The Patriots offense has been a juggernaut for the past six years. Since 2010, The Patriots have been in the Top 3 in points scored each year, and was first in points three of those years. Since 2004, they’ve been at least in the Top 10. That’s thirteen years of being a Top 10 offense. As a Jets fan, that hurts my soul, but gotta give credit to where credit is due. Tom Brady and Bill Belichick have one five Super Bowls together, and is the favorite to win again in 2017. However, predicting their team accomplishments have been a bit easier than predicting who will be the fantasy relevant players that score all of those points for them. Between Rob Gronkowski, Julian Edelman, newcomer Brandin Cooks, and the plethora of running backs, let’s try to determine which players we should be targeting in our fantasy football drafts.
Gronk has been a staple of this offense for the past six or seven years, but he’s been hurt for a handful of them, and effectively hurt our fantasy teams. He’s been such a high draft pick that if he leaves your lineup, there’s a big hole that could’ve been filled if you drafted someone more reliable. If you wanted Gronk last year, you had to give up your first round pick for him, and that didn’t work out so well. However, this year’s a bit different because of his discount. The most common place Gronk is going is at the 2/3 turn, meaning right at the end of the second or the beginning of the third round. I am personally willing to take Gronk at the beginning of the third, assuming I have two players on my roster already who are quite dependable. Taking Gronk in the third is a risk, but is a risk worth taking for the upside and positional advantage he gives you on a weekly basis.
Remember, Brady came back from suspension in Week 5. The five games between Week 5 and Week 10 (bye week in the middle) were the games that Gronk was himself. In those games, Gronk had a 20% target share. In 2015 when he was healthy for most of the year, he had a 21% target share. We should expect around the same thing this year. While 20% isn’t an elite target share, Gronk’s yards per reception is other-worldly at 22 in those games I mentioned last year, and 16 YPR throughout the 2015 season. The reason why Gronk is worth his draft price is because you’re getting close to WR1 production with upside at the tight end position, a position that normally doesn’t even come close to that kind of production, especially in standard leagues. Positional advantages, meaning how much of an advantage you have compared to your opponent per position, is the main factor in your weekly success. In 2014 and 2015, he finished as a Top 5 TE around 50% of the time. Combining Gronk with your first two draft picks should create enough of a positional advantage for you to be successful. Just keep in mind that his injury risk is real.
Edelman’s role in this offense wasn’t created by him. Wes Welker created it, and it needed to continue after Welker left because how much success Brady had with him. Since 2013, aside from his injury-plagued 2015 season, Edelman had 130+ targets and 90+ receptions each year. Last year, even with his slow start, Edelman’s 98 receptions was fourth in the league. In the last 10 games of the regular season, Edelman averaged 12 targets, 7 catches, and 84 yards per game. He continued that trend into the playoffs, except he averaged 114 yards per game. His target share last year was a whopping 29%, and was 24% in 2015. Edelman is Brady’s go-to target, and I don’t see that changing with the addition of Brandin Cooks. I do see Edelman’s yard per reception going up, because he’ll have more room underneath while Cooks is stretching the field, and as a result stretching the safeties further back. You can get Edelman in the back of the 5th round in PPR leagues, and he’s a steal at that point. If he’s your WR2 or WR3 in a PPR league, he will make you very happy on a weekly basis.
I’ve come around on Brandin Cooks throughout the offseason. At first, with how Brady liked to distribute the ball between Gronk, Edelman, and his running backs, I didn’t think there would be much of a target share left for Cooks. I also knew that Belichick isn’t only trading a first round pick for Cooks because of his effect on the offense with the ball in his hands, but simply his presence on the field; safeties have to respect his speed, and when he does go over the top, Brady has options. The middle of the field seems a bit more open, and the running game will have more room to operate. However, camp reports around Brady’s rapport with Cooks are glowing, and we’ve seen evidence of that chemistry in camp videos and the preseason. Cooks is a wide receiver who not only has game-changing speed, but it seems like he’s the best in the league at running the routes Patriots’ WRs like to run:
Patriots receivers run a lot of these routes, and nobody was better at them in 2016 than the guy they just acquired, Brandin Cooks. pic.twitter.com/sNIjrym8DA
— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) March 22, 2017
Not only that, but he also seems to match what Brady likes to throw:
A look at how new Patriots WR Brandin Cooks might complement Tom Brady: pic.twitter.com/eSbN6mtGDK
— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) May 30, 2017
We all know Cooks has most of his success on deep targets and the Patriots have lacked that true deep weapon at WR since Randy Moss. If he beats the corner, we know that Brady can hit him deep. His ceiling is high, and should be treated that way in drafts. He’s going at the back of the 2nd round, and I would pair him with some solid floor and consistent players to offset weeks where he doesn’t give you that long touchdown. I don’t think he will be as consistent as Gronk or Edelman, but he provides an elite ceiling on this high-powered offense.
The Running Backs
Between Mike Gillislee, Rex Burkhead, James White, and Dion Lewis, it’s really hard to pick out one guy who can give you fantasy value on a weekly basis. The two names I would focus on are Gillislee and Burkhead. Bill Belichick came out and said he wants to “be a little less predictable from that [RB] spot.” He spoke about being too predictable when Blount and James White were in the game; defenses knew when they were going to run and the ball, and when they were going to pass it. Gillislee and Burkhead both give the flexibility of unpredictability. They can rush in between the tackles, and they can catch the ball out of the backfield. They were the #1 and #2 most efficient RBs last year DVOA respectively, according to FootballOutsiders. In Week 2 of preseason, Burkhead was in on 13 of 16 first team snaps, and touched the ball on 10 of them, so we can see that he can be a productive member of the offense if given the opportunity. The route on his reception touchdown was reminiscent of the type of play Dion Lewis would pull off two years ago, and the type James White couldn’t quite pull off as eloquently last year. I could see both of these guys sharing a lot of work, without one of them necessarily having a “Blount role.” Even if there was a Blount role, Blount finished outside a RB2 57% of the time in PPR leagues last year, which is a lot less dependable than we think. He was obviously more valuable in non-PPR leagues.
A 5th or 6th round price tag on Gillislee seems a bit risky to me, especially with all of the dependable wide receivers available at that point in the draft. We’re not sure of his role, and even with his talent, we might not see him take even 50% of the running back snaps. He has a high chance of scoring touchdowns, but his price tag combined with how many backs should see the field for this team, I will most likely stay away. If he drops to the 7th or 8th round, I will definitely be more willing to take the risk and hope that he’s the guy who emerges with a significant role in the offense. Burkhead, on the other hand, is going in the 11th round, and he’s a guy I will be targeting. He’s a great pass-catcher and can provide that unpredictability that Belichick desires in his backfield. Brady loves to target his running backs, so why not get a piece of this offense late in drafts with the chance of him breaking out as a go-to? As far as James White and Dion Lewis, I don’t see either of them getting more playing time than the other two guys, except in obvious passing situations where predictability isn’t as much of a factor.