Tom Brady can do no wrong ...
... or can he?
After all, the last time we saw him take the field, he failed in his quest in Super Bowl LII to capture a record-extending sixth championship, getting strip-sacked at a most inopportune time with 2:16 remaining to play and virtually clinching a win for the Philadelphia Eagles. And admit it, at the time, you, just as I, thought Brady was destined to author his record-extending fourth fourth-quarter-or-later Super Bowl comeback.
People, Tom Brady is human. He's not some sort of trophy-collecting robot, churning out season after season of 300-plus fantasy points and top-three positional finishes until the sun burns out.
So why is Brady being routinely ranked and drafted second among quarterbacks without a second thought, just a hair behind Aaron Rodgers at the position? Better yet: Why is it seemingly taboo to even ask the question whether it's worth valuing Brady at that level?
Successful fantasy football drafting requires seeking out value wherever it may lie. In Brady's case, he's a player being selected in a tier where he's considered the high-floor statistical performer around a bunch of other quarterbacks with higher ceilings but also "lower" floors. Therein lies the problem: Brady's floor isn't as high as you think it is, and in this era where we need to squeeze as much value out of our quarterbacks for as little cost as possible, he's a poor choice at anywhere near his current price tag.
His receiving options
Perhaps as puzzling as the complete trust in Brady is the similarly great amount of trust in his team's receiving corps, which hasn't always had the easiest time staying healthy and isn't quite as deep as it seems.
Tight end Rob Gronkowski -- Brady's go-to guy at the goal line, indicated by his 37 end-zone targets from Brady the past five seasons combined -- has missed 10 games combined the past two seasons (2016-17) and 21 total the past five seasons combined (2013-17). He's also one of the players who has most commonly graced the weekly injury report with a "questionable" tag, his 18 such appearances the past five years combined tied for fifth most, hinting at how frequently he deals with various bumps and bruises. When healthy, Gronkowski's production has been excellent -- his 16.4 PPR fantasy points-per-game average during that five-year span was more than 20 percent better than any other tight end's -- but his physical style of play puts him at heightened injury risk.
Wide receiver Julian Edelman, a trusted target for Brady in the red zone, missed the entirety of the 2017 season recovering from a torn ACL, the final seven regular-season games of 2015 with a broken foot, and the final two regular-season games of 2014 with a concussion. He's also facing a four-game suspension to begin the 2018 season for violating the league's PED policy. Like Gronkowski, Edelman's production in his healthy games has been very good -- his 16.1 PPR fantasy points-per-game average the past five seasons combined was 10th best at his position -- but his frequent absences are an issue, and he's coming off a major knee reconstruction.
Wide receiver Chris Hogan, who had a productive four-game stretch from Weeks 2-5 and appeared on track to be one of 2017's fantasy breakout stories, suffered a shoulder injury in late October, missed seven regular-season games and didn't really seem himself in the subsequent games he did play until Super Bowl LII. At times he has looked the part of a bona fide WR2, but it cannot be ignored that in his two seasons with the Patriots, he has averaged a mere 9.9 PPR fantasy points per game and 48 receptions, 746 receiving yards and six receiving touchdowns per 16 games played.
Now check out the hodgepodge of receiving options behind them: Jordan Matthews has missed eight games to injury the past two seasons combined and hasn't looked quite as promising as he did in his first two years with the Eagles (2014-15). Malcolm Mitchell, after a promising rookie 2016, missed the entirety of the 2017 season because of persistent knee issues, a concern for a player who had a history of knee problems in college.
Kenny Britt's career has been plagued by injuries and inconsistency, Phillip Dorsett has a mere 55 percent catch rate in three seasons since he was the 29th overall pick in the 2015 NFL draft, Cordarrelle Patterson is more of kick-return specialist than pass-catcher, and Dwayne Allen did little to contribute even during Gronkowski's absences last season. Brady also does have a pair of good pass-catching running backs in James White and Rex Burkhead, but even they weren't the most durable players, missing two and six games last season alone.
Losing Danny Amendola and Dion Lewis to free agency and Brandin Cooks to trade didn't help the Patriots' receiver depth, as the trio caught 41 percent of Brady's completions and 12 of his 32 passing touchdowns last season. Cooks' loss in particular stands out, a deep threat who helped Brady maximize his big-play potential and who, despite a disappointing stat line in his lone year in New England, doesn't have an obvious replacement on the roster.
To say that this receiving corps is at least as strong as last year's makes several assumptions about the health and performance from some of the supporting cast. Everyone could stay relatively healthy and players like Hogan and Mitchell could break through in a big way, but these are probably opinions founded more upon our trust in Brady than their own histories and skill sets.
His offensive line
Not that a single free-agent loss represents devastation for a team like the Patriots, who possess one of the league's more formidable offensive lines, but the offseason departure of left tackle Nate Solder, who signed a four-year, $62 million deal with the New York Giants, was anything but a positive.
Solder protected Brady's blind side for the better part of seven seasons and played a large part in giving Brady time to throw, as the veteran quarterback was among the leaders in average time before his pass on plays from inside the pocket in 2017. Solder's loss left the Patriots with a hole at an inconvenient spot, and while projected replacement Trent Brown is a big, bruising tackle, Brown has faced questions about his conditioning and is coming off December surgery to repair a torn labrum. Behind Brown, first-round pick Isaiah Wynn is an option the team would first prefer to try at left guard, while LaAdrian Waddle, Matt Tobin and Cole Croston serve as depth.
Change in this example is a risky thing, and it could be disruptive to Brady's rhythm if things don't progress immediately smoothly. Just ask the man Solder now protects, Eli Manning, what it's like to question the protection from your blind side.
Let's face facts: Brady will begin the 2018 season at 41 years old -- 41 years and 37 days, to be exact, as of the Patriots' regular-season opener, but we'll use "age 41" for these purposes -- which is an age at which only one other quarterback in NFL history has ever begun a new season as a starter: Warren Moon (1998). Moon and Brett Favre are also the only two quarterbacks in league history to start at least half of their teams' games in a season after passing their 41st birthdays.
In all, quarterbacks have made only 51 total starts after turning 41 years old in the history of the league, those coming from Vinny Testaverde (17), Moon (15), Favre (10), Doug Flutie (6), George Blanda (1), Steve DeBerg (1) and Earl Morrall (1), and the group didn't perform especially well in them, averaging just 10.02 fantasy points in those 51 starts with only 12 resulting in at least 15 fantasy points (Flutie 5, Moon 3, Favre 2, Blanda 1 and Testaverde 1).
Brady also begins the season with 251 career starts at quarterback under his belt, the third most by any player in league history, behind only Favre's 298 and Peyton Manning's 265. Just to give you an idea of what history can tell us -- granted, in a precariously small sample -- Favre totaled 194.56 fantasy points in career starts 252-267 (the 16 Brady would be set to make in 2018) and averaged 12.52 fantasy points in career start No. 252 forward, for a 16-game pace of 196.10. Manning, meanwhile, averaged 9.85 fantasy points in his next and final 14 career games, for a 16-game pace of 157.67.
That's not to say that Brady can't buck historical trends and continue to perform at a high level at age 41, but the facts speak for themselves that no quarterback in the history of the NFL has put forth an elite-caliber fantasy season at that age. And if there's one race we know that Brady cannot win, it's the one against Father Time.
It's about value
Brady has built up an astonishing amount of credit in fantasy football, earning a draft-stock reputation that will almost guarantee he's unprofitable. Once your league breaks the seal on the quarterback position -- likely by selecting Aaron Rodgers -- Brady is going to be one of the very next names who comes to mind, and that's among players at all positions, not merely "he'll be the next quarterback I want."
Brady's consistency has certainly earned him much of said credit, but consistency alone no longer carries the weight it once did at quarterback, where elite weekly scores (think 20-plus points) are paramount. Besides, for the reasons given above, his consistency might begin to wane this season.
Given the choice, I'd rather wait the additional two rounds or so and select Deshaun Watson, who has a far higher statistical ceiling for 2018, or even wait another four or five rounds and piece the position together with a less-prominent veteran like Matthew Stafford or Kirk Cousins, or an upside play like Patrick Mahomes or Jimmy Garoppolo. There's absolutely a path to any of those five quarterbacks scoring as many fantasy points as Brady, but they'll all come at a much cheaper price.
And in the event Brady's own age, his receivers' injury history or his offensive line (or some combination of the three) becomes a significant problem, there's a very realistic chance that he'll score a fantasy point total no greater than any of these players' current ESPN projections (generally in the 260-270 range).
It's better to be a year early than a year late.