Patriots camp preview: Maroney the guy to watch in camp


Editor's note: These camp previews are up to date as of the start of preseason games. For the latest changes since then, check our updated rankings, projections and profiles.

Can they do it again?

We're not talking about another unbeaten season and a run at the Super Bowl. Everyone expects the New England Patriots to be good again, though asking them to be that good is asking a lot. But this is fantasy! When it comes to the fantasy value of record breakers Tom Brady and Randy Moss, all eyes will be on this duo the minute it arrives at training camp. Brady is far from being that fifth-round pick you used to slip past your leaguemates, and Moss is a year removed from sleeper status and injury and motivation concerns.

AFC Championship: Laurence Maroney Highlights

NFL.com Video

2007 Highlights: Laurence Maroney rushes for 122 yards in leading the Patriots past the Chargers.

But you know that already. Brady is a consensus first-rounder and Moss a second-rounder. Even Wes Welker is a safe, trusted fantasy pick. But what is Laurence Maroney? I've seen the running back go as early as the middle of Round 2 and as late as the end of Round 4 in drafts this summer. Surely Brady and Moss don't have as wide a range of possibilities for statistical wonder surrounding them, but when I see people drafting the third-year running back from the University of Minnesota, they immediately seem to feel the need to defend the pick by pointing out how well he ran in the playoffs (but not the Super Bowl). Then five rounds later they select Sammy Morris as a handcuff, just in case.

Really, Maroney is the guy fantasy owners ought to watch in camp. He has a ton of ability, and the Pats would love to see him realize it, but there's no telling if he ever will. Also, what if the Patriots go to a more balanced offensive attack this season? That would change things and make the prime running back more valuable, eh? Consider Maroney an early-round pick with first-round upside but midround downside.

The Patriots aren't facing many challenges. Remember, this team did not win the Super Bowl, so complacency shouldn't be an issue. Left cornerback Asante Samuel bolted for the big money in Philly and Donte' Stallworth found a starting role in Cleveland, but the Pats have lost players before in the Bill Belichick era, and it never seems to be a problem. It shouldn't be this year, either.

What to look for in camp

Key position battles: Maroney did his best work late last season, which can be a harbinger. If he's healthy, Maroney's talent should shine through, and the Patriots can boast a big-time running game and can better control the time of possession. That would in turn drive down the value of Brady and Moss, as the team would score "only" 30 points per game rather than running up 50 on a whim. The problem with relying on Maroney, though, is that he still has not put things together for a full season. Morris ran for more than 100 yards a few times in October, LaMont Jordan is now in the mix
and Kevin Faulk remains a trusted receiver and occasional runner from the backfield. Who's next in line after Maroney?
Morris and Faulk will each get his share of touches, but we have to believe Jordan will eventually settle in as the No. 2 back. The bigger question is, will Maroney take that next step to stardom?

Some will watch closely to see whether Matt Cassel holds off rookie Kevin O'Connell for the right to take a snap or two this season after Brady bolts a 49-14 game, but in reality, this isn't a noteworthy battle because Brady is so durable. Don't believe the weekly mention on the injury report!

Fitting in: Stallworth bolted for Cleveland, but the Patriots shouldn't be worried about replacing him as the No. 3 wide receiver. Really, one could have argued Jabar Gaffney was the No. 3 man, anyway. He outscored Stallworth last season and was very popular near the goal line down the stretch. Gaffney should take official ownership of the third wide receiver job while Kelley Washington and Chad Jackson look for scraps. If there's someone to watch here, it's the talented Jackson. Also, 36-year-old Marcus Pollard will aim to push Benjamin Watson and should appear once in a while in two-TE sets. Watson has the ability to be one of the top five tight ends in fantasy but misses too many games because of injuries and takes too many plays off. Maybe Pollard will push him.

On defense, losing cornerbacks Samuel and Randall Gay, as well as safety Eugene Wilson, might force most teams to panic. But the Patriots simply brought in former Lion Fernando Bryant and drafted some interesting pieces, and they have the depth to make up the rest. Separately, the linebacking corps looked old in January, but Tedy Bruschi and friends picked up some reinforcements, with Jerod Mayo arriving via the first round and Victor Hobson coming from the Jets.

On the line: The Patriots protect Brady the way few other teams do their quarterback, meaning there's very little risk that the most important member of the team will get hurt. Three of the five members of this unit went to Hawaii for the Pro Bowl. There also will be plenty of holes for Maroney and Morris to run through, notably on the left side where Matt Light and Logan Mankins hold court. No parts were added to the offensive line this offseason via the draft or free agency. An injury here or there would affect things, but the Patriots basically haven't had to worry about this part of their team since Belichick took over.

The bottom line

Brady and Moss will be the first two Patriots off the board in most fantasy leagues, and few will argue they don't deserve it. But remember, in 2007 drafts it was Maroney who got the most attention as one of those young running backs everyone thinks will take the next step, and all of a sudden he was going late in the first round of your drafts. Wow. Maroney does seem primed for a breakout season, which would in turn devalue his teammates a bit. Of course, the Patriots could make everyone more valuable if they decide they must average 50 points per game instead of only 43. That's not likely. Fantasy owners should expect the Patriots to score fewer points this season, which could make everyone wearing that uniform just a bit overrated, except Maroney. He's the one enigma on this offense, but he's also the one to watch most closely.

Eric Karabell is a senior writer for ESPN.com fantasy. You can e-mail him here.