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Sunday NFL Thoughts: Core Patriots players, defensive disappointments, and AFC weakness

The Patriots have been let down by a lot of defensive players.

1. Former Ravens and Jets LB Bart Scott received some flack for listing the Patriots core players as QB Tom Brady, TE Rob Gronkowski, FS Devin McCourty, SS Patrick Chung, and ED Rob Ninkovich.

“If you’re not a part of that can be traded tomorrow,” Scott said on Inside the NFL. It’s easy to laugh at that listing, but based on contracts...isn’t that kind of true? Special teamers K Stephen Gostkowski, P Ryan Allen, and LB Jonathan Freeny are the only other players under contract with the Patriots through 2018 while on a second contract with the team.

And let’s be serious, who are the other players in that core that blend experience and long term security (ie: multiple multi-year contracts with the Patriots)? WR Julian Edelman and OT Nate Solder have been great long term starters, but Solder is a free agent after 2017 and Edelman is coming back from a serious foot injury. Those are the only other two I would even consider.

LB Dont’a Hightower and CB Malcolm Butler need extensions before they’re considered part of any “core”, and OT Marcus Cannon should be in that group, too.

2. Former Patriots FS Brandon Meriweather told 98.5 The Sports Hub about how the team never hid the fact that job security was a mirage for any player other than Brady.

“When you go to the Patriots, you know that you’re going to be there throughout your contract,” Meriweather said, “and it’s a possibility that you’ll get re-signed, but chances are, you won’t.”

The Patriots are absolutely willing to give top dollar contracts to players that deserve it, like to Brady and McCourty and Gronkowski and Gostkowski. But if you’re not in that upper echelon of players at your position, they won’t invest in your long term future with the team. If you’re in that middle class of player, then the Patriots will take another swing in the draft or free agency at acquiring a cheaper version.

This is why I don’t think CB Logan Ryan and S Duron Harmon will be with the team in 2017; they’re both players that can absolutely contribute on most NFL defenses, but they’re not good enough for the Patriots to give the market price to retain their services.

3. The Patriots entered this season with Hightower, Butler, LB Jamie Collins, and ED Jabaal Sheard as the top four priority signings. Collins is now with the Browns. Sheard is going to be a healthy scratch against the 49ers. This has been a major misstep by the Patriots front office.

Hightower and Butler are still in the long terms plans of the defense, but Chandler Jones was let go because the Patriots 1) needed cap to sign Collins and company; and 2) had Sheard waiting in the wings to take over. Sheard has not lived up to the expectations this year and Collins is no longer with the team. Jones is playing at an All Pro level for the Cardinals.

I’m sure Patriots fans (and those in the organization) most would take a Sheard + Collins for Jones trade right now. The Patriots drafted LG Joe Thuney with a pick acquired from the Cardinals. Maybe the team would have been better with OG Josh Kline, who was released during final cut downs, and Jones than with Sheard, Collins, Thuney, and WR Malcolm Mitchell.

4. Football Outsiders has the Patriots as the #5 ranked team in the NFL (Eagles, Seahawks, Cowboys, Falcons) and the #1 team in the AFC. The offense ranks #3, behind the Falcons and Cowboys and special teams ranks #8. The defense, however, ranks 18th and is roughly league average.

The defense has a lot to work through. Despite starting the season with “above average” expectations at every role, no positional group has lived up to expectations. Sheard, Ryan, and Chung have been disappointments at edge defender, cornerback, and safety, respectively, while Collins was a disappointment at linebacker.

I’d argue that only defensive tackle has exceeded expectations because DT Alan Branch has been exceptional and DT Woodrow Hamilton has been a nice surprise, even though DT Malcom Brown might not have taken a major step forward this year.

5. Continuing with Football Outsiders rankings, the Dolphins rank 6th in the NFL and the Bills rank 9th. The AFC East is considered the best division in the NFL, not the NFC East or the AFC West. The Jets ranks 31st, of course.

There are only five really good teams in the NFL, per Football Outsiders (Eagles, Seahawks, Cowboys, Falcons, Patriots), and six pretty good teams (Dolphins, Raiders, Washington, Bills, Broncos, Steelers). The best team in the AFC South is the 21st ranked Titans.

The AFC is still a weak conference and the Patriots have as good of a chance of representing the conference in the Super Bowl.