Patriots Dominate Free Agency—Does it Matter for Fantasy?
The New England Patriots kicked off the 2021 league year with a flurry of free agency moves focused on improving a passing attack that yielded the second-fewest yards through the air in 2020. After re-signing quarterback Cam Newton to an incentive-heavy contract last week, the Pats made the following acquisitions:
- TE Jonnu Smith - Four years, $50 million
- TE Hunter Henry - Three years, $37.5 million
- WR Nelson Agholor - Two years, $26 million
- WR Kendrick Bourne - Three years, $22.5 million
Get instant fantasy analysis on every relevant free agent with John Paulsen’s 2021 Fantasy Free Agency Tracker!
Recapping the Patriots 2020 Offense
Last season was a forgettable one in New England, especially on the offensive side of the ball. The Patriots scored the sixth-fewest points in the league and were especially woeful in the passing game—they had the second-fewest passing attempts and yards while their 10 passing touchdowns ranked last. No team got less fantasy production from their wide receivers or tight ends with the latter group combining for just 31 targets all season.
While this offense clearly suffered from a lack of weapons, quarterback play also contributed to their limited passing attack. Newton’s 72.9% on-target percentage ranked 32nd out of 36 qualified passers, according to SportsInfoSoultions (SiS). In addition to having accuracy issues, Cam capped the upside of New England’s passing attack with his legs—his 137 rush attempts ranked second among quarterbacks last year.
With almost no offseason in 2020 and Cam missing time early in the year with COVID-19, we can give the Pats a bit of a mulligan for their effort last season.
Patriots Ink Top-Two Tight Ends in Free Agency
It’s almost impossible to look at the signings of Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry and not imagine the 2011 iteration of the New England offense that featured Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. This team has a long way to go to get there—the Pats dropped back to pass with two tight ends on the field just eight times last season (SiS), by far the fewest in the league. Before getting into how 2021 will look, let’s first examine the tight ends that could overshadow the wideouts in this passing attack.
Jonnu Smith, Always the Bridesmaid
Smith is an athletic freak that has garnered fantasy intrigue since being drafted in 2017. He technically broke out last season, finishing as the TE10, but that ranking is skewed by a hot start at a position with hardly any competition in the fantasy landscape. Over a third of Smith’s fantasy production in 2020 came in the first four games. After that, he averaged fewer than seven half-PPR points per contest, posting double-digit points in just three of his final 10 games.
The real-football gift/fantasy-football curse is that Smith is an excellent blocker—among tight ends with at least 200 snaps as a blocker, PFF gave Smith a top-10 grade in 2020. With that, Smith has yet to have a season with at least 15% of team targets but his upside has mostly been capped because he’s been trapped in a run-first offense. While Smith has sometimes been able to overcome volume concerns in Tennessee’s efficient passing attack, the tight end will now be competing for snaps with an arguably better pass-catching tight end in a low-volume, inefficient passing attack.
The silver lining is that Smith has flashed as a valuable weapon near the goal line. In 2020, Smith’s 17 red-zone targets were tied for the ninth-most in the league and fourth among tight ends—nearly 30% of the Titans’ passes inside the 10-yard line went to Smith.
Hunter Henry has Flashed Greatness (When Healthy)
Since coming into the league in 2016, Henry is a top-10 fantasy tight end on a per-game basis but he has played more than 12 games in a season just once, missing the entire 2018 season. When healthy, the 26-year-old tight end is one of the most heavily-used players at his position in the passing game. Last season, Henry ran just over 34 routes per game according to PFF, the fourth-most of any tight end—compare that to Smith’s 20 routes per game, which was behind 30 players at the position.
Although used often in the intermediate passing game in 2020—only three tight ends played more snaps in the slot (PFF)—Henry has shown that he can be a vertical threat, as well, averaging the eighth-most yards per target among tight ends from 2016–2019 (minimum 100 targets).
Despite being utilized primarily as a pass-catcher, Henry hasn’t been used as much in the red zone as some other high-end tight ends. He has never seen a 20% red zone target share in a season, though he was offered a respectable 23% of the Chargers targets inside the 10 last year.
New England Adds a Much-Needed Deep Threat
Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne should immediately compete for starter snaps on the outside along with Jakobi Meyers, while soon-to-be 35-year-old Julian Edelman returns to slot duties—it’s Agholor, however, that adds an element to the Patriots air attack that they were missing last season. None of New England’s pass-catchers had an average target depth of 12 or more yards in 2020 and they threw 15+ yards downfield just 16% of the time, a bottom-10 rate.
Agholor’s 36 targets of 15+ yards contributed to a 14.8-yard average target depth, the fifth-highest mark of any wide receiver with at least five targets per game. Though Newton struggled as a passer last year, the deep ball was actually one of his strengths, at least from an accuracy perspective. SiS shows that Cam posted the eighth-highest on-target percentage on balls 15 or more yards downfield and the best on-target rate on passes that traveled at least 20 yards.
With Edelman back, it will be tough for Agholor or Bourne to sniff anything close to 100-targets—neither Bourne nor Agholor have ever had a 100-target season and no Patriot saw more than 81 targets in 2020.
What it Means for 2021
Even if New England tries to recreate 2011, there likely won’t be enough volume to go around to trust any Patriots pass-catcher on a weekly basis. While it’s unlikely that this offense attempts fewer than 450 passes as they did in 2020, Newton has thrown more than 500 times just twice in his career and hasn’t done so since 2016. Given his rushing prowess, though, if this new free agency class can boost Cam’s passing numbers to even league average, he can flirt with a top-12 fantasy season...assuming he’s the starter come September.
The Bottom Line
- With a suddenly crowded receiving corps, New England is unlikely to have enough passing volume to make any of their pass-catchers reliable fantasy starters.
- The Patriots should feature two-tight end sets more often than not in 2021. Hunter Henry has traditionally been used more heavily in the passing game than Jonnu Smith. For fantasy purposes, both will be spot starts during bye weeks at best, barring injury.
- Nelson Agholor adds a deep dimension to New England’s passing game that they lacked in 2020. Agholor will have splash games but they will be unpredictable. His presence boosts Cam’s upside, who was surprisingly one of the more accurate deep passers last season.
- Combined with his rushing ability, Newton can flirt with QB1 numbers if his receiving corps can bump him up to even just 20+ passing touchdowns