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ESPN thinks the Patriots best defensive trio ranks in the top 10

If it was a “best defensive quartet” the Patriots would lead the league.

The New England Patriots defense is so great because there are no superstars on the team. There’s no J.J. Watt or Patrick Peterson or Luke Kuechly, although some might put Jamie Collins and Dont’a Hightower in the tier below. But there are also no weak points.

So ESPN was ranking the top defensive trios in the NFL and the Patriots came in 10th place, which is pretty good, in my opinion- not just that they were in the top 10, but also because of the players not mentioned.

Bill Barnwell, who constructed the list, included linebackers Jamie Collins and Dont’a Hightower with safety Davin McCourty as the top trio on the Patriots defense.

“The Patriots run deep with talent even without Chandler Jones,” Barnwell argued. “You could throw out any of their triplets and replace them with cornerback Malcolm Butler, who took an enormous step forward while often covering No. 1 wideouts last year, or the stunningly versatile Rob Ninkovich, who took reps at inside linebacker in camp.”

And that’s not including edge defender Jabaal Sheard or fellow safety Patrick Chung- both of whom could be considered the top defender on the roster.

Honestly, I wouldn’t argue too strongly that the Patriots should be any higher than 10th place (although I’d put them ahead of the Lions) because the Patriots don’t have that true transcendent stud on defense. I was actually surprised they finished ahead of the Raiders and Eagles.

But my thought is that if this exercise expanded to the Best Defensive Quintet or Sextet, the Patriots would likely finish inside the top five. Add in Butler, Sheard, and Chung to Collins, Hightower, and McCourty, and you have all the pieces in place for a great defense.

“ The only real concern with these triplets is injury,” Barnwell noted. “They all missed time last season, with McCourty crucially derailed and then limited by a high ankle sprain late in the season as the Patriots failed to lock up the top seed in the AFC. When all three are healthy, the football field seems to shrink.”

If Collins, Hightower, and McCourty can remain healthy for 2016, I don’t see why the Patriots couldn’t feature a handful of First Team All Pros on the defensive side of the ball, to match tight end Rob Gronkowski and, hopefully, Tom Brady on the offensive side.