The Patriots have experienced life with Tom Brady as recently as last season. The stud quarterback missed four games with a suspension and New England fared just fine as a team with a 3-1 record. However, the stark contrast of the Patriots with and without Brady was there in 2016, averaging nearly 10 fewer points per game and 35% fewer points per drive in the opening month. The offense threw eight fewer passes per game en route to 1.33 fewer touchdowns and 72 fewer yards through the air each week. Here is a look at the projected impact for the Patriots without Tom Brady in 2017.
Three of LeGarrette Blount's largest four workload games in 2016 came in the opening month of the season without Tom Brady under the center. New England's shift from the pass to run focus is the key adjustment in life without Brady. Gillislee offers more three-down ability than Blount as vaults from an RB2/3 with RB1 upside to a top-15 weekly projection.
Of the passing game options, Gronkowski is the most insulated target. Only Odell Beckham and David Johnson (active with at least 30 touchdowns) are finding the end zone at a higher per-game rate than Rob Gronkowski. The other receivers are a concern with Brady, but Rob Gronkowski remains a top-3 weekly tight end projection with at least 0.5 touchdowns per game.
White was only marginally impacted on a targets per game basis between Tom Brady on the field or off last season. The biggest difference was finding the end zone, which is always a tough projection for running backs from game to game and season to season. White is worth a hold in the flex zone of PPR leagues as a security blanket, like Rob Gronkowski within the construct of the offense.
Cooks is a wild card addition to the Patriots offense. Targets are already a concern among a crowded passing game and incumbent targets like Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski. Cooks is viewed as a WR2 with WR1 upside. Without Brady, Cooks shifts down to WR3 level with games in the WR1/2 zone if he breaks a long touchdown. New England constricts their offensive approach and Cooks is a cog negatively affected without regular intermediate to deep opportunities.
Edelman is a potential hold candidate, but the decreased volume is a critical change for Edelman without Tom Brady. Last season, Edelman's volume was cut nearly in half comparing the opening month to the rest of the season. In fact, the three lowest volume of target games for Edelman all season came in the first four games. Edelman turns into a low-upside WR3 or flex play without Brady.
Garoppolo's month-long preview with Tom Brady last season turned into a full game, partial game, then an injury of his own which paved the way for Jacoby Brissett to finish out the month. Garoppolo showed well, completing more than 71% of his passes with four touchdowns and zero interceptions. Garoppolo offers an efficient running of the offense and QB1 upside any week. However, the zone of QB2-with-QB1-matchup-upside is more fitting going forward.
Brissett becomes a waiver wire add in quarterback-premium formats as the 'next man up' if Garoppolo should miss time. Brissett's rushing upside is his greatest fantasy appeal as he rushed 16 times in less than three full games last season, including more than 80 yards and a touchdown. Without a passing touchdown to his ledger, Brissett's insertion to the starting lineup would trigger a further decline of all passing game fantasy notables on this offense.
With the focus on a more run-heavy attack weekly for the Patriots without Tom Brady, Burkhead is a savvy pickup for owners as the next man up to Mike Gillislee. The former Buffalo and Miami back (Gillislee) has averaged less than seven carries per game over his career, including only one contest with more than 15 carries. Both of Gillislee's highest volume efforts came in Week 17 close-out-the-string games in 2015 and 2016. Burkhead has flashed with his fleeting expanded role in Cincinnati including a highlight 144 total yards and two scores on 29 touches back to close last season. With more usage projected for Gillislee than any point in his career to-date, Burkhead is a hedge to stash for an expanded opportunity.