State of the Franchise
The Patriots finished the 2012 season with a 12–4 record to win the AFC East for the fourth season in a row, while earning a first-round bye as one of the AFC's top two seeds for the third straight year. En route, the team led the NFL with 557 points, the third-highest mark in NFL history. It was a strong campaign by most standards, but not when measured against the success the team enjoyed between the 2001 and 2004 campaigns, a span that saw the franchise capture three Super Bowl titles.
In diagnosing the team's failure to go all the way in 2012, it would be easy to point the finger at a defense that allowed 271.4 passing yards per game (29th in the NFL) and 27 TDs in the air, but interestingly, the most striking change engineered by the Patriots this past offseason was a total makeover of a receiving corps following a season in which the team's offense finished first in the NFL with 427.9 yards per game and fourth in passing yards (291.4). Starting wideouts Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd have since departed, replaced by Danny Amendola and a mixed bag of newcomers.
The Patriots are obviously banking on Amendola becoming the next prolific wideout in a system that saw Welker average 112 catches over his six years with the team. Moreover, the team is challenging QB Tom Brady to gel quickly with a rebuilt receiving corps. Perhaps getting him a little out of his comfort zone was the point of the overhaul. Meanwhile, Brady can no longer rely on the elite TE duo of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, with concerns surrounding Gronkowski's early-season availability and Hernandez having been released by the team following his arrest in late June.
On the ground, the Patriots racked up a league-high 25 rushing touchdowns in 2012 and in spite of the departure of change-of-pace option Danny Woodhead, they figure to maintain a balanced rushing attack this season, led by Stevan Ridley and the emerging Shane Vereen.
The Patriots' defense finished second in the NFL with 41 forced turnovers last season, while leading the NFL with a plus-25 turnover differential, but it's clear that bolstering the team's pass defense is crucial to another Super Bowl run. To that end, the team re-signed CB Aqib Talib, a key midseason acquisition last year, while signing Adrian Wilson to fortify a safety corps that also includes Devin McCourty. While the team didn't make any big splashes to bolster its front seven, the continued development of DE Chandler Jones and LB Dont'a Hightower should help solidify a unit anchored by DT Vince Wilfork, LB Jerod Mayo and DE/LB Rob Ninkovich.
The Patriots continue to boast a strong nucleus, but a Super Bowl run likely hinges on the team's passing game adapting to changes in personnel and the defense tightening up when it counts.
Danny Amendola - WR, Rams
Wes Welker is a tough act to follow, but Amendola could be PPR gold, assuming he stays healthy and builds a rapport with QB Tom Brady.
TIM TEBOW - QB, JETS
Figures to slot behind Ryan Mallett on the QB depth chart, but he does give the team a player to potentially design some interesting plays around.
Donald Jones - WR, Bills
Has plenty of preseason competition, but could emerge as a sleeper if he secures a key role out of the gate.
Aaron Dobson - WR, MARSHALL
(Round 2, 59th overall)
Possesses good size and a reliable set of hands; he could give the team a much-needed perimeter threat.
Josh Boyce - WR, TCU
(Round 4, 102nd overall)
With only Danny Amendola's role cemented, he's a candidate to emerge as a deep threat for the Pats.
LeGarrette Blount - RB, Buccaneers
The 6-0, 247-pounder could revive his career in New England, if he can carve out a short-yardage role with the team.
Wes Welker - WR, Broncos
His outstanding chemistry with Brady was undeniable, but the Patriots must believe that Amendola possesses more upside at this stage.
Brandon Lloyd - WR, FA
Not quite the perfect fit that his reunion last offseason with New England offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels seemed to promise.
LIFE WITHOUT WELKER
Wideouts Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd combined for 192 receptions, 2,265 yards and 10 touchdowns last season, but they are both gone, with the Patriots having effectively rebuilt their receiving corps from scratch. Though Julian Edelman and Matthew Slater are holdovers, they slot in as role players. While former Ram Danny Amendola looks like an ideal fit to replace Welker, he's been limited to 12 games over the past two seasons, so his durability is a concern. Meanwhile, veterans Donald Jones, Michael Jenkins and Lavelle Hawkins will jostle with rookies Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce for positioning on the team's depth chart. On the plus side, Dobson's combo of solid hands and good size could help him emerge as a red zone option out of the gate and Boyce has potential as a deep threat. Outside of Amendola, the team's wideouts have yet to have their roles clearly determined, so this will be a position battle worth closely monitoring as fantasy drafts approach, given the team's prolific Tom Brady-led passing game.
RUNNING WITH IT
While the Patriots' backfield is more often than not known for giving fantasy owners headaches, in real terms the team enters the 2013 season with a group that looks balanced, at least on paper. Stevan Ridley, Brandon Bolden and LeGarrette Blount bring a power element to the table, while Shane Vereen and Leon Washington offer change-of-pace ability. The sturdy Ridley remains the team's top option at running back, following a season that saw him record 1,263 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns. He's not much of a threat as a pass-catcher, so that's where third-year pro Shane Vereen comes in. He'll be counted on to fill the void created by the loss of Danny Woodhead and is bound to help out those in PPR formats. While Blount is not a lock to make the team, he could emerge as a short-yardage specialist if he can hold off Bolden. Meanwhile, Washington figures to make most of his noise as a returner.
CAN GRONK STAY HEALTHY?
At press time, doctors believe that a lingering infection in Gronkowski's forearm has been eradicated, but the tight end isn't in the clear just yet, as back surgery is on tap for him. As a result, Gronkowski's status for the regular season opener could possibly be affected. Either way, while Gronkowski's upcoming back surgery is viewed as minor, it's been a lengthy offseason medical grind for him and as imposing a target as he is, especially in the red zone, he now carries a legitimate buyer-beware label. With Aaron Hernandez no longer with the team, if Gronkowski is slowed out of the gate, fellow TE Jake Ballard, though not especially fleet of foot, could carve out some utility as a pass-catcher.
Rising: Replacing Wes Welker won't be easy, but working with an elite QB like Tom Brady gives Danny Amendola a tremendous opportunity to maximize his potential.
Declining: When healthy, Rob Gronkowski is a formidable talent, but both the start of his season and his effectiveness out of the gate could be delayed by a string of offseason health woes.
Sleeper: While Shane Vereen won't supplant starting RB Stevan Ridley, he'll handle the change-of-pace duties in an offense where that role often produces sneaky fantasy value.
Supersleeper: While most drafters will focus on fellow rookie Aaron Dobson, Josh Boyce has the speed to develop as a nice deep threat for Brady.
Jerod Mayo - LB
Bounced back from a subpar 2011 campaign to re-prove himself as a top IDP option by racking up 146 tackles.
Devin McCourty - S
A mid-season switch from cornerback to free safety helped solidify a leaky secondary that should continue to improve this season.
Rob Ninkovich - DE
Notched 58 tackles, eight sacks and five forced fumbles after switching from linebacker to defensive end.
RotoWire Rank: 8