2021 Fantasy Football: Patriots Outlook with Mac Jones
The cuts are officially rolling in a wild preseason for the 2021 NFL season. On Tuesday, it was announced that former #1 overall pick, NFL MVP, and Super Bowl starting quarterback Cam Newton was released by the New England Patriots.
— Tom Pelissero (@TomPelissero) August 31, 2021
Under pressure to replace the most accomplished quarterback ever, Newton threw the football inaccurately and inefficiently to an already-depleted receiving core in 2020. In this piece, we will highlight the fantasy relevance of the decision to cut Newton. With Jones now leading the Patriots under center, several already-rostered fantasy names will have their values adjusted. If you haven’t drafted yet, this is your chance to get the edge on New England offensive weapons. And if you do own or are looking to acquire New England players, make the right reads on the value meter by not falling prey to media smokescreens.
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Mac Jones: No more question marks
Just months after attacking an area of need, Bill Belichick addressed the quarterback room in the first round by selecting the future under center, Alabama quarterback Mac Jones. While Jones was initially not viewed as the most prolific talent of the draft class, what he’s been promised by both Belichick and Alabama head coach Nick Saban is a familiarity with both the offensive ways in Foxborough and the culture of winning. Jones profiles as a quarterback with an ability to move the chains across all parts of the field, throw the deep ball accurately, and chip in with his legs and underrated athletic prowess. He showed off every aspect of that skill set as he had the most impressive rookie quarterback showing of the 2021 preseason.
Highest-graded preseasons by rookie QBs in PFF Preseason Era (2013)
— PFF (@PFF) August 31, 2021
Having already put in plenty of work in free agency, the Patriots clearly bolstered a disappointing pass-catching roster. With the retirement of Julian Edelman, this was enough to make several members of the 2021 Patriots fantasy-relevant, including a dynamic backfield, the return of WR Jakobi Meyers, and some fresh acquisitions in WR Nelson Agholor, TE Hunter Henry, and TE Jonnu Smith.
The question marks have dissipated. There’s no more competition at the quarterback position. Mac Jones will have both the weapons and the situation to succeed in New England and now that he’s won the job, he should be picked up in very deep leagues or 2-quarterback/superflex leagues. Leagues that have already drafted may have Mac Jones available to pick up via free agency or the waiver wire but you should be conservative with roster spots and waiver claims if you are already set at the quarterback position.
Naturally, as a result of the clear upgrade at quarterback, the fantasy power of the Patriots offense moves up a tier. Additionally, with former Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore missing some time, the Patriots defense has also now seen a huge downgrade for the first part of the season, increasing the chance the Patriots are involved in higher-powered offensive games.
Patriots placing Pro Bowl CB Stephon Gilmore on the Physically Unable To Perform List, which means he will miss at least the first six games, per source. He is recovering from quad surgery at end of last season. His agent Jason Chayut of @SPORTSTARSNYC confirmed the move to ESPN.
— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) August 31, 2021
Harris, White, Stevenson: The historically baffling backfield
One of the longest-storied befuddling situations of fantasy football has been the backfield in New England with Bill Belichick at the helm. The departure of Tom Brady didn’t do many favors in helping predict the volume or touchdown split among Patriots running backs. As an added wrinkle to all Patriots players, Mac Jones’ work in the Patriots’ 3-0 postseason run isn’t representative of how he will utilize his weapons as he didn’t get nearly enough first-team reps to provide ample insight into the fantasy situation in New England’s backfield.
For what it’s worth, targets from Mac Jones this preseason (w/ the 2s)
– Kristian Wilkerson: 13
– JJ Taylor: 8
– Gunner Olszewski: 7
– Isaiah Zuber: 4
– Rhamondre Stevenson: 4
– Devin Asiasi: 4
– Kendrick Bourne: 3
– N’Keal Harry: 3
– Michel: 2
– Meyers/Ross/Johnson: 1 each
— Michael F. Florio (@MichaelFFlorio) August 31, 2021
The quadruple in this backfield is dynamic and versatile. On the back end, J.J. Taylor profiles as a low-share back with a mediocre-tier athletic frame and some above-average agility—capable of the big play but shouldn’t be expected to be part of the offense enough to be fantasy-relevant in any league. It is currently safe to not use a roster spot on Taylor.
The lowest-end fantasy-relevant member of the Patriots backfield is rookie Rhamondre Stevenson, who led the NFL in rushing yards (216) and rushing touchdowns (5), including a 91-yard score, in the preseason. Like Taylor, the fourth-rounder Stevenson doesn’t jump off the page with his athletic profile. While he had the explosive play go his way in the preseason, he won’t nearly have enough of a role to have an impact on your fantasy team yet. He is worth a stash in mid-depth leagues as he has the potential to be the starting running back and primary rusher for the Patriots if an injury to Damien Harris occurs.
It is worth noting that Stevenson’s play was a driving force in the Patriots trading their former high draft pick Sony Michel to the Los Angeles Rams. Additionally, despite a fumble in a blowout win against the Eagles, Stevenson did not get punished on snap count for the remainder of the preseason. The bottom line: he’s talented enough to be a huge bargain late in drafts at the moment but deserves to be third on the Patriots depth chart if everybody remains healthy.
As for the true #1 in New England right now, it is clearly the electrifying talent of 24-year-old Damien Harris. Like his quarterback, Harris is a product of the Alabama Crimson Tide where he backed up Derrick Henry in 2015. In 2020, Harris received his first true exposure to the NFL, playing in 10 games and recording 743 scrimmage yards on 5.0 yards per rushing attempt. He finished as the second-highest-graded running back by PFF (90.3) but only scored 2 touchdowns and etched a fumble to his name.
In the preseason, Harris took on a 60% snap share and 88% volume share (by carries). With Stevenson having played 0 preseason snaps with the first team, Harris is not just trusted by Belichick but is also in line for more high-leverage opportunities. Instead of surrendering rushing attempts in the red zone to a mobility-based quarterback like Newton, Harris will get the rock directly and is expected to increase his fantasy production in all formats simply from finding the end zone more than just twice. I mean, just take a look at what the Patriots offense was up to within 5 yards of the end zone last season.
|Player||Carries within 5-yard line||Current status|
|QB Cam Newton||22||Free agent; released from the Patriots|
|RB Rex Burkhead||4||Signed with the Texans|
|RB Damien Harris||3||Starting running back for the Patriots|
|RB Sony Michel||2||Traded to the Rams|
|RB James White||1||Second on the Patriots depth chart|
Table. Patriots goal-line work in 2020
⚠️ There is, however, a severe caution on Harris’ usage as there always seems to be in a running back room under Bill Belichick. Although his elite PFF grade and 75th percentile workout burst score demonstrate an excess of talent, it is still a wild card just how much more we will see Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels utilize the classic pound-the-rock game with his lead back. In 2020, the Patriots executed a run play 49% of the time, ranking second in the NFL only to the Baltimore Ravens. Of course, the change at quarterback should drastically lower this number.
Mac Jones’ number isn’t going to get called on designed quarterback runs very often. He’s not going to be leaping over and bodying defenders per routine. In his 2020 season with Alabama, Jones’ 80% adjusted completion rate on non-screen passes ranked first in the nation and in the preseason, the offense featured pass plays significantly more often with Jones on the field than with Newton.
#GoPats preseason passing volume ⬇️
C. Newton at QB: 55%
M. Jones at QB: 61%
— Ahaan Rungta (@AhaanRungta) September 1, 2021
With only five receptions in 2020, Harris’ fantasy value is increased due to touchdowns but in PPR formats, the real boost in value comes from organization veteran James White. Nearly the Super Bowl MVP in 2017, White’s game is centered around versatility and his fantasy value primarily lies in his ability to take part in the receiving game. In 2020, he led Patriots running backs in targets (62), receptions (49), and receiving yards (375). He found the end zone twice on a rush and once on a reception.
With Jones being a significantly better passer than Newton and Bill Belichick looking to throw more on every down, the value of White in PPR formats should increase astronomically. More specifically, against defenses that stop the deep ball well, Jones has the IQ to look for White on dump-offs and shorter routes and convert them more often than the 79% clip White noticed on targets last season. With Tom Brady at quarterback, White recorded a near 73% reception rate and 6.5 yards per target in his career.
🚀 James White is now one of the highest-upside plays by ADP in fantasy football drafts. While he isn’t a lock to be a season-long fantasy start, he has the upside to put up RB2 numbers on a consistent basis and is thus a steal late in drafts as your team’s RB3.
Agholor, Meyers, Henry, Smith: Potential and peril of pass-catchers
The Patriots went big in the offseason all over the roster but the aggressive spending in free agency was primarily with the pass-catching corps. One of the worst pass game units in the NFL saw several major additions including WR Kendrick Bourne and three other names all headlined here. Bourne, along with returning Patriot WR N’Keal Harry saw second-team targets in the preseason but did not see a role significant enough to warrant fantasy relevance in most leagues. Both Bourne and Harry provide a variety of skills as a duo but neither should warrant being a top 2 wide receiver or top 3-4 pass-catcher on the team.
Instead, the Patriots will turn to a mixed bag offense featuring 2 tight end sets, where they have previously seen a ton of success in the Bill Belichick era. In 2011, the Patriots’ 54.7 offensive snaps per game with at least 2 tight ends on the field led the NFL. That season, Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski played on 86.1% and 94.7% of the snaps, respectively. While Patriots fans should be encouraged by their team going from 0 talented tight ends to 2, fantasy owners are in a tough spot deciding how to manage that tight end room over the course of the full season if Hunter Henry returns from injury quickly.
Henry has been a name of intrigue for fantasy owners since 2016. As a 22-year-old rookie, he played in 15 games and started in 10 of them, notching 36 receptions on 53 targets but most importantly recording 8 touchdowns. He was clearly capable of producing the big play and being a reliable body in the end zone. Since then, he has never matched that touchdown total and in 2018, he dealt with injuries that ruled him out for the season. Over the last two seasons, Patriots tight ends have combined for only 15 receptions of 10+ air yards. In that span, Henry alone has racked up 36 such receptions and 6 such touchdowns, both ranking sixth among tight ends.
In 2020, he finally got a career-high 14 starts and recorded 613 receiving yards but saw a career-low 64.5% catch rate and tied his season-low of 4 touchdowns. All that happened while he got everything going for him opportunity-wise. In 2020, Henry ranked in the top 10 in snap share, routes run, air yards, fantasy points per game, average cushion, and expected points added. He showed flashes of athleticism as his 55.6% contested catch rate ranked 13th.
Now with injury concerns heading into the season and athletic competition at the very same position, Henry should still be viewed as a TE2 but can be stashed at his ADP if the Patriots’ pass-catching room goes to shambles due to health. Henry’s deal with New England is for three years, $37.5 million.
— The Checkdown (@thecheckdown) January 12, 2020
In Smith, the Patriots have an athletic monster that should be a threat to catch the ball across the field and dominate in the end zone. In 2020, Smith ranked top ten in the NFL in production premium and quarterback rating when targeted, sixth in fantasy points per route run, and third in fantasy points per target. His best asset might just be creating after the catch as he has finished top 7 among NFL tight ends in yards after the catch in each of the past three seasons. Where Smith was frustrating for his owners last year was his inconsistency—naturally, with Derrick Henry and A.J. Brown at the helm of the Titans offense, this shouldn’t have been a major surprise. Additionally, his touchdown production may have been a statistical anomaly as he only claimed 6.6 opportunity-adjusted touchdowns even though he actually scored 9.
Smith’s deal with New England is for four years, $50 million. Still only 26 years old, Jonnu Smith has the ceiling to put up double digit fantasy points in any given week with Mac Jones at quarterback but is also not a reliable TE1 as he is not a clear-cut first option for scoring purposes.
As for wide receiver, Patriots fans’ #1 pet peeve of 2020, the clear emergent name of the system is Jakobi Meyers. One of the few bright spots of a pathetic offense last season, Meyers led the team in receptions (59), receiving yards (729), and recorded a stellar 72.8% catch rate, the best among wide receivers on the team. He was fantasy-relevant from Weeks 7 to 17, especially in PPR formats, despite never scoring a touchdown.
🛑 The naive mistake would be to think that the upgrade at quarterback would mean an immediate upgrade to Meyers’ production. With barely any competition in the receiving core for Meyers in 2020, Newton’s passing game became dominated by spamming routes intended for Meyers to make a play in the middle of the field. Now with several talented additions to the Patriots offense, Meyers’ 64th percentile catch radius is still good enough to have him be a primary volume receiver in the offense but the lack of end zone production and efficiency peripherals is concerning.
Last season, Meyers spent 46.3% of his snaps out of the slot (#25 in the NFL) and he notched 2.4 yards per route run (#8 in the NFL) but his true productivity was far from elite. His average cushion ranked #90 in the NFL, his expected points ranked #36, and his QB rating as a target ranked #78. 😬
Instead of buying way too high on Meyers with a brand new quarterback connection to contend with, go with the real skyrocketed value in the pass-catching corps of the Patriots — Nelson Agholor. 🔥
Once the league’s biggest memes for his inability to grab a football when open, Agholor shut the haters up in 2020 when he played 16 games and notched career highs in receiving yards (896) and yards per reception (18.7). He also tied his career-high in touchdowns (8) and flashed an 85-yard bomb touchdown, the longest of his career. Now 28 years old, anybody can tell you Agholor’s legs provide a ton of upside and his athletic profile will play right into the hands of Mac Jones.
This is one of my favorite Mac Jones throws of preseason, although it almost caused a N'Keal Harry injury. pic.twitter.com/TmEV97137b
— Andrew Perloff (@andrewperloff) August 31, 2021
In 2020, Mac Jones’ adjusted completion rate on deep balls was a whopping 66% and in the 2021 draft class, he ranked as the second-best PFF grade on deep balls, behind only Zach Wilson. All it takes to unlock Agholor is a passer who can place the ball accurately over his shoulder. His 15.5 yards of average depth of target (#5 in the NFL in 2020) and 2.3 fantasy points per target (#10 in the NFL in 2020) will take care of the rest. Move up Agholor in all rankings and draft him as a WR3 with an ability to start against defenses that can’t contain the explosive pass play.
The general outlook for the Patriots with the latest decision at quarterback is a lot of upwards trends due to the elite talent upside of Mac Jones. The Patriots have made it clear they will be a good NFL offense in 2021 but that doesn’t mean every fantasy player simply becomes much more effective. Use the words on caution on the tight end situation and spread out your Jakobi Meyers shares as required because we may be seeing a major wild card for fantasy purposes.
For more Rankings and Analysis please check out our full 2021 Fantasy Football Draft Kit.
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