STATE OF THE TEAM
The Patriots finished the 2011 season a spiffy 13-3. In doing so, they became just the third team in NFL history to win at least 10 games in nine consecutive seasons. That said, the team's second Super Bowl loss to the Giants in five years resulted in a disappointing vibe that overrides the impressive consistency, stability and success the franchise has enjoyed since the team's renaissance began in 2001. That's the year that Tom Brady took over at quarterback and the second season of coach Bill Belichick's tenure. Five Super Bowl appearances later – three of them wins – the team remains deep and talented, with Brady still going strong. Nothing lasts forever though, and the team's offseason approach, which included uncharacteristic moves to trade up in the draft, was designed to re-load for another championship run while the Brady/Belichick window is still open.
A New England offense that scored an impressive 32.1 points per game last season, bid adieu to the workmanlike BenJarvus Green-Ellis, but otherwise remains intact, bolstered by additions like WRs Brandon Lloyd and Jabar Gaffney, RB Joseph Addai and TE Daniel Fells. Second-year backs Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen are unproven, but both possess more upside than Green-Ellis, though his rare ability to hold on to the ball will be missed. With the return of Brady, prolific wideout Wes Welker and the team's formidable, one-two punch at tight end – Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez – scoring points will be no problem. Preventing them is the big challenge.
Injuries last year played a big role in the ineffectiveness of the Patriots' pass defense, a unit that allowed a horrid 293.9 passing yards per game – only the Packers allowed more – which ultimately proved to be the team's fatal flaw.
While the team did not make any splashy defensive free agent additions, the Patriots quietly and relentlessly added depth on that side of the ball, inking the likes of S Steve Gregory, LB Bobby Carpenter, CB Will Allen, and DE's Trevor Scott and Jonathan Fanene. On draft day, the team moved up in the first round to acquire a pair of exciting young playmakers in DE Chandler Jones and LB Dont'a Hightower. The team also added S Tavon Wilson in the second round. Meanwhile, CB Ras-I Dowling, the first pick in the second round of last year's draft, is back after a rookie season essentially lost to injury. Moreover, CB Devin McCourty and S Patrick Chung, who both battled injuries last season, are healthy now, yet another element in the anticipated repair of the team's leaky pass defense.
On paper, the Patriots look stronger and deeper than they did last season and Vegas agrees, listing their odds to claim the AFC title at plus-225 and the Super Bowl crown at plus-500.
Brandon Lloyd, WR (Rams)
Working with Tom Brady, big things could be in store for Lloyd, who is slated to reunite with his former coach and current New England offensive coordinator, Josh McDaniels.
Jabar Gaffney, WR (Redskins)
He set career-highs in 2011 with 68 catches for 947 yards and five touchdowns, but will be hard-pressed to match those numbers in his second stint with New England, despite his solid rapport with Brady.
Joseph Addai, RB (Colts)
Gives the team a veteran to work with second-year backs Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen, in the wake of the departure of BenJarvus Green-Ellis.
Daniel Fells, TE (Broncos)
Experienced option, on a team that deploys the TE heavily, behind studs Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.
Chandler Jones, DE, Syracuse (Round 1, 21st overall)
Uses his long arms/wingspan to his advantage and his versatility makes him a good fit for the team's defense.
Dont'a Hightower, LB, Alabama (Round 1, 25th overall)
A playmaking linebacker, who will boost the defense with his versatility and hitting ability.
BenJarvis Green-Ellis, RB (Bengals)
Not the flashiest back around, but through his first 510 NFL carries, he has yet to fumble.
Mark Anderson/Andre Carter, DE (Bills/FA)
The revitalized Anderson cashed in with the Bills, while Carter could be back to re-join the Patriots' pass-rush at some point.
WHEN BRADY DOESN'T THROW, WHO WILL RUN THE BALL?
The writing was on the wall for BenJarvus Green-Ellis last April when the Patriots used second and third-round picks to draft running backs Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley. Green-Ellis held on to the lead role in 2011, but an uninspiring 3.7 YPC was enough to hasten his departure this offseason. The one they call “Law Firm” never fumbles, which shouldn't be taken for granted, but the team is still well-stocked at the position, with Ridley and Vereen in line for added responsibilities and former Colt Joseph Addai – a capable pass-catcher out of the backfield – on hand, as well as change-of-pace back, Danny Woodhead. A fantasy-draining committee approach could be on tap, though if we had to identify one player as most capable of handling the heavy lifting at this stage, it would be Ridley, who churned out an average of 5.1 yards in his 87 carries. Vereen has much to prove after an injury-plagued rookie campaign, but it would be unwise to count him out.
WHEN HE DOES THROW, WHO WILL CATCH THE PASSES?
Wes Welker, who signed his franchise tender this past offseason, remains Brady's favorite target, coming off a 122-catch effort. The “slot machine” may lose some looks this season, however, thanks to the additions of Brandon Lloyd and Jabar Gaffney. Lloyd, an upgrade over last year's No. 2 wideout Deion Branch, has been reunited with Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and the duo have enjoyed success while working together. Lloyd could cost Rob Gronkowski some red zone targets, but tight end is the least of the team's worries, with the dynamic Aaron Hernandez, a dangerous run-after-catch weapon complementing Gronkowski, whose strength and outstanding hands make him an end zone beast. In a passing offense as dynamic as New England's, even the No. 3 wideout can carve out some fantasy value. There will be an open competition for that role featuring Gaffney, who has an established rapport with Brady, along with Branch, Donte Stallworth and Julian Edelman.
IN DEFENSE OF THE DEFENSE
The Patriots did not pull off any flashy Mario-Williams-esque signings in free agency, but building depth at every position was a priority. To that end, the Patriots used six of their seven picks on defensive players in April's draft, with the team's commitment to an immediate lift on that front highlighted by two uncharacteristic trades up in the first round to select DE Chandler Jones at No. 21, and linebacker Dont'a Hightower at No. 25. A pass defense that was shredded last season is now much healthier and deeper and bound to improve. The New England defense may not be an elite unit, but it does boast some playmakers and is capable of a return to the sort of bend-but-don't break results that are enough, given the team's offensive prowess.
RISING: Look for a committee approach, but Stevan Ridley, a power back, seems best suited among the team's RB current options to lead the pack out of the gate.
DECLINING: Deion Branch caught 51 passes in 15 games last year, but he'll lose looks to Brandon Lloyd and Jabar Gaffney.
SLEEPER: Shane Vereen, drafted ahead of Ridley last April, could prove to be a nice late-round bargain in his second year if he is able stay healthy and carve out a significant role in the Pats' offense.
SUPERSLEEPER: Daniel Fells is an injury to Rob Gronkowski or Aaron Hernandez away from value in deeper leagues.
Jarod Mayo, LB
Slowed by a knee injury last season, but racked up an eye-popping 175 tackles in 2010.
Patrick Chung, S
Managed 62 tackles in just eight games last season, but now presumably healthy.
Dont'a Hightower, LB
Should be productive out of the gate working in tandem
RotoWire Rank: 16