New England Patriots Fantasy Football Preview: When things change and also stay the same

Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

The Patriots offense will have a lot of new names in skill positions in 2013, but will New England be just as productive as ever or has the window of "Brady and Belichick" begun to close?

Last season the Patriots scored 557 points -- most in the NFL -- and only 32 fewer points than what they scored during their 16-0 season in 2007 when it seemed like Tom Brady was under presidential order to throw at least four touchdowns per game. It also just so happened that the following year would see Brady be lost for the season after only 11 pass attempts, and the Patriots slipped to eighth in scoring and missed the playoffs for the first time since 2002.

How is New England going to bounce back from its major losses this time?

It was only two seasons ago that the Patriots revolutionized NFL offenses with their tight end tandem of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, while Wes Welker averaged 112 catches per season in his New England career. However, in Week 1 of this season, they will definitely be without Welker and Hernandez, and could very well be without Gronkowski for an extended period of time.

Also gone are second-leading receiver Brandon Lloyd and fifth-leading receiver Danny Woodhead. It's possible that the leading returning receiver for New England in Week 1 is Julian Edelman and his 235 yards from a year ago, but even Edelman carries an injury risk and might have slipped far down the depth chart. That could leave tight end Michael Hoomanawanui (109 yards) as the leading receiver, and he's not guaranteed a roster spot either.

Is even a 13-year veteran like Brady expected to recognize any of his teammates?

Bill Belichick is in the Hall of Fame as soon as he's eligible, but perhaps the 2013 season will be his biggest test yet as a head coach. The Patriots are expected to turn just about anyone into a Pro Bowl player and fantasy stud when given the opportunity, but is it going to be that way again this season amid the turmoil? And what round are you drafting Tim Tebow in as a "funny joke"?

Let's take a look at the fantasy prospects for perhaps the most interesting 2013 NFL storyline.

Quarterback

Tom Brady, 36

2012 stats: 401-of-637, 63%, 4,827 yards, 34 touchdowns, eight interceptions, 7.6 yards per attempt, 77.05 QBR, two fumbles, 1st in DYAR (Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement)

There were a lot of great QB performances last year, but nearly every metric could still support that Brady is the best. And if Brady is expected to turn water into wine (or is that Tebow?) this year, it wouldn't be the first time that he excelled under bad circumstances.

Gronk missed five games last year, Hernandez missed six, Lloyd was disappointing as the "Randy Moss replacement" and still Brady put up another ridiculous season. Over his last five full seasons, Brady has thrown 187 touchdowns and just 45 interceptions with a QB Rating of 105.4. I mean, 45 interceptions is just another day at the office for Mark Sanchez.

Brady will make the personnel around him better, or at the very least he will do the best he can for himself (and you). Sure, you can't go wrong with someone younger like Aaron Rodgers or someone with better personnel like Peyton Manning, but Brady isn't going to break down at 36. There's a few more years left in this arm, since a lot of the work is still done with the Patriots' brain trust.

2013 Prediction: 63.5%, 4,300 yards, 33 touchdowns, nine interceptions

Backups:

Ryan Mallett

In the event of an emergency, it's still possible that Mallett could have a "Matt Cassel-like" run for the Patriots. They wouldn't ask him to do as much as Brady, and he was once regarded as one of the best teenage quarterbacks in the country.

Running Backs

Stevan Ridley, 24

2012 stats: 290 carries for 1,263 yards and 12 touchdowns, 4.4 yards per carry, 51 receiving yards and no touchdowns, 8th in DYAR, 55% success rate (4th), four fumbles

You could make a solid argument for Ridley as a first-round pick and a solid argument against it. His numbers last season suggest that perhaps he's going to be a regular 1,000-1,500 yard back for the next six seasons. With all the receiving options gone, it's also likely that the Patriots will lean heavier on the backs as well. So could Ridley run for 1,500 yards and 15 touchdowns? Yes, but there are concerns.

He's had fumbling issues and they have continued in the offseason. He came into camp bulkier. He's going to have to share with Shane Vereen, especially since Ridley is not an experienced receiver and the Patriots will likely be looking for more of that from their backs this season.

If your heart tells you that Ridley can do the Corey Dillon thing in New England, then go forth, young man, and draft him early. If not and you think this is going to be a crowded house party, then you must pass.

My feeling is that Belichick is going to stick with the proven guy and won't be shy to give him 300 carries this season, though maybe you see him and Vereen on the field at the same time a lot more than usual.

2013 Prediction: 300 carries, 1,300 yards, 10 touchdowns

Shane Vereen, 24

2012 stats: 62 carries for 251 yards and three touchdowns, 4.0 yards per carry, 149 receiving yards and one touchdown, no fumbles

The run on running backs starting near the end of the second round in the 2011 NFL draft started with Vereen and ended with Ridley, but it's been the latter who's taken the biggest step forward thus far in his career. That doesn't mean that Vereen isn't still a talented prospect or that he won't have an impact this year.

It's likely that Vereen will line up outside even more often this season and could see a higher number of targets than the average back, plus a significant number of carries for a backup. And if Ridley doesn't fix his fumbling issues, that's pretty much the quickest way to the doghouse that there is in this sport. Vereen's numbers prediction is about as "opportunity-dependent" as there is in the league. Will his good buddy Stevan give him a chance?

2013 Prediction: 90 carries for 375 yards, five touchdowns, 250 receiving yards, two touchdowns

Brandon Bolden, 23

2012 stats: 56 carries for 274 yards and 2 touchdowns, 4.9 yards per carry

And if that wasn't confusing enough, remember when Bolden ran for 137 yards against the Bills last year as an undrafted rookie free agent? Unfortunately for Bolden, he has a bad injury history with his ankle and was also suspended last year for violating the league's substance-abuse policy.

His roster spot is not guaranteed and he should be clearly behind the other two until further notice. However, as seen last year, it only takes one opportunity for a guy like Bolden to have a very big impact.

LeGarrette Blount, 26

2012 stats: 41 carries for 151 yards and two touchdowns, 3.7 YPC

Wide Receivers

Danny Amendola, 27

2012 stats: 11 games, 63 catches for 666 yards and three touchdowns, 62% catch rate on 101 targets, 64th in DYAR

Going into last year, I had a feeling that the Patriots would let Welker walk after the year and replace him with a similar but younger player like Amendola or maybe Brian Hartline of the Dolphins. I mean, it's basically exactly what they did with Welker after he was done with Miami himself. Sure enough, Amendola has an opportunity to completely change the path of his NFL career and put a real mark on the league like Welker has.

Of course, that heavily depends on Amendola staying healthy this year and also that the Patriots offense isn't entirely different with the absence of so many familiar and proven faces. Can he catch 120 passes on an offense that at the moment features a pile of receivers that are either unproven or proven to underwhelm?

Who do you need to cover besides Amendola and a healthy Gronkowski? Not to mention the fact that New England is relying on the health of Amendola and Gronkowski!

I really don't yet know what to make of most of the following names, but I've been pretty confident that when healthy, Amendola is very hard to stop. Remember: This is a guy who was productive on the Rams offense.

2013 Prediction: 14 games, 95 catches for 1,100 yards and nine touchdowns

Kenbrell Thompkins, 25

Rookie, UDFA out of Cincinnati

Thompkins brings a very interesting story as an undrafted free agent  who was arrested seven times as a teen and had to turn his life around just to get to Cincinnati and have the opportunity that he has right now. He's done nothing but turn his life around over the past several years and is one to root for. He also might be the best receiver on the field right now and could shock everyone by starting opposite of Amendola when the season starts.

2013 Prediction: 65 catches for 800 yards and 4 touchdowns

Aaron Dobson, 22

Rookie, 59th overall pick out of Marshall. 6'3, 210 lbs, 57 catches for 679 yards and three touchdowns in 2012, 4.43 40-yard dash

Among all the unknowns entering the season at wide receiver, Dobson was initially getting the most praise and expected to be among the highest drafted rookies in fantasy football. Instead, Kenbrell Thompkins quickly surpassed him on the depth chart. Danny Amendola's always questionable health could open the door for Dobson, but for now he is a notch below Thompkins. Well, that and Thompkins struggling, as rookie receivers often do.

Josh Boyce, 22

Rookie, 102nd overall pick out of TCU. 5'11, 206 lbs, 66 catches for 891 yards and 7 touchdowns in 2012, 4.38 40-yard dash

Boyce is the other rookie and probably the one player in this group who interests you the most because at this point he's a blank slate. Is he going to fill up that slate with 1,000-yard seasons and evites to Brady and Giselle's get-togethers or be another forgotten fourth-round pick?

Julian Edelman, 27

2012 stats: 21 catches for 235 yards and 3 touchdowns

So the other parts of the wide receiver pile are basically the "and the rest ..." of this Gilligan's Island of players that have a great opportunity but haven't done much up to this point in their careers.

The Patriots have already cleaned house considerably by releasing Donald Jones, Michael Jenkins and Lavelle Hawkins. Edelman has the most significant NFL experience remaining, but it would be surprising at this point to see him become a fantasy stud. Matthew Slater is also still around.

But the Pats rarely go deeper than two when it comes to "wide receivers worth owning" and therefore, I couldn't recommend drafting anyone after Amendola and Thompkins, although Dobson has some upside.

Tight Ends

Rob Gronkowski, 24

2012 stats: 11 games, 55 catches for 790 yards and 11 touchdowns, 69% catch rate on 80 targets, 1st in DYAR, one fumble

Even with missing five games, Gronkowski finished first in Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement for the tight end position. He is the best tight end in football and he probably will be for a while, but his injuries are absolutely a concern. Every year there's a player who's hurt that you draft anyway because you "know" he will be just fine and sometimes that player is Peyton Manning and he misses the whole year.

Sometimes, it's absolutely fine.

Most likely Gronkowski will be a "worry watcher" that you watch for the first few weeks of the season and worry that he won't play and then he won't until he does. Assume a few weeks out, but that doesn't mean he won't carry you in the second half of the season.

2013 Prediction: 12 games, 60 catches, 800 yards, 10 touchdowns

Zach Sudfeld, 24

The undrafted free agent out of Nevada has made a lot of commotion in camp as a player who could not only make the 53-man roster, but might be the best pass-catching tight end who's healthy for the Patriots right now. For a 6'7 player on New England, that's something that you have to pay attention to.

Michael Hoomanawanui, 25

Also here, not likely to contribute enough on offense to matter to your fantasy team. Sadly, they gave up on the idea of Tebow as a tight end. Of course, why would you tinker with a playoff-winning QB?

Team Defense

Believe it or not, if the Patriots offense did struggle following all of the changes at the skill position, the team could still rely on its defense. New England finished ninth in scoring defense (it's finished in the top 10 in eight of the last 10 years) and second in turnovers forced.

The defense returned six of those turnovers for touchdowns.

The Pats also get the benefit of playing six games against the AFC East, none of which are the only team that have a high-powered offense in the East: That is, they don't have to play the Patriots.

New England had a really good run defense in 2012, but it's looking to upgrade a pass defense that finished 29th in passing yards allowed and gave up 27 touchdown passes. The defense added safety Adrian Wilson in free agency plus cornerback Logan Ryan and safety Duron Harmon in the third round of the draft. The Patriots also hope that corner Aqib Talib can get on sound footing with a full year on the team.

Not a lot of people will be focusing on the Pats team defense in the draft this year, and that could make it an excellent sleeper in that category. Especially if New England moves Tebow to literally any position on defense because he's the best.

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