TEXANS // PATRIOTS OVERVIEW
This game has opened with the highest total on opening weekend, in a matchup between a Houston team that allowed the most points per game in the NFL last season and a Patriots team that scored the second-most points per game in the NFL last year. This game also features the return of Deshaun Watson after his electrifying stretch last season — against a Patriots defense that followed its longtime “bend-but-don’t-break” M.O. in 2017 by allowing the fourth-most yards per game in the NFL, but allowing the fifth-fewest points per game.
TEXANS RUN OFFENSE
Houston’s running back depth chart is…Lamar Miller. That’s really about it. Behind Miller, the Texans have D’Onta Foreman, who is not yet fully healthy, and underwhelming Alfred Blue. Since joining the Texans, Miller has been underwhelming himself, but he is a rare three-down back — and given that he takes up less than 11% of the salary cap on all three major sites (less than 10% of the salary cap on FantasyDraft!), he warrants some attention.
Houston ranked 20th in adjusted line yards last year, and while the Patriots have been analytics-minded in their approach to run defense (i.e., being perfectly happy to give up yards on the ground between the 20s — finishing last year as the number 31 team in yards allowed per carry), their red zone defense shined last year, with only one team allowing fewer rushing touchdowns (and with no team allowing fewer rushing touchdowns than the Patriots allowed to running backs — with only three all season). Add it all together and New England allowed merely average production on FanDuel last year, and slightly below-average production on DraftKings and FantasyDraft. Only three teams allowed fewer receptions to running backs last year as well, so Miller really only checks one box :: sizable, locked-in workload. He does check that box emphatically.
TEXANS PASS OFFENSE
Not that you raced to this article to find out about Lamar Miller. Deshaun Watson is back!
Because of the high-scoring nature of the Patriots’ offense, opposing teams regularly have to pass against them. Only two teams faced more pass attempts last year than the Patriots, and because of this, the Patriots allowed fantasy points to quarterbacks at a rate of 14.7% above the league average on DraftKings and FantasyDraft and 15.4% above the league average on FanDuel. The likely high-scoring nature of this game elevates volume expectations for Deshaun Watson. When combined with his rushing upside and his weapons in the pass game, he is one of the top quarterbacks on the slate.
The Texans lack a clear number three option in the pass game behind DeAndre Hopkins and Will Fuller, with a low-certainty mess at tight end and an underwhelming battle in the slot. With the Patriots doing such a great job limiting receptions by running backs, they also funnel targets toward wide receivers — boosting WRs on FanDuel to a 15.6% increase on league-average scoring at the position last year, and boosting WRs by 14.5% on DK and FantasyDraft.
We all know that the Patriots’ first order of business on defense is to do everything they can to eliminate their opponent’s top weapon. It is noteworthy that these are Hopkins’ last four receiving lines vs NE:
7-76-0, on eight targets
6-65-0, on nine targets
4-56-0, on eight targets
3-52-0, on six targets
Past performance is not a guaranteed predictor of future performance, but those numbers stand out on a player as talented and as integrated into the offense as Hopkins.
Will Fuller averaged 5.5 targets per game last year with Watson under center. He has explosive upside, but his moderate-volume role, his high average depth of target (fourth-deepest in the NFL last year), and his modest catch rate (56%) add plenty of risk to his upside.
PATRIOTS RUN OFFENSE
If this slate started today (more than a week before kickoff), Rex Burkhead would likely be ultra-chalk on DraftKings, as he has been hyped this offseason as a replacement for Julian Edelman, Dion Lewis, and God. Burkhead never topped 15 touches in a game last year (he only topped 11 touches on three occasions), and it should be noted that it is always dangerous to assume we know what the Patriots will do with their backfield — and it is even more dangerous to trust a chalky Patriots running back. With that said: Burkhead ran over 15% of his snaps from the slot last year, making him an obvious stand-in for short-area targets. He also received a respectable seven carries inside the five-yard-line.
Joining Burkhead in the backfield will be at least James White, who is also an obvious candidate to fill in for some of what Edelman leaves behind. Because of his periodic spiked-week usage (like his 10-catch game against Carolina last year in Week 4), it’s easy to overlook the fact that White had only three games last year in which he touched the ball 10 or more times.
Jeremy Hill should work in some short-yardage situations and may even have a bigger role than most are anticipating, and Sony Michel currently appears to be on track for a Week 1 role as well, as he is finally practicing again and has reportedly looked good.
Houston was also above-average against the run last year, though to a non-notable extent — and that hardly matters with the wide receiver-like pass game involvement these backs can have. The iffy volume distribution is a much bigger concern.
PATRIOTS PASS OFFENSE
Indy was the only team that boosted expected yards per targets for wide receivers more than the Texans last year, with Houston allowing one of the deepest average depth of targets in the league as well as an above-average catch rate. The return of some healthy pieces on this defense will help them fix some of their issues, but this is unlikely to be the week their improvements begin to show, against a Brady/McDaniels offense with several weeks to prepare.
Last year the Patriots ran the most plays per game in the NFL and played at the league’s fifth-fastest pace. Houston allowed the most pass plays of 40+ yards last year.
With Edelman missing in action and the Patriots depending on Phillip Dorsett in their second perimeter receiver slot, we should see passing volume funneled heavily toward the running backs, Chris Hogan, and Rob Gronkowski.
Hogan has played as Brady’s clear number one receiver in practice and preseason, and he should operate as the clear top wideout in this game. It is noteworthy that Hogan has reached double-digit targets only twice in 30 games as a Patriot — including stretches when Edelman or Gronkowski were missing — and I’ll be surprised if he averages more than 8.5 targets per game through these first four weeks of the season (with Edelman out), but he will absolutely get looks.
The surest bet on the Patriots this week is Rob Gronkowski, who should see anywhere from seven to 13 targets, and will operate as the top red zone weapon on the team. Only three teams allowed more receiving touchdowns to tight ends last year than the Texans.
In spite of being a lifelong Patriots fan, they are almost always my least favorite game to write up, and this week was no different. Even with their most targeted wide receiver missing in action, there is no clear workload distribution, as the Patriots simply carry too many weapons — with too much versatility — for us to say with any certainty how their offense will approach things (an especially frustrating reality when we know that they will put up points). I am not on the Hogan hype train to the extent of others, as he is unlikely to average a true “number one WR” workload these next four weeks — though given his low price on all three sites and his matchup, I’m absolutely fine with the play. I am also not on the Burkhead or White hype train to the extent of others, as it should not surprise us if one of these guys has a good game…but it should also not surprise us if it’s not the guy we expect. I’ll be giving strong consideration to both guys on PPR sites (DraftKings and FantasyDraft), but neither is a lock-and-load play for me. From a “floor” perspective, Burkhead is the preferred play. I’ll be surprised if he falls shy of eight or nine PPR points even in a “worst-case” scenario. Gronk is my favorite play on this side of the ball, and while I like to grab the upside of a running quarterback if I pay up at the position, Brady is obviously an extremely strong play here as well.
Speaking of running quarterbacks: Watson is a great play this week — and given that I expect the Patriots to prioritize taking away Hopkins at all costs, I would also be fine rolling Watson without a stacking partner. If stacking him, Fuller and Hopkins are both strong options — but for me, they are confined to tourneys only.
*UPDATE: SEPTEMBER 1 // Full “Updates” List
With the Texans cutting Stephen Anderson, the tight end situation has become a lot more clear in Houston. Jordan Akins is a potential difference-maker down the road, but tight end is a notoriously difficult position for rookies; if he has a role in this game, it will almost certainly be small.
This leaves a healthy Ryan Griffin (a rare event!) as the clear lead tight end — on a team that will likely be playing from behind, and whose top weapon will be the defensive focal point for one of the great defensive minds in history. Last year, Griffin and Anderson combined for a 6-75-1 line against the Patriots (with Watson under center) on nine targets. The vast majority of this damage was done by Griffin, and he is practically free on all three sites.
From a “JM’s Interpretation” perspective: This is by no means a slam-dunk play. But for the price, Griffin clearly joins the conversation among guys like Ricky Seals-Jones, Tyler Eifert, Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Colts’ tight ends, etc., as a “guess the volume” play with guaranteed time on the field and a definitely-intriguing ceiling.
September 8: Will Fuller is questionable for this game. If he misses, targets will go up for Hopkins, but defensive attention will land even more heavily on him. Overall, it’s a wash for Hopkins if Fuller misses. Griffin gets a bump up in expected target share. Underwhelming slot option Bruce Ellington will also ascend into the conversation as a guy who could see as many as six or seven targets.