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Film Room: Which Patriots’ Stocks Are Up and Down Ahead of the Season Finale

With the Patriots’ loss in Buffalo marking the worst season in Bill Belichick’s head coaching career, the future Hall of Famer seems to be inching closer to the end of his Patriots tenure. Fielding one of the league’s best defenses despite losing his best two players is an incredible feat, and the fight players have shown, particularly since the bye week, proves Belichick is still one of the best leaders in sports.

But a “terrible 20 minutes,” which featured four 1st-half turnovers, was a microcosm of what’s ailed New England all season, and those issues fall on the shoulders of Belichick the general manager. The impact of injuries can’t be overlooked, with New England entering Week 17’s matchup without its top wide receiver, running back, tight end, and left guard. The offense’s self-proclaimed best player, Trent Brown was also marked a healthy scratch as one of the only players to have quit on his team in a lost season.

The bright side of Sunday’s loss is that New England moved up one spot in the draft order after slipping from the 2nd overall pick to the 4th following their win in Denver, placing them in range for a top quarterback. And while there were some disappointing performances, several young players stood out as potential building blocks as the team enters a new era.

Here are my takes on whose stock is up and who needs a strong showing heading into the season’s final game.

STOCK UP

Christian Barmore

Christian Barmore entered the NFL as a fearsome interior rusher with prototypical size and explosive athleticism, but inconsistent availability and run defense hindered his immense potential. That all changed this season, as a healthy offseason has allowed the third-year defensive tackle to round out his game and become an All-Pro-caliber player. Barmore leads the Patriots’ defensive line in snaps (670) and his 30 stops since Week 6 trail only the Panthers’ Derrick Brown (31) among interior defensive linemen.

Barmore was quiet as a pass rusher against the Bills after a career-high three-sack performance in Denver, with his 7.1% pressure rate being his lowest since Week 8. But the numbers don’t reflect his impact, as Barmore drew extra attention throughout the game. He was a split-second away from beating Deatrich Wise to the quarterback on the defense’s opening sack and dominated rookie O’Cyrus Torrence for the second time this season.

Barmore’s improved pad level and technique against the run also stood out, with his four tackles against Buffalo’s ground game tying for the 3rd-most in a game in his career.

On a Patriots defense full of breakout players, Barmore stands head-and-shoulders as the cream of the crop. He may not be recognized for his efforts with All-Pro or Pro Bowl nods at a loaded position, but his consistency, discipline, and impactful play have solidified him as a top extension candidate and emerging star.

Anfernee Jennings

Anfernee Jennings showed flashes of brilliance as a run defender throughout his young career, but he’s established himself as an elite run defender. Since his season debut in Week 2,  Jennings has led all edge defenders in run stops (34) and is tied with Khalil Mack for the 2nd-most tackles for loss or no gain against the run (13). That dominance continued against a Bills rushing attack that leads the NFL in EPA per play and positive EPA rate.

Jennings recorded an eye-popping five run stops in Week 17, three more than the next closest players, Christian Barmore and Keion White. It marked his fourth game this season with five defensive stops. Jennings overpowered Buffalo’s tight ends and blew up several “Dart” runs by beating Dion Dawkins as he pulled across the formation. He also continued to wreak havoc on his bread-and-butter inside slants with a safety blitzing from the slot, leading to a tackle for loss and generating a hurry to force an errant throw in the Red Zone.

Jennings was assigned three missed tackles in the game, his first game with multiple misses all season. But upon further inspection, two came as or right after he engaged with a pulling lineman, and one came in backside pursuit and contributed to a stop.

Entering this season, Josh Uche was seen as the bigger priority among the Patriots’ impending free-agent linebackers. But after a breakout 2023 campaign, Jennings has vaulted himself to the top of that priority list.

Alex Austin

Alex Austin has been a sneakily solid pickup for the Patriots, who desperately needed cornerback help with injuries and inconsistent play plaguing the position. Since taking on a larger role in Week 15, the undrafted rookie has played the 5th-most defensive snaps for New England, trailing only Kyle Dugger, Ja’Whaun Bentley, Jalen Mills, and Myles Bryant. Austin hasn’t been perfect, but he hasn’t been a liability either, and his performance against his former team hinted at a promising future.

Austin was a bit too conservative in some of his zone drops, nearly leading to a pair of conversions,  just barely missed a tackle on a play that was called back for holding, and could’ve given up a touchdown after getting picked near the goal line (though Dugger may have been partially responsible). But outside of those miscues, it was a good game for the corner, who blew up a screen and brought down James Cook in space on separate Red Zone possessions. He was also an active communicator throughout the game.

The crown jewel of Austin’s performance, and one of the defense’s best plays this season, came on an interception where he out-baited Josh Allen on a deep shot.

Austin credited New England’s coaching staff for preparing him for the moment, noting they went over the post-wheel concept Buffalo deployed all week in practice. That attention to detail and recognition from a first-year, combined with the ability to execute at a high level, was notable given Austin has only played four games for New England and six games total in his young career. He’ll have to build on the highlight, but there’s no better place for him to grow than in the Patriots’ cornerback factory.

Sidy Sow

The Patriots’ offensive line has been a nauseating carousel all season, featuring a whopping nine different permutations through 16 games. One of the group’s few bright spots has been rookie Sidy Sow, who’s brought stability to the right side of the offensive line since becoming a starter in Week 6. There have been understandable growing pains and fluctuating play, but the 4th-round pick’s highs suggest he could be a long-term answer at the right guard spot. His 82.6 PFF grade against the Bills marked his fourth game this season with a grade of at least 80, and the tape backed the numbers.

Sow was at the point of attack on all of the Patriots’ successful runs, combining with Mike Onwenu on some devastating double teams, showing improved blocking at the second level, and throwing key blocks on screens. His only pressure allowed on the day came on a long-developing play where he held up for three seconds without the aid of play action, and he showed plus awareness against line games.

New England enters this offseason with question marks at nearly every spot on their offensive line, but Sow’s development and sturdy have stood out as a rare positive for the group.

Honorable Mention: IOL Jake Andrews

Jake Andrews only played 13 snaps in his professional debut, but I thought he showed enough flashes to potentially unseat Atonio Mafi as the primary starter at left guard in next week’s finale.

In his limited opportunities, Andrews had strong reps against game-wrecking interior rusher Ed Oliver. He also showed a bit of a mean streak, playing through the whistle and delivering a couple of pancakes. There were a couple of reps where aggressive blocking led to balance issues, but there weren’t any glaring mistakes in his tape.

With David Andrews being a retirement candidate after this season, it would behoove the Patriots to see what they have in the younger Andrews, who was drafted in the 4th round to replace the 2x Super Bowl champion. Even if the team doesn’t see Jake as a true guard, which may be why it took so long for him to see the field, he looked miles better than Mafi, who frankly isn’t playable at this point in his career. And with nothing to play for but pride in the last game of the season, now is the time for New England to evaluate what they’ve got in the cupboard.

STOCK DOWN

Bailey Zappe

Bailey Zappe’s 82.2 PFF grade against the Bills was the 2nd-highest of his career, trailing only his Christmas Eve upset against the Broncos (88.9). He was also credited with zero turnover-worthy plays despite throwing three interceptions, his second such game since becoming a starter. Zappe’s stock should be pointing up based on those numbers. But the tape told a story of continued inconsistency, and Zappe needed a dazzling performance to maintain his starter status entering next season.

To the second-year signal-caller credit, he had several impressive plays in a resilient comeback attempt. There were moments of outstanding downfield accuracy, like throwing DeVante Parker open on a crossing route and dropping a shot to Jalen Reagor in the bucket down the sideline. He also showed elusiveness in the pocket and used his legs to make plays off-schedule, including a 3rd down conversion on a scramble drill and two explosive runs, one of which resulted in the offense’s first touchdown.

As encouraging as those moments were, they were overshadowed by mistakes and missed opportunities.

Buffalo deserves credit for making some tremendous plays on Zappe’s picks, and his receivers didn’t do him many favors. Pharaoh Brown took a tick too long to turn around on the first, DeVante Parker let Rasul Douglas beat him to the catch point by drifting upfield (again) on the second, and Jalen Reagor didn’t adjust his route against a blitz on the third. That said, Zappe admitted he should’ve hit Gesicki quicker on his opening turnover and thrown a screen to the opposite side of the field on his second. And while it’s impossible to know for sure how Reagor should’ve adjusted his route, Zappe would’ve been well off the mark if he intended to throw an abbreviated slant.

The quarterback also missed several chances to throw downfield throughout the game, like passing up two open receivers on one play during the offense’s final drive. He also had an errant pass on a completion to DeMario Douglas that prevented what could’ve been an even bigger play.

Zappe has shown he can be a quality backup and spot starter, and he might even push an inexperienced rookie for the starting job early next season. But his streaky play, propensity for turnovers, and limited upside might keep him from being a serious contender to take over as the face of the franchise.

Kyle Dugger

Entering the final year of his contract, Kyle Dugger was expected to continue his ascent toward the top of the safety position. Unfortunately, the Swiss Army knife has dulled a bit in an increased role that’s seen him eclipse 1,000 snaps for the first time in his career.  His 61.1 PFF grade is a career low, dipping below 70 for the first time since his rookie season, and his 48.9 coverage grade is his first mark below 50 in four seasons. Spending more time in the deep part of the field has played a factor, but he’s also had issues in coverage closer to the line of scrimmage, and those were on full display in his tape against the Bills.

Dugger only gave up one explosive catch after getting smoked by Dalton Kincaid, and it’s fair to question the Patriots’ choice to play Cover 0 on 1st down. But he was beaten deep three times on plays that Josh Allen didn’t capitalize on due to pressure. Dugger also got blocked out on a screen, and as I mentioned earlier, he may have missed an assignment on another blown coverage near the goal line. While Dugger was listed on the injury report with an illness in the week leading up to the game, these struggles have popped up throughout the season.

Dugger is still a playmaker as a run defender and blitzer, and he did force a 4th quarter fumble that could’ve changed the outcome of the game had New England recovered. But with the upcoming free agent turning 28 in March at an undervalued position, he may enter contract negotiations with less leverage than anticipated.

David Andrews

This one hurts, as David Andrews has been an iron man for New England’s depleted offense and provided impeccable leadership. But the nine-year veteran appears to be slowing down late in a season where he’s had to mask many deficiencies on the interior. Andrews allowed six pressures against the Bills, double his previous season-high and his 19.4% pressure rate allowed was his first game of the season eclipsing 10%.

Andrews allowed pressure outside of his frame several times throughout the game, with line games continuing to give him trouble and sometimes even sending him to the turf. I may be assigning blame unfairly considering how little chemistry Andrews has with Mafi, but I can only evaluate what I see, and there were some ugly reps. The center was also pushed into the quarterback on a sack that prevented a huge play to DeMario Douglas, though the entire line also caved in around him.

To Andrews’ credit, he earned a season-high 81.7 run-blocking grade in Week 17, which included some exceptional blocks that showed the old dog still has some tricks up his sleeve. But in a passing league, holding up against the rush is necessary, and the center fell short of that standard in the season’s penultimate game. Here’s hoping we see a bounceback performance against a fearsome Jets interior this weekend.

Dishonorable Mention: Chad Ryland

Chad Ryland’s disappointing rookie campaign continued against the Bills, with the kicker missing a 47-yard field goal attempt and shaking another that was called back for a delay of game.

Entering the finale, Ryland ranks as the league’s worst kicker, with just 62.5% of his field goal attempts making it through the uprights. While he’s made all four of his kicks inside of 30 yards, he’s 4-6 from 30-39 yards, 5-10 from 40-49 yards, and 2-4 from 50 and deeper.

Coaches have credited Ryland for his mental toughness in a rocky season, and they say he’s been much more consistent in practice than we’ve seen in live action. But at some point, that execution has to carry over to real games. Even if Ryland bounces back against the Jets, the team may need an insurance policy for 2024.

Taylor Kyles

Taylor Kyles is the lead NFL Analyst for CLNS Media covering players, schemes, and tendencies through a New England Patriots-centric lens.

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