Pro Football Focus (PFF) is passing the summer months with list after list of top players at various positions, conferences, planets, and states of matter. The latest two are ranking the top 10 offensive players and the top 10 defensive players in the AFC.
The Patriots join the Steelers and the Bengals as the only teams to feature three players across the two lists, while the Broncos and Texans both have two.
The Bills are the only AFC East team without a player on either list, as the Dolphins and Jets have defensive tackles Ndamukong Suh and Sheldon Richardson, respectively. The AFC South Colts, Jaguars, and Titans were the only other teams not to feature a player.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Patriots had linebacker Jamie Collins come in 8th place. I feel like the hype for Collins has grown tremendously this offseason, for some reason, as he has been regarded as the second best stand-up linebacker in the NFL behind the Panthers Luke Kuechly by numerous outlets.
“Jamie Collins is a jack-of-all-trades at the linebacker position,” PFF writes. “He doesn’t dominate in any one role like Luke Kuechly does in pass coverage and run defense, but he is very good at all facets of the game. Collins has the athleticism to cover TEs and HBs effectively, the explosiveness to rush the passer, and the size and strength to defend the run. The former Southern Mississippi linebacker is arguably the most versatile player in the NFL, and allows Bill Belichick to employ a defense that confuses opposing quarterbacks. With the only knock against Collins being his 34 missed tackles the past two seasons, the Patriot is the best linebacker in the AFC.”
Collins is a tantalizing player that can hopefully take another step forward in 2016. He’s going to receive a monster pay day, either from the Patriots or on the open market.
On the offensive side of the ball, quarterback Tom Brady comes in 6th place, behind a quartet of AFC North players- WR Antonio Brown, RB LeVeon Bell, OT Joe Thomas, OG Marshal Yanda- and some random tight end that we’ll talk about later.
“Brady looks like he is playing some of the best football of his career,” PFF writes, “and has been handed another talented TE in Marcellus Bennett this offseason. If the Patriots’ offensive line continues to be a sieve, Brady might not get the time he needs to open up the offense. The Patriots added former second-rounder Jonathan Cooper and third-rounder Joe Thuney in the mix to help the mess. Brady is cool under pressure (16 TDs, four INTs) and can morph into any style of offense that is needed to beat the opposing defense.”
We’ve touched upon how the Patriots have focused their attention on strengthening the interior line in 2016, and it’s possible that Brady could take this offense to a whole other level if the line play improves.
“The past two seasons,” PFF continues, “[Brady] hasn’t had a reliable deep threat, and utilized the talents of Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola underneath to average 8.3 yards per depth of target. In 2012 and 2013, Brady was almost a full yard deeper, at about 9.0 yards. The Patriot’s versatility as a passer and instincts makes him the best QB in the AFC.”
The poor offensive line play has forced Brady to get rid of the ball faster and faster, which means involving running backs more frequently into the passing attack. If the line improves, then perhaps players will have more time to get open down the field, which will only make the offense more potent.
If the line is stronger, the Patriots could actually see an even better year from PFF’s #1 offensive player in the AFC, tight end Rob Gronkowski.
PFF starts by comparing Gronk’s “dominance on offense” to “J.J. Watt’s dominance on defense,” which is a major compliment.
“Gronk leads all TEs in yards per route run over the past two years (2.41),” PFF writes, “with second place Jordan Reed at 2.24. With good hands (11 drops in the past two years), great blocking, and dominance before and after the catch, Gronk is the AFC’s best offensive player.”
Gronkowski is also regarded as one of the best blocking tight ends in the league, as he led the NFL in PFF’s run blocking grade in 2015. While Gronk’s run blocking hasn’t been at the same level as it was at the start of his career, PFF hints that Gronk might finally be fully healed from his torn ACL in 2013 as his run blocking improved over 2015 after a mediocre 2014 blocking season.
Having the best linebacker, best quarterback, and best tight end in the AFC is a pretty good spot for the Patriots if they wish to compete for yet another Super Bowl. I wouldn’t bet against them.