This article is part of our Team Previews series.
NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS
While the pending four-game absence of QB Tom Brady presents initial challenges, the well-coached Patriots continue to boast a deep and talented roster on both sides of the ball. Division crowns have seemingly become routine in the Brady/Bill Belichick era, and another deep postseason run could be on tap.
THREE KEY STORY LINES
GAROPPOLO ON DECK
Following the reinstatement of Tom Brady's four-game suspension courtesy of the lingering "Deflategate" controversy, Jimmy Garoppolo is now on track to start for the team out of the gate in 2016, barring some unforeseen development. Garoppolo, who was drafted 62nd overall in 2014, thus has an opportunity to gain valuable NFL starting experience, while helming a robust passing offense that features a capable collection of wideouts and arguably the league's most formidable TE combo. The Patriots' coaching staff is known for placing players in the best possible position to succeed, crafting matchup-specific game plans on a weekly basis. With two full years in the team's offense under his belt, Garoppolo has made "great strides" all around, according to coach Bill Belichick. With that in mind, the young QB's quick release profiles as an asset in the team's passing attack, plus Garoppolo possesses the mobility to buy time in the pocket.
SORTING OUT THE PASS-CATCHERS
PPR stalwart Julian Edelman reprises his role in the offense, along with Danny Amendola, who took a pay cut to stay with the Patriots. Both are bouncing back from offseason surgeries but should be good to go by Week 1. 6-1, 220-pound newcomer Chris Hogan brings added size to the mix, as well as savvy route-running. While the team's track record drafting wideouts has been spotty, fourth-rounder Malcolm Mitchell is a candidate to stem the tide. Meanwhile, Nate Washington, Aaron Dobson, Keshawn Martin, Chris Harper and Devin Lucien will fight to make the final roster. Supplementing the team's solid but not spectacular wideout corps is a dynamic TE duo of Rob Gronkowski and trade acquisition Martellus Bennett. Gronkowski is tough enough to cover on his own, but when Bennett's athleticism and after-the-catch ability are factored in, the net result will be headaches for defensive coordinators. While Bennett may have trouble matching the target volume he saw in Chicago, as long as Gronkowski stays healthy, look for matchup nightmares any time they are on the field together.
THE BACKFIELD SITUATION
Dion Lewis was often electric in 2015 but he's recovering from a torn ACL. While he's thought to be on track to be ready for Week 1, it remains to be seen how quickly he'll recapture his explosiveness. Bruising LeGarrette Blount was re-signed to serve as the Patriots' top power back, a role he has handled well for the most part, but he's bouncing back from hip woes. Ideally, they'll form an effective lightning/thunder combo to complement the team's passing attack. Depth-wise, there's still plenty to sort out, with Brandon Bolden, Tyler Gaffney and Joey Iosefa competing for "big back" slotting, while James White, Donald Brown and D.J. Foster will look to secure third-down/change-of-pace roles. Bolden's special teams prowess should land him a job, with the rest of the group possibly fighting for one spot. If Lewis ends up being brought along slowly, the team could carry five backs to start the season and we wouldn't rule out the possibility of the Patriots adding a veteran free agent as the summer rolls along.
KEY JOB BATTLE
Any member of the Patriots' running back corps is a weekly roll of the dice, though there is some stable value to be had in PPR formats with whoever ends up handling the bulk of the team's pass-catching duties out of the backfield. Dion Lewis demonstrated last season that he is ideally equipped for the role, when healthy, but he's bouncing back from an ACL tear. If Lewis is slowed at all out of the gate, it will be worth noting who is next in line for the role. James White, who stepped in for Lewis last season, remains in the mix, but he'll face competition from veteran Donald Brown as well as undrafted rookie D.J. Foster.
Despite NFL sanctions related to "Deflategate" that loomed through the 2015 offseason, Brady ended up playing the Patriots' full slate. With the QB's four-game suspension since reinstated, understudy Jimmy Garoppolo is slated to fill in for him until Week 5, at which time a motivated Brady will return to the field, seeking his fifth Super Bowl ring.
RISING: Chris Hogan
After going undrafted in 2011, Hogan bounced around some, but the player once dubbed 7-11 (because he's always open) lands in a spot where his ability to play on both the outside or in the slot should mesh perfectly.
FALLING: Danny Amendola
Though coming off his most productive season for New England, Amendola's fantasy ceiling is tied to fellow WR Julian Edelman's health, plus there will be added competition for looks from Hogan and TE Martellus Bennett.
SLEEPER: D.J. Foster
The Patriots are known for providing UDFAs with opportunities to shine, and Foster – a hybrid RB/WR – could stick around to provide the team with insurance for playmaker Dion Lewis, a player coming off a serious injury.
THE INJURY FRONT
Dion Lewis, RB – The 2015 breakout back, who underwent surgery last November to repair a torn ACL, resumed practicing during the Patriots' OTAs and assuming no setbacks in training camp, it appears as though he has a good shot to be ready to rock in advance of Week 1.
Julian Edelman, WR – The Patriots' top wideout is still recovering from a second foot surgery related to the injury that cost him time last season, but the team is optimistic he'll participate in training camp in some capacity.
LeGarrette Blount, RB – The bruising runner, who landed on IR in 2015 with a hip injury, did not take the field with his teammates this spring, so his status will be worth monitoring as training camp approaches. In the absence of any unexpected setbacks, however, he'll look to reclaim the Patriots' "big back" role this coming season.
Jamie Collins, LB – The Pro Bowler recorded a fantasy-friendly 89 tackles, 5.5 sacks and five forced fumbles in 12 contests for the Patriots last season and continues to blossom into an elite defender in both real and fantasy terms.
Dont'a Hightower, LB – Slated to reprise his role Patriots' starting middle linebacker, the 26-year-old – who notched 61 tackles and 3.5 sacks in 12 games in 2015 –could well top 100 tackles for the first time in his career if he is able to avoid the injury bug.
Jabaal Sheard, DE – The 2015 free agent addition provided capable complementary play last season in tandem with fellow defensive linemen Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones, while recording 37 tackles, eight sacks, and four forced fumbles in 13 contests for the Patriots. With Jones having been dealt, look for an increase in Sheard's IDP utility.
Malcolm Mitchell – WR (Rd. 4, No. 112 – Georgia)
Good route-runner, who could emerge as rookie if injuries hit.
Donald Brown – RB (from Chargers)
Low-risk investment adds depth and experience to backfield.
Brandon LaFell – WR (to Bengals)
Sent packing after production dipped in injury-riddled 2015 campaign.
Chandler Jones – DE (to Cardinals)
Will be missed by D, but would have been too costly to sign long-term.