- Chris Forsberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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What have we learned about the New England Patriots through the first six weeks of the 2011 season? Here's a handful of the primary reasons why this team is 5-1 at the bye week (hop here to read colleague Mike Reiss's take):
1. The importance of Brian Waters cannot be overstated
The retirement of Stephen Neal left the Patriots with a void on the right side of their line. New England knew it could slide Dan Connolly into a starting role, especially after he started 13 games at guard in 2010 -- both on the left side while Logan Mankins held out, and in place of an injured Neal. But the Patriots were still dangerously thin on interior depth and Waters was inked just eight days before the start of the season. When starting center Dan Koppen fractured his leg on opening night, it made Waters invaluable.
After sitting out training camp, Waters had rotated reps at right guard with Connolly on opening night. Since Koppen went down, Waters hasn't left the field. Nor would the Patriots want him to. According to analytical site Pro Football Focus, Waters has allowed no sacks, two quarterback hits, and just one quarterback pressure over 261 total plays in pass protection. Among guards who have played at least 50 percent of their team's total snaps this season, Waters ranks second in PFF's grading system, behind only Buffalo's Andy Levitre. What's more, his pass-blocking grade is tops in the league and he's in the top six for both screens and run blocking.
Most impressively, Waters had virtually never played right guard in his NFL career. After 11 seasons and five Pro Bowls with the Chiefs, he seamlessly made the switch to the right side, solidifying a side where rookie Nate Solder has started five of six games in place of injured Sebastian Vollmer.
2. Wes Welker deserves a new contract
OK, so we sort of knew this one coming into the season, but Welker has really hammered it home. Every time he makes a catch, you envision his future price tag rolling over like a car odometer. Through six weeks, Welker leads the league in receptions (51) and yards (785). If the Patriots were hoping to work on a deal this week, his value might never be higher, which puts them in a tough spot.
Welker is currently on pace for 136 catches (NFL record is 143 by Marvin Harrison in 2002), 2,093 yards (NFL record is 1,848 by Jerry Rice in 1995) and 16 touchdowns. While it's unlikely the 30-year-old Welker is going to fetch Larry Fitzgerald money ($120 million over eight years), he's going to get a nice bump over the $2.2 million base salary he's earning this year.
Forget where he lines up, Welker is New England's No. 1 receiver and, eventually, will have to be paid as such. Credit to Welker for remaining focused on his job when many would be barking about needing a raise.
3. Andre Carter has been the most important defensive free-agent pickup
When the Patriots beefed up their defensive line this offseason, much of the spotlight (and rightfully so) fell on the trade for Albert Haynesworth. Heck, even Shaun Ellis drew more headlines given the 11 years he spent on the other side of the Patriots-Jets rivalry. But no free agent -- and maybe no player on the defensive side of the ball overall -- has made a bigger impact than Carter.
After losing his starting job in Washington last year, Carter has already essentially matched his total 2010 production in six weeks with New England (23 tackles, including four for losses, and 2.5 sacks). According to PFF metrics, Carter is graded the seventh-best 4-3 defensive end in the league through six weeks, and only Tampa Bay's Michael Bennett has been better against the run.
Fresh off a two-sack effort against the Cowboys, Carter's steady play hasn't gone unnoticed. "I think he's performed well all year. I really do," said coach Bill Belichick. "I think he's had a really solid year for us. I think he's performed well pretty much since the first training camp practice. He's a very consistent, high-effort player, strong, experienced, knows what he's doing, very professional. He's been really consistent."
4. Two young tight ends have re-revolutionized the Patriots' offense
Tom Brady and the Patriots' offense never really had problems putting up crazy offensive numbers during the Randy Moss era, but it's fair to say that the offense at the start of the 2010 season had, well, downshifted. When the Patriots traded away Moss, it left a tremendous void that few thought could be filled (even after the return of Deion Branch). So how then did the Patriots rattle off 13 consecutive games with 30 points or more, including the first five of the 2011 season? Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez played a huge role.
With all due respect to the Benjamin Watsons and Daniel Grahams of the world, it's scary to imagine what Brady would have been capable of with this sort of talent at tight end his entire career. Through six games in 2011, Gronkowski and Hernandez have combined to catch 56 passes for 690 yards with eight touchdowns -- and Hernandez sat out two games with a knee injury. Gronkowski is second on the team in catches, thriving in the red area, and don't discredit his blocking contributions in the running game. Hernandez might be the team's biggest home run threat and his versatility is causing all sorts of headaches for opponents.
5. The defense is improving and should continue to do so
If there's been one glaring negative -- beyond the invisibility of Chad Ochocinco -- it's been a defense that gave up the most yardage in NFL history through the first four weeks of the season. Yes, it would have been hard to imagine there being optimism around the group in Week 7, but the Patriots have shown glimpses of settling in during each of the past two weeks. You can't help but imagine that improved health -- and more time to jell -- could help this unit tighten up further. The key might simply be health: Albert Haynesworth (back), Ras-I Dowling (hip), Leigh Bodden (multiple injuries), Patrick Chung (hand), Josh Barrett (hamstring), Sergio Brown (chest) and Jerod Mayo (knee) have all missed games because of injuries.
The Patriots' defense is still worst in the league in total yardage, but allowing opponents to convert just 13 of 24 red zone trips (54.2 percent, 15th in the league) has limited the damage. And with the offense putting up big numbers, the Patriots are fifth in the league in point differential (and ninth in yardage differential, a crazy feat considering they remain ranked No. 32 in yards allowed).
At the end of the day, the Patriots are 14th in the league in points allowed and if that number (22.5 points per game) continues to improve, New England will give itself ample opportunity to win games.
Chris Forsberg covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.
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