2007 Patriots versus 2017 Patriots: Front seven
The similarities are obvious.
Both teams loaded up in the offseason, willingly parting ways with draft picks to bring aboard more experienced talent. Both teams went into their respective seasons with an embarrassment of riches offensively. Both teams assembled defenses that combined savvy veteran leadership and younger athletes in their physical primes.
Despite having nothing but a few spring workouts under its belt, the current iteration of the Patriots roster has already drawn comparisons to its 2007 counterpart -- the one that went 18-0 before losing to the Giants in Super Bowl XLII.
Sports books have Bill Belichick's club favored to win each of its 16 regular-season games. Tom Brady is considered the early front-runner for MVP, an award he first won a decade ago. Here at CSN, we've wondered if the NFL has a "Patriots problem" because of what looks like a widening gap between them and their competition.
Perhaps in light of some of the hype they've received, Patriots coaches seemed to do what they could during OTAs last month to keep players humble. They called it a "teaching camp," as they always do, but substitution infractions meant laps. Matt Patricia blew a gasket or two. And during one press conference, Belichick took a moment to remind anyone listening exactly how much this year's group had accomplished.
"We’ve had enough parades, enough celebrations and enough everything," he said. "This ’17 team hasn’t done anything yet. None of us have."
Yet here we are, with the entire league off for the summer and little in the way of events to cover, so why not compare one team that hasn't done anything to another that's considered one of the best of all time? The similarities are there. We've got the time. And it might spark some debate to keep us occupied until camp begins.
-- We'll pit Patriots players from 2017 and 2007 against one another and answer the question, "Who is the better player?" We're not judging them based on what they were capable of in their primes. We're not stacking one player's career against another's. It's just Player X in 2017 versus Player Y in 2007.
-- Players will be matched up as logically as possible based on position, but roles won't sync up perfectly . . . particularly in the front-seven. We've chosen to include the players who saw the most playing time in 2007, per Pro Football Focus, and lined them up against players on this year's roster that we believe are in line to see the most work. We realize that by the end of the 2017 season some of the names included here could look ridiculous. So be it.
-- Several Patriots beat reporters from 2007, including our own Tom E. Curran (then with nbcsports.com) and Mike Giardi (then with NECN), have been polled for their opinions, but I'll make the final call for each. Let me know if you disagree. I know you will. But obviously feel free to clog Tom and Mike's notifications as well. They'll be happy to hear from you.
Keep an eye on our @CSNNE Twitter account for polls corresponding with these matchups so that you can make your voice heard that way as well.
Patriots '07 vs '17: Breaking down the front 7 group
ADALIUS THOMAS VS. DONT'A HIGHTOWER
ADALIUS THOMAS: 30 years old in 2007, 6-foot-2, 270 pounds
Numbers to know from 2007 (including postseason): 88 tackles, 8.5 sacks, 3 forced fumbles, 1 interception, 8 passes defended, 7 quarterback hits, 25 quarterback hurries, per Pro Football Focus.
DONT'A HIGHTOWER: 27 years old in 2017, 6-foot-3, 265 pounds
Numbers to know from 2016 (including postseason): 78 tackles, 3.5 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, 0 interceptions, 2 passes defended, 8 quarterback hits, 16 quarterback hurries, per Pro Football Focus.
THE DECIDING FACTOR: During an offseason in which the Patriots peppered the transaction wire with big-name acquisitions, re-signing Dont'a Hightower to remain their captain in the middle of Bill Belichick's defense may have been the team's most important move. His ability to make calls, get the front organized, relay information to the secondary . . . and still serve as one of the most versatile linebackers in the game? That's a talent unto itself. Adalius Thomas was no slouch, of course. He was one of the best defenders on the Patriots in 2007, saving his best game for Super Bowl XLII. When he was signed before the season, he came from Baltimore with a Pro Bowl pedigree and a reputation as Rex Ryan's Swiss Army Knife. He could play inside, outside -- even in the secondary. (He played inside in 2007 until Rosevelt Colvin went down injured, shifting Thomas to the outside.) He could contribute on special teams. He looked like the type of defender Belichick might cook up in a lab if he had the opportunity, explaining why Thomas was given what was at the time a whopping five-year $35 million contract. We can't hold Thomas' injury-riddled 2008 and his tumultuous 2009 impact our decision here since this is a 2017 versus 2007 comparison. And if we were going purely off of numbers, Thomas would win in a walk. But a quick look at the numbers doesn't factor in scheme or game-to-game conditions. In 2007, teams had to throw to beat the Patriots. There were opportunities to rush the passer. In 2016, it was similar, but opposing offenses didn't feel like they had to hang 40 to have a chance. Hightower -- an excellent run defender and one of the most efficient pass-rushers in football -- is in many ways the lynchpin for one of the best defenses in the league. He does things that Thomas didn't have to a decade ago. What's interesting is that in 2017, Hightower may have the chance to be freed-up in some ways if newly-acquired linebacker David Harris can absorb some of the communication responsibilities that Hightower has handled recently. If that's the case, it would come as no surprise to see Hightower record the type of numbers Thomas did in 2007. Hightower a unanimous choice in this matchup among 2007 beat reporters polled.
THE CHOICE: Hightower
MIKE VRABEL VS. ROB NINKOVICH
MIKE VRABEL: 31 years old in 2007, 6-foot-4, 261 pounds
Numbers to know from 2007 (including postseason): 80 tackles, 12.5 sacks, 4 forced fumbles, 0 interceptions, 1 pass defended, 10 quarterback hits, 27 quarterback hurries, per Pro Football Focus.
ROB NINKOVICH: 33 years old in 2017, 6-foot-2, 260 pounds
Numbers to know from 2016 (including postseason): 38 tackles, 5.0 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, 0 interceptions, 3 passes defended, 3 quarterback hits, 18 quarterback hurries, per Pro Football Focus.
THE DECIDING FACTOR: Two veteran leaders in the locker room. Two hybrid defenders who can play on the edge as well as off the ball. Two guys who happen to like the No. 50. There are plenty of similarities to be dissected between Rob Ninkovich and Mike Vrabel, but for the purposes of this exercise, the difference between the two is relatively clear. For as dependable as Ninkovich has been in a Patriots uniform, for as much stability he provides to this year's young group of pass-rushers in New England, Vrabel's game had reached its peak in 2007. He was a Pro Bowler and an All-Pro. It was his most productive season in an eight-year career with the Patriots that will eventually land him in the team's hall of fame. In Ninkovich, the Patriots have a known commodity as an edge-setter and pass-rusher. But in Vrabel, the Patriots had one of their best players and one of the best linebackers in the league.
THE CHOICE: Vrabel
JUNIOR SEAU VS. DAVID HARRIS
JUNIOR SEAU: 38 years old in 2007, 6-foot-3, 250 pounds
Numbers to know from 2007 (including postseason): 74 tackles, 4.5 sacks, 0 forced fumbles, 3 interceptions, 4 passes defended, 1 quarterback hit, 12 quarterback hurries, per Pro Football Focus.
DAVID HARRIS: 33 years old in 2017, 6-foot-2, 250 pounds
Numbers to know from 2016: 94 tackles, 0.5 sacks, 0 forced fumbles, 0 interceptions, 2 passes defended, 1 quarterback hit, 11 quarterback hurries, per Pro Football Focus.
THE DECIDING FACTOR: Almost ten years after it happened with Junior Seau, the Patriots again signed another accomplished 30-something linebacker to strengthen their defense. The difference between Seau and David Harris? In 2007, the Patriots 3-4 scheme had Tedy Bruschi (who was injured at the time of Seau's signing but was back for Week 1), Mike Vrabel, Adalius Thomas and Rosevelt Colvin in place. Seau could be a complementary piece. This year? The Patriots have less in terms of established veteran linebacker talent. After Dont'a Hightower, it's unclear how the picture will shake out at the second level, and a significant role may be waiting for Harris. That's not to say Seau was a niche player in 2007. Only Vrabel, Thomas and Ty Warren played more snaps in the front seven that year. And despite being in his late 30s, the passionate Seau still had a knack for making plays. Still, after a flurry of offseason moves, Harris could turn out to be exactly what the Patriots defense needs. He may not move as well as Seau did in 2007, but if he can pick up the system, communicate well and play the run -- and his career with the Jets would indicate that he will -- that would be enough to carry tremendous value in Foxboro. When asked, all but one 2007 beat reporter picked Harris over Seau.
THE CHOICE: Harris
TEDY BRUSCHI VS. ELANDON ROBERTS
TEDY BRUSCHI: 34 years old in 2007, 6-foot-1, 247 pounds
Numbers to know from 2007 (including postseason): 92 tackles, 0 sacks, 0 forced fumbles, 0 interceptions, 1 pass defended, 2 quarterback hits, 1 quarterback hurries, per Pro Football Focus.
ELANDON ROBERTS: 23 years old in 2017, 6-feet, 235 pounds
Numbers to know from 2016: 45 tackles, 0 sacks, 1 forced fumble, 0 interceptions, 0 passes defended, 2 quarterback hits, 1 quarterback hurry, per Pro Football Focus.
THE DECIDING FACTOR: This is one of the more entertaining matchups to toss out there in some ways because the players are so different. One is entering his second season and could be primed to make a significant leap after a full offseason with the team. The other was in his second-to-last season, in his mid-30s, and he came into the year recovering from a wrist injury. Tedy Bruschi ended up playing in every game that year, but he was far from his physical prime and relied on his football IQ and instincts to play the nearly 700 snaps he saw that season. Elandon Roberts, on the other hand, looked like a physical specimen at times in 2016. He ran over talented linemen like Cleveland's Joe Thomas and Buffalo's Eric Wood en route to some eye-popping plays in the run game. Will those plays come more consistently in 2017? Will Roberts have a better idea of how to play in coverage in his sophomore campaign? I'd expect the answer to both of those questions to be firm "yes," yet he can't take this spot from Bruschi, whose contributions in 2007 were key if not always on the field. Bruschi was the unanimous victor when 2007 beat reporters were polled.
THE CHOICE: Bruschi
ROSEVELT COLVIN VS. KYLE VAN NOY
ROSEVELT COLVIN: 30 years old in 2007, 6-foot-3, 250 pounds
Numbers to know from 2007 (including postseason): 27 tackles, 4.0 sacks, 3 forced fumbles, 1 interception, 2 pass defended, 2 quarterback hits, 1 quarterback hurries, per Pro Football Focus.
KYLE VAN NOY: 27 years old in 2017, 6-foot-3, 243 pounds
Numbers to know from 2016: 45 tackles, 0 sacks, 1 forced fumble, 0 interceptions, 0 passes defended, 2 quarterback hits, 1 quarterback hurry, per Pro Football Focus.
THE DECIDING FACTOR: As decisions on these matchups came in from beat reporters who covered the 2007 team, what I was most surprised by was their replies to this matchup. I figured that even though Rosevelt Colvin was injured for much of the 2007 season (he played in 11 games), he still would've been the choice over Van Noy, who had an up-and-down seven games before playing more consistently in the postseason in 2016. I was wrong. Colvin's foot injury limited him, and he was four years removed from the serious hip injury he suffered early in his Patriots tenure. His best days were behind him, and the four games he played in 2008 were his last. Van Noy is in a much different place in his career, and he could see a real bump in his production after spending his first offseason with the Patriots. It will be interesting to note where Van Noy aligns in 2017 as he has the ability to play off the ball in the middle of the field or out on the edge.
THE CHOICE: Van Noy
RICHARD SEYMOUR VS. TREY FLOWERS
RICHARD SEYMOUR: 27 years old in 2007, 6-foot-6, 317 pounds
Numbers to know from 2007 (including postseason): 23 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 0 forced fumbles, 0 interceptions, 1 pass defended, 7 quarterback hits, 7 quarterback hurries, per Pro Football Focus.
TREY FLOWERS: 24 years old in 2017, 6-foot-2, 265 pounds
Numbers to know from 2016 (including postseason): 51 tackles, 9.5 sacks, 0 forced fumbles, 0 interceptions, 1 pass defended, 13 quarterback hits, 21 quarterback hurries, per Pro Football Focus.
THE DECIDING FACTOR: Those of you who lose their minds over the results of some of these matchups, let's just get this out of the way early: Trey Flowers is the choice here. The reason? In 2007, Richard Seymour wasn't Richard Seymour as you remember him. It was the first season since his rookie year that he wasn't named a Pro Bowler or an All-Pro. He missed seven games to start the year as he came back from knee surgery that hampered his conditioning and limited his effectiveness. Flowers, meanwhile, is coming off of a breakout second-half of the 2016 season. He proved he could not only set an effective edge in the run game and use his technique to beat tackles on the edge. He also showed that he could be a devastating interior pass-rusher, using his length and a variety of moves to beat up on stockier guards and centers. His 2.5 sacks in Super Bowl LI may be a launching point for him to receive more national recognition as he heads into his third season.
THE CHOICE: Flowers
VINCE WILFORK VS. MALCOM BROWN
MALCOM BROWN: 23 years old in 2017, 6-foot-2, 320 pounds
Numbers to know from 2016 (including postseason): 53 tackles, 3.0 sacks, 1 forced fumble, 0 passes defended, 4 quarterback hits, 20 quarterback hurries, per Pro Football Focus.
VINCE WILFORK: 25 years old in 2007, 6-foot-2, 325 pounds
Numbers to know from 2007 (including postseason): 48 tackles, 2.0 sacks, 0 forced fumbles, 0 interceptions, 3 passes defended, 4 quarterback hits, 21 quarterback hurries, per Pro Football Focus.
THE DECIDING FACTOR: When you're going back a decade to look at defensive tackles, the numbers aren't going to give you much insight. But Vince Wilfork may have been the best defender on the 2007 Patriots. He was an immovable force in the middle and ranked as one of PFF's top-five defensive tackles. Brown, who looked like a Wilfork clone when he was selected at the bottom of the first round in 2015 after Wilfork's departure, is on a nice early-career trajectory. He's been bothered by inconsistency at times, but in terms of his run-stop percentage -- a number that shows the number of stuffs per snap played in run defense -- Brown's 2016 was actually slightly better than Wilfork's 2007. Looking ahead at his third professional season, Brown could be in line for a seismic leap, and that's what it would take to put up a campaign better than Wilfork's a decade ago.
THE CHOICE: Wilfork
TY WARREN VS. ALAN BRANCH
TY WARREN: 26 years old in 2007, 6-foot-5, 300 pounds
Numbers to know from 2007 (including postseason): 53 tackles, 5.0 sacks, 0 forced fumbles, 0 interceptions, 0 passes defended, 13 quarterback hits, 32 quarterback hurries, per Pro Football Focus.
ALAN BRANCH: 32 years old in 2017, 6-foot-6, 350 pounds
Numbers to know from 2016 (including postseason): 63 tackles, 2.0 sacks, 0 forced fumbles, 3 passes defended, 1 quarterback hit, 22 quarterback hurries, per Pro Football Focus.
THE DECIDING FACTOR: As you can tell by now, these matchups aren't perfect when it comes to pairing players who play similar roles. It's particularly difficult in the front seven because in 2007, Bill Belichick's defense was more of a 3-4 unit. Now? They play what Jerod Mayo often refers to as a 2-5, with two defensive tackles and five interchangeable pieces playing on the edge and off the line of scrimmage. Leads to some screwy one-on-ones for this exercise . . . like this one. Warren was a prototypical five-technique during his playing days because of his length and strength. He could stand toe-to-toe with tackles in the run game. He had the power to push the pocket when need be. He may not have been on Wilfok's level in 2007, but he wasn't far off. Branch, on the other hand, is more of a traditional tackle. He lined up as a nose guard at times in 2016, blowing up opposing run plays and causing problems with his unique size and power. "By far our most consistent defensive tackle," Belichick said of Branch late last season. It was high praise, and well-deserved, but in this exercise, Branch has the bad luck of going up against Warren, who was on the short list of the most consistent 3-4 defensive ends in the NFL in 2007.
THE CHOICE: Warren
JARVIS GREEN VS. KONY EALY
JARVIS GREEN: 28 years old in 2007, 6-foot-3, 285 pounds
Numbers to know from 2007 (including postseason): 40 tackles, 7.5 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, 0 interceptions, 0 passes defended, 7 quarterback hits, 41 quarterback hurries, per Pro Football Focus.
KONY EALY: 25 years old in 2017, 6-foot-4, 275 pounds
Numbers to know from 2016 (with Carolina): 32 tackles, 5.0 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, 1 interception, 3 passes defended, 3 quarterback hits, 23 quarterback hurries, per Pro Football Focus.
THE DECIDING FACTOR: Jarvis Green came out swinging in 2007 with a two-sack performance against the Jets in the season opener. He added a half-dozen more sacks over the course of the year, including one in Super Bowl XLII. Of course the sack that got away against Eli Manning and the Giants still lingers in the memories of Patriots fans. Fans of Ealy's are still waiting for him to break out and have a season befitting of his rare skill set. Though he may emerge as a good player in a contract season with the Patriots, he's an unknown. There's a chance he continues to miss on expectations, as he did while in Carolina. If Ealy doesn't pan out for the Patriots, then it will be up to young players like rookies Derek Rivers and Deatrich Wise to pick up the slack alongside vets Rob Ninkovich and Trey Flowers.
THE CHOICE: Green.