The Patriots provide quite the fantasy conundrum. With their offense predicated on spreading the ball around and a philosophy of having a split backfield, it can be difficult to count on anyone not named Tom Brady to be a consistent fantasy contributor.
When 2010 wrapped up with the Pats holding a league-best 14-2 record, the offense was the best in the league at scoring, but not at the rate of the 2007 squad. However, unlike in the past, the '10 Pats were a fantasy juggernaut. In addition to Brady's MVP season, two receivers (Welker and Deion Branch), two tight ends (Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski) and two running backs (BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead) were all worthy starters in fantasy. Not only that, the team's opportunistic defense proved to be stellar in fantasy.
None of the skill players had off-the-charts numbers like Randy Moss and Welker put up in '07, but during the Patriots' eight-game winning streak to end the season you couldn't have gone wrong with any of them. Brady continued to spread the ball around, but all six players still put up good fantasy numbers. Especially Green-Ellis, who provided what is most important in fantasy — touchdowns.
The biggest change this offseason came in the addition of WR Chad Ochocinco, who gives the Pats an outside-the-numbers receiver to occupy opposing team's top corners (see: Darrelle Revis). The Patriots also drafted two running backs. The defense should be better with multiple starters returning, but can fantasy owners have faith that Patriots players besides Brady can be relied upon again?
You shouldn't have to worry much about the two tight ends entering their sophomore season. Gronkowski is better near the goal line and Hernandez is better in the open field, but expect both to see the field often, as opponents struggle to keep the pair in check.
At wide receiver, Ochocinco might be coming off a pedestrian season (by his standards), but he certainly should benefit from playing with Brady. Expect Ochocinco to use his speed and physicality to be the team's threat on the outside while opening things up in the middle for the rest of the offense. Don't expect Ochocinco to put up the numbers he did earlier in his career, but his red-zone abilities set him apart from the rest of the Pats' receivers, giving him a fantasy edge. Welker could improve upon his '10 numbers, considering he was coming off ACL and MCL surgery, and his cuts improved as the campaign wore on. Branch was the surprise of the group and provided big plays late. But one thing that would keep Branch and Welker in check — and not at a good production level for fantasy — is if Brandon Tate can emerge. The speedster did not produce the way the team hoped last season, but he has upside. Julian Edelman has played well when given the opportunity, and the team likes what it has in Taylor Price, a second-year player. If those three youngsters can make more of an impact, it will decrease the fantasy value of Welker and Branch.
Green-Ellis and Woodhead might have the hardest time in repeating their '10 fantasy stats considering they will have more company in the backfield. Rookies Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley weren't selected to spend a season on the bench. You can count on Green-Ellis getting carries near the goal line, which is what matters in fantasy. Woodhead will still be the team's third-down back, but the pair might not get the touches they got in 2010.
On defense, the Pats should improve upon their 30th ranking against the pass, but they will be hard-pressed to repeat last year's ridiculous turnover margin of plus-28. But with Pro Bowlers like Jerod Mayo and Devin McCourty, the "D" still will create turnovers.
As a whole, it would be remarkable if the Patriots were to put up as many legitimate fantasy starters in 2011 as they did last season. You can never go wrong with Brady, and if the offense is even just close to as explosive as it was last season, the skill players should not be overlooked. As the Patriots prove year in and year out, it can be a crapshoot in terms of which player is going to get the fantasy points each week, but you have more options in your 2011 drafts than there have been in the past.