How does Brandon Lloyd's presence affect the fantasy values of other Patriots receiving options?
Tom Brady was amazing last season: 5,235 passing yards and 39 TD passes. But the most amazing part of all is that he produced such an incredible season without a deep threat. Sure, the New England Patriots gave Chad Ochocinco a look as an outside receiver and continued to hitch part of their playbook to the unreliable knees of Deion Branch. But the fact is, the three major pass-catchers in that Pats' offense last season were Wes Welker, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. Those three players were 88th, 73rd and 107th in average yards at the catch, respectively, among all qualifiers in 2011. In other words, Brady produced extraordinary downfield passing numbers while rarely actually throwing the ball downfield.
But one had the sense that it couldn't last. As tremendous as Brady's accuracy is, and as precise and/or beastly as those three pass-catchers are, good defenses started to figure out New England's short passing game. In the Patriots' final two postseason games, the Baltimore Ravens and the New York Giants held Brady below 300 yards.
That's why signing Brandon Lloyd made good sense for this team. Lloyd was mostly mired in the St. Louis Rams' terrible offense last season, yet still finished 14th in average yards at the catch. And two seasons ago, with Pats offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels serving as his head coach in Denver, Lloyd finished second in the NFL in average yards at the catch, and first in fantasy points among WRs. He does other things well, but Lloyd is first and foremost a deep-ball artist who can stretch a defense, and who has tremendous skills when fighting for a jump ball. He may not be huge (he's 6 feet, 192 pounds), but he gets up there and snatches away passes with the best of them.
I have Lloyd listed as my No. 18 WR this year, which is in itself kind of a "split the baby" ranking. One could convincingly make the argument that Lloyd should be much higher, considering he won a fantasy points title with Kyle Orton and Tim Tebow chucking him the rock a couple years back, and now will catch passes from Brady. Perhaps he can fulfill the Randy Moss role the way Ochocinco never did, and we know the kind of sweet music that Brady and Moss made over the years. Of course, one could also make the argument that the Pats' offense wasn't exactly broken and thus didn't need to be fixed, and that Lloyd will serve mostly as a sanity check for defenses too willing to play eight or nine men in the box. After all, Welker, Gronkowski and Hernandez all still need to be fed, so why would an extraordinary number of targets go to the new guy?
I think the truth will wind up being somewhere in the middle. Lloyd will have some spectacular games in which he and Brady get the deep ball humming, but I think he'll also be quiet when the Pats are content with the kind of killer methodical passing game they utilized to such great effect last season.
And if I'm right -- if Lloyd is going to be a big (if not the biggest) part of Brady's arsenal -- something may have to give with the other guys. Welker had 173 targets in '11, while Gronk had 124 and Hernandez had 113. Meanwhile, Branch had 90 and Ocho had 32. Sure, we could give Lloyd the full 122 targets from those two lesser lights and leave the other guys exactly where they were last year, but that's probably unrealistic. Branch is still on this team, and as of this writing the Pats were also allowing Jabar Gaffney and Donte' Stallworth to battle for roster spots. Therefore, the math says that some of Lloyd's targets will be siphoned from the Big Three. Will it hinder those players' values?
Probably a bit. When I put together our '12 projections for New England's pass-catchers, I gave Welker 165 (a decline of eight targets), Gronk 106 (a decline of 18) and Hernandez 97 (a decline of 16), while giving Lloyd 113 (most of which are indeed siphoned from the Branch/Ocho combo). Though he's playing under the franchise tag and could legitimately leave New England in 2013, Welker seems safest to me, because nobody else can do what he does with the underneath stuff. I still have him rated No. 7 among WRs in standard fantasy leagues. But I do think Gronk and Hernandez each lose about a target per game, which isn't enough to crush their ranks (I have Gronk No. 1 among fantasy TEs, in large part because of his red-zone prowess, and Hernandez No. 6), but it could cap their respective upsides.
The bottom line? Lloyd makes a great offense even more diverse and probably injects more week-to-week variability into the performances of everyone, save Welker. But his presence in New England is definitely not enough to scare me off the other pass-catching stars in this offense.