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Patriots pass the Panthers, rank 1st in the ESPN 2016 NFL Power Rankings

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The Patriots have had a great offseason and people are taking notice.

Immediately after the 2015 NFL season, ESPN released their power rankings that had the Patriots in 2nd place, behind the 2015 runner up Carolina Panthers. The rankers credited the Patriots consistency with 12+ regular season wins in 7 straight seasons, the retention of both coordinators, and the return of Nate Solder to the offensive line. They even noted that the Patriots didn't have any key free agents to lose.

It's now after free agency and the draft and ESPN has another power ranking to read and this time the Patriots rank 1st.

"The top two teams have switched places since we did this in February, which tells you our voters are huge fans of either Josh Norman or Jimmy Garoppolo," ESPN writes. "Seriously, the Pats have averaged 12.5 wins a year for the past 13 years, so no one's going broke assuming they'll be good. But ... pass rush? Run game? The second circuit court? Has this New England offseason really been that great?"

It should be noted that ESPN released another ranking after free agency that had the Patriots in 1st place, so it's not like anything from the draft has shifted the rankings.

But ESPN's Dan Graziano, the man responsible for the commentary, seems to raise a few questions worth answering.

Pass Rush?

The Patriots lost Chandler Jones and interior rusher Dominique Easley, so there's no question that the team's pass rush will be different in 2016. The real question should be about the difference in quality.

Rob Ninkovich is another season older, but he's coming off his best season in three years thanks to the usage of a three-man rotation. Jabaal Sheard is a clear step up over Jones due to his consistency, while veteran Chris Long should thrive as a pure pass rush specialist.

While Easley was a tremendous asset on the interior and won't be replaced by any individual player, he was also frequently injured. Akiem Hicks served admirably as a pocket-pushing defensive tackle in lieu of Easley in 2015, and 3rd round pick Vincent Valentine and free agent Terrance Knighton will be asked to help in 2016.

So, yes, the pass rush is probably going to offer less upside than in 2015- but you should expect the unit to provide more consistency on a week-to-week basis.

Run Game?

The Patriots lost LeGarrette Blount and Dion Lewis to the injured reserve last season. Both should be ready to contribute in week 1. The Patriots didn't add a star free agent like Lamar Miller or Matt Forte, and they ignored the position in the draft, but the quality of player in the Patriots backfield will be the same as it was in the early part of 2015 when the team was tearing up the league.

Additionally, the return of offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia and left tackle Nate Solder, along with the increased experience for the entire interior line will only serve to make the running game better than in 2015. Just call it a natural progression.

The second circuit court?

This is a fair concern. The Patriots are currently not expected to field quarterback Tom Brady for the first four games of the season.

But from a power ranking standpoint, what does that matter? Evaluators are probably looking at the entire roster to determine which team is in the best place to win the Super Bowl. Brady ain't missing the entire season- he'll be around for the playoffs and that's what really matters.

Has this New England offseason really been that great?

Yes. Yes. A million times yes. The Patriots made the move of the offseason with the acquisition of tight end Martellus Bennett, they added high upside players in Chris Hogan and Clay Harbor, they bolstered the offensive line with coach Scarnecchia, along with guard Jonathan Cooper and rookie Joe Thuney, they signed defensive tackle Terrance Knighton to beef up the middle, they added veteran pass rusher Chris Long and versatile linebacker Shea McClellin, and the team's entire secondary is returning to the field with the addition of top draft pick Cyrus Jones.

The Patriots defensive line might appear weaker on paper, since the Ninkovich-Jones-Sheard trio is probably better than the older Ninkovich-Sheard-Long trio, and Hicks-Easley is probably more talented than Knighton-Valentine. But those decreases don't outweigh the improvements at every single position on offense. It doesn't outweigh the clear improvements at linebacker and in the secondary.

This 2016 Patriots team looks to provide superior top-of-the-line talent, along with better depth than the 2015 team. This is going to be a fun year.