After coming in at second place in 2017, the New England Patriots saw some significant roster turnover during free agency and are heading into training camp facing questions along the offensive line, at wide receiver, and at the cornerback position. However, the biggest weakness on the team currently is the linebacker position – at least when you ask advanced analytics website Pro Football Focus.
In an insider story for ESPN.com, PFF identified each team’s strengths and weaknesses, and subsequently ranked all rosters from 1 to 32. As the highest-ranked AFC representative the Patriots come in at number four behind the Philadelphia Eagles, Atlanta Falcons, and New Orleans Saints. The ranking seems fair considering that the teams in front of New England have more star power and a bit more set at certain positions.
However, it is not one of those spots that PFF worries about when it comes to the Patriots. Instead, the linebacker group is identified as the biggest current weakness:
Biggest weakness: The linebacking corps – specifically the middle, which is currently occupied by Elandon Roberts. Roberts ranked 69th among interior linebackers last season with a 41.6 grade, which was regression from the 61.1 he posted as a rookie in 2016. He ranked last in the position with just a 6.2 run-stop percentage while also surrendering a 144.3 passer rating in coverage.
The Patriots’ linebackers certainly were one of the weakest spots on the team last year. With Dont’a Hightower on injured reserve, Kyle Van Noy and the aforementioned Elandon Roberts were asked to carry the load, with Marquis Flowers serving as the third option. But while Van Noy and Flowers were solid albeit unspectacular, Roberts – playing 52.9% of defensive snaps – struggled as is reflected by PFF’s statistics.
New England reacted during the draft and added two late-round selections in Ja’Whaun Bentley and Christian Sam. The rookies will compete for roster spots behind Hightower and Van Noy, and should put pressure on Roberts to bounce back from a bad sophomore campaign. Provided the linebackers stay healthy at the top, the group should look much improved when compared to last year’s.
While New England’s linebackers were sub-par in 2017, the team’s biggest strength according to PFF was as productive as usual: quarterback Tom Brady.
Biggest strength: It’s Tom Brady. Do we need to say anything else? Brady led all QBs last season with a 95.5 grade – his third straight season north of 93.0 – and his 96.6 passer rating under pressure was higher than the passer rating that 22 quarterbacks earned from a clean pocket.
In his 17th season, Brady was again magnificent despite losing his number one wide receiver in preseason and having to play behind an inconsistent offensive line for the first few weeks of the year. The future Hall of Famer did as he always does: He was in total command of one of the NFL’s best offenses, performed at the highest level even in the face of adversity, and put his team in a position to win week-in and week-out.
Brady, who was named the league’s most valuable player for his performance, proved that he is still the head of the class when it comes to quarterbacking the NFL. And while he will be 41 next season and opted to take a different offseason approach the last few months, there is little doubt than anything will change in 2018. New England’s roster therefore has a weapon no other team has: the best player at the most important position.