At the start of the offseason, it didn't look like Tom Brady was going to play the first four games of the season due to the Deflategate fallout. Instead, Brady has played phenomenal and is looking to shatter records and decimate every defense in his way. The Patriots offense has scored 149 points over those games, but the offense isn't even clicking at 100% yet. The defense has been up and down, with two straight strong performances against Jacksonville and a toothless Dallas team. That's resulted in a 4-0 record and the Patriots once again being the team to beat in the AFC.
While the first quarter of the season doesn't always prove to be an indicator for how the season will turn out, as last year proved, the Patriots have looked like a Super Bowl contender so far. If you're Bill Belichick, the only thing 4-0 means is you're guaranteed only 4 wins, which gets coaches fired. There are 12 more games to go in the regular season, with 9 wins likely clinching the division, 11 wins clinching a 1st round bye, and 12 wins for home field in the AFC. At the mean time, I think I might have to revise my 13-3 prediction with losses on the road to Denver, Miami, and the Jets. Good luck for the Patriots in Weeks 6-9.
Players Who Have Stepped Up
RB Dion Lewis: After bouncing around the NFL, Lewis has found a home in New England. Lewis may be short, but he may be the most complete running back the Patriots have had in the Brady and Belichick Era. He's not going to put up Adrian Peterson type rushing numbers, but having him on the field makes the Patriots offense near impossible to stop due to his multiplicity in the offense. With Shane Vereen departing New England and winning games for the New York Giants, Lewis has stepped up to not only claim the receiving role but also the top running back role.
DE Jabaal Sheard: Sheard has been everything we hoped for and then some. The Patriots signed Sheard from Cleveland on the recommendation of former Browns GM Mike Lombardi and he's been worth every penny through 4 games. Sheard is not an elite pass rusher, but he does give the Patriots a 3rd guy that can pressure the QB aside from Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich. Sheard leads the Patriots with 18 total pressures (4 sacks, 2 hits, 12 hurries) and has been great against the run. Sheard's ability to rush both inside and outside adds a dimension to the pass rush and has resulted in the Patriots getting off the field more on 3rd downs.
LB Jamie Collins: Expectations are high for Jamie Collins, who is now in his 3rd year in the NFL. So far, he's exceeded those expectations. Collins can do everything at the linebacker position and is great at creating havoc on blitzes. Collins has generated 9 pressures (3.5 sacks, 1 QB hit, 4 hurries) as a rusher and is 9-14 for 59 yards in coverage this season. Collins' ability to be effective rushing the QB and dropping into coverage allows the Patriots to be more exotic on their 3rd down looks to confuse QBs. I would not be surprised if Collins gets a Pro Bowl and/or All-Pro recognition.
CB Logan Ryan: With Bradley Fletcher's struggles and subsequent release, Logan Ryan has stepped up to be the team's #3 CB and may have also jumped ahead of Tarell Brown on the depth chart. Despite an uneven 2014 season, Ryan has been solid in 2015. Ryan has allowed 9 of 14 passes for 91 yards and has 2 interceptions on the season. Ryan is never going to be better than a #2 or a slot CB, but him playing well against those types allows for the Patriots to scheme out an opponent's #1 like they did to Jason Witten against Dallas. Hopefully Ryan finds consistency in his 3rd year because I think he is still an importance piece to the secondary.
OG Josh Kline: Josh Kline probably wasn't on many player's roster projections at the start of the season, but he's been the team's best guard through 4 games. Kline provides a veteran presence on the interior of the offensive line and can play both guard spots fine, which at worst makes him a top backup. Shaq Mason and Tre Jackson are the future at guard, but Kline is a better option in the present as a stopgap. It should be interesting to see if he becomes one of the Patriots starting 5 OL when they finally settle on a combination for the stretch run and the postseason.
S Duron Harmon: Harmon only really sees the field for Big Nickel situations or if the Patriots are up and the opponent is passing to get down the field quickly. Harmon's ability to play the center field role effectively has allowed the Patriots to slide down McCourty and Chung to cover TEs and RBs without any worries. While he lacks the effective range McCourty does, Harmon has proven to be a smart and instinctual player at the safety position. He's a critical piece to the secondary because he allows BB and Matt Patricia to match up against TEs and RBs and still have a competent deep safety in the middle of the field to prevent big plays.
Players that Need to Step Up
LT Nate Solder: The Patriots extended Solder's contract into 2017, although the extension is realistically through 2016. Solder has allowed 16 pressures (3 sacks, 3 hits, 10 hurries) through 4 games and his struggles really came to a head against Greg Hardy, one of the league's best pass rushers. I keep waiting for Solder to ascend to the elite tier at OT, but perhaps that's not going to happen. It could be the case where he's just good and will struggle or excel based on who he's blocking. He's got 12 games to change my mind on that, because he's making elite LT money next season.
CB Malcolm Butler: Since ascending to the #1 CB role, Butler has had a bullseye on his back. Butler was posterized by Antonio Brown in Week 1 despite being in position for a handful of those catches, gave up a TD on a busted coverage in Week 2, gave up a TD in Week 3 because of poor play from him and Duron Harmon on an Allen Hurns seam route from the slot, and was close to giving up a TD after overplaying a double move by Terrance Williams. Overall Butler has allowed 13 of 20 passes to be completed for 257 yards and 3 TDs while breaking up 4 passes. There were going to be natural growing pains for Butler in what is essentially his first year starting, but he needs to improve over the course of the year.
CB Justin Coleman: This is probably unfair expectations for an undrafted rookie, but the Patriots don't have a lot of options at the CB position right now. The Patriots liked Coleman in the pre-draft process and claimed him off waivers. After an unsuccessful attempt to sneak him onto the practice squad, the Patriots signed him away Seattle before his plane landed. After being inactive for 2 weeks, Coleman has been inserted into the regular rotation at CB. Coleman has delivered two solid performances. Like I said about Darryl Roberts this offseason, Coleman has the athletic tools to be a successful boundary CB in the NFL. It's just a matter of getting him experience and coaching him up. As is the same story with Malcolm Butler, there are going to be growing pains in his development. I'm hoping for a 2016 secondary featuring Butler, Coleman, Ryan, and Roberts at CB.
DT Dominique Easley: If you believe in the "Disruption is Production" cliché, Easley is your man. Easley is a disruptive force on the interior, but hasn't quite been effective in generating pressure. While you can point at the hip injury suffered in Week 1 that caused him to miss Week 2, Easley should have more than 1 pressure on the season at this point. While having Sheard work guards for pressures is nice to watch, the Patriots have to be able to collapse the pocket against Mobile QBs and be able to move pocket passers off their spot in the passing game to force bad throws or move them into a teammate's grasp.
DT Akiem Hicks: Hicks is a "Planet Theory" guy. He's big, strong, and very agile for a defensive tackle at 6'4" 325+. In his Patriots debut he was able to stand his ground against the vaunted Dallas OL and was a key reason why Dallas struggled to run the ball. Alan Branch is a solid veteran of similar size and athletic ability who can clog up rushing lanes and collapse the pocket from the interior. With Sealver Siliga not as dominant as he was last season and 1st round pick Malcom Brown having his rookie year struggles, Hicks becomes a very important player for the Patriots this year.
In the 2nd quarter of the season, the Patriots get into the teeth of their schedule with Indianapolis on Sunday Night Football, NY Jets, Miami on Thursday Night Football, and Washington. Over this part of the season, the Patriots should be getting Ryan Wendell, Brandon LaFell, Chris Jones, and possibly Dane Fletcher back in the flow of things. These players won't be in 100% football shape until the 3rd quarter of the season, but that's fine because the Patriots are playing the Jets and three pushovers over this stretch. With the Colts on the road followed by 3 straight home games, I have the Patriots going 4-0 over this stretch and 8-0 for the season. The TNF game may give New England problems because of the quick turnaround and games against Jets are always difficult, so a loss wouldn't be completely unexpected.
*All Stats courtesy of Doug Kyed from NESN