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Grading the Patriots Offense Exiting the Bye

After being one of the league’s least functional offenses in 2022, excitement was high when the Patriots hired Bill O’Brien as offensive coordinator this offseason. Not only was O’Brien returning to his NFL roots, but his experience at Alabama made him the perfect candidate to maximize Mac Jones and modernize the Patriots’ scheme. The team’s free agent additions were modest, and their draft strategy was perplexing, but the offense seemed good enough to compliment a defense returning most of its starters.

Fast forward a few months, and the Patriots offense are averaging the 2nd-fewest point per game (14.1) and 7th-fewest yards per game in the NFL. They’ve been kept out of the end zone in three games, and from Weeks 5-6, they allowed three touchdowns to opposing defense’s while only scoring a field goal. O’Brien has taken responsibility for the offense’s struggles, and injuries haven’t been kind to New England, but there’s plenty of responsibility to go around for this season’s disaster.

Here are my deep dives and grades for each position group through ten weeks.

Quarterback

In August, offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien called the Patriots’ group of passers “one of the better quarterback rooms I’ve ever been a part of.” It was an odd comment since Bailey Zappe and then-QB3 Trace McSorley struggled throughout the summer, but Mac Jones’ consistency and solid play were worthy of praise. Three months later, New England’s quarterback situation is so bad that fans are clamoring for Will Grier, whose two career starts came as a rookie for the Panthers in 2019.

Offensive line injuries, poor receiver play, and front-office failures contributed to Jones’ continued regression. He also overcame these issues with late pushes against the Eagles, Dolphins (Round 1), Raiders, and Commanders, and pulled off his first comeback in two seasons against the Bills. But the 3rd-year signal-caller has consistently hurt his team with turnovers, missed opportunities, and poor fundamentals, punctuated by a fade-away interception against the Colts that landed him on the bench.

Jones’ 18 turnover-worthy plays are five more than his previous career high, and he’s last in the NFL in completion percentage (20.0%) and yards per attempt (4.4) on passes of 20+ air yards. Even with the offense reduced to quick throws and relatively simple reads, Jones has looked like an accurate game-manager at best and an unplayable liability at worst.

As bad as Jones has been, there aren’t any viable replacement options behind him. Bailey Zappe has only committed one turnover-worthy play this season but has a 36.1 passer rating in three appearances.

The team also showed how they value the Western Kentucky product by waiving him during roster cuts and demoting him to emergency 3rd quarterback behind undrafted rookie Malik Cunningham in Week 6.

Cunningham flashed under center on the final drives of the preseason opener and finale, but both of his live reps against the Raiders resulted in negative plays. While I think Cunningham’s future is at quarterback, he has a long way to go before being trusted in a game.

With the Patriots unlikely to pick up his 5th-year option, Mac Jones has one year left on his rookie deal. I’d like to see if he can rebound with playmakers and a stable offensive line in 2024, but with his inexcusable play this season, New England has to look for his long-term successor during the offseason.

Grade: D+

Running Back

Adding Ezekiel Elliott late this summer seemed to round out an interesting Patriots running back room. Rhamondre Stevenson would continue to be the workhorse, Elliott would mix in as a top backup, Ty Mongtomery would serve as a top receiving back, and Pierre Strong and Kevin Harris would continue to grow and eventually crack the lineup. While Stevenson and Elliott have carried the load as predicted, none of the other backfield options have panned out. Strong was traded in a desperate attempt to add tackle depth. Montgomery has primarily been a special teamer, playing just 31 offensive snaps. Kevin Harris has spent all season on the practice squad.

I was concerned that a two-man rotation would wear down its backs, as we saw last season when Stevenson was asked to carry the offense. But through ten weeks, we’ve seen the opposite result.

The ground game started slowly behind several offensive line combinations, which blockers acknowledged hurt their ability to build chemistry. But things picked up around Week 6 when Sidy Sow slid in at right guard, with Mike Onwenu kicking out to right tackle the next week. Since Sow became a mainstay in the trenches, Stevenson has been one of the league’s best runners.

Elliott’s season-long averages are nearly identical to Stevenson’s, but the short-yardage specialist converts more often (26.7%; Stevenson, 19.8) while forcing missed tackles at a lower rate (0.09; Stevenson, 0.16). Elliott’s numbers haven’t seen a dramatic shift since the changes up front, but he looks more explosive than he did early on.

Stevenson and Elliot have combined for over 100 rushing yards in each of their past two games, including a season-high 142 yards. Their only other such performance came in Week 3 against the Jets.

As productive as New England’s backs have been lately, the offense desperately needs a true receiving back.

Stevenson was top-10 among running backs in receptions (32, 4th) and yards after catch (253) from Weeks 1-10. But he was bottom-10 in catch rate (76.2%, 9th-lowest), yards per route run (1.03, t-10th-lowest), and conversions (8) among backs with at least 25 targets. He was also tied for the 2nd-most drops at the position (4) behind Alexander Mattison (5). Stevenson’s inability to separate has been glaring at times, and he hasn’t consistently proven to be the security blanket this offense needs.

The Patriots unsuccessfully fed Elliott screens in the season opener, and his receiving impact has been limited for most of the season. His first real impact plays came against the Colts, where he turned two slip screens into big gains.  He also took a short pass 74 yards for a score against the Raiders, but most of the yardage was nullified after a questionable penalty.

Montgomery’s only been targeted eight times after catching a touchdown in the only game he played last season. His most recent catch was an impressive grab on a pass that should’ve been intercepted in Vegas, but he did have a target picked against the Saints after a hit dislodged the football. I’d like to see his role expanded, but the results have been rough in a limited sample size.

I’ll have no complaints if the Patriots run it back with Stevenson and Elliott next season. Still, a difference-making receiver and at least one developmental piece with upside would help round out the backfield and take some of the load off of its veteran grinders.

Grade: B-

Wide Receiver

New England’s wide receiver room has lived up to the “Stink, Stank, and Stunk” label it was smacked with this summer. While no one expected any Pro Bowl nods, Kendrick Bourne being out of the doghouse, DeVante Parker making daily deep catches, Demario Douglas’ quick emergence, and Kayshon Boutte’s flashes set the stage for a group that would be better than the sum of its parts. However, thanks to injuries and poor play, they’ve failed to meet already low expectations.

Bourne enjoyed a career year before tearing his ACL in Week 6 against the Dolphins. He was the Patriots’ only pass-catcher with 35+ targets (55), 30+ receptions (37), 250+ receiving yards (406), more than two receiving touchdowns (four), or double-digit receptions of 15+ yards (12) through eight weeks. His 5.6 yards after catch per reception are still 6th in the NFL among wide receivers with 50+ targets.

As the team’s only reliable veteran receiver, Bourne’s loss has made the passing game difficult to watch.

Jitterbug Pop Douglas has done his best to keep the offense afloat, showing promise as both a downfield receiver and gadget player. He ranks 7th in yards after catch per reception (6.9) among receivers with at least 25 targets, and he’s the team’s only active receiver with multiple deep catches.

But, as with most rookies, there have been growing pains. Douglas’ route-running has been all over the place, and it’s clear he’s actively learning the offense. Unfortunately, a lack of veteran production has put the Liberty product in an impossible position.

Shortly after signing a three-year contract extension to retire a Patriot, Parker’s ability to win deep along the boundary vanished. He hasn’t caught any of his three deep targets, headlined by a drop on a pinpoint bomb during the final drive against Vegas. Parker was also outmuscled by Xavien Howard for an interception in Week 2 and a near-interception against the Saints, which reflected a season-long trend of questionable effort. He’s missed the past two games with a concussion, but it’s unlikely his presence would’ve been a needle-mover in those matchups.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, who was signed to replace Jakobi Meyers in the slot, doesn’t look like the same player after tearing his ACL in the 2022 playoffs. Expectations waned during a quiet training camp, but the Super Bowl champion’s precision and reliability have been major disappointments. Smith-Schuster was being phased out of the offense until injuries forced him back on the field late in Week 8, but a game-sealing drop against the Commanders has been his most noteworthy play since returning to the lineup.

Jalen Reagor, who was signed to the active roster after running out of practice squad elevations, began taking snaps from Parker in Week 6. He’s thrown some key blocks in the run game, but a rough performance against the Commanders saw him benched for a combination of Smith-Schuster and Boutte, who’s been a healthy scratch in all but two games this season.

Tyquan Thornton may be the biggest letdown among this group after being taken in the 2nd round last season. The skinny speedster can’t seem to stay healthy, and the time he missed due to injury was glaring against Washington, leading to his benching after a dozen plays.

Extending or re-signing Bourne should be a priority, as he was one of the offense’s few bright spots on and off the field. Douglas has also shown enough talent to be considered a building block moving forward. Outside of those two players, the wide receiver room needs a significant overhaul next offseason.

Grade: D+

Tight End

It was no secret that the Patriots tight end room lacked dynamic talent entering this season. But replacing Jonnu Smith with a proven glue trap in Mike Gesicki seemed like an upgrade for the passing game. Bill O’Brien, who orchestrated one of the best two-tight-end offenses in history, was also expected to squeeze everything he could out of the room. The on-field product has been better than some may realize.

Hunter Henry isn’t the same athlete after some injury-plagued years, and his two drops this season were magnified by the situation (4th & 17 in Week 1 vs. PHI, 00:35 left in 2nd half in Week 4 at DAL). But no tight end had more contested catches (6) through ten weeks, and he was tied with Kyle Pitts for 10th at the position in conversions (20). Henry’s also been money in the Red Zone, catching three touchdowns in scoring territory.

Gesicki’s absurd catch radius hasn’t been exploited consistently, but the big slot receiver has caught 4 of his 6 contested targets, including the game-winner against Buffalo. There are some tough reps on film where defenders contact Gesicki early and lock him down, but he’s been open more than his stats suggest.

Pharaoh Brown has been the group’s biggest surprise after signing ahead of the season opener. Though he’s primarily served as an in-line blocker, Brown’s been absurdly efficient as a receiver. He’s caught all seven targets, converting on six and turning five into gains of 15 yards or more. He isn’t the smoothest mover, but he’s exploited some downfield opportunities off of play action and been a great checkdown option. The six-year veteran has shown excellent concentration at the catch point, while his size and toughness make him a handful after the catch.

PFF had New England’s tight ends as the 7th-highest-graded at their position (68.1) from Weeks 1-10, but their 50.0 run-blocking grade was 10th-lowest. Brown has given the group an edge it’s lacked for years, leading to some dominant reps, and each player blocks with maximum effort. Unfortunately, the consistency hasn’t been there, and several runs have been blown up by tight ends losing reps or being pushed into the backfield.

While the group’s efforts in the ground game have been streaky, their reliability as receivers saves their grade. The position needs young talent to carry it into the future, but I wouldn’t mind seeing this group back next season with a quarterback who can capitalize on their size more consistently.

Grade: C+

Offensive Line

The Patriots’ offensive line was heavily (and fairly) scrutinized this offseason for lacking talent at right tackle.  Rather than overpaying in a shallow free agency class, they opted for cheap veterans in Conor McDermott, Riley Reiff, and Calvin Anderson while drafting collegiate guard Sidy Sow to switch positions. As objectionable as their plan was, it was magnified by brutal injury luck.

Mike Onwenu missed the entire summer and season opener after undergoing ankle surgery, while Cole Strange suffered a knee injury early in training camp that sidelined him until Week 2. At tackle, McDermott and Reiff ended the offseason on injured reserve, while Anderson missed all of training camp with an undisclosed illness. This forced the team to trade for two tackles during roster cuts, which caused a trickle-down that affected multiple other spots.

Between having Vederian Lowe at right tackle after Anderson’s early struggles, Atonio Mafi playing significant snaps every week, and Strange missing crucial time in year two, the offensive line has been a mess for most of the season. The group has also undergone several permutations, making it nearly impossible to momentum.

Trent Brown and David Andrews were the only bright spots up front, but stability and quality starting options were needed for a turnaround. Luckily, the heavens opened in Week 6 when Sidy Sow filled in for Onwenu at right guard over Mafi. After a solid performance against the Raiders, Sow became a mainstay at the spot, with Onwenu moving to tackle. For the most part, the difference up front has been night and day.

Sidy Sow’s 1.5% pressure rate allowed from Weeks 6-9 ranked 2nd lowest among guards with at least 100 pass block snaps, and Onwenu’s move back to tackle was seamless. Conor McDermott has also been solid filling in for Trent Brown in the past two games, allowing just four pressures.

Protection took a huge step back in Germany with line coach Adrian Klemm out due to health reasons, allowing five sacks in a single half against the Colts.

But it was also the first time Sow had allowed multiple pressures since Week 1, and New England plowed through Indy’s front in the ground game.

Brown missing more time could hurt the line down the stretch, and the interior will need big bouncebacks from Strange and Sow. That said, the recent turnaround has been impressive and kept New England more competitive than they’d been for the middle stretch of the season.

Brown and Onwenu are set to hit free agency, which could leave some big holes to fill next offseason. Strange also has yet to prove he can be relied on 1-on-1 as a pass blocker against better defensive tackles. But if the team re-signs Onwenu to play outside and Sow continues to develop, New England should have plenty of capital to address left tackle and field a quality offensive line.

Grade: C-

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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