Assessing The New Look Patriots Offense

Justin Dunbar assesses the new-look Patriots offense with Mac Jones under center.

It’s happening, folks! That’s right; Mac Jones is officially the “QB1” in New England! To be honest, I’m surprised by this. Although Jones was having a very strong training camp, Cam Newton appeared to be destined to at least start the year under center. However, here we are, and I couldn’t be more excited.

This was always going to be an interesting quarterback competition. Why? Well, simply put, these two players couldn’t be more different than one another. Seriously, when Opposite Day comes, these two would be a match! Anyways, the Patriots all of a sudden have a much different outlook heading into the season, leaving fantasy managers rushing to make quick changes to their draft board. What changes should they be making, and what will the New England offense look like in 2021? We’ll answer every critical question stemming from this quarterback change here!

All Stats via Pro Football Focus and Player Profiler. Average Draft Position (ADP) via NFC.Com

 

The Quarterback Change

 

As mentioned, these quarterbacks are truly the exact opposites of one another.

Cam Newton clearly has limitations as a passer. His 67.8 PFF passing grade ranked in the bottom half of the league, while he rarely took many chances down the field. With just a 7.3-yard average depth of target, he posted just a 2.8% big-time throw rate, while the offense lacked any sort of explosiveness. Where Newton did shine, however, was as a runner. With about 40 rushing yards/game and 7.8 rush attempts/game last year, New England built their offense around his abilities as a runner. In fact, according to Sharp Football Statistics, they were the second-most run-heavy offense on early downs, excluding the fourth quarter (where game script becomes a factor).

That figures to change with Mac Jones, who offers much more as a passer. In college last year, Jones earned a 94.8 PFF passing grade, demonstrated tremendous accuracy with an 84.2% adjusted completion rate, and also had a strong ratio of producing big-time throws (7.4%) while limiting turnover-worthy plays (2.4%). This success continued into the preseason: 92.2 PFF passing grade, 81.6% adjusted completion rate, 6.9% big-time throw, no turnover-worthy plays.

For perspective, New England ranked 6th in neutral-down pass rate in 2019. Now, they’re likely going to be more conservative with a rookie quarterback than they were with Tom Brady, but you get the idea: they’ll pass the ball much more in 2021. With Newton, they adopted a very slow-tempo offense, yet I’d expect them to pick up the pace with Jones. That means more plays, more efficiency, and more opportunities to accumulate fantasy points. This sounds like a positive!

With just a 48.72% pass-play rate in 2020, New England clearly wasn’t airing the ball out. I’d expect that to increase by a considerable amount this season. As we’ll get to, this new offense is great news for all parties involved. Who does it impact specifically? Let’s delve right into that!

 

What Does This Mean For The Running Backs? 

 

Last season, Cam Newton had 22 rush attempts inside the five-yard line. Add in his 137 overall rush attempts, and he certainly had a great share of the team’s rushing opportunities.

Thus, Jones being named the starting quarterback is great news for Damien Harris. Last season, the 24-year-old averaged five yards per carry and earned a 90.3 overall PFF grade. Somehow, though, this didn’t result in a productive fantasy asset. Due to Newton’s presence, Harris scored just two touchdowns in ten games. Add in the fact he ran just 46 routes and received just seven targets, and he managed to average under 10 points per game despite the strong efficiency numbers.

This is a new year, however. Harris should see a similar rushing workload to last year (13.7 carries/game), but his touchdown opportunities should take a major step forward. The lack of passing production is concerning, though the rushing volume could still allow him to finish as a top-25 running back. Now, I’d be careful boosting him too high up – the receiving production caps his overall ceiling – yet I certainly understand the optimism surrounding his profile moving forward.

Receiving production won’t be an issue for James White, whose stock improves significantly following this development. With PFF receiving games in every season of his career (he ran just 17 routes as a rookie), he’s been one of the top receiving backs in the NFL, allowing him to be a valuable asset in PPR leagues. The run-heavy offense, though, limited his overall opportunities; his 4 targets/game was significantly lower than his previous totals.

In 2019, White was a top-25 running back in both PPR fantasy points and expected PPR points. In the preseason, Jones certainly wasn’t afraid to target running backs; JJ Taylor and Rhamondre Stevenson combined for 12 of his 51 pass attempts. Even if White doesn’t get back to the peak production he had during his time with Tom Brady, he’s in line to see a major boost from his 2020 numbers. In deeper leagues or if you’re looking for a safer late-round running back, I believe he holds value as a steady FLEX option. It’s safe to say Harris and White are clearly heading in the right direction with the insertion of Jones under center.

 

What Does This Mean For The Receivers?

 

After signing both Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith in free agency, the Patriots are likely going to lead the league in two-receiver, two-tight end (12 personnel) sets.

This is great news for both Nelson Agholor and Jakobi Meyers; there is less overall competition for targets. As someone often targeted in the short or intermediate passing game, my money is on Meyers being Jones’ preferred option. He quietly averaged 2.24 yards/route run last year, and although his target share will go down likely – Newton targeted him extensively – he benefits in other areas. The 24-year-old wasn’t featured much in the red zone, but there’s no reason that should be the case, given his size (6’2″, 203 pounds) and success in contested-catch situations. This is all a projection, and I’d say it’s mainly a lateral move here, but his current ADP (WR59) could make him a value.

I’m a bit more bullish on Meyers than Agholor, but this move certainly helps the latter’s case. Newton only targeted a receiver 20+ yards down the field on under 8% of his passes last year, and while he was more accurate in 2020, his previous numbers raise some skepticism on that ability moving forward. In his breakout 2020 season (2.04 yards/route run), the 28-year-old Agholor was targeted 20+ yards down the field on 28% of his passes, as opposed to being utilized in the short passing games as a yards-after-catch specialist. I’m a little worried, given New England’s usage of Damiere Byrd and overall offensive scheme, that this optimal usage doesn’t align. That being said, this is a new offense, and I’m much more optimistic about his ability to thrive with the Patriots than I was a few weeks ago.

What about the tight ends? Well, they’re exactly why I’d be careful projecting too many targets in the red zone for both Meyers and Agholor. Of the two, I think Henry is the one that meshes with Jones better. The 26-year-old has thrived as a steady option in the intermediate (31% of targets 2020) and short (55%) passing game, which is where Jones’ pass attempts have been centered around. As a risk-average passer, don’t be surprised if he leans on someone which such a high pedigree of reliability, even if it’s not the most optimal allocation of targets.

Smith, on the other hand, might be hurt by not playing with Newton. He’s succeeded as a threat after the catch with 17.5% of his targets last year coming behind the line of scrimmage, which would have meshed with the offense with Newton better and given him a potential edge over Henry. He can still be utilized in the same areas as Henry, though I’d expect New England to try to make the two not redundant, which may make Smith more of an “H-Back” type, while Henry gets more work in the slot. To be completely honest, I think Smith is the better player, but that’s not always what matters when it comes to accumulating fantasy points; I think Henry has a slight edge here based on how he’ll be used.

On the bright side, both tight ends benefit from one thing: a lot of targets in the red zone. N’Keal Harry (30.9%) and Julian Edelman (22.9%) took up a major portion of the team’s red-zone targets last year, but neither will be a factor this season. Both of these players earned over a 20% red-zone target share last year, which is probably one of the reasons why a team with a bottom-ten red-one offense last year would have coveted them. We haven’t seen two tight ends thrive in the same offense, yet they both offer reasonable high floors, with the ceiling coming if one of them breaks away from the other. Who will it be? It might come down to health, but this news slightly shifts the tide in Henry’s favor.

All of these players benefit from a more traditional pass-heavy offense, especially the receivers and Henry. I fully expect to see Meyers and Agholor continue to see their ADPs rise, which is logical. I’m always worried to buy into players at their highest price, yet at the stage they’re going in drafts, it’s completely reasonable.

 

Is Jones The Better Quarterback (Fantasy+Real Life)?

 

Now that Jones is the starting quarterback, many will wonder whether he’s worth investing in later in fantasy drafts.  Really, the answer is “no” in traditional one-quarterback 12-team formats. With just 35 rush attempts in his final year of college, the Alabama product isn’t a threat at all as a runner, which caps his value in fantasy. That places a lot of pressure on his abilities as a passer, which may be tough in an offense without elite weapons or touchdown upside.

I wouldn’t expect New England to pass the ball more than at an average rate, giving him less overall volume than some of the late-round quarterbacks, while he doesn’t have the touchdown upside of others. Thus, I’d be careful anointing him as an ideal backup quarterback for your fantasy team. In fact, Newton, who ranked 12th in expected fantasy points thanks to his rushing opportunities, is the better fantasy quarterback.

That’s not what the Patriots care about, though, and I believe this was the right decision to make. Their ability to succeed this year was limited by a slow-paced run-heavy offense, which isn’t ideal in a passing league. Being able to have more success through the year, especially with an unknown commodity (higher range of outcomes) is perfect for a team projected to be in the wildcard race. A 9.5 win-total is a lot for a rookie quarterback, and I’d honestly be comfortable betting the “under” on that. That’s nothing against Jones, though, and it’d probably be an easier bet to make with Newton under center. This gives them the ability to assess Jones’ abilities quicker, avoid the confusion of shifting to a brand-new offense halfway through the year, and sets them up to succeed in areas that are necessary in today’s NFL. At the very least, I’m more excited to watch them now!

 

Overview

 

So, what do we make of the insertion of Mac Jones as the Patriots’ quarterback? In simple terms, this is fantastic news for fantasy managers!

Both Damien Harris and James White are now in a significantly better position to flourish; Harris will see more touchdown opportunities, while White will be utilized more in the passing game. Furthermore, with a more traditional passing offense, the receivers, Jakobi Meyers and Nelson Agholor benefit significantly. On the other hand, Jonnu Smith might slightly lose some fantasy appeal, as the tides are shifting more in Hunter Henry’s favor.

I’m a major fan of what the Patriots did, even if their win total remains slightly too high for my liking. I’d expect a more efficient offense with Jones under center, in addition to a faster-developing one that’s able to run more plays. They’ll certainly be more fun to watch this year, and, in my opinion, are in a better position to challenge for the postseason. It will be very interesting to see how it all plays out this year!

 

(Photo by Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire)

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