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Best Patriots Positional Group Is ….

Amendola Edelman Gronkowski

NFL Analyst Bucky Brooks and Pats Pulpit writer Rich Hill have each written some interesting articles over the past week regarding the Patriots positional groups, and I’d like to throw my hat into the ring.

Brooks names the Patriots’ running back group the 10th most feared positional group in the NFL. He makes some great points that I agree with. New England’s committee of running backs have a diversity unlike anything else in the league. They have a pure pass catcher in James White, a hard hitting bruiser in Mike Gilislee, and two fantastic hybrids in Dion Lewis and Rex Burkhead. They are dangerous because Josh McDaniels can do many different things with them. They can pass block, they can run inside or outside the line, they can run routes from the inside, they can run routes from the outside, they can run screens, they can block for screens. They are a multi-dimensional unit that can exploit any weakness of an opposing defense.

However, I also agree with Rich Hill that while this Patriots running back unit is good, they are not even the best positional group on the team, never mind being the 10th best unit in the league. The Patriots receiving corps, cornerbacks, defensive line, quarterbacks (harder to compare but still true), and special teams (again, harder to compare but still true) are all better than New England’s running back committee.

Receiving corps: Rob Gronkoswki, Julian Edelman, Brandin Cooks, Chris Hogan, Danny Amendola, Malcolm Mitchell, Dwayne Allen

With the addition of Brandin Cooks, this is the best positional group on the team (outside of quarterback, which we’ll get to). Rob Gronkoswki is the best tight end in football when he’s healthy. His size, speed, and athleticism make him nearly unstoppable. Linebackers can’t cover him, and safeties struggle as well, which can be seen by Kam Chancellor’s performance in Super Bowl 49. Julian Edelman is arguably the best pure slot receiver in the game right now. He is quick, has great footwork, and isn’t afraid to go across the middle. Teams are forced to double team him on short yard-pass situations. Danny Amendola had a quiet 2016 but is still a fearless receiver with great route running skills and sure hands. Chris Hogan and Malcolm Mitchell are both solid outside targets with strong hands and underrated abilities to beat people over the top. On top of all of that, the Patriots added one of the fastest receivers in the league in Brandin Cooks, who will make everyone else better. The Patriots receiving corps is easily the best on the team, and arguably even better than the Tampa Bay Buccaneers receiving group who ranked #5 on Brook’s list. Mike Evans is fantastic and DeSean Jackson is solid but he isn’t the same receiver he was a few years ago that teams feared. And while their tight end group is solid, they don’t have anyone who comes even close to Gronkowski.

Cornerbacks: Malcolm Butler, Stephon Gilmore, Eric Rowe, Cyrus Jones, Justin Coleman, Jonathan Jones

It was surprising to me to see this group not mentioned. With the addition of Gilmore, the Patriots now have arguably two of the best cornerbacks in the league (top 10-15 at least). This might actually be one of the best cornerback units in the league, behind Denver’s, Seattle’s, and many one or two more if you’re going to be picky. While there is certainly a drop in talent after Butler and Gilmore, Eric Rowe is a good player who will be able to have his load lightened with Gilmore and Butler as the 1-2 punch. Jonathan Jones improved markedly throughout the year and even got some playing time in the Super Bowl. We all know how I feel about Cyrus Jones so let’s not go there. But overall this is a great unit that should make the Patriots pass defense elite this season.

Defensive Line: Alan Branch, Malcolm Brown, Trey Flowers, Kony Ealy, Lawrence Guy, Derek Rivers, Geneo Grissom, Vincent Valentine

New England’s defensive line is also one of the more underrated groups in the NFL. The main critique is that the Patriots didn’t have a great pass rush. In a sense that’s true, there were times where opposing quarterbacks were given way too much time in the pocket, which automatically leaves a defensive backfield out to dry. However, most of that came because the Patriots would drop eight into coverage and only rush three, and none of New England’s pass rushers were elite. They still produced good sack numbers, finishing with 34, which was good for 16th best in the league. Trey Flowers continues to improve, and should be a disruptive force in the passing game this year. What makes this unit special though is their ability in the running game. The Patriots were a top-5 run defense in 2016, holding teams to less than 90 rushing yards per game. Alan Branch and Malcolm Brown dominated up front. While their stats might not show it, they were the main force behind this, taking on multiple offensive lineman to allow the Patriots’ linebackers to come up and make tackles. I can understand why they wouldn’t be “feared” by opposing teams, but this unit is certainly better than people give them credit for.

Quarterbacks: Tom Brady, Jimmy Garopollo, Jacoby Brissett

Now I understand why this isn’t a great comparison (Brooks didn’t include any quarterback units on his list). However I do think it deserves mention, at least when considering the best positional group on the team. First, you have the GOAT. Enough said. Then you have Jimmy Garoppolo. He is still not completely proven, but he looked fantastic in the preseason games and regular season games that he started last season. Jacoby Brissett has the intangibles to be a good quarterback in the league, and has more potential than many other backup (and some starting) quarterbacks in the league.

Special Teams: Matt Slater, Nate Ebner, Brandon King

Yes, I get it, special teams isn’t exactly a “positional group”, but I think it’s valuable to consider nonetheless, and these players deserve their due. They are some of the best special teams players in the league, and the Patriots defense owes them a lot, considering how many times these three players make quick tackles on punt and kick returns and pin an opposing offense. Nate Ebner was highlighted by Pro Football Focus for making 14 tackles last season and not missing a single one. These guys are the unsung heroes, and deserve to be recognized as one of the better groups on the Patriots.

Until next time- B$

Brian Cole

Brian Cole

Author ProfootballTalkLine.com at SportsTalkLine.com
Expert on all things Deflategate, and New England Patriots Writer for SportsTalkLine.com