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Pro Football Focus: Patriots most improved in AFC East, still have need on defensive line

The Patriots are pulling away from the competition...again.

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The New England Patriots are the favorites in 2017 because they won Super Bowl LI and went out and improved their roster with a few splash signings and trades. A lot of attention has gone towards the acquisition of WR Brandin Cooks and signing of CB Stephon Gilmore, but I feel like the addition of TE Dwayne Allen deserves far more attention.

Pro Football Focus analyzed which team improved the most in each division and named the Patriots the class of the AFC East.

“This should terrify the rest of the NFL,” PFF Analyst Sam Monson writes. “The defending Super Bowl champions look significantly better on paper than they did a season ago. They lost starting CB Logan Ryan in free agency, and while many expected them to lose Malcolm Butler as well, they have retained his services as well as adding Stephon Gilmore from Buffalo, representing a significant upgrade over Ryan.

“Brandin Cooks came over in a trade from New Orleans, giving them a deep threat that had been absent from the team for a while and a player to whom targets last season yielded a passer rating of 119.2, better than any New England receiver.

“Their draft consisted of just four mid- to low-round picks, but they still managed to pick up some intriguing developmental prospects from that group.”

PFF considers Gilmore an improvement over Logan Ryan, despite giving Ryan a far greater grade in 2016 (83.5 versus 73.2), but when you look at the total addition of talent, there’s no question the 2017 team is better than the Super Bowl LI squad.

The Patriots lost Ryan, EDGE Jabaal Sheard, EDGE Chris Long, TE Martellus Bennett, and RB LeGarrette Blount, but added Gilmore, EDGE Kony Ealy, RB Rex Burkhead, RB Mike Gillislee, Cooks, and Allen, in addition to drafting EDGE Derek Rivers and EDGE Deatrich Wise Jr.

Factor in the growth of the young offensive linemen and the return of TE Rob Gronkowski, then the Patriots should be even better than before.

But that’s not to say that the Patriots are a perfect team. New England needs to find a replacement in the slot for Logan Ryan, and Pro Football Focus believes the defensive line still needs some help.

“The defending world champs unsurprisingly have very few holes on their roster, even after losing some key pieces on defense in CB Logan Ryan and Edge Jabaal Sheard,” PFF Analyst John Kosko writes. “Their biggest weakness a year ago was generating pressure from their interior defensive lineman as Alan Branch, Malcolm Brown, and Vincent Valentine all graded very poorly in pass-rushing despite being stout against the run.

“Bill Belichick re-signed Branch to a team-friendly two-year deal and signed Lawrence Guy from the Ravens in free agency, but Guy also graded poorly as a pass-rusher in 2016. It’s difficult to nitpick the moves Belichick makes, but it is odd that he didn’t address the lack of production at the position.”

So while the Patriots have the bodies in the secondary to possibly replace Ryan in Malcolm Butler, Patrick Chung, Cyrus Jones, or Justin Coleman, there isn’t a player on the team that can generate consistent pressure on the interior defensive line.

Of course, I don’t think the Patriots prioritize pressure up the middle. They prefer their defensive tackles to control the line of scrimmage and take away scramble lanes instead of hound the quarterback. I also wouldn’t be surprised if Trey Flowers or Deatrich Wise played more on the interior in 2017 to help generate some push.

The Patriots might have some needs pop up over the course of the summer due to injuries or lack of development by some prospects- or maybe a secret star will emerge. This summer should be a lot of fun to follow how the Patriots are preparing for 2017.