Phil Perry's final Patriots report card: Year to remember
Spoiler alert: When you win 89 percent of your games and finish the year with a championship, your grades for that season are going to be almost universally stellar.
But when it comes to the big picture with the 2016 Patriots, it's the road they traveled to achieve those marks that makes the As and the Bs all the more impressive.
Offensively they got by without Tom Brady for four games and without Rob Gronkowski for 11. They altered their style from week to week, employed first and second-year Patriots at center, guard, receiver and tight end, and still placed themselves among the most efficient offenses in the league when it was all said and done.
Defensively they weathered shakeup before the season in the form of the Chandler Jones trade, and during the season in the form of the Jamie Collins deal. The latter left players scratching their heads and wondering what their roles would be, but they settled in. The team welcomed new pieces at defensive end, corner and linebacker, and they still ended up as the No. 1 scoring defense in the league.
On special teams, Stephen Gostkowski missed 10 kicks, including five extra points, and rookie return man Cyrus Jones fumbled five times. But the Patriots still topped the league in terms of the average starting field position they gave opposing offenses, which was due in large part to their work in the kicking game.
The Patriots have set for themselves an impossibly lofty standard, the type of standard that leads to relatively subdued locker rooms following wins in the Divisional Round and the AFC Championship Game. But in 2016 they met and exceeded those standards while enduring the kind of turbulence that might have doomed lesser groups.
That's why the grades are where they are. Let's get to them.
Josh McDaniels and his group were able to piece together an offense that finished the regular season No. 3 in points despite being shut out in a Week 4 loss to the Bills. If you'll remember, that was when they leaned on an injured rookie quarterback making his second-ever start. Only three teams averaged more yards per game during regular-season play, and en route to the Super Bowl, Brady and his teammates dispatched two of the league's top-12 defenses. Eleven different players scored touchdowns for the Patriots, they scored on nearly two-thirds of their trips into the red zone, and they converted 47 percent (second in the league) of their third downs. Because of their number of weapons, the variety of schemes they could run, and their ability to change on the fly -- as they did in the Super Bowl -- this year's unit deserves to be considered among the best that Belichick has ever fielded.
The fact that Brady was in the MVP discussion despite missing a quarter of the season is a pretty good indication of just how effective he was when he was available. He was second to Matt Ryan in yards per attempt (8.23), which was the third-best mark of his career. His 28-to-2 touchdown-to-interception ratio was the best in league history. His 67.4 completion percentage was the second-best mark of his career as was his 112.2 quarterback rating. Advanced metrics place Brady's 39-year-old season among his best as well. His Total QBR was second-best of his career only to the mark he posted in 2007. According to Pro Football Focus, this season was even slightly better than that record-setting one nine years ago. Brady threw three picks in the postseason, but he made up for them with a dominant performance against the Steelers in the AFC title game (127.5 rating) and arguably the most clutch performance of his career in Super Bowl LI.
RUNNING BACK: B+
The Patriots took the words "do your job" to another level with this group in 2016. With clearly-defined roles -- LeGarrette Blount as the big back, James White as the sub back, and Dion Lewis as the all-purpose type -- they mostly thrived seeing playing time in situations that suited them. Blount racked up a career-high 18 scores and was a force at the goal line. His ability to shed tackles at the second and third levels was particularly important through the first month of the season when Brady was suspended and Lewis was still on the physically unable to perform list, but his per-snap production tailed off late in the season as his offensive line had trouble carving out enough room for him to operate. White was among Brady's most dependable targets, fighting off a brief bout of drops late in the year to finish the season having caught 82 percent of the passes thrown his way and averaging about eight yards after the catch per grab. His Super Bowl performance was one for the ages and would have earned him MVP honors in most other instances. Lewis added a dynamic element to the Patriots when he returned in Week 11, averaging 4.1 yards per carry and 5.8 yards per reception while continuing to flash an ability to make defenders miss in tight spaces. His kick-return for a touchdown against the Texans in the Divisional Round emphasized just how much of a Swiss Army knife he can be. It'll be fascinating to see how he bounces back in 2017 with more time to recover from the two knee surgeries he endured after the 2015 campaign.
Consistently labeled products of the Patriots system, this was a group with varied skill sets that could be relied upon to execute a system that has been the source of fits for many talented receivers before them. They executed a variety of routes against a variety of schemes, gashing Pittsburgh's zones in the AFC title game and then figuring out a way to beat Atlanta's (surprising) use of man-to-man coverages in the Super Bowl. The star of the unit was Julian Edelman, who became a target monster after Gronkowski was injured in Week 10, seeing 115 passes in 10 games, and helping to carry the offense at times, particularly on third down. Chris Hogan caught on quickly and gave the Patriots a down-the-field threat as he led the league in yards-per-catch (17.9) among NFL wideouts with at least 25 grabs. Malcolm Mitchell earned Brady's trust to the point that he had one of the most productive rookie seasons in the history of the franchise, which included playing a crucial role in the final game of the year (six grabs, 70 yards). Danny Amendola was managed throughout the season, helping him be ready for the most important games of the year, and he responded with the game of his life in the Super Bowl, seeing 11 targets and catching eight for 78 yards, a touchdown and a critical two-point conversion. (He hadn't seen more than four targets all season to that point.) All four receivers showed up as blockers, as did late-season addition Michael Floyd. The only thing knocking their grade somewhat was an inability at times to stay on the field. Amendola hurt his ankle in Week 13 and missed the remainder of the regular season while Mitchell missed the Divisional Round -- a game when they could have used him against Houston's tight man coverage -- with a knee injury. Even their absences didn't hurt the team's bottom line as they won every game from Week 11 on.
TIGHT END: B
For five games, Gronkowski was the Gronkowski the world has come to expect. But after starting the year hurt and ending it on IR, his five-game peak was remarkably brief even for a player with his injury history. He caught 25 passes for 540 yards -- for an eye-popping average of 21.6 yards per catch -- and three scores before suffering the back injury that ended his season. Availability is more important that ability, Belichick says, so this group's grade takes a hit in that regard. Martellus Bennett, meanwhile, was able to stay on the field in Gronkowski's absence but posted performances late in the season that at times hurt his club. Ankle, shoulder and knee issues limited Bennett's effectiveness as both a run-blocker and a receiver, but without him the team had little in the way of options at that position. Points for toughness. Though he still had difficulty showing the dominant blocking skills he exhibited at times early in the year, it seemed like two weeks off before the Super Bowl benefited the 6-foot-7, 275-pounder as he caught five passes for 62 yards. James Develin, as always, get a mention here for his work as a punishing run-blocker. Coming back after a broken leg ended his season before it began in 2015, he was among the many reasons the Patriots offense was able to be so variable. His strength at the goal line was especially important, often leading the way for Blount to plow ahead for scores.
OFFENSIVE LINE: A-
Dante Scarnecchia turned this group from liability to strength in one season. Staying healthy for the duration of the year, and having the ability to run out the same five starters on a week-to-week basis certainly helped, too. It was a unit led by its pillars on the outside: Nate Solder and Second Team All-Pro Marcus Cannon. They kept Brady clean in pass-protection and were athletic run-blockers in space. Up the middle, the young core of Joe Thuney, David Andrews and Shaq Mason is still improving, but they've proven they have the ability to hold up against some very talented fronts when they work in unison. Thuney in particular should see a bump in his performance in 2017 as he has an opportunity to spend an entire offseason in the team's strength program.
You can only play the teams on the schedule, and Matt Patricia's defense just about stopped them all. Were those teams loaded with talent at quarterback? No. In fact, it was the weakest stretch of signal-callers the Patriots have faced in years. But this group, led by captains Dont'a Hightower and Devin McCourty, handled them as it should have. In the playoffs, against two of the best offenses in football, they posted performances that validated their regular-season statistics. Credit where it's due. Factoring in how the defense adjusted in the wake of Jamie Collins' loss, throwing roles into flux mid-season, makes the 2016 season one that Patricia and Belichick will be proud of for a long, long time.
DEFENSIVE LINE: B+
Against the run, there were few better groups in football. This unit helped hold opposing rushers to 3.9 yards per carry and limited them to an average of 88.6 yards per game. Alan Branch, 32, had what was perhaps the best season of his career in a contract year, playing in more snaps than he's ever played and standing up centers and guards on a week-in, week-out basis. Teamed up with second-year players Trey Flowers and Malcom Brown as well as rookie Vincent Valentine, this was an imposing group on the interior that more often than not forced teams to be one-dimensional. Against the pass, the Patriots front struggled at times to pressure passers, though in certain weeks that was a product of wanting to keep mobile quarterbacks "in the well" behind center. Despite a late-season push from Flowers, their 24 sacks were 28th in the league. Jabaal Sheard showed up after being benched in Weeks 10 and 11, but he did not replace Chandler Jones as some (myself included) thought he might. Chris Long, on the other hand, was somewhat of a revelation as a pass-rusher, overcoming injuries from the previous two seasons to be first on the team in hurries, second in quarterback hits and third in sacks. He came up with game-winning plays against the Jets (fourth-quarter strip sack) and the Falcons (drew a hold to knock them out of field goal range in the fourth).
Hightower had more heaped onto his shoulders than ever before when Collins was dealt. Already the communicator in the middle of the Patriots defense, he quickly had to play the role of game-day mentor, bringing along players in their first year in New England like Elandon Roberts, Kyle Van Noy and Shea McClellin. Despite his myriad duties, and despite missing three games due to injury, he was named to the Pro Bowl for the first time. His play in the middle -- and later in the season as more of a strong-side end-of-the-line 'backer -- helped give this unit the numbers it had against the run. Roberts was also an impact player in that area of the game, using his instincts and surprising burst to overpower bigger interior offensive linemen. Against the pass, though, this group had its issues. One of their two losses -- the Week 10 defeat at the hands of the Seahawks -- highlighted their difficulty running with backs in coverage. Roberts admittedly had his difficulties picking up on the nuances of the pro passing game, and Van Noy looked confused at times when dropping into the middle of the field as part of Patricia's Tampa 2 calls. Credit Van Noy for remaining trustworthy enough, though, that the Patriots were willing to use him in that role in the Super Bowl against Atlanta's high-powered offense. After losing one of the better coverage linebackers in the game in Collins, this position group was bound to take a step back in that area, but it did enough to get by.
This group was the deepest and most dependable on the roster going into the season, and it ended up being the most consistent unit on one of the most consistent defenses in football. McCourty put together an All-Pro caliber campaign, serving in a variety of roles, and proving himself as one of the team's top tacklers. Working in conjunction with strong safety Patrick Chung and free safety Duron Harmon, New England's "big nickel" packages were loaded with experience. At corner, Logan Ryan had his share of tough times early in the season as his role was altered time and again. But once the team figured out a standard operating procedure, it seemed to benefit all. Malcolm Butler and Ryan would be the top two corners, and in nickel situations, Ryan would bump into the slot, allowing Eric Rowe to take longer opposing receivers on the outside. Butler continued to establish himself as one of the game's best at his position, Ryan earned himself a nice pay day as a free agent this offseason, and Rowe put himself in position to compete as a legitimate option as a No. 2 in 2017 and beyond.
SPECIAL TEAMS: B-
The difficulties that both Gostkowski and Jones went through this season were uncharacteristic of Patriots special teams units, but they made up for those uneasy moments in other ways. Gostkowski took advantage of the new touchback rule, placing his kickoffs down by opposing goal lines and forcing returns that rarely broke the 25-yard line. With good punt and kick coverage from players like Matthew Slater, Nate Ebner, Jonathan Jones, Brandon Bolden, Brandon King and Barkevious Mingo, Patriots opponents had an average starting field position of the 24-yard line -- tops in the league. Ryan Allen had a strong year, checking in with the seventh-best net average in football, and almost one third of his boots ended up inside the 20-yard line. This group won the Patriots a game in Week 3 against the Texans by forcing two turnovers on kicks, and it got a game-breaking play from Dion Lewis when he returned a kick for a score against the Texans in the Divisional Round. But later in that game Lewis fumbled a kick-return, highlighting ball-security issues Joe Judge's unit had all season in the kicking game. How the returner roles -- particularly in the punt game -- are handled in 2017 will be worth watching as the Patriots would surely like to move on from using Edelman as their primary option in order to save him the physical punishment.