Danny Amendola must stay on the field the rest of the season.
At 7-2, the New England Patriots are in sole possession of the second seed in the AFC, and primed to earn a first-round bye for the fourth straight season. While that streak would be a remarkable accomplishment in itself, simply earning a nice playoff seeding is not the goal in Foxboro this season, nor has it been for quite some time.
The Patriots are a hard team to evaluate as they come out of their bye: On one hand, they are fortunate to hold such a shiny record, as New England's 4-2 mark in one-possession games is tied for third-best in the league, an indicator of some good fortune. However, with an offense that has gradually gained reinforcements, the Pats have shown glimpses of potentially being one of the NFL's most well-rounded teams.
If the Patriots are to achieve that potential, however, they need more consistency from more players on the roster. Too often, the Pats have been bailed out by individual moments of brilliance—think of Tom Brady's final drive against the Saints, or Aqib Talib's shutdown performances against top receivers. But New England has been prone to long lapses of poor play at times, something they cannot afford going into the playoffs.
Not all of the players on this list have necessarily performed poorly. Rather, they are the players who can most help eliminate those lapses, and often elevate a unit. With that in mind, here are six Patriots to watch coming out of the bye.
*All stats courtesy Pro Football Focus' premium section (subscription required) or Pro-Football-Reference.
Remember how I said not all of the players on this list performed poorly? That caveat refers explicitly to the Patriots secondary, a unit that has been the team's best and most consistent thus far.
However, New England has almost no margin for error on defense, given the season-ending injuries to Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo. Moreover, with the Patriots a relatively average team in terms of generating a pass rush, the onus almost always falls on the secondary to play tight coverage for extended periods of time.
That's asking a lot from a secondary, and we've seen the likes of Kyle Arrington and Alfonzo Dennard burned at times trying to play man. But their ability to provide competitive coverage on a consistent basis has allowed Bill Belichick to transform the Patriots from a soft zone-based defense into one that plays man schemes. If played correctly, those are much harder for opposing quarterbacks to beat.
With Aqib Talib and Devin McCourty, the Patriots have two elite secondary members who fit the scheme perfectly. McCourty, in particularly, should be generating All-Pro consideration, as he has graded out as by far the league's highest-rated safety so far.
The unit must sustain its stellar play because of the front-seven injuries. With Steve Gregory likely to miss multiple weeks with a broken thumb, the next man up is rookie Duron Harmon, who has displayed surprisingly good instincts in limited snaps this year. Harmon will elevate into a starting role for the time being, and must fit in as a cog in the well-oiled machine.
Tom Brady's inclusion on this list might be a bit polarizing. There's little debate that Brady is having an off-year by his standards, both by stats and simple eye-test evaluation. Particularly troubling is the decreased accuracy percentage, as his 68.7 percent mark is 27th out of 30 qualified quarterbacks.
However, as I argued last week, Brady has never really been the primary problem for New England's inconsistent offense this season. Yes, he has missed throws at times, but until he had a chance to play with his full arsenal of receivers, it was never truly fair to judge either him or the offense's potential.
With Rob Gronkowski and Danny Amendola back in the lineup the past two weeks, the results have been stared to show again. After a disastrous first half against the Dolphins, the Patriots have put up 782 yards and 79 points in the past six quarters. That's obviously a small sample size, but it represents the Patriots' best sustained offensive stretch of the year.
Brady's job is to ensure that the recent success is a long-term harbinger, rather than a fleeting moment of excellence. With his best targets healthy and a rapidly improving rhythm with rookie receiver Aaron Dobson, Brady is on this list not because he is a concern, but rather the player who can propel the Patriots offense back to its customary championship-caliber levels.
One hidden reason for the Patriots depressed offensive production lies in their kick return. Lumbering back LeGarrette Blount has been predictably unspectacular in the role, as his 23.3 yards per return is the fourth-worst average of players with at least 10 kick returns this year.
According to Football Outsiders, the Pats have cost themselves 1.3 points this year on kick returns alone. That may not sound significant, but consider that the best team in the department, the Vikings, have earned themselves over 12 points on the year from kick returns. Blount may be sure-handed, but the Patriots are squandering an opportunity to exploit some hidden value by keeping him in the role.
Of course, Blount was never originally intended to return kicks this year. Free agent acquisition Leon Washington was supposed to occupy that role, but recurring injuries have limited the 31-year-old veteran to just one return on the season. If Washington can get healthy and replicate his career 25.9-yard return average, that would provide a sorely needed boost.
One final option might be rookie receiver Josh Boyce, who has been a healthy scratch for most of the season. ESPNBoston's Mike Reiss has speculated that Boyce might be a good fit given his speed, but the Patriots may be reluctant to entrust a rookie with the role. Boyce will likely take 2013 as a redshirt season, and attempt to prove his value on offense and special teams in the offseason.
Sticking with the theme, the Patriots are also looking at a few uninspiring options at coverage linebacker. Jerod Mayo had plenty of value on early downs because of his range, but his agility was most important on third downs, as he provided solid coverage on both tight ends and running backs.
Without Mayo, the Patriots have struggled at times to cover the position. Dont'a Hightower is New England's three-down linebacker at the moment, as he has seen his snaps spike since Mayo's injury. But despite some encouraging plays against Pittsburgh last week, Hightower is well-established as a liability in pass coverage. His minus-5.7 pass coverage grade is third-worst among outside linebackers, and opponents have targeted Hightower once every 5.8 coverage snaps, the third-highest rate in the league.
Thus, the Patriots might be better-suited turning to a couple of other options in sub packages. The most intriguing one is rookie Jamie Collins, who has seen just 94 snaps the whole season. Collins has looked lost at times, not a surprise given his billing as a raw product. The athleticism is undeniable, and Collins has actually made a tremendous special teams impact. But it's clear he is not yet ready for an extended burden on the defensive side of the ball.
Veteran Dane Fletcher has also seen a small uptick in playing time, though his value also primarily lies in special teams. Fletcher took some reps in New England's dime defense against Pittsburgh, and at least until Hightower shows more development, he probably represents the Patriots' best option as a pass coverage linebacker.
The newest Patriot made a nice impact against the Steelers in his first game, playing roughly one-third of the snaps and providing a desperately needed big body in the interior. Rookies Chris Jones and Joe Vellano have done an admirable overall job, but their undersized frame makes Isaac Sopoaga the Pats' only true run-stuffing defensive tackle.
Hopefully being on a contender energizes the 32-year-old. Sopoaga has been a relatively neutral presence this year, grading out at minus-0.6 overall. However, his first game was a plus-2.1 performance, his high mark of the season. As ESPNBoston's Mike Reiss illustrates, Sopoaga's power was key in two critical short-yardage stops against the Steelers:
Newly acquired nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga played 26 snaps and two of the best came on third-and-1 and fourth-and-1 to end the Steelers’ fourth drive of the game. On the third-down play, Sopoaga got his hands into right guard Guy Whimper and knocked him into the offensive backfield, impeding the path of running back Le’Veon Bell for no gain. That was a good snapshot of Sopoaga’s power. He did the same thing to center Fernando Velasco on the next play, winning at the line as Bell was dropped for a loss of 1 yard to turn the ball over. At 6-foot-2 and 330 pounds, Sopoaga gives the Patriots a powerful nose tackle that they didn’t otherwise have on the active roster. Based on those two plays, it sure looks like he still has something to offer.
Sopoaga has one role in the Patriots offense, and will never need to be an every-down lineman. That should be welcome news for the veteran, who can hone in on his best skill the rest of the year. The AFC does not have many power running teams, but Sopoaga's presence should make the opposition respect the middle of the New England defense a bit more.
Danny Amendola's inclusion on this list is not really based on performance, but rather attendance. Tom Brady has put up a 96.2 quarterback rating when throwing to Amendola, by far the best of any Patriots receiver. When healthy, the Patriots' de-facto Wes Welker replacement has been excellent.
Of course, that was the concern with Amendola headed into the year, and Patriots fans have seen their fears come true. Moreover, even though he is on the field now, Amendola must nurse a groin injury the rest of the year, one that will only heal with an entire offseason to rest.
There's a perception that the Patriots can just plug in Julian Edelman and not miss a beat, thus minimizing Amendola's importance. Edelman did perform admirably as Tom Brady's slot-receiver security blanket, but labeling him Amendola's equal is simply untrue.
Comparing the two, Edelman has hauled in 32 receptions from the slot, while Amendola has 19. But even in fewer receptions, Amendola has out-gained Edelman 273 to 253, showcasing his added element as a vertical threat. No, Amendola is not Calvin Johnson or anything, but he runs a greater variety of routes than his slot-receiver designation would imply.
The Patriots passing game has the ultimate mismatch in Rob Gronkowski, and Aaron Dobson has gradually developed a reliable rapport with Brady. But the slot receiver has always held a critical role in the Brady era, and if Amendola can stay healthy, the role will be in good hands.
Other than Brady, the Patriots offensive line is the most critical component of the offense. New England's ability to plug in unheralded prospects and turn them into reliable long-term starters has been an underrated catalyst in their success. With five returning starters from 2012, most figured this would be an area of strength.
However, that has not always been the case, as the offensive line has undergone long periods of poor play, sabotaging the offense's functionality at times. The most disappointing performer has been former All-Pro Logan Mankins, whose 21 hurries allowed is tied for 10th-most among all guards.
Mankins has actually been quite good in the running game, where his plus-5.3 grade is ninth-best among guards. But his pass protection has been disastrous at times, his minus-2.9 pass-blocking grade is 45th out of 72 guards.
Unfortunately, that's actually the best mark among Patriots interior linemen, as Ryan Wendell and Dan Connolly have compiled garish minus-8.3 and minus-6.3 pass-protection grades, respectively. Tom Brady's problems against interior pressure are well-documented, and the shortcomings in protection are as big a factor in his struggles as the turnover at receiver or natural skill erosion.
Unlike Amendola or Sopoaga, who play positions where other options can step in, the Patriots are stuck with their underachieving starters. With Marcus Cannon entrenched at right tackle after Sebastian Vollmer's gruesome leg injury, the Patriots are dangerously thin on depth as it is. Quite simply, if the Patriots offense is to develop consistency, it starts with Mankins and the interior linemen elevating their game to provide Brady and the unit a reasonable chance at success.