The New England Patriots have been dominant through the first three weeks, and overall there has been a lot to like. But that’s not to say things are perfect, and upon closer inspection there are some clear areas of concern that may need to be addressed at some point. Like what exactly? Lets go position by position and see where each of the 53 players currently on New England’s roster stand going into Sunday’s game against Buffalo.
Quarterbacks: He may be 42 years old, but Tom Brady is still playing like one of the best quarterbacks in football. Brady currently ranks in or near the top 10 in the NFL in most major passing statistics, and has thrown for 911 yards, seven touchdowns and no interceptions through the first three games. Jarrett Stidham’s pro debut last week didn’t go well, and this week the Patriots brought in journeyman Cody Kessler to help gear up for the Buffalo Bills. Kessler shouldn’t stick around for long, as he would be the logical cut when tight end Ben Watson returns from suspension after this weekend.
Running backs: The Patriots’ run game has been one of the team’s few negatives through the first three weeks, but Rex Burkhead has played some of the best football of his career. He and new father James White, who returns after missing last week for the birth of his son Xavier, will give the Patriots versatility in the backfield, assuming Burkhead (questionable, foot) is good to go on Sunday. Sony Michel’s struggles have been worrisome, as has the complete absence of rookie Damien Harris. Harris fell behind after suffering a series of injuries during the preseason, but it was still a surprise to see Brandon Bolden step in for White when Harris’ seems like an ideal fit on paper.
Wide receivers: Julian Edelman left last week’s game with a chest injury and is officially questionable for Sunday. His importance to the offense can’t be overstated, but if he can’t go, the Patriots should have enough to get by in the short-term. Josh Gordon made two jaw-dropping catches last week despite getting bumped and bruised all day, and Phillip Dorsett has just about caught everything thrown his way. Undrafted rookie Jakobi Meyers has been solid and would presumably step into the slot role if Edelman can’t go.
Tight ends: Oh boy. Ryan Izzo (calf) and Matt LaCosse (ankle) have both been limited in practice this week, and LaCosse has only seen action in one game since suffering his injury in the first preseason game. Izzo will play Sunday, but if something were to happen to him, it would leave fullback Jakob Johnson as the only viable blocker outside of the offensive line, and he only saw two offensive snaps last week against the Jets. Not ideal.
Offensive line: The injury situation on the offensive line is getting absurd. Starters Isaiah Wynn and David Andrews are already out, and now Wynn’s replacement at left tackle Marshall Newhouse (illness) is questionable for Sunday too. If he can’t go, the Patriots may be forced to bump left guard Joe Thuney over to replace him. Thuney played some left tackle in the preseason and tackle Korey Cunningham has primarily played on the right side, plus the Patriots would likely prefer to keep the rest of the line in center Ted Karras, right guard Shaq Mason and right tackle Marcus Cannon intact. New tackle Caleb Benenoch could be a factor too if the team feels he’s ready, and if Thuney does move to tackle, Jermaine Eluemunor would presumably start at left guard in his place. Reserve interior lineman James Ferentz might also be active in that scenario.
Defensive line: The Patriots have heavily rotated through the defensive line all season, with no player seeing the field for more than half of the team’s 182 defensive snaps. Even Michael Bennett, who leads the line with 83 snaps played (45%), saw his playing time drop significantly last week against the Jets, playing just 19 of 51 snaps (37%) after topping 50% in each of the first two games. The rest of the line’s playing time breaks down as follows: John Simon (82 snaps, 45%), Adam Butler (79, 43%), Chase Winovich (79, 43%), Danny Shelton (59, 32%), Lawrence Guy (55, 30%), Deatrich Wise (34, 18%) and Byron Cowart (16, 8%).
Linebackers: Jamie Collins has been an absolute monster. The seventh-year linebacker currently leads all linebackers with a 89.8 overall grade from Pro Football Focus and has tallied two interceptions, 2.5 sacks, five tackles for a loss and 19 total tackles. Kyle Van Noy was the only defensive player to play all 51 snaps against the Jets last week, and Dont’a Hightower has been a fixture as well, though his recent shoulder injury bears watching. Shilique Calhoun will be back after missing last week for the birth of his child, and Ja’Whaun Bentley and Elandon Roberts have both been solid in limited reps at inside linebacker.
Secondary: The Patriots have arguably the league’s deepest and most talented secondary, and that is reflected in how many guys have seen significant action. Stephon Gilmore, Devin McCourty, Jason McCourty and Patrick Chung rarely come off the field, and Jonathan Jones (134 snaps, 73%), Duron Harmon (113, 62%) and J.C. Jackson (110, 60%) have all played more than half the team’s snaps as well, taking advantage of the team’s frequent use of the nickel defense. Terrence Brooks saw some action against Miami but has otherwise played mostly special teams, and rookie Joejuan Williams has yet to see a snap on defense.
Special teams: Matthew Slater’s downed punt at the 1-yard-line on Sunday was a thing of beauty, the sort of play that emphasizes his status as one of the greatest gunners in NFL history. Punter Jake Bailey is coming off an AFC Special Teams Player of the Week honor after his monster game against the Jets, and long snapper Joe Cardona remains solid. Gunner Olszewski, meanwhile, will look to bounce back after his muffed punt last weekend, and kicker Stephen Gostkowski is looking to post a clean game after missing three extra-point kicks in the last two weeks.
Mac Cerullo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Mac on Twitter at @MacCerullo.