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Ranking the interior OL units the Patriots’ defense will face in 2017

Positional Rankings Series: The Patriots’ 2017 opponents — interior offensive linemen.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Philadelphia Eagles Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

In this series we’ll rank the positional groups for each of the thirteen teams on the Patriots’ 2017 regular season schedule. We’ll start at the core of the defensive front seven and work outward throughout the defense. Then we’ll do the same for the offense, ultimately finishing at the quarterback position.

Have you missed a position in this series? Catch up here:

Defense: Int. DL Edge DefendersLinebackersSafetiesCornerbacks

For the Patriots’ defense to repeat the success they experienced a year ago, it will start in the trenches. Alan Branch, Malcom Brown, Lawrence Guy, and Vincent Valentine will be called upon to execute gap assignments and generate penetration against some of the league’s best interior offensive linemen in 2017.

Here’s where each of those thirteen interior offensive line units rank.

1. Pittsburgh Steelers

This top ranked unit was finally allowed to gel together once again last season after five-time Pro Bowl and two-time First-Team All-Pro center Maurkice Pouncey missed all of 2015. Pouncey and decorated right guard David DeCastro garner much of the group’s notoriety, but solid eight-year veteran Ramon Foster put forth the highest graded season of the three in 2016 according to PFF.

2. Oakland Raiders

After the robust contract extension inked by Gabe Jackson a few weeks ago, Oakland’s talented interior trio now collectively carries a 2017 cap figure in the vicinity of $30 million. Given the 2016 performances of Jackson, left guard Kelechi Osemele, and center Rodney Hudson, it appears to be money well spent. The Raiders’ offensive linemen are tasked with protecting the NFL’s highest paid player — something they did better than any team in football last season according to the Adjusted Sack Rate metric on

3. Denver Broncos

The woes of Denver’s offensive line in 2016 certainly can’t be traced back to Matt Paradis. He was PFF’s top-graded center from a year ago. This season Paradis is joined by free agent acquisition Ronald Leary, a five-year staple on the dominant Dallas Cowboys offensive line. Max Garcia and Michael Schofield will presumably battle for the starting right guard position.

4. Carolina Panthers

It’s hard to believe that Ryan Khalil is already entering his eleventh season in the NFL. The recent explosion in the guard market certainly bodes well for the man to Khalil’s left — Andrew Norwell. A 2014 undrafted free agent from Ohio State, Norwell has steadily developed and improved into one of the better guards in football.

5. Atlanta Falcons

Last offseason’s addition of four-time Pro Bowl center Alex Mack to a loaded Atlanta offense, which had already logged a year of experience in Kyle Shanahan’s system, proved to be the spark on woodpile. Regardless of who replaces retired right guard Chris Chester, Mack and veteran left guard Andy Levitre should continue to anchor the interior for the NFC’s best offense.

6. Buffalo Bills

Guards Richie Incognito and John Miller were monsters in the running game in 2016. When 2015 Pro Bowl center Eric Wood went on IR after nine games, Ryan Groy filled in admirably enough that the Bills matched the Ram’s two-year, $5 million restricted free agent offer sheet this offseason.

7. Kansas Chiefs

Mitch Morse is no longer the well-kept secret he was prior to the 2016 season. The mobile center and right guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif (LDT), one of the many guards to receive a lucrative contract this offseason, provide the Chiefs with a young, dynamic interior tandem to grow alongside future starting quarterback Pat Mahomes.

8. New Orleans Saints

It’s not yet known if left guard Andrus Peat will slide over to left tackle (again) in the wake of Terron Armstead’s season-ending labrum tear. For the sake of this ranking, the presumption will be that thirty-second overall draft pick Ryan Ramczyk will fill the void. If that’s the case, then Peat will be allowed to finally settle into a consistent role for an entire season. Right guard Larry Warford was signed to a free agent contract this offseason to play alongside center Max Unger. Unger will miss most, if not all, of training camp following Lisfranc surgery.

9. Miami Dolphins

Guard Ted Larsen, a sixth-round pick for the Patriots in 2010 who was released during roster cuts in training camp, has carved out a solid NFL career for himself. After playing in over one hundred games (sixty-five starts) for Tampa, Arizona, and Chicago, Miami signed Larsen to a three-year, $5.65 million contract with $1.75 million guaranteed this offseason. He’ll presumably man the left guard spot with veteran Jermon Bushrod resuming his right guard role. Fifth-round rookie guard Isaac Asiata from Utah will look to make a slash in training camp as well. The key to this unit’s stability is, and has always been, directly tied to the health of center Mike Pouncey. According to Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald, the three-time Pro Bowler is expected to be ready for the start of the regular season after another hip injury cost him most of the 2016 season.

10. New York Jets

Interior offensive line is one of a select few positional groups which the Jets are not completely inept. Solid veteran starters James Carpenter and Brian Winters return to their guard positions in 2017. After replacing the injured Nick Mangold last year, mediocre third-year center Wesley Johnson will again fill the starting role.

11. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

This is a unit with a lot of unanswered questions heading into training camp. After signing a $32.5 million deal in Tampa last offseason only to miss all the entire 2016 season to injury, former Seattle guard J.R. Sweezy is finally healthy. However, which guard position he will play in 2017 is still unknown — as is the role of talented third-year guard Ali Marpet, who could move to center.

12. Los Angeles Chargers

Their position near the bottom of this list wasn’t earned, but merely the result of circumstance. Veteran center Matt Slauson will presumably be flanked by two starting rookie guards — each brimming with talent, ideal size, and potential. Western Kentucky Hilltopper Forrest Lamp and Indiana Hoosier Dan Freeny were drafted in the second and third rounds respectively, and give this unit more opportunity for upward ranking mobility than perhaps any positional unit in this series.

13. Houston Texans

2016 Second-round pick Nick Martin, who missed all of last year with an ankle injury, will battle Greg Mancz for the starting center spot. Mancz, who started all sixteen games last season, was the only player on the interior of the offensive line who appeared to have a pulse. Left guard Xavier Sua-Filo’s sophomore campaign provided further proof that he isn’t an NFL-caliber player. The loser of the starting center battle in training camp will likely fill one of the guard spots in 2017.

How would you rank these units?

Follow Brian Phillips on Twitter - @Bphillips_PP