It's amazing to watch the Patriots be so consistently dominant year in and year out. Making it to the AFC Championship Game in 2013 was really an incredible feat given what they had to overcome.
The Patriots reached their conference final despite losing Wes Welker as a free agent, Rob Gronkowski to a torn ACL and watching their starting running back in Stevan Ridley fumble his way to the bench. On defense, they were without standout linemen in Vince Wilfork (Achilles) and Tommy Kelly (knee) and starting middle linebacker Jerod Mayo (chest).
They are expected to be at full strength this season, including one significant upgrade with the addition of cornerback Darrelle Revis. The Patriots also added Brandon Browner, meaning this secondary -- and entire defensive unit -- could be nasty.
We're obviously more concerned with the offensive side of the ball, and we hope Gronkowski will make a full recovery in time for training camp. All eyes will also be on Ridley to make sure he's starting and, more importantly, not fumbling. And we'll see who the No. 2 receiver is behind Julian Edelman because that player could be a sleeper.
It should be another successful campaign for the Patriots again in 2014. Maybe this time it will end in another Super Bowl run.
A potentially dominant backfield ... Shane Vereen/Stevan Ridley
What you're about to read might be more bold than my "bold statement" further down, but the Patriots backfield will be the best backfield for Fantasy owners this year. That's right, I said it.
Now, we're talking a utopia here, which requires Vereen staying healthy and Ridley not fumbling. If that happens then both should be dominant.
Vereen would have been a star in 2013 if not for a broken wrist in Week 1. If you project his stats over 16 games he would have finished with 88 carries for 408 yards and two touchdowns and 94 catches for 854 yards and six touchdowns. Those stats would have made Vereen a Top 15 Fantasy running back last year, and that's what he's capable of producing if he can stay healthy all season.
Ridley couldn't get out of his own way last season because of fumble problems, and LeGarrette Blount eventually took over as the primary rusher. But Blount is gone now, and Ridley should bounce back in a contract year. He had 1,263 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns in 2012 to finish as a Top 10 Fantasy running back, and he can easily repeat that performance. New England was No. 2 in rushing touchdowns last year with 19, so Ridley is again a candidate for double digits in scores.
We hope to see the best of both running backs this season, and they could both finish as Top 15 Fantasy options based on their roles. Brandon Bolden and James White could impact Vereen and Ridley, and then there's Bill Belichick, who can always throw owners a curve. But I'd gamble on Vereen in Round 4 of a standard league (Round 3 in PPR) and Ridley in Round 5 or 6. I'm confident this will be a great season for each running back.
Worth waiting for ... Tom Brady
If you wanted Brady last season you had a pay a relatively hefty price based on his Average Draft Position, which was No. 27 overall on CBSSports.com. You could justify that then since Brady was coming off three consecutive seasons as a Top 3 Fantasy quarterback.
But he was a letdown, finishing No. 13 in Fantasy points last year, and he never appeared to get into a rhythm with his entire receiving corps. He was without Vereen, Gronkowski and Danny Amendola for significant stretches, and Amendola was a bust in his first year in New England.
Brady will bounce back in 2014, possibly in a big way. If Gronkowski and Aaron Dobson (foot) are healthy for Week 1, Brady would have his five best receiving options in Gronkowski, Edelman, Vereen, Amendola and Dobson. He had that group together for all of two games in Week 11 at Carolina and Week 12 vs. Denver. The Broncos game ended up being his second-best performance of the year with 29 Fantasy points. His best game was Week 9 against the Steelers when only Vereen was out.
Brady is likely going to fall to you on Draft Day this year. If you're inclined to wait on quarterback -- which is the right move to make -- he should be available after Round 5. And if his receivers stay healthy, don't be surprised if he's back as a Top 3 Fantasy quarterback again when the season is over.
Worth the gamble ... Rob Gronkowski
|Stevan Ridley||188 (178 car., 10 rec.)||22.1%|
|LeGarrette Blount||155 (153 car., 2 rec.)||18.2%|
|Julian Edelman||107 (2 car., 105 rec.)||12.6%|
|Shane Vereen||91 (44 car. 47 rec.)||10.7%|
|Brandon Bolden||76 (55 car. 21 rec.)||8.9%|
I love Jimmy Graham, but when Gronkowski is healthy he's the best Fantasy tight end. The problem is he's been limited to 18 games the past two seasons because of forearm, back and knee injuries, and he's coming off last year's torn ACL.
We hope he's fine for the start of training camp, which would alleviate many concerns for Fantasy owners, but based on last year when he missed the first six games, there are no guarantees he'll even start in Week 1.
There's no denying Gronkowski's success. He started 38 games in his first three seasons and scored 38 touchdowns. In 2011 he was a monster with 90 catches for 1,327 yards and 17 touchdowns. He was on pace last season for 89 catches, 1,353 yards and nine touchdowns, and those stats would have placed him No. 2 at tight in Fantasy points behind Graham in a standard league.
There's a lot of risk involved with Gronkowski now because of his injuries, but he's still worth drafting in Round 4 in standard leagues and Round 3 in PPR formats. When he's healthy he'll dominate, and if he plays 16 games then the reward is off the charts. No player will match his production if you draft him in Round 4 or later.
The Patriots open on the road with two straight games at Miami and Minnesota and three of their first four with a Week 4 matchup at Kansas City. Things lighten up with three consecutive home games against the Jets, Bears and Broncos before the bye in Week 10, but they'll be tested with three games in 12 days against Cincinnati on Oct. 5, at Buffalo on Oct. 12 and against the Jets on Oct. 16. The Fantasy playoffs are against Miami in Week 15 and at the Jets in Week 16, and Brady had 15 Fantasy points combined against those teams in those venues last year. Ouch.
Training camp battles
Who's the No. 3 running back? We know Ridley and Vereen are locked into their roles, but the No. 3 running back for the Patriots could be a sleeper in deeper leagues. Bolden and White will compete for the job, and Bolden should have the inside edge based on experience. This is a battle to watch, especially if Ridley has fumble problems again, because Blount was a star when he took over for Ridley last year. In his final seven games, including the playoffs, Blount had 80 carries for 570 yards and nine touchdowns.
What's the pecking order at receiver? Edelman is New England's No. 1 Fantasy receiver, and he's worth drafting in Round 5 in standard leagues and Round 4 in PPR formats. But after Edelman, it's up in the air who is No. 2 for Fantasy owners. It should be Amendola, but he was awful last season and could struggle with Edelman and Gronkowski healthy. Dobson is a sleeper since he's probably the best outside threat, but this nagging foot injury is problematic. Brandon LaFell, Josh Boyce and Kenbrell Thompkins will also play a role, and the Patriots will likely mix and match this entire group. Only Edelman is worth drafting in the majority of leagues, but we'd rank the rest of the group heading into camp as Amendola, Dobson, LaFell, Thompkins and Boyce. Dobson could overtake Amendola if he shows up on time at 100 percent.
Julius Thomas is a great tight end, and Vernon Davis has proven to be a star. But this is a conversation about Gronkowski and Graham when it comes to the No. 1 Fantasy tight end. And if Gronkowski plays 16 games, he will be No. 1 again.
The last time both were healthy was 2011 when Gronkowski had 232 Fantasy points in a standard league and Graham had 187. Both were in their second season in the NFL then, and it's the closest thing we have to a fair comparison based on injuries. Graham has since finished No. 1 in back-to-back years, but his best season was 2013 at 217 points, which falls a little short of Gronkowski's top performance.
Graham could suffer this season with a potential holdout with his contract, which could give Gronkowski the edge. And if you buy into Gronkowski this season the value is better with him since Graham will be drafted in the first round and Gronkowski in Round 4.
I hope we see both guys for 16 games because the battle for the top spot would be fun to watch. But if I had a crystal ball and knew Gronkowski would be healthy for sure, I'd take him as the No. 1 player at his position. His ceiling is higher, but unfortunately he also has a lower floor based on his injury history.
Rob Gronkowski (knee), questionable for start of season. ... Aaron Dobson (foot), questionable for start of training camp. ... Dominique Easley (knee), questionable for start of training camp. ... Tommy Kelly (knee), questionable for start of training camp. ... Vince Wilfork (Achilles), questionable for start of training camp. ... Will Smith (knee), probable for start of training camp. ... Jerod Mayo (chest), probable for start of training camp