This fantasy preview is part of a preseason series by FantasyLabs Editor-in-Chief Matthew Freedman. Other pieces in the series are available on our Fantasy Football Preview Dashboard.
In 2016, the Patriots survived the four-game suspension of franchise quarterback Tom Brady, went 14-2 in the regular season, beat the Texans and Steelers by 18 and 19 points in the AFC playoffs, and scored 31 unanswered points to overcome a 28-3 deficit against the Falcons for the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history, giving the Patriots their fifth championship in the last 16 years. In other words, for Brady and head coach Bill Belichick, it was just another year. For the Patriots, the goal in 2017 is to do what no other NFL franchise has ever done: For the second time, win three Super Bowls in four years.
In a different universe, Belichick is still the coach of the Browns, the Modell family still owns the franchise, the Baltimore Ravens don’t exist, and Brady has won eight Super Bowls for a Cleveland fan base that’s a little too comfortable with the #winning lifestyle. Alas, we don’t live in that universe.
The son of an assistant football coach at the United State Naval Academy, Belichick graduated with a degree in economics from Wesleyan University (CT) in 1975. A center and tight end in college and lifelong football junky, his first job out of college was as a special assistant to Baltimore Colts HC Ted Marchibroda (who ironically would replace him as HC of the Modell-owned Ravens after they moved to Baltimore from Cleveland). After two years (1976-77) with the Lions as the assistant special teams coach and then the receivers coach, Belichick spent a year (1978) with the Broncos as a special teams and defensive assistant before catching on with the Giants.
Belichick spent the next 12 years in New York, first as a special teams coach (1979-80). It was in New York that Belichick worked with Ray Perkins and Ron Erhardt, who as Patriots assistants in the 1970s created a concept-based offensive scheme that eventually came to be known as the Erhardt-Perkins system. The Chargers OC in 1978, Perkins was hired as the Giants HC in 1979, and he brought on Bill Parcells to be his DC, but Parcells quit before the season started to work with a land development company in Colorado. Missing football, Parcells caught on in 1980 with New England, which was overseen by Erhardt, who had been the Patriots OC (1977-78) before becoming the HC in 1979. Parcells returned to the Giants in 1981 as the DC — at which point Belichick was made the special teams/linebackers coach (1981-82) — and then in 1982, after a 2-14 season with the Pats, Erhardt joined the Giants as OC. In that strike-shortened 1982 season, Belichick witnessed firsthand the football magic of Erhardt and Perkins collaborating together on offense and Parcells running the defense.
Perkins left New York in 1983 to coach at Alabama (his alma mater) as the successor to Bear Bryant, and Parcells was promoted to HC with Erhardt staying on as the OC. While Parcells continued to run the defense, Belichick was relieved of his special teams duties so he could focus full-time on the defense as the linebackers coach (1983-84). After two years of this arrangement, Parcells relinquished control of the defense and promoted Belichick to DC, a position he held for six years (1985-90). As the linebackers coach Belichick mentored Hall-of-Famer Lawrence Taylor in his first years in the league, and as the DC he oversaw a unit that was top-five in yards and points allowed in four of six seasons. Thanks to Belichick’s defensive game plans, the Giants won Super Bowls following the 1986 and 1990 seasons.
After Parcells ‘retired,’ Belichick left New York for Cleveland, where he was the Browns HC for five disappointing seasons (1991-95), finishing above .500 only once (1994), when the team went 11-5 and won a playoff game. In the 1995 season, Browns owner Art Modell announced that the team would relocate to Baltimore the following season, and Belichick was told he would stay on as the Ravens HC. After the season, however, he was fired — and thus began his residual dislike of the Ravens.
With the Browns, Belichick made a few decisions that defined his time in Cleveland and indicated the type of coach he would be with the Patriots:
- Although he had coordinated a 3-4 defense under Parcells, in Cleveland he let DC Nick Saban — yes, that Saban — use primarily a 4-3. Belichick wasn’t afraid to experiment on defense. His experiments worked: In 1994, the Browns led the league with fewest points allowed.
- Although he had a defensive background, Belichick didn’t have an OC for the first three years. He had Gary Tranquill as the quarterbacks coach, Steve Crosby as the running backs coach, and Ernie Adams as an offensive assistant — but Belichick (as far as I can find) ran the offense and called the plays. This would be like Kyle Shanahan being hired as the 49ers HC because of his offensive prowess and then deciding to let someone run a different offense while he coordinated the defense. Naturally, with no quarterback that he trusted, Belichick ran a smash-mouth version of the Erhardt-Perkins offense that at its best highlighted his most versatile players, the Pro-Bowl duo of running back Eric Metcalf and fullback Leroy Hoard.
- Belichick inherited longtime quarterback Bernie Kosar when he took the job. After two seasons he’d seen enough. In 1993 he brought in Vinny Testaverde to back up/compete with Kosar. Although he opened the season as the starter Kosar was benched and then cut in the middle of the year. By 1995, with the team in the middle of a losing streak and the announcement having been made that the Browns would relocate, Belichick benched Testaverde and gave rookie Eric Zeier a try. When the Zeier experiment failed, Belichick went back to Testaverde. Although he had poor results, Belichick in Cleveland showed that he had no problem making tough quarterback decisions.
Just to drive the point home: The Patriots are where they are because years ago Belichick made a tough quarterback decision. With two startable passers on his roster, he has another decision in his future. Although Belichick lets his coordinators run their units, he still has a heavy (if hidden) hand in what the offense does. The Patriots aren’t a smash-mouth team, but they still run the Erhardt-Perkins system. And on defense the Pats run multiple fronts and schemes and continue to experiment. Belichick has always been Belichick.
After his unceremonious dismissal from the Browns/Ravens, Belichick joined the Patriots in 1996 as the secondary and assistant head coach, reuniting with Parcells (HC) and Perkins (OC) on the team’s run to the Super Bowl. Because Patriots owner Robert Kraft wouldn’t give Parcells unlimited control, he left the team in 1997 and wanted to coach elsewhere but was unable to because of his contract.
To work around this issue, the Jets hired Belichick as the ‘coach’ and then Parcells as an ‘advisor.’ It’s possible Belichick didn’t appreciate the Jets using him as the mule for Parcells, and the Pats saw through the subterfuge and threatened legal action against their divisional rivals. The Jets eventually agreed to send the Pats a number of draft picks for the rights to Parcells, who became HC as Belichick was ‘demoted’ to DC and assistant HC (1997-99).
After Parcells ‘retired’ (again), Belick was on January 3, 2000, named the HC of the Jets (again). On January 4, at what was supposed to be his introductory press conference, Belichick resigned:
Due to the various uncertainties surrounding my position as it relates to the team’s new ownership, um, I’ve decided to resign as the head coach of the New York Jets.
Given his experience with Modell and the way Woody Johnson (who bought the team in January 2000) has cycled through coaches — Al Groh (2000), Herman Edwards (2001-05), Eric Mangini (2006-08), Rex Ryan (2009-14), and Todd Bowles (2015-present) — Belichick perhaps made the right decision.
On January 20, 2000, Belichick was named the Pats HC, and he brought most of the ’99 Jets coaching staff with him to New England. In exchange for the rights to Belichick, the Pats gave the Jets a first-rounder in the 2000 draft — the same draft in which they selected Brady with the 199th pick. Thanks to a Drew Bledsoe injury (against the Jets) in 2001, Brady became the starting quarterback, and the Belichick-Brady era was born.
Regardless of whoever has been the offensive play caller throughout Belichick’s 17 years as HC . . .
- Charlie Weis: OC (2000-04)
- Josh McDaniels: Quarterbacks coach (2005), OC (2006-08)
- Bill O’Brien: Quarterbacks coach (2009-10), OC (2011)
- Josh McDaniels: OC (2012-present)
. . . the Patriots have been offensively effective. Since 2001, the Pats have been top-12 in scoring offense each year. They’ve also been top-12 in the number of offensive plays every year since 2004. Whether they’re running or throwing, the Pats play quickly and efficiently. Over the last decade, the Pats have been top-six in points per drive each year; only once in that time have they not been top-six in neutral pace (Football Outsiders).
Although the Pats are thought of as a pass-happy team — and only four years in the Belichick era have they not been top-12 in pass attempts — the Pats have also been top-12 in rushing attempts 11 times under Belichick. Because the Pats play so fast, the passing game and the running game both tend to get action. In 2017, the Pats are likely to continue playing at a top-five pace, and they will probably finish in the top half in the league in both passing and rushing attempts.
That said, in the team’s five Super Bowl-winning seasons, they’ve finished on average 8.2 (of 32 teams) in rushing attempts and only 16.4 in passing attempts. If you’re expecting the Pats to be a Super Bowl-caliber team this year — and who isn’t? — you should entertain the possibility that they might have one of the run-heaviest offenses in the league.
Same song, second verse, slight variations:
- QB: Tom Brady/Jimmy Garoppolo
- RB: LeGarrette Blount –> Mike Gillislee/Rex Burkhead
- RB: James White/Dion Lewis
- FB: James Develin –> Develin/Glenn Gronkowski
- WR: Julian Edelman/Danny Amendola –> Amendola
- WR: Chris Hogan
- WR: Malcolm Mitchell/Michael Floyd –> Brandin Cooks/Mitchell
- TE: Martellus Bennett/Rob Gronkowski –> Gronkowski/Dwayne Allen
- LT: Nate Solder
- LG: Joe Thuney
- C: David Andrews
- RG: Shaq Mason
- RT: Marcus Cannon
With Deflategate behind him, Brady is slated to play a full season of ho-hum Hall-of-Fame football. Entering his fourth (and contract) year, Garoppolo has emerged as one of the most coveted backup quarterbacks in the league. If Brady were to suffer an injury, the Pats would still be competitive. Gone is the productive (league-leading 18 touchdowns rushing) but inefficient Blount (3.9 yards per carry). In his place are the younger and more dynamic Gillislee and Burkhead. The Pats had Develin on the field for 31.3 percent of their offensive snaps last year. If he were to suffer an injury, Gronk the Least would probably fill in at fullback. The idea of two Gronkowskis on the field together is enough to make Belichick smile: #JerseySwitchGate.
The loss of Edelman to a preseason ACL tear is significant, but Amendola should be a serviceable replacement, given his playing style and knowledge of the offense. Taking the roster spot of the late-season addition Floyd is Cooks, who was acquired (along with a fourth-round pick) from the Saints for the Patriots’ 2017 first- and third-rounders. Cooks is an epic upgrade over Mitchell and Floyd, giving the team a deep threat it hasn’t had since Randy Moss. Joining Gronk at tight end is Allen, whom the Pats acquired (with a sixth-round pick) from the Colts for a fourth-rounder. An inline player with the ability to line up in the slot, out wide, and in the backfield, Allen is the type of guy the Pats like.
The Patriots were fortunate last year to have no serious injuries to offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia’s unit, which finished last season as Pro Football Focus’ 10th-best line. With the continued development of right tackle and guard Cannon and Mason and another year of total continuity, the Pats could have a top-five offensive line if they experience another season of good health.
On defense there’s been some notable turnover, but most of DC Matt Patricia’s unit is in place. By the way, Pats fans in Boston have been running hot for years — and for the last half-decade they’ve had a DC they can legitimately call “Patty.” For some people, life is good:
- DE: Trey Flowers/Jabaal Sheard –> Flowers/Derek Rivers –> Flowers/Keionta Davis
- DT: Malcolm Brown
- DT: Alan Branch
- DE: Chris Long/Rob Ninkovich –> Geneo Grissom/Deatrich Wise
- OLB: Jamie Collins/Ninkovich/Jonathan Freeny –> David Harris/Freeny
- MLB: Dont’a Hightower/Kyle Van Noy
- OLB: Shea McClellin/Elandon Roberts
- CB: Malcolm Butler
- CB: Eric Rowe/Justin Coleman –> Stephon Gilmore
- SCB: Logan Ryan –> Rowe/Coleman
- SS: Patrick Chung
- FS: Devin McCourty
A quick note: The Patriots are ostensibly a 4-3 defense, but they run multiple fronts and rotate players in and out and also around the formation. For instance, part of last season Butler played exclusively at left corner. In other games he rotated between left and right corner. And in other games he even played double-digit snaps in the slot. The point is that week to week and season and season it’s hard to know what Belichick’s defense is going to do.
Sheard and Long left via free agency and Ninkovich retired. Third- and fourth-round rookies Rivers and Wise were expected to add depth behind Flowers and Grissom, but Rivers tore his ACL in the preseason and Wise has missed some action with a concussion. The Patriots always seem to find a way — but they are thin at the edge position.
Trading away the contract-year Collins in the middle of last season, the Patriots have replaced him with the longtime Jets veteran Harris, who is currently listed as an outside linebacker but has played traditionally in the middle of the field and will likely rotate some with Hightower. The slot corner Ryan has left via free agency. Rowe and Coleman — and maybe even Butler — will replace Ryan in the slot as the Pro-Bowler Gilmore is expected to play on the outside after joining via free agency.
With the addition of Gilmore the Patriots now have PFF’s second-best secondary, but it’s fair to wonder if their front seven will be able to apply sufficient pressure. Still, the defense was first in the league last year in points allowed and has been top-10 in scoring each year Patty’s overseen the unit. The Patriots defense might bend this season, but it probably won’t break.
Ladies and gentleman, the 19-0 New England Patriots:
Tom Brady, QB
Brady is one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time — and apparently he’s at his best when angry. In the two seasons since Deflategate, Brady has led all regularly starting quarterbacks with 8.71 adjusted yards per attempt (AY/A), a 0.85 percent interception rate, a 6.1 percent touchdown rate, and 23 #QBWinz. In his 28 enraged regular-season games, he’s averaged 297.3 passing yards per game (YPG) as well as 2.29 touchdowns and just 0.32 interceptions for 23.22 DraftKings points per game (PPG) — and that was without Gronk for seven games. In his six post-Deflategate postseason games, he’s been even better, passing for 346.2 YPG on his way to a 5-1 record and two Super Bowl victories.
That said, Brady might not offer a lot of value as a fantasy investment. He currently has an average draft position (ADP) of 32.9 in DRAFT best ball leagues, but the Patriots last year were just 23rd in pass attempts. That might be an anomaly — they were top-eight in each of the previous five seasons — but it’s possible the Patriots are shifting to more of a run-heavy system, given that their defense and offensive line are improving and the Pats might not need to throw as much to win. Plus, Brady will theoretically be less likely to suffer an injury as he ages if he’s throwing less. The investments in Gillislee and Burkhead indicate a run-heavy offense is possible. Although Brady has been efficient throughout his career, it’s hard to roster an early-round quarterback if he’s not going to be near the top of the league in opportunities.
Additionally, it’s possible that Brady will be less than his best without Edelman, who has been the team’s top wide receiver since 2013. In the last four years, Brady has played in 51 games with Edelman and nine without him. His per-game splits are stark:
- With Edelman: 38.4 attempts, 24.7 completions, 289.8 yards, 2.14 touchdowns, 0.47 interceptions
- Without Edelman: 33.9 attempts, 20.2 completions, 221.0 yards, 1.44 touchdowns, 0.56 interceptions
Fewer attempts, completions, yards, and touchdowns and more interceptions: It’s not ideal for Brady to be without Edelman for an entire season. And there’s always the risk of a Gronk injury, which . . .
- With Gronk (86 games): 36.8 attempts, 24.1 completions, 290.7 yards, 2.22 touchdowns, 0.45 interceptions
- Without Gronk (22): 38.2 attempts, 22.6 completions, 260.5 yards, 1.86 touchdowns, 0.64 interceptions
. . . clearly wouldn’t be good for Brady.
This is not to say, though, that Brady won’t have his big games. The Patriots are rarely underdogs, but over the last three years when Vegas has gone against them Brady has done well, averaging 25.41 DraftKings PPG with a +7.61 Plus/Minus and 66.7 percent Consistency Rating (per our Trends tool). Impressively, he’s been owned at only a 4.1 percent rate as a dog compared to 9.2 percent as a favorite. This year FantasyLabs users can review ownership trends across GPPs of various buy-in levels with our DFS Ownership Dashboard, which is reason enough to subscribe to FantasyLabs. Be sure to monitor our Vegas Dashboard to see how the market views the Patriots each week. It’s possible that Brady’s dog-induced ownership discount could extend into 2017. If you want to stack Brady with Cooks or Gronk, do it with our Lineup Builder.
At +550, Brady currently has the second-highest odds to lead the league in yards passing, which he hasn’t done since 2007. He seems far likelier to lead the league in touchdowns (+400). The odds-on favorite to win the Most Valuable Player award at +400, Brady will struggle to beat out Aaron Rodgers (+500) and others if they lead their teams to double-digit victories and throw the ball a lot more than he does — unless the Pats win at least 15 games, which is possible.
Jimmy Garoppolo, QB
A second-round pick in the 2014 draft, Garoppolo was a four-year starter at Eastern Illinois in the Football Championship Subdivision. Passing for 5,050 yards and 53 touchdowns as a senior, Garoppolo has exhibited great promise in the NFL. While preseason performance isn’t the be-all and end-all, it’s encouraging that Jimmy G. has been a perennial preseason superstar, completing 67.8 percent of his 276 passes for 2,041 yards and 11 touchdowns (to four interceptions) in his 13 preseason games. Additionally, before suffering an injury in his second start as Brady’s suspension fill-in last year, Garoppolo completed 71.2 percent of his 59 passes for four touchdowns (to zero interceptions) and 18.7 DraftKings PPG.
There’s a legitimate non-zero chance that within the next few years Garoppolo, not Brady, will be the starting quarterback of the Patriots.
Mike Gillislee, RB
Signed away from the Bills as a restricted free agent and given a two-year, $6.4 million contract, Gillislee is the frontrunner to play the Blount role. In his 20 games over the last two seasons as LeSean McCoy’s backup, Gillislee has shined as a part-time player, turning 148 carries and 18 targets into 923 scrimmage yards, 15 receptions, and 12 touchdowns. Last year he was one of the most efficient per-touch backs in the league, finishing 25th with 1.2 yards after contact per touch, ninth with 0.44 fantasy points per opportunity, and first with a 9.9 percent breakaway run rate (PlayerProfiler). He’s not a prolific receiver, but with his size (listed at 5’11” and 219 lbs.) and efficiency (5.7 yards per carry with the Bills), Gillislee has top-10 positional upside as the team’s potential two-down and goal-line grinder.
James White, RB
In my Pro Bowl-Super Bowl slate breakdown last season, I noted that White was inordinately cheap on DraftKings at just $2,900 and that even with the return of Lewis in Week 11 he was still averaging about one third of the offensive snaps and 4.9 targets per game (TPG) over the last nine weeks — and then in the Super Bowl he played 71 snaps on his way to a 50.9-point DraftKings performance fueled by 14 receptions, six carries, 139 yards scrimmage yards, three touchdowns, and a two-point conversion. All in, White played 15 games with Brady last year (including playoffs), and Lewis was active for 10 of them. His per-game splits with and without Lewis aren’t horrifying:
- Without Lewis: 5.8 targets, 4.0 receptions, 37.6 yards, 3.2 carries, 13.0 yards, 0.6 scrimmage touchdowns, 12.66 DraftKings PPG, 48.7 percent of snaps
- With Lewis: 6.0 targets, 4.5 receptions, 39.8 yards, 1.8 carries, 8.3 yards, 0.6 scrimmage touchdowns, 13.41 PPG, 37.6 percent of snaps
White will likely play fewer snaps this season with Lewis (and also Burkhead) around, but it’s not certain that he’ll see fewer targets. In fact, it’s possible that White — who has more career receptions (105) than carries (70) — will take some targets that otherwise would’ve gone to Edelman in the short passing game. White has a good chance of outperforming his 122.3 DRAFT ADP.
Dion Lewis, RB
A scatback with small size (5’7″ and 193 lbs.), slow speed (4.57-second 40), and good agility (6.90-second three-cone), Lewis opened the 2015 season as the team’s lead back before an ACL tear in Week 9 ended his season. Lewis was slow to recover from his injury and he missed the first 10 weeks of the 2016 campaign before returning as a change-of-pace back. His 2015/16 per-game splits are worrisome:
- 2015 (7 games): 7.5 carries, 36.7 yards, 7.5 targets, 5.3 receptions, 58.2 yards, 0.67 scrimmage touchdowns, 18.65 DraftKings PPG, 64.3 percent of snaps
- 2016 (10 games): 8.9 carries, 36.2 yards, 3.6 targets, 2.2 receptions, 12.7 yards, 0.2 scrimmage touchdown, 8.79 PPG, 29.8 percent of snaps
Although Lewis had similar carries year over year, White stole targets last year and Burkhead could steal carries this year. Lewis seems unlikely to get double-digit opportunities on a per-game basis.
Rex Burkhead, RB
Belichick likes versatile players, and Burkhead — signed in March to a one-year, $3,15 million contract — is the most complete back on the team. Like Gillislee, he has good size (5’10” and 214 lbs.). Like White, he has good receiving skills (75.6 percent career catch rate). Like Lewis, he has good agility (6.85-second three-cone). Burkhead even returned a few kicks for the Bengals last year. He can do it all. After Giovani Bernard tore his ACL in Week 11, Burkhead served as the change-of-pace back to Jeremy Hill, averaging 8.2 carries and 3.2 targets per game for 56.4 yards in Weeks 12-16. And then when Hill went down with an injury near the end of the season, Burkhead turned into a Week 17 superstar with his 144-yard, two-touchdown outing against the tough Ravens defense.
In his two final seasons at Nebraska, Burkhead averaged 109.6 yards and 1.14 touchdowns per game. Even though he was selected with only a sixth-round pick four years ago, Burkhead has workhorse pedigree. With his impressive preseason, he has a real chance to become the leading producer in this backfield.
Julian Edelman, WR
Edelman will miss the entire 2017 season with a torn ACL. Already 31 and with no guaranteed money on his contract, Edelman has possibly played his last down as a Patriot.
Brandin Cooks, WR
A first-round pick from the famed 2014 wide receiver class, Cooks averaged 122.3 yards and 0.89 touchdowns per game across his two final seasons at Oregon State before entering the NFL as a 20-year-old Biletnikoff winner. A versatile player who can line up out wide or in the slot or backfield, Cooks had a respectable rookie campaign (53-550-3 receiving, 7-73-1 rushing) before turning it on in his second and third seasons:
- 2015 (16 games): 129 targets, 84-1,138-9 receiving, 8-18-0 rushing, 16.60 DraftKings PPG
- 2016 (16): 117 targets, 78-1,173-8 receiving, 6-30-0 rushing, 15.96 PPG
Traded to the Patriots from the Saints for the 32nd pick this year, Cooks — while still seeing action outside the numbers and down the field — is likely to get some of the slot snaps and targets that otherwise would’ve gone to Edelman. With blazing speed (4.33-second 40), Cooks has historically played best at the fast track in the Superdome (the Coors Field of fantasy football) . . .
- Superdome (21 games): 78.3 receiving yards per game (YPG), 0.67 touchdowns per game (TDPG), 18.07 DraftKings PPG, +4.78 Plus/Minus, 66.7 percent Consistency Rating
- All other stadia (21): 58.0 receiving YPG, 0.33 TDPG, 13.37 PPG, -0.16 Plus/Minus, 28.6 percent Consistency Rating
Yes, I just used the word “stadia.” It’s possible that Cooks could struggle playing outdoors at Gillette Stadium, but he’s also likely to put up some big performances.
Chris Hogan, WR
A collegiate lacrosse player at Penn State, Hogan had just one year of football at Monmouth (NJ) before entering the NFL as an undrafted free agent in 2011. With his size (6’1″ and 221 lbs.), speed (4.50-second 40 time), agility (6.75-second three-cone), burst (126-inch broad), and strength (28 bench press rep), Hogan is a phenomenal athlete who needed time to learn the position in the NFL. After bouncing around practice squads in 2011 and earning the nickname “7-Eleven” (because he’s “always open”) on the 2012 season of Hard Knocks with the Dolphins, Hogan caught on with the Bills and eventually saw regular action in three-wide sets in 2014-15. Signing a three-year, $12 million deal with the Patriots last year as a restricted free agent, Hogan was a regular contributor, playing on 74.2 percent of the snaps and running routes from out wide (386) and the slot (250). Leading the league with 11.7 yards per target and finishing third with 2.24 fantasy points per target, Hogan has the potential for a big game at any time: His 9-180-2 performance in the AFC Championship was the stuff of legends. He will almost certainly finish with more than his 58 targets from last season.
Danny Amendola, WR
Before the Edelman injury, Amendola was just a handcuff uncertain even to make the Patriots roster. Now, he’s likely to be a regular member in three-wide sets. Amendola’s been a snake-bitten specimen for the entirety of his career, but when he’s been healthy he’s exhibited a serviceable connection with Brady from the slot. Blessed with sure hands, Amendola has a league-best 2.2 percent drop rate over the last two years (PFF), and during his four years with the Pats he’s caught 70.1 percent of his targets. Having his best game last year when the Patriots needed him most, Amendola ran a season-high 45 routes in the Super Bowl and turned his 11 targets into an 8-78-1 line plus the game-tying two-point conversion with less than a minute remaining. With Edelman on the field, Amendola has averaged 4.2 TPG since 2013. Without Edelman, 8.1. If the Patriots pass more than they did last year, Amendola could approach 100 targets.
Malcolm Mitchell, WR
Drafted last year with a fourth-round pick out of Georgia, Mitchell entered the NFL with good athleticism (4.45-second 40) and little college production (58-865-5 as a senior). In other words, he’s probably the next generation version of Aaron Dobson (2013), Josh Boyce (2013), Taylor Price (2010), Brandon Tate (2009), Chad Jackson (2006), and Bethel Johnson (2003). He was efficient with his targets — 14th in the NFL with 2.00 fantasy points per game — but he doesn’t fit the offense the way Cooks, Hogan, and Amendola do. Even with the injury to Edelman, it’s hard to envision Mitchell seeing significantly more than the 48 targets he got last year.
Rob Gronkowski, TE
Gronk is the Shaquille O’Neal of tight ends. He might not be the best of all time, but he’s probably the most dominant. Even though Gronk has missed 24 games in his seven-year career, he still leads the league over that time with 68 touchdowns receiving and 69 total touchdowns. Think about that: Out of all the running backs and wide receivers to touch the ball literally hundreds of times over many seasons, not one of them has scored more touchdowns since 2010 — and Gronk has missed 21.4 percent of his games to injury and been hobbled in many games played. Last year Gronk led the position with 14.2 yards per target, and he was second with 2.55 fantasy points per target. He’s returning from an injury but seems ready to start the season, and perhaps Allen will take much of the inline blocking work so Gronk accumulates fewer bruises throughout the year. He’s the ultimate upside pick at his 17.8 DRAFT ADP.
Dwayne Allen, TE
Over the last four years, Allen with the Colts average 0.39 touchdowns per game despite not being the primary pass-catching tight end. Even without an injury to Gronk, Allen could push for 500 yards and five touchdowns given the team’s heavy use of 12 personnel packages. That said, Allen also has 200-yard, two-touchdown downside as a glorified skinny lineman.
The Patriots currently have a 12.5 win total with a -125 over and -105 under. They’re also -2,500 to make the playoffs and +1,000 not to. Since the beginning of the Gronk era (2010), the Pats on average are 12.7-3.3 per season. Since the beginning of the ‘Brady isn’t just a game manager and this team is for real’ era (2003, minus 2008), the Pats are 12.7-3.3. Writing for Rotoworld, Warren Sharp gives the Pats the fifth-easiest schedule of the season. It’s not ‘smart’ to take the over — but the Pats are far likelier to get 15 wins than 10. As unfathomable as this is to say, the total of 12.5 is skewed toward the low end of their range of outcomes. I wouldn’t bet the over, but I expect them to go over. As for the playoffs: The last time the Pats didn’t make the playoffs was 2008, when Brady missed almost the entire season. As long as Brady starts half the year, the Pats are a near lock for postseason play.
The Patriots are +325 to win the Super Bowl, +175 to win the AFC, and -1,000 to win the AFC East. The Jets and Bills are in rebuild mode, and the Dolphins have a starting quarterback who wasn’t with the team a month ago. The last time the Pats didn’t win their division with a healthy Brady was a decade and a half ago. In Brady’s 15 full seasons as the starter, the Pats have won the AFC seven times and been to the AFC Championship four additional times. I wouldn’t blame anyone for taking action on the conference and division props.
As for the Super Bowl prop: You could spread some action around by using a bet on the Pats to subsidize other upside wagers. Let’s say you put a unit on the Pats and three units on the Packers (+800), Seahawks (+1,200), and Falcons (+1,200), one per team. If the Pats win, you’ll profit only 0.25 units — but you’ll still profit. If, though, one of the other three teams wins then you’ll profit either five units (Packers) or nine units (Seahawks or Falcons). Of course, if one of the other 28 NFL teams wins, you’ll lose four units. The question is how much you’re willing to bet that one of these four teams wins the Super Bowl.
Belichick currently has the highest odds at +700 to win Coach of the Year. That he’s won the award only three times is ridiculous. In the Brady era (including playoffs, excluding 2008), Belichick is 167-116-7 against the spread (57.7 win percentage). As an underdog, he’s even better ATS: 43-21-0 (67.2 win percentage). That said, the Pats have been underdogs only once in the last two seasons. Belichick ATS is so money that his nickname in Israel is “Belishekel.” I don’t know if that’s true, but it should be.
In researching for this piece I consulted Evan Silva’s excellent Patriots Fantasy Preview at Rotoworld and relied on data from Pro Football Reference, Pro Football Focus, Football Outsiders, Football Perspective, PlayerProfiler, Team Rankings, The Power Rank, NFL.com, and the apps at RotoViz as well as the FantasyLabs Tools and Models.
Ian Hartitz contributed research to this article.