Patrick Chung (23) and Jamie Collins (91) of the New England Patriots. Credit: Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports
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Many hands make light work. The story of the 2016 New England Patriots thus far has been one of teamwork.
Let’s take a look at the top 10 Patriots performers through three games:
10. Patrick Chung
Since returning to the Patriots after a terrible 2013 season with the Philadelphia Eagles, Patrick Chunghas been outstanding, putting up two huge years for the Pats in 2014 and 2015. This seaosn, Chung is picking up right where left off at the end of last year.
Chung ranks third on the team with 16 combined tackles, and he has also registered a pair of pass breakups. It is Chung’s dual ability as a run stopping strong safety as well as a cover man in the secondary that puts him on this list as the ninth-best Patriots player through the first three games.
Of course, Chung has been displaying the versatility that Bill Belichick likes in his defensive players. He has made the occasional appearance at linebacker this month.
Like the look from the Patriots on 3rd down…Safety Patrick Chung playing at linebacker depth. Quick run/pass read & fill downhill.
Look for the Patriots to put Chung on the field with fellow safeties Duron Harmonand Devin McCourty. It seems like the Patriots sometimes prefer to use three safeties rather than three cornerbacks in nickel packages.
Malcolm Butler (21) of the New England Patriots. Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
9. Malcolm Butler
The eighth-best Patriots player after three games is none other than cornerback Malcolm Butler, whose stat line reads 16 combines tackles and four passes defended, the latter of which leads the team.
Enough time has passed since the Butler’s Super Bowl XLIX heroism for us to make a statement about the level of Butler’s play. After a solid sophomore season in which even he was surprised to make the Pro Bowl, it is fair to say that Butler is an above-average cornerback. He can probably be left out of the top-five cornerback group in the NFL, but a placement in the top 15, or even top 12, is realistic.
While very sticky in coverage, Butler can be susceptible to breaking down, which he did in the second half of the Miami Dolphins game. Jarvis Landry undoubtedly won that matchup, torching Butler for 137 yards.
However, Butler has played well enough in the other five halves of regular season play thus far to make this ranking as the No. 9 performer for the Patriots so far.
Chris Long (95) of the New England Patriots. David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports
8. Chris Long
There were expectations for Long entering his first season with the Patriots, and so far, the former St. Louis (or Los Angeles if you want to get technical) Rams defensive end has been delivering. Long makes this list as the No. 7 Patriots performer of 2016 through Week 3.
Long’s stat line reads seven combined tackles, a sack a fumble recovery and two passes defended right now. Those are some solid numbers, especially when you take into account that starting cornerback Logan Ryan has as many passes defended.
One guy who has been approving of Long’s play thus far is Bill Belichick:
Bill Belichick on DE Chris Long: "All the positive things I heard about him are all true … very professional, very dedicated."
Really, there is nothing that the former owner of the Patriots’ No. 95 jersey, Chandler Jones, can do better than Long–in New England, that is. In other words, Long fulfills the same role that Jones would have in 2016. Long is doing the job that was laid out before him when he signed on with the Pats this offseason.
Martellus Bennett (88) of the New England Patriots. Credit: Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports
7. Martellus Bennett
Just like Long, Bennett was a high-profile offseason acquisition for the Patriots. And just like Long, Bennett is delivering, making the Patriots look like free agency wizards once again.
Through three games, Bennett has pulled in 10 passes for 138 yards and a touchdown, which came in the first half against the Dolphins. Bennett also took a handoff and churned out six yards on Thursday Night football, another instance of the Patriots milking as much talent as possible out of their players and using them in various ways.
The Patriots signed Bennett in the offseason because they are well aware of Rob Gronkowski’s injury-proneness. Essentially, any team that is lucky enough to have Gronk in their ranks must also have a starting-caliber No. 2 tight end. Gronk’s playing style is simply too rough-and-tumble to not have a guy like Bennett backing him up.
Just think back to last year, when the Patriots’ Scott Chandler experiment failed. When Gronk was out, the offense was less dynamic without a tight end threat.
Bennett has been huge so far, and it will be interesting to see how is workload is altered (or not altered) with Gronkowski on the field more.
Jabaal Sheard (93) of the New England Patriots. Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
6. Jabaal Sheard
In the wake of Chandler Jones’ departure and Rob Ninkovich’s suspension, Jabaal Sheard was tasked with playing like the No. 1 defensive end. The former Cleveland Browns pass rusher has been up and down, but it was his strong “up” day in Week 3 that boosts him onto this list.
Sheard sacked Brock Osweiler twice on Thursday Night Football, displaying the mix of power and athleticism on the edge that the Patriots like so much in the sixth-year player.
Evidently, Sheard likes to play the Texans.
The last time Jabaal Sheard had two sacks in a game was ……. last December against the Texans
Remember, Sheard is one year removed from a re-emergence on the NFL season in which he recorded eight sacks and four forced fumbles (tied for second-most in the league) despite missing three games. This is a guy who is certainly tracking upward in the ranks of the league’s quarterback hungers.
Going forward, Sheard should aim to break double digits in sacks this season. The return of Ninkovich should only help Sheard reach that mark thanks to the attention No. 50 will demand on the other side.
Logan Ryan (26) of the New England Patriots. Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
5. Logan Ryan
Here’s another guy who has picked up right where he left off in 2015; Ryan has been the No. 5 top performer for the Patriots this season. He has a solid stat line of 17 combined tackles and two passes defended. In addition, Ryan shut down DeAndre Hopkins yet again, just like he did in their Week 14 encounter last year.
The Patriots mediaverse took notice of Ryan’s strong play against Hopkins on Thursday night:
Second year in a row that Logan Ryan has essentially shut down DeAndre Hopkins
This writer really agrees with Daniels’ note, as Hopkins is a top-five wideout in this league and could catch a pass on the edge of a cliff and not fall off. His 56 yards on four catches moved the chains a few times for the Texans, but Ryan kept the elite pass catcher from taking over the game.
One 2017 storyline that hasn’t been getting enough attention is the prospect of Ryan leaving New England in free agency. Earlier in his career, Ryan was often a weak link in the Patriots’ secondary, but he has carved out a niche as a cover man who can shut down the likes of Hopkins and Demaryius Thomas as long as he has a strong safety presence behind him (thanks, Devin McCourty).
Julian Edelman (11) of the New England Patriots. Credit: Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports
4. Julian Edelman
The most dependable offensive player when Brady is not on the field, Edelman has been the No. 4 best performer this season. His stat line of 18 catches for 180 yards can be translated into a final regular season projection of 96 receptions and 960 yards. Furthermore, Edelman has racked up 30 yards rushing on five end-around handoffs.
Edelman also leads all pass catchers and ball carriers with eight first downs. Regardless of who is throwing the ball, this offense tends to run through Edelman to advance the first down marker on crucial third downs.
Of course, Edelman’s versatility has benefitted the Patriots already this year. Edelman’s downfield blocking has sprung big plays on several occasions, and his ability as a quarterback allowed the Patriots to avoid signing some veteran off the couch in the wake of Garoppolo’s bum shoulder.
The most essentially cog in the offense outside of the quarterback position is Edelman, to put it bluntly.
LeGarrette Blount (29) of the New England Patriots. Credit: Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports
3. LeGarrette Blount
Some Patriots fans aren’t huge on Blount, but you can’t deny that the power back has been a major reason why the Patriots are undefeated through three games.
Currently on pace to flirt with 1,600 rushing yards, Blount’s workload is averaging out at 25 carries per game. The 250-pound workhorse has proven capable of handling that paperwork, and it has taken pressure off of the inexperienced arms of Garoppolo and Brissett.
Even when Brady returns to the huddle, the Patriots are going to want to have a dependable rushing attack so that the 39-year-old quarterback doesn’t have to singlehandedly haul the offense to the playoffs and beyond. Blount’s value as a north-south sledgehammer will not diminish anytime soon.
Jimmy Garoppolo (10) of the New England Patriots. Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
2. Jimmy Garoppolo
The second-best award in this ranking goes to Garoppolo. Even though he’s appeared in half of the quarters played so far, Garoppolo gets this high of a listing because he looked extremely good in Week 1 and Week 2.
Garoppolo scored big points by matching the intensity of the ferocious Arizona desert environment, playing mistake-free football outside of a lost fumble and piloting the Patriots to what truly was an upset win.
At 6-foot-4 and 250 pounds, Collins weighs as much as Blount as is as tall as Brady. He’s long, lanky and powerful. Collins has the ball skills as well, as we’ve seen through these first three games.
It’s getting to the point where we have say that retaining Collins is the top offseason priority over Dont’a Hightower and Malcolm Butler. He’s the best defensive player in the league outside of J.J. Watt.