Pro Football Focus (PFF) has ten years worth of grading and they have compiled their first “All Decade Team”, spanning 2006-2015. There were a bunch of Patriots that made the list, but it’s important to understand that these grades aren’t necessarily cumulative, nor are they about a player’s peak performance.
“How do you balance longevity with production?,” PFF founder Neil Hornsby wrote. “In the end, beauty was in the eye of the beholder, and that (for my sins) turned out to be me.”
And with that in mind, we can look at, praise, and criticize the rankings.
First team Patriots
Tight end Rob Gronkowski: “The difference in average season grade between Rob Gronkowski’s 92.4 and the second-ranked player at his position is 6.3...Four times in six years he’s been our top-ranked TE, and even with injury, he’s never fallen below fifth.”
Cowboys tight end Jason Witten earned second team distinction, but it’s clear that Gronkowski is the greatest tight end of the past decade. He’s already vying for the title of “Best Tight End of All Time.”
At Gronk’s peak, he is the single most talented tight end in the history of the game. When looking over the span of a full career, Gronk will have to put in a few more seasons of work to join the discussion with Tony Gonzalez and Antonio Gates; He’s already in the discussion with Witten, Mike Ditka, Kellen Winslow, and Shannon Sharpe.
Left guard Logan Mankins: “[From] 2006–2010...he was never outside our top four guards, averaging exactly a 90.0 grade. Across his entire career, he’s been a brilliant run blocker, and averaged an 87.9 grade in that facet of play.”
How much do we miss this version of Mankins? And how much are we crossing our fingers that we have the second-coming in rookie Joe Thuney? Mankins in his prime was an unstoppable force that could destroy any defender in his path. I really think that playing the entire 2011 on a torn ACL ruined his career and, despite how heroic that sounds, ushered in an early downfall for one of the most special linemen of the past two decades.
Nose tackle Vince Wilfork: “While he still does a reasonable job in run defense, venture back to 2006–2007 for a taste of why offensive line coaches are still praising him.”
Wilfork was the heart of the Patriots defense over the long stretch between Super Bowl victories and he’s a deserving nominee for nose tackle. PFF has analyzed the decline in Wilfork’s production over his final seasons with the Patriots, but he was such an essential part of the Patriots defensive front.
The Patriots are using Alan Branch, Terrance Knighton, and Vincent Valentine to replicate Wilfork’s nose tackle ability in the heart of the defense, and that trio will be expected to eat up multiple blockers every single down. Wilfork in his prime could be entrusted with that role, with the added bonus of a potential stop on his own.
Cornerback Darrelle Revis: “When legendary seasons are discussed in PFF internal chats, perhaps the most revered is Darrelle Revis’ 2009 season...Playing almost exclusively man coverage, Revis was thrown at a stupidly-high 127 times, but allowed a QB rating of only 29.1.”
Perhaps Revis doesn’t really earn his ranking for his time with the Patriots, but Hornsby specifically included his time with the Patriots as a reason for making the squad- in comparison, he did not include Mankins’ time with the Buccaneers.
Revis provided possibly the best cornerback play for the Patriots over the past decade, even if it were just for a season- although 2006-07 Asante Samuel certainly has a claim to the title of Best Patriots Cornerback of the past decade.
Second team Patriots
Safety Devin McCourty
McCourty had no chance at winning first team distinction with Troy Polamalu and Ed Reed ahead of him, but that’s okay; those two are arguably the best safeties in the history of the game. McCourty was on the second team with Chargers safety Eric Weddle.
I think McCourty will be regarded as a very good safety over the course of his career, but he was behind Polamalu and Reed at the start of his career (although McCourty was a very good cornerback at that time), and now he’s behind their spiritual heirs in Eric Berry and Earl Thomas. The Vikings’ Harrison Smith is playing the role of Weddle in this future.
Third (?) team Patriots
Quarterback Tom Brady: “For anyone calling for Tom Brady here, the Patriots QB has been less consistent than [Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees] over the past decade. While he produced stellar 2007 and 2015 seasons, he’s also had lesser times, and his average overall grade is third behind Rodgers and Brees, respectively.”
This deserves a section even though PFF didn’t really create a third team. There’s nothing to sniff about being considered the third best quarterback over the past decade, although Hornsby mentioned Peyton Manning as receiving consideration, so maybe Brady is 4th in their rankings.
I understand the ranking behind Rodgers, too. He has a higher completion rate, a higher touchdown rate, a lower interception rate, and is the only quarterback to average more than 8.0 yards per attempt over the past decade (min. 3,000 attempts). He’s simply the most economical quarterback in the league.
But behind Brees?
Brees ranks 1st over the past decade in total completions, attempts, completion rate, yards, and touchdowns- and it’s not even close. He ranks 5th or 6th best in touchdown rate, interception rate, and yards per attempt over that time frame, too, so he’s been fairly efficient. There’s definitely an argument for him.
More than anything, I think this shows how PFF values quarterback production. Brees is a far more vertical passer than Brady and the website, reasonably, attributes more value to more difficult passes. “Leading a receiver to allow him to gain YAC for a first down,” receives a +0.5 grade, while a “good deep throw” will get a +1.0 grade.
Brees leads the league with 1,062 passes that traveled 15+ yards in the air over the past decade- Brady ranks 7th with 891 attempts- while Brees is the only quarterback with completion rate greater than 50% with a minimum of 300 attempts; Brees is 50.3%...Matt Schaub ranks second with exactly 50.0% on 518 attempts, for what it’s worth. Brady ranks 16th at 42.1%. Brees is really good at what receives top marks from PFF’s graders.
The efficiency in the Patriots offense is rooted in Brady’s ability to make pre-snap adjustments, which PFF doesn’t take into account since it’s incredibly difficult to evaluate, and to get the ball to his receivers with open space to run.
Now that could be taken as a flaw in the system, but it’s not inherently a negative. It just adds context to grades and a system that doesn’t always align with the Patriots’ style of offense.
So when PFF puts Brady as their 3rd best quarterback over the past decade, I take that as a sign that Brady thrives in a grading system that doesn’t take his full abilities into account. And I’m fine with that- the quartet of Rodgers, Brees, Manning, and Brady will all be first ballot Hall of Famers at the end of the day.