DOLPHINS // PATRIOTS OVERVIEW
This game pairs a couple of division opponents who tend to have some interesting games each season. Last year in New England (hey, I was at this game!), the Patriots won 35-17, but the Dolphins won in Miami a couple weeks later by a score of 27-20. In 2016, the Patriots won both games — with point totals of 31 and 35; but in 2015, Miami stole another game, with a 20-10 win at home.
The Patriots traditionally play Miami much better in New England — as they especially tend to be affected by the late-season heat in Miami, which removes some of the concerns this matchup can present for them. But after the Patriots’ sloppy start to the year on offense and the Dolphins’ strong start to the year on defense, we still enter this game with a few question marks from an “upside” perspective. Miami has, unsurprisingly, played at the slowest pace to begin the year — though their offense has been ineffective enough that they still rank 25th in opponent plays per game. This gap should shrink throughout the year, but general “play” expectations remain neutral for the Pats this week.
We’ll get to that (more exciting) side of the ball in a moment, but first: the Dolphins.
DOLPHINS PASS OFFENSE
As noted last week, the Dolphins are actually running a really fun offense if you are watching their games as a fan of this team or as a fan of good NFL strategy, design, and decision-making. I’ve been an Adam Gase truther ever since his time with the Broncos, and while this was obviously not the best spot for him to land as a head coach — with a dysfunctional front office — he has quietly done an awesome job with this team over the last few years. The Dolphins are 3-0 to begin this season, using the same approach they used in 2016 to go 10-6 and reach the playoffs: shortening the game, playing good defense, and getting creative in their offensive scheming. The Dolphins have a bottom-half offensive roster, but Gase is figuring out how to maximize the talents of each player on this side of the ball — creating enough upside each week for Miami to sneak away with wins.
That’s all background, of course, and does not necessarily mean this will be a good game for DFS production. Through three games, no team in the NFL has thrown the ball less frequently than Miami, with an average of only 25 pass attempts per game. Five wide receivers are seeing action on this offense, with Week 3 snaps breaking down as follows (out of 44 offensive snaps in all for Miami):
When Wilson and Grant are on the field, it is often for a purpose, with each guy earning two touches last week on those limited snaps. This eats into the production we are seeing from the other guys on this passing-light offense, and none of the “top three” guys have topped six targets this season. Expect the Dolphins to have to pass a little more this week if the Patriots’ offense comes to play; but it will still be difficult to bank on more than five to seven targets for any of these guys in a Ryan Tannehill offense. If hunting for upside here, Stills clearly carries the most per-touch upside of the bunch, and has the best shot to post a strong score in this game. His role doesn’t yield a clear path to a 100-yard, two-touchdown game — but his talent still clears a path for that sort of production from time to time, alongside an obviously-low floor. If taking price into consideration, it is worth noting that Parker ran 24 pass routes last week to 29 for Stills, and he costs only 7% of the salary cap on DraftKings and 6.9% on FantasyDraft. In 2016, when Parker and Tannehill last played together, Parker posted six games of double-digit points on those sites, with two games of 20+ (including one that came against the Patriots). Given his role, he is honestly not underpriced by much; but his upside is much higher than most guys in his price range, and the Dolphins may have to ramp up the passes this week.
DOLPHINS RUN OFFENSE
The Patriots’ run defense has been poor to begin the year, ranking outside the top half of the league in both DVOA and yards allowed per carry — though Miami continues to split work between Kenyan Drake (17, 15, and seven touches) and Frank Gore (nine, 10, and six touches). Drake is theoretically the preferred option in the passing attack, but the Dolphins are using these two as interchangeable pieces, and Drake will not necessarily see his usage spike if the Dolphins fall behind. His floor is low in this spot, given his to-date usage; but it should go without saying that Drake has one of the highest per-touch ceilings on the slate, and this would be a reasonable spot for him to see around 14 to 18 touches and to produce a solid stat line on those looks. He’ll need a touchdown (or two) in order to truly pay off, but the upside is there.
PATRIOTS PASS OFFENSE
Josh Gordon was inactive for the Patriots last week, but it seems unlikely that they glue him to the sidelines again in this one, as their offense is suffering at the moment with no wide receivers who can get open on their own. This is allowing defenses to pay extra attention to Rob Gronkowski, and is limiting the effectiveness of this offense as a whole. While Gordon will likely step into limited snaps in his first game, it would make sense for the Patriots to add a viable second weapon to the field. In the same way the Falcons were able to use Julio Jones last week to free up Calvin Ridley — and in the same way the Eagles were able to use Ertz and Agholor last week to free up Goedert and Perkins — expect the Patriots to use Gordon to free up other areas of the field.
The Pats are going to need that extra spacing on the field this week against a Miami defense that enters the week ranked seventh in DVOA against the pass. Miami is forcing short throws and a below-average catch rate to begin the year, and they rank second in the NFL in fewest touchdowns allowed to wide receivers early on — with only one WR receiving touchdown allowed through the first three games. The Dolphins have benefitted from matchups against Tennessee, the Jets, and Oakland to begin the year, but they have the pieces in the secondary to create issues for the Patriots’ wideouts. Through three games, Chris Hogan has yet to top five targets, and Phillip Dorsett has yet to top seven looks. Dorsett is the guy to target right now if going after Pats wideouts, as he has secured 31.1% of the air yards on this team, to only 17.9% for Hogan.
Because of the extra attention defenses are being able to pay to him, Rob Gronkowski is going underutilized early in the year, with target counts of only eight, four, and seven, and with 26.3% of the team’s air yards (a more-than-respectable mark for a tight end, but low for what Gronk should be getting right now in this broken Patriots’ offense). The Dolphins have been solid against the tight end to begin the year and should actually be able to finish the year middle-of-the-pack against the position, but keep in mind that this team allowed 999 receiving yards to the position last year, and Gronk is in a different class of player than the average tight end. His usage should spike this week regardless; but his opportunities should gain some added value if Gordon is active in this spot.
PATRIOTS RUN OFFENSE
With Rex Burkhead going to I.R. with a neck injury, the Patriots’ once-crowded backfield is down to James White and Sony Michel. I am guessing Michel will end up being fairly chalky this week, given his low price tag and the high total on the Patriots, which makes this an interesting spot to dig into — especially as I wanted to like Michel when I first looked at this slate, but I am having a hard time getting over the hump on some of the issues we run into here.
The first issue is the matchup, as Miami has tightened up against the run to begin the year, ranking sixth in DVOA and third in yards allowed per carry. New England’s offensive line does rank ninth in Football Outsiders’ adjusted line yards (Miami ranks fourth on defense), so the Patriots as a unit have the ability to overcome a tough matchup; but this is a tough matchup.
The second issue is implied by the fact that the Pats rank ninth in adjusted line yards, and Michel has still struggled through two games, with only 84 yards on 24 carries (3.5 yards per carry). Michel is adjusting slowly to the NFL game right now (not unexpected, of course, given that he missed all of preseason), and his eyes are not yet seeing things nearly as quickly as he needs to see them. Multiple times against the Lions’ poor run defense on Sunday, Michel waited too long for holes to develop — and then, on short-yardage situations, he kept his eyes down and slammed into the line on plays when he could have had a bit more patience and broken free for a long gain. Through two games, Michel is leaving a lot of yards on the field, and that could be an issue against what is shaping up early as a tough defense to run on.
The Patriots also continue to lean on James White on passing downs, as there is a lot that White can do in this offense that Michel currently cannot. New England loves the way they can line up White at wide receiver and motion him into the backfield if a more favorable look presents itself — an approach that has opened up White to a total of 13 carries and 14 catches through the first three games of the year.
Expect White and Michel to split snaps fairly evenly in this spot, with White touching the ball another eight to 12 times, and with Michel taking around 12 to 15 carries and two or three targets of his own. Either guy will need a big play or a touchdown (or two) in order to truly pay off.
As fun as the Dolphins’ offense is from an “NFL” standpoint, they have been a poor unit to target in DFS to date, with low volume across the board, and with a slowed-down approach that has led to them ranking 23rd in total yards to begin the year. If going here, Stills, Parker, and Drake are the guys who stand out as the best bets for upside — but all of them carry too little floor for me to have much interest. You are essentially rostering these guys “hoping for a big play” or “hoping for an unpredictable touchdown.” It won’t be remotely surprising if one of these guys becomes a solid piece this week, but there is a lot of guesswork in trying to determine who that “someone” will be.
New England, meanwhile, incredibly ranks 25th in total yards to begin the year, in spite of seeing two positive matchups in their first three games. The Patriots also rank 25th in points per game.
Naturally, this will change. Tom Brady is still the quarterback of this offense and Josh McDaniels is still calling plays — and the Pats have added Josh Gordon to complement Rob Gronkowski. Julian Edelman will also return after this week, and Sony Michel will likely adjust to the NFL game before long. The question, in targeting this offense, is: “Will any of those things come together this week?”
If Josh Gordon makes his way onto the field this week, I will have definite interest in Gronk, as he’ll see a little less attention than he has been seeing, and the Pats should focus on him a little more heavily as they aim to get their offense on track. I don’t typically pay up at tight end, but this would be a good spot to do so.
If Gordon doesn’t play, I’ll have vague interest in Dorsett, simply given his price and his role in this offense; but it’s a thin play from a floor perspective.
As for the backfield: I’ll have Michel on my list, as he is so cheap (under 10% of the salary cap on all three sites) in this Dion Lewis role that produced consistent fantasy goodness last season; but I will almost certainly be more cautious on him than I expect the field to be, as he simply does not yet look ready to make a heavy impact in the NFL game. This can change, of course — but the floor here is lower than I imagine most will assume.
I’ll also have interest in White, but I’m unlikely to play a running back I can only bank on for around nine to 12 touches.
And finally, I will keep in mind — while building my rosters — that the Patriots regularly score four touchdowns without producing a single “must-have” stat line, as this team can spread the ball around and attack from multiple angles, making it difficult to lock in production even when we expect them to score a lot of points. Gronk is the guy likeliest to top 20 points this week, and I imagine I will not end up looking too far beyond him myself, even with the high Vegas-implied total the Patriots carry this week.