Preseason predictions pegged the Patriots as second behind the Packers in most power rankings.
Sixteen games later, New England earned a first-round bye after going 13-3 with a historically bad defense.
While many people will point to the failed trades for Albert Haynesworth and Chad Ochocinco and the struggles of the secondary, the under-the-radar signings of Andre Carter, Brian Waters and Mark Anderson cannot be overlooked. Those veterans were cast off by their former teams, yet played integral roles for this team. Credit Belichick on that one.
The offense regressed in the run game, but managed to increase its dominance in the passing game. Wes Welker, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez left defenses scratching their heads, missing tackles and surrendering touchdowns.
Overall, this team earns an A- grade for me based on the offense and the team’s ability to win despite a poor defense. Let’s take a look at the positional grades for the 2011 season.
If not for astronomically productive seasons from Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees, Tom Brady would be the runaway MVP. Tom Terrific was nothing short of that in a season where he had to score every time the ball was in his hands. Brady engineered the league’s third-best scoring offense without a consistent running game and injuries along the offensive line. His final stat line of 5,235 yards and 39:13 touchdown/interception ratio is MVP worthy.
Running backs: C+
Despite devoting two top-100 picks on running backs, the Patriots were a below-average team on the ground. New England finished 17th in rushing attempts, 20th in yards and 24th in yards per carry. The reason this group earned an above average grade? 18 rushing touchdowns. That mark was the third-highest in the league and proved the Patriots could finish drives in the red zone. BenJarvus Green-Ellis led the team with 11 rushing TDs, but averaged only 3.7 yards per carry. Danny Woodhead predictably didn’t meet his 2010 stats and third-round rookie Stevan Ridley largely outplayed both backs. Second-rounder Shane Vereen had a disappointing first year considering his draft status and was limited to 15 carries because of a nagging hamstring injury.
Wide Receivers: B-
If not for Wes Welker, this group would have earned no better than a C. That’s what 122 catches, 1,569 yards and nine touchdowns will do for you. Welker’s best season as a pro earned him a fourth-consecutive Pro Bowl nod. Take that Miami! Deion Branch was his usual reliable, but unspectacular self at split end. While Branch doesn’t have the athleticism that made him a borderline No. 1 receiver during his first stint in New England, he managed to catch 51 passes for 702 yards and five scores. He had a tough time staying healthy at the end of the season, but his chemistry with Brady still makes him a threat in the playoffs. Outside of Welker/Branch, the other receivers were beyond disappointing. Ochocinco was a complete bust, finishing with 15 forgettable catches and a single TD. Taylor Price never got a shot and was cut, and Tiquan Underwood was only targeted six times in limited action.
Tight Ends: A+
Never in the history of the NFL has there been a better pair of tight ends. Gronk/Hernandez were legendary this season, combining for 2,237 receiving yards and 25 total touchdowns. Interestingly, the two sophomores ranked second and third in targets and became the focal points of the offense. Gronkowski put together a magical season, setting tight end single-season records for receiving yards (1,327) and touchdowns (17). His incredible combination of size, power and hands made him impossible to defend. Hernandez, a first-round talent who slipped in the draft because of off-field issues, improved on a solid rookie year with a Pro Bowl-worthy sophomore campaign. He finished just 90 yards shy of 1,000 receiving yards despite missing time with a knee injury and basically functioned as the No. 2 receiver by the end of the year. The former Florida Gator has rare after-the-catch abilities and speed for a tight end.
Offensive Line: B
Despite losing longtime center Dan Koppen for the season and getting only five starts from right tackle Sebastian Vollmer, the Patriots offensive line managed to put together another solid season. Left tackle Matt Light proved to be another key offseason re-signing, playing some of the best football of his career. Right guard Brian Waters was let go by the Chiefs yet earned a much deserved sixth Pro Bowl selection. Waters’ play on the field was matched by his great presence in the locker room. The unit got a big boost from rookies Nate Solder and Marcus Cannon who look like building blocks for the future. Selected with the 17th pick, Solder was deemed a project, yet made 13 starts and didn’t embarrass himself. He’s already a good run blocker, but must get stronger in his lower half and continue to refine his pass protection. Cannon made an admirable comeback from non-Hodgkin lymphoma and is a key late-season contributor at guard and right tackle. Logan Mankins had a disappointing season by his standards, but is still one of the most respected players at his position in the league.