The Patriots, in all likelihood, will open the 2013 season without their five leading receivers from last year's team.
Four of them are definitely gone, either because New England let 'em walk in free agency (Welker, Lloyd, Woodhead), or because they probably killed a guy (Hernandez). Rob Gronkowski's opening week status is currently unknown, but he's clearly a candidate for the reserve/PUP list while recovering from multiple surgeries (back, forearm).
So this essentially leaves Tom Brady with an entirely new cast of receivers. Brady has been an unreasonably great fantasy weapon over the past six years, but he's never entered a season surrounded by so many unproven and/or undrafted skill players. Let's review a few of the new names...
• Danny Amendola. We begin with a player who's familiar to every fantasy owner. Amendola is, in certain ways, a Welker replicant — both are smallish undrafted slot receivers from Texas Tech. Both also have a knack for getting themselves open immediately, after the snap. But Amendola has been a remarkably injury-prone player over his four NFL seasons, while Welker has been remarkably durable. There's little question that if Danny receives Wes' old workload — and that certainly seems likely — he should finish with something like 110-125 receptions this season. Whether he can absorb 100-plus hits without shattering isn't yet known.
Welker has actually led the NFL in drops in two of the past three seasons — 15 in 2012, 13 in 2011, 13 in 2010 — so I can't argue that he's the perfect slot guy. But his ability to play through injuries (and to play productively) is a rare thing, appreciated by the fantasy community. Let's just hope Amendola can give us 13-15 games this season. If so, he'll give us a tremendous year; he shouldn't fall beyond Round 3 in full-PPR formats. Julian Edelman should get interesting if/when Amendola gets dinged, but probably not before.
• Kenbrell Thompkins. Nope, he's not a familiar name, and he wasn't an exceptionally productive collegiate receiver at Cincinnati, but this undrafted rookie is suddenly America's new favorite fantasy sleeper. Thompkins had a productive preseason opener for the Pats (4 REC), he's been making plays throughout camp according to all accounts. The kid doesn't have exceptional size (6-1) or speed (4.54), but he clearly has Brady's attention and he seems to have grasped this team's graduate-level route concepts. Thompkins went in Round 9 of the recently completed Friends & Family draft (14 teams, PPR), so the buzz is building.
• Aaron Dobson. New England spent a second-round draft pick on Dobson, a player with size (6-3, 200), speed (4.42) and strong hands. He's earned favorable reviews for his camp work in recent days, so let's not assume that Thompkins has pulled far ahead here. Still, it would be a small surprise if Dobson emerged as an every-week fantasy play; there are no sure-things in this receiving corps, other than Amendola.
• Josh Boyce. Yet another rookie. Boyce was a fourth-rounder out of TCU, and he was a more productive collegiate receiver than either Thompkins or Dobson (Stats here.) He's agile, he's strong, he's quick (4.38), and he's seeing time with the first-team. Thompkins and Dobson have received the most sleeper hype thus far, but Boyce could work his way into the rotation, too.
• Zach Sudfeld. That's right, another rookie, also undrafted. Sudfeld has been by far the buzziest tight end in Patriots camp, working with the varsity offense, playing the flex role. I can't think of many instances in fantasy history where we've recommended that you handcuff a tight end (maybe Cooley and Davis?), but this could be a reasonable plan with Gronk and Sudfeld.
Here's some muted Sudfeld praise, from Coach Belichick himself:
“Zach has come in and absorbed a lot of information,” said Patriots coach Bill Belichick. “The offense that he played in in Nevada is quite a bit different than what we do — I’m sure there are some similarities, but there are quite a few differences as well. He’s been able to acclimate to those changes. He catches the ball well.”
Sudfeld is a gigantic target (6-7, 250), and he's surged past Jake Ballard and Daniel Fells in terms of fantasy potential. He has a worrisome injury history (six surgeries in college), but he's healthy as of this writing. It seems entirely possible that he'll retain some value when Gronkowski returns, whenever that happens.
(And by the way, I fully endorse Gronk as a fifth rounder, selected near his current Yahoo! ADP. The key thing to remember with any injured or suspended star is that fantasy football is a head-to-head game, where the final weeks of the season are substantially more important than the early weeks. Drafting Gronk doesn't mean that you'll carry a zero in the tight end spot in September; it simply means you'll need to find a placeholder at a very deep position. Plan accordingly. Gronkowski's career is off to a historically great start, so he's worth the inconvenience.)
It's impressive that the Patriots have identified so many first-year receivers who appear capable of functioning within this notoriously complex passing attack. Over the years, plenty of big-name veterans have failed to stick in New England. This offense involves so many reads, so many if/then's, that it can be difficult for any inexperienced receiver to thrive. And of course it's one thing to understand the concepts, and quite another to play fast while executing them.
As Brady recently put it, "It’s hard to exist in this program if you’re not a smart player." But when you are a smart player, and you're reading the field in sync with the quarterback, there are plenty of fantasy goodies available in New England.
Shane Vereen should be a key piece of this passing attack as well, filling not only the Woodhead role, but lining up all over the field. If you caught the Vereen show in the postseason last year — 124 total yards, 3 TDs vs. Houston — then you don't need to be convinced of his fantasy potential. It's clear enough that he's a player worth targeting early in PPR leagues; don't be surprised if he finishes with 65-plus catches and gains 1000 scrimmage yards. This is a versatile back with a terrific opportunity, tied to a Hall of Fame QB.
Stevan Ridley remains the primary ball-carrier in New England, and he's coming off a stellar sophomore season. Ridley rushed for 1263 yards on 290 carries (4.4 YPC) and he broke the plane a dozen times. He's had almost no role in the passing game (six receptions on 14 targets), so PPR owners should value him as they did Michael Turner, back when he was fantasy relevant. Ridley isn't the flashiest back, nor the fastest, but he's a better-than-capable runner with a featured role in a great offense. Here's a preseason highlight that sorta sums him up. (Note: Ridley punctuated that drive with a 1-yard touchdown. Eight of his 12 TDs last season came on runs of three yards or less.) LeGarrette Blount and Brandon Bolden are battling for handcuff status, and not much more.
I've read a few times this summer, from various analysts, that perhaps the Patriots will go more run-heavy in 2013, given the team's relative lack of experience at receiver. But I don't think enough people realize how run-heavy this team was last season, while Brady was throwing for 4827 yards and 34 TDs. The Pats actually ranked second in the NFL in total run attempts (523), finishing just 13 carries short of Seattle and four ahead of Washington. The fact is, New England simply runs a dizzying number of total plays. This team led the league in plays-per-game last season (74.3), as well as yards-per-drive (39.3) and points-per-drive (2.8). It's a Nintendo offense, essentially, both run-heavy and pass-heavy. It's just heavy, period. Full of yards and points.
So that brings us back to Tom Brady.
(ALERT: Naturally, minutes after this Juggernaut entry was posted, Brady tweaked his left knee in practice, freaking out everyone. The early word is that it's a sprain, and nothing more serious. MRI negative, says Schefter. But before we knew Brady was OK ... well, wow. This story involved fuzzy fan-shot video, a helicopter, and a rogue economist. Definitely a top-five all-time non-injury, you guys.)
Within the fantasy expert community, you'll find a wide range of opinions on Brady — he ranks as high as QB2 on some boards, and as low as QB14 (per Fantasy Pros). My personal feeling is that there's zero chance slip back to his 2002-2006 level of production, despite the crazy turnover in his receiving corps. He's become a master of his craft, his team plays at a furious pace, and there are still enough weapons hanging around to stress a defense. Also, Brady has pretty much eliminated negative plays from his team's offense; he's posted the NFL's lowest interception percentage in two of the last three seasons. He's the No. 6 quarterback in my ranks at this moment, and it's awfully tempting to bump him into the top-5 (ahead of Ryan, just below Cam). I certainly wouldn't bet against a fourth-straight 30-touchdown season.
New England's defense was one of just two in the league to record 20-plus interceptions and 20-plus fumble recoveries last season (Chicago being the other), so this group was obviously a useful fantasy entity. (And no, those turnovers were not all on Mark Sanchez.) With a friendly division schedule ahead, it's tough not to like this D/ST again in 2013. The Pats will get Buffalo and the Jets in the opening weeks, so you can expect this unit to rank as a must-start. IDP owners, the names to know from this D are LB Jerod Mayo (146 tackles, 4 FFum), DB Devin McCourty (82 tackles, 5 INTs), DE Rob Ninkovich (58 tackles, 8.0 sacks, 5 FFum) and second-year DE Chandler Jones (45 tackles, 6.0 sacks).
And that's the Pats. Twenty-two down, ten to go.
2012 team stats: 34.8 points per game (1), 302.8 passing yards per game (4), 136.5 rushing yards per game (7)
Previous Juggernauts: 32. NY Jets, 31. Oakland, 30. Jacksonville, 29. Buffalo, 28. Cleveland, 27. Tennessee, 26. San Diego, 25. Miami, 24. St. Louis, 23. Pittsburgh, 22. Arizona, 21. Minnesota, 20. Kansas City, 19. Chicago, 18. Baltimore, 17. Philadelphia, 16. Indianapolis, 15. Carolina, 14. Cincinnati, 13. NY Giants, 12. Detroit