After four games this season, the New England Patriots are a far different football team than was expected two months ago. Most of this has to do with the injury to the best QB on the planet, Tom Brady. Despite the Brady injury and a stinker of a game vs. the Dolphins, the team has managed to cobble together a 3-1 start. Here are my evaluations of the position groups 1/4 of the way through the season:
QB - Matt Cassel has been adequate. He looked good in NY and in SF, and was awful vs. Miami. About what you'd expect from a backup QB. Two criticisms of him are he holds the ball too long and locks in on receivers. He also needs improvement in running the offense in the red zone. However, he's made some good throws and he's met expectations. Going forward, I would like to see improvement in his reads and for the offensive game plan to open up more for him.
RB - As a whole, this group has been steady and unspectacular. Some running backs have performed better than others. Kevin Faulk has had some good moments both in the passing game as well as running the ball. Lamont Jordan runs angry, and Sammy Morris is a solid second back. Laurence Maroney has been dreadful. Maroney continues a pattern from most of last year where he's tentative and dances in the backfield too much. What he needs to do is follow Morris' lead and hit the hole. Sometimes that means there will only be a 2 yd gain as opposed to trying for the home run on every carry. This group has met expectations.
WR - This is a little bit tougher to evaluate due to the expectation level set by last year's aerial circus and with the Brady injury. In the games vs. NY and Miami, Randy Moss wasn't involved much and his enthusiasm on the field seemed to reflect that. Wes Welker is an excellent slot receiver who is outstanding at getting yards after the catch. However, Jabar Gaffney's numbers have fallen this year and Kelley Washington is still a non factor in the passing game. It's obvious that Brady is better at spreading the ball around than Cassel. Because of this, the WR group has underachieved.
TE - When will Benjamin Watson ever reach his all world potential? Watson is hurt every year and some games is invisible. Dave Thomas has been a disappointment, particularly in the passing game where he's been a non factor. Thomas also isn't much of a blocker. This group has underachieved.
OL - This unit lacks a big stud OL who can push the pile and keep speed rushers away in pass protection. As a unit, they work well together. They aren't flashy. Overall, they are solid, but were exposed in last year's Super Bowl against speed and power rushers. Dan Koppen is an underrated center. In 2009, I'd prefer the team move Matt Light to RT and invest a first round pick in an air craft carrier who can move his feet and occupy the LT position for the next decade. This group has met expectations.
DL - The Miami game was a disaster as Warren, Wilfork, and Seymour were pushed around as if they were on roller skates. Other than that game, this group has been excellent. I expect a lot out of this group, probably too much, because there's so much talent there. It's good to see Richard Seymour back to being himself, as opposed to the imposter of the last two seasons. This group has met expectations.
LB - The pick of Jerrod Mayo is already paying dividends. While he may sometimes be out of position and has been a chase down linebacker during some games, his enthusiasm and speed have made a difference next to Tedy Bruschi. He's been an improvement over Junior Seau. Adalius Thomas and Mike Vrabel have had some good moments. My expectations of Thomas are impossibly high. His two person sack of Brett Favre and Leon Washington is the play of the year. As long as Bruschi isn't in pass protection, he's still adequate. I figured Mayo and Bruschi would struggle, but they've been good. Gary Guyton has filled in and brought some quickness to the group, too. This unit has exceeded expectations.
DB - This group has often times looked to be running around with their hair on fire. What is scary, is they really haven't played a great QB, yet. Rodney Harrison was all over the field vs. KC, but he no longer runs well. Where's Terrence Wheatley? Deltha O'Neal is an up and down player. Brandon Meriwether still struggles, although this year he's caught two INT's. This unit has underachieved. Look out when they play Pittsburgh, Denver, and Indy.
Special Teams - Stephen Gostkowski has been TERRIFIC this season. He's been the best player on the roster, in terms of job title and function. Chris Hansen has a good leg, but still kicks to many touchbacks. This group has exceeded expectations.
Coaching - Belichick and his coordinators were badly outcoached by rookie Dolphins head coach Tony Sparano and no adjustments were made to the Wildcat offense where Ronnie Brown was taking snaps. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels needs to open up the offense a little for Cassel. I don't understand the fascination with Laurence Maroney right now. Also, why are high draft picks Terrence Wheatley and Shawn Crable not playing? I'm concerned by the lack of progress of young players from the recent drafts; this includes Chad Jackson. I'd like to see better coaching of the younger players. Meriweather still looks lost on occasion on the field. Right now, this group is underachieving.
Overall - It's hard to quibble with a 3-1 record. However, there is lots of room for improvement as the tougher games start coming up. Right now, I don't consider the Patriots an elite team and believe they may not even make the playoffs.