The Patriots try to create a drama free, no distractions, “Do Your Job” environment, however they were unsuccessful in this goal in the 2018 offseason. Six months after the Super Bowl, coach Bill Belichick is still getting questions as to why he benched Malcolm Butler for the big game. Tom Brady skipped OTAs for the first time in his career. There were rumors of tight end Rob Gronkowski’s retirement, and wide receiver Julian Edelman was suspended for the first four games of the season. The Patriots must be relieved that they are just five weeks away from Opening Day and getting back to business. Here are the key questions and storylines which Patriots and fantasy fans should be keeping an eye on during the four remaining weeks of the preseason.
Tom Brady, Quarterback
Tom Brady will be 41 at the start of the upcoming NFL season. He finished last season as the NFL leader in yards and as the number one NFL player as ranked by the players in the NFL Top 100. Brady took a different approach to this offseason and skipped OTAs. There is no question that Brady knows the playbook, but there is a question how he will mesh with his receivers with Edelman missing the first four games and Danny Amendola now playing in Miami. Brady’s time on the field in the preseason games will be limited, but when he is out there look for signs of rust, his age catching up to him, and to see if he has developed any rapport with receivers not named Chris Hogan.
The Running Backs
The Patriots changed up their running back strategy this offseason and invested heavily in the position. Returning running back, Rex Burkhead, received a three-year contract and the Patriots doubled down on the position by drafting Georgia’s Sony Michel at the end of the first round. They will join receiving back James White as the players most likely to impact the Patriots in the running game. While White’s receiving role is solidified, I am more concerned about the split in opportunities between Burkhead and Michel. Watch closely to see who is getting the valuable goal-line carries as well as to see if any of the three running backs see time in the slot in Edelman’s absence.
The Wide Receivers
Chris Hogan has locked down the WR1 slot with Edelman serving his suspension, though it’s yet to be determined how the rest of the depth chart will shake out. The August 1 release of Jordan Matthews due to injury only muddied the waters. Malcolm Mitchell was released August 6th, Kenny Britt has been sidelined in training camp with injury, Cordarrelle Patterson has been limited in his receiving duties the past few years, and Phillip Dorsett seems to have an inside track to the WR2 spot until Britt can get healthy and challenge him for the role. Eric Decker was signed after Matthews was released, he will be a long shot to make the squad after signing after training camp. Expect the season to start with Hogan, Dorsett, Britt, Patterson, Slater, and rookie Braxton Berrios as the six receivers, with Edelman either joining them or knocking Berrios from the sixth spot in week 5. Decker could factor in if Britt fails to get healthy.
The Tight Ends
There was a huge sigh of relief from Patriots fans and fantasy owners when Rob Gronkowski showed up on time for Patriots training camp. When healthy, Gronkowski is the best tight end in the NFL. Expect Dwayne Allen to stay in his role as the blocking tight end, so this preseason watch to see how second-year player Jacob Hollister has progressed and to see if he gets additional snaps and targets in the” Move” tight end position backing up Gronkowski.
The Punt Returners
The Patriots typically have two punt returners. They have the returner who they expect to return punts and they have the guy who fair catches punts inside their own 15-yard line or when the game is close. This second role is typically filled by a sure-handed wide receiver, normally Edelman and likely Hogan as long as Edelman is suspended. The first role is what I will have my eye on during the preseason, as it has the potential for fantasy relevance. If one of the defensive backs such as Cyrus Jones wins the role I will be disappointed. For fantasy purposes, I am hoping that rookie wide receiver Braxton Berrios wins the role. As a receiver, Berrios projects to play the slot and could potentially be the heir to the position which has paid dividends with Brady since 2001.
The defense should show improvement with Dont’a Hightower returning from injury. Veteran additions of Adrian Clayborn and Jason McCourty should help to shore up a defense that was decimated by the Eagles in the Super Bowl. My eyes will be on how this unit responds in the wake of former defensive coordinator Matt Patricia departing to coach the Lions and to see who lines up at cornerback opposite Stephen Gilmore.
This will be Bill Belichick’s 19th season coaching the Patriots, but this may be the first where he has been openly questioned for his coaching decisions after benching Malcolm Butler in the Super Bowl. Belichick’s acquisition of Cordarrelle Patterson ahead of the changes to the kickoff rules has drawn positive reviews, as the rule changes should allow Patterson more opportunities to break long returns. I suspect the recent investments in running backs could also be the result of the new lowering the helmet rule, as running backs who lower their head when initiating contact could be suspended. Belichick has built out the depth chart with Sony Michel, Rex Burkhead, James White, Brandon Bolden, Jeremy Hill and undrafted free agent Ralph Webb. Webb, who projects to be on the taxi squad, received a signing bonus of $40,000, a significant amount for an undrafted player.
The Patriots should win the AFC East again. The Bills and Jets could potentially be starting rookie quarterbacks and the Dolphins hope Ryan Tannehill returns to health. I don’t see any of these teams competing for the top spot in the division. The Patriots will once again be battling the Chiefs, Steelers, and Jaguars for a shot at representing the AFC in the Super Bowl.
I expect the following players to be significant in fantasy this year:
Tom Brady – will be a top 12 quarterback.
Rex Burkhead – should be a top 20 running back.
Sony Michel – should be a top 25 running back.
Chris Hogan – will be a top 24 wide receiver and could finish top 12.
Julian Edelman – will be a top 36 wide receiver from week 5 on.
Rob Gronkowski – will be a top 5 tight end and could finish as the tight end 1.