Fantasy & Reality: Back off from Brady?

Poor Tom Brady .

I don't mean poor Tom Brady -- the guy is making $60 milly over five seasons and is married to a supermodel. Plus, he has three rings and is a lock for the Hall of Fame. And he has great hair.

But I actually feel kinda sorta bad for him given all the stuff that's happened to his receiving corps this year. The year began with Aaron Hernandez out of the league and Rob Gronkowski on the sideline, then Shane Vereen got hurt, then Danny Amendola got hurt, then a couple of rookie receivers couldn't consistently catch the ball. Eventually Gronkowski, Amendola and Vereen all came back and they played together ... for just over 14 quarters.

Losing Gronkowski is painful for Fantasy owners, but replacing him isn't a chore (aside from choking away the tears from cutting him from your seasonal roster). Aim for Dennis Pitta , Delanie Walker , Charles Clay , Garrett Graham or Jacob Tamme -- yes, in that order.

But Gronk's absence will cause plenty of strain on a Patriots offense that averaged 32.8 points per game with him in the lineup for six. Without him the Pats averaged 20.8 points per game through the first six weeks of the season ... but did come through with 27 points on the Browns in a quarter and a half vs. Cleveland in Week 14. Of course, an onside-kick recovery and a questionable pass interference penalty on the Browns helped that number along.

Before Gronkowski came back, Brady had one game with over 20 Fantasy points in his first six. His first two back with Gronk were awful, but then he had three with 20-plus Fantasy points in a four-game span. You'd have thought Brady would have gone back to being less than stellar without Gronk last week at Cleveland, but but he managed to fire up the offense around him and with a big dose of Vereen managed to post another plus-20 effort. Gronk had two catches for 32 yards before messing up his knee, barely contributing to Brady's performance.

The impact of Gronk
Pct. of Brady's numbers in his
six full games with Gronkowski.
Completions: 24.7%
Targets: 26.7%
Yards: 31.3%
TDs: 4/11 (36.4%)

It's going to take the rest of the Patriots offense stepping up like this for Brady to remain a Fantasy hero, and that's asking a lot. More than a third of Brady's 418 yards last week came from Vereen, who posted a career-high 153 yards with 126 of them coming after the hit on Gronk and 50 of them coming on a bomb. It seems unlikely that Vereen will get those numbers every week. Amendola was another clutch contributor, hauling in the game-winning score with just under a minute left last week. Amendola has two touchdowns over nine games and while he has two games with over 100 yards, they are also his only two where he has more than 55 yards. His targets seem to pale in comparison to those of Edelman, who has been reliable for Brady. Over the last three weeks, Edelman has at least nine targets per game and has delivered double-digit Fantasy points, be it because of a touchdown and nominal yardage, a lot of yardage without a touchdown, or both a lot of yards with a score or two.

It's been Edelman's bump in production that has especially made Brady a threat, but much of that was because defenses were focused on Gronkowski and made Edelman less of a priority as a short- to mid-range receiver. That's going to go away -- it's going to be much easier to put the clamps on Edelman and Amendola without a third threat roaming 15 yards downfield. Now, the Patriots might trot out a young receiver like Josh Boyce or Kenbrell Thompkins to be that third threat, but defenses won't focus so much on stopping them like they did Gronkowski. The Patriots tried to cultivate those talents already this season and mostly failed. Defenses will also be far more cognizant of Vereen being a regular target for Brady.

Making matters worse are the actual opponents on the horizon for the Patriots: the Dolphins and Ravens (both on the road). Both are in the Top 10 in least Fantasy points allowed to quarterbacks -- the Dolphins have allowed three quarterbacks to top 20-plus Fantasy points and six to under 10 points while the Ravens have yielded four passers to go over 20 points and four have gone under 10. They're not going to make matters easy for Brady.

This is why I think we'll see the Patriots rediscover their run game, especially this week against a poor run defense like the Dolphins. While such a strategy might lead to a win, it won't necessarily lead to big stats for Brady. We've seen him throw at least 41 passes in each of the last three weeks and the big numbers have followed. Though Brady is capable of delivering a good stat line without throwing a ton of passes (see Week 9), it's less likely he'll be great if he's handing off more than chucking it long.

Now, here's the thing -- loyal readers will remember my breakdown of Brady from before Week 9 when I discouraged people from starting him against the Steelers and Panthers over a three-week span. That didn't work out so well, as Brady has his best game of the season at home against Pittsburgh and nearly delivered another strong performance at Carolina. I'll be the first to admit that you're playing with fire when you consider benching Brady, but after seeing Matt Ryan and Andrew Luck crash and burn without their most reliable receiver and after seeing Brady fare unfavorably without Gronk through the first six weeks of the season, it's not exactly a daring call to make.

Who's better than Brady?

So if you're going to bench Brady you darn sure better have someone solid to go with in his place. This is not the time to gamble on a flash in the pan or a weak-armed guy with a favorable matchup -- if you're going to take a big risk you might as well stick with Brady. But if you can avoid the big risk with a reputable alternative then it's worth doing. Here are five quarterbacks and a bonus duo I'd start over Brady.

Nick Foles , Eagles (at Vikings, vs. Bears)
Pretty much cinch matchups for one of the league's hottest passers. Minnesota has allowed a quarterback to get 22 or more Fantasy points in seven straight -- and that's with cornerback Xavier Rhodes playing (he might be out this week). Statistically, the Bears have been strong against the pass but the Eagles scheme combined with Chicago's leaky defense makes Foles a favorite.

Josh McCown / Jay Cutler , Bears (at Browns, at Eagles)
If Foles is the best rags-to-riches Fantasy quarterback this year, McCown has to be right on his tail. Cleveland and Philadelphia have good and bad parts to their respective secondaries, but neither one should give the Chicago passing game much trouble. It's just important to keep tabs on Cutler's health since the Bears have said he will play when he's ready. Cutler and McCown have a combined nine games with 20-plus Fantasy points, combining for a 10th in the second game in which Cutler got hurt.

Ben Roethlisberger , Steelers (vs. Bengals, at Packers)
Like Brady, Big Ben has been hot over the last three weeks. Unlike Brady, he has his full allotment of receivers. He also has two really nice matchups against suspect secondaries. I know the Bengals have been solid for much of the year, but they lost another top corner to injury last week and Roethlisberger should have an easier time connecting downfield.

Philip Rivers , Chargers (at Broncos, vs. Raiders)
I think Rivers is going to have to throw a ton this week against the Broncos, giving him a chance at some really nice numbers. Trusting quarterbacks on Thursdays isn't normally advised but this late in the season every defense is tired in every spot and offenses should get away with what they do best. For the Chargers that means leaning on Rivers, who follows up a tough matchup at Denver with a great matchup at home against the Raiders.

Colin Kaepernick , 49ers (at Buccaneers, vs. Falcons)
There might not be a better pair of matchups for a quarterback in Weeks 15 and 16 than what Kaepernick has. The Bucs have allowed multiple passing touchdowns to eight of their last nine opponents and the Falcons have allowed multiple passing touchdowns to 13 of the 14 quarterbacks they've faced. Michael Crabtree is back and getting his legs underneath him, Anquan Boldin has started to deliver on a more consistent basis and Vernon Davis remains a dangerous weapon.

Ryan Tannehill , Dolphins (Week 15 vs. Patriots)
Ryan Fitzpatrick , Titans
(Week 16 at Jaguars)
I wanted to come up with a sneaky alternative involving quarterbacks owned in less than half of leagues. Tannehill takes on the Patriots, who have allowed 30-plus points to three of the last five quarterbacks they've taken on. Fitzpatrick will play at the Jaguars next week, and they've allowed 24-plus Fantasy points to five of the last six quarterbacks they've faced, including 27 to Fitzpatrick in Week 10.

Fantasy & Reality

Quick observations about the misconceptions (Fantasy) and truths (Reality) from around the league.

Fantasy: Montee Ball shouldn't be trusted. Ball is one of 10 running backs to post at least 10 Fantasy points in three of his last four games. Ball has had at least 10 touches in each of his last four games. The Chargers have allowed at least one rushing touchdown in five of their last six games and running backs tend to shine on Thursday nights. Ball has Top 15 potential this week.

Reality: Dennis Pitta is Joe Flacco security blankie. I love it that Pitta was targeted on a third of his snaps, catching roughly half and scoring a touchdown. Seven of the 11 targets came on third or fourth down (clutch plays) and a pair of targets were in the red zone (the Ravens attempted six red-zone passes on 11 red-zone snaps in the game). I don't know how ready I am to trust Pitta in a matchup against a Lions defense that's been solid against tight ends, but I do believe Flacco will continue to lean on him.

Fantasy: Andrew Luck has no one to throw to. Back in the summer I was enamored with a receiver in Buffalo named Da'Rick Rogers , that is until he got cut. The Colts stuffed him on their practice roster, activating him recently. Desperate to get their passing game going, they gave him a handful of assignments last week and he dazzled against a good Bengals defense. Rogers went over the middle, sped past defensive backs and found ways to get open. He should lock up the starting job opposite T.Y. Hilton soon enough, though LaVon Brazill has more experience in the Colts offense and could keep Rogers relegated to three-receiver sets. But if Luck is throwing the ball then I like Rogers' (and Brazill's) chances of being effective. It's just a matter of trusting them in Fantasy; I trust Luck completely against a disinterested Texans defense at home.

Reality: I'm still starting Riley Cooper . For the third week in a row Cooper didn't deliver big stats, but it's the third week in a row he's been targeted deep and in the end zone. Eventually it's going to click. I'd say a matchup indoors against a beleaguered Vikings defense will give him the chance to cash in.

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