Welcome to this week's roundtable, where our fearless panel of fantasy pundits examine the woes of the Patriots passing game, select and reject candidates who could help or hurt you in the playoffs based on their recent strong performances, and finish the festivities with their choices of the best and worst fantasy matchups from the Week 14 games.
With this in mind, let's examine what we think about these topics as we head into Week 14:
Patriots Passing game
Matt Waldman: Rookie Scouting Portfolio contributor, football coach, and Footballguys reader J. Moyer posted two tweets that I found interesting:
"Brady throws deep enough to try to keep defenses honest. Losing a guy like Gordon who would occupy the opposing CB1 running deep routes likely will have a bigger impact than Josh Gordon's stats would suggest. "
"Tom Brady in 2019...
Jeff Pasquino: The first bite for me is that Pittsburgh could not survive losing two of the three "B"s in their offense. No Le'Veon Bell and no Antonio Brown left Big Ben a big mess. That led to the third "B", which was a broken Ben Roethlisberger—and a trash heap in the wake that is the Pittsburgh offense.
Not even JuJu could have enough "ju-ju" to survive and perform as an elite receiver. I thought that the Steelers could keep on putting up solid fantasy numbers, but such was not the case this year. Not even the departed Brown and Bell could live up to their lofty rankings entering 2019, and I fell into that trap.
Andy Hicks: Things just haven’t worked for the Patriots passing game this season. Bad luck, bad timing, and aging or retired players have all contributed.
Their first-round rookie wide receiver N’Keal Harry struggled in training camp and then got injured. Josh Gordon is clearly a shadow of the player he was so relying on him was misguided.
The point of view that the passing game is struggling because of the lack of a deep threat is a good theory for the problem the Patriots have right now, but it’s a more detailed issue than just a blanket statement. Ron Gronkowski retiring was never going to be a simple fix either.
I would not be relying on a Patriots receiver for the next three weeks unless you count James White. The running game struggling as well means that the usually productive Patriots offense is struggling on all cylinders.
I can’t see where their points are coming from, but I do know they usually pull a rabbit out of the hat at this time of the year and they have a month to figure it all out. Too late for fantasy football, but good enough to be a threat in the playoffs.
Dan Hindery: There is certainly an added value to having a credible deep threat. It changes the way a defense must game plan in terms of positioning of safeties. We have seen how players like DeSean Jackson and Will Fuller V have impacted the overall production of their respective offenses in material ways above and beyond their own production. If teams are willing to single up the Patriots outside wide receivers, it allows them to use their safeties more creatively to limit the short underneath passing game and to stack the box more against the running game.
The lack of talent and speed at wide receiver is not the only problem for the Patriots offense, however. They have suffered injuries on the offensive line. I also feel like we are seeing Brady show his age to some extent.
It isn’t necessarily the early weeks of the season where older players are at a disadvantage. It becomes more of an issue as the season progresses.
Recovery time is slower and it seems the cumulative wear and tear of the season adds up more for players as they get older. Brady has defied history in so many ways and he may continue to do so. However, he is 42-years old and can only hold off Father Time for so long.
The lack of top receiving options and inconsistent offensive line play aren’t helping matters but I think it is also fair to wonder if Brady is starting to show the signs of decline that most quarterbacks five years younger start to suffer through.
Maurile Tremblay: The Patriots offense lacks deep threats, but the problem is more general than that: they lack short and intermediate threats, too. Julian Edelman is still an extremely effective receiver underneath, but it takes more than one receiver to make a passing offense go. (Okay, two receivers if we're counting running back James White.)
Rob Gronkowski's retirement had a huge impact on this offense. The Patriots could use Brandin Cooks back, as well. I don't think Josh Gordon's departure, however, had a significant impact. He is no longer much of a playmaker, and I suspect the stats pointed out by J. Moyer are, more than anything else, an example of a phenomenon known as "splits happen." (Link 1, Link 2.)
After Edelman, the Patriots WRs currently consist of two rookies, Jakobi Meyers and N'Keal Harry, and former Colt Phillip Dorsett, who has never really caught on in this offense and doesn't appear to have Brady's confidence. Meyers and Harry may have bright futures ahead of them, but the complicated Patriots offense is a difficult one for rookies to thrive in right away.
The player waiting in the wings here is Mohamed Sanu. He came over from Atlanta in the middle of the season and has been struggling through an ankle injury in recent weeks. When healthy and fully incorporated into the offense, he could be the Patriots second-best receiver down the stretch after Edelman. Of the Patriots' current crop of receivers, Sanu would be my choice to add to my fantasy roster.
Justin Howe: Of course, the lack of a deep threat will always hinder an offense to a degree. Still, there are more ways to get downfield than through pure speed. And the Patriots have spent the better part of the last two decades “manufacturing” a big-play passing game.
For years, Rob Gronkowski was the mismatch that defenses had put their focus (and their best inside cover man) on. Before that, it was Deion Branch and David Patten and Chris Hogan, using smarts and technique rather than Gordon-level speed to scheme themselves open down the field.
They didn’t have to be Gordon or Tyreek Hill or Willie Gault to work their way through the soft spots of the deep zones. These Patriots not only lack game-breaking ability: they also lack that 2004 level of polish and technique. Beyond Edelman—who’s a slot specialist only—there’s no longer that stable of heady, instinctive receivers.
Going forward, I’m also expecting big(ger) things from James White. His role in neutral/negative game script is often huge, and the Patriots will see more of that flow down the stretch. And with such a bare cupboard at wideout, White should remain Brady’s second-favorite target quite often. Another game or two of 10+ targets should be in the cards.
Waldman: I think there's a massive misunderstanding about Josh Gordon's skills. I frequently hear implications that he's a straight-line player who wins with strength and speed only. Gordon is a skilled route runner with excellent flexibility for routes way beyond the vertical patterns that people solely associate with his game.
New England's passing game requires more mental/conceptual acumen for processing routes post-snap than any offense in the league. Chad Johnson, Reggie Wayne, and Brandon Lloyd are just a few of the quality NFL receivers in the league who could not handle the on-the-fly adjustments mid-play that are required of Patriots receivers.
Randy Moss handled it like a champ and it's probably why Bill Belichick said Moss was one of the smartest players he ever coached. By comparison, Gordon's stretch of games between Weeks 4-15 when with the Patriots was "the best mark of any Brady-to-receiver combo since 2006," according to Pro Football Focus as shared by NFL.Com's Mike Giardi:
The difference in New England's offensive output with and without Gordon, who played for the Patriots from Weeks 4-15, is a reminder of just how gifted the 28-year-old is. The Pats' production was better when Gordon was active, as they threw for slightly more than 60 yards per game and scored 2.5 points more per contest. Gordon's 18 yards per catch placed him second in the entire league, trailing only then-Bucs receiver DeSean Jackson (now with the Eagles). And Tom Brady averaged 11.3 yards per attempt to Gordon, which is the best mark of any Brady-to-receiver combo since 2006, according to Pro Football Focus. The sample size is small, but that's better than Brady to Randy Moss (9.2) and Brady to Rob Gronkowski (10.3).
The "Gordon is a shell of himself" might actually be a narrative. He's 27, he suffered a knee issue this year, and the Patriots offensive line struggled enough that it likely changed who Gordon could target. However, because Gordon still commands respect from defenses, his presence creates more underneath cushion for teammates.
From a film-based perspective of cause-and-effect, I'm buying the idea that Gordon's absence has hurt the Patriots. It's not the only cause of the Patriots' struggles, which you guys pointed out well, but I will not be understating Gordon's absence. As with the false narrative that Adrian Peterson was a shell of himself during his final season with the Vikings, I think there's a good chance we'll see a healthy Gordon performing well enough in 2020 at the still young age of 28 that folks will have to reconsider the original argument.
As for the Patriots offense moving forward, I'm not enthusiastic about any wide receiver. N'Keal Harry has always had difficulty separating as an outside receiver. His best fit has always been as a slot player. Jakobi Meyers is naturally a slot option as well. Phillip Dorsett? He's a split end who might be better off in the slot. Mohamed Sanu? Yep, you guessed it if you've watched what role he played in Atlanta.
Brady is statistically excellent when his receivers are wide-open — I'm talking about "college open." When they're tightly covered, his accuracy is in the middle of the pack for the NFL.
The issue with the passing game is that Brady thrives when players are wide-open and his offense is designed for he and receivers to outsmart the coverage mid-play so they are wide-open but his receivers aren't skilled enough to consistently earn the separation Brady needs to succeed to the degree he once did. The offense needs players it doesn't have to make the passing game thrive and it got rid of one of them in Gordon mid-season.
If the Patriots improve offensively, it will happen because left tackle Isaiah Wynn's return allowed the line to place its other starters back at natural positions and the running game improves enough that New England can leverage it for easier opportunities in the passing game. Still, I don't see enough improvement ahead to invest in any of these receivers as a priority pick.