There have been plenty of surprises to begin the 2016 NFL season, but one that hasn’t gotten as much attention as some others. Amid the excellent starts from rookie quarterbacks Carson Wentz of Philadelphia and Dak Prescott of Dallas has been the relative ease with which the New England Patriots have gotten off to a 4-1 start.
Hall of Fame quarterback Tom Brady missed the first four games of the season due to suspension and yet the Pats still managed to go 3-1 in his absence and then seamlessly welcomed Brady back to the lineup in their easy Week 5 win over the Cleveland Browns.
All of this is to say that if you’re looking for Super Bowl contenders one quarter of the way through the 2016 campaign, you should start in New England. And based on the grades of Pro Football Focus’ there are four key reasons why the Patriots are the best team in the NFL.
1. Tom Brady could again be the No. 1 QB in the NFL this season
While no one would dispute Tom Brady had an excellent 2015, what might surprise some is that he earned the highest season grade of his career (at least dating back to 2006, the first year for which PFF has grades) last year, at 94.3 on our 0-100 scale. That was good for the highest mark in the league, even ahead of NFL MVP Cam Newton of Carolina.
It was remarkable to see how well Brady executed New England’s passing game, consistently getting the ball out quickly and on target to his receivers. His time-to-throw average of 2.35 seconds was the fastest in football, and he was ruthlessly efficient in carving up opposing pass defenses while dealing with an offensive line that earned the second-worst pass-blocking grade in the NFL and a group of pass-catchers that produced the fourth-highest drop rate.
Brady earned the highest QB grade of Week 5 for his takedown of the Browns in which he was close to flawless, and it’s not a stretch to call him the front-runner for PFF’s top QB grade in 2016. His toughest competition from last season – Newton and Arizona’s Carson Palmer – have both struggled this season prior to suffering concussions, and his toughest competition from previous seasons, Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers, earned the lowest game grade of his career in a Week 2 loss to Minnesota (although he has rebounded since).
2. The tight end duo of Rob Gronkowski and Martellus Bennett is scary-good
When the Patriots traded with Chicago for tight end Martellus Bennett this offseason, there was a lot of discussion about the offense being able to stress defenses with two-tight end sets like they hadn’t been able to since Rob Gronkowski was paired with Aaron Hernandez (currently serving prison time for murder while awaiting a second double-homicide trial).
The early returns on the Bennett deal have been fantastic, as he has caught 21 passes for 314 yards and four touchdowns en route to earning the second-best PFF grade among all tight ends so far (Pats QBs have earned a perfect passer rating of 158.3 when targeting him so far), with Gronkowski not far behind at No. 5 as he recovers from his hamstring injury. But while the Gronk-Bennett duo is certainly a matchup nightmare in the same way Gronk and Hernandez were, there’s a case to be made that the ceiling for the 2016 edition is even higher, based on the fact that Gronkowski and Bennett are two of the best run-blocking tight ends in the entire league.
Hernandez was solid as a run-blocker, but Bennett has been excellent in that area throughout his career, just as Gronk has. From 2009 to 2012, Bennett was a mainstay at the top of PFF’s run-blocking grades among tight ends, and so far this season Bennett and Gronk rank second and third, respectively, in that area. What this means is that the Patriots can line up in two-tight end personnel groupings and either 1.) punish opponents in the running game, particularly if they try to send out additional defensive backs to account for Gronkowski and Bennett in the passing game; or 2.) use them in any capacity as pass-catchers (inline, in the slot, split out wide), with each possessing the ability to create separation from coverage, make contested catches and force missed tackles.
On the season, the Patriots have run two tight end sets on 33 percent of their plays, compared to the NFL average of 21 percent. And they ratcheted things up even further in Week 5 versus Cleveland, with Gronk again back to close to full health, running 42 of their 80 plays with two tight ends. No Patriots skill-position player has seen more snaps this season than Bennett, and it’s clear that opposing defenses can expect a steady diet of both him and Gronk moving forward.
3. The offensive line isn’t great, but it’s a little better than last year
The biggest weakness on New England’s roster last season was its offensive line, and that unit has been far from perfect this season. But the improvement they’ve shown so far has been promising, ranking 24th in PFF’s offensive line rankings entering Week 5. Rookie guard Joe Thuney has graded well as a run-blocker, while Nate Solder has been solid in both pass protection and the running game, ranking 17th in the NFL in PFF tackle grades so far.
Compared to the NFL’s other undefeated team, the Minnesota Vikings, the Patriots’ offensive line looks less like a liability and more like a moderate weakness that can be covered up by the team’s excellent run-blocking tight ends and a quarterback who has been masterful at getting the ball out quickly before the opposing pass rush can get to him.
4. The defense is a top-10 unit in the league
The Patriots ranked second only to the Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos in PFF’s overall defense grades a year ago, and currently sit ninth entering Week 6. They have been excellent at stopping the run so far, and while the pass coverage hasn’t been perfect, that unit was very strong a year ago, and therefore gives reason to believe it should be fine this year.
The pass rush is the one minor question mark, but offseason pickup Chris Long has been surprisingly effective as a rusher when paired with Jabaal Sheard (Long and Sheard rank sixth and fourth, respectively, in total QB pressures among 4-3 defensive ends), and the front seven benefits overall from two of the best linebackers in the league in Jamie Collins (sixth in PFF linebacker grades) and Dont’a Hightower (13th). This may not be a dominant, shut-down unit on the same level as the Broncos or Seattle Seahawks this season, but it should be one of the 10 best units in the league and plenty good enough to hold up its end of the bargain, given the explosive potential of the offense.