I thought it might be nice to take a break from arguing about rookies who haven’t even played a down of professional football yet and instead turn our efforts to arguing about players who have played a lot but may not be very good. Enter Brandon LaFell.
LaFell signing with the Patriots didn’t exactly send shockwaves through the fantasy community. It probably didn’t have an effect on any of your leagues, either. LaFell has been a marginal player at best in real football and on the fringe of relevancy in fake football for his four year career. It always kills me that the stock photo we use for LaFell above is of him playing catch before the game, but if you look at it long enough it kind of looks like he’s never caught a football before and he’s wondering what the hell it is.
The conclusion most have drawn is that he’s in New England to push Aaron Dobson for playing time and maybe be a blocking dummy since he’s better at that than catching footballs. But after looking at New England’s red zone target filter (courtesy of pro-football-reference.com) I’m not so sure that’s the case. Look at the Patriots’ red zone target distribution last year:
That’s 45 of 81 targets, or 56%, to guys who are under 6 feet tall. 36 of those 81 targets went to Edelman and Vereen, who are 5’10” and 5’9”, respectively. Of course a lot of that was due to circumstance – Rob Gronkowski only played a few games and Aaron Hernandez was, umm, occupied. The Patriots retooled on the fly admirably and still finished about league average in red zone targets to catch and touchdown ratios:
|RZ Catch %||RZ TD%|
|2013 League Average||54.50%||24.00%|
The problem is, the Belichick era Patriots (or more accurately, the Gronkowski era Patriots) have been significantly better than average in the red zone. Here are the same numbers, but from 2010-2012:
|RZ Catch %||RZ TD%|
|2010-2012 League Average||54.10%||23.00%|
Bill Belichick reads RotoViz [editor’s note: he probably doesn’t], so he certainly understands the value of size near the goal line. Here’s New England’s red zone target chart for 2010 through 2012, where I’ve excluded players with less than 10 targets:
Welker has a lot of targets due to being such a big part of the offense, but Gronk and Hernandez outpace their target rate over the rest of the field. They were very effective, as the pair had 44% of the targets in this sample but 59% of the touchdowns.
At this point you’re asking yourself what any of this has to do with Brandon LaFell. Well, his red zone career numbers aren’t stellar, but if you look at only his time with Cam, he’s been pretty good:
Note that Cam’s red zone completion percentage from 2011-2013 was third worst among all quarterbacks with 125 attempts or more, so there’s a chance LaFell wasn’t getting much help from his QB (this is at least equal to the chance that his QB wasn’t getting much help from him). Either way LaFell is still a red zone upgrade over Edelman, Vereen, rookie Dobson and just about everyone else they trotted out there aside from Gronk, a perpetual question mark, and Thompkins, who is not a lock to make the roster.
All of this is a long way of saying that LaFell could be an insurance policy against the possibilities that A) Gronk isn’t able to play a full slate at full strength this year and B) Dobson doesn’t progress as the Patriots hope. If either comes true, we may be undervaluing the role LaFell plays in that offense, particularly near the goal line. Bill Belichick (who may actually be the Fantasy Douche for all we know) can’t be pleased with the number of red zone targets the Lollipop Guild saw last year, and LaFell’s signing is a good indicator that he’s going to fix it one way or another.