Fantasy Football Instant Reaction: Antonio Brown dumped by Raiders, but lands comfortably with Patriots
Antonio Brown's release from the Raiders opened the door for a couple of players to become Fantasy contributors, but landing with the Patriots alters one of the best teams in the league.
In a move so chilling to the rest of the NFL it would make a cryotherapy chamber jealous, Bill Belichick and the Patriots snagged free agent receiver Antonio Brown just hours after his release from the Raiders, signing him to a one-year deal worth as much as $15 million according to ESPN.
The Patriots once again have a Pro Bowl offense ... assuming everyone behaves, of course. Gotta add that caveat.
New England's offense has always been tailored to the weaknesses of their opponents. That's not going to change. When they face weak pass defenses, they'll throw more. When they face weak run defenses, they'll run more. When they play the Dolphins in Week 2, they'll do whatever they want.
But what I think is likely to happen is defenses playing zone coverage so they don't get beat deep by Brown, or Josh Gordon, or Demaryius Thomas, or anyone else. Bend but don't break, then take chances in the red zone. That should keep the targets flowing for Julian Edelman and James White, not to mention keep defenses from crowding the run against Sony Michel.
Don't take that to mean Brown won't be special in this offense. Will he be as good as he was in Pittsburgh? Probably not. Could he be better than what we believed he'd be in Oakland? YES.
Brown represents the most explosive receiver Brady has worked with since Randy Moss. Capable of lining up anywhere and running any route, Brown has elite-level quickness and speed to work on every level of the field, break short plays into long ones and run underneath passes thrown 50 yards downfield. He's extremely difficult to cover and has caught 62 percent of his passes over the last two seasons with just six drops in that span (only one last year).
From the neck down, Brown's amazing. But from the neck up, we know he can be problematic. But this is the Patriots and typically their culture keeps players in line. There are some obvious exceptions, so no one should assume he'll magically turn into a Boy Scout. But he has greater upside now compared to the upside he had with the Raiders (and the absolute stone-dead downside he had as a free agent). Whereas with the Raiders he might have had the potential to hit 1,200 yards and eight touchdowns, Brown could see 1,300 yards and 10 scores with the Patriots. He should be considered a No. 1 receiver.
Have Brown and still not sold on him? That's OK, someone else in your league should be, and. It's the perfect time to trade him and get a very good player in return.
Ultimately expect Brown to get plenty of work each week as offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels moves him around the formation and gets him open in space. If he keeps his feet warm, his helmet on and his mouth closed, he should be a tremendous Fantasy receiver.
Brady obviously benefits as his receiving corps is not only super-talented but also super-deep. Brown helped make Ben Roethlisberger a phenomenal Fantasy quarterback, he should do the same here. There will be some weeks where Brady underwhelms (I'm looking at you, late December), but he should regularly be a top-12 quarterback. Once a couple of other quarterbacks get hurt or fall off, Brady will find his way into lineups as a weekly staple.
Edelman should still see the 8-10 targets per game he's had over the past five seasons, especially since coverage should go back to being light on underneath routes. Where Brown really hurts Edelman is in the touchdown department; while Edelman was on pace for eight had he played 16 games in 2018, he's never had more than seven in a season. He might wind up with only five now, but 1,000 yards and 90 catches is still on the table. He's a No. 2 receiver in PPR and a No. 3 choice in non-PPR.
Brown's arrival hurts Gordon most in terms of production, but it eases the pressure and coverage he'll face. While his red-zone targets might stay prevalent, it's likely that the trio of Brown, Edelman and James White will take looks away. He's no longer a No. 2 receiver — more of a volatile low-end flex who might need touchdowns and big plays in order to corral Fantasy value. Those won't come weekly. Plus, if we're going to factor in off-field concerns for Brown, we have to do the same with Gordon. If he has a good Week 1 game against the Steelers then consider selling as high as possible on him.
White, like Edelman, should see good target volume against softer defensive coverage thanks to Brown (and Gordon, theoretically) taking the top off of defenses. And White, like Edelman, seems very unlikely to score as many touchdowns as he had last year. That regression was already built into his draft value this summer, but now it's a little worse with Brown around. He's still a flex in non-PPR and a borderline No. 2/3 rusher in PPR.
No doubt, Michel's situation improves as defenses can't crowd the line of scrimmage against him much. Against six- and seven-man fronts, he should be very good. But so too would Damien Harris, or Rex Burkhead, or James Develin. Michel will begin the season as the Patriots' best Fantasy back, but he'll have to fend off his competition by staying healthy (far from a guarantee with him), not fumbling (he did well with that last year), and converting short-yardage downs, especially at the goal line (he was about 50-50 on those rushes last year). I wouldn't overrate Michel just because Brown is in New England. In fact, if I could get a king's ransom in trade for him ( ), I wouldn't hesitate.
Meanwhile, back in Oakland ...
Brown's release opens the door for Tyrell Williams to be the Raiders' new No. 1 receiver, with speedy veteran J.J. Nelson playing opposite him and either Ryan Grant or rookie Hunter Renfrow working the slot. The Raiders also have a budding young tight end in Darren Waller and a rookie running back in Josh Jacobs who should see increased opportunities.
Williams is the most interesting for Fantasy purposes. It was only three seasons ago when Williams stepped in as the top wideout for the Chargers amid Keenan Allen's injury-shortened season. Not only did he finish with over 1,000 yards and seven touchdowns, he finished 18th among receivers in PPR and 12th among receivers in non-PPR. He had at least 10 non-PPR points in half of his games and 15-plus PPR points in seven outings and 12-to-14 PPR points in three others. Known for his work downfield, Williams finished among the top-10 receivers in Pro Football Focus' deep-ball receiving metric in 2018.
For what it's worth, Derek Carr was among the league's most efficient deep-ball passers a season ago, but only 51 of his 553 pass attempts went 20-plus yards through the air (only Cam Newton threw fewer deep passes among qualifying quarterbacks). The Raiders prefer short, quick passes to deep lobs, but it's not like Williams can't catch passes from inside 15 yards, either.
Check if Williams is on your league's waiver wire — as of this writing, he was out there in 32% of CBS Sports leagues. He's worth using as a No. 3 or flex option as soon as Week 1.
Waller is the next-most interesting player. Already considered a deep Fantasy sleeper because of his prominent role, there's a chance he becomes a good contributor for the Raiders. After a rough start to his career that you may have learned about on HBO's Hard Knocks, Waller has developed into a tight end with good all-around skills. His blocking was impressive as recently as this preseason when he washed Terrell Suggs out of running plays. His route-running seems to be effective. But it's his size (6-foot-6) and speed (4.4 range) that truly makes him stand out. Tack on Carr's propensity to check down and look for short-area targets and Waller is a convincing top-12 Fantasy tight end to begin the season.
You'll find Waller in roughly half of CBS Sports' Fantasy leagues. He's worth stashing, if not starting. Vets like Delanie Walker and Jared Cook make sense to go with ahead of Waller, but the upside the Raiders tight end provides gives him a nudge over Eric Ebron, Vance McDonald, Austin Hooper and others in Week 1.
Nelson is small and speedy but has never put together a solid season (34-568-6 in 2016 with the Cardinals). He's a wait-and-see stash in the deepest of leagues on the hope he can somehow deliver occasional success as an outside receiver. The slot job in Oakland isn't necessarily settled but veteran Ryan Grant played nearly exclusively in the slot this preseason including with the starting unit in the second preseason game. Renfrow might take more time to find the field.
I have to admit, part of the allure to Jacobs was having him run versus defenses that accounted for Brown. That's out the window. While that means more seven- and eight-man fronts in Jacobs' future (starting as soon as this Monday), it also means he could make a larger impact as a receiver out of the backfield.
Brown's absence will make it harder for Jacobs to have a fantastic season, but as No. 2 running back expectations go, he should be fine. We still don't know for sure how many targets Jalen Richard will take away over the course of the year, but my guess is that it's not a ton and certainly less and less as the season moves forward. He's still in the top-24 mix for Week 1 versus Denver and probably won't be a trade-away candidate anytime soon.
Carr's Fantasy popularity will slide even further than where it was at when he had Brown. Almost no one was starting him in typical leagues, and he was a borderline starter as a No. 2 quarterback. That's certainly not going to improve now. Hope you didn't pick him over Brady on Draft Day.
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