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Fantasy Focus: What to Watch in the Preseason

The Patriots’ preseason schedule kicks off next week as New England hosts New Orleans on August 9. Here are four critical fantasy angles to keep an eye on as the 2012 Patriots take the field for the first time.

Who will emerge from the battle at RB?

RB is easily the most fluid position on the team. If a true starter emerges, they could command tremendous fantasy value. The RB depth chart thinned out a bit with the recent release of Joseph Addai, but that’s all the clarity we’ve been given on the situation so far. Stevan Ridley appears to have the clearest path to a significant number of carries, but Danny Woodhead and Shane Vereen could cut into that workload. Woodhead is the most trusted back in pass protection, so he should see plenty of playing time when the offense shifts to the shotgun.

The real wild card in the equation here is Vereen. He was drafted ahead of Ridley last year, and his skill set could allow him to carve out a large role in the offense if he shows promise in the preseason. A poor showing by both Vereen and Ridley could open the door for Woodhead to steal a majority of the carries as well. Also, it remains to be seen who will handle the goal line carries. BJGE scored double-digit TDs last year (mainly on 1-yard plunges), so the back who wins that role could turn a tidy profit for fantasy owners.

How much action will Aaron Hernandez see?

Hernandez spent a ton of time on the field last year, in large part because he was New England’s most reliable receiver after Welker and Gronkowski. It will be interesting to see if the additions of Lloyd, Gaffney and Stallworth will cut into his workload at all. Hernandez is a dynamic weapon since he can play a TE/WR/RB hybrid role, but he’s not a lock to match or exceed last year’s great numbers. The Patriots will probably play Hernandez’s role close to the vest in the preseason, but it’s worth watching how much he’s actually on the field and how he might be used.

In most drafts, Hernandez is going in the 6th or 7th round. That’s in the same neighborhood as Jermichael Finley and Vernon Davis. If you’re going to pay that kind of price, you need to be sure he’s on the field for more than half of the team’s offensive snaps.

Has the defense improved?

One factor that is often overlooked in draft rooms are the 11 guys who line up on the other side of the field in practice. Since a team with a bad defense will be forced to throw more often, it’s generally a good idea to lean toward wide receivers and quarterbacks on teams that are expected to give up a lot of yards and points. The opposite holds true for RBs; you’d much rather own a back who will be salting away big leads in the second half instead of blocking in pass protection.

The Patriots were the perfect example of this concept over the past two years. The Patriots did a lot of work in the offseason to improve their defense, and several young players will have the benefit of a full training camp as opposed to last year’s abbreviated meet-and-greet. The potential for significant improvement in 2012 is high.

Are you going to avoid Brady, Welker or Gronkowski entirely if the defense looks great in fake games? Probably not. They are tremendous talents that will produce regardless of the circumstances. But if the defense looks like a Top 10 unit, it would be wise to bump New England RBs up a few spots on your cheat sheets and temper your expectations for some of the second-tier options (Hernandez, Branch, etc.) in the passing game.

Is there chemistry between Lloyd and Brady?

While the RB competition will be the main attraction, watching the interaction between Brady and Lloyd should be equally fascinating. How often is he the first or second read? Does Brady trust him to get the ball on deep routes? Are there any miscommunications? Do they give him any looks in the red zone? Drafting Lloyd this year comes with little margin for error. On average, he’s going around the 5th-7th round in most standard drafts. That lines him up as a WR2, on a par with consistent, high-upside receivers like Jeremy Maclin and Antonio Brown. Based on the number of mouths to feed in the Patriots offense, it will be tough to squeeze much value out of Lloyd’s draft position. The pendulum could swing back in his favor if he sees an appreciable number of targets in the preseason and appears to be on the same page with Brady.