What is there to say about the AFC East at this point? It’s the same thing every year. The New England Patriots dominate. It’s that simple. Under the reign of Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, the Patriots have lost the division crown only twice, once in 2002 (Brady’s second year as a starter) and once in 2008. But lets take a closer look.
The Jets won the division in ’02 with a 9-7 record, the same record as the Patriots, but due to the tie-breaker the Jets claimed the division. The’08 title was claimed by the Miami Dolphins, but Brady missed that entire season due to a knee injury in Week 1 and, even then, the Matt Cassel led Patriots finished with an identical 11-5 record, but missed out on division supremacy by way of a tie breaker once again.
However, the 2016 campaign could offer the Pats’ division rivals a jump of the juggernauts. Tom Brady will be suspended for the first four games following the nauseating “Deflategate” ruling. (Here’s to hoping for a lengthy holdout next CBA discussions and the players get their rights back from Commissioner Roger Goodell ). The stage is set. Let’s rank ’em…
1.) New England Patriots
Brady or no Brady, this organization is too powerful and backup Jimmy Garoppolo has a lot of talent. He still has plenty to work on, but his second preseason game looked very impressive. Garoppolo led scoring drives on all but two series, one of which ended with a fumble near the Chicago Bears’ goal-line. They key to success will be the offensive line remaining healthy and efficient, after a very sub-par 2015.
It’s worth nothing the weapons Garoppolo will have at his disposal come Week 1. Already armed with Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola, and Rob Gronkowski, the Pats went out and picked up Chris Hogan from the division rival Buffalo Bills and traded for Bears tight end Martellus Bennett. Yup, Gronk AND the Black Unicorn on the same team. Good luck.
The defense still has room for improvement despite finishing ninth in overall defense in 2015. That growth will look to come from the secondary. The starters are entrenched with Malcolm Butler, Logan Ryan, Devin McCourty, and Patrick Chung. The issue is depth and second-round pick Cyrus Jones, looks to be the man to anchor the nickle position.
The front seven is as talented as it comes, highlighted by the elite linebacker tandem of Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins. The Patriots traded away edge rusher Chandler Jones and will rely heavily on a rotation that includes starters Jabaal Sheard and Rob Ninkovich, as well as youngsters Geno Grissom and Trey Flowers. Not to mention new comer and former first-round pick Chris Long. Expect a big leap from tackle Malcom Brown.
Breakout Candidate: Joe Thuney, OG
2.) New York Jets
I anticipate the Jets to slide a little from their very successful 10-win campaign in 2015. Make no mistake this is a very talented team with a great head coach in Todd Bowles, but the Jets will also be fielding the oldest unit in the league this season and they didn’t get any younger with the additions of Matt Forte and Ryan Clady.
The offense ran well under Ryan Fitzpatrick last year and, after a lengthy holdout, finally brought the 33 year-old back. He has two top flight targets in Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker. The question remains who is after that? This will be a big year for former-second round pick Jace Amaro at the tight end position. He needs to prove himself with consistent hands and the ability to stay healthy.
Antonio Cromartie was cut once the offseason opened and Darrelle Revis, at 31, finally started showing signs of his play declining. The big gamble will be the movement of cornerback Buster Skrine from the nickle position to an outside cornerback. If it doesn’t pan out, expect him to shift back and Marcus Williams to man the outside. He led the team with six interceptions last season.
Age will be the calling card for Gang Green in ’16, but they are starting to build a youth movement on defense. Muhammad Wilkerson, Sheldon Richardson, and Leonard Williams form arguably the best defensive line in football. And at linebacker rush ends Lorenzo Mauldin and rookie Jordan Jenkins could form into a dangerous tandem.
Breakout Candidate: Marcus Williams, CB
3.) Buffalo Bills
Here is where things get muddy. The Bills and the Dolphins could easily flip-flop, but I’m going with the more organizationally grounded team for the bronze. Year One under head coach Rex Ryan was something else. The team finished better in total offense (13th) than defense (19th). Very odd for a Ryan unit.
The Bills posted the best rushing attack in the league last year with LeSean McCoy and Karlos Williams leading the backfield. But over the offseason Williams ballooned up to 260-pounds and was cut. They’ll need help from rookie Jonathan Williams and veteran Reggie Bush. Quarterback Tyrod Taylor was second on the team in rushing.
Speaking of Taylor, what a year for him last year. Signed from Baltimore obscurity and given the keys to car in Buffalo. And overall? He performed pretty well, surpassing 3,000-yards and throwing 20 touchdowns to just six interceptions. Of course it helps when being protected by one of the most underrated lines in the league. It was good to see Sammy Watkins finally breakout for a 1,000 yard season.
The defense is simply in shambles. Pro Bowl defensive tackle Marcell Dareus has been suspended the first four games for substance abuse and has since checked himself into a treatment facility. First-round pick Shaq Lawson underwent surgery and could potentially miss the whole season. Second-round pick Reggie Ragland tore his ACL and will, in fact, miss the entire season. Both were expected to start.
It’s always important to find a silver lining, though. In that case, club house cancer Mario Williams is no longer with the team and team captain Kyle Williams is back from injury. The Bills can also rest their hat on the emergence of a possibly elite cornerback tandem of Stephon Gilmore and Ronald Darby.
Breakout Candidate: Ronald Darby, CB
4.) Miami Dolphins
The Dolphins are rebuilding, but have a lot of upside. They have a lot of dynamic young talent on offense and by bringing in top coaching prospect Adam Gase to run the team, could maximize their ability much sooner than later. And the first place to look at is the wide receiver group which boasts Jarvis Landry, DeVante Parker, and speedster Kenny Stills.
The big question mark is in the backfield. The club’s old regime never fully utilized former running back Lamar Miller. He’s gone and that leaves a platoon of Jay Ajayi, Kenyan Drake, and Arian Foster. All three have the potential to have a 1,000 season, the only question is who? The team will give Ajayi first crack.
Where the offense packs a punch, the back seven of the Dolphins defense doesn’t. The Dolphins swapped picks with the Eagles during the draft and also took the Eagles salary dump in the form of Kiko Alonso and Byron Maxwell. Alonso, has a wealth of talent, but has had trouble staying healthy going back as far as his Oregon days. The bright spot is unheralded Pro Bowl safety Reshad Jones.
The teeth of the Dolphins’ D comes from their front four which boasts Ndamukong Suh, Mario Williams, and Cameron Wake. Wake is coming off an Achilles injury at 34 and will be unproven until Week 1. Williams, should have a bounce back year at his natural end position in a 4-3 defense.
Breakout Candidate: DeVante Parker, WR