A year ago, the focus for the Patriots heading into training camp was on the knee of one of the team's biggest offensive stars.
Well, here we are again.
While Wes Welker's recovery from last year's torn ACL isn't as important as what Tom Brady went through in 2009, it is a big story for Fantasy owners. A healthy Welker means another prominent wide receiver on Draft Day and someone who will make life easier for Brady and Randy Moss.
But Welker has a long way to go in his recovery, and he could be out to start the season. And this is an important year in New England, since the Patriots seem to be in the midst of a transitional period.
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Brady and Moss are entering a potential contract year (Brady is expected to return while Moss is likely gone), the offensive line is aging and the defense is still trying to rebuild after former stars Rodney Harrison, Tedy Bruschi, Mike Vrabel, Richard Seymour and Asante Samuel moved on. This could be the last stand for Bill Belichick's group as we know it.
Now, no one is counting out the Patriots, who are the defending AFC East champions, from another Super Bowl run. But there are a lot of questions for a team that has been dominant for nearly a decade.
Late-round flier ... Brandon Tate, WR
By the end of training camp you might be able to substitute Torry Holt in this spot, but we expect Tate to emerge as the third-best option in the receiving corps. Moss is the No. 1 receiver, and the combination of Welker and Julian Edelman should be considered second. After that, the Patriots are looking for another wide receiver to step up, and Tate has the potential to help Fantasy owners this season with a late-round pick. Tate failed to record a catch in his first year in the NFL in 2009 after suffering a torn ACL in his final season at North Carolina, but he could be ready to breakout in his second year now that he's healthy.
Since acquiring Moss and Welker in 2007, the Patriots have gotten modest production from their third wide receiver. In 2007, Donte Stallworth had 46 catches for 697 yards and three touchdowns. In 2008, Jabar Gaffney had 38 catches for 468 yards and two touchdowns. No one emerged last year in that role, but Tate is hoping to change that this year.
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Keeper-league target ... Aaron Hernandez, TE
The Patriots spent two draft picks on tight ends in April, getting Rob Gronkowski in Round 2 and Hernandez in Round 4, but Hernandez is the better receiver of the two. He will also be the better Fantasy option -- this year and in the future. Alge Crumpler is part of the mix as well in 2010, and Crumpler and Gronkowski will handle the blocking duties at the position. Hernandez will be the one running routes, and all reports out of New England this summer indicate he could be a real find.
Brady likes throwing to his tight ends, and Benjamin Watson averaged 29 catches, 334 yards and four touchdowns the past three years. Hernandez is capable of those stats this season, and he should only improve as he adjusts to the NFL. In seasonal leagues, keep an eye on Hernandez as a bye-week or injury replacement, but in rookie-only formats and keeper leagues plan on targeting Hernandez on Draft Day. He could be the next standout Fantasy tight end.
Bust ... Wes Welker, WR
Welker has done well this offseason to work his way back from the torn ACL he suffered in Week 17 last year. But it would take a near miracle to get him back on the field for Week 1 at 100 percent. Several reports out of New England even speculate Welker is a candidate to open the season on the physically unable to perform list, meaning he would be out for the first six weeks of the year. You'll get a better feel of where Welker is in his recovery during training camp, but even if the reports are pessimistic, someone will still reach for him on Draft Day. You don't want to be that owner. If Welker falls to you in the right spot as your No. 4 wide receiver then he's worth the risk. Assuming he doesn't suffer a setback, Welker could be a great Fantasy option toward the end of the year, but he will likely struggle early in the season.
There's a reason we like Edelman as a sleeper this year since if Welker is out, Edelman could shine. Last year as a rookie, mostly replacing Welker when he was injured, Edelman finished with 37 catches for 359 yards and one touchdown. In two games in place of Welker -- Week 2 at the Jets when Welker was out with a different knee injury and Week 17 against the Texans when Welker was hurt -- Edelman had 18 catches for 201 yards and effectively was a version of Welker. Edelman is definitely worth a late-round pick in all formats, and his value is higher in leagues where receptions count.
The Patriots have the daunting task of facing some of the best defenses this year with two games against the Jets and then matchups against Baltimore, Minnesota, Pittsburgh and Green Bay. Factor in Miami, San Diego, Cincinnati, Chicago and Indianapolis and the Patriots will be in heaven when they face Buffalo, Cleveland and Detroit. Still, we're talking about an explosive offense in New England, and Brady and Moss will post solid stats against most opponents.
Training camp topics
Laurence Maroney is still the Patriots running back to target this year, and we consider him a decent reserve option with the chance to start if he gets hot like he did last season. There was a time in 2009 when Maroney was among the best Fantasy running backs with seven games with double figures in Fantasy points in nine outings from Weeks 6-15. But Maroney will again share carries with Sammy Morris, Fred Taylor and Kevin Faulk, and that limits his value even though he is entering a potential contract year. Bill Belichick likes to use several running backs, and he doesn't even give his own team an indication of who will be used each week.
Patriots offensive tackle Matt Light said in an interview with CBSSports.com in February that Belichick might "just pull a name out of the jar" when it comes to his starting running back that particular week.
"It's game-plan every step of the way," Light said. "A lot of it has to do with who's healthy. We're fortunate. We have some unbelievable guys back there. They've been doing it for a long time and have a wealth of experience."
Light said his choice as the best running back in New England is Morris.
"He's been the consistent guy from the standpoint of when he's in there he always makes great plays," Light said. "Unfortunately, he's had to battle some of these injuries. I look to him having a great season. He prepares as hard as any of those guys that we've ever had. I look for him to take a large part of the load there at the running back position."
We're still backing Maroney based on talent, but Morris and Taylor are worth late-round picks in standard leagues. And in leagues where receptions count, Faulk is also worth a late-round pick. But as always with the New England running backs, it really is a guessing game as to who will be the best Fantasy option.
Wes Welker (knee, questionable for the start of training camp)
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