Halfway home on the 2018 regular season, the New England Patriots are 6-2.
Just like last year, and the year before that. Consistency is the name of the game in Foxboro.
Not all 6-2 records are created equal, however. We knew entering the season that this Patriots team was flawed in certain areas, but some of those narratives have been flipped around through eight games.
How does New England grade out at the midterms? Probably not as well as you’d hope for. But there’s still final exams, not to mention all of the extra credit that can come in the playoffs.
Here’s where the 2018 Patriots stand:
The biggest issue with Tom Brady is that to truly grade him, he must be graded against himself rather than his peers. He’s completed 67.5 percent of his passes, which would be his best mark since 2007 – you know all about that season – but his seven interceptions already are just one fewer than his total from all of last season. Brady is on pace to throw 14 picks, which would match his career high from another lifetime in 2002, 2004 and 2005.
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Brady is far from the biggest problem facing the Patriots. In fact, he’s probably still their greatest solution. As you’ll see throughout the skill position grades below, the degree of difficulty has been ramped up a notch or ten this fall.
James White continues to be perhaps the most underappreciated player in the NFL, on pace to shatter the record for most receptions in a single season by a running back. He’s at 55 through eight games, on track for 110; the record is 102. When healthy, Sony Michel has looked the part of a late first-round pick, with two games north of 100 yards rushing to his credit.
Trouble is, Michel hasn’t been healthy enough. Though he avoided a season-ending injury against the Bears in Week 7, he still figures to miss at least a few more games. Sans Michel, there’s no true between-the-tackles runner on the roster.
“I just go out there and do my normal job, no matter if it’s one back or ten backs out there – just execute to the best of my abilities and put my best foot forward,” White said this week of the depth at the position.
Standing pat at the trade deadline is perhaps a sign Michel will be back sooner rather than later. If not, Belichick glossed over adding depth to one of the thinnest groups on the roster.
Julian Edelman has looked like… well, Julian Edelman since returning from his four-game PED suspension to begin the season. He had his first 100-yard game of the season against Buffalo, totaling nine catches for 104 yards in all. That’s enabled Chris Hogan to become a great deal more productive in the season’s second month vs. the first – or maybe, it’s the emergence of Josh Gordon who’s helped Hogan return to his best-suited role as the team’s No. 3 receiver.
Gordon’s status from Monday night in Buffalo remains a mystery – was he ever in line to be punished for tardiness at all? Prior to the apparent hiccup, Gordon’s transition to New England had been going almost seamlessly. He still managed four catches for 42 yards vs. the Bills, for what it’s worth.
Should Gordon stay on the straight and narrow, you’ll likely never hear this group of receivers compared to Brady’s targets in 2006 ever again. Which is crucial, considering Phillip Dorsett has been targeted just once over the last three games and Cordarrelle Patterson is now a running back, apparently.
Jacob Hollister has just three catches on the season, one for each game he’s been active thus far. That’s still more productive that Dwayne Allen has been in the passing game, who has one catch for -4 yards to date.
Normally, this wouldn’t be a huge issue, given the presence of the greatest tight end of all-time. But said greatest tight end of all-time, Rob Gronkowski, has looked like a shell of himself in 2018. He had a great opener vs. the Texans, with seven catches for 123 yards and a touchdown, but that remains the last time Gronk found the end zone.
Both Gronkowski and Allen have been great as blockers, per usual, but as we know, that’s not why Gronk is here. There’s simply no logical explanation as to why he’s been targeted just twice in the red zone through eight weeks – not the end zone, the red zone.
Not that finances are the be all, end all, but would you rather have Nate Solder at $10 million against the salary cap or Trent Brown at $1.9 million? The acquisition of Brown to shore up Solder’s void has without question been Bill Belichick’s finest move from the off-season.
The interior of New England’s line has been solid, though Shaq Mason missed some snaps in the Buffalo game for the first time all year and is out for Sunday night vs. Green Bay.
LaAdrian Waddle had been doing a good job filling in for Marcus Cannon at right tackle prior to Monday night’s game against the Bills, but really, the entire line struggled in that one. Chalk it up as a bad night rather than a trend for the group, at least for now.
The Patriots are 14th in the NFL against the run and 26th in total sacks, with 11. Though Trey Flowers hasn’t been getting the counting numbers he’d been hoping for – he has just two total sacks – Pro Football Focus has him as the top edge defender in the entire NFL at this juncture.
“It is what it is, you can’t look too much into numbers,” Flowers said. “You want to get there, but if you’re making the quarterback throw it faster than he wants to, or if we’re getting off the field on third downs, things like that, it’s all about the wins.”
More contributions along the edge would be nice; can Derek Rivers work his way into the rotation on a more regular basis? But as far as glaring concerns go, this group isn’t one of them.
Kyle Van Noy continues to show up all over the field, whether it’s in a role along the edge or in pass coverage, and is tied for the team lead in tackles, with 44. After looking slow in the first month of the season, Dont’a Hightower looks to have regained at least somewhat of a burst as he hovers over the middle of the defense.
Aside from his pair of dropped interceptions over the last two games, Elandon Roberts has been having a steadier season for the Patriots as well. But this group is severely lacking in depth, which is why the potential return of training camp star Ja’Whaun Bentley off of injured reserve could be a massive boon for this group as the postseason lurks closer.
Like Ty Law and Darrelle Revis before him, Stephon Gilmore proudly wears No. 24 as a bona fide lockdown No. 1 corner for the Patriots. Pro Football Focus has him ranked as the fourth-best cornerback in football at the halfway mark, while his 11 passes defended are the second-most in the league.
“Yeah, he gets his hands on a lot of balls in practice,” Belichick said of Gilmore. “So, he’s playing with a lot of confidence, playing with good technique and just the second year [in New England] has helped, like it usually does with most players.”
Jason McCourty, whose name was floated all around the roster bubble throughout training camp, has been underrated as the No. 2 corner opposite Gilmore. PFF has him as the 12th-best corner in the league, and he hasn’t given up a touchdown in coverage yet.
The Patriots are 25th in the league in total defense, including 27th against the pass. Not all of that can be attributed to safety play, of course, but it warrants monitoring in the season’s second half. Devin McCourty’s pick-six in Buffalo last week – the first of his career – could be a turning point for the ninth-year pro.
In a year when his predecessor, Adam Vinatieri, has become the NFL’s all-time leading scorer, Stephen Gostkowski is just fine, thanks. The 13th-year pro won AFC Special Teams Player of the Month honors in October. For the season, Gostkowski is 17 for 19 on field goal attempts – his only misses having been from over 50 yards – and is a perfect 26 for 26 on his PATs.
Other than that, Patriots special teams have been uncharacteristically up-and-down. Cordarrelle Patterson’s kick return touchdown and Dont’a Hightower’s blocked punt were great…Patterson’s fumble on a kick return, not so much. And then there’s the unit-wide issues in coverage, where the Patriots are allowing the second-most yards per return on punts and sixth-most yards per return on kicks.
Two games back of the Miami Dolphins entering a Week 4 showdown at Gillette Stadium, the Patriots are now two games ahead of them in the AFC East – with the rest of the sorry division lagging even further behind.
The Kansas City Chiefs remain the top team in the AFC playoff structure at 7-1, but remember, New England holds the tiebreaker should it come down to that.
All things considered, after how lifeless the team looked through three weeks? You’ll certainly take it, but if this grade remains the same come Week 17, something likely will have gone terribly wrong over the next eight games.