The New England Patriots have played some impressive football over the first nine weeks of the season en route to achieving an 8-1 record. The team’s focus, however, will lie on what comes next rather than what has happened before the recent bye week. And in order to find success during the a challenging four-game stretch that starts on Sunday against the Philadelphia Eagles, they will need plenty of improvement across the board.
While this starts with broad concepts like run defense, offensive identity or team health, individual players also carry some of the burden and need to (continue) getting better over the second half of the season. The following six men in particular might be crucial when it comes to the success of the Patriots heading into the home stretch of the regular season — one that will decide whether or not the team can hold onto the number one playoff seed in the AFC.
TE Matt LaCosse
Rob Gronkowski’s retirement left an enormous hole in the Patriots’ offense, and the tight end position without its undisputed top option of the last nine seasons. One player seen as a realistic candidate to fill that void was Matt LaCosse, who the Patriots signed to a two-year, $4.8 million contract early into free agency. Halfway through the regular season, however, the 27-year-old has yet to show his value to the team — mainly because of injuries.
LaCosse sprained his ankle during the first preseason game and subsequently missed the Patriots’ season opener and Week 3 contest against the New York Jets. While he returned afterwards, he hurt his knee in Week 6 versus the New York Giants and had been out ever since. New England apparently still has a plan for him in mind, though, as the team did not put him on injured reserve and instead has kept him on its 53-man roster the entire time.
Over the second half of the season, however, LaCosse needs to show that the Patriots were right to hold onto him and not end his season prematurely by moving him to IR: he has to stay healthy for an extended period of time and also show that he is capable of serving as the 1A tight end alongside Benjamin Watson.
DE Deatrich Wise Jr.
After improving over his first two years after the Patriots selected him in the fourth round of the 2017 draft, Deatrich Wise Jr’s development has plateaued a bit this year: his time on the field has decreased — he was on the field for 41.4% of defensive snaps in 2018, and has a playing time share of just 20.1% this season — while his impact has not extended beyond what you would expect from a depth player (he has one sack and one forced fumble on his résumé thus far).
One of the problems is his role: New England moved away from the 4-3 principles it used over the past few years to incorporate more 3-4 looks, essentially leaving Wise Jr. without a clearly defined position. So far this season, he has therefore seen most of his time as three-technique defensive tackle but has not yet carved out a role that extends beyond the rotational label. If the 25-year-old wants to change this, he needs to start showing that he is able to adapt to the new system.
OT Marcus Cannon
While left tackle Marshall Newhouse is currently the weakest link up front, his inconsistent performance had to be expected given his original status as a backup and the fact that he only joined the Patriots in early September. Furthermore, Newhouse is expected to be moved to the bench again once Isaiah Wynn is eligible to officially return from injured reserve as early as the Patriots’ Week 12 game against the Dallas Cowboys.
The right tackle position, on the other hand, has only one way to get upgraded during the season: Marcus Cannon improving. While not on the same level as Newhouse, the veteran still had his fair share of ups and downs through his eight games this season — both as a run blocker and as a pass protector. Becoming more consistent has to be the goal for the entire offensive line, but Cannon in particular has been hit-and-miss so far.
There is a silver lining, however. After all, the 31-year old is coming off his best game of the season and has performed well when the Patriots decided to use an up-tempo attack against the Baltimore Ravens before the bye week. If New England sticks with this identity moving forward, Cannon could be one of the main beneficiaries.
OG Shaq Mason
In 2018, Shaq Mason was arguably the Patriots’ best offensive lineman: an elite run blocker that had his best season as a pass protector as well. This year, however, Mason appears to have taken a step back. The change at center — Ted Karras filled in after starter David Andrews was placed on season-ending injured reserve ahead of the cutdown deadline — may have played a role in this, just like the inconsistent play at the right tackle position.
However, Mason himself has also not played as well as he did last year: advanced analytics website Pro Football Focus, for example, has him graded at 68.2 — a clear step down from the 85.0 he earned one year ago. What is the solution? As is the case with Cannon, the Patriots using more no-huddle concepts could help the 26-year-old get into a better rhythm. Simply spending more time on the practice fields and in the study room alongside his fellow linemen should also help.
Ultimately, there is little doubt that a healthy Mason — he missed Week 8 because of an ankle injury and was limited in practice leading into Week 9 — has the tools to improve again: he is still one of the most talented guards in all of football. And if he does just that, the Patriots’ entire offense will benefit.
LB Jamie Collins Sr.
Finding Jamie Collins on this list might be a surprise, but the offseason addition has cooled off recently after a hot start to the season that had him in the Defensive Player of the Year-conversation. In fact, he entered the bye coming off his two worst games of the season. While the Cleveland Browns failed to take advantage, the Baltimore Ravens were able to exploit Collins’ aggressiveness when playing downhill and on the edge from time to time.
The opening drive of the Patriots’ 37-20 defeat was a perfect example of Collins being out of position against a difficult offense that runs misdirection concepts as well as any in the NFL: twice he was unable to set a hard edge, allowing plays to get to the perimeter. As outstanding as the 30-year-old has been this season, lapses like these still need to get addressed — and the bye week offers a perfect opportunity to do just that.
Collins is still a tremendous asset for the Patriots, and if he can clean up his game just a bit he should be able to return to the level on which he played during the early portions of the season. This would consequently make the defense as a whole better, particularly against the run.
RB Sony Michel
Coming off an impressive rookie season, Sony Michel has so far failed to take the second-year jump — at least when it comes to his statistical output: the former first-round draft pick has carried the football 144 times so far this season and has scored six touchdowns, but he has only gained 482 yards for an average of 3.3 yards per carry. A lot of this has to do with the play up front, but Michel himself has also had his downs to match his ups.
“He’s doing a lot of good things but like everybody he’s got his moments where he’s hurting us, he’s making a mistake too. He’s got to correct those mistakes, be a little bit more consistent in what he’s doing and I think we’ll be more productive overall,” running backs coach Ivan Fears recently said when talking about Michel. “Some of his decisions, he can’t take a chance and say I’m going to bounce this thing. He’s got to frigging get downhill.”
Fears, however, also pointed out that he is happy with the overall job the 24-year-old is doing so far this season. If he can improve his decision making, and the O-line starts getting more consistent at run blocking, Michel could very well return to the levels he was on during the second half of his 2018 campaign.