Five Things to Watch Heading into New England Patriots Training Camp
There are 32 training camps to track as we prepare to begin the 2017 NFL season. Only one of them features the reigning Super Bowl champions. That would be the one taking place in Foxborough, Mass., home of the New England Patriots. Several blockbuster signings and trades could translate to one of the most interesting training camps in the league, and — if things go right — one of the most dominant teams in recent memory. So, with such high stakes in place, let’s tackle five of the most pressing items on the docket for New England Patriots training camp this summer.
The G.O.A.T. vs. Father Time — Who Wins?
Tom Brady turns 40 years old on August 3rd, right in the heart of training camp. It may be one of the most anticipated birthdays in sports, as talking heads have argued for years that Brady’s decline was imminent. Consistently, those heads proposed that age 40 would be the real test. Of the handful of QB seasons entered at 40+, only Warren Moon’s performance at age 41 could be called solid. Even Brett Favre fell off a cliff upon entering the 2010 season at 40 years old.
And yet, Brady is clearly a different species. He seems to be improving with age, largely due to a devoted and structured plan to care for his body. Brady himself declared a desire to play into his mid-40s, so a productive 2017 seems a lock in his eyes.
Throughout Patriots training camp, the keys to watch will be Brady’s deep-balls and movement. If it looks like he’s lost accuracy or strength on those deep routes, his arm could struggle over the course of the season. If he seems slower running the field, or less quick with his footwork, that could hamper his elite ability to shift in the pocket and avoid pressure. In the long-anticipated scenario where either falters, Brady’s cliff will finally arrive. But if both stay strong, we may see the greatest 40-year-old quarterback performance of all time.
Predicting the Unpredictable Belichick Backfield
Some things in life are sure: the sun rises in the east, Jack could’ve fit on that door with Rose in “Titanic.” Others are impossible to truly know: what constitutes a “catch” in professional football, who will die next on Game of Thrones. The state of the Patriots’ backfield under Bill Belichick belongs in the latter category, and this year may be the culmination of that conundrum.
After a relatively clear-cut year with LeGarrette Blount as the lead back, James White as the third-down maven and Dion Lewis as a health-hampered benchwarmer, 2017 promises much more confusion. New England parted ways with Blount and brought in Mike Gillislee and Rex Burkhead, extremely efficient backups from the Bills and Bengals respectively. That gives Belichick at least four dynamic running backs to choose from, all of whom boast diverse skill sets.
So how do we interpret Patriots training camp to find the hidden fantasy answers? Primarily, by watching what plays each back runs and how much time they spend with Brady and the first-team offense. Other tidbits to track include how much Burkhead works with the special teams unit, and whether Lewis looks healthy. Burkhead is probably a good bet to fill a jack-of-all trades role, compiling carries, catches and special teams work, but remaining mostly in the background. Meanwhile, if Lewis still has question marks, it’s possible the Pats may get rid of him.
That would leave Gillislee to prove that his 2016 talent can translate in a lead back role, as well as White to continue growing as one of the most reliable pass-catching RBs in the league. As part of an incredibly potent offense, at least one or two of these guys are likely to have fantasy value, so this battle will be a crucial one to watch.
Is Brandin Cooks the Second Coming of Randy Moss?
As soon as the Patriots closed a deal with the New Orleans Saints to acquire Brandin Cooks, talk of the speedster replicating Moss’s 2007 season began to circulate. For reference, Moss caught 98 passes from Tom Brady that year (on 160 targets), for a total of 1,493 yards and 23 touchdowns. While Cooks is clearly the most explosive WR Brady has worked with since Moss, we still don’t know exactly how he’ll fit into the crowded New England receiving corps. This should be one of the most important takeaways from Patriots training camp, as Cooks is certainly capable of being a fantasy-WR1 if given close to a Moss-level target share.
Where does Cooks primarily line up? Does his route tree focus on going deep, working underneath, a mix of both? How is the chemistry and timing between him and Brady? These are the questions that need answers in Patriots training camp, ideally before you draft Cooks at the 3.01 spot (his current PPR ADP, per Fantasy Football Calculator). Cooks could be a monster, but only if he commandeers a big enough piece of the Patriot pie.
The Battle for the WR3 — And Does It Matter for Fantasy?
Considering the superior talent of Cooks and Brady’s chemistry with Julian Edelman, it’s probably fair to say those two will be the WR1 and WR2 in some order. The difficulty comes in discerning who will be the third man up. Super Bowl playmakers Danny Amendola and Malcolm Mitchell certainly had Brady’s trust in crunch time, while Hogan stretched the field throughout the 2016 season (second most yards per reception among WRs with at least 30 catches).
The job is essentially open to those three, with free-agent add Andrew Hawkins retiring in July. Amendola, whose role in New England is essentially set, will likely serve as a valuable reserve. It will then be a tug-of-war between Hogan and Mitchell for the spot opposite Cooks in three-receiver sets. Watch for that battle to progress through Patriots training camp, and likely several weeks into the season.
That said, targets will be scarce in an offense that also features All-Pro TE Rob Gronkowski, as well as James White (who had 86 last year). Barring an injury, it will be tough for whoever earns the WR3 role to garner fantasy-relevant attention.
Growing, Gelling Offensive Line Pushing for Elite Status
After a 2015 season wrecked by injury and inconsistency, the Patriots’ front five grew into a strong and stable unit last year. All five starters — LT Nate Solder, LG Joe Thuney, C David Andrews, RG Shaq Mason and RT Marcus Cannon — are returning for 2017, and project to be the starters once again. Ranked 11th in pass protection and third in run blocking by Pro Football Focus last year, this group is poised to get even better under the leadership of O-Line guru Dante Scarnecchia.
Obviously, offensive line play can heavily affect fantasy production, especially for the QB and between-the-tackles runner(s), so it will be helpful to watch the crew perform throughout Patriots training camp. If reports point to continued improvement, it is not outside the realm of possibility that the Patriot line is one of the best in the league in 2017, further raising the fantasy value of Brady, Gillislee, and others.
For more updated news, notes and analysis on the Patriots training camp, visit Patriots.com and follow the team writers as they break down the above issues and many others. Plus, check out the TFA website for more training camp articles and content!
You can find me on Twitter @FantasySensei. I’d love to hear from you with fantasy questions, snarky comments, general banter, and hullabaloo, etc. For now, I leave you with these words from Mr. Miyagi: “It’s okay to lose to opponent. It’s never okay to lose to fear.”