Three Super Bowls in four years get you a free pass. And it's a good thing, because the Patriots made several pretty stupid moves in 2006; moves that, you could argue, cost them ring No. 4.
Foremost among the personnel gaffes in Foxborough was the mess at wide receiver. The Patriots stared down their No. 1 wideout, Deion Branch, all summer, all training camp and into the season's first week, refusing to budge on renegotiating the last year of Branch's rookie contract before finally trading him to Seattle for a first-round pick in 2007.
This came on the heels of letting David Givens, their other starting receiver in '05, leave via free agency. Who remained to catch passes from Tom Brady was a cavalcade of has-beens and never-weres; Reche Caldwell, a San Diego Chargers reject, led the team with 61 catches, 35-year-old Troy Brown was second with just 43, and no other wideout had more than 25.
The decision not to pay for receiving talent was, we were told, part of a strict adherence to long-term thinking. Don't pay more than you think a player is worth, no matter what. And that was all well and good until the second half of the AFC Championship Game last year, when Brady couldn't find anyone to hang on to the ball, and the Pats blew a 21-6 lead.
So, New England learned a hard lesson: Principles are great until the fourth quarter against the Colts. This year, come hell or high water, the Patriots weren't going to let a lack of wide receiving talent (or, for that matter, linebacking talent) bite them in their collective rump. They've apparently decided that winning tastes better than signing only high-character players or self-righteously staying well below the salary cap.
For the first time, Matt Cassel is essentially by himself behind studmuffin Brady. As of the start of training camp, there'll be no more Doug Flutie, Vinny Testaverde, Tony Eason or Babe Parilli to serve as a safety net; for now, Cassel, the third-year quarterback who has never started a game in college or the NFL, will have to do the job if something happens to Brady.
Last year's complicated tango between Laurence Maroney and Corey Dillon is over; Maroney will be the man, and the question is who will get whatever carries remain? Kevin Faulk figures to have more value than Sammy Morris, simply because the Pats really like using Faulk on third downs; in deep point-per-reception leagues, Faulk (considering his 43 catches in '06) can even be a borderline usable flex player. Morris' potential fantasy value comes from his size; if Maroney gets hurt or struggles on the goal line, Morris figures to be the guy New England would use most. I wouldn't say either of these players qualifies as a handcuff, but if you're paranoid about Maroney's health (and, as you'll see in a moment, a little such paranoia might be justified), Morris is the guy who could have up to 15 or 20 carries a game.
Who isn't on this team? James Lofton? Mark Duper? Raymond Berry? We'll talk about the presumptive starters in a minute, but guys like Kelley Washington, Reche Caldwell, Jabar Gaffney and Troy Brown will all have opportunities to make this team in camp, and it's not unthinkable that one or more could eventually wind up having some fantasy value. After all, Randy Moss has a lot of baggage, Donte' Stallworth is always hurt and Wes Welker is the size of Gary Coleman. Presumably the herd of backup receivers will be thinned by the end of camp, but it would be hard to justify drafting any of them until something happens to the logjam up in front.
With Daniel Graham gone, Benjamin Watson is clearly the go-to receiving tight end. Kyle Brady's days as a receiving option on anything but a 1-yard goal-line out pattern are long behind him. He's a blocker. David Thomas showed flashes last season, but he broke his foot in minicamp, and figures to struggle to get looks with so many wide receivers around. He is very talented, though.
Week 2 San Diego Chargers
Week 4 @ Cincinnati Bengals
Week 6 @ Dallas Cowboys
Week 9 @ Indianapolis Colts
Week 10 Bye
Week 13 @ Baltimore Ravens
Week 14 Pittsburgh Steelers
Week 15 New York Jets
Week 16 Miami Dolphins
Week 17 @ New York Giants
Tom Brady was a top-10 quarterback in 2006 despite a mediocre cast of receiving characters. He passed for 3,529 yards, seventh most in the league, and connected for 24 scores and 12 interceptions. Has he had better years? Yup. But he was good most weeks, and the Patriots' offense continues to be friendly to fantasy quarterback performance. The Pats throw a ton in the red zone (15 of Brady's touchdowns came from inside the 10), and they also have a tendency to throw a lot when they're ahead. With no Corey Dillon around to batter foes, and with a receiving corps that has massive upside, Brady is a top-five quarterback this year by any measure. The best part is that, unlike some of the quarterbacks ranked near him, Brady's got a rock-solid worst-case scenario of about 25 touchdowns and 3,500 yards.
Laurence Maroney will make or break a whole lot of fantasy teams this year. Either he grows into his full-time role and winds up on the cover of ESPN The Magazine's fantasy issue in 2008, or he gets hurt again and buries the Patriots' chances. This sounds harsh, because suffice it to say nobody's ever asked me to carry a football into 11 behemoths trying to tear off my head, but Maroney was brittle last year. He sprained his knee late in training camp, tore rib cartilage and missed games in Weeks 14 and 15, and at some point banged up his shoulder badly enough to warrant fairly major offseason surgery.
Maroney has never carried the ball 20 times in an NFL game. Never. In order to justify a top-10 selection, he'll have to do that most every week. But he'll get chances. Between them, Dillon and Maroney accounted for 24 goal-line carries in '06; give Maroney that many again this year, and he'll easily fall into double-digit rushing touchdowns. He's also very good at catching passes, and 1,300 yards rushing should be achievable if he's healthy.
But that's the rub. The reason you have to drop Maroney behind a few of the very top backs is he's never made it through a pro season unscathed before. Headed into camp, I have Maroney slotted No. 9 among backs, though if reports indicate he's completely healthy, I reserve the right to move him up.
Now comes the fun part. Randy Moss reportedly looked great this summer, ran really fast and had a great attitude.
Now, where have I heard that before? Oh, that's right, every single year.
All it'll take is Brady failing to throw into double coverage a few times in a game, and Moss will be back to squirting water bottles on officials, faux-mooning crowds and driving over meter maids.
Listen, he'll be good. I think he'll wind up being, say, a top-20 receiver. But all this talk about recapturing the old Randy is so much hokum. That guy is gone. Plus, there are just too many other talented receivers here now, and defenses are still going to pay the most attention to Moss. That should leave guys like Donte' Stallworth, Wes Welker and Benjamin Watson single-covered, and Brady is a guy who'll always spread the ball around.
Granted, last year's receiving corps was bad, but did you know that no Patriots receiver caught more than four scores in '06? In '05, no one caught more than five. Even in '04, New England's last Super Bowl season, only David Patten topped four among receivers, and he had just seven. If Moss logs seven in '07, it'll be considered a disappointment. So my message is: Temper your Randy enthusiasm.
And hey, reserve love some for the other guys. Would I draft Stallworth to be a WR1? Of course not. But as a value WR2 pick, I think he could excel. A thousand yards and six or seven scores feel very possible if his hamstrings stay right. And if your league gives bonuses for distance touchdowns, so much the better, because Stallworth scored from 20, 30, 42 and 84 yards last year. Was the Moss acquisition a damper for Stallworth's fantasy value? Absolutely. But it didn't kill it.
Welker will be the possession guy, and could catch 60 balls this year, so his would be a name worth knowing in point-per-reception leagues. And Watson still has a blocking tight end around to do a lot of his dirty work, so he can get out in pass patterns and try to improve on his sometimes-questionable mitts. Because New England figures to be in the red zone a lot, I'd put Watson on the fringes of the top 10 among fantasy tight ends.
The defense will be good. Acquiring Adalius Thomas should help, but let's face it, the Colts made New England's front seven look old and slow in the second half of that game in January. The good news? The Colts do that to a lot of teams. Cornerback Asante Samuel, who led the NFL in interceptions last year, may hold out for as much as half the season, but Rodney Harrison should be healthy, as should Richard Seymour. Despite an often-grueling schedule and an improving AFC East, this is still a top-five fantasy defense.
The days of the Patriot way are over. After a couple disappointing playoff exits, New England is now as mercenary as the next team, taking on a possible troublemaker like Moss and acquiring all the free agents money can buy.
Good for the Patriots, I guess. They weren't afraid to throw money (the old Bill Belichick might've said too much money) at their problems, hoping to win now. They're one of the two or three best teams in football, without an obvious weakness, and filled with potential fantasy stars. Maroney will go highest in drafts and he should, because he's got immense upside (but scary downside as well). Brady deserves to be taken among the top five quarterbacks, but don't start believing he's in the same league as Peyton Manning or even Carson Palmer. And the incredible receiving depth would axiomatically appear to cause the best guy (Moss) to be overvalued, and the next-best guy (Stallworth) to be undervalued. Regardless, every starter on this team will also be a fantasy starter in most leagues, and on the whole will probably make his owners pretty darned happy.
Christopher Harris is a fantasy baseball, football and racing analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.