This article is part of our NFL Reactions series.
Josh Gordon was always going to be reinstated from his indefinite suspension, assuming he stayed sober and complied with the NFL's parameters (admittedly significant assumptions). The big surprise here is how fast it happened, with the wideout getting clearance 13 days after he applied. We've seen numerous examples of the NFL dragging its feet on suspension decisions, even when there was little doubt about the or extent of the upcoming punishment.
For whatever reason, Gordon received his decision within a more reasonable timeframe, giving him three full weeks to get ready for Sunday Night Football against Pittsburgh on Sept. 8. The Patriots have been supportive of Gordon all along, but that doesn't mean he'll immediately return to his same role from last season (51.3 snaps and 6.2 targets per game).
In fact, Bill Belichick already released a kind-of-weird statement on the team website:
"For the past eight months, Josh's situation has been entirely a league matter. When Josh returns to our program, we will evaluate the entire situation and do what we feel is best for Josh and the team."
Some have interpreted this comment as a bad sign for Gordon, perhaps because Belichick rarely goes out of his way to provide any kind of statement. I see things a bit different, figuring this is nothing more than an amusing effort to get out ahead of the media questions and provide an empty line. Then, when he inevitably gets questions about Gordon in the coming weeks, Belichick will just say "I already made my statement". The man is a true master of doing the bare minimum to fulfill the PR/media requirements for an NFL head coach.
Let's start with the fact New England no longer has Rob Gronkowski and Chris Hogan, a duo that combined for 126 targets last year. Sure, the team drafted N'Keal Harry (leg) and signed three veteran wideouts (Demaryius Thomas, Maurice Harris, Dontrelle Inman), but each of those players has missed time in training camp, and only the rookie is a lock to be on the 53-man roster for Week 1.
A quick glance at New England's depth chart reveals an ugly injury situation, not only among the wide receivers but also the tight ends. In comes Gordon, who went for 18.0 yards per catch and 10.6 per target last season, simultaneously ranking 20th among WRs (25-catch min.) in aDOT (12.7) and eighth in YAC average (6.8).
That last part is especially impressive because of the negative correlation league-wide between average target depth (aDOT) and YAC average — the correlation coefficient was -.204 in 2018 for the group of 97 WRs with at least 25 catches. Among that group, Robert Foster was the only one to beat Gordon in both statistics, and none other than Tyreek Hill was the third receiver to reach 12.0 for aDOT and 6.0 for YAC.
This meshes with the conventional wisdom that short passes, on average, will produce more yards after the catch than throws made further down the field. Few players are capable of providing the best of both worlds across a considerable sample, and Gordon is one of those guys.
The Rub, Part 1
I've been happy to bet on Gordon's talent throughout spring and summer, drafting him in eight of my first 15 best-ball leagues — typically in the 200-220 overall range. Great as it may be to have those dirt-cheap shares, I get the feeling my investment is maxed out. In my two ongoing drafts, Gordon came off the board immediately after the news of his reinstatement, including 61st overall when O.J. Howard and Tevin Coleman still were available.
Perhaps it's a commentary on Howard and Coleman more so than Gordon, but that isn't a tough decision in my mind — no way I'm taking Flash there. For all his good work last season, Gordon never usurped Julian Edelman or James White for the first or second spot in New England's passing-game hierarchy. Per usual, Tom Brady relied on quick, high-percentage throws, ranking 22nd in aDOT (8.1) among 33 quarterbacks with 200 or more attempts.
Brady remains a capable downfield passer, but the Patriots have a long track record of funneling the ball to running backs, slot receivers and tight ends. Even including Edelman, wide receivers accounted for just 54.2 percent of the team's targets last season, ranking 24th. The previous year it was 48.3 percent (31th), and in 2016 it was 55.2 percent (26th). Looking back, the Pats have finished 24th or lower in WR target share each season since 2013. Personnel has been a factor, but the streak also includes a 159-target season from Edelman (2016) and a year where both Brandin Cooks and Danny Amendola stayed healthy (2017).
Even with some level of concern about target volume, Gordon's talent would make him a top-50 fantasy pick if we were guaranteed 14+ games. In addition to the obvious athleticism, he showed impressive football IQ last season when he quickly acclimated to a complex New England offense that's proven difficult to learn for numerous free agents and rookies (good luck, Mr. Harry).
Unfortunately, none of that changes the reality that Gordon's issues with anxiety and substance abuse make it difficult for him to complete an NFL season. I'll always root for him on a personal level, but I'm callous when it comes to fantasy football, doing my best to prevent rooting interests from having an impact on decisions (Lamar Jackson doesn't count, because I'm right about that...I hope).
The Final Score
In a world where suspensions and "off-field issues" didn't exist, Gordon would land around 35th-40th overall in my rankings, a strong WR2. His talent is better than that, but the volume still wouldn't be as safe as it is for someone like Stefon Diggs or T.Y. Hilton.
In the real world, it's only fair to give Gordon the lowest projection for games played of any fantasy-relevant player who is currently healthy. The Belichick comment and possibility of a scaled-back Week 1 role don't really bother me; I just don't see how it's better than 60/40 that Gordon is in the lineup come fantasy playoff time. Cold hearted? Yes. Realistic? I think so.
For me, the added risk leaves Gordon in the same range as unproven breakout candidates like Curtis Samuel and Christian Kirk, safely behind the likes of Chris Godwin and Calvin Ridley (breakout candidates that already have shown us useful fantasy numbers). My final tally places Gordon around 70th overall and WR30, similar to where I rank Kirk, Jarvis Landry and Alshon Jeffery.