QB Tom Brady
At 34 years of age, Brady put together another stellar campaign, throwing for 5,239 yards with 39 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. The yardage total would have been a league record if not for Drew Brees throwing for even more yards with New Orleans. There doesn’t appear to be any slippage in Brady’s game as he enters his 13th season in the league and there is nothing to suggest that he isn’t capable of another MVP-caliber season in 2012. In fact, you could easily make the argument that he has the chance to improve on his 2011 production. Starting running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis left in free agency and his most likely replacements consist of a pair of largely unproven second-year players. At wide receiver, the team added a deep threat in Brandon Lloyd as well as a steady veteran producer in Jabar Gaffney. And at tight end, the Patriots feature the most lethal combination of pass receivers in league history in Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. About the only negatives you can find are that Pro Bowl left tackle Matt Light has retired and left guard Logan Mankins is recovering from a torn ACL. Brady’s a top-three fantasy quarterback for 2012.
RB Stevan Ridley
With BenJarvus Green-Ellis having departed via free agency to Cincinnati, Ridley will enter training camp as the team’s starter at running back… at least that is what the football world is expecting. What head coach Bill Belichick has in mind is anybody’s guess. Having looked solid in a reserve role as a rookie in 2011, Ridley shapes up as the best bet to start in a New England backfield that also includes Danny Woodhead, fellow 2nd year player Shane Vereen and former Colt Joseph Addai. Ridley is the most physical runner of the group and is the favorite to land the short yardage and fourth quarter clock eating work, provided he avoids the fumbling issues that landed him in Belichick’s doghouse last season. With so many options, look for Ridley to get 10-12 touches per game, which should be good enough to rank as a mid-tier RB3 in 2012.
RB Shane Vereen
Taken in the 2nd round of the 2011 draft, Vereen was expected to earn a role in the Patriots backfield committee last season but nagging injuries caused him to miss time in training camp and throughout the season. At season’s end, he had accumulated just 15 rushes for 57 yards and a score in five games. Fellow rookie Stevan Ridley surpassed him on the depth chart and Vereen enters 2012 competing with Danny Woodhead and Joseph Addai for the role as Ridley’s backup and as a pass receiving threat out of the backfield. Since we can all assume that New England will use each player in a situational role, Vereen will need to clearly beat out Woodhead and Addai to earn 8-10 touches a game and that seems unlikely. Woodhead has been productive in limited opportunities during his two years with the team and will likely approach the six touches per game he had last season. While Vereen is clearly the player to own rather than Woodhead or Addai given his upside, he also clearly ranks behind Ridley. He is a late round pick in redraft formats and has more value as a prospect in dynasty leagues.
RB Danny Woodhead
A pleasant surprise in 2010 as a late training camp addition after being cut by the Jets, Woodhead saw his touches and production drop in New England last season. After registering 131 touches for 925 yards and six touchdowns in 2010, he posted just 95 touches for 508 yards and one score in 2012. With Shane Vereen expected to be healthy after several nagging injuries ruined his rookie season and Joseph Addai added in free agency, Woodhead has plenty competition for the team’s pass receiving role out of the backfield. He isn’t expected to get consistent touches this season and that makes him a borderline RB5 on your fantasy squad.
RB Joseph Addai
Cast adrift by the Colts, Addai landed with the Patriots after receiving little interest in the free agent market. While he enters training camp 4th on the depth chart behind Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen and Danny Woodhead, there is a decent argument that Addai would assume the lead role if Ridley were to go down with injury given his strengths as a pass protector and as a short yardage runner. Addai is also no slouch as a receiver but the biggest knock against him is his inability to stay healthy (12 missed games over the past two seasons). Those traits, along with the fact neither Vereen nor Woodhead have the bulk to be effective inside runners, could land Addai in a starting role if Ridley is injured or ineffective.
WR Wes Welker
A year and a half removed from tearing his ACL, Welker returned to his dominant form in 2011 posting career highs in yards with 1,573 and touchdowns with nine while catching 122 passes, one short of matching his career-high. After suffering a torn ACL in Week 17 of the 2009 season, Welker’s production dropped in 2010 and there was some concern that injuries and age (he turned 30 prior to the start of last season) were beginning to catch up to him. He put those concerns to rest but apparently not enough to entice the Patriots to sign him to a lucrative long-term contract extension as he was slapped with the franchise tag for the upcoming season. That might be a good thing for his fantasy prospects as he will be forced to put together another strong year to get the contract he is looking for. While the Patriots have improved their depth chart at wide receiver with the additions of Brandon Lloyd and Jabar Gaffney, Welker’s role as the team’s main threat in the passing game will remain unchanged. He remains a top-ten fantasy wide receiver.
WR Brandon Lloyd
Coming off a career year in 2010 when he posted career-highs with 77 receptions for 1,448 yards and a whopping 11 touchdowns, Lloyd’s production suffered in 2011 due to a midseason trade from Denver to St. Louis as well as poor quarterback play on each team. Despite those issues, Lloyd still managed to haul in 70 receptions for 966 yards and five touchdowns, although those numbers don’t seem as impressive when you consider he had 150 targets. He moves to a New England squad that is lacking a deep threat and he figures to assume that role. The issue with Lloyd is how many targets he will get playing alongside Wes Welker, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez with fellow veteran wideouts Deion Branch and Jabar Gaffney also in the mix. Look for Lloyd to approach 1,000 yards with six or seven touchdowns but to suffer from inconsistent use. There is a strong possibility he will be overvalued on draft day as fantasy owners will likely overestimate the odds of him recreating the magic he had in Denver in 2010 with Josh McDaniels calling the plays, so buyer beware.
WR Deion Branch
With Wes Welker back to full health and Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez gobbling up targets at the tight end position, Branch managed just six targets a game in 2011, catching 51 passes for 702 yards and five touchdowns. He will turn 33 by opening day and his age coupled with the addition of Brandon Lloyd figures to relegate Branch to a backup role in 2012 and a reduction in his usage. In fact, Branch may need to beat out Jabar Gaffney, another free agent addition, just to secure his roster spot. Branch should be avoided in fantasy drafts.
WR Jabar Gaffney
Basically written off in each of the past two seasons, Gaffney has been quietly productive, averaging 66.5 receptions for 911 yards and 3.5 touchdowns per season during that time period. Unfortunately for Gaffney, he’s going to need a serious injury situation to approach those numbers in 2012 with New England. He will battle Deion Branch for a backup role in the explosive Patriots offense but his fantasy value will hinge on his ability to win a roster spot and on players further up the depth chart having injury issues. You have better options.
WR Julian Edelman
After a solid rookie season in 2009 when he caught 37 passes for 359 yards and a touchdown, Edelman seemed a decent bet to eventually assume Wes Welker’s role in the team’s offense. However, after two seasons in which he totaled 11 receptions for 120 yards, the odds of that happening now seem remote. He would have some fantasy value, especially in PPR leagues, if Welker were to go down with an injury. Entering the season, Edelman’s only real fantasy value is if you own Welker in a deep league and want to handcuff him. Dynasty owners in deep leagues could also grab him in the hopes that Welker isn’t in New England in 2013.
TE Rob Gronkowski
After a strong rookie season which showcased his ability to make plays in the red zone but yielded just 546 receiving yards, Gronkowski’s role in the Patriots offense took off in 2011 as he set single season league records for the tight end position with 1,327 receiving yards and 17 receiving touchdowns. And for good measure he added another touchdown on the ground. He is clearly a major cog in one of the league’s best offenses so the question becomes: where do you take him? While Gronkowski has been a revelation in New England (and to his fantasy owners), the odds of him replicating his 2011 production are unlikely. Brandon Lloyd joins the Patriots this season as a proven deep threat and defenses will adjust and increase their focus on Gronkowski. His high ankle sprain at the end of last season was a reminder of the injury issues that caused him to drop into the 2nd round of the 2010 draft. Gronkowski rates as either the 1st or 2nd ranked fantasy tight end for 2012 but don’t get crazy and use a 1st round pick to get him.
TE Aaron Hernandez
Who says playing second fiddle to the most productive tight end in the league makes you a second fiddle fantasy option at the position? That certainly isn’t the case with Hernandez, who finished the 2011 season as the 3rd ranked fantasy tight end with 910 receiving yards and seven touchdowns in just 14 games. With an offense as prolific as the Patriots, there are more than enough targets to make Hernandez a solid fantasy option and that isn’t expected to change in 2012. While many fantasy prognosticators have Hernandez suffering a decline in his production in 2012 based on free agent wide receiver Brandon Lloyd gobbling up some of his targets, expect Hernandez will get at least as many targets as the 113 he had last season with no decline in his production. He can be regarded as the 3rd ranked fantasy tight end this season and no lower than 6th.
TE Daniel Fells
Why does Fells warrant a write up? Well, he put together a 41 reception season on a middling Rams squad in 2010 so he has some receiving ability and he joins a Patriots squad for the 2012 season that loves to throw to their tight ends. If Rob Gronkowski or Aaron Hernandez suffers a season-ending injury, Fells just might be worth a look.