This article is part of our Team Previews series.
With Tom Brady approaching age 40, the defending champs reloaded for another Super Bowl run in 2017, adding electric wideout Brandin Cooks and paying big bucks to sign shut-down corner Stephon Gilmore. Further proof of the team's all-in approach was the spurning of Jimmy Garoppolo trade offers.
THREE THINGS TO KNOW
MOVING ON FROM BLOUNT
Following a 2016 season in which he logged a league-high and franchise-record 18 rushing touchdowns while working on a team-friendly one-year deal, LeGarrette Blount understandably sought to be rewarded for his efforts. Amenable to bringing back the 30-year-old, the Patriots sought to do so on their own terms, but the team's final contract offer failed to lure Blount, who eventually joined forces with the Eagles. As a result, the 6-0, 250-pound bruiser was unceremoniously replaced by a free-agent combo of Mike Gillislee and Rex Burkhead. Meanwhile, Dion Lewis and Super Bowl LI hero James White are set to reprise their change-of-pace roles, with the elusive Lewis' prospects boosted by the fact that he's further removed from the torn ACL he suffered in November of 2015. Both Lewis and White carry a degree of PPR value. For his part, Burkhead displayed promise in his limited reps as a Bengal and profiles as something of a Swiss army knife, as he can also help on returns. His fantasy value is muddled, though, in the team's deep backfield. Blount's goal-line duties, and corresponding value in TD-heavy formats, are likely to be absorbed primarily by Gillislee, who led the NFL in yards per rush (5.7) and rushes per TD (12.6) with Buffalo in 2016. The versatile Brandon Bolden and former UDFA D.J. Foster remain in reserve.
THE AGELESS Tom Brady
Though Tom Brady turns 40 in August, to date there's been no signs of decay in the signal-caller's physical ability, thanks in large part to his dedication to fitness and nutrition. Brady's 2000 NFL Scouting Combine optics were hilariously poor, but he's morphed from a skinny sixth-round draft flier into a highly fashionable five-time NFL champion since then. He's clearly poised for at least one more Super Bowl quest, if not more. In deference to the notion that nothing in sports lasts forever, the Patriots resisted the temptation to build for the future in terms of draft assets this offseason, holding on to fourth-year pro Jimmy Garoppolo. The team believes he can seamlessly step into the QB spotlight in the event of an injury, or an unexpected decline in Brady's play, in the short term. To assist in their pursuit of a sixth title, the Patriots traded their top pick in April's draft to acquire playmaker Brandin Cooks, who team owner Robert Kraft suggests could make a Randy Moss-like impact in the team's receiving corps. Moreover, superstar tight end Rob Gronkowski is back from back surgery, and top returning wideout Julian Edelman (now signed through the 2019 season) remains in the fold, boasting an uncanny on-field chemistry with Brady.
A NEW COOK IN THE PASS-CATCHING KITCHEN
Brandin Cooks, acquired in a swap with the Saints, is coming off consecutive campaigns with at least 78 catches and 1,100 yards. He goes from working with one elite signal-caller (Drew Brees) to another in Tom Brady, setting up a scenario where his fantasy upside should remain stable. The 5-10, 189-pounder logged a 4.33-second 40-yard dash at the 2014 NFL Combine, thus providing the Patriots offense with the sort of downfield weapon for which opposing defensive coordinators will need to stay up late game-planning. His arrival probably won't greatly impact the target volume of either Julian Edelman or Danny Amendola, given that they do much of their damage on short-to-intermediate routes, but Cooks' utility as an outside weapon could eat into the opportunities of occasional deep threat Chris Hogan as well as promising sophomore Malcolm Mitchell. Of course at press time, the team's entire wideout corps is presumed to be in good health, a reality that is normally fleeting in the NFL. With TE Rob Gronkowski creating mismatches and a versatile backfield on hand, defending the Patriots looks like a pick-your-poison endeavor engineered by evil genius/coach Bill Belichick, whose relentless pursuit of moves that are "in the best interest of the team" has helped fuel the squad's unprecedented run of competitiveness.
PIVOTAL PLAYER: Rob Gronkowski
Gronkowski, who was shut down after Week 12 last season, is bouncing back from his third back surgery (and ninth procedure overall) since 2009. When healthy, the 28-year-old is the most dominant tight end in the NFL, but just how much more can his body take? Look for his preseason and practice reps to be managed with the long haul in mind.
RISING: Mike Gillislee
Though he's part of a deep running back corps, Gillislee's nose for the end zone and tidy 5.7 YPC in each of the last two seasons bode well for his chances of helping replace some of LeGarrette Blount's production in close.
FALLING: Dion Lewis
While Lewis enters the coming season healthy, his fantasy upside is suppressed by the presence of Mike Gillislee, fellow pass-catching specialist James White and jack-of-all-trades Rex Burkhead.
SLEEPER: Dwayne Allen
As long as Rob Gronkowski is able to stay on the field, Allen will work in a complementary role in the offense. If the injury bug hits the breakable Gronk again, Allen's red-zone prospects would skyrocket.
KEY JOB BATTLE – GOAL LINE BACK
The Patriots have stockpiled depth at running back, with James White and Dion Lewis set to reprise their change-of-pace duties and newcomer Rex Burkhead bringing valuable versatility to the mix. From a fantasy perspective, week-to-week touches out of the team's backfield could be difficult to predict and game-flow dependent, but we suspect that LeGarrette Blount's goal-line duties are likely to be handled primarily by Mike Gillislee. Considering Blount's league-leading 18 rushing TDs last season, Gillislee is in a good position to better the mark of nine total scores he logged in 2016 while with the Bills. In the process, he averaged 5.7 yards over 101 carries, a rate that he also recorded on 47 rushing attempts in 2015.
Brandin Cooks – WR (from Saints)
Effectively the showpiece of the team's 2017 draft class.
Rex Burkhead – RB (from Bengals)
Versatility an asset, but part of a crowded backfield.
Mike Gillislee – RB (from Bills)
Should get the first crack at the team's goal-line carries.
Dwayne Allen – TE (from Colts)
Capable blocker/red-zone threat who provides Gronk insurance.
ANDREW HAWKINS – WR (from Browns)
The veteran slot man could push Danny Amendola for a roster spot.
Stephon Gilmore – CB (from Bills)
At 6-1, the splashy addition matches up well against taller wideouts.
LeGarrette Blount – RB (to Eagles)
After setting team mark for ground TDs in 2016, departs for Philly.
MARTELLUS BENNETT – TE (to Packers)
Parlayed bounce-back year into a free-agent payday from Green Bay.
THE INJURY FRONT
Dion Lewis, RB – Lewis, who injured his hamstring in Super Bowl LI, looked explosive during OTAs and is set to participate fully in training camp.
Tom Brady, QB – Despite chatter that Brady may have suffered a concussion last season, the soon-to-be 40-year-old signal-caller is expected to report to training camp fit and healthy.
Rob Gronkowski, TE – The Patriots' top tight end is coming off season-ending back surgery, which was his third back operation since 2009. However, Gronkowski's injury rehab has been seamless and he'll head into training camp without any restrictions.