Biggest Studs, Duds and Surprises of New England Patriots' 2017 Season

Kristopher Knox@@kris_knoxFeatured ColumnistDecember 13, 2017

Biggest Studs, Duds and Surprises of New England Patriots' 2017 Season

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    Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

    The New England Patriots have had their ups and downs this season. They're still in good shape to make a postseason run, but Monday night's loss to the Miami Dolphins dropped them to 10-3 and a spot below the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC.

    A loss to Pittsburgh in Week 15 would end New England's chances of earning the No. 1 seed in the conference.

    The loss in Miami brought back memories of New England's disappointing 2-2 start to the season. What's been a pretty positive season for the Patriots has been bookended by two extremely low points—the defeat in Miami and the blowout loss to the Kansas City Chiefs.

    Why has this been such a roller-coaster campaign for the Patriots? A lot has had to do with the construction of the roster, which has seen a lot of tinkering because of injuries. It has had some bright spots and some disappointments—and also a few surprises.

    With less than a month remaining in the regular season, we're here to examine the biggest studs, duds and surprises of the 2017 Patriots.

Stud: Dion Lewis

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    Running back Dion Lewis has to be considered a stud based on the sheer amount of roles he's able to fill. He can run the ball, catch it and serve as a kickoff returner.

    This season, Lewis has amassed 607 yards rushing, 147 yards receiving and 453 return yards. He's scored in all three phases of the game and has racked up five touchdowns in total.

    What's really impressive about Lewis is the way he's boosted the ground game in recent weeks. While he's getting help from guys such as Rex Burkhead and James White on the ground, a bigger role for the 27-year-old has added life to the Patriots rushing attack.

    Lewis leads all Patriots backs with an average of 5.2 yards per carry. As a team, New England is now averaging 4.2 yards per carry. The emergence of Lewis has pushed former starting back Mike Gillislee completely out of the offense.

Dud: Mike Gillislee

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    Gillislee was one of the NFL's most explosive running backs with the Buffalo Bills last season. He averaged 5.7 yards per carry and scored eight touchdowns on 101 carries.

    This is why the Patriots were quick to sign him away as a restricted free agent with a two-year, $6.4 million deal.

    Things started out well enough for Gillislee. He scored three touchdowns in the season opener and four touchdowns over the first two weeks.

    However, the 27-year-old wasn't a consistent runner. While he was serviceable as a goal-line back, he didn't add much punch to the ground game. His 69 rushing yards in Week 2 was a season high, and Gillislee only averaged more than 4.0 yards per rush in three of his eight contests.

    For the season, he has averaged just 3.6 yards per carry.

    With Lewis, Burkhead and White all being more consistent rushers, Gillislee has found himself a fourth-string player. While he was ruled out of Monday's game with illness, he was a healthy scratch in the previous four contests.

Surprise: Rex Burkhead

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    Among all the offseason moves the Patriots made earlier this year, the addition of Burkhead was one of the most under-the-radar ones. However, his addition is proving to be valuable.

    Like Lewis, Burkhead is a weapon in both the running game and the passing game. He has 252 yards rushing—with a 4.2 yards-per-carry-average—and 249 yards receiving. Of course, his versatility isn't surprising as the Cincinnati Bengals used him in a similar dual role.

    What's been surprising about the 27-year-old is how he's been such a scoring machine. He's become a lethal red-zone back who has seven total touchdowns on fewer than 90 touches. While last year's lead back, LeGarrette Blount, was a bulldozer at the goal line, Burkhead uses his agility cut through traffic and find the end zone.

    Gillislee was expected to be New England's goal-line back at the start of the season, but Burkhead has surprisingly taken over that role. He has a rushing touchdown in each of the last three games and a touchdown in four of the last five.

Stud: Brandin Cooks

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    Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

    New England traded away a first-round pick in order to get wideout Brandin Cooks from the New Orleans Saints. It was a risky move but one that made a ton of sense for a Patriots team that hasn't had the best track record of drafting receivers.

    Things haven't gone perfectly for Cooks and the Patriots. His relative inexperience in the New England offense has shown at times, as he and quarterback Tom Brady can struggle to get on the same page. As a player, though, he has been everything the Patriots expected.

    The 24-year-old is still one of the most dangerous deep threats in the NFL. He's already amassed 924 yards and five touchdowns with a 17.1 yards-per-reception average.

    Not only is Cooks a dangerous weapon, his deep-threat ability allows the Patriots to do different things with their offense. He can take the top off a defense and open things up for underneath receivers and the running game.

    Cooks is a special talent and a stud in the Patriots offense.

Dud: Dwayne Allen

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    When the Patriots allowed tight end Martellus Bennett to leave in free agency (yes, he briefly returned), they needed to add another proven playmaker at the position to complement Rob Gronkowski. To help replace Bennett, New England acquired Dwayne Allen.

    As was the case with Cooks, the Patriots traded for Allen. They gave up a fourth-round pick to the Indianapolis Colts in exchange for him and a sixth-rounder.

    The problem is Allen has been one of New England's biggest duds this season.

    Though he's appeared in all 13 games and made eight starts, the 27-year-old has produced just seven receptions, 50 yards and a touchdown. In the two games in which Gronkowski was absent, Allen had just two receptions and 10 yards.

    Not only has Allen not been the dynamic complement to Gronk the Patriots were looking for, he hasn't even been a serviceable replacement.

    Aside from perhaps Kony Ealy—the Patriots traded for him and then released him before the season even started—Allen has been New England's biggest disappointment.

Surprise: Adam Butler

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    New England is a franchise that places more importance on a player's ability than his draft status. That's why it can be an attractive landing spot for undrafted free agents.

    This is why rookie defensive lineman Adam Butler chose the Patriots when other teams extended arguably better offers.

    "I had other offers, maybe with a little more money, but I could tell they were blowing smoke," Butler said, per Mike Reiss of "I sat down with Coach [Bill] Belichick the night before pro day and I knew he was really interested."

    Butler has gone from being a post-draft afterthought to a mainstay on the defensive line. He's appeared in all 13 games, made 16 starts and provides a steady amount of interior pressure for the defense. He's amassed 19 total tackles and 2.0 sacks.

Stud: Tom Brady

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    Tom Brady is coming off one of his worst games in recent memory, we know that. However, that shouldn't mask the fact he has been phenomenal over the course of the season.

    He's racked up 3,865 yards, 27 touchdowns and just six interceptions. He also has an impressive completion percentage of 67.4 and a passer rating of 105.2.

    There have been a few games this season—like the Houston contest—the Patriots probably don't win with a different quarterback under center.

    What's impressive about Brady's run this season is the fact he's a 40-year-old signal-caller operating without his favorite receiver in Julian Edelman.

    Yes, Cooks has been a difference-maker, but as we saw on Monday night, he and Brady don't have the kind of chemistry the quarterback shares with Edelman.

    Brady has also played two games without star tight end Gronkowski—whose presence was sorely missed against Miami—and more importantly, with a suspect offensive line (more on that shortly).

    Still, Brady is playing like one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL, and he's the stud that makes the New England offense go.

Dud: The Offensive Line

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    Rich Barnes/Associated Press

    We're going to cheat a bit and call out the entire Patriots line for being a disappointment this season. This is because it's difficult to single out one player when there have been multiple lineups and no standout dud among them.

    The offensive line has had some good stretches, but it's had some awful outings as well.

    In the three games after New England's Week 9 bye, Brady was only sacked once in each contest. However, he has been sacked five times in the two games since and an alarming 16 times in the first five games of the season.

    While miscommunication has been largely responsible for New England's defensive breakdowns this season, it's been execution for the offensive line. Brady has already been sacked 29 times and has been under duress often.

    Poor line play was one of the biggest reasons why the Patriots lost to Miami; Brady was almost never comfortable in the pocket.

    Against the Dolphins, pressure often came against guard Joe Thuney and center David Andrews. However, we've seen tackles Nate Solder, Marcus Cannon and LaAdrian Waddle give up their share of pressures over the course of the season.

    After surrendering just 15 sacks in 12 games last season, the offensive line was supposed to be a Patriots strength. It's more often been a liability.

Surprise: Eric Lee

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    One area where injuries have really taken their toll is in the pass rush. Linebacker Dont'a Hightower is done for the season and edge-rusher Trey Flowers has missed the last two games due to injury.

    Injuries are part of the reason why the Patriots signed defensive end Eric Lee off the Buffalo Bills' practice squad. In his three games with New England, he has been nothing but a pleasant surprise. In those three appearances, the 23-year-old racked up 10 total tackles, 2.5 sacks and an interception.

    Those are impressive numbers for a guy who wasn't even in New England's plans a few weeks ago. Lee has proved he can get to the quarterback and he has that typical Patriots work-first mentality.

    "Whether you're talented or not, having that work ethic, having that mindset will only benefit you in the long run," Lee said, per Adam Kurkjian of the Boston Herald.

    While Lee was an unexpected addition to the Patriots roster, expect him to be a significant part of the team's plans moving forward.