Patriots

Fantasy Football Beat: Tom Brady the better option than Deshaun Watson this week?

Fantasy Football Beat: Tom Brady the better option than Deshaun Watson this week?

Fantasy football players seem to get smarter every year. The leagues get deeper. The competition gets better. That's partially because of the sheer amount of information available to fantasy geeks willing to put the time in.

But it's not always easy to find sound fantasy advice on players making up the back ends of fantasy depth charts. That's where we'll try to help fill in the gaps by providing you with information we've gleaned by being on the Patriots beat.

TOM BRADY vs. DESHAUN WATSON

Your fantasy season may be riding on whether or not you get competent quarterback play this week. In order to get competent quarterback play, you might have to make some tough choices. Should you go with Sam Darnold (against Cincinnati) over Dak Prescott? Should you play Matt Ryan over surging Kirk Cousins?

How about if you had your choice of quarterbacks in this weekend's matchup between the Patriots and the Texans. One quarterback is the best to ever do it at his position but is having a statistically down season. The other is in his prime, was in the MVP conversation for the bulk of the year, and has a trio of talented wideouts to throw to.

Still, I'd go with the 42-year-old.

We know what the Patriots defense has done to quarterbacks this season. I'm staying away from Watson almost purely based on that fact. If you have Brady as well -- or if he's available via waivers -- I'd start him over his opponent this week. He was very good last week in a driving rainstorm, despite what the numbers said. He has a pair of rookies who seem to be gaining some trust, he should have Mohamed Sanu and Phillip Dorsett back, and with Isaiah Wynn back he looks more comfortable in the pocket.

Then there's the Houston defense. They're 25th in pass yards allowed per game. They're 26th in pass defense DVOA, per Football Outsiders. They're 27th in quarterback rating allowed. They're 31st in third-down defense. They're 32nd in red-zone defense. This could be a top-10 fantasy day for Brady. I'm confident it won't be for Watson. 

POPPERS

SONY MICHEL: If you've been patient with Sony Michel this season, it looks like you might get rewarded at the most important time of the year. (That is, if you're still in the hunt this time of year.) Michel carried 20 times on Sunday -- only the fourth time this season he's hit that number of attempts -- and looked good. He made tacklers miss behind the line of scrimmage and forced six missed tackles in all. He plowed ahead for yards late in the fourth quarter to eat clock, finishing the game with 85 yards after contact. He looks like an RB2 to me this week going against a bottom-third rush defense (4.6 yards per carry allowed).

JULIAN EDELMAN: He doesn't look good. But you know he's getting his targets. He's now played in six consecutive games with at least 10 targets. His left shoulder looked like it was causing him significant pain on Sunday, but Brady went to him anyway in big situations. There's just no way you can sit him. Particularly against this pass defense. Even if he can't raise one of his arms over his head.

CARLOS HYDE: This one is purely about opportunity. Outside of an out-of-hand-quickly loss to the Ravens in which Houston was forced to throw early and often back in Week 11, Hyde has had at least 12 attempts in each of the last eight Texans games. In that span, he's averaged 16.75 carries per game. That'll play! Even against this Patriots defense. They allowed 4.1 yards per carry to Ezekiel Elliott last week, which was solid. On the season, though, they're still allowing 4.6 yards per carry. If Bill O'Brien knows how stingy the Patriots pass defense is, expect him to try to run the thing with this guy. That should mean RB2 value this week.

DROPPERS

DeANDRE HOPKINS: We told you. You're in a holding pattern until further notice if you own Stephon Gilmore assignments in fantasy. You saw what Gilmore did to Amari Cooper owners last week. The last time Gilmore saw the Texans, he shadowed Hopkins and allowed four catches for 50 yards on nine six targets. That's pretty good for a player who that season averaged about 10 targets (159 total) and 100 yards (1,572 total) per game last season. This year Hopkins is averaging 10 targets yet again and 76.3 yards per game.

WILL FULLER: Fuller is an explosive play waiting to happen but the Patriots defense may keep him waiting all night Sunday. Only three teams in the NFL allow fewer explosive pass plays than the Patriots in 2019 (Niners, Rams, Bills). If JC Jackson sees Fuller in coverage, he'll likely have some safety help. That might force Watson to try to go elsewhere. If he starts to look for Kenny Stills in the slot, he'll be looking to test the game's highest-graded slot corner by Pro Football Focus this season in Jonathan Jones. ...Did we mention you shouldn't start Watson? Fuller is a FLEX at best. If you play him, you're hoping for the home run, which the Patriots don't typically allow.

JAMES WHITE: I could see the Patriots trying to utilize White a bit more as a runner in order to take advantage of any lighter boxes they may face if he's being handled with defensive backs in coverage down to down. If they can exploit those fronts, that may force teams to use linebackers on White again, which would lead to coverage mismatches. But it's hard to predict how much work White will get, and he's caught just seven passes in his last three games. Hard to trust him with your fantasy lives at this juncture. I'd consider him a FLEX if I'm desperate but would otherwise steer clear this week. 

ALL OTHER PATRIOTS RECEIVERS: Could Mohamed Sanu cut into Julian Edelman's workload and become fantasy-relevant? Could N'Keal Harry get into the end zone for the second straight week? Could Jakobi Meyers find himself a key piece to New England's third-down attack, as he was last week? It's so difficult to answer any of these questions at the moment, especially given we don't know if Sanu will play and how much.

At this time of year, when you value certainty over all else in your fantasy lineup, I'm not sure how you could trust any of their receiving corps pieces outside of Edelman at the moment. There's too much uncertainty as to how any of them will be used. Sanu's workload could impact Harry's, which could impact Meyers', which could impact into Phillip Dorsett's. Better off staying away this week if you can avoid it. If I had to guess one player who had the best chance of making noise from this group, it'd be Sanu. 

MORE PERRY: How Isaiah Wynn proved he can help unlock Patriots' potential>>>

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Nate Ebner wants to stay with Patriots as free agency looms

Nate Ebner wants to stay with Patriots as free agency looms

The New England Patriots have some key players set to enter free agency this offseason. Obviously, Tom Brady will take most of the attention, but the team has some important special teams players set to hit the open market as well.

Notably, Matthew Slater and Stephen Gostkowski will be available. And Nate Ebner will be as well.

Ebner, an eight-year pro who was drafted in the sixth round in 2012, has been a big-time special teams ace for the Patriots. In 2018, he ranked second in the league in special teams tackles with 15. He provided another eight last season and continued to be a key cog in that aspect of the game.

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Ahead of his free agency, Ebner opened up about wanting to stay with the Patriots as he looks to continue his NFL career.

“I mean, that would be the best thing, I think, when you consider my entire career has been here,” Ebner said per NESN's Zack Cox. “I understand how things go. I’ve got some true friendships here.

“I understand how things work — that would be great. But right now, it’s out of my hands, so we’ll see what happens and I’ll just take it as it goes. We’ll see.”

It wouldn't be surprising to see Ebner return to the Patriots. After all, Bill Belichick places a lot of value on special teams performance. Given that Ebner should come relatively cheap -- he signed a two-year, $5 million deal last time he was set to hit free agency -- it's well within the realm of possibility that the team could find a way to keep him.

Nothing is guaranteed in the NFL, and if the Patriots use up most of their cap space signing Brady and some offensive weapons to surround him, Ebner might not fit. But if Ebner's first choice is remaining in New England, it seems likely that the team will at least entertain the idea of bringing him back.

How the reported expanded NFL playoff proposal impacts the Patriots

How the reported expanded NFL playoff proposal impacts the Patriots

NFL owners are pushing for a big change that would be part of a new collective bargaining agreement with the players. The league reportedly will propose expanding the postseason to add a seventh playoff team in each conference.

As ESPN's Adam Schefter detailed, the league would now have six games on Wild Card weekend under the new proposal, three in each conference, and only the No. 1 seed in each conference will get a playoff bye.

Also in the proposal is a 17-game regular season and a shortened preseason to three games. The changes would be implemented for the 2020 season if the new CBA is ratified by the owners and NFL Players Association.

If adopted, this is certainly a massive change and one that could have a big impact on the New England Patriots. 

The Patriots have mastered the art of qualifying for a bye in their two-decade-long dynasty. In fact, this past postseason was the first time New England didn't have a first-round bye since the 2009-10 postseason. The Patriots finished as the No. 3 seed and promptly lost to the Tennessee Titans at home, marking their earliest playoff exit since the '10 postseason.

Thus, the elimination of one of the byes could have a significant impact on the Patriots. Since Bill Belichick took over as coach before the 2000 season, the Patriots have made it to the Super Bowl nine times. In each of those seasons, they've had a first-round bye.

In the Belichick Era, the Patriots have been the AFC's No. 2 seed on six occasions. They advanced to the Super Bowl and won three times in those six instances, and it's fair to wonder if they would've had a similar chance to advance had they needed to play another game, even if it was against a seventh-seeded team.

In the past seven Super Bowls overall, no team has made it to the big game without a first-round bye. The 2013 Ravens were the last team to play Wild Card weekend and make the Super Bowl.

So, needless to say, the No. 1 seed in each conference will now have a major advantage, and the Patriots are going to have to fight harder to earn it. They're certainly capable of earning the No. 1 seed. They were the No. 1 as recently as the 2017 and 2018 playoffs, when they beat the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl 51 and lost to the Philadelphia Eagles in SB 52.

The road to the Super Bowl will become a little more difficult without that No. 1 seed if the new format is approved. Only once in the Patriots history have they reached the Super Bowl as a Wild Card team and that was 35 years ago in the 1985 season. The No. 1 seed and home-field advantage will carry even more importance, but they'll have to outduel some powerful up-and-coming AFC teams if they want to earn it in the near future.

For a team with the NFL's toughest projected strength of schedule in 2020, that will be no easy task.