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.
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.
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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.
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
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.
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)
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