Grading New England's Positional Units at the First-Quarter Mark

Marc FreshmanContributor IOctober 1, 2012

Grading New England's Positional Units at the First-Quarter Mark

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    For a team that generally lives way above the .500 mark and keeps a leash on the rest of the AFC East, it might seem strange for the Patriots to be 2-2 and tied with the Jets and Bills.

    Surprisingly, though, it's been a pretty satisfying experience. This is a new-look Patriots team that's already shown flashes of championship football. How many other teams in the NFL have shown flashes of championship football at the first quarter mark?

    This 2-2 record means this is a legitimately different team. It means the Patriots are actively trying to build something bigger and better, as opposed to maintaining the status quo of a nearly flawless regular season with a disappointing playoff exit.

    This is a great thing. Let's enjoy the ride.   

    Here are positional grades for the Patriots at the first quarter mark.

Defensive Line

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    New England's defensive line got off to a quick start in Week 1 against the Titans.

    They rushed Jake Locker all day and limited Chris Johnson to four yards. Chandler Jones had a great debut with five tough tackles and a phenomenal strip sack.

    The line cooled off over the next two weeks, but rebounded in Week 4 against the Bills.

    Rob Ninkovich, Chandler Jones and Dont'a Hightower all collected sacks. Ryan Fitzpatrick looked increasingly spooked throughout the third quarter and seemed completely fried by the start of the fourth quarter, leading to a 52-28 victory for the Patriots.


    Final Thoughts

    This defensive line has a real shot to be elite by the end of the season.

    Grade: B+


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    Brandon Spikes is playing lights out. His tackles are brutal, and his football IQ is off the charts. During crunch time against the Cardinals, he forced a huge fumble and gave his team a shot to steal the game.

    He forced another huge fumble against the Bills. The Patriots were completely sputtering near the end of the first half, in danger of falling behind 7-21. Spikes stopped the bleeding by forcing the Buffalo turnover, maintaining a 7-14 score into halftime, keeping his team within striking distance.

    The Patriots went on to blow out the Bills. The DNA of that victory can be directly traced back to Spikes.


    Final Thoughts

    Brandon Spikes and superstar Jerod Mayo give the Patriots a hard spine at the linebacker position, but the depth pretty much stops there.

    Dont'a Hightower is the potential third Musketeer here, but his evolution has been gradual thus far. In Week 4, he notched an early sack on Ryan Fitzpatrick, but he exited the game soon after and never returned.

    Spikes and Mayo are incredible, but the overall lack of depth at this position is slightly concerning.

    Grade: B- 

Tight Ends

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    New England took a big hit at the tight end position. Aaron Hernandez went down with a grim injury against the Cardinals, Kellen Winslow was suddenly released and Daniel Fells only recently saw his first action against the Bills.

    The strangest glitch here is Rob Gronkowski, whose stats are down from last season.

    Gronkowski finally delivered a terrific performance against the Bills, which hints at good things to come in the second quarter of the season. 


    Final Thoughts

    Hernandez will be back soon, and Gronkowski looks close to finding his groove. It'll be a few weeks before this tandem returns to their elite form, but patience will pay off in the end.

    Grade: C 

Defensive Backs

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    Devin McCourty had a breakout game against the Bills with five sweet tackles and a pair of picks. Tavon Wilson notched an interception of his own and contributed three tackles.

    Patrick Chung and Steve Gregory had a rough outing in Buffalo, coughing up a big play and showing inconsistent speed. Both guys have been up and down through four games.


    Final Thoughts

    There's good news and bad news here.

    The bad news is that this secondary isn't elite. Sterling Moore's stock value has taken a hit. Ras-I Dowling's stock never got off the ground. Nate Ebner's role still isn't fully understood, and Kyle Arrington is caught somewhere in limbo.

    The good news is that all of the defensive backs are doing their best. They're consistently playing with enthusiasm, energy and focus. They aren't great, sometimes they aren't even good, but they're always playing hard. Gotta respect that.

    Final Grade: C-

Wide Receivers

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    New England's wide receivers had a nice time in Buffalo. Brandon Lloyd caught his first touchdown as a Patriot, and Wes Welker continued his triumphant return to form with 129 yards on nine receptions.

    Julian Edelman didn't play in the Bills game, but his contributions through the first three weeks were solid. He put up 50 yards against the Cardinals, then had a memorable touchdown and several dramatic displays of emotion against the Ravens. He's establishing himself as a very reliable target.


    Final Thoughts

    If Lloyd keeps improving and Welker stays healthy, this unit will be just fine.

    Grade: A-

Special Teams

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    The big story here is Stephen Gostkowski. He blew a game-winning field goal against the Cardinals, which sucked the breath out of Patriots fans everywhere.

    Two weeks later, against the Bills, he missed two field goals. Those points would've greatly sliced into New England's deficit before halftime.

    The Patriots eventually blew out the Bills, but Gostkowski's errors were heavily felt at the time.


    Final Thoughts

    On one hand, you want to resist the temptation to overreact here. After all, missed field goals are a part of every kicker's life. Also, Gostkowski has a tremendous track record of accuracy, which should keep the benefit of the doubt on his side.

    On the other hand, a little twinge of your concern wouldn't be out of the question. Psychology is particularly important to kickers because they're out there alone, often with drastic consequences resting on their sole ability to stay focused.

    Right now, Gostkowski's focus feels very fractured.

    Grade: D

Offensive Line

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    New England's offensive line has been the subject of much scrutiny. It started back in August, during their preseason debut, when a crumpled Tom Brady walked to the sidelines with field turf all over his face. Since then, the unit has been up and down.

    Week 4 was a big step forward for this group. They kept Brady upright and carved out plenty of space for their running backs to collect incredible chunks of yardage, leading to a major blow out over the Bills.


    Final Thoughts

    This offensive line isn't elite. Hopefully, they'll overachieve throughout the season and protect their king to the end.

    Grade: C

Running Backs

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    One word to describe New England's running backs: Awesome.

    In Week 1, Stevan Ridley had 125 yards on 21 carries. In Week 4, he had 106 yards on 22 carries. The Patriots won both games, clearly drawing a link between Ridley and the team's overall success.

    Brandon Bolden has been the other major story of the season. The odds were against him to make the team, but now, it's tough to imagine the Patriots without him. In Week 4, he had 137 yards on 16 carries.

    These guys are amazing.


    Final Thoughts

    The Patriots have made a clear upgrade from BenJarvus Green-Ellis. It's yet to be determined whether or not Ridley and Bolden can protect the ball like Green-Ellis, but so far, so good.

    Grade: A 


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    Tom Brady is playing genius-level football.

    His control over the offense is simply extraordinary, as evidenced by the masterful way he orchestrated his team in Buffalo. In that incredible performance, he was fast-thinking, fast-moving, totally relaxed, unafraid of pressure, totally patient and ridiculously focused.

    He's playing some of the most accurate football of his life.

    Ryan Mallett hasn't played in the regular season, but his sensational evolution over the preseason still holds special meaning. It means there's depth at the quarterback position.


    Final Thoughts

    Brady is the best quarterback in the league, and Mallett is a fantastic backup.

    All good news.

    Grade: A+