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2011 Fantasy outlooks: New England Patriots

Senior Fantasy Writer
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In 2010, Fantasy owners spent most of the year deciding on which tight end to start in New England between Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. It became a frustrating exercise.

Hernandez opened the season as the better Fantasy option, but Gronkowski closed the year as a star. From Weeks 9-16, they alternated scoring touchdowns. If you picked up on the pattern, you knew which one to use.

This year, we hope there is more clarity. Going into the season, we recommend drafting Gronkowski first because he has the ability to score more touchdowns. In 2010, Gronkowski finished with 42 catches for 546 yards and 10 touchdowns on 59 targets. Hernandez, meanwhile, had 45 catches for 563 yards and six touchdowns on 64 targets.

Hernandez missed two games with a hip injury and could see an increase in his touchdowns by playing a full season, but we like Gronkowski as a more reliable target in the red zone. He had 15 red-zone targets and finished with nine touchdowns in 2010, while Hernandez had 12 red-zone targets and finished with six touchdowns.

Gronkowski should be drafted as a No. 1 Fantasy option with a pick around Round 8, and Hernandez should be drafted as a No. 2 tight end with a late-round pick. Both should be successful, but Gronkowski should produce more Fantasy points.

Now if that was the only dilemma in New England then we'd be OK. The Patriots made things difficult for Fantasy owners at the NFL Draft by selecting Shane Vereen in the second round and Stevan Ridley in the third round to make things confusing in their backfield with BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead.

We'll address the running backs in our categories below, as well as the receivers with Wes Welker, Deion Branch and Brandon Tate. As for Tom Brady, at least he's guaranteed as a No. 1 Fantasy option in all formats.

He should be drafted in Round 2 after Michael Vick, Aaron Rodgers, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees come off the board. The only question when it comes to Brady is what his hair will look like Week 1.

Sleeper ... Deion Branch, WR

I've done several mock drafts with analysts from other sites this offseason, and generally I end up drafting Branch as my third or fourth receiver in Round 7 or later. These are leagues where receptions count for one point and you start three receivers. I know Branch will outperform that draft position. Santonio Holmes is a good comparison for Branch based on last year. If you recall, Holmes was suspended for the first four games of the season for violating the NFL's substance abuse policy, but he finished the year with 102 Fantasy points in a standard league. Branch, by comparison, started last year in Seattle, but he played 11 games for the Patriots – or one less than Holmes did with the Jets. Branch had 97 Fantasy points for New England. Now, Holmes is being drafted well ahead of Branch because it's assumed he has more upside. But if you want better value, wait a round or two later and draft Branch. He should be tremendous playing with Brady for a full season. Welker remains a solid Fantasy option as well, and he should be drafted as a No. 2 receiver as early as Round 4 in standard formats and Round 3 in point per reception leagues. And if Tate starts out the season proving that he can be a reliable deep threat for Brady then add him off the waiver wire, but Tate is not worth drafting in most formats.

Fantasy Value Chart
Player Draft Day value
Quarterbacks
Tom Brady
Running Backs
BenJarvus Green-Ellis
Danny Woodhead
Shane Vereen
Stevan Ridley
Wide Receivers
Wes Welker
Deion Branch
Brandon Tate
Julian Edelman
Taylor Price
Tight Ends
Rob Gronkowski
Aaron Hernandez
Alge Crumpler
Kicker/DST
Stephen Gostkowski
Patriots DST

Bust ... BenJarvus Green-Ellis, RB

Add Woodhead to this category because the Patriots will likely work Vereen and Ridley into the rotation after drafting them with high picks. This isn't like aging veterans in Fred Taylor and Sammy Morris or a bust like Laurence Maroney – these kids are expected to play. Green-Ellis was a star last season with 229 carries for 1,008 yards and 13 touchdowns. Even with just 12 catches for 85 yards he finished as the No. 15 Fantasy running back in standard leagues. Woodhead finished as the No. 28 Fantasy running back with 97 carries for 547 yards and five touchdowns and 34 catches for 379 yards and a touchdown. But Green-Ellis and Woodhead can expect a decline in production. Ridley could take away goal-line work from Green-Ellis, and Vereen can take away third-down work from Woodhead. Along with that, the Patriots might bring back Kevin Faulk, which will also hamper Woodhead. Now, it's not like Green-Ellis will lose his starting job. He still has value as a No. 3 Fantasy running back in standard leagues, and he's worth drafting in Round 5 or 6 at the earliest. But if you reach for him before then you are making a mistake. As for Woodhead, he should be drafted in Round 10 or 11 in standard leagues. If Faulk returns as a free agent, however, his value will decline even further.

Keeper-league target ... Shane Vereen, RB

Add Ridley to this category as well. The Patriots backfield in 2012 has the potential to be Ridley and Vereen sharing carries, but we like Vereen with more Fantasy value down the road. You're not going to see Vereen drafted in most standard formats, but he could be worth drafting with a late-round pick in point per reception leagues. And in dynasty and keeper leagues, you can draft Vereen with a mid-round pick. He was a star at Cal last year with 1,167 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns. As for Ridley, he is suited to work at the goal line and in short-yardage situations at 5-foot-11, 225 pounds. Like Vereen, he's not worth drafting in most seasonal leagues, but you can take him with a late-round flier in touchdown-only formats. He had at least one touchdown in 10 of 13 games for LSU last year.

Schedule breakdown

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17
@MIA SD @BUF @OAK NYJ DAL bye @PIT NYG @NYJ KC @PHI IND @WAS @DEN MIA BUF

If the Patriots are going to return to the playoffs this season, they'll have to earn it. Their early-season and late-season schedules are sweet, but in between they'll face five playoff teams from last season as part of a difficult eight-game stretch. The Pats will play road games at Pittsburgh, at the Jets and at Philadelphia. Granted, they dismantled the Steelers last year, but the Jets dismantled the Pats last January and gave defensive coordinators a lot to think about. The juicy silver lining: Their final four games are very appealing and should net some big stat totals -- assuming that the Pats are not resting any stars.

Training camp topics

2010 Touches Leaders
* includes postseason
Player Touches
BenJarvus Green-Ellis 252
Danny Woodhead 151
Wes Welker 93
Deion Branch 53
Aaron Hernandez 49
Rob Gronkowski 46

Three positions should keep Fantasy owners busy during training camp: Running back, tight end and third wide receiver.

At running back, you'll want to see how Vereen and Ridley are being used with Green-Ellis and Woodhead. At tight end, you'll want to watch the split in reps with Gronkowski and Hernandez. And at wide receiver, you'll want to see if Tate can make an impact in his third year.

The Patriots don't need much from their third receiver with the production they get from both tight ends and their running backs. But they do need a consistent deep threat, and Tate has the potential to be that guy. If he plays well in the preseason then his value will rise.

Injury update

Tom Brady (foot, probable for the start of training camp) … Aaron Hernandez (hip, probable for the start of training camp) … Kevin Faulk (knee, questionable for the start of training camp) … Stephen Gostkowski (thigh, questionable for the start of training camp)

Stay in touch with the most passionate Fantasy staff in the business by following us via Twitter . You can also follow Jamey at @jameyeisenberg . Do you have a question or a comment for our Fantasy staff? Drop us a line at dmfantasyfootball@cbs.com .

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Player News
Sammy Watkins risky in Week 1
by R.J. White | CBSSports.com
(1:25 am ET) The Bills haven't had a bonafide No. 1 receiver since the days of Jim Kelly to Andre Reed, but rookie Sammy Watkins has the talent to be their best wide receiver since the franchise's Super Bowl era. Sure, Eric Moulds, Lee Evans and Stevie Johnson were fine, but with the right quarterback, Watkins can be special.

Unfortunately, Watkins will be catching passes from second-year signal caller EJ Manuel. The team seems to have little confidence in Manuel being the answer at quarterback just one year after drafting him in the first round. Kyle Orton was pulled out of retirement and handed a pricy one-year deal, and one can easily picture the scenario where he's starting games for the team in November and December.

Will Manuel respond to the job-security threat with elevated play? His best shot is to feed his star rookie early and often. Bears cornerback Charles Tillman has made a career off shutting down No. 1 receivers, but he's not the same player at 33 as he was at 25. While he was a plus in coverage as recently as 2012, Tillman struggled on the field between injuries last year. If Watkins had a top-16 quarterback delivering the ball, I'd like him for a big game in Week 1. As it is, Fantasy owners would be best holding off on starting Watkins until the quarterback situation plays itself out for better or for worse.


Fred Jackson may have trouble finding running room in Week 1
by R.J. White | CBSSports.com
(1:04 am ET) Bills running back Fred Jackson will face a Bears team in Week 1 that did a terrible job at defending the run last season. However, his Week 1 success may not be as pre-ordained as that of running mate, C.J. Spiller.

Unlike Spiller, Jackson does much of his work without the benefit of big plays, grinding out his numbers by taking what the defense gives rather than providing a home-run threat on any down. While most of the members of the Bears back seven that was responsible for surrendering so many big plays has returned, the team has overhauled the defense line, signing three new defensive ends and drafting two rotational defensive tackles.

Two of those free-agent additions are Lamarr Houston and Willie Young, the two players that graded out as the best 4-3 defensive ends in run stop percentage last season, per Pro Football Focus. With those two players in tow and second-round draft pick Ego Ferguson taking up space in the middle, Jackson could have difficulty converting on short-yardage or goal-line situations.

It's also fair to wonder how many long scoring drives the Bills will be able to put together if Jackson and the offensive line can't stymie the line's potentially improved rush defense. EJ Manuel hasn't done enough at this point in his career to trust his ability to pick defenses apart with his arm. If the Bills have trouble finding the red zone, Jackson could wind up being a Week 1 Flex option Fantasy owners come to regret.


C.J. Spiller could ride big plays to productive Week 1
by R.J. White | CBSSports.com
(12:39 am ET) Bills running back C.J. Spiller has feasted on big plays ever since emerging as a Fantasy weapon. In 2012, he was third in the league in breakaway percentage, a statistic tracked by Pro Football Focus that determines how much of a player's rushing yardage total is accrued on plays of at least 15 yards. Spiller topped the league in the category last season. Clearly, if he can find a seam, he has the ability to wrea havoc on a defense.

Spiller will be squaring off with the Bears on Sunday. Last season, the Bears turned in by far the worst run defense performance in the league. They surrendered 2,583 rushing yards and 5.3 yards per rush, both marks placing them last in the league. They overhauled the defensive line in the offseason as a result, drafting two rotational defensive tackles and signing three defensive ends.

But if those players can't keep Spiller bottled up at the line all game, he's a threat to break a long touchdown or two. While the Bears run defense was obviously porous as a unit, the back seven was particularly offensive, ranking last in Football Outsiders' second-level yardage and open-field yardage statistics. The Bears didn't do much to upgrade those two levels of the defense either, meaning plenty of broken tackles and long gains are there for the taking if Spiller can find a little daylight. He's a trustworthy RB2 in Week 1 and a must-use in any Flex conversations.


EJ Manuel will look to conquer road woes Sunday
by R.J. White | CBSSports.com
(12:20 am ET) Bills quarterback EJ Manuel endured what could at best be described as an uneven rookie season last year. Going 4-6 as a starter, Manuel particularly struggled on the road, where he turned in poor performances against the Jets, Browns, Steelers and Buccaneers before turning in a quality performance against the Jaguars in Week 14, his last game of the season.

Manuel opens this season on the road as well, heading to Soldier Field to take on the Bears Sunday. He'll be facing a new-look Chicago defensive line, rebuilt after the Bears defense struggled to generate a pass rush last season. Whether that pass rush can be effective could be the key to Manuel's success; the quarterback averaged 6.9 yards per attempt when under no pressure last season, but just 5.0 yards per attempt when faced with pressure.

Is there a good reason to start Manuel in Week 1? Not really. Every Fantasy team should be looking at a healthy roster heading into the beginning of the season, and there are anywhere from 14 to 20 QBs worth using over Manuel no matter the matchup. But a good performance in an unfavorable environment against a potentially improved pass rush would go a long way towards making the second-year player Fantasy relevant in 2014.


Patriots claim Don Jones off waivers
by R.J. White | CBSSports.com
(9/1/2014) The Patriots have been awarded safety Don Jones on waivers from the Dolphins and waived offensive lineman Chris Barker in a corresponding move.

The Patriots will likely be looking for some extra insight on their Week 1 opponent after bringing the former Dolphin into the fold. The move leaves the Patriots with six safeties on the roster.


Jets release Ellis Lankster, re-sign A.J. Edds
by R.J. White | CBSSports.com
(9/1/2014) The Jets released cornerback Ellis Lankster and re-signed inside linebacker A.J. Edds Monday.

Report: Chris Conte to start if medically cleared
by R.J. White | CBSSports.com
(9/1/2014) Bears safety Chris Conte will be the team's starting free safety in Sunday's season opener against the Bills, provided he's medically cleared to play, ESPN reports.

Conte has been locked in a position battle with rookie Brock Vereen, and despite suffering a concussion during the team's third preseason game, he's done enough to be named the starter. It wouldn't be surprising to see Vereen overtake Conte in the starting lineup, with the latter grading out as a below-average starter, according to ProFootballFocus.com, who particularly struggles in run support.


Report: Raiders going with Derek Carr over Matt Schaub
by Larry Hartstein | CBSSports.com
(9/1/2014) Raiders players have been told the team will start rookie Derek Carr over veteran Matt Schaub at quarterback, reports Fox Sports. Carr threw three touchdown passes in last Thursday's preseason finale while Schaub has battled elbow problems.

Oakland opens the season Sunday at the Jets.


Emmanuel Sanders a strong flex option Week 1
by Larry Hartstein | CBSSports.com
(9/1/2014) Assuming Wes Welker returns from his concussion and plays Week 1, teammate Emmanuel Sanders still will be a strong flex option. Colts-Broncos is a guaranteed shootout -- the over/under is a whopping 55, highest on the board -- and Peyton Manning can support three productive Fantasy receivers with ease.

Plus, Manning has taken a liking to Sanders. When Sanders debuted in the third preseason game, the duo hooked up for 67- and 29-yard touchdowns in the first half.

"You just throw it as far as you can, and it's hard to outthrow that guy," Manning told the team's website.

Sanders finished with five catches for 128 yards on eight first-half targets, doing most of that before Welker got concussed. Sanders was not 100 percent for that game; he had just come back from a quad injury.

Now Sanders, who started building chemistry with Manning at informal Duke University workouts, "looks ready for the big stage," the website said.

"Peyton puts it on the money," Sanders said. "He takes pride in throwing the perfect football. He takes pride in being perfect all around, in general. He makes my job easy."

Manning is going to help Sanders reach a level he has not hit before, starting Sunday night.

Redskins complete practice squad
by Larry Hartstein | CBSSports.com
(9/1/2014) The Redskins filled out their 10-man practice squad by signing safety Akeem Davis and linebacker Chaz Sutton, reports the Washington Post.

 
 
 
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