The 17-game schedule makes it tough to know when it’s time for the yearly ‘mid-season Patriots grades’ feature. It used to be eight games in, eight to go, but now we get creative. The bye week, especially when it’s in late October or early November, is often used as an unofficial halfway point, so here we are.
As the Patriots hit the bye, they sit just above .500 at 5-4. They’ve won back-to-back games, so they have a bit of momentum to sit on this week, but there’s clearly still plenty to work on.
Why are the Patriots fighting to stay around .500 instead of making the jump so many expected in the offseason? Let’s look at the start of the season on a position-by-position basis.
When coming up with these grades, the idea was grading based on the expectations compared to reality. There’s also an emphasis put on more recent games, with football being a ‘what have you done for me lately’ game.
We’ll start with the offensive grades here. Defense and special teams grades can be found here.
Oct 24, 2022; Foxborough, Massachusetts, USA; New England Patriots quarterback Mac Jones (10) and quarterback Bailey Zappe (4) run onto the field before a game against the Chicago Bears at Gillette Stadium. Credit: Brian Fluharty-USA TODAY Sports
There really have been three phases of Patriots quarterback play through the first nine weeks of the season. We saw pre-injury Mac Jones, followed by Bailey Zappe, and then post-injury Jones.
Pre-injury Jones was a gunslinger. In the three games before he got hurt, he was averaging over eight yards per passing attempt, and led the league in air yards per passing attempt. He threw for 786 combined yards. That aggressive mentality in the passing game proved to be a double-edged sword though, as Jones threw five interceptions with just two touchdowns during that span, and the team went 1-2.
Jones was injured late in the third game of the season. Brian Hoyer started Week 4 in Green Bay, but didn’t make it to halftime before suffering an injury of his own. That opened the door for Zappe Fever. The fourth-round rookie made his first start with the team at 1-3, and got them back to .500 in his two starts. However, the offense the team ran with him was much more controlled and easier to manage. He averaged just 23 pass attempts per game (Jones was at 32 to start the season) throwing for under 200 yards per game. Still, Zappe did hold on to the ball better, not throwing an interception in either start.
After an odd game on a Monday Night against the Bears where both quarterbacks struggled, Jones returned as the full-time starter. Unlike earlier in the season Jones was much more conservative with the football. His efficiency rose but at the cost of production, as he started averaging just 5.25 yards per attempt and 170.5 yards per game on the same number of pass attempts.
So where does the middle-of-the-road C- come from? It’s a collaborative effort. Jones hasn’t been great as he’s shifted from overly-aggressive to overly-conservative. At the same time, Zappe – albeit in an offense heavily-modified to help him succeeded – stepped into a sputtering offense on short notice and was able to do enough to keep the season afloat until Jones returned. For any rookie, that’s an accomplishment – just look at how some of his fellow rookie passers are doing around the league right now. All-in-all, the quarterback situation hasn’t been great, but it’s also not the offense’s biggest problem.
EAST RUTHERFORD, NEW JERSEY – OCTOBER 30: Rhamondre Stevenson #38 of the New England Patriots runs with the ball as Sauce Gardner #1 of the New York Jets defends during the first half at MetLife Stadium on October 30, 2022 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)
Remember, these grades are about the position group as a whole. Individually, Rhamondre Stevenson has earned an ‘A’ and is arguably the offense’s MVP through nine games.
Stevenson leads the team to this point in the season with 164 touches. Not only is he the Patriots’ leading rusher, but he’s the second-leading receiver. The next closest player in terms of touches is Damien Harris who has exactly half as many at 82. In fact, only four players in the NFL have had the ball more times than Stevenson this year.
However, the contributions at the position beyond Stevenson have been minimal. Harris has missed two games and most of a third, and has accounted for just 28 percent of the total production at the position while averaging 4.3 yards per touch.
Meanwhile, rookies Kevin Harris and Pierre Strong Jr. have barely seen the field, even when Damien Harris was out. It’s not unusual for the Patriots to ease rookie running backs into their offense, but they’re attempting to do so this year with minimal depth at the position. J.J. Taylor was finally elevated on Sunday, but managed just one yard on five carries, as well as an eight-yard reception.
Through nine weeks, Stevenson has begun to establish himself as one of the elite backs in all of the NFL. The question now becomes if/how the workload he’s been given will impact him down the stretch, and if it does who else will step up.
Wide receivers: C
FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS – OCTOBER 09: Jakobi Meyers #16 of the New England Patriots reacts after a catch during the third quarter against the Detroit Lions at Gillette Stadium on October 09, 2022 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Nick Grace/Getty Images)
There was plenty of hype about the Patriots’ wide receivers coming into the season. The team added DeVante Parker via a trade in the spring and then drafted speedster Tyquan Thornton in the second round. On top of those additions, Kendrick Bourne seemed poised for a big year after a breakout 2021 season.
In reality, it’s been mixed results with that group. Parker started the year rough, with three of his first five and four of his first nine targets in a Patriots uniform resulting in interceptions. He’s been better since, and was among the league leaders in yards per catch before a knee injury on the first play of the Jets game especially caused him to miss two weeks.
Thornton began the season on IR, but returned with a splash with his two-touchdown game against the Browns in Week 6. Since then, he’s fallen victim to the Patriots’ inconsistent passing attack. In the last three games he’s caught three of his 11 targets for a total of 37 yards. The team hasn’t given him a designed carry since the Cleveland game either.
As for Bourne, his role started decreasing in training camp. He’s played more as of late but still has struggled to be the impactful player he was last season. His usage rate is now back over 50 percent on a regular basis, yet his four touches on Sunday were the most he’s had in a game since September. He managed just 12 yards, and put the ball on the ground.
There’s also Nelson Agholor, whose role has dropped off massively after early season fumble issues. He hasn’t been targeted multiple times in a game since Week 4, and has just one catch in the last four weeks.
The wide receivers’ struggles don’t exist in a vacuum. They’re a symptom of compounding offensive issues. But for the most part, the production has not been there.
With all of that, how did the position as a whole end up with a grade as high as a C? Enter Jakobi Meyers.
Meyers has been absolutely outstanding this season. Despite missing two games he leads the team in receptions with 40, while the next closest receivers (Parker and Agholor) have 15. Factoring in the two missed games he’s on a 1,100-yard pace, and has already set a career high with three touchdowns. He’s also been more productive with the ball in his hands, averaging a full yard after the catch per reception more than he was last year. Basically, Meyers is in a contract year and he’s making the most of that opportunity.
One of the biggest boosts the Patriots’ offense could come up with in the second half of the season is finding secondary offensive production, in addition to Meyers and Stevenson. The running backs and tight ends (we’ll get to them in a second) could play a factor here too, but given the investments made at the wide receiver position this offseason, this group should get a lot of focus in that regard.
Tight ends: D+
FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS – NOVEMBER 06: Hunter Henry #85 of the New England Patriots carries the ball after a catch against the Indianapolis Colts during the fourth quarter at Gillette Stadium on November 06, 2022 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Malhotra/Getty Images)
There was plenty of optimism about the Patriots’ tight ends heading into the season. With a year in the system already under their belts, the idea was that Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith would grow into their roles more in Year 2.
So far, that hasn’t really been the case. Henry has caught 19 passes for 240 yards and a touchdown, while Smith has 16 catches for 154 yards. Their stat lines combined (35 catches, 394 yards) have already been surpassed by five individual tight ends this season, and they wouldn’t lead the Patriots alone in either category (they’d be tied with Stevenson for second in receptions, and trail Meyers in yards).
There have been flashes from the duo at times, including Henry on Sunday, but the overall production has been down. Things have trended towards them being more involved in recent weeks, and it will be interesting to see if that trend continues out of the bye.
Neither player has added much in the run game either. PFF has Henry with a 49.8 run blocking grade, which is 49th among 67 eligible tight ends. Smith’s 35.8 run blocking grade is 64th.
Offensive line: D-
Aug 26, 2022; Paradise, Nevada, USA; New England Patriots guard Cole Strange (69) in the first half against the Las Vegas Raiders at Allegiant Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
Let’s start with the positives. David Andrews and Michael Onwenu have both been excellent this year. Andrews’ impact is pretty easy to see, given how the rest of the offensive line has played its two worst games of the year in his absence the last two weeks. PFF currently has Andrews graded at 70.6, which ranks eighth among 38 qualifying centers.
Onwenu is even higher at the guard position, with his 86 grade ranking third. That’s impressive in its own right, even before considering the fact that Onwenu has been on an island pretty much all season. On one side, he’s had Andrews and backup center James Ferentz almost exclusively moving to their left when not engaged in individual assignments, in order to help rookie left guard Cole Strange. On Onwenu’s other hip, he’s had to deal with a revolving door at right tackle.
That revolving door at right tackle has been the biggest issue for the Patriots’ offensive line. Isaiah Wynn began the season as the team’s right tackle after switching from the left side where he’s played the last three years. He’s failed to finish five of the eight games. It’s been a combination of issues for Wynn – he’s allowed 16 pressures in eight games, while being flagged for a league-high nine penalties.
When Wynn has rotated out, Marcus Cannon has stepped in. He had a trio of solid games to start, but then allowed 10 pressures in two weeks against the Bears and Jets. Following the Jets game he was placed on IR with a concussion, opening the door for Yodny Cajuste. Cajuste posted a 66.4 PFF grade last week in his only action of the year, and likely will have more opportunities going forward.
As for Strange, he was holding his own for the first two months of the season. For any rookie, but especially one coming from the FCS level, that’s all you can ask for. However, his play has dropped off as soon as he didn’t have Andrews lining up next to him. He ended up getting benched in both games, with Wynn replacing him in the lineup. With limited interior offensive line depth, the team needs him to bounce back after the bye whether Andrews is playing or not.
That leaves left tackle Trent Brown. Brown has been up and down this season, and currently ranks 46th among 78 tackles with a 65.4 PFF grade. He hasn’t been the same player he was in 2018, but if his performance was the line’s biggest issue right now, they’d be in much better shape.
Finding an offensive line combination that can work and work consistently is the biggest task for the Patriots to tackle during the bye week. Whether or not they have the personnel in-house to do that will be a question. Andrews coming back will help, but other adjustments are needed based on what the unit showed in the first half.
Alex Barth is a writer and digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Thoughts? Comments? Questions? Looking for a podcast guest? Let him know on Twitter @RealAlexBarthor via email at abarth@985TheSportsHub.com.