Is the Grass Greener?
As the old saying goes, “the grass is greener on the other side,” but does that hold true in the world of fantasy football? Is the grass greener? Every year we see players move to new teams through trades or free agency. The moves bring new teammates, new coaches, and new schemes. All of these things affect a player’s opportunities and outlook. In this series, we will examine how a player’s fantasy outlook is affected by the move and whether the grass is truly greener on the other side.
Tom Brady QB, Tampa Bay
I would be remiss if I didn’t start the inaugural edition of this series by addressing the move of the greatest player of all time, Tom Brady. Brady moved on from the Patriots after 20 years to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The partnership he formed with Bill Belichick will go down in the history books. The six Super Bowl rings they won together is a record that may never be broken.
Despite great success in New England, the last couple of years has seen the team depleted of talent and rumors have spread of a rift between Belichick and Brady. There were assertions by some that Brady had begun to bristle under the strict control of Belichick. Others spoke of Brady’s desire to prove he was the reason for the sustained success in New England. Whatever the reason, Brady had the desire to move on and start anew in Tampa Bay. Which leads us to the question, will the G.O.A.T. find greener pastures in Tampa Bay?
Coaching and Scheme
Brady’s move to Tampa cost him 20 years of comfort. That must bring up questions as to the relationship between him and Belichick. The Patriots organization desperately wanted Brady back to get their fairytale ending to a long and historic career. Brady chose to forego that ending and write a new chapter of his career with the Bucs.
Bruce Arians appears ecstatic to have Tom on the team. He has spoken of his willingness to give Brady a level of control that no other QB has been afforded up until now. The fit may not be perfect, and like a pair of new cleats may take some time to break in with some pain during the process. In the end, it seems like these two will find a way to work together.
The catchphrase of Bruce Arians is widely known in football circles, “No risk it, no biscuit,” which is why it seemed that despite some of his shortcomings as a passer, Jameis Winston was a great fit for the new Bruce Arians led Bucs. Unfortunately, Winston’s risk-taking proved to be too much even for Arians. Winston had a historic number of interceptions (30) and was given his pink slip. In steps Brady, a QB who is perceived to have made his career on conservative decision making and throwing to the open man. Arian’s offense is predicated on long developing deep routes and taking shots down the field. So how will Brady and Arians mesh?
Despite the apparent philosophical difference in their approaches to the game, there is reason to believe that the partnership will be successful. Between 2016-2018 on 10+ yard passes (air yards) PFF graded Brady as the best passer in football. Brady posted an incredible 120.2 passer rating on these throws, also ranking as the number 1 passer in the category. This was on a sample size of 659 attempts, which was also the largest sample size among passers.
Using the NFL’s Next Gen Stat of “aggressive throws,” which is defined as throws to targets with less than one yard of separation, Brady falls in the middle of the league with numbers of 17.6%, 17.0% and 13.9% in 2016, 2017, and 2018, respectively. Brady ranks number one on PFF’s most accurate passers on passes of 10+ yards over the 2016-2018 span with a rating of 55.8%. That leads into 2019, which by many was considered to be amongst Brady’s worst seasons.
In 2019, NFL’s Next Gen Stats for expected completions on passes of over 20+ air yards versus actual completed passes shows Brady finished 4th with a positive difference of 7.5 percentage points. Brady had an expected completion percentage of 31.4%, but actually completed 38.9%. Brady also faced the highest-pressure rate of any of the top 10 finishers in the category with a pressure rate of 40.7%. Throughout his career, Brady has been able to thrive in all aspects of throwing the football, which seems to get lost in the mystique that surrounds the Patriots system.
Arians runs a vertical offense in which QBs are the focal point. As a head coach, his offense has only finished in the bottom half of the league in passing attempts twice, passing yards twice, and touchdowns twice. In his 7 years as a head coach, his team has finished in the bottom half of the league in interceptions thrown 6 times. “No risk it, no biscuit.” Brady will be expected to lead the offense and take risks.
It is hard to separate Belichick and Brady. Save for the games Drew Bledsoe started during Brady’s rookie season, the Patriots offense was always led by Brady in his time in New England. During Brady’s career, the Patriots utilized an Earhardt-Perkins offense—more specifically, the Air Earhardt variation. This offense relies on spreading multiple WRs out and throwing the ball. The Patriots’ scheme has evolved over time to highlight the strengths of its personnel. Last year, the running game was leaned on more. While proving effective for the team, Brady’s numbers fell from their peak years.
Spreading defenses out allowed Brady to exploit one-on-one coverages and holes in zone schemes. Brady’s ability to read the defense and make adjustments pre-snap were honed in the Earhardt-Perkins system. The familiarity with the offense is something that provided Brady comfort and confidence that will be lost in his move to Tampa.
This past year saw Julian Edelman as Brady’s only truly dynamic offensive outlet. Mohammad Sanu could not find a rhythm with Brady, and with N’Keal Harry being injured most of the year the WR group that surrounded Brady was lackluster. The additions of Damiere Byrd and Marquise Lee this offseason are negligible. With his move to Tampa Bay, Brady will be throwing to arguably the best WR duo in the league.
Mike Evans and Chris Godwin are both immensely talented and will provide Brady with options at different levels of the field. Evans 1,157 receiving yards and 8 touchdowns in 13 games coupled with Godwin’s 1,333 receiving yards and 9 touchdowns in 14 games last year displayed the potency of this WR duo. Evans is a big receiver known for his ability to make contested catches and push the field vertically—an ideal fit for an Arian’s offense.
Godwin is supremely talented out of the slot and continued his ascension up the WR ranks to emerge as a top-10 player last year. Godwin led the league in yards after the catch with 574 yards despite missing 2 games. Many people believe Godwin to be the best slot receiver in the league, and despite Edelman’s sustained success with Brady, Godwin might provide an upgrade at the position. The addition of Tyler Johnson should also provide Brady another sure handed receiver, though it may take some time for the rookie to adjust to the NFL game.
If Arians is to be believed, the Bucs will run a “12” personnel in their base offense. Brady’s arrival in Tampa Bay drew Rob Gronkowski out of retirement. Brady and Gronk formed the greatest QB and TE duo in NFL history during their time together in New England. The injuries piled up for Gronk over the years, eventually leading to his retirement. With a year off, Gronkowski should be the healthiest he has been in years.
In 2020, O.J. Howard hopes to get himself out of Arian’s doghouse and into Brady’s good graces. A supremely talented TE coming out of college, Howard has failed to transition into the dominant TE many believed he would become in the NFL. Brady has elevated the play of TEs that have played with him, and guys like Benjamin Watson and Martellus Bennett have found a resurgence in playing with Brady. With Gronkowski likely to be playing a limited number of snaps to ensure his health, Howard may be in for a career year.
After the departure of Gronkowski, the TE talent has become bare in New England. Brady found himself throwing to Matt Lacosse and Benjamin Watson last year. Watson was a shell of his former self, and Lacosse proved to be no better before being injured. With his throwing options limited by a lack of talent, it was not surprising to see Brady’s numbers take a dip in 2019. With the addition of Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene, the Patriots looked to upgrade the TE position. While both of the rookies appear to be talented, their contributions will be minimal for this year.
The Bucs lack a proven option in the backfield for Brady. Ronald Jones III has yet to live up to his draft billing. Last year, Jones showed flashes of ability and gave some, including the coaching staff, reason to hope he may yet be a starting-caliber running back. The Bucs selected Keyshawn Vaughn in the third round of the draft this year, surprising many people. Vaughn’s receiving ability is what attracted Tampa, and Vaughn could find himself a key cog in the new-look Tampa offense.
RB was a strength of the Patriots offense last year, leaning heavily on the combination of Sony Michel and James White. The tandem attack proved to be effective, but it also lacked explosiveness. Michel averaged 3.7 YPC and had just over 1,006 yards from scrimmage. The ever-present White caught 72 receptions and contributed 907 yards from scrimmage. The duo was spelled by Rex Burkhead who managed 581 yards from scrimmage. The emergence of the run game as the leading offensive weapon for the Patriots limited the opportunities for Brady in 2019.
The Patriots line was decimated by injuries in 2019. Their starting center was lost for the season and they also lost their right tackle and left tackle for long stretches during the year. Despite the struggles, the unit ranked 10th in pass protection. A return to full strength would provide New England an upgrade on the line without adding anyone.
What is not reflected in the rankings is the adjustments Brady had to make to his game. Brady led the league with 41 throwaways last year, and his 6.6 Y/A was the second lowest in his career. This year should see the return of starting center David Andrews, and the line will hopefully have a healthier season overall. Despite the hopeful return to health of the line, there is one departure that cannot be easily filled.
The loss of long-time offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia is a huge blow to the Patriots. Scarnecchia had 48 years of coaching experience, with 32 as an offensive line coach, and he provided an unparalleled wealth of knowledge. During his tenure, the Patriots line was perennially amongst the best units in the league. It has yet to be seen how this unit will perform without the guidance of their former coach.
According to most pundits, the Bucs glaring problem last year was offensive line play. Appearances can be deceiving, however, as PFF ranked the line 7th last year despite giving up the most sacks. The interior lineman ranking second in the NFL for their grouping was the biggest reason for this. The guards and the center combined for an 80.4 pass-blocking grade.
The offensive line of the Bucs is stacked with 2nd and 3rd round players. The biggest hole in the line was at right tackle. With the addition of Tristan Wirfs, a 1st round pick in this year’s draft, an upgrade in performance is likely. The line took a lot of heat last year, but in a vertical offense the QB will hold the ball longer than typical which will inevitably lead to more pressure on the QB.
Winston was sacked 47 times and blitzed a league-leading 241 times. The long developing plays and emphasis on deep passes leads to defenses getting to the quarterback. When looking at pocket time, New England and Tampa Bay both provided their signal callers an average of 2.5 seconds. Winston was often unwilling to throw the ball away, doing so only 22 times on the year. Brady is much quicker to throw a pass away, which should lead to less sacks in Tampa than Winston endured.
Ultimately, this is about fantasy football performance, not who is the overall better team. Fantasy football comes down to pure statistics. For the Patriots and Bucs, passing attempts from last year were very similar with Brady having 613 compared to Winston’s 626. The big difference shows up in yards with Brady throwing for 4,057 versus Winston’s 5,109.
The vertical offense run by the Bucs, coupled with the talent of the skill positions, should see Brady thrive in his new environment. Interceptions will rise but so will yards and touchdowns. The bright sun of Tampa Bay will shine down, and the G.O.A.T. will find the grass is greener in his new home.
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