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Fantasy football 2014 draft prep: New England Patriots team preview

Tom Brady (left) and Rob Gronkowski make a formidable tandem when the latter is healthy. Photo:

Tom Brady (left) and Rob Gronkowski make a formidable tandem when the latter is healthy.

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For over a decade now, the Patriots have been a great source for fantasy points, mostly due to the right arm of Thomas Edward Patrick Brady, but 2013 was expected to be a valley in fantasy production for several reasons. To see what promise 2014 holds for New England, we first have to put last year in perspective.

Between 2012 and 2013, the Patriots offense lost Wes Welker, who emerged as a diminutive fantasy demon with the team, catching over 110 passes in a season five out of his six campaigns in Foxboro. (Andre Johnson is the only other active wide receiver to have more than one season with over 110 grabs.) The Pats also had to deal with Rob Gronkowski's assorted offseason injuries that included back surgery and a broken forearm. Gronk went on to miss the first six games of 2013, and then the last three games because of a torn ACL. Danny Woodhead and Brandon Lloyd were also gone after catching a combined 114 passes in 2012. Finally, the team was reeling with the unbelievable news of TE Aaron Hernandez's arrest -- a nightmare it immediately tried to put behind it.

And yet, even with all of that misfortune, the only teams to score more points than the Patriots in 2013 were the Broncos and Bears.

Brady pulled more tricks out of his hat than Burt Wonderstone, and several players came through with surprising seasons, including running back Shane Vereen and receiver Julian Edelman. But what does 2014 hold in store for this Patriots club, which has stocked fantasy teams for 10 years?

Brady will be 37 this season, but he has to be more excited about Week 1 in 2014 than he was in all of 2013. There are nine draftable Patriots in standard 12-team leagues, and five of those players are on the receiving end of Brady's passes.

Interestingly, fantasy ADP shows that most owners are leery of Brady's chances of being a top-five fantasy passer once again. We'll get into that later, but part of the reason for that might be that the first two Patriots expected to get picked had major injuries last season: Gronkowski (knee) and Vereen (wrist).

Had Vereen stayed healthy all year, his stats projected out to eight touchdowns, over 1,200 total yards, and over 85 catches. And even though Gronk missed nine games, he still posted nearly 600 receiving yards.

There's no reason to expect this offense to take a step backward in 2014, as most of 2013's questions were answered by offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and Brady. But while a lot of the scoring came off the foot of kicker Stephen Gostkowski, there are plenty of factors that should lead this unit back to being one of the best in the NFL.

Most Overvalued Player: TE Rob Gronkowski

After Jimmy Graham and Julius Thomas, Gronk is getting picked up in fantasy drafts around the middle of the third round. There's no doubt that a healthy Gronk scores more fantasy points per game than any other tight end, including the ones drafted ahead of him. But that often fragile health is why he's not a first-round pick, and that promising potential is why he's a third-round pick. A torn ACL has hobbled even the greatest players within one year of the surgery, but we've been blessed with amazing knee-injury rebounds from Adrian Peterson and Jamaal Charles, and that clouds our fantasy judgment here.

First, Gronk has had a bevy of injuries before the knee, including back issues and a broken forearm from 2012 that hindered him well into last summer. Even if those ailments are also behind him, owners have to understand the physical pounding an NFL tight end undergoes -- especially down low, where smaller defensive backs are forced to go to bring the beast down. Even if his knee is fine entering Week 1, other injuries are sure to pop up and force him to miss more games.

Saying Gronkowski is the "best tight end when healthy" is the same as saying fantasy writers are the "best looking guys when everyone's eyes are shut." When does that ever happen?

My suggestion, if you're going to draft Gronk in Round 3, is to make sure you draft a solid backup in the later rounds, like promising Zach Ertz in Round 10. That combination should no doubt help you finish 2014 with the most fantasy points per game from the tight end position.

Most Undervalued Player: QB Tom Brady

Do you recall the frustration Brady showed early in the season, when young receivers like Josh Boyce, Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins struggled in the passing game? The team scored an average of 19.0 points per game in the first five games of the season. But things changed around the time Gronk returned, and the Patriots went on to average over 31.6 points for the final 11 games.

If you're wondering how I can suggest Brady to do well, while also expecting Gronk to miss more time, consider that the Michigan product had one of his best games of the season in Week 15, after Gronk got injured again.

The Patriots became a better running team in 2013, which hurt Brady's overall stats, but LeGarrette Blount moved on to Pittsburgh after nearly leading the Patriots in rushing. Stevan Ridley and Vereen will certainly be asked to pick up Blount's stats, but Ridley has had fumble issues and Vereen has a big red target on his healed wrist.

Brady should get a healthy-ish Gronk for Week 1, unlike last season, and the passing game brings back Vereen, Edelman, Danny Amendola and all of the youngsters -- a year older and wiser. The passing game should see great strides compared to last year, with or without Gronk.

Getting Brady in Round 7, where he's currently being drafted in 12-team leagues, is highway robbery. Getting him in Round 6 is pickpocketing, but still pretty great.

Depth chart

QB: Tom Brady, Ryan Mallett, Jimmy Garoppolo

RB: Shane Vereen, Stevan Ridley, Brandon Bolden, James White

WR: Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola, Aaron Dobson, Brandon LaFell, Kenbrell Thompkins

TE: Rob Gronkowski, Michael Hoomanawanui

K: Stephen Gostkowski

The only wide receiver targeted in the red zone more than Edelman last season was Welker in Denver. He signed a four-year deal to stay with the Patriots this offseason, and he'll be Brady's favorite non-Gronk receiver once again in 2014. Amendola, meanwhile, will look to put 2013 behind him after he was expected to replace Welker's production. Edelman works out of the slot now, and Amendola has to deal with promising up-and-coming receivers like Dobson and Thompkins, not to mention Brandon LaFell, who has 93 catches over the past two seasons.

The Patriots' receiver corps has the second-best strength of schedule for 2014. With all of this information, taking a longshot on one of the remaining Patriots receivers at the end of your draft is a smart move.

Defensive analysis

  Total vs. Pass vs. Run Points allowed
NFL rank 26 18 30 10
  vs. QB vs. WR vs. RB vs. TE
Fantasy rank 17 15 14 25

The Patriots' defense/special teams didn't look great, but it got the job done, for the most part. This unit ranked fifth in sacks and 12th in fantasy points among all DSTs. The Patriots' bend-but-don't-break system is better for leagues that reward lower points against than lower yards against, but either way, this group should be much improved in 2014. New England brought in Brandon Browner and Darrelle Revis to shore up its secondary, and the defense also gets back Tommy Kelly (knee), Jerod Mayo (pectoral) and Vince Wilfork (Achilles). This is a top-10 DST with upside.

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