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Sunday NFL thoughts: Patriots offensive line receives a less than stellar ranking

Some news and notes from the Patriots and around the league.

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NFL: New England Patriots at San Francisco 49ers Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

1. According to ESPN Insider’s Pro Football Focus rankings piece this week, heading into the 2017 season the AFC’s top roster belongs to the New England Patriots. And it’s certainly no surprise which player received the highest grade on the team in 2016.

After returning from suspension in Week 5, Tom Brady posted his best PFF grade since we started evaluating players a decade ago. His 99.3 grade was almost six points higher than any other quarterback last season, and he threw a total of three turnover-worthy passes in 12 regular-season games.

The quarterback who Brady bested by 5.8 points in 2016 was Atlanta’s Matt Ryan. Ryan and his teammates were not only ranked the NFC’s best roster heading into this season, but the NFL’s best.

2. This week PFF’s Mike Renner also ranked every NFL team’s projected starting offensive line. The Patriots’ line came in 19th, sandwiched between the Los Angeles Rams and New York Jets. Before lighting your torches and grabbing your pitchforks, read Renner’s explanation for the low ranking:

This ranking is purely a quirk of the system we used to compile it. Since they were compiled off two-year sample, players like right guard Shaq Mason and right tackle Marcus Cannon — who both drastically improved a season ago — get underrated. Realistically, this is the same line that finished last year ranked 10th and should only keep improving.

The final 2016 grades for the Patriots’ offensive, from left to right, were: 84.4, 71.8, 79.8, 84.0, and 89.4. Marcus Cannon’s turnaround was the major story last year for the team’s offensive line — so much so that it became easy to overlook the large second-year jump made by athletic right guard Shaq Mason. Being overlooked is nothing new for Mason. During the 2015 pre-draft process, the versatile Georgia Tech Yellowjacket was arguably the biggest NFL Scouting Combine snub.

The rankings for the rest of the AFC East:

  • Bills: 10th - A seemingly inflated ranking that hinges entirely on the production of rookie Dion Dawkins.
  • Jets: 20th - As Renner points out, this ranking presents the ceiling for this middle-of-the-road unit.
  • Dolphins: 26th - 2015 first-round pick Laremy Tunsil makes the move to left tackle in 2017 this underwhelming group.

3. For the second week in a row the Oakland Raiders, who project to be one of the Patriots’ top threats in 2017, announced a five-year extension for one of its young cornerstone players. Last week it was quarterback Derek Carr, who is now the NFL’s highest paid player at $25 million per year. This week it was right guard Gabe Jackson.

At a reported total of $56 million, the 2014 third-round pick out of Mississippi State becomes the third highest paid guard in football behind Kevin Zeitler and teammate Kelechi Osemele. Jackson, center Rodney Hudson, and left guard Osemele form an interior offensive line trio that is perhaps the NFL’s best. At $32.8 million average per year, it’s also the the league’s priciest.

4. Aside from Gabe Jackson himself, there was likely no player more excited to hear the news of the extension than Cowboys’ guard Zach Martin. Considered in many circles as a top five lineman in the league regardless of position, Martin became eligible to negotiate a contract in March. He figures to reset the benchmark for the guard position once his contract is extended.

In Foxborough, if the aforementioned Shaq Mason can put together another season like the one he put forth in 2016, he could become a major beneficiary of the explosion in the top of the guard market. He’ll already be receiving a raise in 2018 as he has already checked the necessary boxes to earn the Proven Performance Escalator — raising the value of his base salary to the level of a 2018 original-round restricted free agent tender — which projects to be just over $1.9 million.

The impression Mason has made on New England coaching staff has been no secret, as they have praised his skill set and work ethic publicly. He figures to be a prime candidate for an in-house extension next March.

5. A quick check-in on the Patriots’ current cap space number: $15,300,040. Some recent transactions:

  • Each of the Patriot’s four draft picks have been signed, taking up just over $600k in space.
  • Julian Edelman’s new three-year extension cost the team just $1,666,666 in 2017 cap space.
  • Unlike Rob Gronkowski’s new 2017 incentives, the additional $800k in new incentives for safety Patrick Chung will cost the team some 2017 cap space. Chung’s now $1.7 million incentive total for snap percentage tiers will be considered “likely to be earned” due to a 2016 season which saw the veteran play more than 97% of the team’s defensive snaps. If Chung fails to earn some or all of that incentive money, it will be credited to Patriots’ 2018 adjusted team cap. If Gronk hits some or all of his incentive tiers, the team’s 2018 adjusted cap will be reduced.
  • This cap space number does not yet include David Harris’ contract, as the finer details regarding its structure have yet to be released.

Follow Brian Phillips on Twitter - @BPhillips_PP