Is the Risk Worth the Reward for Josh Gordon in Fantasy Football?

With Josh Gordon officially reinstated by the NFL, what kind of fantasy season can we expect in 2019?

For the New England Patriots, last Friday's bombshell that Josh Gordon would be reinstated couldn't have come at a better time.

After tendering him a low-round restricted free agent contract in March, the Patriots spent the entire offseason moving forward at the wide receiver position as if they would not be receiving any on-field contributions from Gordon in 2019.

But as of last week, Julian Edelman, Demaryius Thomas, and Cameron Meredith were still the PUP list, and injuries to N'Keal Harry, Phillip Dorsett, and Maurice Harris kept them from participating beyond warm ups in the second of two joint practices against the Tennessee Titans last week.

So with Gordon back in the mix at an opportune time, what sort of impact can we expect him to have for the Patriots and in fantasy football moving forward?

The Patriots Are Playing It Cool

After releasing a milquetoast statement statement over the weekend, the Patriots and head coach Bill Belichick offered no further comment regarding Gordon's return. They did, however, place him on the Active Non-Football Injury list (Active/NFI).

The presumption is that they want to see what kind of physical and mental shape he is in before putting him on the practice field, and placing him on the Active/NFI list keeps a lot of options open.

He can come off the list at any time by taking the practice field, but if he does, the team loses the ability to place him on the Reserve NFI list in the event that he he needs more time to acclimate. If for some reason that were to be the case, Gordon wouldn't be eligible to return to 53-man roster until week seven. All of this is quite procedural, and par for the course in terms of how the Patriots utilize every avenue the CBA affords them to maintain roster flexibility.

There is also very little doubt that Gordon will be physically ready to take to the practice field soon.

In a piece by The Boston Herald's Kevin Duffy earlier this month, Detroit Lions wide receiver Brandon Powell -- who has trained with Gordon in Gainesville, Floria each of the past two offseasons -- said of Gordon, "It's like watching a horse run...we run conditioning on the track -- 100s, 150s -- he dusts everybody." When asked if he thinks Gordon will have any problem quickly returning to the form we saw last season, Powell also stated, "If you train with him, you wouldn't even know that he's suspended or anything."

What Josh Gordon's Return Means for the Offense

With Gordon having been suspended indefinitely in late December of last year and missing the playoffs, it can be easy to forget just how dynamic he was once he got comfortable in the Patriots' offense. Not only was he New England's most dynamic offensive weapon in 2018, but he was one of the most efficient pass catchers in the entire NFL.

Among players with at least 50 targets last season, Gordon was fifth in numberFire's Receiving Net Expected Points (NEP) per reception behind David Moore, Mike Williams, Tyler Lockett, and John Brown. He also ranked seventh in Receiving NEP per target last year behind Lockett, Williams, Tyler Boyd, Tyreek Hill, T.Y. Hilton, and Mike Evans.

In fact, at 1.56 Receiving NEP per reception in his 11 games with New England, Gordon was the most efficient, dynamic wide receiver Tom Brady has had the opportunity to throw to since Randy Moss's record-breaking 2007 season (minimum 50 targets).

Year Player G Rec Tar Total Rec NEP Rec NEP/Rec
2004 David Patten 16 44 95 83.01 1.89
2007 Randy Moss 16 98 159 156.95 1.6
2019 Josh Gordon 11 40 68 62.56 1.56
2003 David Givens 13 34 54 53.09 1.56
2009 Randy Moss 16 83 138 114.75 1.38

The talented pass catcher also ranked ninth in NFL Next Gen's yards after catch per reception (YAC/R) at 7.1, third in YAC/R above expectation (3.0), and he did all of it while receiving the fifth-smallest average amount of cushion from defenders among wide receivers in the NFL (4.7 yards per snap) last season.

Keeping all of that in mind, it's easy to see why there was such a stark difference in the performance of the Patriots' 2018 offense with and without Josh Gordon on the roster. In the five contests without him, New England ran at a clip of .09 NEP per play. With Gordon, that increased to .17 NEP per play. They also saw their NEP per drop back (NEP/P) figure rise from .15 without Gordon, to .27 NEP/P with him.

Flash's Opportunity

Last season, Gordon was the WR24 from Weeks 6 through 15 in standard leagues, averaging 8.4 points per game, and numberFire's current projection for 2019 has him at WR25, notching 129.5 fantasy points. I see Gordon outperforming these figures for two reasons.

First, it would be pretty shocking if the former All-Pro -- whose arrival has already let to veteran Dontrelle Inman being granted his release -- wasn't in the starting lineup at home against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 1. And with a rapport already established with quarterback Tom Brady, I wouldn't expect much of a latency period, either.

Second, without Rob Gronkowski, expect the Patriots to to be slightly more aerial this season. As I wrote a couple of weeks ago, since 2016, when the Patriots have been without Gronkowski, they threw the football at a higher clip (two drop backs per game) despite going 11-2 in those contests and seeing fewer negative game scripts.

But the more interesting aspect of the splits with and without Gronk -- as they relate to Gordon's situation -- were in the target distribution department.

With around five extra targets per game available, one would expect Patriots' running back targets to slightly increase, given their propensity to utilize their backs in passing situations. But they actually dipped from 9.71 per game (28.05% target share) to 9.31 (25.61% target share). Naturally, this led to a large spike in wide receiver targets -- from a 47.69% share to 64.76%.

Gronkowski's retirement also made his 19.5% air yards share available, according the NFL Next Gen Stats. One would have to imagine that Gordon -- who led the New England offense in air yards share at 22.9% in 2018 -- would be a top candidate to absorb some of those vacant air yards.

Couple all of this with the aforementioned injuries to the wide receiver group -- not to mention the current injury and suspension issues throttling the team's tight end position -- and 2019 could be a massive year for Josh Gordon.

ADP and Risk

Following the Gordon reinstatement news, as of Sunday morning, his best ball ADP is has jumped to 73.5 -- or WR32 -- according to Yahoo's Brad Evans. This would put him somewhere in the Will Fuller to Curtis Samuel range, and his ADP could continue to rise if we get more positive news as we get closer to the season.

Everyone is aware of the inherent risk involved with drafting Josh Gordon, and if the volatility of his off-field issues are too much for you to handle in season-long formats, that's understandable.

But given the situation he'll be in, and how incredibly talented he still is, the risk is just as high that you are leaving a high-end WR2 or low-end WR1 off of your board.