attributed to lack of offensive continuity as Julian Edelman, LeGarrette Blount and James Develin were the only skill players to play in all 16 games last season for New England. The offensive line also didn’t help him out as they allowed a ton of interior pressure. Brady was sacked 40 times, the most since his rookie season.

The other elephant in the room is that for fantasy purposes, this offense has been supremely reliant on the availability of Rob Gronkowski for obvious reasons. Out of the six top 12 weeks that Brady posted last year, Gronk played in four of them and Brady averaged 315 passing yards per game as opposed to 237 yards per game when Gronkowski was out of the lineup. Looking at Games Splits App available at RotoViz, here’s how Brady has performed with and without Gronk over the past three seasons.

bradygronk

Despite all of that dysfunction a year ago, Brady still managed to pass for 25 or more touchdowns, hitting that total in his past six full seasons and has carried tremendous volume, attempting 600 or more passes in each of the past three seasons. He’s been a peak performer when the Patriots are in favorable game script; averaging eight more fantasy points in wins over losses his career, and New England should be much more improved on offense and defense as well. If he’s drafted in the top six at his position, that meets fair value according to C.D. Carter’s equity scores, so if he slides past that group in your drafts there’s room for him to exceed his draft slot amongst the position. With everything surrounding his situation looking improved over a year ago and some slight recency bias from last year, Brady is a solid add for those looking for a stable passing option with elite upside.

Brady’s Bunch

I’ve hinted that I anticipate this passing game to be much better than a year ago and it all starts with the encouraging news that Gronkowski is recovering ahead of schedule from a torn ACL suffered on December 8 last season. He didn’t play until week seven last year, and in his absence, Patriots tight ends caught only nine passes on 15 total targets for 96 yards over the first six weeks.

Gronk only played seven games a year ago, but when he did, he had 14 more targets, six more receptions and 165 more yards than Jimmy Graham did during weeks seven through 13 before suffering his injury. Still only 25-years-old, he’s actually been the better of the two for fantasy purposes when on the field, but that’s something that is a definite red mark in his book. Since 2011, here’s how the two measure up to one another per game.

Player Games Rec/Gm Yd/Gm TD/Gm FanPT/Gm
Gronkowski 34 5.4 79.7 0.94 19.0
Graham 47 5.7 74.6 0.77 17.8

 

We’re already aware that Gronk is a touchdown machine and he’s converted 32 of 67 (48 percent) of his career red zone targets for scores. He also has an insane touchdown rate in regards to his pass catching volume as he leads all NFL players in touchdown rate on receptions since 2010.

Top 12 Players in TDR Since 2010

[table id=197 /]

As far is pertains as to where you can safely draft him in 2014, it really comes down to your league structure since he’s going to return on the capital invested in comparison to his position if healthy. In one tight end leagues without any flex spots, there’s still a high amount of opportunity cost that comes along with selecting a tight end in the first two rounds. He’ll have to hit the third round in those formats for me to consider him if I’m going to pull the trigger. If your league does have flex spots, then he can be considered as receiver. In those leagues, he slots right into the tier after the big four or five and is a fringe late first round pick if you can stomach the injury concerns.

Julian Edelman was the lone consistent bright spot for this passing game last season. Entering 2013, Edelman had career totals of 69 receptions for 714 yards before his 105 catch, 1,056 yard season a year ago. While a large part of his success and usage stemmed from necessity, the Pats made a conscious effort to bring him back this offseason and he’s going to be involved.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t concerns from our end though as he could be a far better real asset than a fantasy one. Edelman has a Kendall Wright-esque scoring rate, scoring on only 10 of his 174 career receptions (and only six of 105 in 2013). Also, when Gronk played, he averaged three fewer receptions, four fewer targets, and 25 less yards per game. He could benefit from game script like he did a year ago, however. In 2013, he had 27 percent of teams targets when New England was tied or ahead, as safer throws accompany neutral game script. When trailing that target share dropped to 21 percent. I do firmly believe that Edelman will be involved plenty, but his scoring downside and volume loss (even if slight) doesn’t make him a value that I believe is going to win leagues. At his current cost, there are just options I prefer over him like a Mike Wallace and Eric Decker.

Danny Amendola will be 29 this season and has never reached 700 yards receiving in any season thus far in his career. When on the field, he does contribute, amassing an average of 4.6 receptions per game, but staying on the field has been an issue as he’s missed 20 games over the past three seasons. He also has only nine touchdowns on 250 career receptions, limiting his overall allure for fantasy purposes. He’s likely more of a niche player in this offense now and will be fighting for similar targets that are going to go Edelman and Shane Vereen.

The intriguing spot still in limbo is Aaron Dobson or Kenbrell Thompkins playing outside. Thompkins was a preseason darling a year ago, but the 25-year-old undrafted free agent didn’t do a whole lot with the opportunities given a year ago, failing to reach 50 receiving yards in eight of 11 games played. Last season’s second round selection, Dobson, took over for him midseason and didn’t exactly light the world on fire either. Failing to hit 50 yards in six of his 11 games played. Using the Career Graphs App at RotoViz, here’s how the two performed as rookies.

dobkins

Dobson was better, but not in a runaway. He likely would’ve entered this season as the clear cut starter, but after having surgery on a stress fracture in his foot, Thompkins is using his time this preseason to reset himself in the driver’s seat to open the year in that position. Dobson’s foot injury also may be much worse than anyone is letting on considering he’s past the normal timetable for recovery. While the book is clearly open still for Thompkins to contribute, this could be deja vu all over again with him starting the season with the spot before relinquishing the spot to Dobson at some point during the campaign when Dobson is full strength. Thompkins lacks true ability to get consistent separation at the NFL level as he showed a season ago. “If” and when Dobson is ready to go, he’s just a better player. I actually don’t mind using two late picks on both of these guys if you have the roster space and seeing how the situation plays out early on because the role itself can elevate Thompkins to usable status and make Dobson a potential star and both are cheaply acquired.

New England also just added Tim Wright in a late preseason trade. Undrafted out of Rutgers, Wright was one of the best tight end targets for any team in 2013. He was one of only seven tight ends ever to catch 50 or more passes in their rookie season in league history. He also carried dual eligibility in most leagues as a receiver since he converted to tight end last year. In terms of being a productive fantasy receiver, Wright had five top 24 PPR weeks, the same as Marques Colston and more than Michael Floyd and T.Y. Hilton. New England has operated without a move tight end for the past year and all of preseason, so Wright is behind the eight ball in terms of catching up and fleshing out a large enough role to make an early fantasy impact. Monitor his involvement throughout the season, but don’t make a play for him until he appears to be truly involved weekly.

 

Pats Backs

The Patriots backfield feels as ambiguous as ever on the exterior coming into the season, which is really saying something. With the addition of James White this offseason to go along with Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen, and Brandon Bolden, there’s potential for this to be weekly headache. Unfortunately for us, it’s a headache worth exploring because the Patriots have the fifth most rushing attempts in the NFL over the past three seasons and also the most rushing touchdowns as a team over the same time frame.

Most Team Rushing TD Since 2011

Tm TD
NE 62
CAR 61
MIN 57
PHI 49
SF 49

 

The two main players for fantasy circles right now are Ridley and Vereen. Both were selected by the team in 2011 and here’s a look at their careers so far over their first three seasons.

vereenridley

Unsurprisingly, there’s a clear discrepancy between rushing and receiving roles for each and both backs were completely game script dependent a season ago. Ridley received 74 percent of his carries while the Pats were in neutral game situations while Vereen had 67 percent of his touches and 64 percent of his fantasy points while New England was trailing.

Vereen averaged a robust 8.6 targets per game, which have him hanging in rarified Sprolesian air for PPR league owners this season. He was targeted once every 2.9 routes run, which led every NFL player, not just running backs and was a fantasy points per route run (FPPRR) monster. He also supremely benefited from Gronk’s presence, averaging 21.3 PPR points per game with him active. The disappointing aspect is that despite the Patriots rotating their backs in and out, they just had no desire to use him in the running game at all as he averaged only 5.5 rushing attempts per game and only 4.2 times per game if you strip away his 14-carry week one game. He also only handled three carries inside of the 5-yard line, capping his potential ceiling.

The Pats have shown reluctance to use him in that capacity at so far, even though he provides the most versatility when paired for the tempo they want to play with. If the hope is that Vereen is the new version of Sproles for fantasy, he needs to also reach the high touchdown totals that Sproles was able to achieve in 2011 and 2012 and last season he was on pace to hold water in that regard. His current market value provides room for return if he can accomplish that, but I have a hard time selecting him over lead receivers at that stage in the draft. For those starting out receiver heavy in drafts in PPR leagues, he’s a solid buy in the fourth round.

I’ve yet to really grasp how I feel about Ridley this summer. On one hand he feels like a bargain, on the other he feels like a trap. First, here are the pros for the former argument. He’s still only 25 years old and is the best runner they have in house in all situations. Inside the five yard line he’s converted 14 of 33 carries for scores for touchdowns and was six for eight a season ago. But he also isn’t a plodder as he has 23 runs of 15 or more yards over the past two seasons, which is good for 12th most out all backs in the league and he only has 632 career touches.

The flip side of that is that he’s a complete non-entity in the passing game as he has only 19 career receptions so far and catching passes is important for backs no matter the scoring format. Plus, no matter how I personally feel about fumbles being overblown, his coach has made it clear that he feels otherwise despite several other backs fumbling more frequently than Ridley has over the past two seasons. It’s generally crazy to ride a narrative for fantasy football, but he’s always only one play away from disappearing in any given week.

The last remaining storm cloud is that people surrounding the organization have whispered that he just may be too far on the outs and could be possibly released. Oddly enough, his possible to demise is simultaneously easy and hard to believe. The Pats defense is going to create a closing role most given weeks, if Ridley ends up surviving and getting that role, there’s still optimism for return if he’s deflated into double digit rounds because we have actual tangible evidence of what his ceiling looks like and there could be a large gap between that and his inevitable cost. With the loss of Logan Mankins, it’s also fair to question just how much power running this team will incorporate into their offense. It’s hard at this juncture to invest in Ridley as anything more than your third running back, but there’s still plenty of potential for him to return solid value.

James White has been rumored to be involved all throughout camp and it’s shown with his usage so far in the preseason. White is a versatile player that can do many things well, but none great. He’s better served as a backup option in an NFL offense, but is versatile enough to play with Vereen and allow New England to show more two running back sets. With all of the question marks surrounding Ridley, he’s a most own player at the end of drafts just in case he pushes Ridley out completely and becomes that closer for this offense.

Bolden actually played the most snaps out of anyone in this backfield last year, but he was also utilized the least, touching the ball on only 20 percent of his plays. Even with injuries, it’s hard to see him being a standalone fantasy asset but his potentially sporadic real usage could make him a thorn in our sides.

2014 Fantasy Relevant Projections

Passing

Player Att Comp % Yards TD INT FF PTs
Tom Brady 587.2 378.7 64.5% 4493.9 32.5 11.7 286.3

 

Rushing

Player Att Yds YPC TD FF PTs
Stevan Ridley 227.7 956.3 4.2 8.0 141.2
Shane Vereen 83.5 367.4 4.4 2.5 50.9
James White 126.5 531.3 4.2 4.6 82.2
Tom Brady 30.4 33.4 1.1 0.6 0.9

 

Receiving

Player TGT Rec Yards TD PTS PPR PTS
Julian Edelman 109.0 73.0 752.0 4.4 101.5 174.5
Danny Amendola 84.8 54.2 607.5 2.7 77.0 131.3
Aaron Dobson 96.9 52.3 763.6 5.2 107.7 160.0
Kenbrell Thompkins 48.4 27.6 380.9 2.2 51.3 78.9
Rob Gronkowski 115.0 79.4 1142.8 14.3 200.0 279.4
Stevan Ridley 12.1 9.7 61.0 0.3 7.8 17.5
Shane Vereen 84.8 59.3 545.8 3.6 75.9 135.3
James White 24.2 17.0 155.9 1.0 21.7 38.6

 

Best Option to Crash through their projection without injury: Vereen – If he can get involved in the run game and find the end zone more often, he’s a very high end RB2 in PPR formats and possibly an RB1 like we seen last season for a stretch.

Biggest Risk to fall through their projection: Edelman – It’s hard to gauge how much of his 2013 production rolls over because it was generated almost entirely out of necessity.

Best Waiver Wire Option: Dobson – he may not even get drafted in casual settings with shallow rosters, but if he comes back healthy, his role paired with his talent gets a giant boost from having a healthy Gronkowski on the field.