Pro Football Focus released a roundup of their highest-graded players for the 2021 season and the Patriots are well-represented with five players earning nods from the analytics website.
Mac Jones tops the list, being named the top rookie quarterback with an overall grade of 79.3. Jones was the fifth quarterback selected in this year's draft, going 15th overall and landing in an excellent situation with an established coaching staff and system in place. His progress over the course of OTAs and training camp was impressive and he carried that success over into the regular season.
PFF writes of Jones:
Jones came on strong to start his NFL career, posting an 84.8 grade until Week 11. He's spiraled a bit since then, recording a 61.5 grade since Week 11, but that shouldn't take away from his solid season overall. He was the only rookie quarterback who graded above 65.0, which puts him far ahead of anyone in this category. He finishes his first campaign ranked 12th among all quarterbacks.
Jones was joined on the list by two of his running backs, as Damien Harris took the best overall grade at the position (87.5) while Rhamondre Stevenson was named the top rookie performer (79.2). The Patriots offense has been at their best this season when Harris and Stevenson are combining to make life difficult for opposing run defenses. Both missed games over the final four-game stretch of the season and their absences were noticeable as the Patriots were unable to produce the same kind of effect as when the duo is complementing each other.
PFF writes of Harris and Stevenson:
As a receiver and a runner, Harris was impressive this season. Harris was a first-down machine on the ground, finishing with 55 first-down runs from just 202 carries. He recorded the seventh-highest first-down or touchdown rate on the ground. Taking out the pass-blocking and receiving grades, Indianapolis Colts runner Jonathan Taylor had the highest PFF run grade (88.2) as he led the league in first-down or touchdown rate on the ground.
Part of New England's dual threat with Harris, Stevenson finished third among rookies with 0.25 missed tackles forced per rush while leading all rookies in yards per carry as well. Just 3.8% of his runs were stuffed at the line of scrimmage or in the backfield -- second-best in the NFL -- which displays that Stevenson grinds positive yards at every opportunity.
Defensively, the Patriots were well-represented as well, with two players gaining attention.
First is rookie defensive lineman Christian Barmore, whom the Patriots traded up for in the second round this spring and received PFF's highest grade for a rookie DL. Barmore's high energy and disruptive play jumped off the field from the first day that the pads came on. Like Jones, he carried over that solid start into the regular season and quickly emerged as one of the team's best pass rushers. An absolute problem to block one-on-one, Barmore looks like he avoided a major injury in the season finale against Miami and could be a key player this weekend in Buffalo getting after Josh Allen.
PFF writes of Barmore:
Rookie interior defenders didn't have a great season overall, but Barmore does stand out especially as a pass-rusher who boasted a 75.4 grade. He recorded 11 more pressures than any other rookie interior defender and finished third among all rookies regardless of position. His 17.1% pass rush win rate was the highest of all rookies not named Micah Parsons. He was not perfect defending the run, but he was drafted to rush the passer, and he can hang his hat on that aspect of his game after a nice rookie season.
Finally, Adrian Phillips earns a nod for biggest surprise at safety. Phillips built on a solid first season with the Patriots by expanding his role in the secondary even more. His game-winning pick-six against his former team in Los Angeles was a huge highlight of the season and Phillips was rewarded by signing a three-year extension earlier this month. While PFF probably undervalued how important Phillips was to the team in 2020, he's starting to earn some recognition for what a vital player he is to the Patriots defense.
PFF on Phillips:
In his second season in New England, Phillips was impressive. A semi-breakout 2019 season with the Chargers saw Phillips post a 87.6 grade from only 382 snaps. The Patriots picked him up and hoped he was closer to that than the player who didn't top 66.0 in any other season where he played at least 100 snaps for the Chargers. He wasn't great in 2020, posting just a 66.2 grade, but at 80.5 this season, it seems he has figured out Bill Belichick's defense.
Most notable is that all five of the Patriots players to make the list will return in 2022 and Harris' contract is the only one that expires before 2024, as he's due to hit free agency in 2023. This bodes well for the trajectory of the team on both sides of the ball.