There are a number of new faces playing for the Patriots this year, especially on defense. At about the halfway point in the season it is interesting to see how some of the young guys or new guys have worked out. You also have to look at the various roster moves and attempt to put their impact on the team in context.
Most people, including myself, had the Patriots going 6-1 at the bye week. So a 5-2 record is not bad. The worst part of the two losses is who they lost to. AFC and especially AFC East losses are hard to swallow. At the end of the season I fully expect the Patriots to be significantly better than the Jets or Broncos. As it is, those two losses could come back to haunt them.
OFFENSE OVERALL: B+
The numbers tell you this should be a higher grade. Fifth in points per game. Third in total offense. Second in passing yards per game. But what do your eyes tell you? My eyes tell me this a good offense but there is room for improvement.
Despite being named Offensive Player of the Month for October, Tom Brady can play better. Those of us who have been spoiled by the best quarterback in football know this to be true. I have taken into account the comeback from the knee injury. Brady is now past the point where the injury is playing a part. He was off-target early in the season on the long ball and not nearly as precise as we are used to on the medium-range passes. He has still put up some very solid numbers and if he maintains this pace he should be in another Pro Bowl.
Wes Welker makes Tom Brady a better quarterback. Welker is where he is supposed to be 98 percent of the time. And he gets open on the way there. Is there any wonder that Welker is on his way to another 100-plus-catch season? Welker has 46 receptions despite having played in only five games.
Randy Moss is having pretty good year statistically speaking. Moss could easily finish with 85 catches and 1,100 yards. Look for his yards-per-catch average to be better in the second half of the season. Brady missed Moss deep a few times early on. I expect that to change.
Joey Galloway was a complete bust. Dropping passes and missing reads were only his most obvious issues. I know it is hard to judge a guy's desire, but this was a complete whiff by Belichick and the personnel braintrust. The ability was still there but the desire was gone. He did not work hard enough or care enough.
The Julian Edelman experiment was paying dividends before he got hurt. Sam Aiken has shown more than just special teams ability.
Ben Watson and Chris Baker have been adequate at tight end. Watson still is capable of highlight reel catches.
OFFENSIVE LINE: B+
The O-line has played well, allowing only eight sacks in 284 passing attempts. Part of that low ratio is Tom Brady being as good as he is, but it is still a good number. Brady has been hit 29 times but even that is acceptable.
The run-blocking has been better than the rushing numbers would indicate.
Matt Light was playing well before he got hurt. Stephen Neal has played well enough but his mistakes seem to come in bunches. Logan Mankins has been solid, as has Dan Koppen. Nick Kaczur has been better than average on the right side. Sebastian Vollmer has filled in well for the injured Light.
I thought that their vast experience would have had them playing better against the Jets and that Rex Ryan defense.
RUNNING BACKS: B-
If this grade seems high, just remember it is not a grade for just Laurence Maroney. Fred Taylor was doing well before he went down. The same can be said for Sammy Morris. Kevin Faulk continues to be one of the most mentally tough and reliable players in the NFL. BenJarvus Green-Ellis seems to make the most of the chances he is given.
Why are we all angry with Laurence Maroney? He is averaging 4.3 yards per carry. He does not fumble the ball. He is a decent receiver. So why the anger? The answer is simple. Because we see how much more he is capable of doing. If he had only average talent and was gaining 4.3 per carry (also his career average) we would commend his efforts. But instead we see flashes of greatness amidst the steady diet of dancing and tip-toeing and it makes us angry. If Maroney could run every time like he did against Tennessee all would be well.
DEFENSE OVERALL: B
I challenge anyone but the most ardent rump-swabbing Patriots fan to tell me they predicted the defense to be playing this well. The absence of Mike Vrabel, Tedy Bruschi and then Richard Seymour had us all assuming the Pats would just have to outscore other teams. Their best defense would be a good offense. The infusion of youth and speed has us all rethinking our original predictions about this defense.
Their numbers are terrific, but I cannot give the Pats an 'A' because they have not faced enough good offenses. Indy and New Orleans will give us a better idea of where the defense really is.
DEFENSIVE LINE: A-
Vince Wilfork is dominant at his position. There is not a better nose tackle in the league right now.
Ty Warren has been playing very well, too. He has a tremendous motor and makes a number of plays just because he does not give up on the play. Jarvis Green has been less effective than in years past. Mike Wright has been very solid and will see even more time with Green going down. Tully Banta-Cain is a pass-rushing specialist who has done a good job in those situations. The only thing lacking from this group is more consistent pressure on the QB on non-blitzing plays.
Gary Guyton has been an absolute steal for the defense. Forced into action in the middle when Jerod Mayo went down, he took full advantage of the playing time. He performed so well that he earned time on the field even when Mayo came back. Mayo has been very good when in there. His Defensive Rookie of the Year Award in 2008 was no fluke. This kid could have multiple Pro Bowls in his future. Guyton and Mayo are a big part of the transition to a faster defense.
On the other end of the spectrum are Adalius Thomas and Derrick Burgess. Both have been invisible other than very intermittent pressure on the QB. Neither of these guys has lived up to their billing.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: B
The worst game the secondary had was against the Broncos. Even without proof that Denver could go deep. The secondary allowed Kyle Orton to destroy it with underneath passes. Other than that, the secondary has been pretty good.
Brandon Meriweather is close to being Pro Bowl-caliber. He is displaying the confidence and knowledge of the defense to be that aggressive type of safety that Bill Belichick loves. Brandon McGowan also has emerged as a more-than-capable safety.
Shawn Springs has been pretty much the stop-gap guy we anticipated. Still good enough to just barely hold his own but not a long-term solution. Leigh Bodden may have more of a future with the Patriots, but he has been below average. The young player I am most interested in watching is Darius Butler. He is one of the best raw athletes I have seen in the New England secondary in a while. It will be interesting to see if he can develop into a good cornerback.
SPECIAL TEAMS: B+
Stephen Gostkowski has been very good. His kickoffs have been better than average. He is getting to the point where we take him for granted. Like we did with Adam Vinatieri.
Chris Hanson has struggled. He has lost some distance and should be better at pinning the opponent inside the 20.
The return game is in decent hands. Punt returns are fine. Kickoff returns are just average. Again, Maroney shows flashes, but too often he is indecisive.
Kickoff coverage has been good, even creating the key turnover in the Buffalo game.
I thought the Patriots were not as prepared as they could have been against the Jets defense. Likewise against the Broncos offense. In both games we kept waiting for the answer to the problems the team was having. The answers never came.
These were both winnable games, and especially in the second half, when Bill and his staff have always had the edge.
I cannot truly judge the draft this early. But Darius Butler, Ron Brace, Sebastian Vollmer, Julian Edelman, Jake Ingram, Myron Pryor and Patrick Chung all have contributed to this team already. That is an extraordinary amount of help from a rookie class just seven games into the season.
The Seymour trade is going to prove to be a brilliant move. Banta-Cain looks like a good signing.
That's the good news.
The free agent market was not as kind to the Patriots as the draft. Galloway was a major bust. Burgess looks like a mistake. More was expected from Shawn Springs. I think the Patriots would like to have Mike Vrabel right about now. There were other misses, too, but those are some of the bigger ones. Overall, the non-drafted personnel moves were not good this year.