New England Patriots Fantasy Football 2017 Preview: Grab Gronkowski

Wednesday August 2nd, 2017

Bill Belichick has long hated your fantasy teams. And now, after a series of offseason acquisitions that larded the Patriots’ roster with a multitude of contributors at the skill positions, Belichick can hate your fantasy teams just a little bit more.

Everyone in your league is going to want a piece of what will almost surely be a top-three offense. But the Patriots have myriad ways to attack opponents, and the usage of New England skill players will be hard to pin down. Belichick and his minions have always crafted their weekly gameplans to capitalize on the weaknesses of various opponents, and now they’ll have an abundance of scripts from which to choose.

Quarterbacks

PLAYER ADP FITZ RANKING ADVICE
Tom Brady QB2 QB2 Respect your elders

Perhaps the best way to buy into the New England offense without worrying about how the ball will be distributed from week to week is to draft Tom Brady, who has more weaponry at his disposal than an Idaho survivalist sect. Brady is entering his age-40 season, but it seems silly to worry about him losing his magic after a season in which he posted the second-best passer rating, second-best completion percentage and best TD-INT ratio of his career. Age is less of a concern here than the possibility that the Patriots will be exceedingly run-heavy. New England ranked 27th in passing play percentage last season, and if the Pats spend the season pummeling opponents into a pasty dough, Brady might not get the sort of passing volume he needs to produce to justify his selection in the early rounds of fantasy drafts.

Brady has an early-third-round ADP of QB2, behind only Aaron Rodgers. I usually don’t advocate drafting a quarterback in the early rounds, but I’ve been finding myself drawn to Brady, partly because he’s a great quarterback triggering a potentially electric offense, partly because of the dearth of appealing third-round options. There’s a major talent drop-off that comes early in the third round of 12-team drafts, and I’d rather grab Brady than spend a third-round pick on a running back or wide receiver who should probably be going in the fourth or fifth round.

If Brady were to go down, backup Jimmy Garoppolo would become a coveted fantasy asset. Making two starts in place of the suspended Brady last year before injuring his shoulder, Garoppolo completed 68.3% of his passes for 496 yards, four TDs and zero INTs, and he looked entirely comfortable directing an NFL offense.

Wide Receivers

PLAYER ADP FITZ RANKING ADVICE
Brandin Cooks WR13 WR14 Avoid reaching
Julian Edelman WR26 WR28 Fade

It’s going to be fascinating to see how Brandin Cooks fares this season as he makes the transition from a prolific offense triggered by a great quarterback to ... another prolific offense triggered by another great quarterback. Cooks has finished in the top 12 in WR fantasy scoring in each of the last two years, but he’s had less target competition than he’ll have in New England (at least if Rob Gronkowski is healthy for most of the season). Cooks has averaged 123 targets over the last two years but might end up at around 105-110 targets this year. His career indoor/outdoor splits are also a concern, as he’s been far more productive in domes than in outdoor stadiums, and the Patriots play only one game in a dome this season (Week 2 in New Orleans, quite fittingly). My ranking of Cooks is WR14, which is similar to his ADP, but I see a significant drop-off after the top 12 or 13 receivers, and Cooks sits atop the talented-but-flawed tier.

Julian Edelman has been PPR gold the last few years, averaging 6.5 catches per game since 2013. Edelman has a career average of 10.7 yards per catch and doesn’t score a lot of touchdowns, but volume is his calling card. Edelman saw fewer targets in the eight games that Gronkowski played last season than in the eight games Gronk missed, and the Gronk-Cooks combination could take a significant bite out of Edelman’s target and reception totals. Early drafters seem to be acknowledging that, giving Edelman an ADP of WR26, which is fair.

Chris Hogan and Malcolm Mitchell figure to play lesser roles this year now that Cooks has come to the land of clam chowder. As it was, Hogan got only 57 looks in 2016, but he produced an astounding 11.9 yards per target, thanks to an average of 17.9 yards per catch and a catch rate of 66.7%. Mitchell, who just turned 25, is a good-looking prospect who had 32 catches for 401 yards and four TDs last year. But Cooks’ arrival threatens to make this something of a redshirt year for Mitchell.

Tight Ends

PLAYER ADP FITZ RANKING ADVICE
Rob Gronkowski TE1 TE1 YOLO
Dwayne Allen TE18 TE29 Walk away

Who doesn’t love the happy-go-lucky Rob Gronkowski? He’s a fun cat, and it’s a hoot to have a healthy Gronk on your fantasy team. He’ll catch a short pass, stiff-arm one would-be tackler, hurdle another, cross the goal line and then twerk in the end zone as if he were at the club. God bless him.

Gronkowski’s per-game averages over his seven-year career: 7.0 targets, 4.6 catches, 69.2 yards, 0.77 touchdowns. Project those numbers over a 16-game regular season and you get 74 catches for 1,108 yards and 12 touchdowns. Unfortunately, Gronk has missed 24 games over the past five seasons. He’s had significant back and knee injuries that could affect his career longevity. But I think most Gronkowski buyers have their eyes wide open when they sign on the dotted line. Both the risk and the potential reward are enormous. I don’t think anyone will argue with his ADP of TE1, and his average draft slot of 2.09 seems like a fair triangulation of the risk-reward proposition.

Martellus Bennett managed to produce good numbers last season as the Patriots’ No. 2 tight end, which might help explain why Bennett’s replacement as New England’s No. 2 tight end, Dwayne Allen, has an ADP of TE18. Bennett is a much better player than Allen, however, and while Bennett was playable even in games that Gronkowski played, Allen would only be playable if Gronkowski went down.

Running Backs

PLAYER ADP FITZ RANKING ADVICE
Mike Gillislee R21 RB23 Don’t overpay
James White RB50 RB44 Acquire in PPR
Rex Burkhead RB55 RB47 Take a chance
Dion Lewis RB56 RB66 Check his role

Mike Gillislee’s ADP has been climbing. It’s now up to RB21, and his average draft slot is 4.09. Early drafters appear convinced that Gillislee is the heir to ex-Patriot LeGarrett Blount’s early-down/goal-line role, a lucrative gig that netted Blount 18 touchdowns last season and made him RB7 in standard fantasy scoring. Gillislee averaged a league-best 5.7 yards per carry last year as LeSean McCoy’s backup in Buffalo and often vultured TDs from McCoy at the goal line. Gillislee has a limited track record, however – 154 career carries. He’s made two career starts. He’s a nonfactor as a pass catcher, with 15 receptions in 23 career games. He has capable backs behind him.

If I had to bet $100 on any single player to lead the New England running backs in fantasy scoring, I’d bet on Gillislee. But given the choice between putting $100 on Gillislee or putting it on the field, I’d take the field. Gillislee’s price has gotten a little too rich for me.

Super Bowl hero James White has the most secure role among the Patriots’ backs. He’s locked in as their passing-down specialist, which should translate into 50-60 catches, 500 or so receiving yards, a handful of touchdowns and maybe 100-200 rushing yards. It’s a role that’s far more lucrative in PPR leagues than in standard leagues.

I’ve been scooping up cheap shares of Rex Burkhead in my early drafts, hoping that Burkhead gets a piece of the early-down/goal-line pie that everyone is assuming Gillislee will devour all by himself. Burkhead was mostly a special-teamer during his three seasons in Cincinnati, but given the chance to start against the Ravens last season in Week 17, Burkhead gashed Baltimore for 119 rushing yards and two touchdowns. It’s worth remembering that Burkhead ran for 1,357 yards and 15 TDs as a junior at Nebraska in 2011. And it’s worth noting that the athletic Burkhead had the best vertical jump, broad jump, three-cone drill, 20-yard shuttle and 60-yard shuttle of any back in his draft class.

Dion Lewis is largely being dismissed by the fantasy community as the odd man out in this RB picture, but perhaps that’s a mistake. Last year, Lewis was slow to round back into form after tearing his ACL midway through the 2015 season, but he had 195 rushing yards over the Patriots’ final three regular-season games, then scored three touchdowns against the Texans in New England’s playoff opener – one rushing, one receiving, and one on a 98-yard kickoff return. Lewis is now more than a full year removed from the knee injury, and he’s still only 26. Don’t forget about him.

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