Tom Brady and 5 Players Keeping the New England Patriots Afloat
Put aside for a moment any consideration of the talent that departed the New England Patriots last offseason—whether it be through free agency, retirement or legal issues.
Reflect only upon the roster that the Patriots had coming into this regular season. Then, subtract from that roster Rob Gronkowski, Danny Amendola, Vince Wilfork, Shane Vereen and Matthew Slater.
Does the remaining talent scream "4-0 team" to you?
Unless you're the kind of optimist who could find the silver lining in a Congressional shutdown, the answer to that question is probably "no." But here we are, with the Pats alone in first place in the AFC East and harboring an impressive road win against the defending AFC Champion Atlanta Falcons on their resume.
How has New England managed to continue their historic run of success in the face of huge roster turnover and talent subtraction? Let's take a look at a few players responsible for the Pats' strong start in 2013.
Seriously, it's nothing short of amazing that Brady continues to put up points while the play-by-play announcers scramble through their cheat sheets to learn the full names of the players he's throwing to.
Three of his last four touchdown passes have gone to undrafted rookie Kenbrell Thompkins. The fourth? That went to undrafted journeyman tight end Matthew Mulligan, who has been on six teams since 2008.
Brady is on pace for 4,048 yards, 28 TDs, and eight interceptions. Yes, if he finishes the season with the 58.9 percent completion rate (current ranked 22nd in the NFL) that he's currently sitting with, it will easily be the worst completion rate of his career. But with his rookie receivers making huge strides each week while the Pats continue to win, I'm expecting Brady's completion rate to rise significantly as the season progresses.
That will be especially true if he gets guys like Gronkowski and Amendola back soon.
Beyond Brady, is there a single healthy player on the Patriots more important than Aqib Talib right now?
For the first time since Ty Law, the Pats have a top shutdown corner with the ability to press top receivers and stay with them in coverage. Talib's performance was the biggest reason the Pats were able to beat the receiver-stocked Atlanta Falcons in Week 4. With a lesser corner, the Pats would not have won that game.
I have Talib not giving up a reception against the Falcons. None. As in zero.
— Nick Underhill (@Nick_Underhill) October 1, 2013
That includes an incredible pass deflection on Matt Ryan's last-gasp fourth-down attempt to Roddy White, along with a fourth-quarter pick, which Talib played perfectly in undercutting a deep route and establishing position.
In fact, Talib leads the league in interceptions with four, is second in the NFL in pass deflections with seven and even has a forced fumble to his credit. He's playing about as well as a corner can play right now, and he's the second-biggest reason the Patriots are 4-0.
The football world buzzed about undrafted rookie Kenbrell Thompkins after his strong preseason performance. Despite his lack of a high pedigree, expectations were sky-high for the former University of Cincinnati pass-catcher heading into the season.
In fact, the pressure of such high expectations from a rookie wide receiver (let alone an undrafted one) was too high for Thompkins—he stumbled out of the gate, hauling in just four catches for 42 yards in his NFL debut, despite being targeted 14 times.
But Thompkins has improved rapidly, as he hauled in a 38-yard catch in Week 2 and then followed that up with a two-touchdown performance in Week 3 against the Bucs.
Last week, Thompkins broke out against the Falcons, fulfilling the suddenly astronomical standards set for a guy that most fans hadn't heard of prior to his signing with the Pats. He hauled in six of his 11 targets for 129 yards in the game, including a 47-yard reception and a phenomenal touchdown catch.
Thompkins still has some work to do—he's tied for the league lead in drops—but he has begun to step up alongside Julian Edelman as a reliable receiving option for Brady. If he can continue to produce through the return of Danny Amendola and Rob Gronkowski, the Pats offense could be lethal heading into the back half of the season.
Can someone bring me some bacon and orange juice? I've got egg on my face and want to make it a part of this complete breakfast.
Last May, I wrote an article about the Pats potentially replacing kicker Stephen Gostkowski with someone who could produce at the same level, albeit with a lower cap hit. Naturally, Gostkowski has proceeded to have a phenomenal start to the season. (Stephen, if you read that article, I'm sorry; you're worth the cap hit!)
Gostkowski has been nails right when they have needed him to be this season. This has been vital because the Pats aren't running away with games this year, meaning they have needed all the points they can get.
That was true in their Week 1 win against Buffalo, when Gostkowski was a perfect 3-for-3 on the day. Those perfect attempts included a 48-yarder and the game-winning, pressure-cooked 35-yarder in a game the Pats won by two points.
It was just as true last week against the Falcons, as Gostkowski boomed a 48-yarder and a 49-yarder (both of which would have been good from 60 yards out) in going 3-for-3, once again, to help the Pats hang on in a game they won by a single touchdown.
Overall, Gostkowski is 11-for-12 on his attempts this year, including 5-of-6 from 40 yards or more.
Gostkowski has been just as valuable on kickoffs, as the Pats are second in the league in touchback percentage, leaving opposing offense's with middling field position and keeping kick returners frustrated and bored.
The Offensive Line
We'll close this out with a hat tip to a positional unit, because an offensive line is nothing if it isn't cohesive.
Even no-name receivers can succeed if they have the time to create separation, and the Patriots offensive line has given them that time.
New England's offensive line ranks third in the NFL in lowest adjusted sack rate and 12th in adjusted line yards, per Football Outsiders. While some of the credit should go to Brady for getting the ball out quickly, it's clear that his offensive line has played exceptionally well, as their quarterback continues to grow with his skill position players.
The advanced metrics agree in this case. Pro Football Focus (subscription required) grades the Pats line as the fourth-best pass blocking unit, and the third best run-blocking unit. By their metrics, every Pats lineman except for Dan Connolly (two hits, two hurries) graded out positively in the Pats Week 4 win against Atlanta.
Brady was also kept very clean in that game (two hits and five hurries in 31 pass attempts). We also saw some huge holes open up for runners as well, as evidenced by LaGarette Blount's 47-yard touchdown romp. Overall, the offense simply had plenty of time for big plays to develop, including a 26-yard reception by Kenbrell Thompkins on a third-and-19 (skip to 3:10) play in which Brady was able to easily step up in the pocket and take five or six seconds to hold the ball.
The Patriots offense is steadily improving, and that's due in large part to the offensive line giving the receivers time to grow.