Six NFL teams are not playing this week and among them are the defending world champions: The New England Patriots are currently enjoying their bye week, which gives us a chance to reflect and look back at the first eight weeks of the season. And while the Patriots find themselves in a familiar spot, atop the AFC East with a division-best 6-2 record, not all was perfect.
Winner: QB Tom Brady
Tom Brady is delivering another spectacular season – one worthy of league-wide MVP recognition – despite a) having turned 40 in August, b) playing behind a shaky offensive line, c) an inconsistent running game, and d) missing two of his top wide receivers from a year ago. Brady is the league leader in passing yards (2,541), attempts (309) and completions (206) and has thrown 16 touchdowns versus only two interceptions. Most importantly, he is putting the offense in a position to succeed every single week. In short: He is still the best quarterback in the league.
Winner: TE Rob Gronkowski
After ending last year on injured reserve, the league's best tight end is back big time: Rob Gronkowski looks like his usual self as both a blocker – the game-winning drive against the Houston Texans was a blocking tight end clinic – and a pass catcher. Overall, he has caught 34 passes for 509 yards and five touchdowns in seven games; impressive numbers considering that Gronkowski is coming off a season-ending injury.
Loser: TE Dwayne Allen
As spectacular as Gronkowski has been, fellow tight end Dwayne Allen has disappointed. Despite being on the field for one third of New England's offensive snaps, the offseason trade acquisition – the Patriots sent a fourth round pick to the Indianapolis Colts for Allen and a sixth rounder – has yet to catch a football on six targets (none of which in the last four games). While he is servicable as a solid blocker, Allen is a downgrade so far from last year's number two tight end, Martellus Bennett.
Winner: DT Malcom Brown
Through the first eight weeks of the season, defensive tackle Malcom Brown is playing the best season of his three-year NFL career. The 23-year old has amassed 24 tackles and a sack while routinely playing more than half of the team's defensive snaps. Despite flying under the radar a bit, courtesy of his role, Brown has played superbly this year and has been the Patriots' best and most consistent defensive tackle.
Loser: CB Stephon Gilmore
In March, the Patriots signed the ex-Buffalo Bill to a five-year, $65 million free agency contract. So far this season, Gilmore has failed to live up to the expectations such a deal brings with it. Early in the season, he had issues getting on the same page with his fellow defensive backs – and when it looked like he finally turned the corner in week five against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Gilmore suffered a concussion and missed the next three games. Judged by his game in Tampa, though, the 27-year old should bounce back from a rocky start to his Patriots tenure.
Winners: WR Danny Amendola, WR Brandin Cooks, WR Chris Hogan
When the Patriots lost Julian Edelman and Malcolm Mitchell to injury, the rest of the wide receiver corps was needed to pick up the slack – and it did just that: Brandin Cooks has adjusted quickly to life in New England, Chris Hogan is taking the second-year leap, and Danny Amendola is his usual reliable self despite playing more snaps. All in all, Cooks (33 catches, 563 yards, 3 TDs), Hogan (33 catches, 438 yards, 5 TDs) and Amendola (31 catches, 338 yards, 1 TD) combine to form one of the NFL's most productive wide receiver trios.
Loser: The red zone offense
Usually, New England's red zone productivity is one of the team's offensive trademarks. However, this season has been different as the Patriots have scored a touchdown on only 51.5% of their red zone drives – only the 19th-best rate in the NFL. Things get even worse the closer the team gets to the goal line, as the Patriots score touchdowns on only 53.8% of their drives inside the 10-yard line, which ties them for the 5th-worst percentage in the league. This definitely is one area the team has to improve over the second half of the season.
Winner: LB Kyle Van Noy
The Patriots defense struggled early on but Kyle Van Noy was still one of the team's best and most consistent defenders. With Dont'a Hightower dealing with injuries, the second-year Patriot stepped up and delivered: He called the plays, was used in multiple spots, and made big plays over the first eight weeks of the season. Van Noy has grown into one of the Patriots' core defenders; a player who rarely ever leaves the field and is vital against the pass and the run.
Winner: OT LaAdrian Waddle
LaAdrian Waddle does not find himself on this list solely for his on-field productivity – after all, he has played only one third of the Patriots' offensive snaps as a backup tackle – but because of his rise up the ranks since last year. In 2016, Waddle served as the fourth offensive tackle behind Nate Solder, Marcus Cannon and Cameron Fleming but has leap-frogged the latter and now is New England's number three at the position; a testament for the solid job he is doing behind the scenes.
Loser: New England's pass protectors
It did not even take Tom Brady a full six games to take the same amount of hits and sacks he did all of last year. Some has to do with the offense trying to play a more vertical game at times – a result of which is longer developing plays –, but the major reason is the offensive line's inconsistency in pass protection. Even though the unit settled down a bit in the last two weeks, Brady has been sacked 21 times over the first half of the season. Not exactly what you want to see when it comes to protecting a 40-year old quarterback whose backup now is Brian Hoyer.
Winner: RB James White
New England's running backs have been inconsistent at times when it comes to running the football. The group, however, has been good in the passing game – with James White being the best of the bunch. The 25-year old leads the team in receptions (43; for 365 yards and a score) and has been his usual stellar self as a pass protector. All in all, White has been able to build on his record-breaking Super Bowl performance and is a huge part of what the Patriots do on offense, especially with Julian Edelman injured.
Winner: FB James Develin
One of the unheralded members of the Patriots' offense, James Develin is once again proving why he is among the best fullbacks in the NFL. Playing around one third of offensive snaps, the 29-year old is a battering ram in the running game – and also sees the occasional snap as a pass catcher. Overall, he has caught three passes for 20 yards while essentially serving as one of New England's depth tight ends.
Winners: DE Trey Flowers, DE Deatrich Wise Jr.
Both Trey Flowers and Deatrich Wise Jr. delivered convincing performances over the first half of the season despite playing somewhat unfamiliar roles: Flowers saw his playing time spike from 54 in 2016 to 91 percent in 2017; Wise Jr. is playing an important defensive role in his first NFL season. The pair has still delivered results, though, and combined for 6.5 sacks and 26 quarterback hits as New England's two best defensive ends.