Just minutes into the New England Patriots’ third preseason game of 2017, a major blow was dealt to their offense. Julian Edelman, the team’s leader in receptions since 2013, suffered what appeared to be a non-contact ACL injury as he made a cut after making a catch early in the 1st quarter of the Patriots’ 30-28 victory. If the injury is indeed a torn ACL as reported, New England must now replace Edelman’s 2016 totals of 98 catches for 1,106 yards and 3 touchdowns. Where that production now comes from will have a major impact on your upcoming fantasy draft plans.
Let’s start with Patriots’ tight end Rob Gronkowski. Finally healthy this year, Gronk was already in line for a big season in 2017. Now with Brady’s most trusted target over the middle out for the season, Rob will be looking at an even larger share of targets. In six starts last season, Gronkowski averaged over four catches and 89 yards per game. Expect similar averages this season, as Rob will be used quite often down the field on seam routes and deep outs. The loss of Julian won’t really affect Gronkowski’s red-zone value, as Rob has typically always been Tom Brady’s go-to target down near the goal-line. Gronk’s Average Draft Position (ADP) will stay around 27.1.
With Edelman’s injury, the offseason acquisition of speedster Brandin Cooks from the Saints seems all the more fortuitous for Bill Belichick and Co. Already a Yahoo ADP of 25.9, Brandin could see his position quickly rise as news of Edelman’s injury is confirmed. Primarily used on deep routes last season in New Orleans, Cooks will bring that much needed dimension to the Pats’ offense. Blessed with incredible straight line speed, Cooks can quickly take the top off of opposing defenses. Where his role might change now with the Edelman injury is his usage on shallow crosses and underneath routes. Though not often tasked with running short routes with the Saints, Brandin has shown an ability to run crisp routes and use his speed to gain leverage on a defender and create separation. Now the most agile remaining receiver on the roster, Cooks uses his impressive agility to gain yards after the catch, as his 374 yards after the catch in 2016 ranked just behind Edelman’s own 385. This season, look for Cooks to make up a vast majority of Edelman’s 98 catches from last year, very likely posting career numbers in receptions and yards in 2017.
Besides Cooks, the player most likely to receive a bump in touches is Chris Hogan, a free-agent steal from the Buffalo Bills now in his second season with the Patriots. Last year Hogan was the Patriots’ primary deep-threat as he averaged 17.9 yards on 38 catches. Though the addition of Cooks may mean less deep balls thrown his way, I actually expect Hogan to see most of his action out of the slot this year with Edelman out. Cooks has always been more comfortable playing outside at the X position, and odds are Hogan will play the slot on three-receiver formations, with Cooks on one side and rangy Malcom Mitchell on the other. Last year Chris lined up out of the slot on 26.6% of Patriots’ offensive plays and averaged over 16 yards per slot-reception. In his huge playoff performance against the Pittsburgh Steelers, several of his big plays came when he was lined up in the slot. While not as quick or agile as Edelman, I envision a Jordan Matthews-with-the-Philadelphia-Eagles-type-role for Hogan this year. Like Hogan, Matthews is over 6 feet tall and excelled on running longer routes out of the slot as he amassed over 225 receptions in three years with Philly. Currently sitting at a consensus ADP of 232 in standard leagues, Hogan is definitely worth the risk of taking higher. Expect 50 plus receptions for Chris in 2017.
While Gronkowski, Cooks and Hogan are first in line to see an increase in usage with Edelman out, there are several other options worth keeping an eye on in New England. There’s Danny Amendola, who was actually the starter over Julian in 2013, and Austin Carr, a rookie out of Northwestern who has already drawn rave reviews and comparisons to Edelman. Then there’s second-year wideout Malcom Mitchell, a big target on the outside who came on late in the season. Don’t forget about the impressive stable of Patriots’ running backs; James White, Dion Lewis and Rex Burkhead are all capable of catching the ball out of the backfield.