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Five Patriots crack the Pro Football Focus Top 101 of 2016

The Patriots return one of the strongest lineups in the NFL.

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Pro Football Focus (PFF) featured seven members of the New England Patriots in their top 101 of the 2015 season, and have five players returning for PFF’s Top 101 of 2016 series.

Just missing this latest list are Patriots edge defender Jabaal Sheard, who ranked 59th last season in PFF metrics, and safety Patrick Chung, who ranked 62nd. Cornerback Malcolm Butler, wide receiver Julian Edelman, and running back Dion Lewis did not make either list. Kicker Stephen Gostkowski deserves mention, too.

55. S Devin McCourty

McCourty has cornerback speed and change of direction skills that allows him to play tough assignments in quarters coverage or lined up deep against out-breaking routes, but he also patrols typical deep zones very well and makes it tough for opposing quarterbacks to fit passes in against him.

McCourty ranked 94th in PFF’s Top 101 of 2015, so the outlet is projecting a bigger season for the team’s marquee defensive back. Perhaps the addition of 2nd round rookie cornerback Cyrus Jones will allow McCourty to move to the backend of the secondary and force a few more turnovers, but McCourty remains a valuable and versatile cog in the secondary.

I’m surprised Patrick Chung didn’t make the list.

52. LB Dont’a Hightower

The Patriots use their inside linebackers on the blitz a lot, and Hightower has proven to have a talent for getting after the quarterback, notching 28 total pressures in 2015. In coverage, he has also allowed only one touchdown over the last two years.

Hightower always seems to exceed expectations because he seems to have the bar set relatively low on an annual basis. I think he’s a better and more consistent linebacker than Collins, but receives less praise since he’s clearly less athletic. Collins has more upside, but Hightower has been the whole package since day one.

31. LB Jamie Collins

Jamie Collins represents the new breed of athletic linebacker that can do it all for a defense. In each of the past two seasons, he has graded well in every area of play PFF measures, and his grades have been among the best at his position. He can defend the run, blitz, and cover with almost equal effectiveness and ability, and has the athleticism to match up with more than just big tight ends and running backs out of the backfield.

Collins is already one of the best linebackers in the league, but it’s clear that he’s still just scratching the surface of his potential. If he had Hightower’s consistency, he would be regarded as the best linebacker in the league. And it’s okay that he doesn’t have that consistency- he’s still learning the position.

After bouncing around from the secondary to the defensive line in college, Collins is finally able to focus on one position. I would expect his 2016 season to be one of the best in the league.

15. QB Tom Brady

Brady has been playing arguably the best football of his career, and there may be no quarterback with a greater mastery of his offense. Despite a disaster of an offensive line, Brady gets the ball out of his hands faster than almost any other passer (second-fastest average time to throw in 2015, behind only Andy Dalton), and consistently hits the right guy for quick, short gains.

Brady ranks as PFF’s #2 quarterback for 2016, behind Packers QB Aaron Rodgers. The Patriots don’t ask Brady to throw some of the more difficult passes like his contemporaries, but Brady and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels have concocted an offense that is low risk and highly productive- and no one does better than Brady.

2. TE Rob Gronkowski

Even the best receiving weapons at the position can only hope to match what Gronk can do, and none of them can come close to his blocking prowess, which would hold up in the smash-mouth football days of decades ago. Gronk is one of the league’s better blocking TEs at a time when that role has become almost a specialist position, allowing the Patriots to be truly diverse on offense and pose matchup problems simply by having an elite, prototype, traditional TE. Gronk is the league’s most unstoppable force on offense, and the second-best player in football.

Gronk comes in second place to Texans defensive lineman J.J. Watt. Not bad.

Not bad at all.

Check out the full list here. Is there anyone you think was snubbed?