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Pro Football Focus’ ranking of defensive front 7s makes me realize how many good players exist on bad teams

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The Patriots rank 12th and that’s not an insult.

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Pro Football Focus is passing the quiet time of the offseason by releasing their “Top X of 2017” lists and their latest covers the best defensive front sevens in the NFL. Looking at a team’s “defensive front seven” is more of a mental exercise as the vast majority of teams spend their time in the nickel defense (five defensive backs) with just six standard defensive front seven players.

The New England Patriots rank 12th in the list and that seems fair, if not a little generous, for the unit.

“Retaining Dont’a Hightower huge for this unit, but the recent free agent signing of David Harris is a sneaky nice add, bringing leadership and depth at a position where Hightower has played all 16 games in a season just once in his five-year career,” PFF writes. “They have solid depth on the interior in Alan Branch, Malcom Brown and Lawrence Guy. While Trey Flowers is a future star who’s talent was on display in the Super Bowl with three sacks and two QB hits, wherever the rest of the pass-rush will come from is a question mark as edge rush remains a weakness on paper.”

Hightower is the best player in the Patriots defensive front seven, while Branch and Brown form one of the best run-stuffing defensive tackle tandems in the league and Trey Flowers offers a lot of promise on the edge.

But if we’re being realistic, the Patriots are hoping that one of David Harris, Kyle Van Noy, and Elandon Roberts steps up into a full time player next to Hightower so the team can avoid the rotation they featured in 2016. The Patriots also don’t ask their defensive tackles to generate any pressure up the middle, and the edge defenders are all potential across from Flowers.

Pro Football Focus (PFF) is correct in evaluating the New England edge defenders- they’re a major question mark as Rob Ninkovich plays out the twilight of his career and the team doesn’t know what to expect from new acquisitions Kony Ealy, Derek Rivers, and Deatrich Wise.

The Patriots defensive front seven isn’t bad by any measure, but it’s certainly down the list of the team’s strengths. That’s what makes the Patriots 12th-place ranking even more interesting.

PFF lists the usual suspects of the Houston Texans and Seattle Seahawks as having the best defensive fronts in the league and there’s little debate about their standing. But the Patriots come in ahead of the New York Giants (13th) with NT Damon Harrison, EDGE Olivier Vernon, and EDGE Jason Pierre-Paul, all of whom could be the best player on the Patriots defensive front seven.

The Patriots also rank ahead of the Jacksonville Jaguars (14th) with All World defensive tackle duo Malik Jackson and Calais Campbell. Both of these players would also be the best players in the Patriots defensive front.

I feel like this just shows the talent that exists in the defensive fronts of teams around the league- the Dolphins and Jets rank 17th and 18th and Ndamukong Suh and Leonard Williams are two of the best interior players on the planet- and how individual stars can’t save a defense.

But I also think there isn’t much a difference from teams ranked 10th (Pittsburgh Steelers) through 23rd (Cincinnati Bengals). Most of these teams have two or three star players and a bunch of fairly interchangeable talents making up their defensive fronts. It’s just a matter of whether the ranker prefers a player like Bengals DT Geno Atkins or Patriots LB Dont’a Hightower.

The top nine defensive fronts are just so unique in their ability to have three or four stars, or just ridiculous depth at the edge (Denver Broncos), on the interior (Los Angeles Rams), or at linebacker (Houston Texans).

The Patriots are hoping to see some development out of the youth on their defensive front seven players and there’s a chance the team could leap into the top tier if someone like Flowers or Rivers or Brown emerges as a consistently dominant force in 2017. But for now, there’s Hightower in the heart of the Patriots defense, an elite run defense, and a bunch of potential against the pass.