Even coming off their first loss of the season, New England hit the bye week as still arguably the best team in the NFL.
They reached the well-deserved week off with an impressive 8-1 record thanks to dominant play on defense and an offense that was a complementary contributor often enough. Special teams had its highs and lows, but made plenty of big plays to add to the winning formula.
All three phases saw lots of players achieve at a high level – either living up to expectations or surpassing them.
But, there were other guys who either struggled through the first nine games or failed to reach outside expectations.
Here’s a breakdown of nine Patriots likely looking to have a much more productive second half of the season as New England’s games grow more competitive and more important.
1. Isaiah Wynn – The second-year former first-round pick took over the left tackle job…for little more than a game. Then he ended up on IR for the second straight year. He’s back practicing and can return to the field against the Cowboys. Given all the struggles along the line, most notably journeyman backup left tackle Marshall Newhouse, Wynn needs to prove he can stay on the field and that he’s an upgrade at left tackle. If he can do that, it should be a boost to the offense both in terms of the ground game and pass protection.
2. Sony Michel – Last winter the rookie running back helped carry the Patriots to a Super Bowl ring. This year, he and his offensive line have underachieved mightily. Michel is averaging a mere 3.3 yards per carry. He’s shown little burst and seemingly failed to maximize runs, too often tackled for no gain or a loss. If Michel can’t find a way to be more productive, it might be time for rookie third-round pick Damien Harris to get a chance to show his stuff.
3. Tom Brady – It’s not that the G.O.A.T. has hit some age-related cliff. And much of Brady’s decline in numbers are directly related to the fact that he’s had to throw a lot to uncertain targets behind an uncertain line. As some of those issues potentially settle down, look for Brady to have an uptick in production as the passing game hits its late-season stride.
4. N’Keal Harry – The Patriots passing attack has plenty of short-game weapons and slot options. What it lacks is a bigger-bodied target who might be able to make plays on the outside or even down the field. As luck would have it, that’s exactly what the first-round rookie might bring to the field now that he’s back from IR. Of course for Harry to produce he must be on the game day roster and be given the chance. There was a point this summer when it looked like Harry might be in line for a huge role in the offense. Now, there is a question whether he’ll be much of a contributor at all. He certainly brings a different skill set and potential than the rest of the receiver corps. Only time will tell if he’s given a chance to prove his rookie worth.
5. Ben Watson/Matt LaCosse/Ryan Izzo – New England got 18 catches from the tight end position through the first nine games. Certainly Watson’s late arrival to the mix – including a four-game suspension, release and re-signing – cut into the production. He has shown some ability to get down the seam, which would be big addition over the second half. If LaCosse is healthy, which he hasn’t been all year, he probably has more to contribute. Regardless of the details, Brady could use a little more help from his tight end group.
6. Mohamed Sanu – Fair or not, the fact that New England gave up a second-round pick to trade for Sanu means that he arrives with somewhat high expectations. He’s no longer playing in the shadow of true No. 1 targets like A.J. Green or Julio Jones. On some level he’s going to be asked to be a more regular playmaker in addition to his versatile complementary skills. His second game in a Patriots’ uniform saw him targeted 14 times in the loss in Baltimore. If that’s an indication of things to come, Josh McDaniels has plenty in store for the veteran target.
7. Nick Folk – After two years out of the league, Folk was perfect in his Patriots debut. Maybe, just maybe, he’ll solidify a position that was a major question mark thanks to Stephen Gostkowski’s struggles/injury and Mike Nugent’s inabilities. Whether it’s Folk himself or another addition yet to be named, New England needs more stability out of the kicker position as the games become more important and potentially tighter on the scoreboard.
8. Shaq Mason – Injuries to Wynn and center David Andrews were a key factor in the offensive line’s struggles at times through the first half of the season. But so, too, was the fact that the healthy veterans didn’t play well enough. Mason is supposed to be the Patriots best offensive lineman. He didn’t look like it at times over the first two months, although he did battle an ankle injury. Getting Mason back to playing at high level and leading the run blocking would help jumpstart the rushing attack and could help stabilize the entire offense.
9. Ja’Whaun Bentley – Just about every player on the New England defense seemed to play to or beyond their expectations so far this season. That’s not true of the second-year linebacker Bentley. Sure, he’s behind some pretty impressive veteran talent on the depth chart. But Bentley, returning from a rookie season spent on IR, has played 34 percent of the defensive snaps and seemingly done little with that playing time. The hope was that the big, strong, athletic-enough linebacker would add another weapon to the defense. If he can do that over the second half of the season it might be an option to help out the defense’s one glaring weakness – stopping the run.