With the NFL Draft and free agency having come and gone, we’ll break down all sorts of fantasy-relevant questions entering the 2018 season. Up next is a look at which Patriots could benefit in fantasy during the expected four-game suspension of Tom Brady’s go-to slot receiver.

ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported that Julian Edelman is facing a four-game suspension for violating the NFL’s performance enhancing substances policy. Edelman is currently appealing the suspension.

Edelman’s Absence Has Been Good for Some, Bad for Others

Edelman has been with the Patriots since 2009, but he wasn’t a regular starter until 2013. Since then, his absences — including all of the 2017 season with a torn ACL — have resulted in reduced fantasy productivity for not only Tom Brady, but Rob Gronkowski as well, while the likes of Chris Hogan and James White have thrived.

Additionally, former Patriots receiver Danny Amendola averaged an additional 2.4 PPR points per game with Edelman sidelined as a natural replacement for Edelman in the slot.

The bottom line, though, is that Brady has struggled without his most reliable underneath option, and the absence of a receiver worthy of drawing middle-of-the-field attention away from Gronk hasn’t helped the league’s best tight end’s productivity, either.

Meanwhile, New England’s complimentary options have consistently thrived when gifted portions of Edelman’s 9.7 targets per game since 2013, with Hogan, Amendola, and White receiving an additional 2.7, 2.3, and 0.9 targets per game, respectively, with Edelman sidelined during their Patriots careers.

The Patriots are expected to again utilize White as the their passing-down back in 2018, with Rex Burkhead in line for slot and red-zone snaps. Dion Lewis, who averaged 2.8 receptions per game in 2015-2017 with the Patriots, was essentially directly replaced with first-round pick Sony Michel, but it’s unclear how much of a receiving role Michel will inherit after catching just nine passes in 14 games in his senior year with Georgia.

Hogan averaged 6.8 targets per game and ranked as the PPR WR10 in Weeks 1-8 last season before spraining his A/C joint. He played limited snaps in just three games until the Super Bowl, where he converted eight targets into a 6-128-1 line. Even once Edelman returns, Hogan is positioned to work as a high-upside WR2 in the Patriots’ ever-explosive offense thanks to the team’s decision to trade Brandin Cooks to the Rams.

Darkhorse Candidates for Increased Workloads

The team overhauled the wide receiver room this offseason, and while it wouldn’t be surprising if the aforementioned usual suspects continue to see the majority of the extra targets, there are some other names on the roster who could end up with an increased role in the offense:

  • Malcolm Mitchell theoretically could open the season across from Hogan in two-wide sets. Mitchell has consistently dealt with knee injuries throughout his career, and they robbed him of his entire 2017 season. He’s since missed multiple minicamp practices. Still, Brady averaged a gaudy 9.26 adjusted yards per attempt when targeting Mitchell in 2016.
  • Phillip Dorsett‘s 4.33-second 40-yard dash makes him a homeless man’s version of Cooks, and he’s a serious threat to Mitchell for outside-receiver duties. Still, Dorsett ran barely more than one-third of his snaps from the slot last season, and he saw more than three targets in just one of his 17 games with the team.
  • Jordan Matthews turned in over 800 yards in each of his first three seasons in the slot for Philadelphia before losing his job to Nelson Agholor and getting traded before the start of the 2017 season to Buffalo, where he battled injuries and failed to be much of a factor. However, Matthews offers size (6-foot-3, 212 pounds) along with slot experience that’s missing from New England’s depth chart without Edelman or Amendola.
  • Kenny Britt only caught two passes in three games with the Patriots last season, but did enough to earn a two-year contract. While Britt gained over 1,000 yards and scored five touchdowns as recently as 2016, his status as a big-bodied possession receiver makes him more likely to find himself on the outside battling Mitchell and Dorsett for snaps.
  • Riley McCarron and Braxton Berrios are both examples of players everyone watches in college and says, “future slot receiver for the Patriots.” McCarron and Berrios both stand 5-foot-9, weigh fewer than 190 pounds, posted freakishly-quick three-cone times that demonstrate their short-area quickness, and, um, let’s just say each of them looks like they could be one of Edelman’s or Amendola’s cousins. However, McCarron and Berrios are each yet to play an NFL snap, and neither is guaranteed to survive final roster cuts.
  • Former Vikings and Raiders cast-off Cordarrelle Patterson is also on the roster, but he’s actually running back, in case you weren’t aware.

Ultimately, there are plenty of questions regarding the Patriots wide receiver depth chart beyond Hogan that we might not have answers for until we’re a lot closer to the regular season.

Given what we’ve seen in the past, proven weapons with solidified roles like Hogan and White should be ruthlessly targeted at their respective PPR ADPs (WR34 and RB51 as of this writing).

The holes left by the early-season absence of Edelman and departure of Cooks could wind up being filled by a committee of sorts, so targeting the likes of Mitchell, Dorsett, Matthews, etc., in Weeks 1-4 could be a low-ownership way to gain exposure to the Patriots passing game in daily fantasy or a way to round out fantasy rosters in deep leagues.

You can use our tools to research more player- or team-specific questions for yourself, and be sure to check out The Action Network for more in-depth NFL analysis.

Pictured above: Chris Hogan (left) and Julian Edelman (right)
Photo credit: Mark J. Rebilas – USA TODAY Sports