For the second straight offseason, the New England Patriots lost some considerable talent. Rob Gronkowski decided to retire, while core players such as Trey Flowers and Trent Brown left via free agency. But despite seeing three blue-chip players depart over the last few months, the Patriots still have the best roster in football — at least if advanced analytics website Pro Football Focus is to be believed.
PFF took a close look at all 32 NFL rosters for an ESPN In$ider story, and New England’s came out on top as the most talented. Along the way, the analytics team broke down the Patriots’ projected starters on offense and defense in categories based on its grading system from 2018 — from ‘elite’ (90.0+) to ‘good/high quality’ (80.0-89.9) to ‘average’ (70.0-79.9) to below average (0.0-69.9; also for rookies and marginally active players).
As can be seen, the Patriots feature some players in all of the categories:
Elite: QB Tom Brady (90.7), CB CB Stephon Gilmore (90.7), DT Lawrence Guy (90.1)
Good/High quality: DT Mike Pennel (87.1), OG Shaq Mason (82.7)
Average: CB Jason McCourty (79.1), FS Devin McCourty (78.4), RB Sony Michel (76.2), DE Michael Bennett (76.2), WR Julian Edelman (75.2), CB J.C. Jackson (73.7), OT Marcus Cannon (72.7) RB James White (71.1), OG Joe Thuney (70.8), OC David Andrews (70.8), TE Benjamin Watson (70.7)
Below average: SS Patrick Chung (68.7), WR Phillip Dorsett (67.0), LB Dont’a Hightower (65.5), LB Kyle Van Noy (65.3), LB Elandon Roberts (64.7), DE Deatrich Wise Jr. (60.3)
College grades: OT Isaiah Wynn (91.3), WR N’Keal Harry (83.9)
Broken down like this, PFF’s grades reflect the Patriots’ way of roster construction: Bill Belichick and company are trying to build a strong middle class and a deep overall team. As can be seen above, the 2018 and 2019 versions appear to fit this mold as well considering that eleven of twenty-four players listed fall in the ‘average’ category — one that sounds pretty pedestrian but actually represents solid contributions across the board.
And while the grades should not be seen as the end-point when it comes to assessing a player’s quality — they are merely one piece of the puzzle alongside more traditional statistics and film study — they do give us a good overview over the Patriots’ overall depth and the club’s strengths and weaknesses. PFF also took a specific look at those as part of its evaluation of the league’s rosters.
The biggest strength, unsurprisingly, is the quarterback position: “Perhaps the greatest quarterback to play the position continues to produce at an elite level, as Tom Brady led his team to another Super Bowl victory a season ago. The defending champs will lean on their quarterback who, even at 41 years old, showed off all the throws in 2018 and finished with an elite PFF grade (90.7) for the fourth straight season. His game might have changed over the years, but his ability remains high-end.”
Seeing Brady listed as the Patriots’ biggest strength was to be expected. After all, the soon-to-be 42-year-old is still among the NFL’s elite passers and capable of performing at a high level no matter the situation or the offensive approach New England uses. Just last year, for example, the team relied more on its ground game but still had a generally potent aerial attack whenever the future Hall of Famer dropped back to pass.
PFF also went on to define the Patriots’ biggest weakness, and it is not a tight end position that lost Rob Gronkowski, Dwayne Allen and Jacob Hollister this offseason. Instead, the choice was New England’s pass rush — one that will have to make up for the departures of the aforementioned Trey Flowers and veteran Adrian Clayborn in 2019.
“The Patriots have long lacked a true pass-rushing threat along the edge. Coupled with the loss of Trey Flowers and Adrian Clayborn this offseason, this unit once again sticks out,” writes PFF. “Outside of Flowers and Clayborn, no Patriots edge defender had more than 30 QB pressures a season ago, as the returning unit brings back only nine sacks, 12 QB hits and 42 QB hurries on a combined 697 pass rushes.”
Moving forward, New England will rely on its young and recently acquired talent to generate pressure — from returning players such as Deatrich Wise Jr, John Simon and Derek Rivers to offseason additions Michael Bennett and Chase Winovich. The Patriots’ versatile linebacker group and the defensive scheme will also play their part, of course, as was on perfect display during the team’s victory in Super Bowl 53.
And as was the case back in February, the Patriots again reign supreme. if only when it comes to roster quality. Of course, the most important thing is to once more turn this quality into on-field success — an ability New England has shown time and again in the past.