Over the last decade we’ve been spoiled by the consistently brilliant offensive onslaught coming out of New England. Ever since Tom Brady and Bill Belichick teamed up, they’ve produced big-time results, both on the scoreboard and in the standings. The Patriots have finished as a top eight NFL offense in each of the past six seasons and have made it to five Super Bowls-winning three championships. Brady & Belichick could be the most significant pairing we’ve seen since Ben & Jerry.
Tom Brady, in particular, has been terrific. Ignoring the 2008 season that he essentially missed with a knee injury, Brady has been a top ten fantasy quarterback in every season he’s been the full-time starter. Over the last three years, Brady has compiled a 39-9 record in the regular season, while accumulating 117 total touchdowns versus only 24 interceptions.
But 2013 could be a challenging year for Brady and the Patriots. For the first time in a while, there’s been significant personnel turnover and off-the-field distractions that could prove to derail the significant momentum that the Pats have been able to sustain while running rough shot over the rest of the AFC East.
Part of the reason that the Patriots always seem to have a loaded roster is Bill Belichick’s willingness to roll the dice on players that may be considered too high-risk for most other coaches to take a chance on. Belichick has free reign to solely make these type of decisions, and has not been shy to do so- with varying degrees of success.
Reclamation projects like Corey Dillon, Randy Moss, Wes Welker, Danny Woodhead and Aqib Talib have enjoyed career resurrections with the Patriots. Each of these players had been with a previous club that had either given up on them or had under-utilized their talents. Coach Belichick found a way to put these players in a position that would maximize their talents and they thrived, helping substantiate the aura of Belichick’s brilliance.
But not all of these gambles paid off. The Patriots also took chances on guys like Chad Ochocinco and Albert Haynesworth that ended up being total flops. Not even the brilliant mind of Bill Belichick, a winning history and a strong locker room could help Ochocinco or Haynesworth contribute much of anything in their brief stint with the Pats.
Taking calculated risks with talented players has not been exclusive to veterans. Belichick has also shown he’s not afraid to scoop of college players that may have slipped in the NFL Draft due to off-the-field concerns. The 2010 NFL Draft is a great example of the duality of gambling on talented kids with questionable histories.
Many NFL teams removed Rob Gronkowski entirely from their draft boards due to numerous back injuries suffered while at the University of Arizona. When Gronkowski slipped into round two, the Patriots took a chance that paid off brilliantly. “The Gronk” would go on to set NFL records for most touchdowns and receiving yards for a tight end. The Pats then signed Gronkowski to a huge contract extension and are faced with the very real possibility that not only might Gronkowski not be ready for the start on the 2013 season, he could be suffering from chronic back issues that could plague him for the rest of his career.
Similar to Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez was a talented collegiate tight end that saw his 2010 NFL Draft stock plummet. Hernandez reportedly failed multiple drug test while at the University of Florida, and admitted in pre-draft interviews to marijuana use. Despite the fact that the team had already used a second round draft pick on Gronkowski, the Patriots grabbed the talented but troubled Hernandez in the fourth round.
The gamble appeared to pay off handsomely, as Hernandez joined his teammate as 2011 Pro Bowlers and gave the Patriots a dynamic duo of young superstar tight ends signed to lucrative contract extensions. But the recent police investigation of Hernandez’s involvement in a murder have cast a serious doubt on his future.
Major Offensive Changes
Tight end isn’t the only position that will see potentially significant changes for the Patriots. Long-time Tom Brady security blanket WesWelker signed a free-agent contract with the rival Denver Broncos. Welker led the club in receptions in each of his six season in New England and has long been Brady’s most trusted safety-outlet.
Also gone are the team’s second-leading receiver Brandon Lloyd, veteran wide-out Deion Branch and pass-catching specialist, running back Danny Woodhead. In all, these departed players accounted for 42% of New England’s pass targets in 2012, assuring that major changes are coming for this year’s offense.
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It gets worse if you account for the fact that both starting tight ends’ roles are a major question mark heading into the 2013 season. Taking that into consideration, the Patriots’ top five leading pass-catchers from last year are either no longer with the team, or could be facing a significant amount of time out of the lineup with injuries or potential suspensions.
In short, the leading healthy receiver returning for the Patriots is Julian Edelman, who caught all of 21 passes last year. Gronkowski and Hernandez combined to account for over 26% of the 2012 Patriots’ receiving yardage. The rest of the guys on the roster accounted for a mere 13.2%, or 640 out of 4844 yards.
The Patriots lost a significant number of major contributors, but they also did their due diligence to bring in a new crop of talent, through both the draft and free agency.
Free agent wide-out Danny Amendola was brought in to presumably take over the slot role vacated by Wes Welker. Throughout his career, Amendola has been favorably compared to Welker as a sure-handed, reliable option that can rack up targets and tough catches. But unlike Welker, Amendola has struggled to stay healthy, missing significant time due to injuries in three of his four seasons.
Aaron Dobson is a big (6′ 2 3/4″, 210), athletic rookie receiver drafted with the 59th selection in the second round of the 2013 NFL Draft. Dobson is raw, and has struggled in mini-camps, but is expected to be a downfield threat in the revamped New England offense.
The New York Giants tried to sneak injured tight end Jake Ballard through waivers last year in the hopes of putting him on the injured reserve list to allow him to rehab. At the time that Bill Belichick claimed Ballard on waivers it was questioned by a lot of people-after all the Pats already had two Pro Bowl tight ends in their starting lineup. In retrospect, the move looks quite brilliant now as Ballard appears to be healthy and has looked good in minicamp.
Tom Brady-Brady has been on a dominant roll of late- finishing as a top three fantasy signal-caller in each of the past three seasons. But when you consider all the turmoil and turnover the Patriots are facing, it might be unrealistic to expect a fourth straight top-three finish. As of now, Brady’s ADP is 46.7, as the fourth quarterback off the board. His value is likely to slide further as the Aaron Hernandez situation plays out. If that happens, and Brady is still available in fifth or sixth round of your draft, he represents an excellent value pick for the wise owner that waited to grab their QB.
Rob Gronkowski-Gronkowski has endured four offseason surgeries on his forearm and a more recent surgery on his troublesome back. When you consider the back problems started for Gronkowski back in college, there are some major red flags about his ability to continue to play at an elite level. Short term, there are concerns that Gronk might have to start the season on the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list, meaning he’d miss New England’s first six games, at minimum. Dynasty owners should proceed with caution. Gronkowski’s redraft ADP has dipped to 24.9, but could recover a bit if the back appears to be healing well in July and August. If you miss out on Jimmy Graham as the consensus TE1, the safe approach may be to just let someone else gamble on Gronk’s health and put off the entire tight end position for a good five to six rounds.
Aaron Hernandez-At this point, we may not know how the murder investigation will play out, but what is almost certain is that Hernandez will be facing a significant suspension- even if he is never charged with a crime. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has shown a low tolerance for potentially embarrassing transgressions in the past, even when players were ultimately not charged with a crime. In 2010, Ben Roethlisberger was suspended six games without ever even being arrested. Should Hernandez have conspiracy or murder charges filed against him, then worrying about his role with the 2013 revamped Patriots offense will be the least of his concerns. That’s probably the attitude fantasy football owners should have as well. Best case scenario might be for Hernandez to play 8-10 game this season, but the risk hardly makes him a desirable target.
Stevan Ridley- Perhaps the changes that offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels will implement will involve more carries for Ridley and the other New England backs. But even if that happens, Ridley might not see a significant increase in value. Ridley isn’t much of a pass catcher and has had some fumbling issues. The Patriots also aren’t necessarily certain to feature him exclusively around the goal line either. As long as he can hang onto the ball and stay healthy, Ridley should get the majority of first and second down carries and most of the goal line plunges, meaning he’ll maintain significant fantasy value for a team that routinely scores a lot of rushing touchdowns.
Danny Amendola- The obvious choice to be the main benefactor of a revamped offense due to his aforementioned similarities to the departed Wes Welker. Amendola is a little bigger than Welker, but has the same slot ability and a solid set of hands. He was a PPR beast early on last season in St. Louis. One thing Amendola doesn’t have is the familiarity with Tom Brady, so it might be unrealistic to expect 110 catches in his first season in New England. One positive is that Amendola reportedly looked sharp in minicamp and was a viable threat in his new role. His current ADP is a healthy 62.2, placing him as the 26th receiver off the board. He still looks like a good value at this time, and could easily grab 90 balls for 1100 yards with a half dozen scores.
Shane Vereen- PPR owners should take notice of Vereen, whose ADP sits at 98.3 as the 35th running back off the board. Vereen is a tad faster and more dynamic than Stevan Ridley. He’s also a fluid pass-catcher who is expected to see all those targets vacated by Danny Woodhead when he departed for San Diego. Vereen will also play on most third downs and won’t always come off the field when New England enters the red zone. There’s good reason that Vereen is one of the first back-up running backs being selected in early 2013 drafts and smart fantasy leaguers would be wise to target him as a high-upside RB4.
Aaron Dobson- Dobson is the favorite to replace the X-receiver role that Brandon Lloyd played last season. Dobson made a number of athletic grabs in college and has the physical size and ability to be an intriguing red zone target. He may have some difficulties learning New England’s complex offense, but he does make a decent target as a WR4/5 in deep fantasy leagues.
Jake Ballard- Ballard is an interesting sleeper option for this season. With so much turmoil surrounding New England’s two starting tight ends, there’s a chance that Ballard could see significant playing time right away- if he can fully recover from microfracture surgery on his knee. Ballard showed some nice potential two season’s ago, so if he can ever get close to 100%, he’s worth a look as a late TE2.
Michael Jenkins- We all know about the Patriots being the team that veterans try to latch on with to resurrect a lagging career, but expecting Jenkins to do much of anything is probably too much to ask for. Jenkins has been a disappointment throughout his career and isn’t fast or good enough to be featured on this offense-whatever it may be. He might have lined up with the starters during minicamp, but don’t buy into it. Jenkins should go undrafted.
Leon Washington-Another almost certain-to-be undrafted reclamation project, but unlike Michael Jenkins, there might be something positive here. Washington hasn’t been utilized much as a runner lately, but he’s still shown that break-away speed that made him a dangerous change-of-pace runner and returner for the Jets and Seahawks. Washington could also be a darkhorse candidate to play on third downs in a role similar to Danny Woodhead. At the very least, Washington will be New England’s kick and punt returner and should be good for a couple of special teams scores this season. If you’re in a fantasy league that reward points for return yardage, Washington will be a nice target.
Julian Edelman-Looking for a deep sleeper? Edelman might be your guy. We all assume that Danny Amendola will take over the Wes Welker role, but nothing is certain and Amendola has been far from the most healthy guy out there. When given a chance, Edelman showed some nice ability last season. He had a two game stretch where he hauled in seven grabs on 10 targets, with 122 yards and a score in each game. Edelman also rushed twice for 50 additional yards in those two games, before he himself was lost for the season with an injury. Edelman’s ADP is currently at 229.9, meaning he’s going undrafted in most leagues. If you’re in a deep league, he’s worth a late round flier as a low risk/high reward player.
Tim Tebow-Can Belichick do it again? Can he take a player that nobody else wanted and prove his brilliance by turning that player into a significant contributor? Only time will tell. What we do know is that Tebow isn’t likely to be taking too many snaps under center- nobody would send one of the game’s best quarterback’s to the sidelines to give one of the game’s least accurate some valuable plays. But Tebow will be reunited with Josh McDaniels, who somehow found a way to utilize Tebow’s wild inaccuracy and unorthodox delivery into a division title and playoff victory just two years ago. Nobody denies that Tim Tebow is a tremendous athlete, great leader and a wonderful teammate. Should he even make the 2013 ne England 53 man roster, there’s a real possibility that Belichick and McDaniels will find ways to get Tebow onto the field and that means there’s the potential he could make a fantasy impact- as a zone-read option, runner or even as a pass catcher. Don’t be shocked if Bill Belichick doesn’t try to rub it in to his former team, the New York Jets, by taking the player they didn’t want or use, and putting him into a game to score a couple of touchdowns.
Co-owner and Managing Editor of Gridiron Experts. 2012 FantasyPros Most Accurate Fantasy Expert. Member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association. 26 year fantasy football veteran. Featured on NFL.com, Fantasypros, Football Diehards annual magazine, local AM sports radio, podcasts everywhere and SiriusXM Fantasy Sports Radio. Once scored 4 touchdowns in a single game for Polk High School.