Sitting dead last in the AFC as Thanksgiving rolls around, major change feels inevitable in Foxborough.
On offense, the Patriots have averaged an anemic 14.1 points per game. Joe Judge’s special teams units have largely underwhelmed, and a defense with Top 5 expectations heading into the season hasn’t lived up to the hype. Bill Belichick’s team sits 2-8 accordingly, and is currently on track for the No. 3 overall pick in next spring’s NFL Draft.
But the Thanksgiving season is time to practice gratitude, and there have been a few bright spots in this slog of a season. Here are seven Patriots players to be thankful for amidst a lost year:
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A Heisman candidate at Michigan, Peppers’ ceiling has always been high. He’s finding it this fall in Foxborough.
The hard-hitting safety has been a tone-setter with his physicality, and if there was a signature hit for this Patriots season, it’s Peppers croaking Davante Adams in Las Vegas. He’s delivered 59 tackles, defended six passes, forced a fumble, and picked off Josh Allen. A throwback player, Peppers has found a way to electrify within the rigid 2023 rulebook.
“(Peppers is) a little bit of a psychopath,” David Andrews said. “He screams a lot. He’s from Jersey, I don’t understand half the stuff he says — he’s just screaming… But Pep’s been a great addition to our locker room. He plays the game the right way. He plays it tough, he plays it physical. Appreciate having a guy like that.”
Demario “Pop” Douglas
The 5-foot-8 jitterbug out of Liberty is looking like a steal in the sixth round.
Douglas came barreling out of the gate during training camp and hasn’t relented. He’s been one of the lone sources of entertainment on a largely punchless offense. With 30 catches for 361 yards, the wideout has earned more playing time — and more attention from defenses — as the year has worn on. Always undersized, the chip on Douglas’ shoulder is obvious.
“For sure. A lot of people say my height (is the source),” Douglas said back in camp. “I’ve always been doubted (since) I was young. Especially coming out of high school, low offers and stuff like that. Then I had coaches that were like, ‘You’re kinda short, you know you’re short.’ I play with a chip on my shoulder, but I always come out: I feel like I’m the same height as everybody when I’m on the field. So I do have a chip on my shoulder, but I feel like I can play with anybody.”
He’s proving that at the game’s highest level.
Amidst the most turbulent Patriots season in decades, Andrews has been a stabilizer.
Steady on the field, the long-time captain has also been a beacon of leadership off of it. No matter the outcome, it’s Andrews who speaks to the media first after games, not Bill Belichick. The center often has to field questions that are downright unpleasant, but does so with honest accountability. His coach raved about his leadership earlier this season.
“He’s done a great job. He’s done a great job,” Belichick reiterated. “He’s playing well, and he really helps the quarterback, the offensive line. He’s a very good personality, calm but enthusiastic, aggressive and energetic, but at the same time, there’s not a panic to it. Really good, he does a great job.”
It’s flown under the radar, but Tavai has emerged as a really solid linebacker for the Patriots.
Similar to Peppers, it feels like he’s really found his groove in New England after struggling to do so elsewhere. Tavai has (literally) had his hands in three turnovers in the last five games, and he’s earned the coaching staff’s trust as an every-down player. With over 700 snaps under his belt, Tavai will smash a career high in playing time if he stays heathy.
“I think Jahlani has a lot of versatility within his game,” linebackers coach Steve Belichick said. “He’s had some more opportunities here recently and he’s taken advantage of them. He has really good instincts. He’s just a really good athlete. He does a lot of things really well, so I think that helps him as well as being a smart, good communicator… I’m not surprised by the production that he’s had, but it’s good to see him go out there and do it.”
Said Peppers: “He’s a grinder. He’s finding his niche for us right now. He’s playing really, really well for us.”
The heir apparent to Matthew Slater, Schooler looks like he’s going to be the next great Patriots special teams ace. The second-year player leads the NFL with 11 tackles on special teams — including nine solo — and provided one of the highlights of the season with his full-tilt field goal block against the Dolphins. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see him voted to the Pro Bowl this season.
“Everybody on this team loves being around him,” Slater said. “He brings his own unique energy. So I think the future is bright for him on and off the field. It’d be wise for this organization to keep him around for a long, long time.”
No, he hasn’t played a snap since the first day of October. And yes, it was a small sample size. But it was a really, really good sample for the first-rounder.
Gonzalez was fresh off being named the NFL’s Defensive Rookie of the Month for September before a torn labrum ended his first season prematurely. During his first three games, Gonzalez had been tasked with AJ Brown, Tyreek Hill, Garrett Wilson and more than held his own — just ask the wideouts.
“He’s gonna be a real good player in this league,” Hill said.
Gonzalez looks like a building block for the Patriots moving forward.
On one hand, including the punter on this list speaks to where the roster is. On the other, Baringer has a massive leg — and the Patriots have punted a lot this season. The rookie’s 79-yard boot in Germany was the longest in the NFL this season, and he leads the league with 23 punts downed inside the 20-yard line.
Baringer’s coaches are bullish on his future given his refusal to be satisfied.
“He’s always like, ‘I could have done it a little better,’” special teams coordinator Cam Achord said. “Like, son, you hit a 53-yard punt out of bounds. We’re going to be fine. You appreciate those things about him because he wants to be perfect.”