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Chief Thoughts: The state of the Patriots after their Week 7 win against the Jets

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The domination continues.

NFL: OCT 21 Patriots at Jets Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

I think that the New England Patriots’ beatdown of the New York Jets was more devastating than the one in Miami. The team scored more points in the Week 2 shutout, sure, but the Dolphins are tanking. They might not want an embarrassing loss but they want to lose. The Jets, on the other hand, want to win — they want to win desperately. And they also genuinely thought they could win against New England. They were wrong.

The Patriots took one of the league’s more promising young quarterbacks and humiliated him in front of a national audience in his own stadium. The defense ripped the soul from the Jets’ body, and the offense plunged a stake into its still beating heart. Lord forgive me, but it’s fun being a Patriots fan sometimes.

Let’s get started.

State of the Trade

The Patriots traded their 2020 second-round pick in exchange for Mohamed Sanu. I think this was a good move. Let me explain why.

If someone came to you last week and said the Patriots just gave away their second-highest pick in the 2020 draft for one-and-a-half seasons of a 30-year-old wide receiver who had never broken 900 receiving yards despite playing opposite the likes of A.J. Green and Julio Jones, what would your first reaction be? I doubt you would be jumping for joy.

My first reaction to the trade news was lukewarm at best. A second-round pick for Sanu was not terrible value but it wasn’t terribly good value either. Second-round selections are meaningful and valuable even though it is easy to chuckle and say that anything is better than wasting one of them on a bad defensive back prospect. The Patriots have drafted numerous fantastic talents in round two, including a Hall of Fame tight end. Those picks have value.

So what prompted the Patriots to give up a valuable pick?

The trade for Mohamed Sanu was the result of three factors:

1.) The minimal cap hit trading for Sanu would carry.

2.) The Falcons’ need to earn value and cap relief for a player they no longer needed.

3.) The Patriots’ desire to get a wide receiver to assist the offense.

The first two factors require little explanation. The Patriots have limited cap space to make a trade. The Falcons getting a second-round pick for a player that was going to get cut next season is a coup for them. The third and final variable takes a bit more analysis.

(Note: I am keeping the text below for accountability purposes as usual. The trade makes complete sense with the report of Josh Gordon being placed on injured reserve. The Patriots would have been desperate for offensive reinforcements with the loss of Gordon. Belichick knows exactly what he is doing. I don’t see a need to say much else. The need is obvious.)

This was a win-now move that will be justified by a strong playoff run.

That statement begs the question. What defines a win-now move? I define a win-now move as something that represents good value if the team wins in the short term. This is different from a traditional trade. A traditional trade is good regardless of the specific season outcome. Trading a fifth for Josh Gordon? Trading a third for Trent Brown? A sixth for Jason McCourty? All of those trades represented superior value in and of themselves. That’s not 20/20 hindsight. They all made sense before those players took a single snap. If Trent Brown went to injured reserve it would have been rotten luck. It wouldn’t have made the trade any less savvy, though.

A win-now move is also different from an all-in move, as an all-in move would be the magnitude of what is being sacrificed for short-term success. For example, the Chicago Bears and Los Angeles Rams giving up two first-round picks for players that have to be paid a record-breaking contract at a point in the not too distant future is more representative of an all-in maneuver.

Let’s widen the lens past focusing on Sanu and the second-round pick. The Patriots have a championship defense this year. That’s extremely difficult to sustain. The fact that the team managed to construct a high-powered defense in spite of picking at the basement of the draft is extremely rare. We know the Patriots have identified a serious need at wide receiver; we have covered that extensively in past columns. They’ve been searching since the curtains closed on the 2018 season. As enduring as their dominance has been, they are far closer to the end than the beginning. Brady is 42 years old and playing at a historically high level for a quarterback of his age. They also had cap troubles this year and it could easily be worse next year.

If you’re going to make unequal trades that give the team an edge in the short term, the time is now. Trades like this wouldn’t make sense for some franchises but it makes plenty of sense for the New England Patriots. The offense currently ranks 13th in DVOA, but an injury to Julian Edelman could leave this offense pedestrian. Upon reflection, I would be happy with making even more win-now moves, though that is improbable given the cap situation. We are in the twilight years of the greatest dynasty in team sports. It should end with the Patriots taking home a league-record seventh Vince Lombardi Trophy.

Some more thoughts on the trade:

  • Sanu is a good possession receiver with superior hands, decent burst off the line, solid routes and good run-blocking ability. We don’t know if the Patriots offered a second-round pick for Sanu earlier in the season, but we do know they wanted to draft him in the past and they expressed interest in trading for him before the draft this year. This is a player New England wanted for a long time.
  • The Patriots have become extremely predictable with their personnel packages. That is a huge liability for the offense. They are playing against the best players and coaches in the world. If they know what you are going to do they will beat you. Tom Brady is at his best with different personnel packages that allow him to dictate and select the appropriate mismatch. Sanu may not be a world beater but he’s versatile and his presence on the field will not necessarily dictate one play over another. HP Football had a fantastic breakdown on how the Patriots run formations are almost indistinguishable from their play-action packages which make the latter more effective. Run-blocking is not the reason you pay wide receivers, but that type of versatility is just another quiver in the arrow for Josh McDaniels to utilize and keep opposing defenses on edge.
  • Belichick’s record of trading is not perfect but it is stellar. I don’t think he has earned the benefit of the doubt when it comes to drafting certain players but he’s more than earned the benefit of the doubt when it comes to assessing his team and identifying pro talent to plug into it.

State of the Game

The Jets entered Monday hot off an upset win over the Dallas Cowboys and it took all but one drive to demonstrate that the Patriots were not the Cowboys. New England executed the longest scoring drive of the season and finished with seven points. It’s the only score they would need the entire night.

The rumor is that former Jets GM Mike Maccagnan was fired partially because of his decision to sign Le’Veon Bell to a massive contract instead of investing resources into improving the offensive line. It’s not hard to believe. The Patriots’ pass rush and blitz packages destroyed the inexperienced Sam Darnold and the feeble offensive line protecting him. The Jets’ O-line was a large part of the reason I had faith the Patriots would win comfortably going into the game. This secondary is just too damn good. If this defense can get consistent pressure the opposing offense is going to suffocate. For what it is worth, Bell was the lone bright spot in a morose Jets offense. He had several excellent runs that night. It was nowhere near enough, though.

State of the Defense

Are the Jets a good team? No. Are they a bad team? No. They are a team that would probably be cruising toward 6-9 wins if their quarterback did not have mono. The Patriots, however, made them look pathetic. Everyone is sick of hearing it but the point stands. Playing bad teams can make your team look way better than it is. Look at the Kansas City Chiefs last Thursday. Do you really think the defense is that good? Do you really? Or did they just look good because they played the Denver Broncos’ offense? I think the answer is obviously the latter.

That doesn’t change the fact that since the Patriots played the Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium during last year’s AFC title game, their defense has not allowed more than 14 points in a game of consequence. The Jets are a decent team. The Pittsburgh Steelers may have been a good team with Ben Roethlisberger. The Buffalo Bills are a good team. The Los Angeles Rams were a great team. The Patriots defense has imposed their will on all of them.

They are going to be challenged by better offenses, and are not going to be getting three or four turnovers every game. They are going to have games where the defense gives up more than 14 points. Playing bad teams is absolutely inflating the raw stats. All of those things can be true, and this can still be a fantastic defense that can play a major role in taking this team to a championship victory.

Last night Darnold saw ghosts. I think Bill Belichick saw the glittering diamonds of a Super Bowl ring in the distance.

State of the Offense

The Patriots had their best offensive night since the season opener, in my opinion. The reason is that they were able to execute what they wanted to do on offense and they played against better competition than they previously had. The Jets were no slouches on defense, they entered the league 13th against the pass and fifth against the run. That’s not a great defense but it’s solid.

The Patriots dinked and dunked their way down the field and I loved it. Brady is the greatest dink-and-dunk quarterback of all time and it’s a big reason why he is the greatest quarterback of all time. Dink-and-dunk may not be sexy for the viewer but its one of the most reliable ways to exhaust the defense, keep the ball safe, and put points on the board. There is a reason Brady scored two touchdowns in the fourth quarter against the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl 49, and Aaron Rodgers couldn’t manage anything but field goals for an entire game in the NFC championship two weeks prior. Brady can dink and dunk all season and those long drives to chew up clock are exactly the type of game the Patriots are trying to play. Brady sounded almost drained in his post game interview but his most empathetic response came when he was told that his first drive was the longest opening drive of the season and he exclaimed, “Good. That’s very good.”

Another thing that impressed me about this game was New England’s rushing success in the red zone. The Patriots honestly don’t want to put the ball in the quarterback’s hands in the red zone and they have not done so for years. Remember when LeGarrette Blount wracked up 17 touchdowns a couple of years back? This is not a new trend here. It’s also not specific to the Patriots, but rather something a lot of offenses are doing: passing their way down the field and then rushing in the red zone. The Jets defense stymied the Patriots’ run blocking for much of the game, which remains some of the worst in the NFL and an area for concern, but the Patriots were able to hit pay dirt multiple times in the red area with Sony Michel. That’s a real sign of progress, even though I still think the offensive line is a liability.

The Jets do not have a great pass rush but you’d be mistaken for thinking they did watching the game. They may not have had a lot of sacks but they were getting solid pressure. I cannot wait to get Isiah Wynn back on the field and at least shore up the left tackle position. I don’t expect Wynn to become Trent Brown, but he’ll be an upgrade over Marshall Newhouse.

I said hours before the game started that I would need to mentally prepare myself for Josh McDaniels fruitlessly running Sony Michel up the gut into Leonard Williams and the Patriots’ offensive coordinator did not disappoint. The second-year man ran up the middle half a dozen times for no gain, a loss, and what may be an injury to the Patriots’ primary running back (he was a full practice participant on Wednesday, though). I know I’m splitting hairs with an offensive game plan that absolutely raked the Jets, but if the layman on his couch can tell you with zero preparation that call is going to go nowhere, maybe the offensive coordinator getting paid millions could find a better way to use those downs?

Snark aside, I am happy the Patriots have McDaniels to lean on as they head into the rough waters ahead. Even if their entire offense gets healthy, he won’t have access to the tools the team has had in previous years. It has a solid lineup, but it will still be the weakest New England has had in years. I trust McDaniels to do the best he can with what’s available.

State of the League

If New England offered a second for Sanu, the team probably also offered a second for Emmanuel Sanders. John Elway did not bite, however, if that were the case. I did not expect him to bite. You could argue it is understandable. He doesn’t want to help a conference rival and he had a personal relationship with Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch, who acquired Sanders and a fifth-round pick for the San Francisco 49ers in exchange for third and fourth-round selections . But I don’t find it reasonable. He probably could have gotten better draft capital from the Patriots and helping out a conference rival means nothing when your franchise is rotting in the dumpster.

If Drew Brees comes back and plays at a high level the New Orleans Saints are the favorite for the Super Bowl. They have a great defense, a great offensive line, good weapons, great coaches, and that’s the reason they have gone undefeated despite playing some very solid teams with Teddy Bridgewater under center.

If the Saints suffer a string of injuries or Brees underwhelms, the Green Bay Packers would be my second pick. Good defense, solid offensive cast, and the quarterback I have a sneaking suspicion may end up as the league MVP this season.

The 49ers are kind of like the Patriots of the NFC. They have a championship-caliber defense, they are undefeated, they have benefited from a weak schedule, and they have suffered major offensive injuries. Many in the media will chalk up their nine points scored in Washington to the terrible weather conditions, and there is plenty of truth to that, but the real issue is that both their starting tackles have been sidelined. It must have been a great moment for Kyle Shanahan to defeat the franchise that fired his father, and then give his father the game winning football.

That was a crushing loss by the Los Angeles Chargers. They lost in the last minute of the game when their star running back, who held out for a quarter of the season, fumbled the ball twice on the goal line. The only silver lining to that disaster of a game is that the Chargers appear to have made the right call by not caving into Melvin Gordon’s demand for a top running back contract. Melvin was excellent last year but has serious injury concerns and has looked inferior to former undrafted rookie Austin Ekeler, who replaced him during his holdout.

State Of The Enemy

I’m less concerned about the Cleveland Browns than I thought I would be heading into the season. Their defensive line scares me and I’m seriously worried Tom Brady could get injured with Myles Garrett rushing against Marshall Newhouse. What’s worse is that Shaq Mason now has a sprained ankle. I’m definitely worried about the match up in the trenches. Outside of that, the Patriots match up well, though.

They should have no problem throwing the football over the heads of the Browns’ listless secondary. Furthermore, my rule for this defense is that as long as I am confident the pass rush will be consistent I am not worried. The Browns do have some nice weapons but the Patriots are better prepared to deal with that than anyone. The Browns’ O-line has been a disaster, a common theme for the entire NFL, and I think the “Boogeymen” will feast accordingly.

Freddie Kitchens is not Sean Payton. I fully expect the Patriots’ superior coaching staff to compensate for the Browns benefiting from coming off a bye week.

State of the Players

I assumed Brandon Bolden would be nothing more than a special teams contributor but I’ve been pleasantly surprised by his contributions to the offense. He’s averaging one nice catch a week. This week, it was a sick back-shoulder reception. When Bolden left the Patriots last offseason, his greatest contributions to the offense came in serving as a mule for the Patriots when they wanted to grind out the clock. You have to respect the guy for building on his game.

Benjamin Watson looked about as good as you could reasonably expect him to look upon his return. A nice end zone block and a couple of tough catches for minimal yardage, but a nice third down conversion. It’s early but it looks like he may be a minor upgrade to the offense at an area of need.

Seeing Sony Michel repeatedly drop easy passes makes me want to claw my eyes out. I have to remind myself that many people were ready to turn on James White during his sophomore year; I think that the Patriots’ patience paid off on that one. At least he found his nose for the end zone. It’s gonna take a lot of growth for Michel to develop into a first-round caliber pick but at least he runs tough and is good in pass protection. It’s not his fault his offensive line is ranked at the bottom of the NFL in run blocking win rate.

If I were to describe Jakobi Myers I’d say he was a possession receiver with great hands, decent burst off the line and solid routes. Sound familiar? The only difference to Mohamed Sanu is that the latter is a much better run blocker and has about twenty extra pounds on him. I thought he’s looked good so far but I can understand why the Patriots may not want to trust a rookie to fill the possession receiver role.

When the Patriots traded for Cordarrelle Patterson last year I described him as “special” with the ball in his hands. Patterson is not a good wide receiver but he will probably go down in history as the greatest kickoff returner of all time. That skill was on display against the Saints, when Patterson — now with the Chicago Bears — ripped through a tackle like a bear shaking off a flea and jetted his way into the end zone. It was the most impressive play of the game and maybe the only impressive play by the Bears all day.

Julian Edelman is arguably at the height of his powers. Unfortunately, those powers don’t eliminate his obnoxious drops. He’s been doing it his entire career. It won’t stop now. You take a little bad with a lot of good.

Final Thoughts

The news about Josh Gordon stinks. We don’t know the exact details, but I trust Bill Belichick made the right decision. Remember, he reportedly did not want to let go of Antonio Brown despite the firestorm of controversy surround him. He just gave up a second-round pick for a solid but not great receiver. Belichick isn’t doing this unless he has a good reason. That reason may be to make another significant move or it may not. If not, this unremarkable offense will see its upside decline even more. I suspect this team may simply have to lean on McDaniels and Brady to make the offense above-average and depend on their defense and special teams to make plays. It’s quite the change from the last few years but no one adapts better than the Patriots.

The schedule difficulty is going to increase precipitously over the the next six weeks. Trying and exciting times are ahead. It’s gonna be one hell of a ride and I cannot wait to share it with you. LFG!