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Fantasy Opportunities: A look at the New England Patriots

Well, head coach Bill Belichick ain’t going anywhere. Let’s just get that out of the way. Josh McDaniels once again received some interest for various head coaching vacancies but will return as the offensive coordinator after none of them panned out. Interestingly the Patriots appear content to enter a second consecutive season without a defensive coordinator.

By Alex Levin

With the draft complete and the bulk of the free agency rush over with, it’s time to start looking ahead to the 2020 season! And with that, I’m back with year 2 of my Opportunity series.

For those who didn’t see this series last year, I try to take a different approach to fantasy projections than your run-of-the-mill rankings. The basis of my process is that the number one indicator of fantasy success is opportunities to touch the ball. Obviously individual player skill can (and will) affect that, but at the end of the day players are at the mercy of playcalling and play design. Therefore, if we want to make accurate projections, we need to look at each coach’s scheme and how they like to spread the ball around.

As a result, this series is very coach-centric. I’ll touch on individual players, but only as they relate to their coaches’ schemes. On a related note, this series will only aim to establish projections on how touches will be split up, not what individual players will be able to accomplish with those touches. That will come later once depth charts settle through training camp. Think of this series more as a basis for realistic expectations.

Make sense? Good. Let’s dive in.

Most of my stats are pulled from Pro Football Reference. Please support them. They are awesome and are my primary source of statistical information.

New England Patriots

Last Year’s Accuracy

For league wide stats, see this spreadsheet.

Coaching Changes

Well, head coach Bill Belichick ain’t going anywhere. Let’s just get that out of the way. Josh McDaniels once again received some interest for various head coaching vacancies but will return as the offensive coordinator after none of them panned out. Interestingly the Patriots appear content to enter a second consecutive season without a defensive coordinator. However, while no one explicitly holds that title Belichick did get playcalling assistance from both secondary coach Steve Belichick and LB Coach Jerod Mayo last year. It seems likely that those duties will be split once again.

Coaching History

The only thing consistent about the Patriots year to year is that they tend to run a lot of plays. In fact, New England has steadily increased their number of plays run over the last five years, from 1050 in 2015 to 1095 last year. That 1095 last year was partially driven by a reasonably high paced offense and partially driven by one of the best defenses in the league giving that offense plenty of opportunities.

Other than that though, the Patriots are notorious for shifting their offensive scheme year to year. For example, in 2015 the Patriots threw the ball 63.5% of the time, only 2% shy of the league high pass rate and well above the league average that year of 59.0%. The very next year they threw the ball a scant 54.4% of the time, the 5th lowest rate in the league. Similarly, a healthy Rob Gronkowski frequently pushed the tight end group to a strong 25% target share. When Gronk was hobbled by injuries in 2018 and subsequently retired, the Patriots tight ends saw their target shares drastically reduced from 24.5% in 2017 to a league low 8.7% last year.

There is one additional trend worth mentioning that has emerged over the last few years, however. That trend is a focus on running backs, in both the running and passing games. After spending much of Tom Brady’s prime as a pass-happy team, the Patriots shifted to become much more run-centric in 2016. They struggled a bit with that last year as they suffered a rash of injuries to key starters, but even missing half their starting blockers they were still around league average in terms of run-pass ratio. In the passing game, the New England running backs have commanded target shares of 26.9%, 30.0%, and 26.8% over the last three years. All three were among the league leaders, with the 30.0% actually leading the league outright in 2018.

Looking Ahead

Given that the Patriots regularly match their scheme to their personnel, there’s one doozy of a makeover coming this year. Unlike most of the teams facing drastic schematic change, this isn’t due to losing a large number of key players. Just one in particular. Whether or not you believe in Jarrett Stidham, there is no debate that he is a massive downgrade from Tom Brady and that Brady’s departure will have a massive impact on the way McDaniels calls the offense.

First and foremost, the Patriots offense will likely slow down considerably. New England was able to run so many plays in no small part thanks to Brady’s command of the offense. His ability to get up to the line, call an audible, and quickly punish the defense’s mistakes was second to none. Heck, his mastery of the offense allowed him to call audibles even after the play started. That’s an enormous part of the game that McDaniels loses rolling out Stidham this year. This isn’t to say that the Patriots will suddenly fall below the league average number of plays run; they still have a good defense (albeit missing a few parts from last year) and McDaniels will still be running his offense. It’s just that they will no longer get the boost of having their QB push the pace on his own.

It’s also likely that McDaniels returns to a more run-heavy offense as Stidham settles in. The Patriots had started heading in that direction before losing half their offensive line to injuries last year (although they’re already not off to a great start in that department heading into 2020). Still, they have depth at running back, added more offensive line depth through the draft, and added a fullback through free agency.

Something else they added through through the draft were tight ends. Sure, rookie tight ends historically struggle in year one, but any help at all is welcome for the tight end group with the lowest target share in the league last year. Expect at least a small increase in the tight end target share as a result. These extra targets will most likely be drained from the wide receivers. As noted above, McDaniels’s scheme leans heavily on running backs in the passing game, and it’s unlikely that changes with a young QB like Stidham under center.

2020 Projections

Alex Levin – Projections/Redraft
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Twitter: @tubadeus
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