The Patriots are coming off their first playoff-less season since 2008, which, coincidentally, was their last season without Tom Brady at the helm, as he tore his ACL in Week 1 of that campaign. His replacement, Cam Newton, was awful, but Newton also had to deal with what was arguably the league’s worst receiving group, as well.
The Pats — who also were decimated on the defensive side of the football by a rash of COVID-related optouts — attempted to fix their woes this off-season, upgrading along the offensive line, spending a ton of money at WR and TE, and (burying the lede here) spending their first-round pick on Alabama pocket QB Mac Jones.
Newton will open camp as the starter, but unless he seriously impresses, we expect to see Jones at some point — and the Patriots’ offense will have to change then, given their vastly different skill sets.
New England Patriots Franchise Focus Companion Podcast
|Season Win Total (O/U)||9 (-133/+110)|
Season Prop Movement
Win Total: 9 (-143) in late March to 9 (-133)
Super Bowl: +3000 in early February to +3500
Premium 2021 Betting Preview from Tom Brolley found here.
Key Offseason Moves
|Trent Brown (OT)||Mac Jones (QB)||Marcus Cannon (OT, Hou)|
|Ted Karras (OC)||Will Sherman (OT)||Joe Thuney (OG, KC)|
|Alex Redmond (OG)||Rhamondre Stevenson (RB)||Rex Burkhead (RB, Hou)|
|Nelson Agholor (WR)||Tre Nixon (WR)||Julian Edelman (WR, retired)|
|Kendrick Bourne (WR)||Christian Barmore (DT)||Damiere Byrd (WR, Chi)|
|Marvin Hall (WR)||Ronnie Perkins (DE)||Marqise Lee (WR)|
|Jonnu Smith (TE)||Cameron McGrone (ILB)||Ryan Izzo (TE, Hou)|
|Hunter Henry (TE)||Joshuah Bledsoe (S)||Adam Butler (DT, Mia)|
|Troy Fumagalli (TE)||Jason McCourty (CB, Mia)|
|Henry Anderson (DT)||Patrick Chung (S, retired)|
|Davon Godchaux (DT)||Terrence Brooks (S, Hou)|
|Montravius Adams (DT)|
|Matt Judon (OLB)|
|Kyle Van Noy (OLB)|
|Raekwon McMillan (ILB)|
|Harvey Langi (ILB)|
|Jalen Mills (CB)|
|Adrian Colbert (S)|
Scott Barrett’s Fantasy Strength of Schedule
Quarterback: the softest (+0.89)
Running Back: 14th-toughest (-0.14)
Wide Receivers: 5th-softest (+1.19)
Tight Ends: the softest (+1.12)
Pace and Tendencies
Pace (seconds in between plays): 27.4 (14th)
Plays per game: 60.2 (30th)
When the game is within a score — Pass: 49.3% (31st) | Run: 50.7% (2nd)
When the team is ahead — Pass: 38.2% (32nd) | Run: 61.7% (1st)
When the team is behind — Pass: 53.8% (31st) | Run: 46.2% (2nd)
After adjusting for game script, the Patriots were the most run-heavy team in the league last season. Not the Ravens, not the Titans… the Patriots. With Cam Newton under center, OC Josh McDaniels re-manufactured their offense on the fly and turned it into a high-volume rushing attack. While the Patriots did finish with the fourth-most rushing yards, Newton’s running ability wasn’t enough — he struggled as a passer as the offense managed just 20.4 points per game (sixth-fewest). The biggest question is when (not if) Mac Jones takes over, will the Patriots continue to run the ball at some of the league’s highest rates in all situations? Or, will they open things up a bit more?
Since 2000, just nine QBs have started more than 12 games, attempted more than 350 passes, and thrown for 10 or fewer TDs: Tony Banks (2001), David Carr (2002), Kyle Orton (2005), Brad Johnson (2006), Charlie Frye (2006), Vince Young (2007), Ryan Fitzpatrick (2008), Sam Darnold (2020), and Cam Newton (2020).
Unsurprisingly, a whopping 53% of Cam’s fantasy points came from rushing which led all QBs. Lamar Jackson was second (43%) and Kyler Murray (39%) was third.
Among 36 qualified QBs, Cam ranked 20th in passer rating and 26th in on-target throws when the pocket was clean per SIS.
Cam Newton carried the ball inside-the-five 22 times last year, which tied for third-most among all players. Rex Burkhead had 4 inside-5 carries, Damien Harris had 3, and Sony Michel had 2.
In the 10 games he was active, Damien Harris handled 61% of the Patriots RB carries.
Sony Michel was active for just three games in Harris’ 10-game stretch, though.
Harris quietly ranked 11th in rushing yards per game (69.1).
Harris only ran five pass routes per game, which severely limited his floor and ceiling.
James White was targeted on 30% of his routes, which tied Alvin Kamara for the league-lead among RBs.
Largely because the Patriots were so run-heavy, White ran just 13.7 routes per game. That was 41st-of-68 RBs.
In 2019, White ran 24 routes per game.
The Patriots receiver group scored 25.5 fantasy points per game, last in the league.
Their tight end group scored 3.1 FPG, also last in the league.
Huber’s Scheme Notes
The transition from Tom Brady to Cam Newton resulted in the Patriots dropping from sixth to 18th in the rate of four wide receiver sets. Following the free agent signings of Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry, we’ll continue to see that rate decline. Future Hall-of-Fame HC/GM/DC Bill Belichick will have $87.4 million reasons to keep Smith and Henry glued to the field. Due to guaranteeing around two-thirds of their money, the TE duo will only count $12.5 million against the 2021 cap. But that cap number will jump to nearly $29 million next season. With the offense shifting to an Ace/two-TE base offense, 2020 third-rounder Devin Asiasi is still only one injury away from entering the starting lineup.
We know where the two TEs stand. The same cannot be said for the undetermined WR rotation. And a rotation it will be. New England OC Josh McDaniels will need to alternate a WR group consisting of Jakobi Meyers, Nelson Agholor, Kendrick Bourne, and, if his trade request is not honored, 2019 first-rounder N’Keal Harry. Belichick already balked at Harry’s request to be dealt prior to training camp, so it’s very possible “The Hoody” still views Harry as a part of his plans. Make no mistake, Harry did very little last season that can be viewed as a positive. He generated under one yard gained per route run (YPRR) that ranked him 94th out of 101 WRs — minimum 40 targets. Two things do need to be said in his favor. First, he only dropped two of 55 targets (3.6%). Second, Cam Newton ranked with the fourth-lowest average air yards per attempt among qualified QBs, directly impacting Harry’s pitiful numbers.
One-third of all of Newton’s targeted throws were intended to his slot WRs. With another 44% directed to his RBs and TEs, outside WRs were left to fight for the remaining 23%. It’s vitally important we don’t forget that the Patriots ran the ball at the second-highest rate. Newton also took away another 2% while scrambling away from the pocket. New England attempted more than 40 fewer targeted passes than the next lowest offense on the list. These are all indicators requiring a massive amount of consideration prior to drafting any of the Pat’s WRs.
Lucky enough for Meyers, he closed the season as the only WR with a YPRR average over two (2.26). The only other WR to come close was Julian Edelman who retired after 12 seasons with the Patriots. Agholor and Bourne, both potentially starting on the outside, have the odds stacked against them in finding any type of consistent production. For Harry, his Arizona State film showcased a catch-and-run YAC monster. He is clearly not a fit with the current embodiment of Newton. He’ll either need a change of scenery or for Mac Jones to be inserted into the lineup before he’s able to show off his tools.
Despite everything already passed along, don’t get the impression Newton is without value. We only need minor passing contributions from him to supplement his rushing volume. After a strong start to last season, he never recovered from his run-in with COVID-19. In half of his post-COVID games, Newton gave us less than 125 passing yards, and a 3-8 TD-INT ratio overall. In the majority of cases, those numbers would result in a permanent trip to the bench. Newton was able to supplement those numbers with a post-COVID average of 37 rushing yards and eight total TDs. However, Newton will need to be far better during training camp to hold off Jones.
When Jones does take over the offense, it will place the Patriots’ skill position groups into an optimal situation. We just need to temper Jone’s fantasy expectations. Jones will provide nothing on the ground. But McDaniels would tilt the offense toward a balanced attack. The issue with Jones is how he’s able to manage NFL pressure. At Alabama, Jones easily played with the top O-line in the country. And Jones is equipped with a noodle arm. Do not expect to see any throws traveling beyond 40-45 yards. But “The Joker” can ball out from a clean pocket and his arm accuracy is NFL ready. For fantasy, we want Jones to lead this offense. If Newton wins out, our options are limited. But Newton makes for a solid, low-cost addition as your QB3 due to his rushing ability.
Joe Thuney is not an asset you can simply replace. And the fact that the Patriots allowed him to sign elsewhere is not a great sign for Newton, even in the short term. The front office is clearly looking beyond Newton with their personnel decisions. Last year, in spite of fielding an above-average O-line — essentially the equivalent of just below elite — in Ross Tucker’s Offensive Line Rankings, Newton still finished 32nd out of 39 qualified QBs with a 7.2% sack rate. Without being able to rely on Thuney for New England’s fourth-highest rate of Backside Guard Pulls (Power) and second-highest rate of Frontside Guard Pulls, Newton’s rushing numbers could suffer. That said, he will still have the studly Shaq Mason at right guard.
New England placed so highly in Tucker’s ranks, in part, due to hitting the lottery with ‘20 sixth-rounder Michael Onwenu. Onwenu provided a stout presence at right tackle, but will slide over into the Thuney vacancy at left guard. McDaniels received another breakout — entirely expected from a former first-rounder — from Isaiah Wynn at left tackle. He teams with Mason as the O-line cornerstones for the Pats. Something seemed to be off with David Andrews last season after establishing himself as one of the top risers at center. New England will be counting on a return to his old self, as well as hoping Trent Brown is up to the challenge of holding down right tackle in the place of Onwenu.
Swapping Thuney for Brown is far from ideal. But the Patriots still possess a mauling crew of run blockers. And the ‘21 season could be the start of greater things to come for Damien Harris. With Newton hogging his massive carry share, the extent of Harris’ ceiling has been shaded. The fact that Harris was able to maintain his 1.13 YPRR average with Newton at QB says all that needs to be said about his receiving skills. He’s also excellent in blitz pickup, providing the Patriots with a complete back. Newton needs to either surrender his goal-line role or, returning to the same narrative, for Jones to take over. One thing has been made clear, Belichick is fed up with Sony Michel. It’d be shocking to see him retain his roster spot all season.
With Michel no longer in the team’s future plans, Rhamondre Stevenson has already entrenched himself as the RB2. You can always count on Oklahoma backs packing everything required to succeed in a Gap blocking scheme. And New England ranked with the highest rate of Gap blocking last season. James White will continue his role as the passing down specialist. And you likely already guessed that White’s value will be tentative, at best, until the Mac Jones-show is unveiled. Unfortunately, the Patriots’ offense is in a holding pattern until Jones is able to overtake Newton. That’ll most likely be the common theme throughout the season.
The ‘20 season did not go as planned for Belichick’s defense. In response, he took to the draft and free agency to retool his personnel. Slipping further than anticipated, Belichick found excellent value with Christian Barmore out of Alabama with the 38th pick. Barmore was considered to be a first-round talent by some, so incumbent nose tackle Byron Cowart already knows what comes next. With his third-round selection, Belichick added solid EDGE depth with Ronnie Perkins out of Oklahoma. Perkins’ pass rushing blew up for the Sooners last season. He could ultimately make a case for early snaps if he can replicate that success.
A pair of free agent additions made by Belichick along the D-line will have far more substantial early returns. With his defense bleeding the seventh-most rushing YPG, Belichick brought in the elite run D skills of Henry Anderson, possessing the ability to play both 3- and 5-technique. But Belichick saved the hidden pocket in New England’s budget to sign the seamless talent of EDGE Matthew Judon. NEPs pass rush finished among the bottom-10 teams, so adding Judon was a massive victory.
The expectations at linebacker will be minimal beyond hopes Dont’a Hightower can return to form after his ‘20 opt-out. When Belichick’s defense does find snaps for a second off-the-ball LB, they’ll want to see them utilized with far better results from ‘18 fifth-rounder Ja’Whaun Bentley. But, like most teams, multiple-LB sets in Belichick’s defense are capped in response to the Air Raid wave changing the game. Even the mastermind of Belichick realizes the future of the NFL revolves around the ability to field up to six defensive backs at one time.
If he’d be willing to admit it, one of Belichick’s biggest wishes this season would likely be for an injury-free season from Stephon Gilmore. No other cornerback on the roster is currently able to fill his dedicated role shadowing opposing No. 1’s. J.C. Jackson has everything required to do so, only lacking in the experience department. Belichick’s defense played Man coverage at the sixth-highest rate last season. You need at least two extremely good CBs to defend from a Cover 1 in today’s game. But the skill requirement of those top-two CBs is magnified when you want to send an all-out blitz (Cover 0). The Patriots called on Cover 0 at the third-highest ‘20 rate. Belichick also requires his secondary to fall into Cover 2 and Cover 3 Zones on downs they assume are obvious passing situations.
When defending a three-wide offense, Jonathan Jones will man the slot with his underrated Nickel skills. But we’ll see plenty of Dime packages to get free agent addition Jalen Mills involved, so much so that he’s likely to play ahead of Bentley in the base rotation. Mills also offers excellent Gilmore insurance. Despite the outstanding CB depth, free safety Devin McCourty is as important as any of Belichick’s defenders. He’ll split the field with Adrian Phillips in their Cover 2, but McCourty is the last line of defense for most of their remaining schemes. McCourty has been one of the top free safeties in the game for nearly a decade.
As he has done for much of his tenure with New England, Belichick assembled the type of defensive personnel adjustments that could sneak the unit back into the top-10 defenses. A stance could be taken claiming the WR room is a bit light, but we really need to hold back those judgments until we have an opportunity to see them work with Jones. Unfortunately for Newton, his presence in the starting lineup requires handicapping the offensive approach. This offense will never provide the type of balanced approach needed to make a significant playoff run with Cam under center. If they do somehow manage to make the playoffs, it’ll be the defense that carries the team.
Projected Fantasy Contributors
Cam Newton (Proj: QB30 | ADP: 218 | Pos ADP: QB32)
The Patriots brought back Cam on just a one-year deal this off-season so his rope as the team’s starter was already short heading into the NFL Draft. It got a little shorter when Bill Belichick got his potential quarterback of the future in Mac Jones. Belichick said “Cam’s our quarterback” at the end of the first round, but he did hedge a bit when he added that Jones and Jarrett Stidham (remember him?) will have the chance to compete for the job when they prove they’re ready. Jones is likely to see significant time at some point in 2021, but Belichick will likely give Cam one last chance to be the starter to begin the season. Cam will have to play much better than he did in 2020 if he has any chance to hold off Jones, which could be a lot to ask after what we saw from a broken-down Cam last season. He threw for a miserable eight touchdowns in 15 games while averaging a league-low 177.1 passing yards per game. He continued to be a force as a runner with 137/592/12 on the ground, and his rushing production helped him to finish as a top-12 fantasy QB in eight of his 15 starts. Cam did have the worst receiving corps in the league last season, but he’s been trending in the wrong direction for the last four seasons. He’s averaging just 7.0 YPA with a 63.6 completion percentage and a 3.8% TD rate over his last 47 games in 2017-20. The Patriots invested major money in free agents Hunter Henry, Jonnu Smith, Nelson Agholor, and Kendrick Bourne, and Jones will give this passing game its best chance at sustained success this season. Cam is a proud man who likely spent the off-season improving, but his body has betrayed him in recent seasons and kept him from playing at a higher level. Cam is a viable later pick in two-QB formats and he can be considered as a mid-QB2 option when he starts this season, but it’s only a matter of time before Jones is the starter this season.
Mac Jones (Proj: QB35 | ADP: 233 | Pos ADP: QB33)
Jones was way off the first-round radar before the 2020 season, and he flew up draft boards and into the top-15 picks because of his performance during Alabama’s run to the national championship last season. He averaged 346.2 passing yards per game while completing 77.4% of his passes and averaging 11.2 YPA on his way to 41 TDs and just four INTs in 13 games. Jones is unlikely to ever be an elite fantasy option because of his lack of mobility — he accounted for just 14 rushing yards all of last season — but he at least showed enough pocket mobility to avoid the rare pressure he saw while at Alabama. Jones played with elite receivers like DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle, and he got the most out of his weapons by being an efficient executor with excellent accuracy. Jones will see significant playing time at some point in 2021, but Bill Belichick is likely to give Cam Newton one last chance as the team’s starter to begin the season. Cam will have to play much better than he did in 2020 if he has any chance to hold off Jones, which could be a lot to ask after what we saw from a broken-down Cam last season. Tom Brady, another sub-par athlete coming out of college, flourished under Belichick and OC Josh McDaniels. This coaching staff would likely move the offense back to more of a quick-passing attack when Jones eventually gets inserted into the lineup. Jones will have to develop into one of the best pocket passers to overcome his lack of mobility to be on the fantasy radar, which can’t be expected as a rookie. Jones is a fine dynasty stash but he should only be considered in two-QB formats this season, and he’ll be nothing more than a low-end QB2 once he cracks the starting lineup.
Damien Harris (Proj: RB36 | ADP: 91 | Pos ADP: RB34)
Harris vaulted to the top of New England’s RB depth chart last season after playing in just two games as a rookie in 2019. He missed the first three games of last season with a hand injury but he took over as the top runner when he returned to the lineup with Sony Michel going down with a quad injury. He never gave up the role until he missed the final three games with an ankle injury, and he’ll enter this season with a decisive edge over Michel and fourth-round pick Rhamondre Stevenson to be the team’s early-down runner. Harris averaged just 9.1 FPG even as the team’s top runner in Weeks 4-14, posting 137/691/2 rushing and 5/52 receiving on seven targets while playing 41% of the snaps in 10 contests. Harris, like every other fantasy-relevant player in this offense, has a better chance to put up production if Cam Newton is on the sidelines in 2020. He’s not going to be a prolific receiver with James White soaking up most of the opportunities, but he has a little more potential in the passing game since Jones will look to check the ball down more compared to Cam who will look to run it a little more. Harris will also have more touchdown upside if Mac Jones is on the field after Cam scored 12 rushing touchdowns last season to bring his career total to 70 scores in 140 games. Even when the Patriots make the switch to Jones, the Patriots could still have a goal-line package that gets Cam on the field when New England is knocking on the door — the Jacoby Brissett package with the Colts last season. Harris has by far the best chance to lead this backfield in carries and rushing touchdowns, but Michel and potentially Stevenson will also factor in on early-down snaps while White will still handle all the passing-game work. Harris will have a better chance of breaking out if Michel is cut before the season, but he’s still a low upside RB3 who will be heavily reliant on touchdowns for productive fantasy weeks, which is a bit scary with Cam likely to still be a goal-line factor this season.
James White (Proj: RB47 | ADP: 153 | Pos ADP: RB52)
White returned to the Patriots this off-season after a brief flirtation with his old QB Tom Brady and the Buccaneers in free agency. White has never reached 95+ carries in any of his seven seasons, but he can make any passing game better as a receiving specialist. He had no chance to be fantasy relevant in 2020 going from Brady in his first six seasons to Cam Newton last year. He had by far his worst fantasy performance as a receiver since he played in just three games as a rookie in 2014. White posted 49/375/1 receiving on 62 targets and 35/121/2 rushing for just 8.3 FPG while playing 37% of the snaps in 14 games. White had 56+ catches, 429+ receiving yards, and 3+ TD receptions in each of his last four seasons playing with Brady before 2020. White still saw a target on a whopping 31.0% of his routes run (57 of 184) last season so there’s hope he can bounce back playing in a more pass-heavy attack, which could happen when rookie Mac Jones eventually takes over. OC Josh McDaniels would likely move the offense back to more of a quick-passing attack when Jones eventually gets inserted into the lineup, which would give White a chance at fantasy relevance once again. The big question for White and the rest of the New England receivers is when will the transition from Cam to Mac take place. White will be just a bench option in PPR formats for as long as Cam is in the lineup before potentially climbing into flex consideration once Mac takes over as the starter.
Sony Michel (Proj: RB67 | ADP: 369 | Pos ADP: RB93)
Michel’s time in New England is running short after the Patriots unsurprisingly declined his fifth-year option in early May. The big question now is will he make it through the entire season in New England or will he be gone before Week 1. Damien Harris is the Patriots’ clear top runner entering the season while James White is once again locked into his role as a receiving specialist. Michel will need to hold off fourth-round pick Rhamondre Stevenson for the #2 early-down runner spot through training camp to keep his 53-man roster spot. Michel actually played his best in 2020 on a per-touch basis by averaging 5.7 YPC and 16.3 YPR, but he handled 86 touches for 563 scrimmage yards and two touchdowns last season — he previously averaged 237.5 touches per season in 2018-19. He missed seven games from Weeks 4-11 with a quad injury, which opened the door for Harris to supplant him at the top of the depth chart — he played a career-low 33% of the snaps. Michel has little fantasy value since he’ll be playing second fiddle to Harris and he has no role in New England’s passing attack. He’s not even a strong handcuff option behind Harris since Stevenson would likely see a bump in playing time so feel free to avoid Michel in fantasy drafts.
Jakobi Meyers (Proj: WR60 | ADP: 201 | Pos ADP: WR73)
Meyers needed a Julian Edelman injury to break into the lineup last season, but the former UDFA WR never looked back after he got his chance to play starting in Week 7. Meyers led the Patriots with a 29% target share last season on his way to posting 59/729/0 receiving (12.4 YPR) on 81 targets for 143.5 FP in 14 games. He ranked as the WR34 in the final 11 weeks of the season with 12.9 FPG despite throwing for more touchdown passes (2) than he caught (0). Meyers had the most receiving yards (729), targets (81), and receptions (59) without a touchdown catch last season — Danny Amendola was the next closest in each category with 46/602/0 receiving on 69 targets. The Patriots weren’t going into 2021 without upgrading their pathetic wide receiver corps from last season as they signed Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne to compete with Meyers for targets and playing time. All three receivers have plenty of experience playing out of the slot to start their careers, but Meyers has the best chance to lead the group in slot snaps after running 60% of his routes from inside the last two seasons. The problem is the Patriots could run fewer sets with three WRs on the field after they signed Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry this off-season. New England’s receivers also need Mac Jones to see the field sooner rather than later after Cam Newton threw for a miserable eight touchdowns in 15 games last season while averaging a league-low 177.1 passing yards per game. Meyers couldn’t find much fantasy relevance with a team-best target share last year and he’ll have more competition for targets and playing time from the Patriots’ four big free-agent signees this season. He’ll open the year as a WR6 bench stash in PPR formats as we wait to see how this passing-game pecking order shakes out before Jones enters the lineup later in the season.
Nelson Agholor (Proj: WR63 | ADP: 163 | Pos ADP: WR63)
No one could’ve imagined Agholor turning into one of the league’s best downfield threats last season after the Raiders drafted Henry Ruggs to fill that role with the 12th overall pick in the 2019 Draft. Las Vegas didn’t see it coming either as they landed the Eagles’ 2017 first-round pick for the veteran minimum last off-season. Agholor parlayed a career year in the desert into a fat new contract from the suddenly extravagant Patriots. Agholor posted 48/896/8 receiving on 82 targets to finish as the WR45 with 11.6 FPG while playing 67% of the snaps in 16 games. His season took off with more playing time starting in Week 4. He averaged 12.9 FPG in his final 13 games and he had three different performances with 100+ yards and a touchdown. Agholor finished behind only Marquez Valdes-Scantling with an 18.7 YPR average and he finished sixth in average depth of target at 15.7 yards. Agholor’s career also took off with a move to the perimeter last season. He ran 67% of his routes on the outside after he previously ran 56% of his routes or more from the slot in each of his last three seasons in Philadelphia. Agholor still dropped an ugly 11% of his targets (9-of-82) last season, which was the one area he failed to clean up with the Raiders. Agholor turned out to be one of free agency’s biggest steals in 2020, but he could turn out to be one the biggest busts of this year’s class if Cam Newton is the quarterback for too long this season. Cam needs to be a more willing downfield thrower after he attempted just 29 passes that traveled 20+ yards downfield — Dak Prescott attempted 28 downfield passes in four-plus games. Agholor, like the rest of this receiving corps, will have a better chance of succeeding the sooner that Mac Jones takes over as the starting quarterback. Agholor has the chance to emerge as a #1 WR for the second straight season, but he’ll still be a boom-or-bust WR5/6 who is better suited for best ball formats.
Kendrick Bourne (Proj: WR102 | ADP: 429 | Pos ADP: WR142)
Bourne cashed in his first major payday with the Patriots in free agency after entering the league as an undrafted free agent from Eastern Washington where he played with Cooper Kupp. Bourne became a steady option in San Francisco the last four seasons by taking advantage of his limited opportunities. Bourne quietly had a breakout campaign in 2020 with 49/667/2 receiving on 74 targets for 129.7 FP while playing 66% of the snaps in 15 games. Bourne led the 49ers in slot routes last season with 208 but he has the versatility to play on the outside, which is clearly a skill the Patriots covet as their top three WRs (Bourne, Jakobi Meyers, and Nelson Agholor) line up all over the field. Bourne has averaged an excellent 12.9 YPR to start his career as a primary slot receiver, and he led the 49ers with five red-zone touchdowns on just eight RZ targets in 2019. He also played in San Francisco’s run-heavy offense so he’ll be able to mix it up as a blocker in another run-oriented attack in New England. Bourne is off the radar in all but the deepest formats since he’ll have heavy competition for a limited number of targets between Agholor, Meyers, Jonnu Smith, and Hunter Henry, but he’s a player to watch on the radar if he would ascend to the #1 WR role.
N’Keal Harry (Proj: WR122 | ADP: 423 | Pos ADP: WR140)
Harry is well on his way to becoming a first-round bust through the first two seasons of his career. He’s posted just 45/414/4 receiving on 81 targets in 21 career games, and he’s averaged a meager 9.2 YPR with a 55.6% catch rate. Harry has reached double-digit FP twice in his career and he’s topped 50+ receiving yards just one time — he needed eight catches to get to 72 yards against the Seahawks in Week 2 last year. The Patriots signaled their discontent in Harry by going out and spending big money on Nelson Agholor, Kendrick Bourne, Jonnu Smith, and Hunter Henry in free agency. Harry’s agent requested a trade in early July and there’s a chance he doesn’t make the Patriots’ 53-man roster out of training camp if New England is unable to trade him. He’s currently the #4 WR heading into camp and the Patriots would absorb a $2 million cap hit by cutting him, but he’ll still need to show some progress in camp since WRs Gunner Olszewski and Isaiah Zuber contribute on special teams. Harry will be off the radar in every format if he’s still on the Patriots’ roster at the start of the season. If he starts the season elsewhere, he’d have to land with one of the weakest WR corps to have any prayer of fantasy relevance to open the season.
Jonnu Smith (Proj: TE14 | ADP: 139 | Pos ADP: TE16)
Bill Belichick once called Smith the best tight end after the catch before their Wild Card Round game in January 2020 so it wasn’t a total shocker the Patriots handed him a massive contract this off-season. Jonnu averaged 5.8 yards after the catch last season, which ranked fifth at the position, and he averaged 6.8 YAC over the last two seasons. Jonnu’s talent never seemed to line up with his production in his first four seasons with Tennessee. The Titans’ offense has been one of the best in the league over the last two seasons, but Jonnu played more of a bit part with Derrick Henry and A.J. Brown soaking up most of the fantasy production. Smith never reached 500+ receiving yards or 45+ catches in any of his first four seasons. He posted 41/448/8 receiving on 65 targets last season to finish as the TE13 with 9.3 FPG in 15 games. Jonnu went from being a top-three TE through his first four games to being an unusable fantasy option by the end of the year. He scored 70.1 FP in his first four contests in 2020 before scoring exactly 70.1 FP in his final 11 games. Smith flashed when he was actively used in Tennessee’s offense, and the Patriots will look to unlock his fantasy potential. Patriots TEs saw a league-low 33 targets last season, and they remedied the situation by signing the two biggest free agents in Jonnu and Hunter Henry to give them the league’s best 1-2 TE combination. Smith will compete for targets with Henry and he landed in yet another offense that projects to be one of the more run-heavy attacks — the Titans attempted 485 passes (30th) and the Patriots attempted 440 passes (31st) last season. Jonnu should see an uptick in volume as the potential #1 receiver in New England, but the entire passing game needs Mac Jones to take over for Cam Newton sooner rather than later. Smith is being drafted as a mid-TE2 but he has the potential to break out if he’s finally let loose as the potential focal point of New England’s passing game.
Hunter Henry (Proj: TE22| ADP: 135 | Pos ADP: TE15)
New England pulled off a shocking pair of moves by signing the top two available tight ends in the open market in Henry and Jonnu Smith. HC Bill Belichick has long admired both tight ends and has spoken glowingly of both in press conferences over the last two years. Belichick spoke last December about how he’s followed Henry’s career since he played for legendary Arkansas high school football coach Kevin Kelley — he’s famous for never punting. Henry hasn’t quite ascended to stud status at the position as most expected after he scored eight touchdowns during his rookie campaign in 2016. It didn’t help that he tore his ACL in May 2018, which forced him to miss the entire regular season. He’s had availability issues in each of his first five seasons and he’s yet to play a full 16-game season. Henry posted 60/613/4 receiving on 93 targets to finish as the TE10 with 10.4 FPG, and he posted career-worst marks in YPR (10.2) and catch rate (64.2%) switching from Philip Rivers to Justin Herbert. Henry disappointed with just one top-five TE performance last season but he was consistently a top-12 option with eight finishes as a TE1. Belichick and Josh McDaniels will look to recreate the Rob Gronkowski-Aaron Hernandez combination from the early 2010s after Patriots TEs saw a league-low 33 targets last season. Henry is expected to play more in Gronk role as the inline player while Jonnu will play more in the Hernandez role as the move TE. Targets could be scarce in the offense for as long as Cam Newton is in the lineup after the Patriots attempted the second-fewest passes (440) last season. Henry and Smith will also cannibalize each other a bit this season but at least the Patriots still have one of the weaker WR corps in the league. Henry doesn’t have nearly the same ceiling or floor he once had with the Chargers, and it’s tough to get too excited about Henry as anything more than a mid- to low-end TE2 option.
Hansen’s Final Points
I’ve given up trying to figure out and truly predict what the Patriots will do, so we’ll just have to see how things play out in August in terms of their QB battle. I do think Bill Belichick likes Cam Newton a lot, but he was terrible as a passer last year, and they did use a #1 pick on Mac Jones, so Cam, whose body appears to be breaking down the last few years, may not be long for the starting lineup if he’s terrible again. In Cam’s defense, it was a pandemic-ridden off-season (Cam himself had COVID during the season), and his receiving corps was one of the worst I’ve seen. If he is improved and more comfortable in his second year in the offense, and with 5+ new receivers, Cam may hold the job for a while. If he does, he’s a good bet to produce for fantasy, since he remains a force as a runner with 137/592/12 on the ground, pushing Newton to eight top-12 fantasy QB finishes in his 15 starts (pretty darn good). It’s not a sexy route, but using two 200+ picks on Cam and Jones should at least provide a strong ROI, since both players were essentially free picks as of late-July. In the early going in camp, Cam does, in fact, look a lot more comfortable.
He does not have the second-reaction ability of Cam Newton, and he won’t be used on designed runs, but Mac Jones may actually be a better option than him from Day One. Jones did a ton of RPO stuff in college, so the Pats don’t have to design two different offenses for both players. And unlike Cam, Jones is a very accurate passer, so he should be a solid executer right away in a run-heavy offense with a good OL and a proven play-caller in Josh McDaniels. With Jones starting, the Pats can get back to their quick passing game, as well. The problem is Jones is a rookie who won’t produce much with his legs, and those guys almost never do much in their first season at least. He’ll be nothing more than a low-end QB2 once he cracks the starting lineup.
He is the main guy in the Patriots backfield, that much is clear, but Damien Harris’ fantasy potential and value comes down to one simple thing: the team’s QB battle. If Cam Newton is starting and James White is healthy, Harris will be tough to count on for TDs, and especially receptions, so it will likely be a repeat of 2020, when he was good in NFL terms, but mediocre for fantasy and averaged just 9.1 FPG even as the team’s top RB Weeks 4-14. Harris did also wear down last year and he missed multiple games early and late in the season, as well, so his durability is a question. He’s also not guaranteed a thing in this backfield with fourth-round pick Rhamondre Stevenson a potentially-solid early-down runner (and Harris’ value will take a hit if Sony Michel surprisingly opens the season on the roster). On the other hand, if it’s Mac Jones in as the starter, then Harris’ TD potential rises considerably, and perhaps also his receiving production, since Jones is likely already a better checkdown QB than Cam. When it’s all factored in, Harris’ ADP of 90 and at RB34 is very fair. For now, the main catalyst for moving Harris up our board is that QB situation.
He had a lost season last year, but even if James White returns to form and plays every game, he’s hard to get excited about— at least until Mac Jones is inserted into the starting lineup. White has never reached 95+ carries in any of his seven seasons, and he’ll be lucky to even hit 50-60 this year with their early-down RB depth. White still saw a target on a whopping 31.0% of his routes last season, so he’s not hopeless. That’s especially true if Jones is starting. There’s no reason to consider White in the first 10-11 rounds of a typical redraft league of 12 teams or fewer, but he could hold a little more value and return to being a viable flex if Cam improves greatly and/or Jones is the guy.
It’s been clear all offseason that Sony Michel’s time in New England could be coming to an end soon, so he’s a wildcard. It’s certainly possible that he lands on another team with a greater need for his services, and Michel showed promise at times in 2020, averaging an impressive 5.7 YPC and 16.3 YPR on seven catches. There’s a pretty good chance that he moves on and sees a boost in fantasy value, so check our cheat sheets all summer for the latest.
Considering their two new TEs may essentially cancel each other out, and since I have little confidence still in Nelson Agholor, Jakobi Myers is my favorite fantasy pick on the Patriots, and most of our staff agrees. He’s just a good “football player” who has gone from being an UDFA to being the WR34 in the final 11 weeks of the season with 12.9 FPG. The other Patriot WRs can work in the slot, but Myers is a good bet to lead them in slot snaps after running 60% of his routes from inside the last two seasons. Of course, we do have to confirm whether or not Myers will be on the field when there are only two wideouts lined up. Myers did click pretty well with Cam Newton, which is certainly a good sign because that means he should have no problem working with the more accurate Mac Jones. His upside isn’t anything special, but it won’t be too hard for him to deliver a nice ROI at his inexpensive 190 ADP. He was WR71 off the board the final days of July, and we had him considerably higher at WR61, so he’s a good late-round flyer.
He was a revelation last year, but it’s really hard for me to show much love to Nelson Agholor, who is getting a modicum of love from fantasy players at the WR63 off the board around 160. That’s certainly inexpensive still, but not enough for me to warm up to him as a pick. He did ball out last year, but it was a different offense and QB, and New England’s system is generally one of the tougher ones to master in the league. He will likely be their “shotplay guy,” so he could make some big plays and have a few strong weeks, but expecting consistency is a stretch, especially with an in-season QB change likely.
With an ADP of 400+ and a crowded receiver group that won’t likely have a lot of production to go around, Kendrick Bourne is merely someone to consider on the Waiver Wire if they have multiple injuries at receiver.
I’d imagine that N’Keal Harry will be moved to another team at some point this season, which does make him somewhat interesting as a late, late pick. I’m talking really late, since his ADP is 400+ this summer. He could be a decent “chance of scenery” guy at some point soon, but I’d rather take a flyer on a guy who hasn’t sucked much in the NFL so far, and Harry has sucked pretty bad.
It’s not fun projecting players for the Bill Belichick-led Patriots because they’re not afraid to cut across the grain with anything they do, which makes them unpredictable. It’s especially not fun when they have two players at the same position who are seemingly equal in talent and potential. That’s the dilemma we’re all facing with their two new TEs this year, but we have to give it up to Jonnu Smith as their best option. Smith has never hit even 500 receiving yards or 45+ catches in a season, but he definitely would have in 2020 had he not been needed to block so much after the Titans lost their star left tackle. Smith, of course, remains in a run-heavy offense, and now he’s set to split snaps and targets with an excellent player in Hunter Henry, so I’m not actively targeting Jonnu. Still, we know Belichick and the Pats have had a man-crush on Smith for years, so a top-12 season cannot be ruled out. His ADP of 140 overall and TE16 is fine, and in fact we do have him at TE14.
Until we get more intel on the situation, we are guessing that Hunter Henry will line up inline (the Gronk role) for more than Jonnu Smith, which would mean Jonnu is the move guy. It’s just a guess, and guessing what the Patriots will do is really tough, though. It’s especially tough because Henry is really, really talented. He’s also had more injury concerns than most high-end players the last 2-3 seasons, and he also might go off the board before Jonnu (per NFFC ADP, he is as of late-July). Still, it’s possible that he falls in your draft to a more palatable range like 150-160 overall, and if so, and you’re looking for a TE2 with talent, he’d be worth a shot based on his talent alone.