How does a team's offensive dynamic change when a projected key component goes missing due to injury, suspension, or some other unforeseen act? That's the premise of our annual "What If" Series.
Of the players available to profile in this series, the most intriguing to me is Patriots slot man Danny Amendola. The heir apparent to Wes Welker in New England is considered WR20 on the average draft board as we enter training camp. It's a conservative standing for Amendola compared to his predecessor because of an injury history that has forced him to miss 20 of the past 32 games. Still, that ADP reflects the confidence fans have in the slot receiver stepping into Welker's role in the Patriots offense and producing at a nice clip for as long as he can stay on the field.
But what happens to the Patriots offense if Amendola is forced from the lineup? Who should fantasy owners count on? What should we expect from an offense that is now missing Aaron Hernandez, waiting for Rob Gronkowski to rehab from a protracted injury situation, and has 9 new receivers on its depth chart - 5 of them rookies?
New England has a history of seeking players who can create a "multiple" offensive dynamic. Aaron Hernandez could play halfback, wing, slot, wide receiver, and tight end. This versatility in each role forces defenses into binds that can generate huge mismatches for teammates if the defense accounts for that "multiple player." The Pats could compound the problem because both Hernandez and Gronkowski have that multiplicity to their games, which created multiple mismatch opportunities per player for a defense.
It's a terrifying problem for defensive coordinators. While the two tight end sets won't be as dynamic without Hernandez, Shane Vereen offers enough versatility to keep a multiple element to the Patriots offense and compound the effect when Gronkowski returns. Vereen is a fine receiver capable of adjustments to the football that are more receiver-like than the average runner. In addition, Vereen will be placed in the slot or the wing and used on receiver screens - quick throws into space.
Combine this usage with an up-tempo design, and Vereen could vie for the team lead in receptions this year because all it will take is a reception a quarter over 16 weeks to yield 64 catches. With Gronkowski able to move around the field, Vereen will see chances to line along side the big tight end in the slot opposite Amendola. Opponents will have to consider Amendola and Gronkowski first, but the Patriots can use the tight end as lead blocker and throw the screen. Vereen can also go deep and draw a mismatch on a bullet route or fade. Or, Gronkowski and Amendola clear out the middle and Vereen runs free. The options are maddening for defenses when Tom Brady is the triggerman and decision maker.
If Amendola misses time, Vereen likely earns this slot role and I would bet that four receptions per game becomes a number too low for Vereen's upside - especially with Danny Woodhead in San Diego. I'd expect Vereen to approach 80 catches for the year or at least an 80-catch pace if extrapolated over 16 games if Amendola goes MIA.
PICKING UP THE SLACK: JULIAN EDELMAN
Edelman has demonstrated that he's a dynamic option when healthy. He worked in place of Wes Welker early in the year and even when Welker was playing as good as ever, we saw Edelman post 29 fatntasy points in two weeks as the regular fantasy season came to a close. Edelman has that punt return specialist skill as an open field runner and the savvy that college quarterbacks-turned-pro-wide receivers develop against zone coverage.
There's no question than a healthy Edelman can play the Welker-Amendola role if called upon and this will allow the Patriots to continue to play the game with defenses that I described above with the slot screen play involving two slot players and Gronkowski. Don't think Edelman won't get his share of looks next to Gronkowski and have the big fella lead blocking in the flats. If defenses crowd the line, Brady then has one of three quick hitters to target for easy first downs and occasional big plays.
Because the outside receivers are either rookies or veterans with limited upside (Michael Jenkins and Lavelle Hawkins), look for Edelman to play both perimeter and slot roles entering the season. If Amendola gets hurt, Edelman could see exclusive time in the slot and despite the presence of Vereen, he could easily earn 50-60 receptions.
Think there's too many slot options and not enough slots to go around in New England? Keep in mind that New Orleans' offense operates with Jimmy Graham, Marques Colston, and Lance Moore. All three are actually slot guys who will play outside depending on the situation. Think of Edelman's role has the Lance Moore of the northeast.
ROOKIE WILDCARDS: AARON DOBSON, JOSH BOYCE, AND KENBRELL THOMPKINS
What the Patriots lack in experience on the peremeter they compensate with talent. Dobson has the hands and body control to make spectacular grabs on timing routes and 50/50 balls at the boundary and in the red zone. What's missing from his game is consistency and a true understanding of what his game's identity. Just like Ron Dayne was a big back who tried to play like a small one, Dobson sometimes tries to play a little man's game when it comes to releases, routes, and ball carrying.
When Dobson is at his best, he has a physical game where he posts up or shields defenders and then uses his skill to attack the ball to his advantage. At his worst, he tries to be quick and elusive and gives away his advantage. What Dobson will need to demonstrate in New England is that he can make the correct presnap reads and be in the right place at te the right time. Although Dobson didn't show this consistently at Marshall, the Patriots praised his intelligence as a student of the game when having him work with a white board. If he can translate this skill to the field, he could surprise.
Right now I see him as a situational receiver who earns a little more than a catch per game. If Edelman gets hurt, Dobson may see more targets, but it's wholly dependent on his reliability with the mental side of the game. It's too much of a wildcard for me to believe he'll be more than a red herring on the waiver wire until he proves otherwise. Stay tuned for camp reports that indicate he's picking up the mental game and not just making the occasional pretty catch.
Boyce is the best athlete of the young receivers. He provides a vertical presence that should earn him playing time regardless of Amendola's health. However, I see Boyce as a part-time player for the same reasons as Dobson. Pay attention to the type of praise he gets in practices. If it's about reliability to get open and be on the same page as Brady, there's a chance he could play at a 16-game pace of 40 receptions and 500-600 yards if Amendola goes down and Edelman is exclusively in the slot. That's potential flex-appeal in larger leagues.
My favorite player is Thompkins because of his route skills. He's neither as big as Dobson or as fast as Boyce. But for a player with less major college experience than the two I mentioned, he's a better route runner. He's precise, quick, and attacks the football.
Thompkins has the type of athleticism and precision to play the slot or outside. The fact that he's earning first-team reps in mini camp and now training camp is also a sign that he's making plays and doing it consistently. It may take injuries to Amendola and Edelman for Thompkins to earn significant opportunities in the Patriots offense, but history has shown this wouldn't be a stretch. If I were looking for wide receiver value Thompkins as a last-pick flier in drafts with at least 20 picks, Thompkins would be my guy as a bye-week option with upside. Check out additional thoughts on Thompkins in my "What If: Rob Gronkowski" profile coming soon.
I'd be remiss if I didn't at least mention Michael Jenkins, who has the experience to provide 300-500 yards and 3-4 touchdowns if called upon. I think these are absolute upside totals because I see him as no better than the fourth option even if Amendola gets hurt. He lacks deep speed and is better against zone than man. He also won't consistently beat a defense's top-two options when manned against them. Think bye-week option with little upside.
CANDIDATES TO FILL THE HERNANDEZ VOID: ZACH SUDFELD
Hernandez was a unique player so I don't think there are suitable replacements for the jailed star on this roster. However, there are competent players who could earn more looks if Edelman gets hurt. Michael Hoomanawanui is a good short-range threat with power. He's a nice dump-off option when a quarterback is in trouble.
However, Tom Brady is too good under pressure to opt for the slower Hoomanawanui when he'll have the likes of 2-3 other options working the underneath routes. Plus, I see Hoomanawanui fitting the Gronkowski role more than the Hernandez spot. Don't count on fantasy production from the former Rams tight end. Jake Ballard has some ability to get down the seam - before a knee injury that has continued to rob him of his athleticism according to early camp reports.
Ballard might not make the team and the compelling reason in addition to his issues moving fluidly is rookie Zach Sudfeld. The former Nevada tight end had enough injuries in college to rival Eivel Knievel. You can see him list them in this video.
Chris Brown wrote a fine article about the read-option in Grantland in late July and discussed Pistol inventor Chris Ault's offensive scheme that incorporated a tight end/H-back as a lead blocker for the read-option. Sudfeld was that player in this scheme.
While we're not going to see Tom Brady running the read-option, Sudfeld's role underscores his athleticism and versatility. He can work the seam of a defense and his height and fluidity gives him matchup advantage on targets placed high enough to rebound. Brady is just the kind of passer to make these throws.
You won't see Sudfeld put the same pressure on defenses that Hernandez could, but with Vereen, Edelman, and Gronkowski capable of working multiple positions in a formation with Ridley in the slot, Sudfeld has the skill to hold his own as an in-line blocker or wing back and allow the Patriots to continue using a 12 personnel (1 back, 1 tight ends, 2 receivers) set that has given opposing defenses a lot of trouble.
If Sudfeld continues top play well, it's not out of the question for Sudfeld to earn 35 catches, 400 yads, and 3-5 touchdowns if Amendola gets hurt. Although Brady may not run the read-option at the goal line, Sudfeld would be the perfect player to lead the way for Tim Tebow as a red zone option. I wouldn't be surprised if we see an increase in Tim Tebow's red zone workload as a tight end, runner, or option quarterback in the same backfield with Brady. This type of inventive use of Tebow could decrease Brady's scoring totals.
THE CRIB SHEET
If Amendola gets hurt, here's how I see things as of late July:
- Julian Edelman earns the slot role and has a shot at 50-60 catches, 600-800 yards, and 6-8 scores.
- Shane Vereen ups his potential from a 60-catch back to an 80-catch player with a shot at RB1 production in PPR leagues and strong RB2 in non-PPR formats.
- Stevan Ridley continues to earn RB2 production regardless of Amendola's absence because there are enough short range components in the passing game to compensate and Vereen can be on the field with Ridley at the same time.
- Rob Gronkowski will lead the team in touchdowns and likely be among the top two receivers in yardage and receptions if he returns in great condition by late-September.
- Think of the Patriots as a receiving corps with multiple slot options like the Saints: Jimmy Graham-Marques Colston-Lance Moore-Darren Sproles ~ Rob Gronkowski-Julian Edelman-Danny Amendola-Shane Vereen.
- This means outside receivers will have minimal upside.
- An increased use of multiple tight end sets at the goal line involving Gronkowski, Sudfeld, Hoomanawanui, and even Tim Tebow.
- Greater use of Tim Tebow as an option quarterback but disguised as a running in the shotgun next to Tom Brady in the red zone.
Of course, stay tuned to camp updates, which could further revise our view of one of the most wide-open competitions for offensive spots in the NFL this summer.