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PFF projects the Patriots to have the NFL’s best record in 2017 with serious upgrade in the run game

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The Patriots have added the best possible replacements for LeGarrette Blount.

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Pro Football Focus is trying to predict the 2017 season and project the New England Patriots to tie with the Atlanta Falcons for the best record in the NFL at 12-4. The Pittsburgh Steelers and Oakland Raiders follow up with projected 11-5 records and five teams have 10-6 records. You can see their analysis for the AFC here and for the NFC here.

The Patriots are the favorite to win the Super Bowl because of how aggressively the team approached the offseason and how they’ve managed to avoid the typical post-Super Bowl exodus of talent.

“The defending Super Bowl champions will likely remain Super Bowl favorites until something doesn’t go their way,” PFF Analyst Nathan Jahnke writes. “Only 12 running backs had 70 or more carries in 2016 and averaged more than 3 yards after contact per attempt. New England signed two of them in Mike Gillislee and Rex Burkhead. Brandin Cooks upgrades the wide receiver group, and there was no better free agent cornerback option to replace Logan Ryan than Stephon Gilmore. Their defensive line depth isn’t as strong as it has been in past years, and father time will catch up to Tom Brady sometime. Until then, the Patriots are the team to beat.”

Earlier this week, we looked at how the Patriots rushing attack from 2014-16 was the franchise’s worst since 2005 and while some of that blame rests with the coaching staff’s negligence of investing in the offensive line, part of the blame lies in the talent at running back.

LeGarrette Blount led the league in rushing touchdowns in 2016, but he often left the Patriots in longer second-down situations, picking up 2 or fewer yards on roughly 50% of his first down carries (103 of 208 carries), ranking 20th out of 24 running backs with 100 or more first down carries.

Blount actually ranks 44th out of 65 running backs in yards gained per first down carry, compared to 11th by Mike Gillislee and 31st by Rex Burkhead.

And when you look at Blount’s touchdown rate, he scored 12 of his touchdowns on 24 attempts within 3 yards of the end zone, easily the highest number of carries in the league (Cardinals RB David Johnson ranked second with 17 carries). Perhaps the Patriots could use either Gillislee or Burkhead with greater consistency; Gillislee scored on all six of his carries inside the 3-yard-line.

As PFF’s Jahnke notes, both Gillislee and Burkhead rank in the top 12 of the league in generating yards after contact at greater than 3.0 yards after contact per attempt. That skill certainly helps when trying to score on the goal line. Blount averages a mediocre 2.48 yards after contact per attempt. The Patriots should be much better in short-yardage situations.

As for the other changes, the Patriots seemingly found quality replacements or upgrades for every player lost this offseason. Jahnke expresses some concern about the quality of the defensive line depth compared to previous years, which could be a valid criticism.

While I think the defensive interior depth with Alan Branch, Malcom Brown, Vincent Valentine, and Lawrence Guy is the best the Patriots have had since 2009-10 with Vince Wilfork and Ty Warren (remember that the Patriots defensive line was basically Wilfork and a bunch of undrafted JAGs for the longest time), the depth on the edge could be a concern early in the season.

Trey Flowers could be the team’s breakout star in 2017 (we said the same thing about Jabaal Sheard heading into 2016), but Rob Ninkovich is 33 years old and hasn’t been his typical dominant-versus-the-run self over the past two seasons.

Newcomer Kony Ealy projects to be a third-down pass rushing specialist due to his struggles versus the run (PFF ranks his pass rushing ability to Chris Long, but gives Ealy one of the worst run defense grades in the league). Derek Rivers and Deatrich Wise Jr. are both rookies and can’t be expected to play at a high level out of the gate.

So while the edge defenders could emerge down the final stretch, it’s more likely that this unit will go through a down period in 2017 before establishing itself in 2018, just in time for Flowers to enter a contract-year.

And who knows- maybe a player like Shea McClellin could step up and help. McClellin played strongside linebacker, but often stepped up at the line of scrimmage; PFF notes that McClellin was superior to Ninkovich in every facet of the game in his snaps on the edge.

The Patriots have to hope the depth at the other defensive positions can help cover for any potential weaknesses on the edge until the players start to emerge.