The next two and a half months are my least favorite time of the year.
There’s no football, there’s no draft or free agency period to prepare for, and the big Patriots news is Tom Brady’s suit at the Met Gala.
I’ve already taken a stab at a way-too-early 53-man roster projection for the Patriots, but because everyone loves grades, I gave a letter grade to every position group on the roster.
Let’s see how the Patriots stack up now that most of the roster building is in the rearview mirror:
QUARTERBACK GRADE: A-
(Players: Tom Brady, Brian Hoyer, Danny Etling)
When you have the greatest quarterback of all-time on the roster, it’s tough to receive anything below an “A” at quarterback. However, the Patriots don’t have a succession plan in place for the soon-to-be 41-year old Tom Brady. Brian Hoyer is a serviceable backup for this season, but he nor Etling is likely to be the heir to Tom Brady. Without a viable successor to Brady on the roster, the quarterback room took a small hit in the grading.
BACKFIELD GRADE: A
(Players: Sony Michel, James White, Rex Burkhead, Mike Gillislee, Jeremy Hill, Brandon Bolden, James Develin)
One of the deepest and most talented position groups on the roster. The Patriots have a big-play machine in Sony Michel, a versatile weapon in Rex Burkhead, and one of the league’s best receiving backs in James White. Plus, Mike Gillislee and Jeremy Hill will battle it out in camp for the power-back role. The running back group is as loaded as ever in New England, and let’s not sleep on fullback James Develin who’s one of the league’s best lead blockers.
WIDE RECEIVER GRADE: B
(Players: Julian Edelman, Chris Hogan, Malcolm Mitchell, Phillip Dorsett, Cordarrelle Patterson, Jordan Matthews, Braxton Berrios, Kenny Britt, Riley McCarron)
The wide receiver position will likely provide one of the best camp-battles of the summer due to an incredible amount of depth at the position. However, outside of Julian Edelman, the Patriots don’t have another wideout on the roster that can consistently create separation on a down-to-down basis. Chris Hogan is a great system fit and a reliable player, and Malcolm Mitchell can be that guy if he’s healthy, but the lack of top-end talent outside of Edelman makes it difficult to give this group a higher grade. With that said, it likely won’t matter that the Patriots don’t have an elite “X” receiver on the outside.
TIGHT END GRADE: A-
(Players: Rob Gronkowski, Dwayne Allen, Ryan Izzo, Jacob Hollister, Troy Niklas, Will Tye)
Similar thought process as the quarterback grade here. Gronk is the GOAT, but behind him, things get a little murky both for 2018 and beyond. Dwayne Allen is an elite blocking tight end at the NFL level, and Ryan Izzo was at the collegiate level, but neither is likely to give the Patriots anything in the passing game. On the other hand, Jacob Hollister had a solid rookie season and was good enough in practice to warrant a roster spot for the entire year, but he’s essentially a wide receiver. Personally, I think Dwayne Allen is better than he gets credit for amongst Patriots fans. He’s a solid #2 tight end that’s a veteran presence behind Gronk, but the Patriots don’t have much to offer outside of #87 when it comes to pass catchers at the position.
OFFENSIVE LINE GRADE: A
(Players: Isaiah Wynn, Shaq Mason, Marcus Cannon, Joe Thuney, David Andrews, LaAdrian Waddle, Trent Brown, Tony Garcia, Cole Croston, Ted Karras, Matt Tobin)
The Patriots have to figure out their best offensive line combination in camp, but this is the most talented group of offensive linemen they’ve had in quite some time, and maybe ever under Bill Belichick. The Patriots return four of five starters from a year ago to an underappreciated offensive line, and they added a first-round pick in Isaiah Wynn and a talented tackle via trade in Trent Brown. Plus, they’ll get 2017 third rounder Tony Garcia back from his scare with blood clots. The Patriots have bodies to throw at the left tackle position vacated by Nate Solder, and a ton of potential up front if they can gel as a unit.
DEFENSIVE LINE GRADE: B+
(Players: Trey Flowers, Malcom Brown, Danny Shelton, Adrian Clayborn, Lawrence Guy, Deatrich Wise, Derek Rivers, Vince Valentine, Adam Butler, Eric Lee, Geneo Grissom)
It’s remarkable what a difference a year makes in the NFL. The Patriots had one of the league’s worst defensive lines a year ago, and that was exposed ad nauseam by the Eagles in the Super Bowl. However, veteran additions Adrian Clayborn and Danny Shelton give the team two plug-and-play starters, and a healthy Derek Rivers gives them a young pass rusher with upside. Rivers is a real “x” factor for this Patriots defense. If his game translates to the NFL, which I fully expect it will, he’ll bring that athleticism and pass-rush ability that this front seven desperately needs. With those three players now in the fold, this should be the most improved position group on the roster in 2018.
LINEBACKER GRADE: C+
(Players: Dont’a Hightower, Kyle Van Noy, Elandon Roberts, Christian Sam, Ja’Whaun Bentley, Marquis Flowers, Harvey Langi)
No surprises here as the linebacker group receives by far the lowest grade in this exercise. Dont’a Hightower and Kyle Van Noy are both starter-level linebackers, with Hightower obviously in the elite category when healthy. However, the Patriots didn’t do much in the offseason to bolster the talent pool at the position, as day three picks Christian Sam and Ja’Whaun Bentley are it. Elandon Roberts is what he is at this point: an above-average run defender/blitzer and a well below-average player in coverage. Marquis Flowers showed flashes a year ago thanks to plus-athleticism and could stick with a strong August, but the Patriots need a healthy Dont’a Hightower to elevate what’s objectively a shaky position on the roster.
CORNERBACK GRADE: B+
(Players: Stephon Gilmore, Jason McCourty, Eric Rowe, Jonathan Jones, Cyrus Jones, Duke Dawson, Ryan Lewis, Jomal Wiltz, Keion Crossen)
The Patriots have a solid group of cornerbacks entering 2018, but there are questions to be answered. Stephon Gilmore is a bonafide #1 corner, but there are some things behind Gilmore on the depth chart that will need to sort themselves out before this group can receive an “A” grade. Jason McCourty and Eric Rowe are both viable options to start opposite of Gilmore on the outside, but McCourty will turn 31 in August and Rowe struggled at times last season. McCourty has good football left despite his age from this perspective, and Rowe will fair better on the outside rather than in the slot, but neither are high-level starters as of now. After that, the Patriots have some interesting albeit in some cases questionable options to fill out the depth chart. 2018 second round pick Duke Dawson and third-year cornerback Jonathan Jones have the best chance to earn the Patriots’ nickel corner spot. Dawson showed great ability to stick with slot receivers at the collegiate level, and Jones was the most reliable option inside when healthy a year ago, but Dawson will have to prove himself in the NFL and Jones has to stay healthy. The Patriots will need to ask themselves some tough questions with Cyrus Jones, and potentially move on from the 2016 second rounder in favor of guys that weren’t high draft picks. This group has a chance to be very good this season if they can sort everything out.
SAFETY GRADE: A-
(Players: Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung, Duron Harmon, Jordan Richards, Nate Ebner, Brandon King)
Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung’s best football may be behind them, but both were extremely important and productive players a year ago, and there’s no reason to think that won’t continue this season. We all know the value that McCourty brings at this point, but Chung is one of the most underrated players in football. Chung doesn’t get mentioned among the other trend-setters that perfected the hybrid safety role that has taken over the NFL, but he’s the Patriots’ best tackler and their best option when it comes to covering tight ends and running backs. Duron Harmon will continue to provide solid depth as another rangy safety that can play center field, which allows McCourty and Chung to move around as matchup-based players. I understand why Patriots fans can’t stand Jordan Richards, but he can play on special teams and will likely make the team in that role. So let’s all just come to terms with it and stop complaining about him constantly (seriously, it’s getting old). The Patriots could use some youth at the position moving forward, but for now, they still have one of the league’s best safety groups.