The New England Patriots finished the 2016 not only as Super Bowl champions but also as the number one scoring defense in the NFL. The unit achieved the top ranking by being stout against both the run and the pass, by playing opportunistic and with sound fundamentals. In short: The ranking is reflective of how good a group New England has on defense.
In 2017, the unit will return largely intact but there still has been some major turnover. Kony Ealy and Derek Rivers, for example, will now be part of the Patriots' defensive edge rotation alongside Trey Flowers and Rob Ninkovich. The biggest change, however, came in the defensive backfield where the team invested big by signing free agent cornerback Stephon Gilmore to a five-year, $65 million contract.
Given his talents and the deal he signed, Gilmore is projected to be one of the secondary's starting members alongside fellow corner Malcolm Butler and safeties Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung. And while it remains to be seen whether the group will be able to duplicate its 2016 success, it is regarded as one of the top secondaries in the league – at least according to Pro Football Focus.
The analytics website recently released an article titled “Ranking all 32 NFL teams' secondaries heading into the 2017 season” and only one group – the New York Giants' – was rated higher than the Patriots':
2. New England Patriots
Devin McCourty finished the 2016 tied with Denver’s Chris Harris Jr. for top coverage grade out of all cornerbacks and safeties at a 91.5. Malcolm Butler fielded an 88.5 coverage grade making the duo of McCourty and Butler the only pair of teammates to finish in the top eight in terms of coverage grade representing why both both PFF All-Pro selections. This season, the Patriots have also added Stephon Gilmore, who despite a down year last season, still saw just the 15th lowest passer rating when targeted at 70.6. CB Eric Rowe figures into the cornerback rotation as well, who finished last season with the sixth lowest passer rating when targeted (63.0). Solidifying the safety spot opposite McCourty, they re-signed safety Duron Harmon, who led all safeties in 2016 in both cover snaps per target (69.2) and cover snaps per reception allowed (86.5).
While the grades handed out by Pro Football Focus are based on the site's very own method of analysis, they still reflect how well New England's secondary has played last season and what its impact may be in 2017.
Butler and McCourty are obviously proven commodities on the team's defense and should again be among the better players at their respective positions. In the meantime, Rowe and Harmon offer quality depth at cornerback and centerfield safety, respectively. All four have shown this past season that they can be productive in a rotational role within New England's defense.
It is interesting, however, to see no mention at all of strong safety Patrick Chung. The veteran, after all, played a total of 95.4% of defensive snaps in 2016 and while he did not quite play at the same All-Pro-worthy levels as in 2014 and 2015 was still among the league's best strong safeties. Furthermore, he was a versatile and reliable member of New England's secondary as a strong safety/linebacker hybrid.
Unless Chung's 2016 season is part of a big-time regression, he should remain a core member of the Patriots' defense. The biggest question mark, therefore, appears to be Gilmore. A taller defensive back at 6'1, 190 lbs., the former Buffalo Bills first round draft pick should have an immediate impact on a secondary that will go up against some of the NFL's best passing attacks this upcoming season.
As noted above, he had a down year last season but was still able to allow just the 15th lowest passer rating in the NFL when targeted. If Gilmore can build on that in his new environment and as part of a superior team than the Bills, the 26-year old could turn out to be a massive steal for the Patriots – and help the team return to its championship levels this upcoming season.
Rounding out the top five of PFF's best secondaries are the Seattle Seahawks (#3), Denver Broncos (#4) and Atlanta Falcons (#5), whom the Patriots defeated in Super Bowl LI. The rest of New England's 2016 playoff opponents are ranked at #12 (Pittsburgh Steelers) and #13 (Houston Texans), respectively.
The Patriots' division rivals are ranked rather low: The Miami Dolphins came in at #15, while the Buffalo Bills (#26) and New York Jets (#28) both are seen as bottom-third secondaries in the league.