The kick-off of the NFL season means the return of annoying Buffalo Wild Wings commercials and more importantly, the return of fantasy football. If you’re one of the approximately 35 million people that play fantasy, your league has probably already drafted by now with the season starting tonight. Here’s a look at what to expect from all of the (fantasy relevant) Patriots in 2012:
Tom Brady – (projected pick – #6 overall)
The last time Brady was projected this high was 2008, on the heels of a record-setting 50 touchdown campaign. Four years later, the hype has risen to near ’08 levels as the forecast for Tom Terrific is off the charts. Coming off a 5,200 yard passing season, Brady actually gets an offense that is arguably better than the 2011 edition. Returning to the offense are Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, two of the best tight ends in the league; as well as favorite wide receiver target, Wes Welker, who caught 122 balls and posted career bests in yards and touchdowns last season. Joining Welker at wideout in 2012 is Brandon Lloyd, who led the NFL in receiving yards in his last full season in a Josh McDaniels offense (with Kyle Orton throwing him the ball). This year’s more versatile backfield of Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen should force opposing defenses to be slightly more honest against the pass-happy Pats. Throw in what appears to be a relatively easy schedule and there’s no wonder why Brady has returned to first-round prominence in fantasy drafts.
Rob Gronkowski – (projected pick – #10 overall)
The Big Gronkowski abided last year and set the fantasy world on fire. All he did was set records for touchdowns by a tight end (18) and receiving yards by a tight end (1,327). In fact, Gronk finished sixth in the NFL in receiving yards and fifth in receptions making him an above average fantasy option even if he were a wide receiver. So why isn’t he the first tight end selected in fantasy this year? One of the most important keys to fantasy expectations: his situation. While New England should be every bit as explosive on offense as they were last year, the ball seems likely to be spread around a bit more this season. The Pats added Brandon Lloyd, a top-10 caliber NFL wide receiver who will no doubt receive a hefty number of targets and is a massive upgrade at receiver compared to Deion Branch and Chad Johnson, the two receivers he is essentially replacing in the lineup. It’s unfair to expect Gronkowski to repeat the greatest season ever by a tight end, but even 85% of last season’s numbers put Gronk as a legit second round pick.
Wes Welker – (projected pick – #24 overall)
Last season ended on a down note for Welker with his infamous drop in the Super Bowl. But that was the only down note for Wes during his 2011 campaign. He set career highs in receiving yards (1,569) and touchdowns (9) and proved to be a consistent, fantasy stud putting up eight weeks of 100+ yards. If it weren’t for the Patriots’ glut of talent at wide receiver and tight end, Welker would be ranked in the top 15. All signs point to him being open underneath a lot this season with new deep threat Brandon Lloyd and uber-tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez stretching defenses vertically. His yardage numbers won’t be in the vicinity of 1,500 again but triple digit receptions is certainly in range, making him an even larger beast in point-per-reception leagues.
Brandon Lloyd – (projected pick – #27 overall)
Lloyd is a good NFL wide receiver. When he plays on an offense with Josh McDaniels, he becomes a great NFL wide receiver. In his last season in Denver, Lloyd caught 11 touchdowns and racked up more than 1,400 yards with McDaniels as head coach. After teaming up together with the Rams for part of last season, the two are reunited once again as Lloyd enters 2012 as the Patriots’ first legitimate deep threat since Randy Moss. The New England tight ends will attract much attention from secondaries, making Lloyd a sneaky pick at wideout. One problem with taking Lloyd however is Tom Brady has a number of mouths to feed. In any given week, Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez and/or Wes Welker could be the focal point of the passing game. There’s little doubt that Lloyd will have his big games this year, it just might be difficult to predict which ones.
Aaron Hernandez – (projected pick – #43 overall)
When Greg Bedard of the Boston Globe reported that Aaron Hernandez had “ascended to Brady’s number one option” last month, it was music to fantasy owner’s ears. The top option in a powerhouse offense is always someone you want to have on your team. What’s amazing is that Hernandez is just the third or fourth best fantasy tight end in the NFL – and just the second best tight end on his own team. Still, his new label as Brady’s number one and the Patriots use of his talents are reason alone to take him in the fifth round or sooner in 2012. Seeing as how Jimmy Graham and Rob Gronkowski are going in the first and second round, Hernandez might be the best value of all the tight ends as he has been going several rounds later and is legitimately capable of being number one at the position this season.
Stevan Ridley – (projected pick – #76 overall)
After a great finish to 2011, Ridley takes over as the main tailback on the vaunted Patriot offense. He brings a tremendous amount of speed that had been missing the past few seasons with BenJarvus Green-Ellis as the lead back. While many fantasy owners are justifiably gun-shy at taking a Belichick running back with a high pick, Ridley has the potential to be the best since Corey Dillon. His strong preseason helped his already soaring stock. Unfortunately, the potential always exists for Shane Vereen or Danny Woodhead to get the bulk of the carries on any given week.
For a full ranking and analysis of the top 50 fantasy players as of opening day, visit Give Me Liberty.