During the 2012 season, the New England passing offense was star studded and consisted of Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, Wes Welker, Brandon Lloyd, Julian Edelman and Deion Branch. Fast forward six months later and the picture looks dramatically different with the Patriots first home game less than eleven weeks away.
Wes Welker left town for Denver to be united with Payton Manning. Rob Gronkowski has been through a turbulent off-season dealing with multiple surgical procedures, including replacement of his forearm plate (see my fantasy prognosis) and a recent back surgery (Doctors are optimistic he will return by week one). Aaron Hernandez was recently arrested and released from the Patriots. Brandon Lloyd was released and is currently an unsigned free agent. Danny Woodhead also left town for San Diego after catching 40 passes from Tom Brady last season.
These five individuals combined for 338 of Tom Brady’s 401 completions last season or 84%. Based on those same numbers, 81% of Tom Brady’s 637 attempts were thrown in the direction of those players – that is a significant amount of production missing at the start of the 2013 season. There are a lot of missing pieces to the puzzle that will hopefully come together as the NFL season arrives. Who picks up the slack for an offense that led the league in points scored and yards gained last season?
We all know Brady and Bill Belichick will do whatever it takes to win (remember Spygate). Josh McDaniels is also an inventive offensive coordinator, but it leaves the cupboard a little thin from a talent standpoint. Looking at the remaining talent (led by oft-injured Danny Amendola) leaves a little to be desired in the New England aerial assault. Although Gronkowski is not a permanent loss, the time he has missed (and could miss in the future) leaves a lot of people wondering who will step up in his absence. The loss of Hernandez only complicates the situation because he is a rare talent with no plug and play options on the waiver wire with the talent to come even close to replacing him. Who will be catching the passes in New England this season? I put them in order based on the depth chart at Ourlads.com.
Danny Amendola (Age 27)
Amendola is a no-brainer on the depth chart. He is basically “Wes Welker light.” Currently, his ADP is rising as I type this due to the recent release of Hernandez. If he is able to work up to 80% of the production of Welker, he can still eclipse 100 receptions this season. Amendola has only played all 16 games in one of his first four seasons in the NFL. He has some durability concerns, but is the top overall wide receiver on the Patriots depth chart at this point.
Michael Jenkins (Age 31)
Jenkins is the oldest of the group and not a lock to make the roster. His veteran leadership for the young wide receivers on the roster might be his saving grace. He is currently running with the first team in OTA’s, but could easily be beat out as the season approaches by some of the younger wide receivers on the roster. There are much better options out there for your dynasty squad.
Donald Jones (Age 25)
Jones is a solid young receiver who had some of his best games against the Patriots while playing in Buffalo. Jones has not played an entire 16 game season in his three year career in the NFL. It is likely he will make the roster, but may not be more than wide receiver depth. He could see early playing time if Gronkowski and the rookies miss time in the preseason, however. He could be a solid WR5 on your roster, but I would not lean on him as a starter unless he gets the early call at the start of the season.
Aaron Dobson (Age 22)
It is difficult to understand why the Patriots struggle to draft a wide receiver for their offense, but they have historically. Dobson was drafted in the second round and is a big wideout who was known for making some circus catches while playing at Marshall. It should come as no surprise that the Patriots consider him to be a critical part of the offense – they recently signed him to a four year deal. He has a legitimate shot to play early in the season. If he can learn the Patriots offensive playbook, he may produce very early for fantasy teams. Dobson’s size is of a prototypical wide receiver playing outside the numbers. At 6’3” and 210 lbs., Dobson can beat defenders with size or his jumping ability. Dobson’s current consensus rookie ranking on DLF is #21 overall among all rookies. He is also ranked as the WR56 based on the latest DLF mock drafts for startup drafts. If Dobson does see the field on day one, he could produce big for fantasy owners.
Josh Boyce (Age 23)
Boyce was a fourth round choice for the Patriots in the 2013 NFL draft. He does not have the size Dobson has, but he plays big. He is a very talented wide receiver who is a safer wide receiver selection than Dobson, but also does not have as high of a ceiling. Boyce had an impressive NFL combine while working out on a broken foot. He has had the foot surgically repaired and is currently missing time during rookie minicamps critical to his early development. Boyce can play the slo,t but also can be moved to the outside if needed. He is a solid pick in the late rounds of dynasty drafts. His current rookie consensus ranking has him as the #50 ranked rookie and he is going as the WR76 based on the recent DLF mock drafts.
Julian Edelman (Age 27)
Edelman is the only player in the group who has any NFL game experience with Tom Brady. He could be the ace in the hole this season with Hernandez gone and Gronkowski on the mend. Edelman is a sneaky good play in PPR leagues and could also get a boost if you are in a league that scores for return yards. You can get him very late in drafts at this point and he has even been undrafted in many others. He would be a solid late round flier who may carry a lot of value early in the season, making him very tradable.
Mark Harrison (Age 22)
Mark Harrison was an undrafted rookie free agent pickup out of Rutgers. He did not have any off the charts measureables at the combine, but he does seemingly have a good size/speed combination. He will have to work hard in camp and preseason to make the roster. He does have some upside and could be a good find for the Pats if he develops into a solid wide receiver. He does not have the athleticism of Boyce or Dobson, but he does have a large frame and could be a great situational red zone threat. He’s a player to keep tabs on.
Lavelle Hawkins (Age 26), Kemar Aiken (24), Kenbrell Thompkins (24), Matthew Slater (Age 27)
These players should go undrafted in dynasty leagues. None of them are locks to make the roster at this point. Matthew Slater is the one with the best chance to make the team and that is motsly due to his leadership and special teams play.
Other potential pass catchers
Shane Vereen and Leon Washington are two solid running backs who should see an uptick in playing time and production with the departure of Danny Woodhead. Woodhead caught 40 passes for 446 yards last season. Based on the history of the Patriots, the backup running back has finished in the top 30 in PPR leagues the last four seasons – I don’t see any reason for that to slow down. Vereen’s current ADP is found in the late tenthand early eleventh round – that is a great value for Vereen who could easily finish in the top 30 running backs. Washington would be a great late round flier if you are in a league that includes return yards. At this point, the running backs might see the largest ADP increase outside of Danny Amendola due to the recent release of Hernandez. If you can get your hands on Vereen in eighth round or later, that could be great value at this point.
It’s easy to look at the Patriots roster and believe Jake Ballard may be a great play due to the loss of time of Aaron Hernandez and potential loss of time for Rob Gronkowski. Based on the depth chart, Ballard is next in line. However, I would tell you to follow Zach Sudfeld as the potential tight end to stash in New England. He has more upside and may be a sneaky good play in leagues with tight end premiums if Gronkowski misses significant time. He is not the rare talent of Gronkowski or Hernadez, but he has a lot of upside in an offense that likes to air it out. Don’t force yourself into conventional thinking that just because Brady throws primarily to tight ends that it will continue with Hernandez gone and Gronkowski possibly out with injury – both those players are rare talents and used because of their physical abilities.
It is important to watch this situation close as the season nears. At this point, Amendola carries the most value in the New England passing attack, but he comes with a high price tag at this point. I would target Dobson and Boyce and possibly stash Mark Harrison if he makes the roster. Edelman may be a great target as well due to the fact that he is the only player with any type of chemistry with Tom Brady.
Vereen is a great mid-round running back to target. He is young and has a ton of upside with Danny Woodhead out of town. Zach Sudfeld may be a great stash in leagues with large benches or taxi squads as well. Monitor the Gronkowski situation closely as they will directly affect the early fantasy value of young players on this roster.
No matter how you slice it, this morning’s release of Aaron Hernandez changes the entire dynamic of the New England offense and you should plan accordingly.
You'll find Brian on Twitter at @Brian_Bulmer