While the debate about the severity and manner of punishment for the Patriots and Tom Brady over “Deflategate” rages on, the fantasy football world has serious business to attend to - figuring out just what the impact of the four-game suspension for Brady will be on his fantasy value.
Any adjustment to Brady’s value should start with the premise that it should be measured in VBD (roughly speaking, the cumulative advantage Brady would give you over a baseline starting QB in your league), and not total points. Our Chase Stuart tackled this subject when Rob Gronkowski was slated to miss at least a few games at the start of the 2013 season. When you look at Brady’s value through this lens, instead of plummeting down the rankings, he more likely moves to the top of the next tier in your rankings (more in-depth QB tiers discussion). The likelihood that Brady’s suspension gets reduced on appeal should cause you to err on the side of putting him on the high end of the next QB tier in your early draft cheatsheets. Remember, the fourth New England game is a nationally-televised game against the Cowboys. We should not be naive when considering the factors that could play into a bottom line final decision on Brady’s punishment.
Brady’s VBD probably won’t look that attractive if you base it on his full 2014 stats, but that would amount to projecting him to have a diminished Rob Gronkowski for ¼ of the season. When Brady’s stats are limited to Week 5 on, when Gronkowski and the Patriots offense clicked into top gear, he comes out as QB3 on the season, which is more in line with what his VBD should reflect in this analysis. Unless you think Gronkowski is going to revert to his "knocking off the rust" form from early 2014, Brady's numbers after his all-world tight end looked like himself again (not to mention Brandon LaFell becoming a more integrated part of the offense) are a better baseline.
One factor that cuts in the favor of drafting Brady as a low QB1 despite the missed early games is availability of cheap alternatives who could start out the season red hot. Carson Palmer was a low QB1 before being lost for the season last year. He starts with New Orleans, at Chicago, a weakened San Francisco defense, St. Louis, and at Detroit for Week 5. The Detroit matchup is unattractive, but by the time the season starts, Brady could be eligible for that game. Sam Bradford is stepping into a Philadelphia Eagles QB job that also produced low QB1 numbers despite being occupied by lesser talents Nick Foles and Mark Sanchez in 2014. He will start with at Atlanta, Dallas, at the New York Jets, at Washington, and New Orleans. The Jets defense has been overhauled and could be a tough draw in Week 3, but if Bradford is hot heading into the matchup, he’ll be decent start because the Jets run defense was the teeth of their unit in recent years and might not be any more desirable to attack than their pass defense. Bradford does come with the risk of returning from a second ACL tear and running a new system, but the first two matchups shouldn’t be too stiff of tests as he gets his feet under him. Both of these QBs are outside of the top 15 and will cost only a very late round pick in early drafts.
Optimism about a stopgap starter to paper over Brady’s missed games shouldn’t downplay the opportunity cost of carrying two quarterbacks through the early part of the season. Brady and the Patriots have a Week 4 bye, so any Brady drafter was going to have to add a QB after Week 3 anyway, but the first two waiver wire runs after Week 1 and Week 2 are two of the most important of the season, and drafting Brady as your QB1 will deny you one more roster spot to play with in that important time when not only the best waiver picks of the season often are available, but teams that add them get the benefit of their services for 10 or more games in the fantasy regular season. This is not an insignificant cost, and should be amplified inversely proportional to your roster size. In 14-16 man roster leagues, it might not be justifiable to draft Brady as a QB1 (ie at all) because of this factor.
We also shouldn’t downplay the sting of losing Brady for the season opener against the Steelers because LeGarrette Blount will be suspended and the Steelers secondary is the weakness of their defense. At Buffalo in Week 2 could be one of the New England offense's toughest matchups of the season, but Week 3 at home against Jacksonville looks like another game that could have easily yielded three or four pass touchdowns from Brady. This also dings Blount’s value, and makes replacement Jimmy Garoppolo a risky proposition, because his first game could be a rude awakening, and his second game comes against a defense that made Aaron Rodgers among others look helpless last year.
We can even start to anticipate daily fantasy implications for the first few weeks, as the potentially juicy matchup against the Steelers to open the season could be a trap with Garoppolo making his first NFL start. Garoppolo and Jonas Gray (assuming he makes the team) would be attractive low cost plays in DFS lineups, but the uncertainty of the Patriots offensive performance clouds their outlook, even four months out from the beginning of the season. Matt Cassel’s performance under similar circumstances in 2008, with even less meaningful college football experience than Garoppolo (he was a backup at USC for his entire collegiate career) is encouraging, as is the quality of the supporting cast, but we should proceed with caution using any Patriots in Week 1 DFS. Week 2 is major avoid, but the performance of Garoppolo and the rest of the offense in the first two weeks should guide us for Week 3 and Week 5 - that is if Brady’s suspension isn’t reduced to two or three games.
What about Rob Gronkowski, Julian Edelman, and Brandon LaFell in redraft leagues? There’s no doubt that they will be less attractive plays with no Brady, and that does affect their fantasy bottom line. We still have to consider a counterbalancing force that might offset whatever drag Brady’s suspension puts on the aerodynamics of the launch of his weapons early in the 2015 season. Brady and Belichick have demonstrated time and time again that they are ruthless when it comes to running up the score and generally rubbing the face of the opponent in whatever mismatches they created in that week's specially tailored gameplan. Representatives of the franchise and Brady have expressed their displeasure with the ruling and punishment, and it’s reasonable to think that both will send a message in Brady’s possible Week 6 return against the Colts (!) and beyond, and that overflow in production should enhance the stock of Gronkowski, Edelman, and LaFell enough to leave their overall outlook unchanged.
There’s no doubt that Brady’s fantasy stock took a hit, and in short bench leagues, it might be enough to pass on him because of the early opportunity cost of covering his early absence. In 20 or more roster spot leagues, or 14-16 team leagues that have thinner waiver wire options, drafting Brady as a low QB1 and teaming him up with a cheap QB2 who can get off to a hot start could be one of the keys to winning your league. Brady was an elite fantasy QB from Week 5 on last year, and he could be even better from when he returns this year. Newton taught us that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Expect the reaction by Brady and Patriots to cause ripples in fantasy leagues this year.