Tom Brady is back, and for plenty of fantasy football fans his return marks a dramatic shift in strategy. The New England Patriots star quarterback will suit up this Thursday for his team's season opener, after U.S. District Judge Richard Berman threw out the National Football League's four-game suspension against him in the now notorious "Deflategate" case.
The development is a game-changer in the league – and for the millions of fantasy football fanatics across the country, especially those who put their money behind Brady in early drafts.
SEE ALSO: Brady wants to move on from 'Deflategate'
Last year an estimated 41 million people played in fantasy football leagues, most wagering upwards of $100 for the season. In fantasy football, participants create virtual teams by "drafting" existing players from the NFL. Each week a fan's team goes head-to-head with another in the league, and the score is based on the real-life, statistical performance of the people on the fan's squad.
For many leagues, drafting wraps up this week, although, depending on a league's rules, a fan may be able to trade players throughout the season.
In general, fantasy football team owners receive points each week when their players do something right (for instance, a wide receiver catching a pass for a touchdown) and lose points when they do something wrong (such as a quarterback throwing an interception).
For some fantasy football fans, the allure of drafting Brady, the Super Bowl XLIX most valuable player, outweighed concerns about his potential four-game suspension.
"There's always your stats guy; there's always your fan guy," said Zack Jones, editor in chief of SportsbookReview.com, a sports analytics and commentary site. "And there's always the guy who wants to go for the long shot."
Stuart Green, a 10-year fantasy veteran, said he did not pick up Brady - but his 13-year-old son grabbed him in the seventh round of one of the numerous leagues he participates in, in a draft held prior to the Berman ruling.
"He now thinks he's a genius," quipped Green, a lifelong Philadelphia Eagles fan and senior vice president of strategic accounts at Symphony Health in Lafayette Hill, Pennsylvania.
"We all were just kind of staring at (Brady's name) on the board wondering if anyone was going to do it," said Todd Wachtel, an attorney in New Jersey who has wagered $265 this season. Eventually, Brady went in the ninth round of his 10-person draft.
"I have two friends who drafted Tom in the third round (in separate drafts), and they could not be happier," said Jason Jepson, a vice president of a public relations agency in Austin, Texas, whose eight-person league has a total of $2,000 on the line. "They are celebrating as their friends berated them."
Brandon Marianne Lee, founder of Her Fantasy Football, a fantasy ranking and analysis site, and an analyst for fantasy site FanDuel, said Brady's return to the field could have repercussions for the players around him.
"The biggest impact is on wide receivers," Lee said, noting that Patriots receiver Julian Edelman's value from a fantasy prospective has increased dramatically. Wide receivers working with a top-tier quarterback are likely to be more productive than those working with a backup, even a good one.
Experts say fantasy fans would be wise to look at how Brady's week-one status affects the rest of his team. With a reliable quarterback active for week one, Patriots receivers could catch more passes and, subsequently, pick up more fantasy points.
"(The ruling) moved Brady up, obviously," noted KC Joyner, a senior ESPN NFL & Fantasy Football Insider and analytics expert. But "it helps the guys around him."
For example, New England tight end Rob Gronkowski is now a top-five draft pick, Joyner said.
'WHO IS LAUGHING NOW?'
While Brady will return to Gillette Stadium this week, the "Deflategate" saga is far from over.
See photos from the 'Deflategate' saga:
After the judge overturned Brady's suspension, the NFL appealed the ruling. If successful, the NFL would have the power to reinstate Brady's suspension. And it remains unclear whether this could affect the 2015 season – and fantasy football.
Jamie O'Grady, an attorney and the editor of The Cauldron, a sports news and analysis site, said, "no one knows" the timeline for the appeals process. "The league doesn't necessarily want to litigate this in the near term because they want to focus on the season," O'Grady says.
For Lori Jung, a public relations specialist with firm Hudson West, who put up $150 for her 10-person league, that risk was too great.
"I picked up starters," Jung said. "I don't like to take any kind of gamble." Jung's strategy means that – barring a last-minute injury or personal conduct issue – every player she drafted will be on the field in week one.
Even so, Brady went in the second round of her draft – and the person who drafted him took a fair share of jeering for the move.
"But who's laughing now, right?"