New England Patriots

Oct 31, 2021; Inglewood, California, USA; The New England Patriots offense huddles during the first half against the Los Angeles Chargers at SoFi Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

It used to be easy to know when to do the mid-season report card for the Patriots. A 16-game schedule gave a perfect halfway point, eight games in and with eight games to go. That disappeared this year with the 17-game slate, so we’ll use the halfway point of the league schedule this time around.

Nine weeks in, with nine weeks to go, the Patriots are hitting their stride and playing their best football of the season. Sunday’s win against the Panthers extended the current winning streak to three games, and has them over .500 for the first time this season at 5-4. Combined with Buffalo’s loss to Jacksonville, the Pats are just a half a game back in the AFC East.

Who has stepped up to allow the Patriots to get to this point? Who has room to grow in the second half of the season? Let’s take a look through the grades to find out.

But first, a few notes. First off, all positions are graded against expectations. Basically, it’s not just how well or how poorly the players at the position are performing, but how that level of performance compares to what was expected at the start of the season. Secondly, the grades are weighted with a recency bias. Football is a ‘what have you done for me lately’ game, and these grades reflect that.

Here’s the Patriots’ offensive grades for the first half of 2021…

  • Quarterbacks: B

    FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS – OCTOBER 24: Mac Jones #10 of the New England Patriots at the line during the first quarter against the New York Jets at Gillette Stadium on October 24, 2021 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Malhotra/Getty Images)

    When Mac Jones was announced as the Patriots’ starting quarterback back in late August, the expectation was the rest of the offense would help accommodate Jones as he got acclimated to the NFL game. Through nine weeks though, it’s felt like the opposite more often than not. Jones has been the best rookie quarterback in football, while the rest of the offense has worked through growing pains.

    It hasn’t always been pretty – it took three weeks for Jones to start attempting down field throws, and he’s turned the ball over nine times. Yet at the same time, Jones is in the top 10 in the league (among all quarterbacks) in both passing yards and completion percentage, and looks to still be getting better.

    Jones’ development is another reason this grade is the highest of the Patriots’ offense. Brian Hoyer was brought back in the offseason likely in large part to work with Jones, and that has seemingly paid off. The two have spoken about their close relationship, throughout the season.

  • Running Backs: B-

    FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS - SEPTEMBER 12: Damien Harris #37 of the New England Patriots runs with the ball against the Miami Dolphins during the second half at Gillette Stadium on September 12, 2021 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

    FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS – SEPTEMBER 12: Damien Harris #37 of the New England Patriots runs with the ball against the Miami Dolphins during the second half at Gillette Stadium on September 12, 2021 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

    The Patriots’ running game has struggled at times this year, but that’s not necessarily the backs’ fault. All four have run hard with the blocking given to them, and if not for some fumbling issues this grade would likely be much higher.

    Damien Harris has led the group, and his 547 yards are the third-most by a Patriots running back through nine games since 2010. He’s also been seemingly automatic on the goal line with six touchdowns. However, the fumble in the opener against Miami still looms large.

    The only other running back to play in all nine games for the Patriots is Brandon Bolden, who has moved into an expanded role after the trade of Sony Michel and injury to James White. Returning from an opt-out year, Bolden struggled when he became a regular part of the Patriots’ offense in Week 3. Yet he’s improved as the Patriots have tailored his role more to his skillset, putting together arguably his best game of the season so far last week with 10 touches for 81 all-purpose yards against Carolina. He hasn’t exactly been explosive, but he’s helping the Patriots move the ball, which wasn’t the case at the beginning of the season.

    Then there’s the rookie Rhamondre Stevenson. Stevenson seemed destined for a redshirt year after his Week 1 fumble and blown blocking assignment, but after spending three weeks as a healthy scratch he’s been active for four of the team’s last five games. In that time, he’s emerged as a dual-threat back – a dynamic the Patriots seemed to have lost when White went out. After a two touchdown performance in Week 6 against Dallas, Stevenson broke the all-purpose yard century mark for the first time in his NFL career against the Panthers.

    The final active player at the position is second-year back J.J. Taylor, who has played just 39 offensive snaps over four games this year. With Harris and Stevenson both suffering head injuries against Carolina, Taylor could see more opportunities come his way to start the second half of the season.

  • Wide Receivers: C-

    FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS - OCTOBER 17: Kendrick Bourne #84 of the New England Patriots scores a 75-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter against the Dallas Cowboys at Gillette Stadium on October 17, 2021 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Malhotra/Getty Images)

    FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS – OCTOBER 17: Kendrick Bourne #84 of the New England Patriots scores a 75-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter against the Dallas Cowboys at Gillette Stadium on October 17, 2021 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Malhotra/Getty Images)

    The good news? The Patriots’ wide receivers are much better than they were last year. The bad news? The position added so little last year, that doesn’t mean much. Each player currently in the room has had flashes at times this season, but the collective body of work hasn’t quite lived up to expectations.

    Jakobi Meyers leads the team with 45 catches for 426 yards. He doesn’t have a touchdown yet, but that’s not entirely his fault with two scores being wiped out by penalties. Meyers’ biggest issue right now is his hands, as evidenced by a bobble on Sunday that cost the Patriots a third down conversion. Such issues are not uncommon for a player who changed positions in college (Julian Edelman struggled with drops early in his career) but it’s still something he needs to work through.

    Meanwhile, Kendrick Bourne is quickly emerging as Jones’ favorite target among the group. Even with a miscue that led to a pick-six against Dallas, Jones has gone back to Bourne time and time again since. He leads the team in receptions over the last three weeks, and has been targeted 15 times in that span. As the second half of the season gets underway, no receiver’s stock is higher than Bourne’s.

    Nelson Agholor has been boom or bust through nine games, which might be frustrating but fits the pattern for his career. His best game is still the season opener, when he recorded five catches for 72 yards – numbers he’s yet to hit again this season. The deep ball against the Chargers highlighted what looked to be a reemergence game for him with three catches 60 yards, but he followed that up by getting blanked by the Panthers. Expect his role moving forwards to continue to emerge.

    That’s pretty much been it. With heavy usage of 12 and 21 personnel, the Patriots haven’t had to go beyond the third spot on their depth chart much this season. N’Keal Harry has just seven targets, and Gunner Olszewski has been used almost exclusively on special teams. It’s a group that couldn’t hurt to get a boost, either internally or externally.

  • Tight Ends: C

    FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS - OCTOBER 24: Hunter Henry #85 of the New England Patriots catches the ball for a touchdown during the second quarter in the game against the New York Jets at Gillette Stadium on October 24, 2021 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

    FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS – OCTOBER 24: Hunter Henry #85 of the New England Patriots catches the ball for a touchdown during the second quarter in the game against the New York Jets at Gillette Stadium on October 24, 2021 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

    This is truly an aggregate grade, because the two players at the position couldn’t be heading in more opposite directions. Hunter Henry has been a solid contributor, especially as of late. He’s provided the Patriots with a real red zone threat and has five touchdown catches in the last six games.

    Meanwhile, Jonnu Smith hasn’t matched his expected production, especially after receiving a four-year, $50 million contract this offseason. In his most active game, Smith dropped three passes – one of which turned into a pick six – in a loss to the Saints. He has just three games with three or more catches.

    While he’s struggled overall, there’s been flashes of the player the Patriots opened up the checkbook for back in March. The coach staff doesn’t seem discouraged, and continues to try to scheme Smith open and get him going. If they can get him some momentum, the offense could really hit another level.

    There is a third tight end on the roster in Devin Asiasi, but the second-year player hasn’t been active for a game this season. That may be one of the more surprising and positive developments, given how Henry and Smith dealt with injuries throughout the spring and summer.

  • Offensive Line: C

    FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS – OCTOBER 17: Damien Harris #37 of the New England Patriots celebrates with teammates David Andrews #60 and Justin Bethel #29 after scoring a touchdown against the Dallas Cowboys in the first quarter at Gillette Stadium on October 17, 2021 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

    It didn’t start pretty for the offensive line. At all. Mac Jones was one of the most hit quarterbacks in the league to start the season. Granted, there were a number of injuries the group had to deal with, but even established starters were struggling.

    After losing Trent Brown on the first drive of the season, the Patriots wouldn’t field their best potential group of five until Week 6, when the current group of Isaiah WynnTed KarrasDavid AndrewsShaq Mason, and Michael Onwenu took the field together. It hasn’t been perfect since then, especially when it comes to penalties, but Jones has had more time to throw, hasn’t been hit nearly as much, and there have been more holes in the running game.

    There’s plenty of room for this group to grow. Brown’s return is still possible, although his status is currently unknown. On paper, they should be one of the best offensive lines in the league, even without him. Now that the lineup shuffling seems to be over, will they hit their ceiling with more snaps together and increased chemistry? That’s an important storyline to watch in the second half of the season.