For an indication of just how well the Patriots defense stacked up against the rest of the league last season, take a look at the Pro Football Focus list of top-101 players from 2015.
Through the first two installments of the series, players No. 51-101, the Patriots have had four players from all three levels of their defense featured. On Monday, safety Devin McCourty was announced as PFF's No. 94 player. Defensive end Jabaal Sheard (No. 59), safety Patrick Chung (No. 62) and linebacker Dont'a Hightower (No. 63) were highlighted on Tuesday.
Both Sheard and Chung were unranked following the 2014 season. Hightower dropped from No. 23 a season ago.
PFF's Sam Monson points out that these rankings do not take into account a player's history in the league or how a player might project down the line. All assigned values are a result only of how players graded in 2015.
This list is based solely on 2015 play. Nothing that happened in previous years or may happen in the future is accounted for. This isn’t about class or talent, it’s about performance throughout the 2015 NFL season.
This list is created with an “all positions are created equal” mantra. So, you won’t see 32 quarterbacks heading the list—even though that is the game’s most valuable position. Instead, we take a look at how guys played relative to what is expected from their position.
One of the centerpieces of the Patriots defense, along with fellow linebacker Jamie Collins, Hightower was Bill Belichick's quarterback on that side of the football. Arguably the team's top run-stuffer, Hightower was also a dynamic pass-rusher. He recorded 24 total pressures in 2015, according to PFF, helping him earn the best pass-rushing grade among all off-the-line linebackers in the league.
In his second year back with the Patriots after one season in Philadelphia, Chung assembled what was considered by many to be a Pro Bowl type of season. Playing as a safety-linebacker hybrid, Chung was highly effective in coverage of tight ends and slot receivers. He also was stout against the run -- Belichick has called him one of the best tacklers he's ever coached -- and was PFF's fifth-highest-graded safety in 2015.
Like Hightower, Collins, corner Logan Ryan and defensive end Rob Ninkovich, Sheard will be an unrestricted free agent following the 2016 campaign. Based on what he did in 2015, the Patriots would surely like to keep him around longer than that. Even though he rotated with Ninkovich and Chandler Jones, and even though he missed three weeks with an ankle injury, he was still the seventh-highest-graded edge defender in the league, per PFF. Sheard was credited with 58 pressures last season -- making an impact both from the outside and the interior -- but he was much more than a situational pass-rusher. PFF had him down for the third-best run-stop percentage among edge players in the NFL.