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2012 Fantasy outlooks: New England Patriots

Senior Fantasy Writer
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Tom Brady lives some life, doesn't he? He's got it all -- and I'm not talking about the supermodel wife (and actress/model ex-girlfriend), ginormous mansion, mega-rich contract and perfect hair.

I'm talking football, and in New England he indeed has is all.

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Know how every team wants a behemoth matchup-nightmare tight end? He has two of them. Know how every quarterback wants sure-handed receivers who run perfect routes? He has four of those, including a new one who has done nothing but thrive under pass-happy offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, who, by the way, is back working with Brady. And though he lost his trusty left tackle to retirement and battering-ram running back to free agency, Brady is still expected to have good (if not improved) protection and an effective run game to work off of while mowing down defensive backs.

Which begs the question: How, exactly, will defenses stop him and the Patriots? The huge tight ends, the shifty slot receiver, the new outside receiver with the solid hands, the running backs who can dart out of the backfield on a shovel or dump pass -- how can a team possibly slow this machine down? They couldn't last year when Brady threw for the second-most yards in NFL history and averaged a sick 321.7 yards per game (including the postseason). And they're even deeper this year!

Everyone who plays Fantasy will pay attention to the Patriots whether Brady is on their team or not (it wouldn't hurt if Brady's yours with a first- or second-round pick). Some might be concerned about a Super Bowl hangover but the New England offense is considered too dynamic to slow down so long as Brady is there. Of course, the last time they lost a Super Bowl Brady missed all but one quarter of the following season thanks to a torn ACL. Let's not hope for that.

This year, it's not wrong to expect the Patriots to come close, if not exceed, their 2011 benchmarks: 32.1 points per game, 5,257 passing yards, 1,764 rushing yards, 39 passing touchdowns, 18 rushing touchdowns and an appearance in the Super Bowl.

Getting a piece -- any piece -- of the Patriots offense should help in Fantasy.

Fantasy Value Chart
Player Draft Day value Estimated round
Quarterbacks
Tom Brady 1
Running Backs
Stevan Ridley 7
Shane Vereen 11
Danny Woodhead ND
Joseph Addai ND
Wide Receivers
Wes Welker 3
Brandon Lloyd 6
Deion Branch ND
Jabar Gaffney ND
Tight Ends
Rob Gronkowski 3
Aaron Hernandez 5
Kickers/Defense
Stephen Gostkowski 14
Patriots DST ND
ND - not expected to get drafted

Sleeper ... Brandon Lloyd, wide receiver

As soon as last season ended, speculation was that Lloyd would follow McDaniels to New England. If you were a receiver who averaged five receptions for nearly 80 yards with 14 touchdowns over 23 games with McDaniels calling plays, wouldn't you? Lloyd not only reunites with McDaniels and will play in an offensive system he's become very familiar with, but he'll also catch passes from Brady, a big upgrade. He'll also probably never see more than zone coverage because of the other Patriots weapons demanding attention. And here's a safe bet: Brady will throw wherever the coverage is weakest, and that could mean a lot of targets for Lloyd. He's a potential Fantasy bargain as a pick in Round 6 or 7.

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Breakout ... Stevan Ridley, running back

The Patriots haven't dedicated themselves to a single running back since the days of Corey Dillon, and that's not about to change. But by letting the sure-handed BenJarvus Green-Ellis walk in free agency, the Patriots effectively sank their trust in Ridley as the physical, "running downs" back. In four games last year where he had at least 10 carries, Ridley averaged 6.26 yards per carry (307 yards on 49 carries) with a score. That's encouraging. He had fumbles in back-to-back games in January that cost him carries in the AFC title game and Super Bowl, but he's said his primary goal this offseason was to work on his fundamentals and do what he can to limit his fumbles in the future (he had just three in college). So long as he can hold on to the ball and maintain a good rushing average, this will be the guy the Patriots lean on to score from a few yards out. He's worth taking as a No. 3 running back, if not a low-end No. 2, in Round 7.

Late-round flier ... Shane Vereen, running back

It bears repeating: The Patriots haven't dedicated themselves to a single running back since the days of Corey Dillon, and that's not about to change. If Ridley is going to take over the role of BenJarvus Green-Ellis, then Vereen should make a run at the "passing downs" back, previously maintained by Danny Woodhead. Vereen barely played last season as the team didn't need him, plus he dealt with a hamstring injury. But when May offseason workouts kicked off, Vereen saw first-team reps. That news was downplayed, as it should be since it's from a spring workout without pads, but if Vereen can stay healthy and show off some speed this summer it will translate to playing time through the fall. Everyone likes late-round sleeper running backs and Vereen certainly will be one of them this year.

Schedule breakdown

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17
@TEN ARI @BAL @BUF DEN @SEA NYJ vsSTL bye BUF IND @NYJ @MIA HOU SF @JAC MIA

As usual, there are only a handful of opponents who could make life really tough for the Patriots. One might be the Bills now that they've added Mario Williams, but aside from them, the Jets twice and the Ravens, only the Texans and 49ers in Weeks 14 and 15 stand out as tough matchups. Not that you're planning to sit key Patriots players anyway. The Pats start the year with three of four on the road and end with three of four at home, and their shellackings against the lowly Dolphins come five weeks apart late in the season (too bad one is in Week 17).

Training camp topics

2011 Touches Leaders
Player Touches
BenJarvus Green-Ellis 219 carries, 12 catches
Wes Welker 141 catches, 6 carries
Rob Gronkowski 107 catches, 1 carry
Aaron Hernandez 98 catches, 13 carries
Stevan Ridley 91 carries, 4 catches

The Patriots' run game is always a source of intrigue -- and headaches. Retired offensive tackle Matt Light once famously told CBSSports.com that even he didn't know which running backs would get the most reps before a game. As you might have guessed, we believe Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen are the favorites to log the most work with Joseph Addai and Danny Woodhead providing veteran support. Both elder rushers could push for playing time in camp but it sounds like Ridley and Vereen have the jobs locked up unless they fumble the chance away in camp. It would be a surprise to see any Patriots running back finish as a Top 15 option, especially since the Patriots will probably throw the ball more than anybody, which leaves only so many handoffs.

Lloyd's impact on the Patriots' other receivers could be significant, and it merits watching in camp. Last season Wes Welker, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez each had over 75 catches, not really coming off the field much. Adding Lloyd to the mix shouldn't impact their playing time (not like it might impact Deion Branch's, anyway) but he will take away some of Brady's attention. It's probably going to be up to the defense the Pats are facing: If they want to try and take away Gronk and Hernandez, then Welker and Lloyd should do really well. If the defense aims to bottle up downfield threats, we could see Welker and Gronk have the big games. If a defense wants to take away the tight ends, then Welker and Lloyd should have success in one-on-one coverage. Expect all four players to have good numbers this season, but it shouldn't be a shock if Welker, Gronkowski and Hernandez all end up slightly below what they delivered in 2011.

As for Branch and returning Patriot Jabar Gaffney, it will probably take an injury in camp for them to be relevant in Fantasy play, even though Branch caught over 50 passes last season and Gaffney had a career year in Washington. They're talented players who happen to be on a team rich in receiving talent. They'll play but not as much as their abilities suggest.

The biggest offense-related issues for the Patriots revolve around the offensive line, which isn't a bad unit but does have some starting jobs up for grabs. Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer will be counted on to protect Brady from the tackle spots; Solder especially has to be at his best at left tackle while Vollmer has to stay healthy to play right. Marcus Cannon lurks as a backup who could make a run at Vollmer's spot or else be the sixth linemen when the Pats go with an extra big man.

While the offense is always a focus for the Patriots, it's their defense that underwent a makeover this offseason. Mark Anderson, Andre Carter, Shaun Ellis, Gary Guyton, Antwaun Molden and Mike Wright are all history. The Patriots dedicated two first-round picks to upgrading their front seven with the addition of pass rusher Chandler Jones and linebacker Donta Hightower and also picked up defensive end Trevor Scott, lineman Jonathan Fanene and safety Steve Gregory in free agency. The message is clear that last season's defensive meltdown isn't acceptable; even though the Patriots yielded 21.4 points per game during the regular season, they ranked 31st in passing yards allowed and 17th in rush yards allowed. Believe it or not, because of their additions the DST is considered a draft-worthy unit.

Injury update

Rob Gronkowski (ankle; probable for the start of training camp) ... Brandon Spikes (knee; probable for the start of training camp) ... Jake Ballard (knee; doubtful to play this season).

Stay in touch with the most passionate Fantasy staff in the business by following us via Twitter @CBSFantasyFB . You can also follow Dave at @daverichard and on Facebook .

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