The first and most important thing you need to understand about this team is that they are not trying to help you, ever. The Patriots are not generous with information, whether about injuries or defensive schemes or pregame menus or footwear selections or ... well, anything. Ever. They aren't in the business of helping fantasy owners. Under Bill Belichick, this franchise has become a terrifyingly powerful institution about which little is known. Like the CIA, or Tom Cruise.
If you want to believe this writer from the Boston Globe when he tells you that "Aaron Hernandez has ascended to [Tom] Brady's No. 1 option," that's your business. When published, that nugget was treated by several fantasy outlets as if it were breaking news. But at best, all we really get from the hard-working folks who cover this team is thoughtful guesswork, based on whatever the Pats choose to show in practices and exhibition games. We almost never get scoops about New England's intentions.
The only people who can be accurately referred to as "Patriots insiders" are actually working for the team, and they never talk.
Despite the relative secrecy surrounding New England, there are of course a few things we can safely say about this phenomenally high-yield offense. Let's review, bullet-style...
• In an era where DBs aren't allowed to make eye-contact with receivers, and where a pass-rusher can be flagged for invading a quarterback's personal space, Tom Brady is nearly unstoppable. His last two seasons have been clinical — ruthlessly efficient and productive. It's difficult to imagine him not having another brilliant season in the current passing environment. I can't say for sure that he'll throw for another 5,000-plus yards, or that he'll need to attempt another 600-plus passes. But there's little doubt in my mind that a healthy Brady will give us at least 35 TDs and a top-five yardage total, while rarely turning over the football. There's no reason to doubt him. He's among the best players in the history of his position, and the key pieces of his receiving corps have returned.
• Wes Welker has spent five years in New England, finishing as a top-12 fantasy receiver in each of the three seasons in which both he and Brady have been healthy. I'm tossing out the Matt Cassel year, and also the season when Welker was recovering from the ACL/MCL injury. (But just for the record, he ranked as the No. 21 WR in 2008 and No. 23 in 2010. Not bad, considering the circumstances). He's caught more than 110 passes in four of the past five years. Welker won't need to match last season's production (122-1573-9) in order to justify his draft day price-tag, because we've typically been taking last year's No. 3 fantasy wideout at the end of the third round (WR10).
• It's an easy bet (and lazy analysis) to say that Rob Gronkowski won't repeat his 2011 totals. The guy just delivered the greatest single-season by an NFL tight end, so he can afford to slip a little. He outscored Jimmy Graham, last season's No. 2 fantasy tight end, by 45.9 public league fantasy points. If Gronk were to lose 50 percent of last year's stats, which absolutely no one is predicting, he'd still deliver 664 receiving yards and nine TDs. So his floor is very, very high. He's totaled 28 touchdowns over two seasons. Gronk is as safe as it gets at his position.
• Aaron Hernandez is of course sensational, too. He finished as the No. 3 fantasy scorer among tight ends in 2011, despite missing two games with an MCL sprain. He saw double-digit targets six times last year, playoffs included, with a season-high 14 in the Super Bowl. You might recall that Hernandez was deployed in the ground game late in the year, notably in the playoff win against Denver (5 carries, 61 yards). This is a player who can lineup anywhere. He's been a thoroughly hyped fantasy asset this offseason (see above), and deservedly so.
Both Hernandez and Gronk have signed multi-year extensions, by the way, so the rest of the league can look forward to many more seasons of impossible match-up scenarios.
• Brandon Lloyd enters the mix this year, too, having attached himself permanently to OC Josh McDaniels. Lloyd is a proven big-play receiver (18.8 yards per catch in 2010) who won't actually need to poach targets from Welker, Gronk or Hernandez in order to have a big year. If Lloyd simply gets the workload that went to Deion Branch and Chad Johnson last season, he'll be set. Branch and Chad combined for 122 targets and 66 catches in 2011. Thus, for me, it's not a given that Lloyd's presence will be a drag on any other player's fantasy value.
We should note that Branch was released by the Pats in recent roster trimming, but there's been speculation about a possible return. At the moment, the depth chart seems a little thin at wide receiver beyond Welker and Lloyd (Julian Edelman, Matthew Slater, new acquisition Greg Salas. No, you're not drafting those guys. Maybe you think about Salas as a long-range dynasty gamble, but that's it).
• The Patriots' ground game is only occasionally a one-man show, so no one should assume that Stevan Ridley will be a full-workload, all-situation back. Ridley's owners should simply be happy if he receives BenJarvus Green-Ellis' old share of the carries, dominating the inside-the-5 work. Shane Vereen and Danny Woodhead are still around, and both will see touches. Ball security became a worry with Ridley late last year, and — as we learned from the misadventures of Laurence Maroney — Belichick has very little tolerance for fumblers. So the team's presumptive new lead back had better correct that issue. Green-Ellis had his limitations, but he never fumbled — literally never, not in the regular season or the postseason.
Ridley wasn't all that expensive in drafts this year (ADP 57.3, RB25), yet he's in a role that could easily produce double-digit touchdowns. He has a clear chance to emerge as an every-week fantasy starter, though he's somewhat less interesting in PPR. He only caught three passes last season as a rookie, and 17 in his collegiate career at LSU. Green-Ellis wasn't much of a contributor as a receiver, either, with just nine catches in 2011.
New England has done relatively well with the design-on-a-dime approach to the ground game in recent years, ranking as a top-12 rushing offense from 2008 to 2010. But as Jason Cole discussed here, the Pats haven't quite been able to unleash an impose-their-will running assault. Ridley is expected to correct that flaw — and if he can't, Belichick will find another guy. He's only loyal to production.
New England's defense gave up a zillion yards last season (411.1 YPG), but they ranked second in the NFL in interceptions (23) and scored three defensive TDs, so they weren't a disaster for fantasy purposes. The Pats allowed the most fantasy points to opposing QBs and WRs last season, and you shouldn't expect a full reversal this year. The New England IDPs worth a look are safety Patrick Chung, linebacker Jared Mayo and the first-round rookies, DE Chandler Jones and LB Dont'a Hightower.
2011 team stats: 32.1 PPG (NFL rank 3), 110.3 rush YPG (20), 328.6 pass YPG (2), 39.53 yards/drive (2), 0.092 turnovers/drive (3)
Previous Juggernaut posts: 32. Miami, 31. St. Louis, 30. Indianapolis, 29. Jacksonville, 28. Cleveland, 27. Arizona, 26. Seattle, 25. Minnesota, 24. Tampa Bay, 23. Buffalo, 22. New York Jets, 21. Washington, 20. Oakland, 19. San Francisco, 18. Kansas City, 17. Cincinnati, 16. Denver, 15. Tennessee, 14. San Diego, 13. Pittsburgh, 12. Baltimore, 11. Dallas, 10. Carolina, 9. Chicago, 8. Houston, 7. Detroit, 6. Atlanta, 5. New York Giants