7. Dont’a Hightower/Jamie Collins
This one takes a bit of thinking, but when you mull it over, it certainly makes sense. Hightower and Collins are the leaders of the Patriots’ defense, and as such, they will be tasked with piloting a truly elite defense in 2016. The Patriots must be able to stop opponents’ drives before they enter scoring range; they also must be able to plug running lanes, pressure the quarterback, and forced turnovers. Hightower and Collins will be counted on to initiate these efforts.
A stable, strong defense will make Garoppolo’s job boatloads easier. Look, we aren’t going to want Garoppolo forced into gun shows with opposing quarterbacks; maybe Jimmy G is that good, but it would be better if he wasn’t put in those positions during this four-game span. Rather, we want the Patriots’ defense to keep opponents’ leads in check so that Garoppolo isn’t in over his head.
Next: 6. James White