NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS
STATE OF THE FRANCHISE
Buoyed by return of franchise QB Tom Brady, the Patriots entered the 2009 campaign with high expectations, so even though the team claimed the AFC East Division title for the sixth time in the past seven seasons, a 10-6 record and a humbling loss (at home) to the Ravens on wild-card weekend resulted in a letdown.
The Patriots closed their regular-season home schedule with a perfect 8-0 record at Gillette Stadium, but, as was the case in their historic 18-1 2007 campaign, you're only as good as your last game, and this last one wasn't pretty. The loss of slot machine Wes Welker in Week 17 in a game of debatable importance didn't help matters. Ultimately, it was an up and down season and the Patriots' inconsistency, especially on the defensive side of the ball, where the team was undergoing a changing
of the guard in the leadership department, cost it in the end.
Though Welker's status to start the upcoming season is uncertain, there is some reason for optimism: Tom Brady is further removed from the serious knee injury that cost him most of the 2008 season, Randy Moss is in a contract year and the defense is continuing to get younger and faster, with the drafting of CB Devin McCourty in the first round and DE Jermaine Cunningham and LB Brandon Spikes in the second round of April's draft.
The Patriots' backfield may be a mess from a fantasy perspective, but there's something to be said for continuity, and Laurence Maroney, Fred Taylor, Sammy Morris, Kevin Faulk and BenJarvus Green-Ellis are all back for another year together.
The team will count on second-year wideout Julian Edelman to help fill the slot void while Welker is out, plus the addition of Torry Holt gives Brady a savvy route-runner who should be able to take advantage of the double teams that Moss is likely to see. The team's tight end corps has been completely revamped with the addition of veteran Alge Crumpler and a pair of talented rookies who he'll be counted on to mentor, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.
The New England defense struggled last season to fill the vacuum created by an offseason featuring the wholesale departures of veteran mainstays, but the likes of Jerod Mayo and Brandon Meriweather are emerging stars, and mammoth run-stuffer Vince Wilfork is back to anchor the defensive line, as well as assert himself as a much-needed team leader after signing a lucrative extension.
The 2010 edition of the Patriots isn't generating the preseason hype that the team has been getting in recent years, but with cerebral head coach Bill Belichick still behind the controls and Brady healthy and still in his prime, the team's window for another championship run hasn't closed just yet.
Round, Overall, Player
1. (27) Devin McCourty, CB, Rutgers-A talented cover guy who can also be an impact special teamer.
2. (42) Rob Gronkowski, TE, Arizona-A first-round talent who slid due to concerns about his back.
2. (53) Jermaine Cunningham, LB, Florida- The first of three Gators tabbed, heíll join the OLB rotation.
2. (62) Brandon Spikes, LB, Florida-Lack of speed was a concern, but should be a good fit in the defensive scheme.
3. (90) Taylor Price, WR, Ohio-Has size and speed to develop as a vertical threat.
4. (113) Aaron Hernandez, TE, Florida-Another talented TE, who could prove to be a steal due to his pass-catching upside.
5. (150) Zoltan Mesko, P, Michigan-Should claim the teamís punting job.
6. (205) Ted Larsen, C, N.C. State-Adds center/interior line depth.
7. (208) Thomas Welch, OT, Vanderbilt-Raw tackle for the team to develop.
7. (247) Brandon Deaderick, DE, Alabama-Could stick as a DE depth guy.
7. (248) Kade Weston, DT, Georgia-A developmental DT with good size and athleticism.
7. (250) Zac Robinson, QB, Oklahoma St-Could claim No. 3 QB job.
Torry Holt, WR (Jaguars) His wheels arenít what they used to be but
still knows how to get open.
Alge Crumpler, TE (Titans) Fills blocking role and can mentor the
teamís rookie tight ends.
Ben Watson, TE (Browns) Had his moments as a pass catcher but never really developed the way the Patriots had hoped.
Adalius Thomas, LB (FA) A splashy free-agent acquisition who had a disappointing three-year stint.
WHAT ABOUT WES?
At press time, it's ďso-far, so goodĒ in terms of Wes Welker's recovery from his torn ACL, as well as his shoulder injury, but with the Patriots, good luck getting any clear injury info beyond that. As a result, his status to start the season is cloudy, though our gut feeling is that he could start the season on the PUP list. Welker is a scrappy player who is used to overcoming obstacles, but he's relied on his quickness and cutting ability in the past, and it may take time for him to regain those aspects of his game even when he's back. Free-agent acquisition Torry Holt could absorb some of his targets if Welker misses time, but as was the case last season when Welker was unavailable, it's Julian Edelman who would likely receive the bulk of his usual assignments.
A LOOK AT THE REVAMPED TIGHT END CORPS
Ben Watson and Chris Baker have moved on and were replaced by a promising duo of rookies-Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez-who will be mentored by veteran Alge Crumpler. While Crumpler once had a productive fantasy run with the Falcons, he has morphed into a blocker over the past few seasons. QB Tom Brady often looks to his tight ends in the red zone, so both Gronkowski and Hernandez could get in on the TD action right away. Figure out which of the two develops the best chemistry with Brady and you'll have yourself a fantasy sleeper. If you want to roll the dice immediately, take a flyer on Gronkowski, but keep an eye on Hernandez early on.
HAVE FUN WITH THE RUNNING BACKS...
The Patriots will reprise their 2009 backfield configuration of Laurence Maroney, Fred Taylor, Sammy Morris, Kevin Faulk and BenJarvus Green-Ellis this season. That's of course, when everyone is healthy, and really, how often is that going to happen? Maroney managed nine TDs last season, and, as frustrating as he can be to fantasy owners, he's still the upside play here. Veterans Taylor and Morris are both still capable of making plays but keeping them on the field will be a challenge, so look for them to be used judiciously. Faulk remains a perfect role player for the Patriots' offense and one who will get you something every week, because he can catch passes. The bottom line is that this is a committee in the truest sense and what we know in Week 1-i.e., that the carries will be split up-won't likely remain the case for long.Once injuries hit and the numbers are pared down, there could be some value to mine here, with five running backs all in contract years.
Declining: Alge Crumpler is a namebrand, but heís in New England to block and mentor.
Supersleeper: Brandon Tate, a third-round pick last year, is bouncing back from injuries but he has untapped big play/return upside.
Jerod Mayo, LB Rising defensive leader had a team-high 103 tackles in 2009 despite missing three games.
Brandon Meriweather, S A lock for 80-plus tackles, the budding strong safety has totaled nine picks over the past two seasons.
Tully Banta-Cain, LB Returned to the Patriots after a stint with the 49ers to lead the team with 10 sacks.
RotoWire Rank: 20