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Chief Thoughts: Analyzing the Patriots’ week 13 win over the Vikings

The Patriots skol another win.

NFL: Minnesota Vikings at New England Patriots Stew Milne-USA TODAY Sports

I don’t have enough to write about. That was the conclusion I came to the last two weeks. During the bye I wanted to write about the positive projections for the New England Patriots’ championship hopes and I just couldn’t muster very convincing arguments. I also wanted to write an article after the Jets game but they are such a bad team, I really didn’t feel comfortable making meaningful statements. After this latest win against the Minnesota Vikings, however, I finally feel confident enough to write some new analysis.

Let’s get started.

Stephon Gilmore is slated for All-Pro honors

Currently ranked as Pro Football Focus’ number one cornerback in the NFL, Gilmore has faced a very strong slate of receivers and come out on top with one notable exception. His decisive defeat at the hands of the talented but uneven Corey Davis was worrisome because it indicated that Gilmore was still vulnerable to the night and day performances he tended to give during his time as a Buffalo Bill. It’s easy to forgive that high level of inconsistency in a regular season win but it could be very damaging to his reputation — and the team — if he performs that way in the playoffs. It is also not the type of performance that players awarded with All-Pro honors generally have.

Still, I was confident Gilmore would recover and he did against the Jets. But I did not want to make too much out of shutdown performance against an only okay receiver coming off a bye. I feel much more confident waxing after Gilmore successfully held Pro Bowl wide receiver Stefon Diggs to less than 50 yards and zero touchdowns. The only remaining star receiver Gilmore is likely to face is the Pittsburgh SteelersJuJu Smith-Schuster. If Gilmore can finish the season strong he will have successfully defended Deandre Hopkins, Allen Robinson, Marvin Jones, Davante Adams, Sammy Watkins, Stefon Diggs, and Smith-Schuster. That’s a heck of a résumé.

What’s most impressive is that support has largely come in man coverage on an island. No one should argue about the value of a great zone corner but it’s demonstrably more difficult to be a man corner without safety help. Gilmore is the highest paid defender on the team but he is also the best defender on the team. Nothing wrong with paying great players great money.

Gronk is gone for good?

Last year, Rob Gronkowski had his worst year of production as a fairly health player. I was not worried about it for two reasons. The first was that he was coming off a dominant Super Bowl performance: instead of fading down the stretch he only got stronger. The second reason was that despite posting his worst statistical year he was still playing at an elite level. While the Kansas City ChiefsTravis Kelce was breathing down his neck, Gronk was clearly the best tight end in the NFL. It was just by a lesser margin than he had been in the past, something that had as much to do with Kelce’s improved play as it did with the Gronkowski regression.

But as of right now it looks like Bill Belichick would have been completely justified in trading Gronk for what I can only assume would have been a 1st or 2nd round pick from the Detroit Lions. His 550 receiving yards and two touchdowns is respectable for most tight ends but for not a future Hall of Famer or a player with a $12.25 million dollar salary cap hit.

I wrote a couple of months ago that if the Josh Gordon trade panned out this offense would be elite. Gordon has absolutely worked out but unfortunately I did not account for Gronk sliding down a cliff. The fact that he was injured during the Vikings game doesn’t make anything better. If he could return to All-Pro form, this would probably be a powerful enough offense to carry a team to a championship victory. I just don’t think I can look at myself in the mirror and predict that with conviction. It’s more likely Gronk continues to be a supplementary piece in a good but not elite offense.

If you told me this was Gronkowski’s last season as a professional I would believe you. The Patriots would save $10 million next season by cutting or trading him. The Patriots have two talented 26-year olds at premium positions up for free agency next year. It’s hard to argue that New ENgland would not be better served spending that money on resigning them instead of a good 30+ year old tight end who is prone to injury and has regressed in two consecutive seasons.

It absolutely sucks to say that and maybe Gronk can still turn it around — I really hope he does. Julian Edelman has come back strong against the odds after all. But I’m not longer expecting that to happen.

Trader Bill is the ultimate “Get out of Jail Free”-card for Bill the GM

The major trades this year included a sixth-round pick for Jason McCourty, Brandin Cooks in exchange for a first-round selection, a third-round picks for Trent Brown and Danny Shelton, and a conditional fifth for Josh Gordon. Every trade except one has been superb for the Patriots.

I think I let my enthusiasm for McCourty get ahead of me a little bit. He’s protected by a scheme that puts all the pressure on Gilmore to deliver the goods on his own. But Jason is still having a career year at 30 and has been an absolute steal for a sixth-rounder. One of the big questions heading into this season was who could become a reliable second outside corner: the younger McCourty answered the call. That’s doubly impressive considering he looked like a roster bubble for much of training camp.

I confidently predicted Trent Brown would be the best move of the offseason. While two other trades have made that conclusion less obvious I still think it holds true. In a league starved of competent, never mind good, offensive tackle talent Brown has slotted in as an improvement over his previous franchise tackle predecessor. He is not perfect, though: he has issues with run blocking and his pass protection is not elite. But his run blocking has gotten better and his pass protection is good. You also have to remember that he is not playing his natural side at right tackle. There is a good chance Brown walks in free agency but it was still a great trade.

Josh Gordon has performed better than any mid season wide receiver acquisition in the Brady era. He’s on pace to match Brandin Cook’s production over the same period of time he was on the team. Keep in mind that New England traded the 32nd pick in the draft for two years of control of Cooks who had a higher cap hit. Cooks was more valuable to the offense due to his ability to stretch the field on every play and risk as a home run threat. Gordon is a good player but he clearly lacks the elite speed that made him famous in 2013. He is not an elite talent. Still he’s been critical to a team that is desperately lacking play makers due to a hobbled Gronkowski. Even if Gordon walked in free agency this trade would be a steal. The fact that the Patriots get one more year of control is just icing on the cake and means this trade could go down as one of the best in Patriot lore.

One year of controlling Brandin Cooks in a year of blockbuster deals for wide receiver salaries was not worth a first-round pick to most teams. It was worth it to an ascendant Los Angeles Rams team that wants to win now much like the Patriots did last year. This was not a steal like most of the prior trades because Cooks was and is a very good player. The jury is also out on what the Patriots will get in return for the player they drafted. But on paper that was an excellent deal.

Danny Shelton has been a bust. Not because he’s a terrible player. He’s just a very average player that New England did not need to give up a third-round pick for. Shelton as a healthy scratch was partially due to the Patriots’ pregame commitment to sell out against the pass and let the Vikings run if they wanted. But it’s also proof that he is buried as the third tackle in the rotation.

For the price of a good player, a conditional fifth, a sixth round pick, and a basement third Trader Bill netted an average WR1, a quality outside corner, a quality tackle, and a top-25 draft pick. That is phenomenal.

Compare that to the 2018 draft when the Patriots spent picks 23, 31, 56 and 140 on a currently injured player who was drafted as a tackle but was projected as a guard, a good but not great running back, a slot corner that hasn’t seen the field, and a solid linebacker who also went to IR, as well as a future third and a future second-round pick. The rate of return between those two scenarios is night and day.

There is no doubt judging a draft class on its first year is silly, especially when there are two future draft pick in the mix. But that judgement is also inevitable. Right now the 2018 draft class looks disappointing in the short term. That would make the fifth consecutive disappointing draft for Bill the Drafter. And this time you can’t argue it was due to a lack of capital as the Patriots had the equivalent of a team picking tenth overall. I think people would spend a lot more time talking about that if Trader Bill had not worked such great and terrible sorcery.

This is also a great example of why the Green Bay Packers were right to fire their old general manager, Ted Thompson. Putting all of your eggs in the draft basket is just asking for trouble and is a massive handicap compared to other GM’s across the league.

Good but not great

I am impressed by what this team has done in spite of poor drafts and declining play from its future Hall of Fame talent. I don’t think they make the Super Bowl, though. This is a good team, not a special one. There is just nothing great about this team. Just a lot of mediocre to above average. Feel free to come for me if I’m wrong but this just feels like a playoff team. Not a championship one. If the Patriots manage to get the bye I think they have as good a chance as any at home.

After that, however, they probably march into Arrowhead Stadium and lose. If the Patriots miraculously get home field advantage throughout the playoffs call me interested. They would probably be underdogs against the Kansas City Chiefs marching into town but I think they have a chance if they play them at Foxborough.

I think the best news for the Patriots is that they are getting another year of Tom Brady playing well. Yeah he’s not great but he is still a top 10 quarterback.Enjoy him as long as he lasts.

Food for thought

This is the best video you will see all week. My favorite part? The notation under Barry Sanders name.

The Patriots will have $51 million in space cap if they cut Gronk, Devin McCourty and Dwayne Allen next year.

Patrick Mahomes is going to be the regular season MVP.

The spot for the Vikings was disgusting. I’m not one for conspiracy theories but that was so terrible I’m inclined to go there.

Allen Robinson had one of the coolest catches you will see all year.

Saquon Barkley at second overall is awful but at least the kid is really good.

Vance Joseph might save his job if he keeps winning games. Chris Harris Jr. is a massive loss, though.

Calling myself out here. Down 16 points in the first half I cordially patted myself on the back for consistently calling the Los Angeles Chargers pretenders. I was wrong. That was a great win. Personally, I still hope the Patriots get to play them in the playoffs. I think the secondary matches up well against their passing attack provided Gilmore can successfully cover Keenan Allen. Defensively, I think New England can run on them. Their pass rush is good but it comes from the edges where the Patriots have two very competent tackles. The Chargers defensive tackles and linebackers are a liability and the team should be able to run the ball and pass to James White. Their secondary is good but not great. Like the Vikings, they are a good team but one that I think the Patriots can take and one that present less of a risk of an explosive upside.

I hope James Develin has a Pro Bowl incentive in his contract because he will probably make it this year. Props to the aging meat head.

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Posted by Pats Pulpit: For New England Patriots News on Sunday, December 2, 2018