19th in a series.
There are two positions that could look differently for the Patriots in 2012 — running backs and wide receivers. Which free agents the team decides to keep and which ones are allowed to depart will be the offseason talk we hear most in New England.
Will QB Tom Brady maintain excellence?
Brady will remain a top-flight fantasy QB after averaging 327.2 yards and 2.4 TDs with 0.75 interceptions in 16 games. He did this without a quality No. 2 receiver, which the team is expected to address in the offseason with a vertical-threat receiver. He remains an elite quarterback.
What will happen to the running backs?
BenJarvus Green-Ellis is a free agent, and right now, his best fit outside of New England would be the Chiefs because of his ties with the K.C. staff. The Chiefs' short-yardage specialist, Thomas Jones, was ineffective, and Green-Ellis would replace Jones and complement Jamaal Charles, who is coming off an ACL injury. He does have positives for fantasy owners to consider in the offseason:
Green-Ellis was a fantasy disappointment in 2011, however, totaling 181-667-11. That translates into 11.3 attempts for 41.7 yards and 0.69 TDs per game. Unless he increases his yardage output, his value is limited. The Patriots are content with a RB-by-committee format and if he gets a contract offer that it believes is too high, the team probably will let him walk. However, the two sides are talking. Keep an eye on him — where he winds up will dictate the values of the rest of the Patriots' RBs.
Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen are the future, but Ridley was in the doghouse at the end of the season because of a pair of fumbles and was a nonfactor in the postseason. From Weeks 15-17, he averaged 13 attempts for 70 yards and should see a bigger role next season. If Green-Ellis doesn't return, Ridley likely will enter as the No. 1 back and will probably fall somewhere in the early-to-middle rounds with his ability to gain yards between the 20s.
Vereen, a second-round pick, dealt with a hamstring injury and will have to prove himself. He did not play in 11 games and received carries in only two contests, making him a waiver-wire player right now. His only value is in keeper leagues but he will be given a shot to stick and does have latent. He's someone to keep an eye on.
Danny Woodhead is the veteran of the group with Kevin Faulk expected to retire. Even if Faulk doesn't call it quits, he has little gas left in the tank. Woodhead's versatility should keep him around as depth and a trusted veteran in the backfield. His fantasy value is minimal because of erratic use and limited production as he gained 77-351-1 rushing and 18-157-0 receiving on 31 targets, breaking down to 33.9 yards from scrimmage per game. Entering the offseason he can be let go in all formats, as he's a late-round pick at best.
Will Wes Welker re-sign, and what about the rest of the WR corps?
Welker is a free agent and he is expected to stick with the Pats on a long-term deal or the team could franchise him, but he likely will remain a Patriot in 2012. Welker had 122-1,569-9 on 173 targets, which breaks down to 7.6 catches for 98.1 yards and 0.6 TDs on 10.8 targets per game. He enters the offseason as an elite fantasy receiver and will remain one.
The real questions come after Welker. You have Deion Branch and Chad Ochocinco as the bigger names but Ochocinco has a $3.1 million price tag and only caught 15-276-1 on 32 targets. Unless he restructures and/or accepts the veteran's minimum salary, he might not be a Patriot in 2012. Branch played a key role because Brady trusts him, but he turns 33 before the start of the season and is a free agent. He ended the ’11 season with 51-702-5 receiving but his value was as a matchup play with five games of 69 yards or more. Even if he returns he might not come back with the same role and he will take a fantasy hit making him a late-round pick with value if someone gets hurt. Until the receiving corps shakes out, don't let him go.
Julian Edelman and Tiquan Underwood are only depth with Edelman having greater value if Welker gets hurt. Edelman only caught 4-34-0 on eight targets for the season with Underwood had 3-30-0 receiving on six targets. There's no doubt the team needs help at the position with Welker being a possession receiver with good speed. Look for the team to sign a player who can get deep, but Welker's contract will dictate how much of a high-quality receiver they sign. The Patriots are also expected to use the draft to get help at wideout.
Can TEs Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez maintain their numbers?
There's no reason to believe they can't maintain their draft status. Gronkowski is an elite player who caught 90-1,327-17 on 124 targets — those are elite numbers for a WR much less a tight end, but you'll pay the price for him with an early-round pick. Aaron Hernandez tallied 79-910-7 on 113 targets, making him a low-end No. 1 fantasy tight end and a great fall-back option. Don't reach for him, however, as the team's 2012 wideouts will partially determine his targets.
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