I’ve done a 180 on this subject (really a 360, as my original instinct was to trust Bill Belichick) but have come to the conclusion that Tom Brady is likely done (the fantasy ramifications!), and the Patriots are going to win more games than the Bucs this season.
Let’s look first from Tompa Bay’s perspective, followed by New England’s.
BRADY THE GOAT
Tom Brady is the winningest QB of all time and has even become quite likable (and even funny) on social media over the late stages of his career. There’s certainly an argument that suggests a huge season is in store for the best quarterback in NFL history, one leaving a bunch of scrub position players and now getting major upgrades in weapons in Chris Godwin, Mike Evans, Rob Gronkowski, and O.J. Howard in a QB-friendly system that also added tackle Tristan Wirfs in the first round of the draft. The Bucs also play in a warm climate and get to face the Falcons and Panthers 25 percent of their schedule.
But without debating Brady’s resume as the greatest of all time (rings vs. stats, how much credit does Belichick/system deserve, etc.), the current version is inarguably about to turn 43 years old and showed clear signs of steep decline last season. Over the second half, Brady got 5.9 YPA despite half of those opponents ranking in the bottom-10 in pass defense DVOA (for the season it marked the second-lowest YPA of his career and the lowest TD% of his career).
CPOE (Completion Percentage Over Expected) is a newish stat that’s proven a stable predictor of YPA and is a strong and (reasonable minds can disagree but arguably the most) predictive measure of quarterbacks (hello, Joe Burrow and Jalen Hurts) — it factors in expected completion percentage with depth of target while accounting for competition.
Brady ranked 32nd among 33 qualified quarterbacks in CPOE last season, and it gets downright ugly when narrowing it down to the second half of the year (and mercifully, it’s not counting the playoff game). Here’s a list of the bottom-10 quarterbacks in CPOE over the final eight games:
26) Andy Dalton
27) Devlin Hodges
28) Jeff Driskel
29) Josh Allen
30) Dwayne Haskins
31) Jacoby Brissett
32) Mason Rudolph
33) Gardner Minshew
34) Tom Brady
35) David Blough
It’s hard to properly express how bad Brady’s performance (CPOE -8.7) was over the second half of last season, but David Blough was worse, so at least he has that going for him (which is nice).
Put differently, last season Brady had the lowest completion% of his career despite having the second-highest expected completion% and the lowest aDOT of his career.
Player Profiler ranked him #33 among QBs according to their “Production Premium” measure, and PFF’s grades paint a similarly bleak picture (especially when moved off his spot). Moreover, Brady was among the league leaders in the highest% of bad throws, finished 32nd in completion% from a clean pocket, and was even lucky with interceptions.
As they say, Father Time is undefeated, and older QBs historically have fallen off cliffs when they reach the end, and it usually happens much sooner than Brady’s current age. At 37 years old, Peyton Manning got 8.3 YPA, threw 55 touchdowns, and won MVP. Just 18 months later he was a liability (while ironically winning a Super Bowl) when he washed out at 6.8 YPA with a 9:17 TD:INT ratio at age 39 (while also dealing with other health issues), finishing last in the league in CPOE, although not nearly as bad as the recent mark from Brady, who’s going to be FOUR years older.
It’s possible it was random that this sample was the worst 10-game stretch of Brady’s career, but the more likely conclusion is: Age finally caught up to him.
It’s not a surprise the 49ers said “No thanks” when Brady made it known SF was his #1 desired destination, as they already have a far superior option in Jimmy G.
While Asante Samuel disagrees with this, and Mike Clay has the Bucs with a top-three roster in the NFL right now, Brady isn’t just dealing with extremely advanced age, but he’s doing so while switching teams during an abnormally short offseason. As Peyton Manning warns, changing leagues shouldn’t be underestimated.
If I’m out on Brady (Jameis Winston finished middle of the pack in CPOE last year, right along with Kyler Murray and Carson Wentz, and his high INT% was almost certainly a positive for his receivers’ fantasy values), then I’m lower than consensus on Evans and Godwin. I love Godwin’s talent and Brady will feed the slot, but he’s being drafted as the WR5/6 despite posting a WOPR outside the top-30 last season, has a legit question mark at QB and saw the addition of Rob Gronkowski to an already crowded receiving group during the offseason. Give me DJ Moore, Allen Robinson, Adam Thielen and A.J. Brown over Godwin in fantasy drafts eight days a week.
Tampa Bay’s backfield will likely be a committee between Ke’Shawn Vaughn and Ronald Jones, so they can be avoided, while Gronkowski possesses one of the more head-scratching early ADPs (TE7). Gronk is the best, but he was also borderline unplayable in fantasy the last time we saw him despite ranking #1 in target quality. Making a comeback after sitting out an entire year is even harder ... he’s changing teams/conferences and has a 43-year-old QB in steep decline learning a new system throwing to him while sharing targets with beasts like Godwin, Evans and Howard.
And it’s an absolutely loaded tight end position right now. Drafting Gronk as a borderline top-five fantasy tight end is not something I’d recommend.
STID THE KID
Only a cursory amount of research revealed another reason why Belichick so easily let Brady leave New England, and that’s Jarrett Stidham.
The former four-star high school recruit was a candidate to go first overall in the draft before a disappointing final year in college that could easily be blamed on his situation (after transferring from Baylor when coach Art Briles was fired and sitting out an entire year, he landed in a run-heavy Auburn offense that was a horrible fit). Praised for his accuracy, size, arm strength, and decision-making (is that all?), Stidham’s “strengths” sure sound appetizing — even before we factor in his situation.
Stidham is repeatedly described as a gym rat with a high football IQ whose teammates love him. He’s 6-foot-2, 220 pounds, and both his college YPA (9.6) and breakout age (19.1) were in the 90th percentile or above, and quarterbacks who “break out” before 20 are considered “phenoms.” Does Stidham remind you of anyone inside the pocket while watching him throw? (h/t to Aidan Curran for the GIFs).
From a fantasy perspective, Stidham becomes even more interesting because he can run. He rushed for 1,790 yards and 29 TDs in high school in Texas (where he also ran track), recorded 175 rush attempts over his last two years in college and in the preseason as a rookie, ran 17 times for 88 yards. Stidham also finished second in PFF’s adjusted completion percentage metric in the preseason.
If Stidham does prove competent with a year under his belt (Todd McShay is not a believer, and after writing this column, you can be certain Cam Newton signs with New England soon), and realize his college CPOE (+3) was much better than Daniel Jones (-2) or Drew Lock (-1), he’s certainly in the right system to produce fantasy numbers. The Patriots ranked #1 in Pace (situation neutral) last season, when Brady attempted a league-high 101 red-zone passes (and led inside the 10 as well) — for reference, Jameis Winston in Tampa Bay attempted 75 RZ passes.
New England’s current weapons don’t look great on paper, but that also becomes a chicken-and-egg situation coinciding with Brady’s decline. And while my general argument is system>players here anyway, fans of RACR get why Belichick traded a second-round pick for Mohamed Sanu (who immediately got hurt). Moreover, N’Keal Harry has a first-round pedigree (drafted ahead of Deebo Samuel, A.J. Brown, DK Metcalf, and Terry McLaurin), while newcomer and finally healthy Marqise Lee was a former early second-rounder who’s still just 28 and motivated on a one-year deal. Julian Edelman remains, and the team’s tight end room was rebuilt with two early round draft picks, including sleeper Dalton Keene, who’s sure to keep the tradition of all “Daltons” being legendary.
New England also projects to have a strong offensive line, while James White and Rex Burkhead provide nice options as receivers out of the backfield (and don’t be surprised when former youth football teammate Damien Harris overtakes Sony Michel as NE’s lead back).
Coaching is tough to measure, but let’s use one example: Last year, the Patriots had the fewest missed tackles in the NFL with 66 — the Browns had the most with 140. And then there’s the unquantifiable, and for many reasons (wink, wink), Belichick will put Stidham in position to succeed unlike any other quarterback in the league. It appears he might be able to take advantage of that opportunity more so than the fantasy public currently expects, given his cheap ADP (QB31).
The last quarterback to replace Brady for a full season was the decidedly mediocre Matt Cassel, who proceeded to win 11 games (crazy that Patriots team didn’t make the playoffs, going 11-5) while finishing as a top-10 fantasy QB despite a historically tough schedule against the pass. It certainly needs to be noted he had Randy Moss at his disposal, but Cassel went from being the QB7 in fantasy points per game (right behind Kurt Warner and Peyton Manning and just ahead of Donovan McNabb in their primes) to the next year leaving for KC and being the QB26 (right behind Vince Young). Belichick said he’ll be “gearing everything toward” what’s best for Stidham, just like he did Brady and Cassel before him.
In conclusion, the Bucs are this year’s version of the Browns: Way overhyped (nearly -350 to make the playoffs) and sure to disappoint thanks to a tricky schedule and Brady’s decline hitting much harder than most are expecting. As such, Godwin, Evans, and Gronkowski all have far too high ADPs.
Conversely, the Patriots are underrated despite mountains of evidence suggesting we should trust Belichick, whom I suspect secretly feels Stidham gives his team a similar chance to win right now (and the huge salary cap differences made the switch a no-brainer). The Pats are a lock to finish with more wins than the Bucs, and Stidham is my favorite cheap fantasy QB in Superflex leagues (and second only to Jalen Hurts as my favorite cheap dynasty QB target).
It’s been real, Tom.