Patriots Midseason Report Card: Pats buoyed by defensive playmakers

Perry's midseason Patriots grades: Defensive stars carrying the load originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

It's all out in front of the Patriots. Really.

It hasn't always been pretty, no doubt. But at 5-4, they are -- along with the rest of the AFC East -- in the playoff picture. That's thanks in part to a favorable early-season schedule that should get a bit stiffer after their bye week; they've beaten one team (the Jets) with a winning record. Still, they're in the mix.

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Where are they trending upward? Where might things be headed in the wrong direction? What breadcrumbs may have been dropped through nine weeks that will help us determine what the Patriots need to do in order to stay in the postseason conversation?

Let's get to some mid-term positional grades -- in the process laying out all nine grades that helped lead to the mid-year marks -- before Bill Belichick's club vaults into the second half of its season at home against the Jets in Week 11.

Quarterback: C+

Weekly grades -- at Dolphins: C; at Steelers: C; vs. Ravens: C+; at Packers: B-; vs. Lions: B+, at Browns: A-; vs. Bears: D; at Jets: C; vs. Colts: C-

Buoyed by a couple of starts from Bailey Zappe, this grade came in higher than anticipated.

The team appears to have made its choice at quarterback. It's going to be Mac Jones moving forward. But can the Patriots adjust their offense significantly headed into the second half? Can they lean into that which appears to make Jones comfortable -- spreading things out, getting the ball out of his hands quickly -- and expect better results?

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Jones is 28th in ESPN's QBR metric and 33rd among 38 quarterbacks in quarterback rating. Getting David Andrews (concussion) back on the field should help Jones' protection, at the very least, which should yield better performances.

Running back: B+

Weekly grades: B, A-, B, A-, A, B, C+, B+, B

This is the team's most consistent position group, thanks to Rhamondre Stevenson. Only one game had a grade that came in below a "B" (Week 7 against the Bears).

Stevenson and Damien Harris will have to be key pieces to a plan that gets the Patriots offense back on track. They can't be the only pieces to that plan, though. At the moment, they're 26th in the NFL in yards per rushing attempt.

Wide receiver: B-

Weekly grades: C-, B+, B+, C+, B, B+, B+, C-, D

If we were weighting things so that more recent grades were more valuable, this mark wouldn't be so high. Borderline disastrous performances here in wins over both the Jets and Colts.

There's enough talent there for this to be a group that hovers in the B+ range on a regular basis, but they need more from players not named Jakobi Meyers. Kendrick Bourne and Tyquan Thornton have been particularly quiet lately. They've combined for just five catches and 29 receiving yards over the last two weeks.

Tight end: C

Weekly grades: C, D, D, C-, B-, A-, C, C+, B+

Hunter Henry's nice day in Cleveland helps bump this up to gentleman's "C" territory. But make no mistake, this group has been disappointing.

It's one thing for Jonnu Smith to be relatively invisible (16 catches in eight games). But Henry was tied for the league lead in touchdowns among tight ends last season (9). This season he has just one, which he caught from Zappe. Henry has two red-zone receptions this year on eight red-zone targets.

Offensive line: C-

Weekly grades: F, A-, C-, B+, A, C+, D, F, F

Three failing marks and still landing in "C" territory? Matt Patricia and Billy Yates' offensive line worked over the T.J. Watt-less Steelers as well as the Browns and Lions, boosting this grade to where it is. But there are signs of trouble.

Cole Strange has been benched in consecutive weeks and has had issues dealing with the power of opposing defenders. Isaiah Wynn -- now leading the league in penalties (8) -- hasn't been any better when he's replaced Strange. And with Marcus Cannon dealing with a concussion, it appears as though right tackle duties have fallen to Yodny Cajuste.

Finding a consistent starting five could help this unit find its legs, Dante Scarnecchia told Next Pats recently. They'll have to hope so because the last two games they've played -- both without Andrews -- have been ugly.

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Special teams: B-

Weekly grades: B, C, C-, C, B+, B+, C-, B+, A-

Nick. Folk. Hero. That's how the rest of this unit probably refers to their kicker. After Stevenson and Matthew Judon (more on him in a minute) he may be the team's best player right now. Folk has made 17 of 18 kicks from inside 50 yards and hit 2 of 3 from beyond that distance. He hasn't missed an extra point. He's exactly what this offense needs.

This grade takes a significant dip based on what it has received from punter Jake Bailey (last in the league in net punting average). But it's helped by coverage contributions from Brenden Schooler and Matthew Slater as well as return work from Marcus Jones.

The rookie out of Houston looks like the real deal as a return man; he's first in kick-return average (24.3 yards) and third in yards per punt return (13.4).

Defensive line: B

Weekly grades: A-, A, B-, C-, A, A, D, B+, A

Deatrich Wise has been a revelation, remaining a staple on the defensive line and playing across situations. To be used as frequently as he is, at 295 pounds, has made him one of the team's most impressive defenders through the first half of the season.

But the run defense has been lacking at times, particularly against running quarterbacks. Overall, the Patriots rank 22nd in yards per carry allowed, so there's some work to be done on that front in the second half.

Linebacker: B+

Weekly grades: B+, A, C-, C-, A, A, B-, A-, A

Through nine weeks, the Patriots defense ranked seventh in points allowed, ninth in yards per pass attempt, 10th in red-zone defense and second in turnovers created. The player who seems to be at the center of everything the team does -- and thereby staking a sizable claim to all of those upper-tier rankings -- resides in this group.

Judon is a Defensive Player of the Year candidate with his league-leading 11.5 sacks, but he's also made impact plays in coverage and against the run (stopped a Colts fourth-and-one play in Week 9) as well.

Josh Uche and Anfernee Jennings are coming on as serviceable outside linebackers, and Ja'Whaun Bentley continues to play strong smash-mouth run defense. The team could use more consistency from its faster off-ball linebackers like Raekwon McMillan and Mack Wilson, but it's been a fine first half for this unit.

Secondary: B

Weekly grades: C+, B+, C-, B+, A, B+, C, B, A

This grade doesn't really do justice to just how impressive this position group has been. Many wondered how Belichick's defense would cope without a true "No. 1" cover corner. With a smart and versatile depth chart, all they've done is play about as much man-to-man coverage as any team in football and rank among the stingiest defenses in the NFL in a variety of categories.

Jack Jones and Jonathan Jones have had few Patriots fans looking around for Stephon Gilmore or J.C. Jackson this season. And, at safety, Devin McCourty, Kyle Dugger and Adrian Philips remain among the team's top players on that side of the ball -- regardless of position.

Jabrill Peppers has also come on strong lately both on defense and in the kicking game. Solid grade for a solid group that will be challenged in the second half.