NFL Previews and Predictions: AFC East

After looking at a very tight division, the AFC North, let’s look at the polar opposite: the AFC East. There is a clear front-runner and a clear bottom dweller, making this one of the least intriguing divisions. Still, with three second-year quarterbacks, a couple of franchises seemingly on the rise, and two new head coaches, there’s a lot of moving parts to be intrigued about. Will the Patriots’ dynasty continue? What will Josh Allen and Sam Darnold do in their second year? Can Josh Rosen succeed in Miami? Let’s examine.

First Place: New England Patriots

pats
Photo Cred: CBS Sports

Record Prediction: 13-3

Best Case: 15-1

Worst Case: 11-5

Power Ranking: 1st

Offense Ranking: 2nd

Defense Ranking: 6th

Initial Thoughts: As much as football fans want to claim that with the Patriots’ reign on the AFC East is coming to an end soon, that is not the case. Rob Gronkowski may be gone, but as per usual, Bill Belichick has crafted a team that is definitely a Super Bowl favorite.

Offense: Quarterback Tom Brady’s arm strength may be slowly declining, but that should be a non-factor; the offense has been built to make up for that potential red flag. New England doesn’t have an exciting group of receivers, but they should still get the job done. Julian Edelman remains an elite slot receiver with his ability to seperate, while first-round rookie N’Keal Harry, Dontrelle Inman, and undrafted free agent Jakobi Myers will be the catch in traffic specialists. Meanwhile, Demaryius Thomas and Cameron Meredith could provide an impact if healthy, while Phillip Dorsett provides sparks on occasion and Josh Gordon could be a major X-Factor if reinstated. Additionally, the team has an elite running back room with Sony Michel, receiving back James White, and third-round rookie Damien Harris, and Ben Watson is a fine tight end once he’s finished serving his four-game suspension. We haven’t even gotten to the best part of this offense; the offensive line is amazing. Joe Thuney and Shaq Mason may be the best guard duo in football, center David Andrews is amongst the best at his position, and you could do a lot worse than the tackle duo fo Isaiah Wynn and Marcus Cannon. With that offensive line, an elite and legendary precision quarterback in Brady, and enough playmakers, this offense will definitely do its part this season.

Defense: Any defense coached by Bill Belichick will be amongst the league’s best, but there’s plenty of talent here to get excited about. The secondary is incredible; Stephon Gillmore may be the best cornerback in football, Jason McCourty and JC Jackson are also nice options at cornerback, and the duo of Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung may be getting old, but is one of the top safety pairings in football. Furthermore, linebackers Dont’a Hightower and Kyle Van Noy are super versatile, and Ju’wan Bently came on strong last season as a solid middle linebacker. There’s more; the addition of Michael Bennett, along with Hightower, Van Noy, third-round rookie Chase Winovich, and Derek Rivers has the makings of a decent pass rush, and the talent this team has on the interior defensive line should allow them to also be one of the top run defending teams by design. Ranking them as the sixth-best defense may turn out to be a little too low; Belichick has way too much to work with here for them to not be a top-notch defense this season.

Final Thoughts: Not only do the Patriots continue to have the best coaching staff in the NFL, but this may actually be one of Belichick’s most talented teams. There are very few weaknesses on both sides of the ball, and playing with a super easy schedule, they should have no problem earning a first-round bye, and likely, the #1 seed in the AFC.

Second Place: Buffalo Bills

bills
Photo Cred: Phinsider

Record Prediction: 10-6

Best Case: 11-5

Worst Case: 8-8

Power Ranking: 20th

Offense Ranking: 24th

Defense Ranking: 8th

Initial Thoughts: The Bills were the laughingstock of the NFL through the first two weeks last year, but remained competitive throughout the season, finishing with a 6-10 record. After a very strong offseason, expect them to carry that momentum into next season.

Offense: In the 2018 draft, quarterback Josh Allen was one of the most polarizing prospects, and he remains a different player to peg after his rookie season, which had its fair share of highlights, but a lot of lows as well. Allen’s athleticism and arm strength is elite, but accuracy is a major concern with him. Luckily for Buffalo, they’ve built the offense around that. They signed an elite separator in Cole Beasley and a vertical threat in John Brown to bolster their receiving corps, and paired with the speedy Robert Foster and third-round tight end Dawson Knox, better production can almost be guaranteed from their receivers. Then, there’s the offensive line, which has four new pieces in guard Quinton Spain, center Mitch Morse, swing tackle Ty Nsekhe, and second-round guard/tackle Cody Ford, to go along with an above-average left tackle in Dion Dawkins. No matter what allignment they choose to use in the offensive trenches, the protection for Allen should be much better, which should allow for the vertical passing game to develop better this season. Heck, the running back depth is also fine with LeSean McCoy, TJ Yeldon, Frank Gore, and third-round pick Devin Singletary. There may be no star on this offense, but there are enough solid players here now that it should trend towards being more of an average offense than the liability it often was last year.

Defense: The offense only needs to be average; the defense is a definite top ten unit. The secondary is strong, as Tre’Davious White is emerging as a top cornerback, and there’s a lot of depth behind him with the likes of Levi Wallace, Kevin Johnson, Captain Munnerlyn, as well as Taron Johnson in the nickel. Those corners will be complemented by a secure safety duo of Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer, making this a very underrated secondary. The pass rush is also ideal; Jerry Hughes is one of the most underrated edge rushers, and you could do a lot worse than a combination of Trent Murphy and Shaq Lawson as your #2 pass rusher. If first-round pick Ed Oliver can provide pressure on the interior, this could be an elite pass rush, but it’ll at least be a top 15 unit in that regard, while the run defense will be strong with big bodies such as Star Lotulelei, Harrison Phillips, and Jordan Phillips. The key to this unit as a whole will be the linebackers, as Matt Milano and Lorenzo Alexander are above-average players, but if 2018 first-round pick Tremaine Edmunds can take a step forward in his sophomore year, this defense may turn out to be a top-three unit. The combination of upside and a high floor makes this defense very intriguing, and a huge reason why this team could realistically compete for the playoffs.

Final Thoughts: The Bills may not be a shoo-in playoff team yet, but they’re definitely a team on the rise. Plus, with a strong coaching staff, particularly on defense with head coach Sean McDermott, they tend to overachieve regardless, especially since they have a relatively easy schedule and a nice home-field advantage. Keep an eye out for Buffalo; they’re not a threat to New England, but they’ll be very difficult to beat this season.

Third Place: New York Jets

jetss
Photo Cred: Pro Football Talk- NBC Sports

Record Prediction: 5-11

Best Case: 10-6

Worst Case: 3-13

Power Ranking: 25th

Offense Ranking: 19th

Defense Ranking: 29th

Initial Thoughts: Like the Bills, the Jets were very busy this offseason trying to upgrade the roster around their young quarterback. The issue is, unlike the Bills, they made reinforcements in the wrong areas, and also don’t have the stability Buffalo has demonstrated. As a result, this could be a roller-coaster season for New York.

Offense: Sam Darnold, outside of Baker Mayfield, showed the most flashes of excellence out of the rookie quarterbacks last season, and was actually one of the top quarterbacks down the stretch. However, although slot receiver Jamison Crowder should help Darnold, they didn’t exactly make the receiving corps much better; Robby Anderson and Quincy Enunwa return as the team’s top two outside receivers, while there’s little depth, and that’s a concern. The offensive line should also benefit from the additions of guard Kelechi Osemele and center Ryan Kalil, but those aren’t major upgrades, and the offensive line is still average at best. Yes, the signing of running back Le’Veon Bell should allow for some offensive growth, but possibly not as much as you would assume. Bell’s production declined in his last season in Pittsburgh, he has a lot of wear and tear through his early career, may be rusty after missing a season, and may not have as much success without Pittsburgh’s elite offensive line. He’ll at least be a nice check down threat for Darnold, but that’s certainly not the impact Jets fans would be hoping for after he signed a $52 million contract, but that’s what happens when you pay a running back with red flags such a hefty contract. Head coach Adam Gase could also help Darnold, and the offense as a whole’s progression, but his mixed track record means that this can’t be counted on to be more than an okay offense.

Defense: There’s also major issues with the defense, primarily in the two most important areas; the secondary and pass rush. Jamal Adams has become one of the better safeties in football, but he has almost no talent around him in the secondary. Trumaine Johnson was simply bad last season and is massively overpaid, and the depth can best be described as extremely thin; Daryl Roberts, Brian Poole, Parry Nickerson, and Kyron Brown may be asked to do more than they’re capable of, and we’ll see what happens at free safety. The pass rush is even worse; can we really expect the duo of Jordan Jenkins and Brandon Copeland to provide any pressure? Unless third-round pick Jachai Polite can get on the field and perform at a rookie-of-the-year level, this could rank as bottom-five pass rush once again. To New York’s credit, the linebackers are strong; free-agent signing CJ Mosley, Avery Williamson, and fifth-round pick Blake Cashman (getting first-team reps) are a very strong group, and combined with players on the interior like third overall pick Quinnen Williams, Leonard Williams, and Henry Williams, they should at least be able to stop the run effectively. Still, they may not be able to stop the pass to save their life, which is what really matters, and defensive coordinator Greg Williams’ aggressive tendencies certainly won’t help.

Final Thoughts: With Darnold, Quinnen Williams, a nice group of linebackers, and some new additions, there is some hope for the Jets. However, they lack talent at the most important positions, and as a result, I doubt their ability to keep up with the top teams, primarily ones with strong passing games. Still, with a new general manager in place with Joe Douglas, this could be a team that competes for the playoffs in 2020, though they should compete for a top-ten pick again this year.

Fourth Place: Miami Dolphins

dolphins
Photo Cred: NBC 6 South Florida

Record Prediction: 3-13

Best Case: 6-10

Worst Case: 0-16

Power Ranking: 31st

Offense Ranking: 32nd

Defense Ranking: 26th

Initial Thoughts: After resting in mediocrity for several years, the Dolphins have finally picked a direction; they’ll go through a rebuilding phase. Though their long-term outlook has improved, shedding cap space and not adding much talent means that this should be a tough season for first-year head coach Brian Flores; Miami is one of the favorites for the #1 pick.

Offense: No unit on either side of the ball figures to be worse than the Dolphins, unfortunately. Though quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick can be solid for stretches, while Josh Rosen has upside as a 2018 top-ten pick, either player will have a very rough time having any sort of success this season. Unless undrafted receiver Preston Williams truly emerges as a dynamic weapon for this offense, Miami will be relying on Kenny Stills, Devante Parker, Albert Wilson, and Allen Hurns as their top receivers, and considering all have consistently underperformed throughout their careers, that’s certainly not ideal. The offensive line, meanwhile, could be an absolute disaster. Larry Tunsil is glue at left tackle, but there is pretty much no talent besides that; pass protection and run-blocking will not be strengths. Having a poor offensive line is already rough, but Kenyan Drake and Kalen Ballage aren’t exactly the types of running backs that can thrive despite issues in the trenches; the running game and passing games will struggle, making this offense a complete liability this season.

Defense: There is some hope, however, for Miami’s defense. Flores, the defensive coordinator for the Patriots last season, will try to establish a very similar scheme this season. There will be growing pains, but with cornerbacks Xavien Howard and Eric Rowe, safeties Reshad Jones and TJ McDonald, and nickel defenders Bobby McCain and Minkah Fitzpatrick, there’s talent in the secondary for Flores to work with. That’s encouraging since this scheme relies on a strong secondary, but although pass rush isn’t a major need with this style of defense, the fact that it’ll be non-existent will hamper this team. The team is relying on former first-round picks Charles Harris and Tank Carradine to be their top two pass rushers, which will not work well, and there’s no depth behind them. Instead, the defensive line, with first-round pick Christian Wilkins and Davon Godchaux on the interior, will rely on their ability to stop the run, which will be a good complement to a decent linebacker duo of Jerome Baker and Raekwon McMillan. Miami does have talented players on the defensive side of the ball, but the lack of a pass rush is a major issue and will be too much pressure on the secondary to overperform; they’ll be tolerable defensively, but won’t be a top 20 defense most likely.

Final Thoughts: With zero pass rush and close to zero offense, the Dolphins will certainly struggle to win games this season. I like the direction this franchise is going in, but it won’t an easy season; the patience of the franchise will definitely be tested.

 

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