When The Dust Settles
At this point, the high-end free agents have inked their new deals. Some opted to settle back into their 2020 home on short deals. Those who have stayed put are awaiting the next two years of free agency when the salary cap is set to balloon by about $20 million and another $50 million in 2022 and 2023 respectively. Like in any market some were willing to spend up, while others decided to shop the bargain bin leading up to the draft. All of this movement does offer opportunity in the form of vacated targets and a possible uptick in overall offensive production that will provide some hype heading into the fantasy season. This series will take a look at some of the more intriguing, yet very different, situations across the NFL landscape when the dust settles.
The table below will provide some immediate context for the analysis below.
Looking at the Patriot’s moves, it feels like they are trying to rebuild as quickly as possible. They spent a whopping $268 million so far in free agency. Bill Belichick’s love of tight ends in his offense is no secret. After drafting a pair in the 2020 draft with Dalton Keene and Devin Asiasi, he went out and bought the two best free agents available in the market in 2021. The Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith pairing reminded a lot of people of the duo of dynamic Patriot tight ends of the past, but these two won’t be Gronk and Hernandez.
The Patriots seem like they are trying to recreate something. Not trying to reinvent the wheel but maybe pull it out of the garage and dust it off. The wheel in this case is the magic that was the Patriots’ dual tight end in 2011. That season produced the #1 and #3 TEs in PPR formats with Gronk and Hernandez looking like a can’t miss duo for years to come. Couple that with Greg Olsen’s usage for the Panthers’ in 2014/2015, and it paints a picture of what Belichick envisions for his new tight end acquisitions. The question that remains though is, Cam Newton. “Is this version of Cam sufficient enough to make this dream a reality.” To answer that, we need to take a look at those two amazing seasons.
The 2011 duo of Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski is what a lot of fantasy enthusiasts jumped to immediately when hearing about the newly signed free agents. It is an easy comparison to make when you look quickly, but the tight end group in 2011 will probably go down as the best season two tight ends can possibly have on the same field. In 2011, those two hovered around a 20% target share of a high volume Patriot offense and ended up finishing as the TE1 and TE3 in PPR scoring. Gronkowski had 17 TDs to Hernandez’s 7, but both were big-time playmakers who thrived in that offense. Tom Brady attempted 611 passes that year, eclipsing Cam’s career-best in his rookie year by almost 100 attempts.
The Patriots still managed to have a wide receiver in Wes Welker garner 28.3% of the target share. While I don’t see any current Patriot wide receiver that can mirror what Welker did, it does look like Belichick might be looking to blend the two offensive styles. Having the dual tight ends being the focal point of the offense is the first plan. Next would be using Nelson Agholor in the way that the 2015 Panthers used Ted Ginn Jr opening up everything underneath for Cam Newton to hit as accurately as he can at this stage in his career. The running backs didn’t play a huge part in either offense as the two teams combined to average just around 9% of the target share of their offense.
The biggest problem of comparing Henry and Jonnu to Gronk and Hernandez is that there will never be another Gronk and Hernandez. More specifically, there will never be another Gronk. We all know Gronk has had a hall of fame career, but digging into the numbers his production has been unreal. Gronkowski boasts a career touchdown rate of 15.2%. That is higher than some pretty stellar company; Jerry Rice(12.7%) Marvin Harrison (11.6%) Antonio Gates (12.1%) and Tony Gonzalez(8%) and right around Randy Moss(15.9%). Henry is around 10% and Jonnu is 14% in a much shorter sample size.
Although the additions to this offense look to be trying to mirror these two offenses pretty closely, they may fall well short of expectation for the 2021 season at least. Cam Newton should definitely perform a lot better than his 2020 campaign, although that bar was set pretty low. The real target for this team to compete and produce higher-end fantasy assets will be in the 2022 season.
The team was very active in free agency this offseason trying to fill the 141 vacated targets from the 2020 season. They added a few notable players, Hunter Henery, Juno Smith, Nelson Agholor, and Kendrick Bourne, to bolster the receiving core. Although, there is some question about the addition of Agholor fitting the system. While he was great with the Raiders last year, he may not match that well with the skill set of QB Cam Newton. Agholor had an average depth of target of 15 yards last year, while the Patriots averaged just under 7 yards per target.
Then there is the matter of WR N’Keal Harry, the Patriot’s 2019 first-round selection. He almost seems destined to revive his career via trade at this point. Harry was the 5th best option in this low volume passing offense last season. And not to pile onto a bad situation, but the Patriots were also 4th in the league in errand throwing percentage. Which is the percent of throws off the mark that are not including spikes or throw-aways. All this leads one to believe Bill has his eyes on a quarterback in the draft. And there are rumblings around the league that they could be trading up for a QB. It would be a perfect system to sit a rookie behind Cam to learn the playbook. After all, New England is known to have one of the most complex offenses to grasp.
Remember in 2015, when the Carolina Panthers offense was just fun to watch? Back when Cam Newton had an MVP season? Newton dropped a stat line of 3837/35 passing with another 636 and 10 TDs rushing that season. And those 35 TDs through the air were well above his career 23 passing TD average, excluding the anemic 2020 season we witnessed. The main focus of that offense through the air was the tight end position. TE Greg Olsen accounted for about 25% of Cam’s attempts in this offense. And the heavy volume to the TE position was something that helped Cam thrive.
That season they had a burner in Ted Ginn that could stretch the field and a big-bodied target in Devin Funchess. They also include some rotating wide receivers with Jerricho Cotchery and Corey Brown. Ginn received almost 20% of the targets that season. While respectfully Funchess, Brown, and Cotchery were around 12.7%, 11%, and 11%. The running backs in a rotation that saw targets were Jonathan Stewart, Fozzy Whittaker, and Mike Tolbert. Who totaled 12% of the target share all together.
If Belichick looks back at the 2015 Panthers for a little bit of inspiration, the argument would be that one of these TEs will be in for a big 2021 season. Hunter Henry was on the field more than Jonnu in 2020 and played 87.3% of the snaps and ran routes 81.7% of the time he did play. Jonnu on the other hand was on the field 74% of his team’s offensive snaps and ran routes 65.8% of the time he was on the field.
This is obviously a different offense, and judging by the money, these guys both figure to be featured, but it may be a “Hunter Henry game” or a “Jonnu Smith game”. The one thing Jonnu has going for him is that Cam Newton’s arm is nowhere near what it used to be. And with Jonnu’s average depth of target is 5.8, Henry is around the 8 yard mark. While this may not seem like a big deal, Jonnu’s ability to get open closer to the line of scrimmage may make him the big play big yardage TE. Leaving Henry as more of the red zone threat. The safe bet here for target distribution is probably a 55-45 split with more going to Jonnu between the twenties. If we use Greg Olsen’s 25% target share in a career best season for Cam, Jonnu gets 13.5%, and Henry will get the other 11.5%. There would need to be a big uptick in passing production for either of these guys to see over 70+ targets. Of course, unless Cam can find an early season favorite to start the year.
When The Dust Settles
The Patriots seem like they are trying to recreate something, almost like trying to reinvent the wheel. The wheel, in this case, is the magic that was the Patriots’ dual tight end pairing of Gronk and Hernandez. It was a duo package that produced the number one and number three tight ends in many PPR formats. And couple that with the way Greg Olsen was utilized in 2014-15. I think it paints a picture of what Belichick envisions for his new tight end acquisitions. The question is, “Is that dream realistic with this current version of Cam Newton at quarterback?”. And to answer that, we need to take a look at those two amazing seasons.
Winners: Jonnu Smith (higher floor out of TEs), Cam Newton,
Losers: Nelson Agholor, N’Keal Harry
Push: Hunter Henry
Follow me on Twitter: @FFdynastyDG
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