ESPN has asked a panel of six NFL experts- a mix of former players, reporters, scouts, and statheads- a very important question: which NFL team will have the best offense or defense in 2017.
On defense, the six panelists each gave two votes to the New York Giants, Seattle Seahawks, and Denver Broncos, which makes sense because they ranked second, third, and fourth in points allowed in 2016 and all ranked in the top five of DVOA.
I’m a little surprised the team that ranked first in points allowed wasn’t even mentioned in passing, especially because they improved their defense on every level, but I guess the New England Patriots will have to settle for being named the best offense in 2017.
Because five out of six panelists think the Patriots will have the best offense in the NFL.
Matt Bowen, former NFL safety: “The Patriots should create the most issues for opposing defenses this season with a healthy Rob Gronkowski and the addition of wide receiver Brandin Cooks in coordinator Josh McDaniels' offense. Cooks has the electric ability to produce explosive plays on high-percentage throws from Tom Brady.”
Dan Graziano, NFL Insider: “Offense has to be the Patriots after adding Cooks and bringing in a new crew of RBs that should make the running game much more dynamic. Assuming Brady plays all 16 games (which he didn't last year), you have to imagine New England stays on top.”
Mike Sando, ESPN reporter: “Green Bay will push New England after restoring the tight end position, but I agree that the Patriots should have the best offense with Cooks in the equation and Brady playing 16 games instead of 12.”
Aaron Schatz, founder of Football Outsiders: “Football Outsiders' projections have Pittsburgh as the best offense going into next season, but I don't think it will end up that way. The Steelers have the game's best receiver and best running back but almost no depth. New England is much better built to survive the inevitable injuries that strike every NFL team during the season.”
Field Yates, former NFL scout: “The Patriots were shut out in a game last year and played without Brady for a quarter of a season yet still finished third in scoring. Oh, and Gronk missed significant time because of injury too. Yeah, a healthy Gronk, the addition of Cooks and a multidimensional backfield fits the bill of a top offense.”
These five mention a range of reasons why the Patriots will end up on top. The return of Rob Gronkowski. A full season of Tom Brady. The acquisitions of WR Brandin Cooks and RB Mike Gillislee and RB Rex Burkhead. The depth of the roster.
There are a lot of reasons why the Patriots will be on top and only the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Green Bay Packers receive mentions.
There was one voice of dissent and it seems like it looks at the question a little differently than the others.
Kevin Seifert, ESPN reporter: “The Steelers have the NFL's best offense when quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, running back Le'Veon Bell and receiver Antonio Brown are on the field together. Injuries have derailed that assertion in the past.”
While Aaron Schatz notes that the Patriots have the best depth to overcome injuries, Seifert approaches the question as if the settings have been changed to “No Injuries”. And that’s fair- I wouldn’t be surprised if a few of the others that mentioned the Patriots also answered as if Rob Gronkowski were healthy the whole year.
But I don’t know if I agree with the statement that the Steelers have the best offense in the NFL when Ben, Bell, and Brown (and even Martavis Bryant) are on the field at the same time.
I would argue that both offensive lines are pretty similar, allowing us to examine the other skill players on both teams.
At quarterback, Tom Brady is no questions superior to Ben Roethlisberger. Big Ben is a great quarterback- one of the top five in the league- but Brady is on a separate level, especially with Roethlisberger questioning his own passion for the game.
At running back, Le’Veon Bell gets the easy edge over any of the Patriots running backs because he can do everything at an elite level without the need for a substitution. I would also argue that Bell’s clear edge over any of the individuals might matter less when looking at the Patriots rotation.
I’d argue James White is a more dangerous receiving back than Bell (and DVOA agrees), while Mike Gillislee and Rex Burkhead project to be strong runners (and both have superior rushing DVOA than Bell). This hypothetical isn’t factoring in injuries (where the Patriots have far superior depth), but the Patriots optimal offense would rotate White and Gillislee or Burkhead- and that reduces the Steelers edge out of the backfield.
At tight end, Rob Gronkowski is vastly superior to any of the Steelers tight ends. For that matter, Dwayne Allen is vastly superior to any of the Steelers tight ends. The Patriots edge over the Steelers at tight end is much greater than the Steelers edge over the Patriots at running back.
Wide receiver is a much more interesting discussion. Antonio Brown is clearly the best receiver on either team, but I would argue that Julian Edelman, Brandin Cooks, and Chris Hogan is on par with the trio of Brown, Martavis Bryant, and Eli Rogers. If Bryant misses any time- he has played 21 of a possible 48 career games- then the Patriots have a dominant edge in this category.
So even in a perfectly healthy world, I would take the Patriots offense over the Steelers’. Bell and Brown might be the best running back and receiver of either team, but Brady, Gronkowski, and the fourth and fifth options in the New England offense give New England the advantage.
And in the real world, injuries and suspensions play a major factor. Bell and Brown account for roughly half of the Steelers entire offense (51.8% in 2016, to be precise); any injury to either would derail their entire offense. For all the time this trio has been together, last year was the first time they were all healthy for the postseason and they exceeded 18 points in just one of their three playoff games.
To be fair to the Steelers, and also to reinforce the importance of depth and health, Bell injured his groin the AFC Championship Game and was not a factor. But that just supports the Patriots case as the superior offense, thanks to their vastly superior depth, which allowed the team to lose Gronkowski and still win Super Bowl LI.
On Thursday, the panel will look at another very specific topic: “The team that will be the Patriots' biggest challenger.”