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Fantasy Film Study: Who to start on the Gronk-less Patriots

  • By Alex Gelhar NFL.com
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With Rob Gronkowski suffering a season-ending knee injury last Sunday, it left many fantasy owners wondering what to expect from the Patriots offense for the rest of the season. It's a good question, too. Gronk's impact on the offense as a whole was brutally apparent, as Tom Brady, Stevan Ridley, Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman all had their highest scoring fantasy performances with Gronk at full health. So what's in store for the Pats fantasy-wise with Gronk down for the season? I went to the tape to see if I could shed some light on the topic.

Using Game Rewind, which you can try free for seven days by clicking here, I watched the Patriots offense with and without Gronk to help us understand what to make of the rest of their skill position players in the heart of the postseason.

1) Can Shane Vereen save the day (or at least the backfield)?

Shane Vereen looked like the steal of most fantasy drafts when he racked up 159 total yards in Week 1. That was, until he broke his wrist and had to sit out the next eight games. Since returning in Week 11, Vereen has immediately become a focal point of the offense (which is why I focused on him instead of fumble machines Stevan Ridley and LeGarrette Blount). In just five games this season, Vereen ranks third on the team with 40 catches. The Patriots move Vereen all over the field to create mismatches across the board. Let's take a look.

Here, in Week 1 against the Bills, Vereen comes out of the backfield and lines up wide. This forces safety Aaron Williams to play Vereen in man coverage, leaving Leodis McKelvin to cover the entire middle of the field by himself.

Vereen runs a simple curl underneath the soft coverage for a solid gain. Moving Vereen around like this not only creates space/options for the rest of the receivers, but it sets up big plays for Vereen himself.

Later in the game, Vereen motions out of the backfield again, this time lining up wide right. This has the same look and feel, and safety Da'Norris Searcy knows it. That's why he jumps so hard at the pump fake by Brady.

Vereen starts with the curl, but pulls a double move and turns up field leaving Searcy in his dust.

The only trouble, is Brady overthrows Vereen on what should have been a monster gain.

Fantasy Impact: The Patriots use Vereen in a variety of ways, motioning him out him in and out of the backfield. These moves create great matchups for Vereen to exploit when he's one-on-one with a safety or linebacker. No player on the Patriots offense may be in line for a bigger fantasy boom in production than Vereen. After Gronk went down on Sunday, Vereen was targeted on 13 of Brady's 30 pass attempts. Granted, much of that came in the hurry-up offense, which is Vereen's forte, but the fact remains clear: Brady trusts Vereen to produce, and you should too.

2) Amendola and Edelman

I was going to do an in-depth look at Amendola and Edelman together in the passing game, but the wiser, more experienced Bucky Brooks beat me to it. For reasons why to trust these two, especially in the red zone, check out Bucky's piece from earlier this week. Not only does he highlight how Amendola and Edelman can be effective without Gronk, he also touches a little more on Vereen, and explores his 50-yard catch against the Browns.

Click here for full video of the Vereen's monster catch.

But, back to Amendola and Edelman ... which one should you put your faith in on Sundays with Gronk out? Amendola was the Patriots' prized offseason acquisition, the heir-apparent to Wes Welker's 100-plus catches every season. Yet, due to a combination of injury and trust, it appears Edelman is the one who has picked up the slack from Welker's departure.

Targets -- last four games
Player
Wk 11
Wk 12
Wk 13
Wk 14
Edelman
4
11
12
9
Amendola
7
6
5
8

Over the season, Edelman has been getting targets more consistently from Brady, especially lately. Moreover, he leads the Patriots in every receiving category. Before Amendola's injury woes started in Week 1, he was targeted 14 times by Brady. The trouble is, he's just not reliable from a health or production standpoint, even with Gronk out of the lineup. Edelman was Brady's second most targeted pass-catcher on Sunday after Gronk suffered his injury, as he received seven targets to Amendola's four.

Fantasy Impact: Both wideouts figure to be in line for an uptick in their targets and production, but with the fantasy playoffs on the line, the only one you can trust with any certainty to produce is Edelman. He's a WR2 or flex play until we see more of the Gronk-less Pats.

3) The Great One

All right, we've trickled through the Patriots skill positions and now turn the focus onto Brady himself. How will he hold up without his massive, talented tight end tearing apart defenses?

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Sadly, not as good as we'd hope. Look, he's still Tom Brady, and he engineered those scoring drives without Gronk against a good Browns defense, but the proof is in the fantasy pudding. Brady has had five games in 2013 where he has scored more than 20 fantasy points, and Gronk was a major part in four of those games. The other came against the porous Atlanta Falcons defense. Honestly, Tim Couch could light up the scoreboard against that squad.

Brady will do Brady things and win games, but I can't trust him without Gronk in the fantasy playoffs. Especially against the Dolphins this weekend. Brady has more interceptions in his career against Miami (19) than any other team, and the 'Fins are allowing only a 76.1 passer rating to opposing quarterbacks in 2013 -- third-lowest in the league.

Fantasy Impact: The Patriots offense has been clicking of late, and could survive the loss of Gronk, but there is too much risk to expect Brady to perform without Gronk from a fantasy perspective when he struggled to do so all season.

Conclusion

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All fantasy hope is not lost for the Patriots with Gronk out. Vereen's value has increased, and he could be a difference maker in the fantasy playoffs. Julian Edelman should also be a reliable flex start, or low-end WR2.

Brady and Amendola, on the other hand, are more worrisome. I wouldn't be surprised if either had a big game in the coming weeks, as the ability and coaching is there. But the odds of them having an average or poor outing are far too great to trust either in the fantasy playoffs. Without that big, shirtless wonder giving defensive coordinators fits, Amendola and Brady should be fist bumped to your fantasy bench.

- Alex Gelhar writes features and fantasy pieces for NFL.com. Follow him on Twitter @AlexGelhar. But please, Mr. Kennedy, don't shoot him into outer space.

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