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Replay: Patriots Unfiltered Thu May 16 - 02:00 PM | Tue May 21 - 11:55 AM

Ten Next Gen Stats From the First Ten Patriots Games in the 2023 Season

With the Patriots heading into the bye week, here are ten Next Gen Stats from the first ten games of New England's season.

Pictured are Patriots offensive lineman Michael Onwenu (71) and defensive back Kyle Dugger (23).
Pictured are Patriots offensive lineman Michael Onwenu (71) and defensive back Kyle Dugger (23).

The first ten games for the Patriots haven't gone as planned, with the team holding the third overall pick in the 2024 NFL Draft heading into the bye week at 2-8.

Although we are fully aware of the team's record, we'll highlight positive and negative trends here, with the positives geared toward potential building blocks with another rebuild on the horizon. The Patriots have 18 pending free agents, making the next seven games about evaluating the current roster. New England will be flushed with cap space, likely a top ten draft selection in each round, and needs all over the roster, particularly offensively, where they need a full reboot.

New England's offense has hit rock bottom. Along with being the NFL's 31st scoring offense, the Pats are 30th in expected points added per play and 26th in DVOA. The Patriots offense is their biggest issue, but they're also 30th in special teams DVOA and have taken a step back defensively mainly due to critical injuries to some of their top defenders (13th). 

The bottom line for the Patriots is that they need definitive answers on who should be a part of the future and who isn't by season's end, so let's crunch the numbers to set the table for the final seven games.

Here are ten advanced stats from the Patriots first ten games of the 2023 season:

1. Is Patriots S Kyle Dugger Playing a Different Role in the Defense This Season?

Among the many things that have taken a step back this season, the eye test suggests that Dugger, who had three defensive touchdowns a year ago, is around the ball less this season. 

The Pats safety, who is in a contract year as an unrestricted free agent in 2024, is on track to record around the same number of interceptions as last season with two through ten games. But, until recently, the impact plays on the ball haven't been as eye-popping as in 2023. With a decision looming on his future with the team, it's worth investigating why that is and if Dugger is worth keeping around with free agency looming.

According to the data, Dugger's run-stop percentage is down from 5.1% last season to 2.4% this season. He's also allowing a noticeably higher completion rate into his coverage, increasing from a 70.9% completion percentage to an 81.8% completion rate so far in the 2023 season. 

With the Patriots working to replace franchise legend Devin McCourty at free safety, Dugger has played 32.8% of his snaps at free safety through ten games. With the future Pats Hall of Famer mostly playing that spot, Dugger only played 82 total snaps, or 10.9%, of his plays at free safety in 2022. Furthermore, per NextGen Stats, Dugger's average starting distance from the line of scrimmage this season has been 7.9 yards. In his first three seasons, it was 5.3 yards. 

Dugger's role has clearly changed this season to make up for McCourty's absence, and he even wore the green dot as the defensive play-caller vs. the Colts without LB Ja'Whaun Bentley in the lineup. While assessing his value as a free agent next offseason, the Patriots ought to consider that Dugger will ideally go back to playing his natural role as a box/slot safety, where he can use his physicality and playmaking athleticism around the ball.

For those reasons, we'd still prioritize keeping Dugger as a pillar for the defense while also recognizing that the roster composition at safety needs to allow players to play to their strengths. In other words, we can add a true free safety to the list of Patriots offseason needs. 

2. Is Pending Free-Agent Michael Onwenu a Future Starter at Right Tackle?

Until the offensive line regressed in last week's loss to the Colts, moving Onwenu to right tackle settled things down for a few weeks.

As an unrestricted free agent next offseason, Onwenu told Patriots.com that he'd be open to playing tackle moving forward. The 2020 sixth-rounder also said he spent time training on his own at tackle last offseason, knowing the team might move him there in an emergency. 

Although his body type, 6-foot-3 and 350 pounds, is more conducive to the interior, Onwenu has allowed only one sack and four total quarterback pressures in four starts at tackle. He has also continues to be an elite run blocker, with the third-best run-blocking grade (85.1) among tackles in that four-game span. According to Pro Football Focus, Onwenu ranks eighth among tackles in overall grade (79.0) since first moving out to tackle in the Patriots win over the Bills in Week 7. 

Assuming that Onwenu is on board with a permanent position switch, which could be the case given what it would mean for his next contract, the film and stats suggest that Onwenu is a starting-caliber right tackle in the league. The Pats prioritize size, power, and run-blocking ability on the right side, while good tackles are more valuable than guards. 

Without knowing who will make these decisions and for what offense they'll be making personnel moves, it's difficult to say if Onwenu is a long-term fit at tackle. But if it's at least adjacent to the current regime, Onwenu should be a priority this offseason as a right tackle. 

3. With Only Two Sacks This Season, What Do the Advanced Stats Say About Josh Uche? How About Anfernee Jennings?

The next free-agent decisions for the Patriots are their day-two edge rushers from the 2020 draft class, Josh Uche (second round) and Anfernee Jennings (third round).

After a slower start to his career, where he was buried on the depth chart, Jennings is having a solid fourth season as an early-down edge-setter. In a defense that harps on setting the edge against the run, Jennings's 18 run stops rank third among all edge rushers, and he leads all edge defenders in stops since taking on a regular role in Week 3.

Although he has been effective against the run, Jennings's pass-rush win rate of 4.7% on 156 pass-rush snaps ranks 102nd out of 113 edge defenders. The 2020 third-rounder should be a strong retention candidate given his rock-solid ability to play the run, while his lack of pass-rush production means he won't break the bank, assuming the Pats are still playing a Belichick-style defense in 2024 (maybe under Jerod Mayo, if not Belichick himself). 

As for Uche, this depends on who makes the decisions and the defensive system next season. The former second-rounder only has two sacks through ten games following a breakout 11.5-sack season in 2022. However, he's still among the league leaders in pass-rush effectiveness.

According to NextGen Stats, Uche leads all edge defenders with a 78.4% positive rush rate among 113 defenders with at least 75 pass-rush snaps. Although he hasn't finished his rushes like last season, Uche is still disrupting quarterbacks when healthy in 2023, with 20 quarterback pressures in eight games played this season. 

The modest sack production could hurt his value in the free-agent market next offseason, while his future in New England could depend on how the decision-makers view a situational player in the defense. If the Pats are playing more aggressive front mechanics on early downs in the future, Uche could be a three-down player for a new regime. But their current system calls for sturdy edge-setters such as Jennings, which is why Uche is a part-time player despite his pass-rush production.

Earlier this week, Uche, the subject of trade rumors at the deadline, told reporters there's mutual interest for him to remain a Patriot. The stats suggest that Uche is one of the NFL's best situational pass rushers.

4. Is DT Christian Barmore an Extension Candidate Next Offseason?

Following an injury-plagued second season, Barmore is realizing his potential heading into an offseason where he is eligible for an extension as a 2021 second-round pick by the Patriots. 

The Pats defensive tackle is on a five-game hot streak where he leads all interior defensive linemen in stops (15) and is tied for 11th with 15 quarterback pressures. Furthermore, Barmore's eight quick pressures are tied for the sixth-most among defensive tackles since Week 5, making him one of the NFL's best IDLs over the last month or so. 

The statistics overwhelmingly support Barmore as a prime extension candidate and building block on the Patriots defensive line.

5. Should the Pats Continue Building Their Run Game Around Rhamondre Stevenson?

Another reason the Patriots offense has regressed this season is that Stevenson got off to a slow start following a breakout 2022 campaign.

Recently, the Patriots have improved to 20th in expected points added per rush (-0.13), which is only slightly lower than their -0.08 expected points added per rush last season. In the first six weeks of the season, Stevenson was averaging 0.8 yards before contact on 78 carries, with that number increasing to 1.5 yards before contact on 48 carries in the last four weeks. Furthermore, Stevenson's stuff rate has decreased from 21.8% to 12.5% in recent weeks. 

With more clean air to get downhill, Stevensons has rediscovered his ability to avoid tackles and generate yards after contact. Over the last month, Stevenson ranks second with +53 rushing yards over expected and is fourth in rushing yards after contact (3.7), while he has forced ten missed tackles on 48 attempts (tied for sixth among running backs). 

Although the Patriots should supplement him with a receiving back like James White in 2024, Stevenson remains one of the NFL's best ball carriers. 

6. Is Rookie WR Demario Douglas a Building Block for the Pats Offense?

The only Patriots wide receiver producing a positive expected points-added output is sixth-round rookie Demario Douglas, who is generating +0.10 EPA per target. Douglas also leads the team in yards per route run (2.1). Although there have been growing pains as a first-year wide receiver, Douglas's production on a per route/target basis speaks for itself. The Pats will need to add significant receiving talent in the offseason to support whoever is at quarterback next season. But Douglas has a bright future.

7. Who Are the Patriots Highest Graded Players via PFF Through Ten Games?

Table inside Article
Offense Leaders (rank among position) Defense Leaders (rank among position)
1. TE Pharaoh Brown - 90.6 (1st) 1. LB Jahlani Tavai - 87.5 (6th)
2. LT Trent Brown - 81.4 (8th) 2. S Jabrill Peppers - 85.9 (4th)
3. WR Demario Douglas - 77.3 (29th) 3. CB Christian Gonzalez - 80.8 (DNQ)

Here is a chart of the highest-graded Patriots through ten games, according to Pro Football Focus.

Team-Based Advanced Metrics

8. If OC Bill O'Brien Returns Next Season, What is the Patriots Offense Missing at the Skill Positions?

With the offense's struggles this season, the likelihood that the Patriots will have the same brain trust at head coach (Bill Belichick), offensive coordinator (Bill O'Brien), and quarterback (Mac Jones) in the 2024 season is slim. However, it hasn't all been bad for Jones.

Overall, the Patriots quarterback's play has struggled to the point where New England should look for an upgrade in the offseason. Still, Jones has produced a positive EPA output on four routes: slants (+6.2), posts (+4.8), angle routes (+2.6), and flat patterns (+0.1). It's not a surprise that Jones's best routes are in-breaking patterns into the middle of the field, where he has produced +2.1 expected points added. On out-breaking routes and vertical patterns, Jones has lost -46.2 expected points added.

The Patriots quarterback has shown the ability to find one-on-one matchups against man coverage to throw slants. At the same time, arguably the Pats most aesthetically pleasing passing play of the season was a touchdown pass to wide receiver Kendrick Bourne on a skinny post in Week 1.

Despite those being his best routes, Jones only ranks 14th among 32 quarterbacks in how frequently he throws in-breaking routes, coming in slightly above average at 32.1%. Some of that is due to how defenses play the Patriots offense, knowing Jones and O'Brien want to throw those quicker-hitting plays into the middle of the field. But if either the Pats quarterback or OC returns next season, it's clear that the offense is predicated on quickness in the middle of the field, as it's always been.

The Patriots will build their offensive system around the next quarterback, assuming it isn't Jones under center in 2024. Still, this offensive system will always need quick route winners who separate at the first two levels while preferably adding yards after the catch.

New England's current skill group doesn't amplify those traits enough to create mismatches from inside the formation, which is where the sweet spots are in O'Brien's system.

9. Patriots Blitz, Cover Zero Rate Has Noticeably Increased This Season

With the Patriots future at head coach uncertain, trends on the defensive side of the ball might not carry over to next season if they're installing a new defensive system.

However, despite season-ending injuries to standout first-rounder Christian Gonzalez and star pass-rusher Matthew Judon, the Pats still rank a respectable 13th in defensive DVOA after finishing fifth in 2022, which can be explained mainly by significant talent loss to injury. The Pats defensive system is sound, and they've held it together without arguably their two best players on that side of the ball, so there's a strong case that they should keep the system in place.

Looking at the defensive trends, the Patriots are blitzing more this season with fewer snaps in traditional man coverage (cover one). The Pats rank ninth in blitz rate (35.2%) and are sixth in "creepers" pressure rate (6%). Creepers are when a defender you'd expect to rush the quarterback drops into coverage while a player blitzes from the back seven. New England also ranks ninth in how frequently they drop defenders off the line of scrimmage (33.1%). In many instances, they'll drop a defender off the line to replace a back seven blitzer to maintain their numbers in overage. The Pats also have the second-highest cover zero rate in the NFL this season (9.4%).

For comparison, the Patriots only blitzed on 26.3% with a four percent cover zero rate in the 2022 season (35.2%, 9.4% in 2023). Before you say those numbers are skewed by the coaching staff adjusting to life without Judon, the truth is that the Patriots blitz rate is nearly identical with and without the red sleeves. In the first four weeks, the Pats blitzed on 36% of opponent drop-backs, while their blitz rate has slightly decreased since Judon was lost to injury (34.6%).

The problem has been that a more aggressive approach hasn't necessarily worked. Despite blitzing more often, the Pats rank 20th in team pressure rate and 17th in pressure rate when sending five-plus rushers on a blitz. Although offense will be the top priority, generating more pressure on quarterbacks is another offseason need for this team.

10. Will the Patriots Continue to Feature Run-Pass Options in Future Seasons?

Although there are plenty of traditional elements in Bill O'Brien's offense, the former Alabama offensive coordinator has installed an RPO package in New England this season.

In the first ten weeks, the Patriots have run 79 run-pass options, which have converted to 60 runs (4.3 average) and 19 pass attempts (4.9 average). Ideally, the RPO package would produce more explosive pass plays, but it has given the Pats some productive early-down offense. It's also worth noting that, per O'Brien, many of the plays with run and pass elements are "advantage" throws where the quarterback makes a pre-snap read.

Rather than post-snap RPOs, where the quarterback makes a read based on the defense's post-snap movement, the Patriots major in pre-snap RPOs, where the quarterback is reading leverage and where the offense has the numbers advantage. For example, Rhamondre Stevenson's 64-yard touchdown run came on an "advantage" throw where Mac had the pre-snap option to hand the ball off or throw the quick out to TE Mike Gesicki. With the defense putting a defender over each receiver to Jones's right, he hands the ball off, and the Pats have a numbers advantage in the box to open a huge lane for Stevenson.

O'Brien cited the NFL's illegal man downfield rules as the reason why the Patriots run fewer post-snap RPOs than some anticipated. The advantage throws have been successful, but you would've hoped for more post-snap options, which typically generate bigger plays in the passing game.

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