For many years, the New England Patriots have been a team where the whole was greater than the sum of its parts. Players came and players went, but the team went right on winning the AFC East — to the tune of 12 of the last 13 seasons, including the last seven in a row.
The Patriots put that notion to the test again in 2016. With top pass-rusher Chandler Jones (DL8) entering a contract year and the Patriots apparently under the impression they would have difficulty retaining him, the Pats didn’t hesitate to move on, trading Jones to the Arizona Cardinals.
That blockbuster trade left the perennial Super Bowl contenders with a huge hole to fill along the defensive line, and it’s there will begin our look at the individual defensive players of note in Beantown in 2016.
Number in parentheses denotes 2015 positional finish in Fantasy Sharks Default IDP Scoring.
Part of the reason the Patriots were so readily willing to part with Jones is the presence of Jabaal Sheard (DL27), who piled up eight sacks and four forced fumbles last year in a rotational role. The 27-year-old is now slated for full-time snaps, and the folks at SB Nation are confident the sixth-year veteran is about to embark upon a breakout season.
“All the factors are there for Sheard to have a career year in New England,” they wrote. “With a team that has always proclaimed their “Next Man Up” mentality, Sheard will prove, once again, that Belichick has an eye for potential stars.”
Jene Bramel of Football Guys expects that breakout season to carry over to IDP as well. “I love Jabaal Sheard this year,” Bramel said. “I tend to overdraft players who have shown production in limited sample sizes if I like the talent. I liked Sheard in my pre-draft evaluations and hated how Cleveland used him. A stud all-around talent who will see near full time snaps with Chandler Jones traded to Arizona, Sheard has a great shot at a top three fantasy season.”
Top-three might be a stretch, but the top-10 isn’t. And given that Sheard’s available in DL2 territory in many IDP drafts, that makes him a value play and preferred draft day target.
The Patriots will need Sheard now more than ever. As if it wasn’t bad enough that Rob Ninkovich (DL16) was out after tearing his triceps in camp, the veteran end now faces a four-game suspension to open the season that drops the 32-year-old into low-end DL3 territory and makes Chris Long (DL123) a potential short-term fix for deep league owners in a bind on the line.
“Few things are more important to me than my name and reputation. This might call that into question for some, which has me heartbroken,” Ninkovich told Mike Reiss of ESPN. “I don’t want to cut any corners. I want to do things the right way, with high integrity, and that’s what I have always wanted to stand for.”
With Jones in the desert, the crown jewel of the Patriots’ IDPs is now fourth-year linebacker Jamie Collins (LB16), who amassed 89 stops, 5.5 sacks and five forced fumbles in 2015. As Henry McKenna of Boston.com wrote, Patriots great Willie McGinest raved recently about what Collins brings to the New England defense.
“He’s a guy that can cover anybody in the league,” McGinest said. “He’s focused, he’s tough as nails in the run game. They bring him in the blitz to get after the quarterback. For a guy his size, he’s strong. He can attack linemen. He’s fast, he’s versatile. And he’s still learning the game. He plays at a high level. Very underrated in the league, but I think he’s one of the best linebackers in the NFL. He can do so much — he never comes off the field. He’s a three-down guy.”
McGinest had similarly complimentary things to say about fifth-year pro Dont’a Hightower (LB64). “Hightower’s smart,” McGinest said. “He’s the captain — at Alabama, he used to call the plays. He’s the captain and anytime you come from [Alabama head coach] Nick Saban, you’ve gotta be smart. He’s smart. He can do a lot of different things, too. I like his energy. They use him to rush the quarterback, too, and covering [running] backs. But most of all, diagnosing plays and putting guys in the right positions. I think he’s one of the best.”
Add the two together, and you have a dangerous combination. “They just complement each other. They communicate well,” McGinest said. “They feed off each other, definitely. Very athletic, so you can switch job descriptions with them. … They can do each others job, so you really can’t — as an offensive coordinator, you really can’t say who is doing what every single play, because they do so many different things.”
Collins is a no-doubt IDP LB1, a player capable of posting triple-digit tackles and mixing in more than a few big plays. Hightower has shown flashes of that same ability, but he’s battled injuries and a tendency to disappear from the box score from time to time. There’s upside there to be sure, but also enough risk to drop Hightower into LB3 territory.
In the opinion of Steve Silverman of CBS New York, free safety Devin McCourty (DB100) is one of the best players in the NFL at his position. “One of the most important players on Matt Patricia’s defense because of his tremendous range and hitting ability,” Silverman said. “The 29-year-old is clearly in the prime of his career, and he is one of the top two cover men at his position in the league. When he signed his five-year, $47.5 million contract prior to the 2015 season, Bill Belichick made the decision to keep McCourty and let Darelle Revis walk. That’s all anyone needs to know.”
What IDP owners need to know is that McCourty’s effectiveness on the field in the NFL doesn’t really translate to fantasy football. In fact, despite missing only three games over the past three seasons, McCourty hasn’t finished among the top 80 defensive backs even once.
In fact, a similar case can be made for (or against, as the case may be) strong safety Patrick Chung (DB65). Chung burst onto the IDP radar with 96 tackles for the Patriots all the way back in 2010, but that was a lifetime ago. Now, despite over 80 total stops in each of the last two years, the 29-year-old is a low upside fantasy option rosterable in only the largest and deepest IDP leagues.
Super Bowl XLIX hero Malcolm Butler (DB46) has gone from undrafted rookie to the Patriots’ top cornerback, and he told Kevin Duffy of Mass Live that he’s loving every minute of it. “You only get that certain gap that you can play football,” Butler said, “so I’m enjoying it, trying to do the best I can, trying to learn as much as I can because you can’t play that long. Once you’re done playing, you don’t want to go back and say ‘I wish I could have done this or done that,’ so (I’m) just doing the best I can.”
Given Butler’s delicious Sunday night matchup with the pass-wacky Arizona Cardinals in Week 1, he’s worth an end-of-draft flyer as a streaming matchup play in CB-required IDP leagues.