PAWTUCKET, R.I. — The New England Patriots had a top-10 defense for the first time in seven years last season. They could break into the top five in 2016, thanks to continuity across the board.

The Patriots’ defense is returning 10 starters from 2015: Defensive end Rob Ninkovich; defensive tackles Malcom Brown and Alan Branch; linebackers Jamie Collins, Dont’a Hightower and Jonathan Freeny; cornerbacks Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan, and safeties Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung. Key role players Jabaal Sheard, Justin Coleman and Duron Harmon also are back, and the Patriots added veterans Chris Long, Terrance Knighton and Shea McClellin and rookies Cyrus Jones and Vincent Valentine. They lost defensive end Chandler Jones in a trade to the Arizona Cardinals and linebacker Jerod Mayo to retirement, but they very well could fare better than they did in 2015.

“We’re hoping, but we’ve got to work to that,” Chung said Wednesday at a PLAY 60 event. “I mean, last year is last year. This year is a whole new year.

“We’re just trying to get to that point, and once we get to that point, then we’ve got to stay there. And hopefully we can break that little wall and just try to get even better. This year is a whole new year, and (there are) a couple of new guys that we’ve got to get on the same page, and that’s what we’re trying to do right now.”

The Patriots’ starting secondary should remain in place, which can only help their pass defense, which ranked 17th in the NFL in yards allowed but 13th in passer rating. Chung came to the Patriots as a second-round draft pick in 2009 (although he made a one-year stop in Philadelphia), McCourty was drafted in 2010, Ryan and Harmon were selected in 2013, and Butler was signed as an undrafted free agent in 2014.

“It’s good, but when it comes down to it, you have to play with the guys you have at that time,” Chung said. “It’s good to have a lot of guys who have been in this system for a couple years now. We’ve all learned the same things. We all know our own strengths and weaknesses, and we can go out there and just play to our best ability and know we can trust these guys.”

If Tom Brady winds up serving his four-game Deflategate suspension, the Patriots might have to depend on their defense to win early in the 2016 season. Based on 2015, that might not be an issue.

Thumbnail photo via Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY Sports Images