Should Tom Brady's fantasy value be dramatically reassessed?
I've always thought the expression "blind faith" was redundant. It seems to me that the moment faith isn't blind -- the moment we can see proof -- it stops being faith. In politics, in religion, in relationships and, yes, in sports, to believe without tangible evidence is by definition a faith act. You choose to accept, and a mountain of contraindications won't sway you.
Perhaps that's where I am with Tom Brady. I continue to contend that Brady deserves to be considered an ultra-elite NFL signal-caller and a top-three fantasy QB despite an incredibly bad offseason for the New England Patriots.
I'll discuss the reasons for my faith in a moment. But first, let's summarize Brady's potential problems. In 2012, he had 401 completions for 4,827 yards and 34 TDs. The receivers he lost this offseason (primarily Wes Welker, Brandon Lloyd, Aaron Hernandez and Danny Woodhead) accounted for 310 catches, 3,608 yards and 19 TDs. That's incredible. Of the 654 standard ESPN fantasy points Brady produced for his pass-catchers on passing plays alone, 429 of them (that's almost exactly two-thirds) were scored by men who won't play for the Pats this year. Between free-agent defections, criminal charges and decisions not to renew contracts, New England has to replace about two-thirds of its receiving firepower in a single offseason.
And how will the Patriots do so? They'll hope Danny Amendola, a talented player who has missed 20 of his past 32 NFL games because of injury, can assume their top wide receiver job. They'll hope Rob Gronkowski is healthy enough after offseason back surgery (and four surgeries to repair his broken forearm) to contribute right away. They'll hope that Aaron Dobson is ready to become the first Patriots rookie wideout to become a meaningful contributor in the Brady era. (Deion Branch was the most successful first-year wideout Brady ever had, and in '02 he caught 43 passes for 489 yards and two TDs.) They'll hope that Julian Edelman will stay healthy for the first time in his five-year NFL career, and that Jake Ballard will return after an ACL-induced year off.
That, friends, is a lot of hoping.
Is it still possible that the Pats could pull a free-agent rabbit out of their hat? Well, they could re-sign 32-year-old Lloyd, but currently seem uninterested in doing so. (A few training-camp weeks of drops could change their mind.) A reunion with Randy Moss certainly isn't happening. Maybe Laurent Robinson, Brandon Stokley or Steve Breaston? Robinson and Stokley could be options, but they're both so concussion-prone that they'd be hard to count on; Breaston has battled knee troubles for a couple of seasons. Maybe Branch? (Yuck.) In other words, the solution probably isn't languishing off an NFL roster. Could they trade for a free-agent-to-be such as Golden Tate or Jeremy Maclin, should those players' respective teams decide their WR depth looks good? It's possible, but considering how infrequently NFL trades of significance go down, we shouldn't count on it. So the current depth chart, which also includes Michael Jenkins, Donald Jones, Lavelle Hawkins and rookie Josh Boyce, probably will have to suffice.
Brady pessimists also will point out that, in the Pats' Super Bowl years, Tom Terrific didn't produce at an elite level. In his three Super-Bowl-winning seasons, his average stat line was 19-of-31 for 220 yards, 1.5 TDs and 0.8 INTs. (Since '07, his average stat line has been 24-of-36 for 290 yards, 2.3 TDs and 0.5 INTs.) In other words, when the Pats were at their absolute best, Brady's numbers routinely looked like Ryan Fitzpatrick's. Between '01, '03 and '04, Brady had exactly one receiver with more than 57 grabs in a single year (Troy Brown had 101 in '01). David Givens, David Patten, Daniel Graham, Christian Fauria, Kevin Faulk ... these were not elite weapons, and the Patriots were a running team, ranking eighth, 12th and fifth in rush attempts in those three seasons, respectively. Finally, in those three years, Brady ranked 19th, 10th and 11th among fantasy QBs. Worry warts among us have nightmares that Brady could return to such depths.
I'm not one of them. A decade later, the NFL has changed, and so have Brady and the New England offense.
First of all, I don't envision a case where this club goes appreciably more "ground-and-pound" than it did in '12, when the Pats were second in rush attempts and seventh in rushing yards. And rushers already have siphoned off a league-high 119 TDs from New England's high-octane passing attack since '07. When giving reasons for a potential Brady breakdown, "they're going to run it way more" doesn't persuade me.
Nor can I see this team, in today's pass-happy NFL with Bill Belichick as coach and Josh McDaniels as coordinator, taking its foot off the pedal. Even with the execrable St. Louis Rams in '11, McDaniels directed an attack that finished 16th in pass attempts despite finishing 30th and 32nd in passing yards and TDs, respectively. (You can argue some of that occurred because "they were behind all the time," but in light of McDaniels' pass-happiness as a playcaller everywhere else he has been, I'm not buying.) I believe you can draw a straight line between the emergence of McDaniels as Brady's coordinator in '06 and the redefinition of New England's offense as a monolithic passing enterprise in '07.
And remember, in the past three seasons (or: since Moss left), New England's hasn't been a downfield attack. In that span, Brady is 18th in attempts of 20-plus air yards per game, among the 32 QBs who've started at least 20 games. That's mostly been because of an emphasis on Welker, Gronkowski and Hernandez, and it doesn't imply that it has somehow been easier to accomplish because of its lack of downfield strikes; this offense obviously requires tremendous precision and chemistry. But it doesn't require great outside receivers. In other words, if Dobson is only so-so and everyone else on the outside crashes and burns, I don't think that would represent Brady's downfall. The keys are Amendola, Gronkowski, Edelman and Ballard.
And I suppose here's where the faith comes in. I'm not one who believes Gronk will go on the PUP list and be unavailable until Week 7. Could he miss a game or two? It's possible. But I honestly can't believe the Patriots would've delayed his back surgery if they weren't fairly sure he'd be on pace to contribute early. That may qualify as a naive belief, but I suppose there's that pesky faith rearing its head. Similarly, I contend that Amendola, though risky, isn't as toxic as someone like Darren McFadden or Jonathan Stewart. It's foolish to ignore his recent injury history, but he hasn't dealt with a continual series of strains and pulls: He has dislocated an elbow and his clavicle. Could that mean his skeleton is somehow incompatible with playing in the NFL? Maybe. But it doesn't take a massive leap to envision him becoming Welker Plus, a versatile slot player with more deep speed than departed Wes. As for Edelman and Ballard? I have less faith in them, but it's important to realize that, before he broke his hand in Week 3 last year, Edelman was playing ahead of Welker.
I understand the doubters. When you have to paint an involved picture to come up with a rosy ending -- if this happens, and this happens, and this happens, Brady will be fine! -- drafting that player gets scary. And when you compare Brady to someone such as Peyton Manning, who appears to have an all-world receiving corps in Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker and Welker, I understand the temptation to draft Peyton instead. (Heck, ESPN's group QB ranks have recently made just this switch.) But I believe. I see enough potential in the Patriots' inside targets that I believe Brady will scarcely miss a beat, and will repeat a season in which he outdid Manning despite a nearly flawless return by the Sheriff. (And I believe it's also naive to look at Peyton's December '12 game film and not worry about a 37-year-old with fused vertebrae and other bulging discs.) Anyway, although I understand that a risk-averse fantasy owner might rather choose Manning over Brady, I don't think it's any kind of no-brainer. I still have Brady at No. 3 in my ranks, and Manning at No. 5.
Of course, I freely acknowledge that such a ranking requires faith.