ESPN's NFL position group rankings aren't kind to Patriots' defense


For all of the consternation about New England's offense -- Why are they installing a new system? Who's calling plays? -- the Patriots' success in 2022 may hinge on the other side of the ball.

The Patriots' defense failed them down the stretch in 2021, allowing 27 or more points in three of their final four regular-season games and surrendering 47 points in an AFC Wild Card Round loss to the Buffalo Bills, who scored a touchdown on all seven of their drives.

New England made some offseason changes on defense, acquiring the speedy Mack Wilson to replace aging linebackers Don'ta Hightower and Jamie Collins while drafting Marcus Jones and Jack Jones to infuse the cornerback group with youth and athleticism.

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But were those changes enough?

ESPN published its position group rankings Friday, comparing every team's skill level at each major position. Here's where the Patriots rank among 32 NFL teams at each position. 

  • Quarterback: 14th
  • Running back: 12th
  • Wide receiver: 24th
  • Tight end: 5th
  • Offensive line: 9th
  • Interior defensive line: 18th
  • Edge rushers: 29th
  • Off-ball linebackers: 28th
  • Cornerbacks: 19th
  • Safeties: 6th
  • Overall: 21st

Notice a theme there?

Aside from wide receiver, the Patriots received pretty solid rankings across the board on offense; Mac Jones helped the QB room check in at 14th, while Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith headline the fifth-best tight end group in the league, per ESPN's rankings.

But defense is a different story, with four of its five groups in the bottom half of the NFL and two (edge rushers and off-ball linebackers) in the bottom five. The one outlier is safety, where Devin McCourty, Adrian Phillips and Kyle Dugger lead a versatile, experienced group.

These rankings aren't necessarily a predictor of success, as Bill Belichick's clubs have found plenty of success in the past despite a perceived lack of "top talent." The Patriots' defense also flashed promise in joint practices against the Carolina Panthers, with top cornerback Jalen Mills having a particularly strong week.

But these rankings also serve as a reminder that defense remains a concern for New England entering 2022, and that no matter how well Mac Jones fares in Year 2, the Patriots will need their defense to get stops to have a shot at contending.

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