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Fantasy Forecast: New England Patriots

Which New England Patriots should you be drafting this year? What can you expect from them? @ekballer is here to walk you through some projections and some names to watch

For the New England Patriots, the 2019 season ended with a 13-20 loss to the Titans, knocked out of the playoffs in the Wild Card round just a year after winning the Super Bowl. Despite their 12-4 record, this team never felt like it was that great; a league-best defense buoyed what was an-often-atrocious offense devoid of playmakers.

As a fan, it was nearly unwatchable; as a fantasy player, you didn’t want much on the Pats in terms of assets.

We were excited about Sony Michel and for N’Keal Harry, but both let us down. Tom Brady clearly missed Gronk, making do with an aging Julian Edelman, James, White, and not much else. The run game went nowhere.

2019 Injuries

Some of the poor offensive play was just that, but it’s unfair not to consider that 2019 was a rough year for injuries, particularly in the run game.

Here’s a quick hit list of players missing major time:

  • Isiah Wynn, 2018 1st round OL, 7 games on IR
  • James Develin, Pro Bowl FB, out for season after week 2
  • David Andrews, starting C, on IR for full season
  • N’Keal Harry, rookie 1st round WR, missed 9 games
  • Yodny Cajuste, OL, 3rd round selection, 2019, missed season on IR
  • Hjalte Foholdt, OL 4th round selection, 2019, missed season on IR
  • Jakob Johnson, backup FB, missed 10 games
  • Matt Lacosse, starting TE, missed 3 games
  • Ryan Izzo, TE2, missed 2 games

That’s a lot of players missing upfront; the Pats had also lost Pro Bowl LT Trent Brown to free agency (after losing Nate Solder the year prior). IT’s tough to get a power run game going with half your line missing, no FB, and no TE.

Coaching Changes

2019 saw the Patriots continue bleeding away coaching talent, although this is nothing new for the club. This year, it was longtime assistant Joe Judge, lost to the Giants; last year it was Brian Flores and Chad O’Shea, who headed in-division to the Dolphins; the year before it was Matt Patricia to the Lions.

Business as usual, for sure, although this must take a toll on some level. Ultimately, this is Belichick’s team and Josh McDaniel’s offense, as it has been for many seasons.

Looking Ahead to 2020

Quarterback

How different this section would have been just a week ago!

Sorry, Jarrett; I’m sure you would have been fine. But, with the signing of Cam Newton, Patriots fans actually have something to look forward to on offense for 2020.

Gone, obviously is Tom Brady, the 2019 QB12 (yes, TB12 was Q12, fittingly) and his surgical dealing of the football, his crafty climb up in a collapsing pocket.

The Patriots 2020 QB1 will be one-time All-Pro dual-threat Newton. Newton’s health is still a little uncertain, of course; he’s coming off of a season lost to a Lisfranc and a season-ending shoulder injury the year before. But, if he’s healthy, he’ll bring a dimension to the offense that the Patriots didn’t have with Jarrett Stidham or Tom Brady.

Here’s Cam’s recent fantasy finishes:

  • 2018, QB12 (14 games)
  • 2017, QB2
  • 2016, QB17
  • 2015, QB1

When he’s healthy, he’s an awesome fantasy asset. His floor as a rusher is about 500 yards and 4 TDs; it’s a huge advantage. And when we last saw him throwing the ball in 2018, he was having his best season as a passer, completing nearly 68% of his passes for 7.2 Y/A and a 24/13 TD: INT ratio. Not bad at all.

What is our hope for Cam in 2020? Well, first, just hope he sees the field. We should have more information about that soon as he will undertake his medicals in the next week or so. If you are drafting Cam in a startup, I’d think it wise to grab Stidham late as well to hedge your bet. He should be free at this point.

As for actual projections, let’s take a quick look at the recent Patriots offenses and Cam’s career tendencies to work out how he’ll fit.

Last year the Patriots ran 1095 plays, with 447 of those being runs. You would think that number would be higher, as their plan was, I’m sure, to play defense and run the ball, but that’s not practical when you’re averaging 3.8 yards/rush.

That total plays number seems pretty good; NE is always near the top of the league in total plays, averaging 68.1 over the past three years. We’ll give them that average, or 1,090 total plays.

NE’s 2019 pass play %, 59.36%, is a hair over their 3-year average of 58.01%. I expect that to drop a bit with Cam. Carolina’s 3-year average from ’16-‘189 was 56.25%, though their defense was never as strong as this current NE unit is; I believe that NE would have preferred to be in that range in 2019 if they could. That gives us 477 rushes and 613 dropbacks.

Newton’s career sack % is pretty high at 6.8%; Brady’s is 4.8%. As the o-line and scheme matter to sack rate, we’ll give Cam his best recorded (2018) rate, 5.8%. That will leave him with 36 sacks and 577 pass attempts.

For completion %, we’re going to use 66%, which is nearer Cam’s career-best 68% than his average of 59.6%. He hit that number in 2018 with Norv Turner, where the offense relied heavily on short passes to CMC, DJ Moore, and Curtis Samuel. Do you know which other coordinator likes to rely on quick passes to running backs and slot receivers? Josh McDaniels. So I don’t think I’m being overly charitable.

Applying Cam’s career average Y/A and TD%, this will leave Cam with a passing line somewhere around 381/2,781/17.

I don’t think that Josh McDaniels will want to use Cam like a battering ram, giving him the 130+ attempts he often saw earlier in his career, but the Pats want him carrying the ball. The threat of Cam as a runner will open things up in the passing game and for the RBs; the offense already featured QB sneaks, and now it will incorporate some designed runs or read-options, and Cam will certainly gain some yardage scrambling as plays break down.

Even sharing a backfield with all-world RB CMC in 2018, Newton still saw 101 carries (the 2nd-lowest count of his career) yielding a rush share of 24.2%. This seems like a fair estimate of what McDaniels might ask of age-31 Cam Newton; we’ll drop the % just a bit to be conservative.

His average YPC has dipped in recent years, so we’ll use his 4.73 3-year average instead of his career of 5.1. We’ll use his 6.2% career TD rate.

With these parameters, we’re looking at a rushing stat line in the region of 105/496/6. Not too shabby.

Altogether, we’d have just about 293 points for Cam in a 4 point passing TD league, leaving him just above Josh Allen as the 2019 QB6.

Running Back

Sony Michel

Credit: Matt Stone/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald

We had high hopes for Sony Michel after his dominance in the 2018 playoffs. An injury-riddled line and poor play by Sony left fantasy owners and fans alike disappointed with his 2019 output. Can he bounce back?

Maybe, at least to some degree. At this point, he might not ever be the stud that the Patriots drafted him to be, but this organization is certainly a place where “running-backs-don’t-matter. “

Here’s the reasons I’m at least a tad optimistic:

  • return of three lineman from IR including veteran C Andrews
  • full offseason healthy from Isaiah Wynn
  • full offseason with Jakob Johnson at FB
  • Cam Newton

As a quick look at what quantifiable effect we might expect from playing alongside a rushing QB, I looked at Mark Ingram’s YPC before and after Lamar Jackson took over as the Ravens’ starting QB in 2018. It’s a small sample size, but he improved by a full .25 YPC with Jackson at QB.

Last year he had a rushing share of 55%. Will Damien Harris step up and take some carries? Will Cam Newton eat into the total rushes?

Well, both are fairly likely. Cam is definitely getting his. In a backfield that’s always a platoon, it’s going to hurt the available carries for all the backs.

The Harris question is a bit more convoluted. Surely, the Patriots have a role in mind for him, but it’s also tough to see where he fits in without someone being cut. The assumption has generally been that he was slated to take over for the oft-injured Rex Burkhead, but, as of today, Burkhead’s still on the roster. For that matter, he was the most efficient of the NE backs last year; he’s also a standout special teams player.

We do have a precedent for NE going into the season with five backs, in 2017, although Bolden played only special teams. Four of the backs were actually relevant that year as well, mostly due to injuries; that is the only way I can see a third back being useful in fantasy in 2020.

I don’t see Harris beating out Sony for the lead job. Could it happen? Sure. But it doesn’t seem likely.

Sony, we’ll give the lower end of the 3-year average rushing share for a NE lead back; we’ll call it 42%. Let’s give him a bump up from his career Y/A up to 4.2 to account for Cam’s presence and a hopefully-healthy line; let’s give him his career TD rate of 2.8%. This leaves us with a rushing line of 200/840/6. You can count on him adding about 12 catches for another 90 yards, leaving Sony around 141 PPR points. That’s not great; he’s an RB4 for fantasy purposes.

James White

Credit: UWAlumni.com

James White is always relevant, and he’s always under drafted. This year, however, there are concerns; his BFF Tom has moved on to greener (orange-r?) pastures, and we’re not sure if Cam will love dumping the ball off to him the way Brady has the past few seasons. In fact, it was knock on Cam right until CMC’s breakout season that he was flat0-out bad at short-area passing. He made it work with McCaffrey, who saw 124 targets in 2018, most of them from Cam, but that’s no guarantee of work for James White.

Here’s a bit of research from Andew Erickson on exactly this phenomeon. It’s a fairly well documented, strong effect: Running QBs are bad for receiving backs.

I’m not sure how to quantify this. Last year White was around 15% target share; that’s quite a bit lower than his 2018 number, but I’ll bump it down a hair more. I’ll take some carries away as well to make room for Harris and Cam. I have him around 52 catches, 457 yards, and 4 TDs in the air; 62 carries, 254 yards, and 2 TDs on the ground. He’ll end up around 159 points in a PPR league; as a low-end RB3, he’s not winning you the season, but he’ll still be the most useful NEP back.

For his targets to go down that much, it’s worth noting, someone else will have to step up in the receiving core.

Damien Harris & Rex Burkhead

Anyone that tells you they know how to project these two is flat out lying unless that person is Josh McDaniels. However, I know this: the RB3 in New England is lucky if they see a 15% rush share and 35 targets. I’m not saying they are worthless pieces to own, but the only way either of these players becomes relevant is if there’s an injury to Michel or White or if Harris somehow usurps Sony’s job. So, worth a flier, but that’s about it. Still, decent dynasty stashes if the acquisition cost is low.

Wide Receiver

Julian Edelman

Credit: USAToday.com

WR is another perplexing group for would-be investors in the Patriots. Edelman, it would seem, is poised for another target-vacuum year, so long as he can stay healthy, but everything behind him is a giant question mark.

Let’s focus on the OG first: the 34-year-old Edelman, entering his 11th NFL season and coming off one of his best statistical seasons to date with a whopping 153 targets for 100 catches and 1117 yards.

There’s the thought that-without his bromance, Brady- Edelman won’t see that type of volume. But who else are they going to throw to? If we split his past two years’ volume, we get 22%. That will leave Edelman with a still-meaty 127 targets, yielding 84 catches, 915 yards, and 5 TDs; a respectable 206 points leaves Edelman as the WR25.

To be honest, this seems low; this is assuming someone will step up behind him at least a little. If they don’t, Edelman should be good for 100 catches again, though his shoulder might be hanging off him by the end of the season. He has been getting increasingly banged up the past few years, so I think there’s a good chance he misses time.

N’Keal Harry, Mohamed Sanu & the Gang

Credit: Nancy Lane/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald

N’Keal Harry was the single greatest breaker-of-dynasty hearts last year. The 1.01 for many a rookie draft, he vastly underperformed, even taking into account the time missed due to injury. Flat out, he didn’t get it done in the field.

Still, we think he’s the WR2 for 2020; at the very least, he’ll get every opportunity to win the job.

Mohammed Sanu will also be competing for targets. Another huge disappointment for the team- just think of who that 2nd rounder could have become this year- he is definitely a better player than he showed last year, and was likely held back by injury quite a bit.

Jakobi Meyers, the surprisingly successful 2019 UDFA, and new acquisitions Marquise Lee and Damiere Byrd, will also be in the mix for targets.

Still, James White is likely the real 2nd target in this offense. So how much target share can these guys hope for? Can they be fantasy relevant for 2020?

Here’s the target breakdown of the Pats for 2019:

  • Edelman 24.5%
  • White 15.3%
  • Dorsett 8.7%
  • Sanu 7.6%
  • Meyers 6.6%

Here’s their 2018 breakdown:

  • White 21.4%
  • Edelman 19%
  • Gronk 12.5%
  • Hogan 9.6%
  • Dorsett 7.3%

It’s fair to say that there doesn’t seem to be great odds of a 3rd pass-catcher performing at a high level unless there’s a sea-change in the offense or an injury to Edelman or White.

If we go back to 2017, we get a year that both Brandin Cooks and Gronk saw over 100 targets, with Amendola and White seeing 86 and 72, respectively; so it’s not impossible. It’s also worth noting that Cam does like to push the ball downfield when his shoulder’s healthy, but we don’t know how comfortable he’s going to be throwing deep until we see it.

Yet someone has to step up, right? Otherwise, White will have to get back up to his 2018 target levels, in which case I’m way off on his projection (I’ll be paying a lot of attention to this all in the preseason if there is one). The top 3 options in this offense have at least combined for around 49%-53% of the targets. So who will it be?

It’s tough to call. I’d love to predict that the once-hyped sophomore Harry takes a step forward- and my several dynasty shares hope so, as well- but there is this: https://sports.yahoo.com/patriots-cam-newton-mohamed-sanu-200432106.html. A budding connection between Sanu and Cam? It could happen.

Really, this could shake out, either way, although often in cases like this, the front office (read: Bill Belichick) wants to demonstrate that they didn’t make a bad pick, and will force that player into a position to succeed.

If we give Sanu a 15% share- reasonable for the 2nd WR, assuming no TE steps forward- we’d be looking at 87 targets for a 53/587/4 line, about 136 PPR points. He’d finish just outside of the WR4 range. Still, at his cost, he might be worth a flyer; he’s literally on the wire in a lot of leagues.

It could be Harry that steps up rather than Sanu. It’s impossible to give a data-based projection for him, as there’s just not much in terms of NFL stats, and I’m not sure his 2019 performance is reflective of his true capability. He had a truly terrible 50% catch rate, so he’d better improve or soon be watching games from the sidelines.

The biggest thing that gets me excited for Harry is his TD upside. Even last year, they featured him at the goal-line; if he progresses and begins to click, I could legitimately see him with 8 or even 10 TDs. Think Mike Williams’ rookie year- there are many similarities, including an offense that featured the TE that is now without a producer at the position. He could still be relevant even without a huge market share of the targets if he is successful in the red zone.

Let’s give Harry a 14% share-81 targets- for 48 catches, 633 yards, and 8 TDs. He’d finish a little higher than Sanu, safely within the WR4 range. Suffice to say I won’t own too much Harry in redraft leagues.

There are some other interesting names here, but I have a hard time seeing any of them really becoming valuable assets this year. Damiere Byrd might have the clearest path to being useful; if you look back at past years, the WR2 has generally been a speed guy (Cooks, Hogan, Dorsett), and Byrd fits that profile better than any player currently on the roster. Or maybe Marquise Lee calls up some of that magic from his earlier Jacksonville days; he had some decent years there, despite Blake Bortles. Maybe Jakobi Meyers steps up and demands some targets. I love him as a dynasty bench stash- I still think he’s the eventual Edelman replacement- but I’m not holding my breath for him putting up points this season.

Tight End

There’s not a lot going on at the TE position in New England, at least in the short term. There’s a reason they drafted a couple of guys this year- Matt Lacosse and Ryan Izzo, though currently sitting atop the depth chart, are not the answer.

For 2020, it’s unlikely that any of the TEs are worth starting. Last year, the top 3 TEs combined for 53 targets. Injuries factored into this, but a lack of talent did as well.

Rookies Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene are very interesting as long-term assets, though there are questions. Which one rises to the top? Can they both succeed as we once saw with Gronk and Hernandez? Will they eat into each other’s targets enough to keep either from becoming startable? This is another situation that bears monitoring; I’ll be watching the camp news closely, and making a move if it seems that either will be the guy.

At ADP, both are worthy selections as dart throws; we know that if McDaniels finds his guy, he can make the position very fantasy viable.

IDP

Credit: Forbes.com

Perhaps surprisingly, the 2019 Patriots, for all its elite performance, didn’t offer much in terms of great IDP assets. Jamie Collins was a top-20 IDP asset, and Kyle Van Noy and Dont’a Hightower were both usable at times, finishing in the top-50 LBs. Gilmore was a top-5 CB, but that still only leaves him as a top-25 DB, so he’s not a sought-after piece unless you’re starting CBs specifically.

Of those players, only Hightower and Gilmore return. There’s vacated production here, plenty of opportunity for some of the younger guys to step up and become at least useful if not high-end IDP scorers.

There are several names to watch for / grab in the later phases of your IDP startup or redraft league.

  1. Chase Winovich, LB. The 2nd-year edge rusher was productive in his rookie season and looked good doing it. He should replace much of the production lost with Collins; he’s the most likely of these assets to hit. Check out Jordan Rains’ profile of Winovich here for more info on the up-and-comer.
  2. Kyle Dugger, S. It’s unclear if he’ll see the field right away as NE already has a pair of excellent starting safeties, but the Division II product is fast and athletic, a good box safety but also capable in coverage of TEs or as a nickel corner.
  3. Josh Uche, LB. The Michigan product is promising but lacks experience. A great stash but not likely to produce this year.

Of course, Gilmore is likely to repeat as a top cornerback, and Hightower can be a steady starter if you have the need, though he’s no stud at this point in his career. Lawrence guy is another functional if unexciting starter, coming in as the #40 DL player in ’19.

That’s it for this one guys. Enjoy, hit me up with any questions, and let’s keep our fingers crossed for some football!

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