At 7-2, the New England Patriots have not only spent the bye week recuperating, but they have also reassessed their team to find our how they can improve in the second half. So far this year the offense is averaging a healthy 25.3 points per game despite a plethora of injuries. Many of Tom Brady's weapons have missed time, but the offensive line has experienced its share of injuries as well. In this article, I am going to assess the first nine games of the season, and grade each player's performance as the team prepares for the final stretch.
Tom Brady: B
Is the 2013 Tom Brady at his best or at his worst right now? Honestly, it's hard to tell. Statistically, Brady's season is underwhelming, but much of that can be pinned on the fact that he has an entirely new receiving core this year. Wes Welker left for Denver, Rob Gronkowski missed six weeks, Danny Amendola, as expected, got hurt, Shane Vereen broke his wrist, Brady's had to build chemistry with three rookies, and, oh, that Aaron Hernandez guy isn't here anymore, either.
What did we expect? Did we really think Tom Brady would come out guns blazing and light up the scoreboard with all of these question marks on offense? Maybe, but he hasn't. I think people underestimated how difficult it is to integrate so many new pieces into an offense that has remained relatively stable the past six years.
The Patriots are 7-2 and when you consider the amount of changes on offense, it's quite a remarkable feat. Much of the success can be contributed to Tom Brady, and he deserves it. You could make the argument that he's having one of his better seasons, despite the disappointing numbers. Not to mention that the offense is just getting healthy, so the best has yet to come from Tom Brady.
How to improve: Keep doing what he's doing, because the offense has been progressing and they are just now getting completely healthy.
Wide Receivers: C+
Where to start? Whether it's injuries, inconsistency, or a role change, week to week a different player from this group steps up. Danny Amendola was brought in to essentially replace legendary slot receiver Wes Welker and has yet to meet expectations due to a groin injury and a concussion. Fortunately for Amendola, he has been a stud in the two games he has been healthy. If good fortune stays on his side for the rest of the year, the offense will become that much better.
In Amendola's absence, Julian Edelman has had the best season of his career. Thus far Edelman has caught 49 balls for 473 yards, though he has seen a decrease in snaps as of late. As his snaps have decreased, rookie Aaron Dobson has seen an increase. Week to week it seems like Dobson is improving and he is on pace to have the best numbers a rookie receiver has ever had with Tom Brady.
It hasn't been perfect this year, but thanks to the efforts of rookies Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins, and veterans Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman, this shaky wide receiver core could become stable in the second half of the season. Considering the amount of time it takes to build chemistry with a quarterback, they deserve a passing grade for the first nine games.
How to improve: It's obvious that Danny Amendola has to stay healthy, but I'd like to see the Patriots take a few more shots with Aaron Dobson. He seems to be progressing nicely, and some shots down the field should be taken.
Running Backs: B-
Before the season I had predicted that Shane Vereen would have a better year than Stevan Ridley, but that went out the window after his wrist injury in week one. Fortunately for the Pats, Brandon Bolden has stepped up and done an admirable job, with 55 touches (38 carries, 17 catches) for a combine 312 yards, as well as 6 touchdowns. He has also done a solid job as a pass protector.
Stevan Ridley hasn't met most fans' expectations, but if you put aside his unfortunate fumbles, he is having a season comparable to 2012. Ridley has 514 yards on only 118 carries, and has also added in 6 touchdowns. LeGarrette Blount hasn't been spectacular, but he has been serviceable when called upon. The past two weeks I think he has actually found his role on the team as a clock burner in the second half of games.
Overall, the running backs haven't met my expectations, but that's because of the injury to Shane Vereen. Without Vereen, this group has done more than I could've ever expected from them.
How to improve: It's important that Shane Vereen is completely integrated into the offense just like he was in week one of the season. His dynamic style of play could take his team to another level.
Tight Ends: B+
This group probably deserves an incomplete, but I have already seen enough from Rob Gronkowski to know that this is the same stud that Tom Brady has had the privilege to throw to the past three years. Despite missing 6 games, Gronk has come back with a fury, catching 19 balls for 284 yards and 1 touchdown already. As his snaps increase in the coming weeks, expect his effect to become even greater.
No tight end really replaced Gronk this year, but Michael Hoomanawanui and Matthew Mulligan did a solid job playing the position. They have only caught a combine 10 passes for 113 yards and 1 touchdown, but their greatest impact is blocking, where they both have excelled. I'm also including fullback James Develin in this group, as he has played very strong at the full back position for the Patriots, consistently opening up holes in the run game.
How to improve: This group will naturally improve as long as Rob Gronkowski stays healthy. The way the Patriots have integrated him the past three weeks is perfect, and it will only get better as his snaps increase.
Offensive Line: C+
Fans often forget that injuries have also hit the offensive line this year; Sebastian Vollmer is out for the year, and Dan Connolly has missed some time, but I don't believe this is an excuse for their subpar play this season. They have allowed 26 sacks this season after allowed only 27 all of last year. Yes, some of these sacks are because Tom Brady can't get the ball out quickly to his new receivers, but there is no denying he has been under increased pressure this year.
On the other hand, I think the run blocking has been relatively consistent this year. In combination with the tight ends and full back James Develin, holes have been opened up for running backs, and the offensive line seems to make a strong push whenever they need to. It's important heading into the conclusion of the regular season that Marcus Cannon or Will Svitek step in and successfully replace Sebastian Vollmer.
How to improve: It's crucial that chemistry is built on the right side of the line now that Sebastian Vollmer is out for the year.