With the regular season in the books and the postseason looming, it’s time to take a look back at each player on the roster and break down his performance. Here’s the WEEI.com regular-season report card:
Tom Brady: A. The less said here the better. The second-best season of his career (trailing only 2007), Brady was at his best when his team needed him the most, delivering the most efficient season of his career. Small wonder he’s the odds-on favorite for league MVP.
Brian Hoyer: C+. He had extremely limited action, but in that time, he did nothing to dissuade the opinion that he is further along in his development than Matt Cassel was at the same stage of his career.
BenJarvus Green-Ellis: A. Green-Ellis exceeded any sort of expectations anyone had for him at the start of the season on the way to becoming the unlikeliest 1,000-yard running back in the history of the franchise. When you figure in his consistency (he averaged 4.4 yards per carry), dependability (he didn’t fumble) and his ability to make something out of nothing (only 12 negative carries out of his 229 on the season), he’s become one of the best young backs in the AFC.
Danny Woodhead: B. Another guy who exceeded expectations, he stepped into Kevin Faulk’s old role almost seamlessly and thrived as a third down/changeup back. He wasn't an every-down back like Green-Ellis, but was always a threat to break a big play — he had three rushes of 20-plus yards and three receptions of 20-plus yards — en route to averaging an astonishing 5.6 yards per carry.
Fred Taylor: C. His time in New England is clearly coming to an end, but Taylor remains the consummate professional. Things with the Patriots didn’t work out as he would have liked, but you won’t hear a single bad word about him in the locker room. He is to the running backs what Alge Crumpler is to the tight ends.
Sammy Morris: C. As Green-Ellis stepped to the fore, the veteran evolved slowly over the course of the season into more of a fullback. However, like Taylor, he’s another veteran running back who probably won’t return in 2011.
Kevin Faulk, Laurence Maroney and Thomas Clayton: Incomplete.
Alge Crumpler: B+. Crumpler, like Taylor, is a top-shelf professional who didn’t complain about the lack of passes thrown his way. However, his blocking skills remain without peer and his time as a mentor to Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski helped nurture the development of the two young stars. The best compliment I can pay him is that he would have fit in perfectly on the 2003 and 2004 Patriots.
Aaron Hernandez: B. The rookie finished third on the team in receptions (45) and total yards (563) to go along with five touchdowns. A tight end who plays more like a wide receiver, he created matchup problems all season long for opposing defenses. If he continues to develop, he should provide a great complement to the bigger, bulkier Gronkowski.
Rob Gronkowski: A-. The Arizona product had a sensational rookie season with 10 touchdown catches, setting a franchise record for rookie TD receptions in a season. (In fact, no rookie tight end since Mike Ditka scored as many touchdowns.) His presence as a red-zone threat, his improved blocking skills and the maturity he showed in speaking with the media after committing some horrible gaffes in the loss to Cleveland all point to him having a long and successful career in the NFL.
Wes Welker: B+. What he worked his way back from is nothing less than amazing, especially when you consider he finished the year with a team-leading 86 catches. He remains Brady’s most dependable receiver, and one of the gold standards throughout the league when it comes to slot receiver play. (FWIW, the only reason the grade isn’t higher is because he finished with a league-leading 13 dropped passes on the season.)
Deion Branch: B. It didn’t matter that he had been away for four-plus years. As soon as he walked back into Gillette Stadium in October, the chemistry that Brady and Branch displayed — especially in Branch’s first game back where he caught nine passes for 98 yards and a touchdown — was clearly still there. After just 11 games in a New England uniform, Branch finished the season second on the team in receptions (48) and yards (706). He provided a dose of good feeling and optimism in the locker room, and was a big reason the New England offense stabilized after the dramatic events of September and October.
Brandon Tate: C. In what was essentially his rookie season, Tate showed plenty of flashes of greatness both as a receiver and kick returner, but he’s still clearly a work in progress. His freakish speed allowed him to break more than his share of big plays, but at the same time, some drops left him strikingly undependable in the passing game. (He was targeted 46 times by Brady, but only came away with 24 catches.)
Julian Edelman: C-. As a pass-catcher, it was a frustrating year for Edelman. The former college quarterback had a great rookie season, but appeared to regress in 2010, finishing with just seven catches for 86 yards. Whether it was a sophomore slump or injury (he suffered a concussion) or trying to adjust after the return of Branch, Edelman never seemed to find his footing. It’s worth noting that without Welker or Branch in the lineup, he had a fine regular-season finale (three catches, 72 yards).
Randy Moss: D. Moss played four games in his final season with the Patriots, finishing with nine catches for 139 yards and three touchdowns. He looked like he was going to finish his New England career in style — he made a lot of good defensive backs look bad in the preseason — but so much of the Year in Moss was wrapped up in off-field drama. There was the contract discussions, the postgame monologue after the season opener, the incident in Miami with Bill O’Brien. It all ended with a trade to Minnesota. In the end, it was a disappointing end to a mostly stunning career in a New England uniform for Moss.
Taylor Price: Incomplete.
Logan Mankins: A. He didn’t show up until early November, but when he did arrive, he restored an edge and a real nastiness to the New England offensive line. No disrespect intended to Dan Connolly, but it’s no surprise that all the key offensive line stats like rushing yards per attempt all increased, while things like quarterback hits, pressures, sacks and negative plays all decreased after Mankins returned.
Dan Connolly: A. With no Mankins at the start of the season, Connolly stepped in at left guard and did a very good job until Mankins returned. And when Stephen Neal went down on the right side, he filled in admirably over there as well until he went down with a concussion in the win over Green Bay. And then there was the 71-yard kick return that is already the stuff of legend. All of that adds up to one of the best performances of the year at any position.
Dan Koppen: B. They say the best kind of season an offensive lineman could have is that if they never mention his name. I’m not sure I heard any media member say Koppen’s name over the course of the season, which could be the ultimate tribute to the de facto leader of New England’s offensive line. Bigger nose tackles still knock him around, but there are few veteran centers around the league who can boast of the kind of dependability and durability that Koppen has brought to the line since he first took the job as a rookie in 2003.
Matt Light: B-. The left tackle might be in his final season with the Patriots — he’s in the last season of a six-year extension he signed in 2004. If it is his last season in New England, he performed very well against a variety of speed rushers. In the end, it was a good but not great season for Light, who could be supplanted at his spot by Vollmer in 2011.
Sebastian Vollmer: B-. Coming off a sensational rookie season, the big German settled in at right tackle and struggled at times, but managed to right the ship at the end of the season and perform well down the stretch. Likely the left tackle of the future.
Stephen Neal: B-. The veteran right guard was placed on injured reserve with a shoulder problem midway through the year, cutting short a positive season. He contemplated retirement at the end of last season, and this year’s injury could mean we’ve seen the last of Neal — like Light, one of the last links to the Super Bowl XXXVI team.
Mark LeVoir, Rich Ohrnberger, Quinn Ojinnaka, Ryan Wendell: Incomplete.
Vince Wilfork: A. Patriots’ fans should shudder to think where this defense would be if Wilfork had walked in the offseason. It was his finest season, both on the field (where he was a slam-dunk Pro Bowler) and off the field (where he emerged as the unquestioned leader of the New England defense). Wilfork played multiple positions along the defensive line and held things together down the stretch when some of the younger defensive linemen were banged up toward the end of the season.
Gerard Warren: B+. Warren has evolved into an excellent complementary player to put next to Wilfork. A dependable veteran, he bore more than a passing resemblance to some of the great defensive big men of years past who landed in New England late in their careers, players like Anthony Pleasant and Roman Phifer.
Mike Wright: B. New England’s best interior pass rusher, he suffered a concussion on Nov. 21 against the Colts and never really recovered. When he was healthy, he provided a real threat up the middle — despite missing almost seven games, he still led the team in sacks with 5.5. Not the finest defensive lineman on the team, he’s still an undeniable presence as a situational defender.
Ron Brace: C+. After a brutal rookie year (where he admitted he wasn’t ready for the rigors of life in the NFL), there was real improvement from the Boston College product. He struggled with injury for much of the season, but developed into a quality backup who could be counted on to give the Patriots quality snaps in both the running and passing game.
Brandon Deaderick and Kyle Love: C+. Two rookies who brought some depth to the defensive line, Deaderick had a good start — making four starts — before running into some trouble. (There was a report on Monday he had been suspended by the team.) On the other hand, Love came on toward the end of the year and appeared to surpass Deaderick on the depth chart.
Myron Pryor: C-. With the lack of playing time throughout the bulk of the season, we’re tempted to give him an incomplete. He sat for several weeks with a back injury, but a healthy and active Pryor in the postseason could allow Wilfork to take a play or two off here or there, which would be invaluable.
Eric Moore: B. The UFL alum has seen limited action to this point, but when he has played, he has certainly played well with 14 tackles, two forced fumbles, and two sacks in four games. He will almost certainly be a regular part of the defensive line rotation in the playoffs.
Landon Cohen: Incomplete.
Jerod Mayo: A. Like Wilfork, he emerged as a dynamic presence on the field (where he nearly became just the third player in franchise history to reach 200 tackles), as well as a real leader off the field. This is the kind of season that Belichick had in mind when he drafted him in 2008. Mayo is a bona fide Pro Bowler who should be in the running for All-Pro status as well.
Tully Banta-Cain: C. This season was something of a disappointment for Banta-Cain, who was coming off a 10-sack season in 2009 and signed a multiyear deal in the offseason. Instead of replicating that performance, he slid backward a bit. He has had some injury issues over the course of the season, but his inability to put consistent pressure on the quarterback has been alarming.
Jermaine Cunningham: C+. When healthy, he brought some energy to the pass rush, and was even nominated as a Rookie of the Week after an impressive performance against the Ravens when he had six tackles, one sack and a forced fumble. But he’s run out of gas as of late. When it comes to this year’s group of rookies, he’s the most apparent case of hitting the rookie wall.
Brandon Spikes: D. He won the inside linebacker job with a terrific training camp, and to this point, the on-field performance has been OK. But overall, he may be the most disappointing of the current crop of rookies, simply because he’s provided more than his share of off-field headaches (sex tape, suspension for violating the league’s substance abuse policy) for the franchise, and he’s only eight or so months into his professional career.
Dane Fletcher: C+. An undrafted free agent who has played well when called upon, Fletcher has provided depth when needed, stepping in and getting some snaps after Spikes was suspended for the last four games of the regular season. Not a dominating presence, but he played well for a rookie.
Gary Guyton: B. He still has some deficiencies when it comes to stopping the run, but Guyton is who he is: the best linebacker on the team when it comes to pass coverage. Take him out of his element and he occasionally gets exposed, but his effort and football smarts have never been in question. Plus, he’s probably closer to Mayo than anyone on the team, and there’s something to be said for chemistry, especially at that position.
Rob Ninkovich: B+. In his first season as a real starter, it was a very good season for Ninkovich. He wasn’t dominating as an outside linebacker, but did a good job setting the edge, bringing some pressure on the quarterback (four sacks) and showing a nose for the ball (two interceptions against his old team, the Dolphins). Not extraordinarily flashy, but he brings excellent value to the position.
Kyle Arrington: B+. The cornerback has made a nice, steady rise through the system to the point where he saw lots of time this season. He wasn’t always perfect, but his physicality is a nice asset when it comes to bodying up on receivers. A good year for the Hofstra product, who wasn’t in over his head when he was asked to move up the depth chart in the wake of injuries to Leigh Bodden and Jonathan Wilhite.
Sergio Brown: C+. Mostly a special teams presence, he did an adequate job serving as a backup safety who provided good depth at the safety position.
Darius Butler: C. Nice rebound job this season for the UConn product, who began the season as a starter before being benched after the horrific loss to the Jets in Week 2. He worked hard and returned as a nickel corner when Wilhite went down for the year, and has clearly started to get his confidence back. It's unclear if he’ll ever be a regular starting corner in the league ever again, but he gets credit for not mentally checking out after he was bumped from the starters’ job.
Pat Chung: B+. It was a good year for the second-year safety out of Oregon, who really distinguished himself on special teams (particularly in the win over the Dolphins in Miami). He’s not quite Rodney Harrison, but does a nice job distinguishing when to go for the big hit and when to simply contain the ball carrier. He’s also starting to really establish himself as a leader in the secondary, particularly among the safeties.
Devin McCourty: A. When Leigh Bodden went down, not a lot of people had hope for the New England secondary, but McCourty changed all that. Simply put, he turned in the best rookie season of any Patriots cornerback since Mike Haynes in 1976. His size allows him to body up to bigger receivers, while his speed and hands allow him to match up nicely against smaller, finesse guys. He’s not quite a pure lockdown corner yet, but it should only be a matter of time.
Brandon Meriweather: C-. Now that Laurence Maroney and Ben Watson have left town, Meriweather is easily the most polarizing presence on the roster. He has had his moments this season with three interceptions (including a key one late in the first game against the Bills), and no Patriots player has more picks over the last two seasons than the safety. But there’s also more than his share of errors, including several occasions where he took his own teammates out of a play because of his mistakes.
Jarrad Page: C, but feels like he could also be labeled as incomplete. Page was picked up at the start of the season, suffered a calf injury in October and was on the shelf for a couple of months. When he played, he impressed the coaching staff. (There is a small army of fans who would like to see if he could supplant Meriweather at the strong safety position.)
James Sanders: B. Easy to forget, but over the years, Sanders has carved out a nice rep as a steady, consistent presence at safety. He’s never flashy or a real big hitter, but rarely makes a mistake and is capable of coming up with a big play when needed. Provides a nice complement to the younger, more aggressive Chung at the strong safety spot.
Tony Carter: Incomplete
Zoltan Mesko: B. Good rookie season for the punter, who has proven to be a significant upgrade at the position from the recent collection of punters who have been shuffled in and out of Foxboro over the last few seasons. He came through in a big way in the overtime win over the Ravens, tilting the field with a key 65-yard punt in a key situation.
Shayne Graham: B+. He doesn’t have the touchbacks that Stephen Gostkowski has had, but he’s managed to kick very well in some difficult conditions over his relatively brief time with the Patriots. One noteworthy thing going forward is that he has yet to kick in a key situation.
Matt Katula: B. No bad snaps so far, which means it’s been a good season for Katula.
Matt Slater: B. Speed and coachability are Slater’s best attributes, and those traits have managed to keep him around Foxboro as a complementary player the last few seasons. While he occasionally gets reps on offense as a wide receiver, he’s mostly worked on special teams, and is usually good for at least one impressive play a season.
Tracy White: C+. A linebacker in name, he’s more of a special teams guy, White has settled into the Larry Izzo role this season. He probably won’t achieve his stated goal of making the Pro Bowler purely as a special teamer (especially with the recent special teams slippage on kick coverage), but has done exactly what the team has asked of him this season.
Stephen Gostkowski: B+. The kicker was having a good season, particularly on kickoffs, before he went down in the brutal loss to Cleveland.
Bill Belichick: A. While it wasn’t his finest coaching job (that’s still 2001), it’s not too far off. This is a team that faced a new drama almost every week, and somehow, the Patriots managed to keep their focus and keep winning football games. Not only that, but they also managed to get better on both sides of the ball — particularly on defense. All of this is a tribute to the coach, who has to be considered one of the favorites for Coach of the Year.