Fantasy Football: Making Sense of the New England Patriots' Offense After Week 1
The New England Patriots offense is notoriously difficult to get a handle on. Coach Bill Belichick never tips his hand to the media, and the fluidity with which he moves players around the field tends to leave guys with roles that are difficult to define.
That was especially the case heading into this season, as New England had a ton of offensive personnel changes. LeGarrette Blount's departure left 299 carries and 18 touchdowns unaccounted for, Julian Edelman got injured in the preseason after notching a career-high 159 targets in 2017, and Brandin Cooks was acquired in exchange for a first-round draft pick -- among other roster moves.
Finally getting to see things play out in a real, meaningful game, Week 1 has painted us our clearest picture yet on how things are likely to shake out this year for the Pats.
While Cooks didn't have a huge game, he tallied a pretty solid 88 yards on 3 receptions, and his usage looked a lot like what you'd expect from a player that the team paid such a steep price to acquire. His 7 targets (19.4% of the team's total) were tied for a team-high, and he was the team's primary downfield threat, with 148 air yards (hat-tip to FantasyADHD for the air-yard data) on those targets -- accounting for 26.1% of the team's total air yards. For context, Edelman saw a 29.0% share of the Pats' targets and 34.0% share of air yards in 2016. Cooks also got some targets in valuable areas of the field, twice being targeted inside the 2-yard line, both times drawing pass interference penalties that set up Mike Gillislee touchdowns.
Danny Amendola also saw plenty of volume, matching Cooks' seven targets before being forced out of the game with a concussion. He was being used predominantly in the short areas of the field, though, tallying only 54 air yards (9.5% market share) despite the big target number. With usage like that, his absence is likely to open up passing game work for the Patriots' running backs as much as it is for other receivers.
Chris Hogan was a favorite to pick up the volume left open by Edelman's absence, and while his 5 targets weren't an egregiously low mark, a 13.9% market share of targets is pretty low compared to what it looked like he was in line for.
He was, however, getting some high-upside looks down the field, with an average depth of target of 20.6 yards, accounting for 18.2% of New England's air yards. He only managed 1 reception for 8 yards, but those usage numbers (especially with Amendola now joining Edelman on the sidelines) mean that we can feel safe expecting his production to pick up as we move forward. Also of note is that Hogan ran the ball 3 times for 17 yards. Edelman saw 12 carries in 2016, and only two wideouts (Tavon Austin and Tyreek Hill) saw more than 20 carries on the year.
The only other wideout to see a target was recently-acquired Phillip Dorsett, who was thrown to on a 56-yard target that fell incomplete late in the fourth quarter. He may see an uptick in snaps with Amendola out, but don't look for him to play a consistent role in the offense, especially early on.
The Patriots' backfield tends to have a couple of archetypes to fill -- the big-body goalline back, a role that Gillislee was expected to assume, and the versatile passing-down back, a role in which James White was the favorite to serve.
Gillislee certainly got that goal-line work, scoring three times from inside the 2-yard line and tallying a total of 15 carries for 45 yards. His lack of efficiency isn't a big concern yet, as he was taking on a fairly stout Kansas City Chiefs defense, but that is something worth monitoring. The ability to punch in the ball from 2 yards out is not an especially rare trait for a running back, and his lack of versatility (he wasn't targeted in the passing game in Week 1 and has only 18 targets in his 24 career games) could limit his workload and playing time a bit, especially when the Patriots aren't playing with a lead.
Gillislee already saw a somewhat limited share of the team's snaps as the Pats played from behind for a significant portion of Thursday's game, and his 24 snaps (30% of New England's offensive total) ranked second among the team's backs. He also saw carries on an absurd 63% of his snaps, a mark that no back who played at least two games and averaged at least 20 snaps per game managed in 2016.
White ended up leading the backfield in snaps, playing 43 of them (53%), and he carried the ball 10 times while also recording 5 targets. He wasn't anything special from an efficiency standpoint, tallying 38 yards on the ground and catching 3 of his targets for 30 yards, but seeing such a significant portion of the New England snaps, carries and targets is a good sign that his versatility will keep him on the field a lot this season. He was primarily used in the short passing game, with -3 air yards on those 5 targets, and his ability to split out in the slot means that his role could also stand to benefit from Amendola's absence.
Burkhead was utilized often when he was on the field, notching 3 carries and 3 targets, with his 39 air yards looking more like what you'd expect from a wideout than a running back. He continues to have some interesting potential in this offense, and like White, Rex could see increased usage out wide with Amendola sidelined.
Lewis was not targeted in the passing game and posted 9 yards on 2 carries, and with the extensive usage that the other backs saw, it looks like he's a long shot to play a significant role this year. There's even been some chatter about other teams trying to trade for him.
In what should come as no surprise, Rob Gronkowski is not likely to come off the field much this year. He played 96% of the team's snaps against Kansas City, and he saw 6 targets and 113 air yards. His 16.07% share of the team's targets and 19.9% of air yards were right around his marks from 2017 (14.0% targets and 24.0% air yards), and you can expect him to keep being the pivotal part of the team's offense that he has been for years. Fortunately for the Pats, not many teams will have an Eric Berry-type capable of handling Gronk.
Even playing from behind, the Patriots used a fair number of two-tight end sets, with Dwayne Allen on the field for roughly a third of their offensive snaps. He was targeted twice for 57 air yards, and while his usage is not likely to have any sort of consistency this year, being on the field that much and seeing a couple targets per game in such a potent offense will give him the opportunity to post some solid numbers for a second-string tight end.
While it seemed like Week 1 was a nightmare scenario for the Pats, their offense wasn't that bad. Facing a Kansas City defense that ranked in the top 10 last season, per our schedule-adjusted metrics, the Patriots dropped 27 points. With Tom Brady at the helm, this promises to once again be one of the league's strongest offenses, and the players who have significant roles in it will be very impactful from both a real-world and fantasy football standpoint.