The New England Patriots will look to defend their Super Bowl title in 2017. But first, they have some questions to answer.

Before the NFL Scouting Combine kicks off this week, marking the unofficial start of the NFL offseason, we’re taking a position-by-position look at the Patriots’ roster. We’ll examine which players stood out in 2016, which ones have some work to do this offseason and which ones could be leaving town. 

Next up: the defensive line and defensive ends. 

UNDER CONTRACT
Trey Flowers
Rob Ninkovich
Malcom Brown
Vincent Valentine
Woodrow Hamilton (practice squad)
Darius Kilgo (practice squad)

IMPENDING FREE AGENTS
Chris Long
Jabaal Sheard
Alan Branch
Geneo Grissom

STANDOUT PERFORMER
After injuries cost him nearly his entire rookie season, Flowers came out of nowhere to become the Patriots’ most effective pass rusher as an NFL sophomore. He led the team with seven sacks in the regular season — all coming over the final nine games — and was a force of nature in Super Bowl LI, sacking Matt Ryan two-and-a-half times and adding six tackles, five quarterback hits and two tackles for loss.

At just 23, Flowers should be a staple in the Patriots’ front seven for years to come.

Among defensive tackles, Brach was the clear standout, setting career highs in tackles, pass breakups and run stuffs. The 32-year-old might have been the Patriots’ most underrated player this season, and re-signing him should be a priority this spring. More on that in a bit.

NEEDS IMPROVEMENT
Sheard took a step back after a very productive 2015. Viewed as a potential Chandler Jones replacement, he instead struggled during the middle part of the season, was benched in Week 11 and came off the bench thereafter.

Ninkovich also had a down year — which began with a four-game suspension for testing positive for a banned substance — and Brown struggled with consistency as a second-year pro.

BY THE NUMBERS
Tied for 36th: Where Flowers, New England’s sack leader, ranked among all NFL defenders in that category. No other Patriots player ranked in the top 50.

88.6: The average number of rushing yards per game the Patriots allowed with this season, tied for third-best in the NFL. If there was one thing New England’s defense did extremely well this season, it was stopping the run.

BIGGEST OFFSEASON STORYLINES
1. How will the Patriots improve their pass rush? While not terrible by any means, the pass rush was the least impressive aspect of New England’s top-ranked defense this season. Flowers looks like a star in the making, but the Patriots could benefit from adding some young, dynamic rushers to play alongside him. Look for them to address this area of need in the draft, maybe even with their first pick.

2. Will Branch re-sign? Unless another team offers the veteran an outrageous contract (unlikely), there’s no reason for the Patriots not to bring him back. Branch was excellent this season, especially against the run, and provides valuable experience on a very young Patriots D-line.

3. How about Long and Sheard? That’s a tougher question. Long is 31 and could be willing to re-sign on the cheap — he said he “would have played this year for $5” — but Sheard is 27 and theoretically has three or four quality seasons still left in him. Keeping him — if the Patriots even want to — will be much more difficult.

Patriots offseason preview: Quarterbacks | Running backs | Wide receivers | Tight ends | Offensive line | Linebackers | Secondary

Thumbnail photo via Dan Powers/USA TODAY Sports Images