On Friday the fantasy football community got some incredible news; Josh Gordon has been reinstated. Gordon missed the last two regular-season games and the entire playoff run for the Patriots after violating the terms of his previous reinstatement, and he missed the better part of the previous four seasons serving substance abuse-related suspensions. Gordon is one of the more polarizing players in fantasy football as he blends incredible upside with a track record of disappointing fantasy owners with his off the field struggles. For better or worse, he is a player that a lot of fantasy owners just can’t let go of. Now that he’s back Gordon is sure to be one of the more interesting players come draft time.
Josh Gordon Outlook
Last season Gordon was dealing with an injury in training camp, and then was dealt to the Patriots for a fifth-round pick after the Browns had announced their intent to release him. It took a little time for Gordon to get integrated into the Patriots offense, but in Week 6 his snap percentage jumped up to 81% from 26% the week before. From that point on his numbers were pretty impressive:
Those numbers would have made Gordon a low-tier WR2, but they’re very encouraging for someone who was traded to a new offense midseason after having spent a lot of time away from football. The Patriots offense is notorious for being difficult for receivers to learn, but Gordon was able to gain Tom Brady’s trust pretty quickly. This play came in just Gordon’s second game with the Patriots:
Brady has time in the pocket, and instead of taking a safe check-down he throws a seemingly risky pass to Gordon between two defenders. On this play, Gordon was running a route to the middle of the field before that hand sign from Brady told him to break for the corner of the end zone. That type of chemistry and the trust Brady shows in him to go make a play on the football allowed Gordon to be an impact player early in his Patriots career. This is another play where Brady is able to throw to Gordon with anticipation, trusting in his receiver to know where the ball will be placed and make the catch:
With another year in the system, Gordon and Brady should feel even more comfortable together as this season goes along, which should be a scary thought for defenses tasked with slowing them down. Another thing that stood out watching Gordon’s highlights from last season is just how difficult is he to tackle. He regularly broke the tackle of the defensive backs covering him and often it took several defenders to bring him down:
Gordon presents a difficult challenge to defensive backs in that if they decide not to give him a cushion he can run by them, but if they do play off him he can take advantage through plays like that. Gordon led the Patriots in average depth of target last season, and in total air yards despite only playing in 11 games. He’ll earn most of his value on deep and intermediate routes, especially since Rob Gronkowski was second on the team in both of those metrics and is no longer with the team. Being able to do damage on quick passing plays will help keep the defense honest, and as Gordon becomes more comfortable in the offense it seems likely that the Patriots will find more creative ways to get him the ball in space and let him go to work.
The departures of Gronkowski and Chris Hogan leave 127 targets up for grabs, and if Gordon can stay on the field he should see a decent amount of that work. In the three games Gronkowski missed last season Gordon had a 25% target share, and going forward the red zone usage that went to Gronkowski should funnel to Gordon. We didn’t get to see Gordon utilized much near the goal line last season, but he’s a big body capable of dominating single coverage and making tough catches.
It’s impossible to separate Gordon from his off the field issues, but if he can play a full season in this offense he should be a strong WR2 with the upside to finish higher if he can get more comfortable in this offense. The problem with that is he hasn’t played a full season since his rookie year in 2012, due mostly to suspensions. He’s always one poor decision away from another long suspension, and it is likely that this is his last chance to play in the NFL. For the upcoming fantasy season, it is a similar situation to a very injury-prone player like Texans receiver Will Fuller. They are awesome to have in your lineup most weeks that they’re on the field, but their owners spend the whole season holding their breath. It’s also possible that the Patriots bring Gordon along slowly to start the season due to conditioning concerns related to him being away from football activities all offseason, but the start of the season is the easiest time to find someone else to plug into lineups if that’s the case.
Last season Gordon was being drafted as WR20 towards the end of the 4th round in PPR leagues per Fantasy Football Calculator, and that is probably where he will settle this year. He is someone that drafters are willing to take a risk on because of the incredible heights he reached in 2013. There is no doubt drafting Gordon is a risk, and he probably doesn’t fit on a fantasy team that has already taken some risks in the first three rounds, but his floor is solid for as long as he can play. He probably no longer has the upside to post a 1,600-yard season in just 14 games, but there is certainly room for him to improve on what he did last season and provide value at that ADP.
Gordon’s return should be mostly good news for the rest of the Patriots offense. He draws a lot of defensive focus, and his ability to stretch the field opens up more room for underneath routes. Julian Edelman and James White should be secure in their roles, and we saw last year that they can coexist with Gordon just fine. Any concerns about them losing targets to Gordon is mitigated by the targets that were vacated by Hogan and Gronkowski. Rookie N’Keal Harry takes the biggest hit from this news, as his best path to fantasy success was the role that Gordon will now occupy. Harry can probably be avoided in many redraft leagues now, along with the other names coming out of Patriots camp like Jakobi Meyers and Philip Dorsett. The running game should see a boost from Gordon’s ability to draw defenders out of the box, as well as the improved offensive efficiency that having Gordon will lead to. Brady is the biggest beneficiary of Gordon’s return, but it probably is not enough to move him into starting fantasy quarterback territory.
(Photo by Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire)