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Barnwell: Patriots rank ahead of the Packers to have the 2nd best offensive trio in the NFL

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The Patriots have one of the best offenses in the NFL!

The month of random rankings is fully underway and ESPN’s Bill Barnwell decided to evaluate the top offensive trios in the NFL.

What is the method? Barnwell takes the quarterback of each team and the top two offensive skill players and compares them to their counterparts around the league. Barnwell gives himself some leeway to downgrade trios when it comes to injury risk- such as with the Chiefs and RB Jamaal Charles.

The New England Patriots feature highly in these rankings, with quarterback Tom Brady, wide receiver Julian Edelman, and tight end Rob Gronkowski coming in as the second best trio in the NFL.

Brady’s value is hurt by his current four-game suspension, while both Edelman and Gronkowski have injury risks associated with them. Edelman is returning from a serious foot injury and Gronkowski’s knees are often the target of opposing defensive backs.

"What's remarkable about New England's star trio, in one way, is how unwanted these players were,” Barnwell writes. “Brady famously was a sixth-round pick. Gronkowski was a second-rounder. Edelman was a seventh-rounder and a college quarterback; when he hit free agency for the first time in 2013, the Giants were the only team to even bring him in for a meeting, let alone make him an offer.”

Barnwell also credits the unstoppable nature of the Patriots offense, citing the final drive in the 2015 AFC Championship Game, where everyone knew Brady was going to Gronkowski, but even the vaunted Denver defense couldn’t stop them.

What team beats out the Patriots? The Packers trio of QB Aaron Rodgers and WR Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb come in third. The Broncos com in 19th, thanks to the low expectations for their projected starting quarterback Mark Sanchez.

The Pittsburgh Steelers top the list with QB Ben Roethlisberger, RB Le’Veon Bell, and WR Antonio Brown. Roethlisberger is a top five quarterback, although he’s an injury risk candidate. Bell is a top three running back and Brown is the top receiver in the league.

“While Gronkowski is better than the rest of the league's tight ends to a greater extent than Brown is better than the rest of the league's wideouts, a dominant wide receiver is more valuable than even a transcendent tight end,“ Barnwell said as he justified his rankings. “It's true that Edelman plays a position (wide receiver) that is far more valuable than Bell's (running back), but the other factor in comparing these two is that the ceiling for the Steelers is just a tiny bit higher. Edelman is a fantastically useful receiver, but there will never be a day when anybody without a Patriots tattoo says he's the best wide receiver in football over Brown or Julio Jones, if not three or four more guys. You can make a case, given his versatility and sheer impact as a receiver, that Bell was the best running back in football in 2014. Granted, that was a year mostly without Adrian Peterson, but a healthy Bell is near the top of the charts in a way that Edelman won't be.

“The chances of having the best running back and best wide receiver in football at the same time are enough to push the Steelers to the top of the offensive triplet charts.“

And I have some thoughts on this.

While I agree that Gronkowski’s value above the replacement level tight end is far greater than Brown’s value above the replacement level wide receiver, I don’t know if I agree with the idea that “a dominant wide receiver is more valuable than even a transcendent tight end.”

Not only is Gronkowski the best receiving tight end in the league, he’s also the best blocking tight end, which increases his value on rushing downs. He adds a level of multiplicity to the offense than a great wide receiver cannot.

This isn’t to say that I would rank the Patriots ahead of the Steelers. I just think that Brown and Gronkowski are a push. I would also say 12 games of Brady versus 14 games of Roethlisberger (based on his five year average) is a push as well.

The reason I agree with the rankings is that I think Bell is a better offensive weapon than Edelman. Both players are coming back from serious issues- Bell from a knee injury, Edelman from a foot- but Bell is a Marshall Faulk-like talent as both a convincing rushing an dangerous receiver.

A healthy Bell collected 2,215 yards from scrimmage in 2014, the 22nd best year in NFL history, on the back of 1,361 rushing yards and 854 receiving yards. Bell, as a running back, averaged 53.4 receiving yards per game. Edelman, in his past three years as a starter, has averaged a Gronk-approved 69.7 receiving yards per game, a lead of 16 yards per game.

Bell went on to add an additional 85.1 rushing yards per game.

I think Edelman is incredibly important to the Patriots offense, but New England is probably okay with giving the Steelers this title.

In 2014, Brown and Bell combined for 3,926 yards from scrimmage, or a wild 59.7% of the Pittsburgh offense. This past year, Bell accounted for 33% of the Steelers offense before his season-ending injury, while Brown was 29.4% of the Steelers offense.

Edelman sat out the final two games over 2014, while Gronkowski skipped the season finale. In the first 14 games of the season, the two combined for 40.3% of the Patriots offense. In the first nine games of 2015, prior to Edelman’s injury, the two combined for 40.4% of the offense. That’s consistency.

But Bell and Brown combine for roughly 50% more offense per game than the Patriots duo, and I have a hard time saying that Gronkowski’s blocking prowess makes up the difference.

Having the second best offense in the league is a good thing, when you factor in that the Patriots have one of the best young defenses in the league and 2nd youngest in the AFC. The Steelers had the oldest snap-weighted roster in the entire league last year, although the number should decrease in 2016 with Ladarius Green taking over for Health Miller at tight end, and Bell returning to the lineup for DeAngelo Williams.

Still, the sky is the limit for the Patriots next season. Don't be shocked if the Steelers are the main competition in the AFC.