Fantasy football impact: Can the Patriots' skill players rebound?

Jared Wickerham

While the Patriots were successful in 2013, fantasy owners didn't have as much to celebrate as they have in the past. The team hopes to improve on that in 2014. We break down the fantasy implications.

There was a fun tweet going around among the baseball sabermetricians last year. The Arizona Diamondbacks went 81-81 in 2012, retooled their roster to get "grittier" (whatever that means) and then in 2013 they went ... 81-81. The stat-minded folk, who have little tolerance for intangibles, pointed out that those results give us an approximate statistical weight of "grit." It adds ... zero wins.

In 2012, the New England Patriots went 12-4. Just about everything that could wrong for the team heading toward the next season, did. The Aaron Hernandez thing happened, of course, but so did Wes Welker's departure, along with Danny Woodhead and Brandon Lloyd. Jerod Mayo, Vince Wilfork, Sebastian Vollmer and Rob Gronkowski all hit injured reserve, as did Shane Vereen, though he returned later. Free-agent acquisition (and nominal Welker replacement) Danny Amendola was a bust, and Tom Brady had perhaps the worst season of his career.

And in 2013, the Patriots went ... 12-4. Bill Belichick deserves a whole new level of respect, I guess.

Okay, I'm going to try to stop Bill Simmons-ing now. It's true, though. In 2012, the Pats had eight skill players finish in the top 50 at their position in fantasy scoring, with five in the top 20. In 2013, that fell to six in the top 50 and three in the top 20. And one of those top-20 finishers was Gronk, who made the list after just seven games because he plays a weak position.

Chart!

(Players in the top 50 at their position in fantasy scoring)
Player Position 2012 2013
Tom Brady QB 2 13
LeGarrette Blount RB 27
Stevan Ridley RB 9 29
Shane Vereen RB 49 42
Danny Woodhead RB 27
Julian Edelman WR 18
Brandon Lloyd WR 28
Wes Welker WR 12
Rob Gronkowski TE 2 14
Aaron Hernandez TE 16

Basically, fewer guys were successful, and the ones who were were less so.

The credit for the team's success couldn't even be put on the defense -- the Pats' D/ST fell from sixth in fantasy scoring in 2012 to ninth in 2013. Sure, Amendola, Aaron Dobson, Kenbrell Thompkins, Brandon Bolden, and even Michael Hoomanawanui and Austin Collie had stheir moments. And yeah, Belichick is one of the best there is. But is this the new Patriots reality? Or will we see some rebound in the season to come, some reason to rely on Patriots in shallow leagues?

It's a tough assignment, though. Unlike the New York Jets, who had a bunch of nobodies last year and solved it by bringing in names -- maybe not necessarily quality, but names - the Patriots will likely be entering 2014 with the same cast of characters as they had last season (draft additions notwithstanding). Brandon LaFell is in, and LeGarrette Blount is out, but by and large, Belichick and Co. will be retracing their footsteps.

Tom Brady

The two big talking points about Tom Brady this offseason are (a) "Tom will be fine; he's Tom Brady!" and (b) "The Patriots are looking for Brady's eventual replacement." Now, I don't know about you, but those two thoughts are dissonant when sitting there next to each other like that.

The team last year was running with a piecemeal offensive line, a surprise absence at tight end, a host of rookie receivers and a mess at running back (more on, all of that later). The circumstances around Brady could scarcely have been more mishmash, meaning they almost have to be more settled next season.

The days of Brady being in the same tier as Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, and Aaron Rodgers might well be gone --at the very least, you can't realistically claim he'll be there. Fantasy-wise, he's below Cam Newton and Matthew Stafford, too. After that, he's probably in a group with Andrew Luck, Colin Kaepernick, Tony Romo and Nick Foles. All good, all elite potential, all with some question marks. Brady is my No. 6 quarterback entering 2014, and in the early 50s overall.

But here's the other thing: Dude's 37 in August, and we saw a year of decline. So while I'm comfortable taking Brady where I said, I would do so with a caveat. If I draft Luck, Kaepernick, Romo, I'm not bothering with a backup quarterback. But if I draft Brady -- just like the Patriots wondering if they need to draft a Teddy Bridgewater or a Blake Bortles -- I'm investing in a backup.

Running backs

In 18 games last season (counting the playoffs), Blount ran for 944 yards and 11 touchdowns. That's a rough stat-line to lose for the Pats. But take out Weeks 16 and 17 and his first playoff game, and he ran for 513 yards and three scores in 15 games; a decidedly lesser blow.

Stevan Ridley has had flashes career of goodness in his career -- seven touchdowns in a five-game stretch last year, and 12 over the course of 2012 -- and flashes of not-that -- three straight games with fumbles in the middle of last year, and five lost fumbles in his career. What's damning, however, is that Belichick seems to have lost trust in Ridley. Late last season, the offense switched to one led by Blount and Vereen. And while Blount is gone to Pittsburgh, Vereen is still around.

Vereen became the Patriots' answer to Darren Sproles last year. After returning from injury in the second half of the season, Vereen was very involved in the New England offense, though more so as a receiver -- he had 30 regular-season carries against 40 receptions. Just like the Patriots of a few years ago liked to roll with BenJarvus Green-Ellis carrying the ball and Woodhead stretching out defenses, it appears that Belichick once again wants a ball-carrying running back and a pass-catcher. Clearly, Vereen is the latter.

With Blount gone, Bolden is the wild card in the scenario now. He's had a handful of moments in his career -- 137 yards in a game in 2012, consecutive games with touchdowns last year - but injuries and inconsistent usage have kept him from developing a big-time gig. If Ridley can maintain some consistent ball security and coach trust, Bolden stays relegated to third-string fill-in duty, but if the coaches are tired of watching Ridley through their fingers, Bolden might be the beneficiary.

For me, Ridley's talent wins out over Bolden, but Vereen is the top Patriots running back entering the season. I rank him as my 23rd running back, 60th player overall, with the unlikelihood of him having any big rushing games keeping him relatively low. I have Ridley as my 38th running back and No. 107 overall, and I don't even have Bolden ranked. I'll stand by those rankings for now, but if Ridley's and Bolden's rankings wind up flip-flopped, I can't say I'd be shocked.

Wide receivers

The Patriots' receivers were wildly unpredictable for much of the season last year. Through Week 11 (their 10th game), the team's top four receivers -- Edelman, Amendola, Dobson and Thompkins -- put up double-digit fantasy points 10 times -- two for Edelman and Amendola, and three each for Dobson and Thompkins.

Starting in Week 12, though, the Patriots decided they were basically done with the rookies Dobson and Thompkins between injury and distrust. Combined with Amendola's inconsistency, that allowed Edelman to shine down the stretch,. He put up four straight double-digit games and averaged 13.5 points a game over the last six weeks after averaging 5.6 through the first 10.

The success of the fifth-year Patriot was a pleasant surprise for New England, especially considering the poor year that Amendola had. Brought in to nominally replace Welker, Amendola was limited to 12 games. In that time, he caught 54 passes for 633 yards and two scores. Considering that Welker never had any numbers that low as a Patriot --his Patriot lows were 14 games (2009), 86 catches (2010), 848 yards (2010), and three touchdowns (2008) -- Amendola was something of a disaster.

Despite a selection of stars or fading stars on the free agent market like Eric Decker, DeSean Jackson, Golden Tate and Steve Smith, the Patriots didn't do a lot to address the receiving corps in the offseason, bringing in only LaFell to the offense. LaFell was supposed to be a productive second banana to Smith in Carolina for the last four years, but that never happened. He has yet to reach 700 receiving yards in a season, and his five scores last year were a career-high.

Still, he's a field stretcher on an offense that didn't really have one when Gronkowski was hurt. Edelman and (at least in theory) Amendola are good possession receivers, but if they go for 80 yards on a play, it's because something didn't go according to plan. LaFell might not be Pro Bowl caliber, but the threat of a downfield receiver will change how the defenses strategize.

I ranked Edelman as the 25th wide receiver and 57th player overall for 2014. The other three -- Amendola, Dobson and Thompkins -- fell between 36 and 62 on my receiver rankings. Amendola is the only one of that group who figures to have a star-level ceiling any time soon, and he'll need better health and better production if he has any real hopes of reaching that ceiling. As for LaFell, I didn't rank him, but he wasn't a Patriot yet when I made my rankings. He'd probably fall in the Dobson range, as a fine WR4 or WR5 on a team that is strong elsewhere, but he's not someone you will want to be relying on.

Rob Gronkowski

I'll just say this at the top: I ranked Gronkowski as my fourth-best tight end for 2014, and 54th overall. He's behind Jimmy Graham, Vernon Davis and Julius Thomas, and a round or so ahead of Jason Witten and Jordan Cameron. But depending on health, the big guy could end up finish anywhere in the tight-end rankings, from first to last.

The team has been strident in saying it won't rush Gronkowski back from his late-season torn ACL. Odds are he'll start the year on the physically unable to perform list.

Look, you know what Rob Gronkowski is. Your question when considering whether to draft him has nothing to do with his talent or his situation, it's how much you want to gamble. A sixth-round pick spent on Gronkowski could win your league, or it could be a waste. I don't know which one it is, and neither do you nor anyone else.

Meanwhile, the Patriots, who rode Gronkowski and Hernandez while pioneering the two-fantasy-viable-tight-end system, don't appear to have one such player even if Gronkowski is out. Unless they want to try to ride Hoomanawanui until Gronkowski is back (they don't), I expect them to look long at tight-end options in the draft.

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