This article is part of our Team Previews series.
New England Patriots
On the heels of advancing to their eighth straight AFC Championship Game, the Patriots will look to match the Steelers' all-time mark of 16 appearances this season. Both teams have won a league-high six Super Bowl crowns, and another New England title would further cement an impressive dynasty.
THREE THINGS TO KNOW
BRADY KEEPS ON TICKING
When New England selected Jimmy Garoppolo 62nd overall in the 2014 draft, it looked like the team had finally settled on a successor for the gracefully aging Tom Brady, who was then 36 years old. It made sense at the time, but as Garoppolo's rookie contract wound down several years later, Brady was still going strong and Jimmy G was subsequently dealt to the 49ers. The Patriots appeared in the two Super Bowls that followed and are among the favorites to win this season's version of the game, so there's no doubt they made the right call. With journeyman Brian Hoyer in the last year of his deal, New England used a fourth-round pick on Jarrett Stidham in April. With no end in sight for Brady, whose rigorous training and nutritional routine have helped him delay the inevitable, it looks like the Patriots can afford to take it slow with Stidham. NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah noted Stidham "spins it as well or better than anybody in (the) entire 2019 draft class." Stidham's arrival could squeeze out 2018 seventh-rounder Danny Etling, and it's possible the Patriots draft another signal-caller as soon as next spring thanks to a boatload of 2020 draft capital. For now, though, Stidham profiles as Brady's heir apparent. Meanwhile, the closest that No. 12 has come to calling it a career arrived in the form of an April Fools' Day tweet.
MICHEL LEADS THE BACKFIELD
Running back didn't seem to be a big need entering the draft, but the Patriots are taking no chances after seeing Sony Michel, Rex Burkhead and Jeremy Hill (currently a free agent) all miss time last season. That situation led to the brief deployment of WR/KR Cordarrelle Patterson (now with Chicago) at the position. Third-round selection Damien Harris was tabbed while intriguing QB and TE options were on the board, thus bolstering a deep and cost-controlled group led by Michel and pass-catching stalwart James White. Meanwhile, the versatile Burkhead, core special-teamer Brandon Bolden and UDFA Nick Brossette round out the unit. From a fantasy perspective, the ever-reliable White continues to possess PPR utility thanks to his steady involvement in the passing attack. When all its key cogs are healthy, however, the New England backfield can often perplex, with weekly variance in carry allotment dictated by game flow and matchup-specific game plans. A solid playoff run that culminated in an 18-94-1 effort in Super Bowl LIII bodes well for Michel's development in his second season. However, if Michel's knee woes flare up again, Harris could quickly excel, given that the 5-11, 215-pounder – who split carries with 2019 first-rounder Josh Jacobs at Alabama last year – also profiles as a physical downhill runner.
CATCHES OF THE DAY
The retirement of tight end Rob Gronkowski leaves a void that can't be replaced by one player, and at wideout uncertainty surrounds the status of the talented, but often unavailable, Josh Gordon. Slot maven Julian Edelman is further removed from the torn ACL he suffered during the 2017 preseason, and he'll be counted on heavily while the team sorts out its evolving receiving corps. Gordon still could factor in, but he's indefinitely suspended by the NFL, with no imminent resolution on tap. Therefore, it's unsurprising the team used its top draft pick to add N'Keal Harry, a big-bodied pass catcher with top-shelf body control. If the rookie can establish any sort of red-zone rapport with Tom Brady, Harry could make an immediate impact. Not to be forgotten is returnee Phillip Dorsett, who was productive last year when the team was shorthanded. Additionally, newcomer Demaryius Thomas has an impressive track record, but he's very much a wild card, considering he's recovering from an Achilles injury. Also fighting to stick around are Dontrelle Inman, Maurice Harris and 2018 sixth-rounder Braxton Berrios. Ben Watson, back for a second stint with the team, joins free-agent addition Matt LaCosse atop the team's tight end depth chart, but Watson will sit out the team's first four games due to a suspension.
PIVOTAL PLAYER: Tom Brady
Though he turns 42 in August, Brady is showing no signs of slowing down as he approaches his 20th NFL season. With six Super Bowl rings already to his credit, he'll look to add to his collection in 2019. Brady is surrounded by a talented, deep and well-coached team, but larger-than-life tight end Rob Gronkowski surely will be missed.
RISING: Matt LaCosse
With Ben Watson set to miss time early on, LaCosse now profiles as the Patriots' top tight end to start the coming season. LaCosse is no Rob Gronkowski, but there's always the chance he'll end up clicking with Tom Brady.
FALLING: Rex Burkhead
The versatile running back had trouble staying on the field the past two years and managed just 3.3 yards per carry in 2018. Now that Damien Harris is on board, Burkhead's path to touches is muddled.
SLEEPER: Damien Harris
Harris' initial upside is modest, but the rookie could make a big splash if injuries lead to him heading the team's backfield at any point this season. He's well-equipped for the job after his stint with the Crimson Tide.
KEY JOB BATTLE – PASS-CATCHING TIGHT END
Matt LaCosse was an unheralded free agent signee back in March, but events since then – starting with Rob Gronkowski's retirement – have put him in line to have a key role in the New England offense to start the coming season. With Austin Seferian-Jenkins having been released in June and Ben Watson slated to serve a four-game suspension before commencing his second stint in New England, the 6-6, 255-pound LaCosse is currently on track to work as the team's Week 1 starter at tight end. It's still conceivable the Patriots could bolster the position down the road, but as training camp approaches, LaCosse has some early-season appeal in deeper fantasy formats. In the past, quarterback Tom Brady has gotten a degree of red-zone mileage out of tight ends of a lesser pedigree than Gronkowski. For that reason alone, LaCosse profiles as a streaming option off the bat. Once Watson returns, Brady will have another familiar face to throw to, which is great for the team's pass-catching depth, but a scenario that sets up a potential fantasy-draining committee arrangement that will be nothing like the days of plugging and playing the elite Gronkowski at TE.
N'KEAL HARRY – WR (Rd. 1, No. 32 – Arizona State)
The first wideout selected by the Patriots in Round 1 since 1996.
DAMIEN HARRIS – RB (Rd. 3, No. 87 – Alabama)
Adds depth and power to a balanced ground attack.
MATT LaCOSSE – TE (from Broncos)
The opportunity is there, but Rob Gronkowski is a tough act to follow.
DEMARYIUS THOMAS – WR (from Texans)
Will be eased in after suffering a torn Achilles in December.
BEN WATSON – TE (from Saints)
Adds TE depth and experience, but set to serve a four-game suspension.
ROB GRONKOWSKI – TE (retired)
Red-zone prowess and fierce blocking will be difficult to replace.
TREY FLOWERS – DE (to Lions)
Leaves a pass-rushing void after getting $90 million from the Lions.
CHRIS HOGAN – WR (to Panthers)
Didn't seize on early-season opportunities in his third year with the team.
THE INJURY FRONT
Sony Michel, RB – Michel missed the final portion of the Patriots' offseason program after undergoing a knee scope. The second-year pro's mounting history of knee injuries has contributed to speculation about rookie third-round pick Damien Harris stealing carries or even the lead role. Still, it sounds like Michel will be healthy enough to defend his workload once he completes his stint on the PUP list. He's now dealt with knee injuries three consecutive years, including two separate issues that led to missed games last season.
Julian Edelman, WR – In the days leading up to training camp, it was announced that Edelman was expected to miss approximately three weeks with a thumb injury. While that's not an optimal development, the relatively short timetable implies that he'll be past the issue before the start of the regular season. The PPR stalwart's looming absence from the early portion of camp paves the way for rookie N'Keal Harry to see added first-team practice reps this summer, while Phillip Dorsett, Maurice Harris, Dontrelle Inman and Braxton Berrios will have an opportunity to jostle for depth slotting during the period Edelman is sidelined.
Demaryius Thomas, WR – Thomas is bouncing back from the second Achilles injury of his career, which occurred last December. After suffering a torn right Achilles tendon back in February 2011, he went on to play 11 games during the ensuing campaign and then rounded into Pro-Bowl form in 2012. This time around, Thomas is recovering from a left Achilles tear, an injury that has the potential to sap pro athletes of speed and explosiveness, especially later in their careers. With that in mind, it wouldn't surprise us to see the veteran wideout eased into the offense when healthy, and it's quite possible the 31-year-old opens the season on the PUP list.