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Sunday NFL Thoughts: Steelers played weak opposing quarterbacks, too; Patriots 2017 free agent priorities

Who should the Patriots sign this offseason?

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1. The New England Patriots and the Pittsburgh Steelers have not lost since week 10 of the NFL season (November 13th). The Patriots lost 31-24 to the Seattle Seahawks and QB Russell Wilson; the Steelers lost 35-30 to the Dallas Cowboys and QB Dak Prescott. Since week 11, the Patriots and Steelers are a combined 17-0.

Detractors of the Patriots enjoy pointing out the weak slate of opposing quarterbacks during their win streak: 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick, Jets QB Ryan Fitzpatrick (x2), Rams QB Jared Goff, Ravens QB Joe Flacco, Broncos QB Trevor Siemian, Dolphins QB Matt Moore, and Texans QB Brock Osweiler. Of the 40 quarterbacks with 100+ attempts in 2016, Moore has the best passer rating (104.0; 5th), with Kaepernick in second (90.7; 19th). All others are below average.

What isn’t discussed as much is the Steelers easy schedule. They faced the Browns twice during their winning streak and three different Cleveland quarterbacks played heavy snaps due to injuries (Cody Kessler, Josh McCown, Robert Griffin III). They also faced the Colts without QB Andrew Luck (Scott Tolzien played); Giants QB Eli Manning (same passer rating as Siemian); Bills QB Tyrod Taylor; Bengals QB Andy Dalton; Flacco; Moore; and Chiefs QB Alex Smith.

Like the Patriots, Moore has the best passer rating of the Steelers opposing quarterbacks. Their next best opponents were Kessler (92.3; 17th), Dalton (91.8; 18th) without WR A.J. Green, Smith (89.8; 20th), and Taylor (89.7; 21st), whom you’ll notice sandwich Kaepernick in the ratings.

So while the Patriots benefit from facing weak opposing quarterbacks during their win streak, so have the Steelers. If detractors of the Patriots defense say that New England hasn’t faced a good quarterback since Wilson, then neither have the Steelers.

2. And if you want to look at advanced stats like Football Outsiders’ DVOA, feel free. Smith (10th) and Dalton (13th, but was sans Green) rank as above average. All other opponents ranked in the bottom third of the league.

This isn’t to say that the Steelers defense isn’t good; they’re absolutely above average. It’s just that the same argument against the Patriots defense deserves to be used against Pittsburgh.

Here’s another way to compare the two defenses: the Steelers faced teams that averaged 21.3 points per game (PPG) during their win streak, and allowed 15.4 PPG. That’s a differential of 5.9 fewer points than average.

The Patriots faced teams that averaged 18.8 PPG, which is almost a field goal worse per game than the Steelers faced. But the Patriots allowed just 12.9 points per game, which is also a differential of 5.9 fewer points than average.

The Patriots and Steelers both faced terrible quarterbacks during their win streaks. Both did excellent jobs of stopping them and making them look worse than they normally would. That’s the mark of a good defense.

3. Pro Football Focus has released a list of their grades for 2017 free agents and the Patriots have quite a few that score well. I’ll list the player and their rank among other free agents at their position, and give a name or two that could interest the Patriots.

Running back: LeGarrette Blount (69.1; 11th). Blount is a one-dimensional runner that gets the job done. The Patriots will likely ask the 250-pound Blount to return, but if he doesn’t, then maybe the Patriots would be interested in signing Packers RB Eddie Lacy (77.3; 2nd), who comes in at a svelte 230 pounds (only if you believe that Vince Wilfork only weighs 325 pounds).

Fullback: James Develin (87.1; 2nd). The Patriots should sign Develin to a multi-year deal.

Tight end: Martellus Bennett (82.7; 1st), Greg Scruggs (60.5; 17th). Bennett is the top tight end on the market and the Patriots should really try to bring him back. They won’t find a better veteran.

Wide receiver: Michael Floyd (63.1; 32nd). Floyd could be a healthy scratch today with Malcolm Mitchell expected to return, and there are a few free agents that could interest the Patriots. Browns WR Terrelle Pryor (78.6) will probably be out of the Patriots price range, but if New England parts with Danny Amendola, then 49ers WR Jeremy Kerley (74.7) should be at the top of their wish list in the slot. Bills WR Robert Woods (73.2) could be another Brandon LaFell-like option who could produce in the Patriots offense.

Offensive tackle: Cameron Fleming (RFA; 71.9; 5th). How smart does that Marcus Cannon extension look now? Fleming’s ranking just shows how weak this tackle class will be- and the Patriots should lock in Fleming for another year or two.

Edge defender: Jabaal Sheard (79.1; 10th), Chris Long (71.9; 19th). Chandler Jones (87.4) ranks second, while Jamie Collins (77.8) ranks 13th after the Browns changed his position. Sheard’s value on the market is something to monitor, but Texans ED John Simon (78.3) is totally a Patriots-type signing due to his tweener/back-up role in Houston. Long could return on a veteran-minimum type deal.

Defensive line: Alan Branch (78.0; 8th). Branch ranks one place below former Patriots 1st round DL Dominique Easley, who has established himself as a rotational player with the Rams. Branch should return next season, but Jaguars DL Abry Jones (81.5) deserves a lot of attention and will probably become a household name in the next year or two.

Linebacker: Dont’a Hightower (85.1; 1st), Barkevious Mingo (59.1; 23rd). Hightower is a must-sign, but Mingo probably won’t be back except as a special teams player. Despite the growth of Kyle Van Noy, Elandon Roberts, and Shea McClellin, linebacker is a dark horse position for the Patriots to address in the first round.

Cornerback: Malcolm Butler (RFA; 90.8; 2nd), Logan Ryan (81.9; 6th). Ryan actually ranks right below former Patriots 2nd round CB Darius Butler, who is one quality player that escaped the Patriots. New England should try to bring back Butler and Ryan, but they have youngsters Eric Rowe and Cyrus Jones expected to take expanded roles in 2017.

Safety: Duron Harmon (78.5; 11th). What are the odds that Harmon stays with the Patriots as a #3 safety? Are the odds better than we think? The Patriots would love for Jordan Richards to emerge as a key defender, but it’s pretty apparent that he’s extremely far away from the defensive line-up. Don’t be shocked if the Patriots go linebacker-safety 1-2 in the upcoming draft.

4. If you have a moment, check out Belichick Quotes of the Year Awards from Sports on Earth’s Kenneth Arthur. As Arthur notes, Belichick has three different types of quotes: 1) an auditory slap in the face of the reporter; 2) a total robot response; 3) an amazing, thoughtful or hilarious answer.

Arthur went through Belichick’s press conferences this season to select the best Belichick quotes of 2016. Enjoy.

5. The preview for Four Days in Fall is available for those interesting in the DeflateGate saga.