In this eight-part series, we’ll be previewing all thirty-two NFL teams by division. This is part one – the AFC East.
As has been the case for fourteen of the last fifteen seasons, the AFC East belonged to the New England Patriots in 2017. And until quarterback Tom Brady and head coach Bill Belichick retire, nobody around the NFL expects that to change. Their lock on this division is widely predicted for the 2018 season.
The next best team in the division, the Buffalo Bills, ended last season on a positive note as they (barely) grabbed a wild card spot in the playoffs. Then the Jacksonville Jaguars promptly snuffed Buffalo’s miracle run by a bleak score of 10-3. But that game did finally end their 18-year playoff drought, which had been the longest in the NFL. They traded away the quarterback who got them there and then traded three draft picks to get Wyoming’s rocket-armed Josh Allen.
The Miami Dolphins are having the active offseason they needed given their poor 2017 showing. The question is whether their 2018 free agency and draft pickups will fill their many holes effectively.
The New York Jets are hoping the era of Sam Darnold, their surprisingly still available first round pick, will include more wins than the previous two have, which have been ten total. Back to back losing seasons motivated general manager Mike Maccagnan to trade up in the quarterback rich 2018 draft. He’s banking on talented USC rookie Darnold to turn the struggling franchise around.
The New England Patriots
The 2017 NFL season was everything the 13-3 New England Patriots could have hoped for right up until their season ending Super Bowl LII loss to the Philadelphia Eagles by a score of 41-33. It was the team’s third Super Bowl appearance in four years, their 10th overall, and eight of those have been under the leadership of super-duo quarterback Tom Brady and head coach Bill Belichick.
Injuries hurt the Patriots
Over a dozen injuries riddled the Patriots last season. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels had to run his squad without talented wide receiver Julian Edelman who suffered a season ending knee injury (ACL tear) against the Detroit Lions in preseason. Edelman has indicated the he will play in 2018, which would give Brady back the consistent target he sorely missed in the Super Bowl loss. McDaniels will be returning after surprisingly reneging on an agreement to be the Indianapolis Colts’ head coach.
Linebacker Dont’a Hightower underwent season-ending pectoral surgery in late October. He appears to be on track to play in 2018, which is good news for a defense that was ranked 29th overall last season.
No replacement plans for Matt Patricia
Defensive coordinator Matt Patricia has left to head coach the Detroit Lions, but Belichick has no plans to replace him. Instead, being a defensive mastermind himself, Belichick will essentially run the defense with linebackers coach Brian Flores calling the plays.
The Gronk will be back
It looks like often-concussed and surgically rebuilt All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski will play in 2018 with big money negotiations currently underway. Taken into consideration will be his eight touchdowns and over a thousand receiving yards off 69 receptions in 2017, valuable contributions the Patriots now expect yearly from their 6’6” 265 lb. ball-catching monster.
Will Tom Brady’s age finally be a factor?
At 40 years of age, Brady and retired Green Bay Packers quarterback Brett Favre are the only two quarterbacks in NFL history to start a game at 40 or older. Brady’s healthiest of healthy lifestyles has become as legendary as the man’s numbers, and last season (his eighteenth in the league) was no exception. The old-timer served up 32 touchdowns with only 8 interceptions for 4,577 yards with a rating of 102.8.
Bottom Line: Brady’s a winner – he’s one of only two NFL players to ever win five Super Bowls. There’s no telling how long the Energizer Brady can keep going, but he’s already indicated he’ll play again in 2018. That’s bad news for every other team wanting a Super Bowl win, and good news for New England fans who’d love to see Brady win his sixth.
ESPN predicts the Patriots will go 11-5 in 2018.
Bleacher Report predicts the Patriots will go 11-5 in 2018.
CBSSports.com Vegas Expert has the Patriots 2018 over/under win total at 10.5
The Buffalo Bills
Nothing worse than finally getting to the playoffs after eighteen years only to be incapable of scoring more than a single field goal the entire game. Plus, throw in ‘have your starting quarterback get injured on the final drive and have his backup throw an interception’ and that’s exactly what the 9-7 Buffalo Bills did against the Jacksonville Jaguars to end their 2017 season.
It was a 10-3 wildcard loss in a game that involved far too many punts (17 total) and even more yawns. The low scoring game ended when Jalen Ramsey intercepted on the Jaguars’ 48-yard line with 26-seconds left, a ball thrown by Bills’ young backup quarterback Nathan Peterman who was in for the concussed starter Tyrod Taylor.
Cue music for the Buffalo quarterback shuffle.
Resolving the quarterback situation
It’s a little complicated, but Taylor’s eventual trade to the Browns this offseason came down to money. Before the 2017 season, he had to choose between being released into the wild or restructuring his deal because the team wanted to avoid the $30.5 million he had guaranteed. Taylor looked at his current market value and decided to take a $10 million pay cut to stay and play last year.
Not wanting to repeat the same dance for 2018, General manager Brandon Beane and head coach Sean McDermott decided to get what they could for Taylor, which happened to be a 65th draft pick in 2019 courtesy of the Cleveland Browns.
Then in free agency, they signed A.J. McCarron from Cincinnati. Shortly after they traded draft picks 12, 53 and 56 to move up to the seventh overall spot and snagged 6’ 5” 225 lb. hard throwing Wyoming quarterback Josh Allen.
Let the competition begin.
Buffalo’s offense on the upswing?
Bills have brought in Alabama Crimson Tide offensive coordinator Brian Daboll, a solid winner who’s been a part of five Super Bowl teams and one National College Championship. In addition to overseeing the quarterback contest, Daboll has to turn around an offense ranked 29th.
Hopefully 10,000 yard rusher LeSean ‘Shady’ McCoy won’t let the fact that he’ll turn 30 in July prevent him from contributing similar numbers as last season – 1,138 total yards for 6 TDs. This offseason, the Bills added punishing running back Chris Ivory (another 30 year old) to back him up after Ivory was cut by the Jaguars.
Veteran center Eric Wood failed his end-of-season physical so he will no longer be cleared to play professional football. Ryan Groy should be comfortable taking over at center (as he did for six games in 2016) so the O-line ranked second best in 2017 should return to form in 2018.
Wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin will be back after recovering from offseason knee surgery. But for the Bills to succeed in 2018, they’ll need much better numbers from second year receivers Brandon Reilly and Zay Jones.
Buffalo’s defense needs improvement
In his first year with the team, defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier’s 2017 defense was ranked 26th. The Bills signed two key free agents in the offseason to beef up their D-line – defensive tackle Star Lotulelei (CAR) and defensive end Trent Murphy (WAS).
The Bills signed one linebacker already from the Jets, Julian Stanford, they’ve drafted another in the first round, Virginia Tech’s speedy Tremaine Edmunds and look to add more. They’ve added depth to their secondary by signing free agent corner Vontae Davis (IND) who will likely start opposite Tre’Davous White.
Bottom line: Until the Bills completely solidify their quarterback situation and tool up their offense a bit more, they’re bound for the middle of the road again. If all those loose new pieces do end up coming together, the team from Buffalo could exceed all expectations and make a Wildcard run.
ESPN predicts the Bills will go 7-9 in 2018.
Bleacher Report predicts the Bills will go 7-9 in 2018.
CBSSports.com Vegas Expert has the Bills 2018 over/under win total at 6.5
The Miami Dolphins
To go from being a 10-6 AFC wildcard team in 2016 to a 6-10 distant runner up, something must have gone terribly wrong for the Miami Dolphins. The fact that the ‘something’ – starting quarterback Ryan Tannehill tearing his ACL – happened during a pre-season practice only adds to the frustration of their disappointing 2017.
Tannehill ended up having knee surgery in August and was placed on injury reserve. Backups Brock Osweiler and David Fales were not considered solutions to the Dolphins’ starting quarterback dilemma, but there was one man in the world who just might have been. Or not.
Cutler to the rescue
With Tannehill out for the season, Miami’s general manager Chris Grier signed the thought-to-be-retired and possibly-out-of-shape 34 year old Jay Cutler to a one year, $10 million deal. In return, Miami got a 6-8 record from their jiggly starter who passed for a somewhat respectable 2,666 yards for 19 touchdowns and 14 interceptions.
Though Cutler’s last-minute services were appreciated by many, they were not impressive enough to keep him named as the starter in 2018. Head coach Adam Gase made it clear in March that Tannehill would remain the Dolphin’s starting quarterback. It was made even clearer when the Dolphins refused to draft or trade for any quarterbacks in the offseason.
Regretful offensive losses?
At the end of October, Miami traded away struggling starting running back Jay Ajayi to the Philadelphia Eagles where he struggled a whole lot less all the way to winning the Super Bowl. To fill his shoes, they signed free agent Frank Gore who wasn’t re-signed by the Indianapolis Colts despite having a 961 yard rushing season that brought his career total to over 14,000.
During the offseason, the Dolphins traded starting slot receiver Jarvis Landry and his 112 receptions for almost 1,000 yards and 9 touchdowns to the Cleveland Browns for two draft picks.
New offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains is hoping the free agent wide receivers they signed in the offseason – Danny Amendola from the New England Patriots and Albert Wilson from the Kansas City Chiefs – can do Landry’s job instead. They should get some help from pass-catching drafted rookie Mike Gesicki who holds the record for most receptions by a tight end in Penn State history.
Plugging up the defense
Last year under new defensive coordinator Matt Burke, the Miami defense jumped from 29th up to 16th. But with seven fewer interceptions made than the previous year, the opposing passer rating blew up. Luckily, free safety Minkah Fitzpatrick was still available in the first round of the 2018 draft so now the Dolphins have one of the five best players in that draft to help snag more picks.
With the release of five-time Pro Bowler and Sporting News “dirtiest player in the NFL” nose tackle Ndamukong Suh, the D-line still needs plugging. Right now, they’re looking at free agent Terrell McCLain who was recently released by the Washington Redskins.
Bottom line: the best the Dolphins (or any team in the AFC East these days) can hope for in 2018 is a wildcard spot, and that’s only happening if the players now plugging those holes measure up and Tannehill stays healthy.
ESPN predicts the Dolphins will go 8-8 in 2018.
Bleacher Report predicts the Dolphins will go 7-9 in 2018.
CBSSports.com Vegas Expert has the Dolphins 2018 over/under win total at 5.5
The New York Jets
The New York Jets started out last season with a promising 3-2 record, but could only manage to win two more games total after that. The team that went 10-6 in 2015 ended up going 5-11 in 2017, just as they did the previous year.
The Jets played inconsistently most of last season due to many factors, the main ones being:
- youth, which led to way too many penalties (119 for 1035 yards, fifth worst in the NFL)
- an unpredictable offensive line, which led to low rushing numbers (106.4 yards per game, 19th in the NFL)
- an ineffective defense, which led to giving up 352.3 yards per game (25th in the NFL)
- the lack of a franchise quarterback, which led to Josh McCown (who had a record of 18-43 when general manager Mike Maccagnan gave him a one year, $6 million contract)
How did the Jets address these shortcomings this offseason?
One word: aggressively.
The franchise quarterback is now in the building…maybe?
Not only did the Jets re-sign Josh McCown (one year, $10 mil.) they also brought in free agent (and former Minnesota Viking quarterback) Teddy Bridgewater who they’re hoping is fully recovered from his blown knee that kept him from playing the last two seasons.
The bigger news happened during the draft when the Jets used their number three pick to select USC Sam Darnold. Thought to be one of the top quarterbacks in a qb-heavy draft, the Jets are hoping the 6’ 3” 221 lb. Darnold’s strong and accurate arm will be ready to come to the rescue sooner rather than later in the season.
The Jets O-Line patched up
The center position was the main concern with the offensive line, so Maccagnan signed former Washington Redskins center Spencer Long to a four-year-deal on top of former Detroit Lions center Travis Swanson.
Defense has been upgraded
The Jets’ 25th ranked defense needed the attention it got this offseason. They bolstered their linebacker corps by adding free agents Avery Williamson (TEN), Kevin Pierre-Louis (KC) and Brandon Copeland (DET).
The team also drafted Connecticut defensive tackle Folorunso Fatukasi with the hopes his size and strength will bring more energy to the Jets’ pass rush.
Former Rams cornerback Trumaine Johnson will join Morris Claiborne to give defensive coordinator Kacy Rodgers a much better cornerback tandem to work with.
Bottom Line: A lot of things have to happen for head coach Todd Bowles’ team to start clicking again and get more wins. But even if the quarterback plays better than mediocre, the defense starts putting pressure on opposing quarterbacks and the offense starts moving the ball better, the best the Jets can hope for is second place in the Patriots dominated AFC East and a chance at the Wildcard spot. Of course, that would still be a huge improvement from last season’s spot in the divisional basement.
ESPN predicts the Jets will go 7-9 in 2018.
Bleacher Report predicts the Jets will go 7-9 in 2018.
CBSSports.com Vegas Expert has the Jets 2018 over/under win total at 6.5
For the millionth time, unless the New England Patriots start to slide – and there’s nothing about Brady/Belichick version 2018 that indicates that’ll happen this season – the best any of the other AFC East teams can hope for is a wildcard spot in the playoffs.
That said, it’s anybody’s wildcard spot to win since the Bills, the Dolphins and the Jets appear to be equally lined up for it. Each of them has attempted to identify and fix their weaknesses this offseason, so it really comes down to whichever one did the best job of it.