Picking up where he left off

What does a "best-case scenario" for Tom Brady look like?

Those who watched Tom Brady's first game performance of the 2009 preseason on Aug. 13 might be glowing about his comeback chances. That's understandable; in spite of his coming off major reconstructive knee surgery, he played an entire half and completed two touchdown passes and 10 of his 15 passes overall.

Suddenly visions of his 4,806-yard, 50-touchdown season of 2007, one of the greatest (if not the greatest) single-season performances in the history of the game, are dancing in fantasy owners' heads. Then again, maybe they were even before that; Brady does have an 11.5 ESPN Live Draft position (11th overall).

I've already detailed on these pages my skepticism about Brady coming even close to those astounding 2007 statistics. My opinion probably ranks on the lower side among our writers, and of the fantasy football community overall. But at the same time, I recognize the tremendous upside apparent in Tom Brady.

The catch: To what end is that upside? There are such things in fantasy football as risk management and chasing upside, and while maybe it's tough for us to come to a consensus on Brady's true 2009 draft value, two thing we can all agree on is that he does present some risk but also can offer a substantial reward.

So for argument's sake, let's take this question literally: Tom Brady's best-case scenario. For the next several paragraphs, I'm open to playing the role of eternal optimist. In my world, that's where the Giants go 16-0 then win the Super Bowl, my fantasy teams go undefeated and everything comes up chicken parmesan. Ahhh … OK, now I'm totally there.

First off, being a recovering perfectionist (I hope), I'm prepared to accept the slight blemish or two. We need realistic best-case projections, not pie-in-the-sky outlooks. No one out there really believes Brady is going to throw for another 50 touchdowns, right? (If you care to disagree, I've got a bridge I'd like to sell you. Heck, I'll even toss in my oh-so-valuable 1988 Topps football set, which even has that ever-elusive Vinny Testaverde rookie card!)

So let's put aside Brady's 2007, and of course his injury-shortened 2008, and we have a quarterback who, other than Peyton Manning, was probably the most consistent performer in the game for more than half a decade. Brady started every game for the Patriots from 2002 to '06, not once did he rank outside the top 10 at his position in fantasy points, and his per-game averages during that time were 233.9 passing yards, 1.6 touchdowns and 0.8 interceptions. His average season: 3,743 passing yards, 26 touchdowns and 13 interceptions.

In addition, not once in those five seasons did Brady finish more than 367 yards, three touchdowns or one interception from his per-year average. Now that is consistency. He might not have been as statistically sound as a peak-level Peyton Manning, or as flashy as Daunte Culpepper during his prime, but owning Brady meant never having to fret about who you'd start at quarterback in any week.

Then, in 2007, Brady exploded. Maybe it was motivation from the team's getting busted early in the year for spying,maybe it was the offseason additions of superstar receiver Randy Moss and highly valuable complementary receiver Wes Welker, maybe it was just a magical campaign in which all the stars aligned. Whatever the reason, the Patriots were unstoppable, and Brady did his best Peyton Manning impression by throwing touchdown pass after touchdown pass, eventually surpassing Manning's single-season touchdown record.

It's those receiver additions that have me most encouraged regarding Brady's potential. Moss and Welker have been the team's top two pass-catchers (in terms of receptions) in each of the past two seasons, and even in a down year by Moss' standards in 2008, he had 1,008 yards and 11 touchdowns receiving. Compare that to the team's top two receivers in each season from 2002 to 2006:

2002: Troy Brown (97) and David Patten (61)
2003: Deion Branch (57) and Kevin Faulk (48)
2004: David Givens (56) and Patten (44)
2005: Branch (78) and Givens (59)
2006: Reche Caldwell (61) and Benjamin Watson (49)

If the best yearly reception totals Brady was getting from his top two receivers were 70 and 52, on average, how much more impressive does that make his string of consistent campaigns? By comparison, "No. 1" receiver Moss averaged 84 receptions and "No. 2" receiver Welker 112, and I use quotes to describe them only because the numbers suggest that Welker was the more productive of the two.

As a whole, the Patriots of 2002-06 averaged 3,623 yards, 27 touchdowns and 14 interceptions passing per season. The past two seasons, the team averaged 4,150 yards, 36 touchdowns and 10 interceptions passing, for a 14.5 percent increase in passing yards and 33.3 percent increase in passing touchdowns over the previous five years. That Matt Cassel -- who at the time hadn't started a game in college or in four NFL seasons -- was able to step in and rival the Brady of old in performance speaks volumes about the team's current receiving personnel. This team made an utter unknown into a totally viable weekly fantasy starter. Wow.

So what's an appropriate level of expectation for Brady's 2009? Putting aside 2007, applying those percentage boosts from his prior seasons (14.5 percent in passing yards, 33.3 percent in passing touchdowns) accounting for the more talented receiving personnel seems about right. That'd put Brady's projected stat line -- the best-case one, mind you -- at around 4,275 yards and 35 touchdowns.

That might even be underestimating his talent. Brady might even be able to pass for closer to 40 scores. But in terms of upside, 40 touchdowns should probably be your limit, especially in light of the fact that only five quarterbacks in the history of the NFL have ever thrown for that many. It's like that golden number that separates an outstanding season from one for the ages.

How likely is Brady to reach that statistical ceiling? I continue to side with the "somewhat unlikely" camp … but with continued dominance and promising health reports this preseason, I'm prepared to be convinced otherwise.

Tristan H. Cockcroft is an FSWA award-winning fantasy football analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.