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Positional Rankings Series: The Patriots’ 2017 opponents — Edge Defenders

The Patriots face a pass-rushing powerhouse of perennial Pro Bowlers in 2017.

NFL: San Diego Chargers at Denver Broncos Isaiah J. Downing-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.

To say that veteran tackles Nate Solder and Marcus Cannon have their hands full in 2017 would be a severe understatement. Here are the edge units the Patriots will face in the 2017 regular season.

1. Houston Texans

The Texans get the nod in what might prove to be the closest call at the top of any position group in this series. Whitney Mercilus is arguably the league’s most underrated defender, and Jadeveon Clowney enters his fourth year after having found his stride in 2016. The duo finished last season with the seventh and ninth highest PFF grades respectively at the position. With J.J. Watt destroying double teams on the interior, and Mercilus attacking from the other side, a healthy and more experienced Clowney is a sexy dark horse pick for the Defensive Player of the Year Award in 2017.

2. Los Angeles Chargers

The Chargers locked up one half of their pass-rushing tandem this offseason with Melvin Ingram’s four-year, $64 million extension which included a fully guaranteed $34 million. The former South Carolina Gamecock and second-year star Joey Bosa were PFF’s highest graded duo in 2016, ranking sixth and fifth respectively.

3. Kansas City Chiefs

Justin Houston reportedly feels “great” as more time has passed since a 2015 ACL injury that limited him to just five games a year ago. A return to the kind of health he experienced in 2014 could prove devastating for contenders in the AFC West. He started every game that season and tallied an AFC record twenty-two sacks. Dee Ford’s emergence in 2016 along with Tamba Hali’s continued production makes this one of the NFL’s elite units.

4. Denver Broncos

Von Miller’s prolific pass-rushing repertoire often overshadows his elite ability to stop the run. He is truly the complete package on the edge, and arguably the league’s most talented defender at any position. Former Broncos practice squad member Shaquil Barrett will battle Shane Ray for snaps opposite Miller.

5. Oakland Raiders

There’s no reason to believe that Khalil Mack, the reigning DPOY, won’t pick up right where he left off in 2016. Heading into his second year with the Raiders, Bruce Irvin looks to build on his seven sacks and six forced fumbles from season ago.

6. Miami Dolphins

At the age of thirty-five, Cameron Wake is still not showing signs of slowing down. Miami brought in nine-year veteran and former Ram William Hayes, who was equally capable against the run and in rushing the quarterback last season. There are two factors holding this unit’s ranking back. The first is age. The second is that William Hayes sincerely believes that dinosaurs never existed.

7. Atlanta Falcons

After assigning an over-hyped Grady Jarrett-led interior defensive line unit a ranking of sixth in Thursday’s piece, some are certain to be surprised to see Atlanta’s edge group ranked even lower. Vic Beasley’s 15.5 sacks in 2016, tops in the NFL, helped mask his deficiencies against the run. Fiery rookie Takkarist McKinley is the true wild card for this unit.

8. New Orleans Saints

Cameron Jordan, not Devin McCourty, was the biggest snub of NFL Network’s ridiculous Top 100 Players list. PFF’s third highest graded edge defender last season, Jordan hasn’t missed a game in his six NFL seasons. Unfortunately, Jordan can only lift this depleted unit so far by himself. But help could be on the way. A lot of eyes will be on Trey Hendrickson, the team’s third-round pick from Florida Atlantic.

9. Carolina Panthers

There is something to be said for experience — and boy does this unit have that in droves. Veterans Charles Johnson and Mario Addison were resigned this offseason, and native North Carolinian Julius Peppers looks to cap off a Hall of Fame career back where it all started in Charlotte.

10. Buffalo Bills

Go ahead and believe in Lorezno Alexander if you want to, but the nine-year veteran’s “break out” season in 2016 was completely overblown, as many of his sacks were mere technicalities and clean-ups. Jerry Hughes tallied twenty sacks between the 2013 and 2014 seasons, but in the two season since the ink dried on his five-year, $45 million deal in March of 2015 he’s notched just eleven. A large second-year leap for Shaq Lawson could also do wonders for this group.

11. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Robert Ayers is a serviceable strong-side defensive end, but he just isn’t getting enough help. William Gholston somehow earned a lofty extension this offseason to keep him in town for the foreseeable future. Like the Bills, Tampa will depend on a significant jump in sophomore-season production from an early-round second-year player — Noah Spence.

12. Pittsburgh Steelers

The selection of T.J. Watt likely spells trouble for Bud Dupree, who, in the mold of Jarvis Jones, mostly underwhelmed over the past two seasons.

Also, how long can James Harrison do this?

13. New York Jets

Mentioned briefly in Thursday’s introductory piece in this series, Muhammad Wilkerson spends a majority of his snaps anchoring the interior alongside Leonard Williams in the Jets’ 3-4 scheme. That leaves Sheldon Richardson as the main man in the edge group, although his role is very similar to Wilkerson’s. A name synonymous with trade rumors over the past two seasons, Richardson still shows flashes of brilliance on occasion. 2016 third-round pick and former Georgia Bulldog Jordan Jenkins will need to improve against the run in 2017 to stick in the Jets’ plans for the future

How would you rank these units?

Follow Brian Phillips on Twitter - @Bphillips_PP