Later today, the New England Patriots will hit the practice fields again for their third organized team activity workout of the week. As solid as the team's overall attendance is – 80 of 90 players were present for Tuesday's voluntary session – the team's two biggest offensive stars remain nowhere to be found: Both Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski continue skipping voluntary offseason work.
The duo will, however, return once mandatory minicamp stars in early June as team owner Robert Kraft confirmed yesterday. And once that happens the league's best quarterback and its best tight end will be back heading what advanced analytics website Pro Football Focus recently named the two best groups at their respective positions. As subjective as the ranking might be, it still shows just how potent the Patriots' offense is.
Quarterback: New England Patriots
Depth chart: Tom Brady, Brian Hoyer, Danny Etling
Nick Foles channeled the spirit of Joe Montana in the two most important games of the Philadelphia Eagles’ 2017 season, but most teams are treading water when their starter goes down. There’s typically such a big drop-off in quality between a team’s starter and the player holding his clipboard that this position group is often all about the quality of the guy under center. Tom Brady remains the gold standard here for that reason, coming off a 95.5 overall PFF grade, leading the league for the second straight season. He was even better the year before (98.0), and while there are players who are capable of matching Brady in their best seasons, none has been able to replicate what he has done over the past few seasons combined – with Father Time knocking at his door. Last season, he had the third-best big-time throw percentage (PFF’s highest-graded passes) and the fifth-best turnover-worthy play rate, ranking in the top three in both grade from a clean pocket and when under pressure.
Despite turning 41 in two months, Brady is still the premier quarterback in the NFL – and his 2018 season once again showed why: Even though the Patriots failed to win the Super Bowl, the team's quarterback was outstanding and won league MVP honors before delivering a record-shattering performance in New England's title game loss against the Philadelphia Eagles.
Even though the team has experienced Brian Hoyer and developmental Danny Etling as depth options behind Brady, the starter's quality is clearly the reason why the Patriots rank number one ahead of the New Orleans Saints and Atlanta Falcons. As long as Brady is under center – and he will be again during practice soon enough –, New England is the gold standard when it comes to quarterback play in the NFL.
Tight end: New England Patriots
Depth chart: Rob Gronkowski, Dwayne Allen, Jacob Hollister, Will Tye, Troy Niklas, Ryan Izzo
Still one of the game’s most unstoppable players, Rob Gronkowski is a matchup problem capable of changing entire games. The Steelers were the league’s most zone-heavy team last season, playing man coverage on just 15.0 percent of their coverage snaps, but implemented a man-heavy coverage plan against the Patriots because that was how teams gave New England the most trouble. Overall, it was successful, but Gronkowski rendered it impotent because Pittsburgh still could not cover him. He caught 9 of 11 passes thrown his way for 168 yards and a touchdown, added a two-point conversion and dominated on the ground in a couple of key run blocks to punish the Steelers’ run defense. He is the best tight end in the game and one of the biggest mismatches in the entire league. Behind him is Dwayne Allen, who is a capable blocking tight end.
As is the case at quarterback, the starter's quality is the reason why New England ranks number one at tight end: Rob Gronkowski – injury concerns or contract issues be damned – is the most dominant tight end of his era. This prompted PFF to rank the Patriots' tight end group ahead of the Kansas City Chiefs' and the Philadelphia Eagles' even though the drop-off in quality behind Gronkowski cannot be denied.
Still, with Gronkowski leading the group, the Patriots have the best tight end at their disposal – one that is coming off another highly productive season: During the 2017 regular season, he had 69 cathces for 1,084 yards (best among all tight ends) and eight touchdowns before adding 16 receptions for 218 yards and three scores during the playoffs. The first-team All-Pro did all that while also being dominant as a blocker.