There is always a tendency up to about this point in the season for DFS players to want to still turn a team into what they expected them to be, rather than acknowledging what a team has actually been. The Browns are a perfect example of this, of course, as they are 37.5% of the way into their 2019 season, and they (somewhat stunningly) rank 27th in offensive DVOA, while ranking 30th in DVOA through the air and 29th in drive success rate. Only the Giants and Bengals have more giveaways than the Browns — who will be traveling to New England to take on a Patriots team that ranks first in takeaways, first in defensive DVOA, first in DVOA against the pass, first in opponent drive success rate, first in red zone touchdown defense, first in points allowed per game, and first in yards allowed per game, while having given up one touchdown through the air and two touchdowns on the ground. Those touchdowns on the ground have come from a quarterback and a wide receiver. The Patriots (as noted a couple times already this year) are pushing to finish top three in the NFL in “fewest rushing touchdowns allowed to running backs” for the fourth consecutive season.
There are no good matchups through the air against the Patriots. PFF Grades are obviously not the be all and end all of player evaluation (after all: Marcus Peters ranks fourth at cornerback, and the Rams jettisoned him because they felt he was part of their issues on defense), but Jonathan Jones is the number two rated corner in the NFL, Jason McCourty is number three, and Stephon Gilmore is number 12. Gilmore (as the “12th best corner in the NFL” — a bit of a joke) has allowed a 44% completion rate on passes thrown into his coverage with a QB rating allowed of 36.0. The Patriots also rank fourth in adjusted sack rate on defense, while Cleveland — with their offensive line an absolute mess — ranks 25th on offense.
Things get a little easier on the ground against the Pats. They are allowing the second fewest running back rushing yards in the league — but a large part of this is the fact that they are facing the highest opponent pass play rate in the league. They are decidedly not attackable on the ground (3.6 yards per carry allowed to running backs; eighth in DVOA against the run; second in yards allowed per carry on the whole; and the aforementioned tightening-up near the goal line), but this is the “softest” part of this historic Patriots defense, and Nick Chubb (who has recent touch counts of 27 // 23 // 17 // 25) will get enough work that he could realistically hit.
On defense this year, the Browns have been solid against the pass (21st in DVOA, but sixth in yards allowed per pass attempt as they have done a great job forcing short-area throws with both Greedy Williams and Denzel Ward injured), and they are expected to get their two star cornerbacks back this week; but they have been attackable on the ground, ranking 25th in DVOA and 30th in yards allowed per carry while giving up the eighth most rushing yards to running backs in spite of the early bye — at a pathetic 4.99 yards allowed per carry to the position.
For their part, the Patriots (who have “survived” on offense more than they have thrived) are running a balanced offense that mixes in three running backs and a short-area passing attack with occasional downfield shots.
We’ll start with the Patriots passing attack, where it will be interesting to see what Mohamed Sanu does for this offense after they traded a second round pick(!) for his services. Sanu has been a bit pigeonholed the last couple years as a “slot receiver,” but up until 2018 he had been as active out wide as he had been from the slot throughout his career — and given that Sanu’s size (6’2″) seemed to be one of the main things that drew Bill Belichick toward him (along with the fact that he played his college ball at Rutgers, of course…), it seems likely that Sanu was picked up to replace Josh Gordon, whom the Patriots surely knew they were planning to send to I.R. Whether or not Sanu can integrate right away is an open question, but he should provide a less-athletic (but more polished) version of the Josh Gordon role moving forward.
On the other side of the field, it will likely be Phillip Dorsett continuing to get the majority of the run, though it also seems likely this week that Jacobi Meyers (a Brady favorite who continues to play well when given opportunities — an impressive 13 catches on 15 targets this year) will continue to see time on the field. The matchup is non-ideal against the Browns’ secondary, the Patriots are likely to control this game, and this team has not produced a single 100-yard game through the air away from Julian Edelman (who has two such games himself), so everything in the Patriots wide receiver corps is a bit “hoping to guess right” on uncertain volume without a big “downfield” mindset to this unit as a whole.
As for Edelman :: with nine or more targets in five of seven games, he’s the safest, highest-upside play of the bunch — though the matchup and expected game flow still make him more speculative than lock-and-load at his price on DK and FDraft, while his PPR skill set doesn’t play as well on FanDuel.
With the Patriots gladly spreading running back touches to three different players (with special teamer Brandon Bolden filling in for Rex Burkhead of late), it has been really difficult to capture slate-breaking upside from this group (in fact, no such scores have emerged from the Patriots backfield this season), especially with the Patriots failing to really produce on the ground this year (21st in adjusted line yards; 20th in run offense DVOA). The matchup is good, but cross your fingers for volume if going here. Sony Michel is the best bet for touchdowns, while James White has seven or more targets in all but one game and has gone 10 // 9 // 9 // 8 in his last three — with a few carries mixed in each week, and with a bit of bad luck so far in the touchdown department (first in the NFL in red zone targets this year; only one score).
JM’s Interpretation ::
I can see some people making a case for Odell Beckham or even Jarvis Landry doing something off the bye — but it would take them doing something really special to produce a “have to have it” score, and the fact that “I can see some people making this case” likely means these players won’t carry the 0% ownership we would want them to have in order to chase in this matchup. For me, those ultra-slim paths to slate-breakers are best left alone. I’ll also be ignoring Chubb — as I absolutely think he has the ability to hit, but it has been far too profitable the last several years to just avoid running backs against the Patriots for me to want to chase in this spot with a bad Browns offense and a historic Patriots D.
Outside of Edelman and Gronk, I cannot remember the last time I included a Patriots player on a tighter build of mine, as this team spreads the ball around so much and cares so little about statistics that it’s rare we see a slate-breaking score emerge from this offense — and even when it does, it often comes from an unexpected source.
I do like White in tourneys this week, and Michel is always a threat for a multi-touchdown game (second in the NFL in red zone carries; first in carries inside the 10), but I don’t currently expect to have much interest in this offense on tighter builds, as week-winning scores are always difficult to find.
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