The Patriots won Super Bowl XLIX thanks to a goal-line defensive stand and a big play by cornerback Malcolm Butler. Butler may not have much to offer fantasy owners, but the Patriots front-seven is loaded with fantasy-relevant talent.
The 2014 season was a disappointing one for defensive end Chandler Jones, who missed six games after posting nearly 80 tackles and 11.5 sacks in 2013. Jones sat out OTAs after offseason surgery, but assuming he’s ready to go by Opening Day, Jones offers the sort of 70+ tackle, double-digit sack upside that few defensive linemen can match. The fourth-year pro is a top-five IDP option up front in all formats.
Jones’ batterymate isn’t chopped liver either. Granted, Rob Ninkovich’s tackle numbers were down a bit in 2014 after topping 90 stops the year before, but Ninkovich has posted at least 55 tackles and eight sacks three years running. The 31-year-old doesn’t have an especially high IDP ceiling, but Ninkovich is a high-floor fantasy asset who’s a serviceable DL1 and fantastic DL2.
The Patriots also have a pair of young, athletic defensive tackles in rookie Malcom Brown and second-year pro Dominique Easley, each of who could have IDP value. Right now it appears that Brown will man the more favorable three-technique spot, and the former Texas standout is an interesting late upside pick in IDP leagues that require defensive tackles.
From an IDP perspective, there may not be a more loaded cadre of linebackers than the Patriots. Third-year pro Jamie Collins finished the 2014 season seventh among linebackers (1 point per tackle, 4 points per sack). Dont’a Hightower was a top-10 IDP option in the fantasy playoffs. All is right with the universe, right?
Well, not exactly, as 2015 should bring with it a return to action for eighth-year veteran (and former IDP LB1) Jerod Mayo, who missed half of last season with a torn patellar tendon. That’s about as bad as football injuries get, but to date there’s been nothing to indicate that Mayo won’t be ready when the Patriots kick off the 2015 season against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
As things stand right now, the general belief is that Collins will play SAM, Mayo will man the weak side and Hightower will slot in the middle. Collins appears a safe bet for an every-down role, but the other nickel linebacker slot isn’t as certain.
For now, we’d rank Collins as a lower-end IDP LB1, Mayo as a risk-reward LB2 and Hightower (the early pick to be the odd man out in subs) as a speculative LB4. However, as we move further into the offseason and get a feel for the health of both Mayo and Hightower (who had offseason surgery of his own) that pecking order could change.
For as loaded as the Patriots’ front seven is for IDP owners, the back end of the defense is every bit as sparse. Free safety Devin McCourty is one of the best in the NFL at his position, ranking eighth among safeties last year per Pro Football Focus. However, McCourty’s “center field” role isn’t conducive to fantasy production, and like the rest of the Patriots’ defensive backs McCourty is best left on the waiver wire.