By BJ Rudell, Special to SI.com
Since Monday’s night’s drubbing at the hands of the Chiefs, the Patriots have been one of this week’s most scrutinized professional sports franchises. Many have wondered if this public shellacking marked the beginning of the end of the Belichick-Brady dynasty.
But fantasy managers don’t care if the Patriots miss the playoffs for only the second time in the past 12 seasons. We care only about the fantasy implications of an apparently middling NFL roster.
Whatever we thought of New England’s passing game before Week 1, it’s time to reassess the value of four key components to determine whether any still merit a spot in our starting lineup. Monday’s night’s performance was a wakeup call to fantasy managers everywhere: Whatever preconceptions you had about these Patriots, it’s never too late to retool your roster to align with current expectations. Better to learn this now than in Week 13 on the eve of your fantasy playoffs.
It's been nine games (including last year's playoffs) since Tom Brady has tossed more than one touchdown. To put that in perspective, his longest such stretch was only four games since his first full season in 2002. Moreover, in his last 23 games Brady’s thrown more than two touchdown passes only twice -- compared to eight times in the 23 games before that.
Are his declining numbers due to an inferior or inexperienced offensive line? Underperforming receivers? Inaccurately thrown deep balls? A case could be made that all three factors have pushed Brady not only out of the top 10 quarterback conversation, but out of the top 20.
Some argue that he hasn’t yet developed chemistry with a largely inexperienced and new cadre of receivers -- that aside from Rob Gronkowski, Julian Edelman and dynamic tailback Shane Vereen, most guys aren’t fully comfortable playing in this system.
But this is the same Tom Brady who threw touchdowns to 46 difference receivers from 2001 to 2012, which led the NFL during that span. In addition, Brady has never needed star receivers to make him or the team look good. Four players led the team in receiving yards during the dynasty’s first six years (2001-2006): Tony Brown, Deion Branch, David Givens and Reche Caldwell. During that stretch, Brady averaged 3,593 passing yards, 25 touchdowns, and 13 interceptions per season ... numbers that would have kept him in starting fantasy lineups most weeks, especially during an era when 4,000-yard or 35-touchdown seasons were rare.
The Patriots could short up their offensive line or add a high-profile receiver to their arsenal but it doesn’t change the fact that Brady’s arm is no longer made of gold. Unless the coaching staff dramatically retools the offense to compensate for Brady’s shortcomings, Tom Terrific will remain virtually unstartable in all but the deepest fantasy leagues.
Gronkowski has had more surgeries (eight) than perhaps any other 25-year-old NFL player in history, yet his per-game stats are among the best ever at his position: 63 yards and nearly one touchdown per game. I remain high on Gronkowski as a top eight fantasy tight end, knowing that he needs to play only a dozen snaps to post numbers that most guys can’t match playing a full game.
Injury risks will always loom for this tight end, but if you were gutsy enough to draft him in the third or fourth round, you’re probably the type of person who’s willing to start him until his next surgery. However, Gronkowski is netting only eight fantasy points per game this season. If he comes up big in the next game or two, I recommend selling high and moving on. He’s still a good tight end; he simply can’t be counted on to be a great one anymore.
Edelman came out of nowhere last year to become Brady’s most trusted receiver, racking up 1,056 yards and six scores to become a top 20 fantasy receiver. He also needed 151 targets (10th in the NFL) to achieve these marks.
Why all of the attention? Aside from being reliably good, he also benefited from Gronkowski missing nine games and Shane Vereen missing eight. By factoring in their missed production, we see that the 2014 version of Edelman should fall short in yards and/or touchdowns, dropping his value to that of a WR3 at best. Sure, his targets remain high. But inside the red zone, he’s no longer the only trusted option game after game.
Vereen is the only player on this list whose numbers I expect to rise. Last year he displayed Darren Sproles-esque abilities in the passing game, and entered 2014 healthy and primed for a 1,000 combined rushing/receiving yards and six to eight touchdowns, making him an RB2 in standard leagues with RB1 upside in PPR leagues.
Now is the time to buy low on Vereen, whom I believe New England will focus on more in the coming weeks. He’s arguably the team’s most talented and versatile running back, and not even a suspect offensive line or Brady’s less dependable arm can impede his breakout potential.