Halfway through the 2017 season, the New England Patriots sit at 6-2 and in sole possession of first place in the AFC East.
For almost any other team in the NFL, it would be a cause for celebration. In Foxboro, it’s merely par for the course, even if it’s far from the smoothest of starts for the Patriots despite trending towards an astounding eighth-consecutive first round bye in the postseason.
New England is 6-2 at the halfway mark of the season for a fifth straight season.
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In addition to being halfway through the schedule, it’s also New England’s bye week. Bill Belichick ensured it wouldn’t be a quiet week off by executing a stunning trade which sent shock waves across the NFL last night.
Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo was shipped to the San Francisco 49ers in exchange for a 2018 second round draft pick, which figures to fall somewhere between Nos. 33-35 given the 49ers are 0-7 and possess one of the more barren rosters in the NFL.
The trade deadline is Tuesday at 4 p.m., and it wouldn’t be shocking to see the Patriots continue to wheel and deal.
But with the team not playing another game until Sunday, Nov. 12, it’s as good a time as any to assess everything that went right – as well as wrong – through the first eight games of the season with a position-by-position report card. We’ll start with the most important position on the field, where Belichick appears to believe he’s got his quarterback of the future at the tender age of 40.
All Tom Brady has done is lead the league in passing yards with 2,541 to go along with a tidy 16 to 2 touchdown to interception ratio. Eight games isn’t a small sample size anymore, and Brady is on pace for 5,082 yards – a figure which would be the second-best mark of his career (5,235 in 2011). Brady isn’t just an MVP candidate, he might be the front-runner.
Strictly running the ball, New England has been just OK. The team is averaging 3.9 yards per carry, a figure which is 21st in the league. Mike Gillislee’s 355 yards leads the team but are 21st overall. A year after leading the league in yards per carry at 5.7, Gillislee is down to 3.6 – 38th in the NFL. Gillislee has struggled in short yardage situations as well despite having four rushing touchdowns, all of which came in the first two weeks. New England has only two other scores on the ground, a season after LeGarrette Blount led the league with 18 rushing TDs.
To truly appreciate the contributions New England has gotten on the ground, one must look to the passing game. Look no further than this past game against the Chargers, when James White had five catches for 85 yards and Rex Burkhead had seven catches for 68 yards. White has taken on added importance with Julian Edelman sidelined; the fourth-year back is on pace for a remarkable 86 catches, a figure which would be tied for 14th all-time among running backs for a single season.
There’s no 2004 Corey Dillon or even 2016 Blount among this group. But as a whole, as long as the backs continue to help Brady in the passing game, it won’t matter if there’s no conventional between-the-tackles runner who can gain 100 yards a game on the ground.
James Develin is as good an old-school battering ram out of the backfield as there is in today’s NFL. Since he has zero carries, it’s hard to truly quantify his contributions, although Pro Football Focus tries: the analytic website has the Brown University alum graded as the second-best fullback in the NFL this season. Develin has played in 27.8 percent of New England’s offensive snaps.
Brady’s stat line has hardly been affected by the season-long absence of Julian Edelman, and at least at first, neither was the point production for the Patriots offense. But per Mike Reiss of ESPN, New England just went four straight weeks without cracking 30 points for the first time since 2001…Brady’s first season as a starter.
The team is still 4-0 in said games and the lack of scoring isn’t necessarily all on the receivers. Still, it’s telling that only two wide receivers have cracked the century mark in yardage for a single game this season: Brandin Cooks (131 yards) vs. Houston and Danny Amendola (100 even) vs. Kansas City. Tight end Rob Gronkowski has a single game north of 100 yards, with a 116-yard performance vs. New Orleans.
Then again, Brady once led the NFL in passing yardage without having a single receiver go over the 1,000 yard mark for the season (2005, when he threw for a then career-high 4,110 yards). He’s often at his best when he’s not hyper-focused on a single receiver and spreading the ball around evenly.
Cooks is fifth in the league in receiving yards with 563 and already has eight catches of 20 yards or more. His performance vs. the Texans – five catches, 131 yards and two touchdowns, one of which came with 29 seconds left in the fourth quarter – is why he’s drawn comparisons to Randy Moss. Amendola continues to be reliable, as is Chris Hogan, although the injury he suffered against the Chargers warrants monitoring. It would be nice if Philip Dorsett (only one catch since Week 2) can gain more traction in the offense or if Malcolm Mitchell returns from injured reserve to build on his promising rookie campaign from a season ago.
If we were only talking about Rob Gronkowski, we’d be talking about an A. He’s played in seven of eight games and would likely have perfect attendance if not for a quick Thursday turnaround in Tampa to go along with 34 catches for 509 yards and five touchdowns.
In analyzing the whole position, however, it’s clear the gap between Gronk and whoever lines up alongside him has never been larger post-Aaron Hernandez.
Dwayne Allen, acquired from the Indianapolis Colts for a fourth round pick (with the Patriots also getting back a sixth) in the off-season, has a grand total of zero receptions in half a season in Foxboro. He hasn’t even been targeted since New England’s Week 3 win over Houston; undrafted rookie Jacob Hollister (three catches, six targets) and Develin the fullback (three catches, five targets) have been more a part of the passing game than Allen.
When Gronkowski went down last year, Martellus Bennett stepped in and the drop off was insignificant enough that New England still won the Super Bowl. With Edelman already missing, another season-ending injury to Gronk would be the point of no return for the Patriots.
Per usual, there’s been stability along the offensive line for the Patriots. Guards Shaq Mason and Joe Thuney, as well as center David Andrews, haven’t missed a snap yet in 2017. Left tackle Nate Solder has missed only three of a possible 593 plays and right tackle Marcus Cannon’s absences have been injury-related, not performance-based.
The concern up front for New England is the protection – or lack thereof – of Brady. While his beating has subsided in recent weeks, Brady is still on pace to be sacked a career-high 42 times and is being sacked on 6.4 percent of his pass attempts, his highest rate since 2001. Von Miller in Denver and Cameron Wake in Miami are among the top-end pass rushers still on the schedule for the Patriots to consider. With the Garoppolo insurance policy cashed in, New England can ill-afford a banged-up Brady down the stretch.
Opponents are averaging 5.1 yards per rush against the Patriots, which is second-to-last in the NFL, and 121.5 yards per game, which is 24th out of 32 teams.
Alan Branch continues to work his way out of the doghouse after being left home for the Tampa Bay game, part of an inconsistent year for the 32-year-old after he re-signed with the team this off-season. Malcom Brown, New England’s first round pick in 2015, missed Sunday’s game against the Chargers with an ankle injury.
Along the edges, ends Trey Flowers and rookie Deatrich Wise Jr. got off to very strong starts, although neither has recorded a sack over the last three games. If one area gets targeted prior to today’s trade deadline, it’s the defensive line.
Kyle Van Noy joined the Patriots as a depth piece in the middle of the 2016 season, but he’s flourished in his first full year in Foxboro. His best three games have been the last three, in which he’s led the team (or finished tied for the lead) in tackles. Van Noy is beginning to develop a knack for the big play, as he had two sacks against the Jets and blew up an end around on the goal line against the Falcons. Sans Dont’a Hightower, Van Noy wore the green communication dot against the Chargers as the de facto leader of the defense.
Van Noy’s continued ascension will be crucial, given Hightower’s big play résumé of his own. Elandon Roberts has struggled in coverage, it remains to be seen what – if anything – David Harris has left, and who knows what sort of contributions to expect from Trevor Reilly, who was recently promoted from the practice squad.
From a depth piece to pretty much indispensible. That’s what Van Noy means to the Patriots linebacker corps.
I’m lumping the cornerbacks and safeties together because they go hand-in-hand in New England’s dreadful September defensively, but also deserve a great deal of credit for the turnaround in October.
Alex Smith throwing for the second-most yards of his 13-year career in the season opener was no fluke; it was a warning sign for things that only got worse as the first quarter of the season rolled along.
Even as Jameis Winston and Josh McCown continued the streak of throwing for 300 yards or more against the Patriots, positive signs were emerging: after DeShaun Watson averaged a robust 9.1 yards per completion in Week 3 and Cam Newton averaged 10.9 per completion as the crisis reached its nadir in Week 4, Winston averaged only 7.3 and McCown only 7.5 in the two weeks that followed. Matt Ryan and Philip Rivers, certainly more accomplished quarterbacks than Winston or McCown, were each held to 7.1 yards per completion and became the first passers to fail to top 300 yards against New England in 2017.
Cornerback is the bigger question mark going forward. When will Stephon Gilmore and Eric Rowe return? Will Malcolm Butler’s uneven first half carry over in a contract year? Can Johnson Bademosi continue to be relied upon if injuries persist?
It was alarming to see the exchange between Butler and safety Devin McCourty in the aftermath of Travis Benjamin’s touchdown on Sunday afternoon against the Chargers. Clearly, the miscommunication hasn’t gone away completely.
Stephen Gostkowski had an off day on Sunday against the Chargers, missing a pair of 43-yard field goals. For the season, he’s still 20 for 23 on field goals and 20 for 21 on PATs.
Ryan Allen is 29th in net punting in the NFL, averaging 38.2 yards per kick. He’s tied for 26th with punts inside the 20-yard line, with eight.
Core special teamers have risen to the occasion on more moment than one for the Patriots this season. Think Cassius Marsh’s blocked field goal against Atlanta or Brandon King’s safety against Los Angeles in punt coverage. It’s worth mentioning that Matthew Slater, New England’s special teams captain and a six-time Pro Bowler, missed the first four games of the season but is now fully healthy.
There’s room for improvement here, but the Patriots haven’t and likely won’t lose a game at any point due to special teams – not something every team in the NFL can say with confidence.
As Philip Rivers astutely noted in his postgame press conference on Sunday, this isn’t the best Patriots team of the last decade.
“I don’t think they would say that this is the best team they’ve [had] in a decade,” Rivers added.
In the context of late October, he’s certainly not wrong. These Patriots still aren’t playing their best football, but seldom do until the calendar flips to November and December.
For a season that began with talk of 19-0 and nearly fell flat on its face, New England’s recovery has been commendable. Certainly worthy of a Grade: B+, with plenty of chances for extra credit in January and the first week of February.