As always, the first and most important thing to understand about the New England Patriots is that the team is not in the business of helping fantasy owners. This is true of every NFL franchise, of course, but New England is uncommonly difficult. Bill Belichick's press conferences are weapons-grade boring, loaded with robotic non-answers. Every player is questionable, always. No one has scoop on this team. Nobody.
Complicating matters further, when you look at the Pats roster you'll see no fewer than seven skill players who are clear candidates to catch 40-50 passes or more. You'll also find at least three running backs who might share the backfield touches, forming a nightmare committee.
So despite the fact that New England has consistently delivered top-five offenses throughout the Tom Brady era, this team has a spin-the-wheel vibe. There's a very good chance we'll be chasing a different Patriots receiver each week, and touting new ball-carriers. Because, again, the Pats aren't trying to make life easy for the fantasy community. This team isn't shooting for predictability.
But at least New England operates at an extreme pace, typically ranking at or near the top of the league in total plays per game (70.4 in 2013). Without question, the offense is a fantasy buffet. However, I can identify only one truly safe investment (pictured right).
Tom Brady is clearly on the short list of the greatest quarterbacks in league history. He's one of only two passers to ever reach the 50-TD plateau in a single-season, and one of just five to exceed 5000 yards. Brady is a nine-time Pro-Bowler, a two-time league MVP, two-time Super Bowl MVP, and he's the all-time NFL leader in postseason wins among quarterbacks. He's finished as a top-three fantasy QB in four different seasons, most recently in 2012. Over the past five years, he's thrown 162 touchdown passes and just 48 interceptions while leading his team to a 61-19 record.
He's good, this Brady character. He passed for 4343 yards and 25 touchdowns last season, in a year that disappointed most fantasy owners. There's little question that he's a guy with top-five upside at a third-tier price (ADP 79.4). Remember, Brady's receiving corps was an unfamiliar group in 2013, beset by injuries. Only one of New England's top six pass-catchers appeared in more than 12 games last season. Continuity and good health can take a team a long way in the NFL, especially when a Hall of Fame-caliber quarterback is at the controls of the offense.
Unfortunately, the most dangerous receiving weapon on the Pats' roster is less than eight months removed from ACL/MCL surgery. Rob Gronkowski is going through 11-on-11 drills and talking a good game...
TE Rob Gronkowski says his plan remains to play the full 16-game regular season. No setbacks, he says.
— Mike Reiss (@MikeReiss) August 18, 2014
...but it's unrealistic to expect an Adrian Peterson-style recovery here. Or for anyone, really. Peterson remains an extreme outlier in the history of ACL rehab stories, at least among skill players who rely on explosion and cutting. The league is full of guys who are still working to regain pre-injury form, long after surgery. (Think of Manningham and Britt and RG3. Worst case, think Mendenhall and Hightower.)
Within the past month, Gronk himself has said that he's not yet 100 percent, so you can't draft him as if a 1200-yard, 12-TD season is a given. The best we can hope for — and this is a rosy scenario — is that he can be something close to vintage Gronk by the final weeks of the season. Those are the money weeks for fantasy owners anyway, when you'll really need your stars to play like stars. I'm not drafting Gronk in the second or third rounds, like most of you seem willing to do, because I don't like to place big bets on the least likely outcomes. But that's me. Let's simply hope you can deal with something like a 75-800-8 season from Gronk, which would be tremendous considering his recovery timeline.
Julian Edelman is the surest thing in this team's receiving corps, the one wideout who managed to play a full 16-game season in 2013. Edelman has been ridiculously versatile and selfless for the Pats over the course of his career, lining up anywhere, returning punts and kickoffs, running the ball, parking cars, assisting the cheer squad — whatever needs doing, he does it. He erupted last season, catching a team-high 105 passes for 1056 yards on 151 targets, finding the end-zone six times. No one should expect him to duplicate that level of performance in 2014 — not if the other receivers on this roster remain healthy-ish — but he'll be on the field constantly for this team, in nearly all formations. He can shed 30 targets and still deliver a quality season, particularly in PPR.
Beyond Edelman we find a pile-up of talented receivers, some of them clear injury risks. Danny Amendola missed four games last season, five the year before and 15 in 2011. Aaron Dobson flashed talent as a rookie, but he's still working his way back from March foot surgery. Kenbrell Thompkins has become a legend of spring and summer football, and both Brady and Belichick have praised him during the offseason. Brandon LaFell is now in the mix as well, still making the not-so-simple adjustment to life with the Patriots. This team certainly has depth at receiver, if not stars. Try to limit yourself to one Pats late-round WR lottery ticket per league. For me, it's generally Dobson or Thompkins, and I'm hoping for a second-year leap.
New England's running backs, collectively, have been a productive group. This team ranked ninth in the league in rushing last season, averaging 129.1 yards per game and 4.4 per carry. But individually, the Patriots backs weren't exactly fantasy beasts (unless you owned LeGarrette Blount in a postseason league. That guy feasted, but he's now in Pittsburgh.) No member of this team's backfield committee cracked the top-25 running backs last season. Stevan Ridley is the presumptive starter, but he remains one of the more frustrating, fumbly players in the game — he's already put the ball on the ground in the preseason. At some point, the recurring ball security issues may make Ridley unplayable for the Pats; this is the team that kicked Laurence Maroney to the curb for similar reasons, you'll recall. Consider Ridley a shaky committee head, with significant upside and downside. He seems appropriately priced as RB28 in Yahoo leagues, with an ADP on the fringe of the top-100.
Shane Vereen is the safer fantasy bet with a more certain role, a versatile back made for PPR formats. If Ridley is ever exiled, Vereen would become a coveted asset in our game. For now, he looks like a guy in line for 900-1000 scrimmage yards, most of them via the air. Fourth-round rookie James White is the sleeper in this backfield, and he's coming off a huge collegiate season at Wisconsin (1444 rush, 6.5 YPC, 15 TDs, 39 REC). He was a buzzy player in camp, though he hasn't yet made much noise in preseason action. Still, he has a clear opportunity to emerge as a useful fantasy commodity, considering his competition for touches. White has been a target of mine in dynasty formats, so he receives a full endorsement as an end-game flier in standard drafts.
The Patriots defense has a history of ranking among the NFL's best in points-allowed, but they've been average-to-poor in terms of yardage. It's a fantasy-friendly approach for sure, rich in takeaways and sacks. It's certainly a D/ST worth drafting, ranked top-10 in the Yahoo analyst consensus. Darrelle Revis makes this group an intimidating matchup for QBs and receivers, and the team is stacked with useful IDPs — notably Chandler Jones, Jerod Mayo and Rob Ninkovich.
The Pats, once again, are an obvious Super Bowl contender. I don't think the Giants are gonna stand in the way this time.
2013 team stats: 27.8 PPG (NFL rank 3), 271.4 pass YPG (10), 25 pass TDs (13), 129.1 rush YPG (9), 29.4 rush attempts per game (9), 39.3 pass attempts per game (7)
Previous Juggernaut Index entries: 32. Oakland, 31. Miami, 30. Jacksonville, 29. NY Jets, 28. Tennessee, 27. Cleveland, 26. Baltimore, 25. Carolina, 24. Buffalo, 23. Tampa Bay, 22. St. Louis, 21. NY Giants, 20. Kansas City, 19. Houston, 18. Arizona, 17. Minnesota, 16. Pittsburgh, 15. San Diego, 14. San Francisco, 13. Atlanta, 12. Cincinnati, 11. Washington