32 Questions: New England Patriots

Thirty-two teams, 32 burning fantasy questions. Throughout the preseason, we put one of these questions to an ESPN.com analyst for an in-depth look at the most interesting, perplexing or dumbfounding fantasy facet of each NFL team. Be sure to check out all 32 questions.

What is Laurence Maroney's draft value?

At first blush, it's hard not to project Maroney in the first round in just about any league format. With Corey Dillon and his 13 rushing touchdowns removed from New England's backfield, Maroney will shoulder the load. Combine the two backs' yardage from 2006 and you get 1,557 (812 from Dillon, 745 from Maroney), and while it's a guarantee reserve backs Kevin Faulk and Sammy Morris will prevent Maroney from reaching heights quite that lofty in 2007, 1,300 yards feels like a lock if Maroney stays healthy.

And, one supposes, there's the rub. Maroney was never fully healthy during his rookie year. He sprained his knee late in training camp, tore rib cartilage and missed games in Weeks 14 and 15, and at some point banged up his shoulder badly enough to warrant fairly major offseason surgery. Clearly, Maroney is tough, having played toward the end of the year and throughout the playoffs with the damaged shoulder. But is he injury prone? This is a guy who never registered 20 carries in a game last year, and now we expect him occasionally to manage a Dillon-esque 30?

In a word: yes. Like the Zen master he is, in 2007 Bill Belichick will throw more so that he can run better. Tom Brady will see plenty of games where he chucks it 35-plus times (as he did on six occasions last season), and defenses will jump through hoops to contain Randy Moss, Donte' Stallworth, Wes Welker, Benjamin Watson, et al, leaving room for Maroney to roam. Maroney's also a better pass catcher than Dillon ever was (I can see 50 receptions this year), and has enough size and nastiness to be effective both on the goal line and in second halves of games where the Pats are running out the clock. Between them, Dillon and Maroney accounted for 24 goal-line carries in '06; give Maroney that many again this year, and he'll easily fall into double-digit rushing touchdowns.

So where will Maroney stack up to other potential first-round backs? He's certainly not in the LaDainian Tomlinson/Larry Johnson stratosphere, simply because New England figures to throw so much. You'd also have a hard time convincing me Maroney's got the same potential for domination that Steven Jackson, Shaun Alexander and Frank Gore have. But could Maroney make a legitimate claim that he should be the sixth pick in your draft? He could.

I don't have him quite that high. Forced to make a selection at this point in a draft, without benefit of seeing how guys perform in training camp, I'd have to choose Willie Parker, Rudi Johnson and/or Brian Westbrook ahead of Maroney, and the reason's simple: They've done it before. They've lasted whole seasons, they've gone relatively injury-free, they've proven it on the field. I believe Maroney might outdo all of those three backs by January, but a good fantasy pick -- especially a good first-round fantasy pick -- balances upside and risk, and Maroney's got more risk associated with him than those other guys.

Without question, though, Maroney belongs at the very front of the next running-back tier, along with fellow sophomore Joseph Addai, whose circumstances are strikingly similar to Maroney's (former platoon-back who's taking over the full-time gig, accomplished pass-catching receiver in a high-octane offense, questions about durability … though in Addai's case, the questions come more because of his size). I'd rather have either of those guys than, say, Ronnie Brown, Travis Henry, Willis McGahee or even Reggie Bush, each of whom legitimately could lay claim to being a top-10 overall pick. And because I tend to be running-back-focused in first rounds of fantasy football drafts, I'd almost certainly take either Maroney or Addai before I'd select Peyton Manning or any wide receiver.

So what's Laurence Maroney's draft-day value?

So high that he'll be the cornerstone player of a team in just about every single 2007 fantasy football league in existence.

Christopher Harris is a fantasy baseball, football and racing analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.