It's been a long offseason, but real football is finally back. The Patriots are coming off a storybook comeback to win Super Bowl LI, and they're runaway favorites to repeat as champs--many pundits are even saying that an undefeated season might not be out of reach. For that to happen though, New England will first have to beat the Chiefs in primetime on Thursday night. And just as the Patriots start off with high hopes for the upcoming year, thousands of fantasy owners across the country are convinced their squad might just be the one. If you've got some Patriots on your team, this column is for you. Each week, I'll break down the fantasy potential of the Pats players and their opponents, forecasting a bit about the game in the process. This is Year 2 of the series--for a list of all the previous entries, click here. Let's get into it!
Tom Brady is the far better option here. Alex Smith shouldn't be a starter outside of the deepest of leagues anyway, but his shortcomings are even more prominent with Brady on the other sideline. The 40-year-old is still the NFL's top QB, and with new weapons Brandin Cooks, Phillip Dorsett, and Rex Burkhead, he's set to improve upon an outstanding 2016 season. With KC's starting slot corner, Stephen Nelson, on IR, Brady should find even more holes in what was a mediocre passing D last year. Start him if you've got him in every format.
The Patriots backfield is one of the most crowded in the NFL. With Mike Gillislee slated to get most of the goal-line work, Rex Burkhead handling the majority of early-down carries, and Dion Lewis and James White sharing passing opportunities, there's a solid chance none of them will end up being startable. On the other hand, KC's Kareem Hunt is in line to get force-fed carries against a middling New England front seven after impressing in the preseason. While he's a rookie, Andy Reid loves to establish the running game early, and he's never shied away from giving opportunities to unproven new players. I think Burkhead has the most upside out of the New England backs because he'll get both running and catching opportunities (a good flex play in deeper leagues and PPR), but Hunt is far and away the best back in this matchup. Start him as an RB2 with RB1 upside.
New addition Brandin Cooks will be able to stretch defenses vertically, but the real challenge for the Pats will be replacing Julian Edelman's underneath work to free up Cooks over the top. That's where Chris Hogan and Danny Amendola will come in. While Hogan played primarily outside in his first season with the Pats, expect him to run more crossing and pick routes across the field from his outside spot to pull defenders off Cooks. In the slot, Danny Amendola should mop up some of Edelman's lost targets, but unless he can break them big or convert in the red zone he won't be startable outside of deeper PPR formats. On the Kansas City side, Tyreek Hill is entering his first season as a true receiver, rather than a multipurpose weapon. While he's one of the fastest men in the NFL, he has yet to consistently convert his raw talent into stats. He's got value, but against a stout Patriots secondary I wouldn't put him higher than a flex. Other weapons Chris Conley and De'Anthony Thomas hold little fantasy value.
At least for the time being, Rob Gronkowski is back and ready for action. After an impressive training camp return from last year's season-ending back injury, expectations are high for the league's unquestioned best tight end. Expect him to soak up targets over the middle of the field against the aging Kansas City middle linebackers. But unfortunately for the Pats, they'll have to contend with another top tight end: Travis Kelce. As one of KC's primary receiving threats, Kelce could end up giving New England trouble if they opt to play Patrick Chung against him--despite succeeding as part of the Pats' "big nickel" package against tight ends last year, Chung (listed at 5'11", 215 lbs) is significantly smaller than the 6'5", 260 lb Kelce. A big night could be in order for the Cincinnati product.
The Pats had the league's best scoring defense last year, allowing only an average of 15.6 points per game. That was before adding Stephon Gilmore. While the front seven has depth concerns, I don't expect those to show up on Thursday night. Going up against a club without a receiver who can consistently stretch the defense vertically and a run-first West Coast offensive scheme, expect the Pats to have a shutdown night defensively. On the other hand, fade the Chiefs D against a high-powered Pats O--KC just lost its starting slot corner for half the year, and the team will have to replace massive D-Tackle Dontari Poe after he left for the Falcons as a free agent. Factor in the aging Derrick Johnson at middle linebacker, and the defense could be in for a letdown. Kicker-wise, both Stephen Gostkowski and Cairo Santos are high-end options. Start them if you've got them.
That just about wraps up the first fantasy breakdown of the year. Enjoy the season opener, and Go Pats!