The beginning of August is here – and so soon will the NFL season. You know what that’s got us all feeling.
I’ll be previewing two divisions each week as part of my NFL season preview, recapping each of the team’s pros and cons heading into the 2016 season, as well as their best and worst case scenarios. Let’s start with the AFC East.
2016 New England Patriots:
Let’s start with the man everyone is talking about heading into the season. We can pretend we know enough about Jimmy Garoppolo to have hot takes about the kind of quarterback he’ll be for New England in the first four Brady-less game of the season. Outside of him though, his top three receivers, Rob Gronkowski (the best tight end in football), Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola are a pretty great trio of guys to throw to and should keep the offense afloat until Tom Brady comes back, when the offense will probably revert back to being one of the best in football.
Look for New England to also succeed a lot more in the dual tight end sets, where the Patriots will use Martellus Bennett as a situational decoy or receiving threat the same way former tight end He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named did earlier this decade. If there’s an offense with a supporting cast any quarterback can look good in, New England’s is near the top.
On the defensive end of the field, the Patriots still have one of the best linebacker duos in D’onta Hightower and Jamie Collins. While the former is known for being an excellent run stopper and playcaller from the middle of the field, Collins is a pass rushing menace when asked to blitz and one of the best coverage linebackers in football. The two anchor a defense that also has a promising young cornerback duo in Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan, as well as excellent safeties in longtime fan favorite Devin McCourty and the resurgent Patrick Chung, who shockingly played like one of the best safeties in football last season. Having the above average 25 year-old Duron Harmon also adds a level of depth and versatility to New England’s nickel-heavy defensive strategy.
Moreover, despite a blunder-filled game against the Eagles last year, New England quietly had one of the league’s five best special teams units, per Football Outsiders, which also ranks the Patriots in the top five for special teams Defense-adjusted Value Over Average for last five seasons. It’s safe to assume New England will probably stay around the same level – and maybe even higher with second round pick Cyrus Jones, who was Alabama’s punt returner and Defensive MVP of the Cotton Bowl a year ago.
Outside of a college coach that claims Garoppolo has the quickest time since Dan Marino and a few professional showings in garbage time, we have no reason to think Garoppolo will be anything more or less than a replacement level quarterback. As a result, the Patriots are going to likely run the ball a lot more, but there’s still warranted skepticism around how effective this will be. New England’s running back committee of LeGarrette Blount, Dion Lewis, Brandon Bolden, James White, etc were either injured or just plain bad last season.
Out of running backs they signed in the offseason, only fellow UConn alumni (go Huskies) Donald Brown stands out – and the career journeyman isn’t exactly Adrian Peterson. If New England’s plan is to run the ball more with Garoppolo leading the offense, facing the likes of the Cardinals, Dolphins, Texans and Bills in the first few games of the season is going to be a pretty heavy task for a team that last year had a merry-go-round rotation for an offensive line and might be shuffling through different linemen again.
To solve this, New England brought back offensive line guru Dante Scarnecchia and traded for the talented, but oft-injured Jonathan Cooper to add depth to the line’s interior. Given how Cooper has already suffered a lower leg injury before the season started, it seems like the interior of the offensive line will likely have the replacement-level likes of Shaq Mason, Bryan Stork and Josh Kline anchoring it.
The best case scenario for New England’s offensive line would be resurgent seasons from tackles Sebastian Vollmer and Nate Solder, but if either way, the Patriots will have another year where they’ll be reliant on quick throws to the middle of the field to neutralizing opposing pass rushes. Either that or they revert back to albatrosses in Cameron Fleming and Marcus Cannon, praying for the best. Maybe third round pick Joe Thuney turns into a modern day John Hannah while David Andrews improves upon his up-and-down 2015 season.
The Patriots’ defensive front seven also looked suspect in its first day of practice against the offense. After trading its best rusher in Chandler Jones, New England signed the likes of Terrance Knighton and the talented, but injury-ridden Chris Long to add size on the defensive line. Jabaal Sheard will now have to face more attention as his team’s best pass rusher after being one of the league’s best defensive ends last year. Even assuming an improvement from the second-year Malcolm Brown, the Patriots almost certainly won’t have the same elite pass rush they had last season.
Best Case: Coach Bill Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels turn Jimmy G into 2008 Matt Cassel and lead the Patriots to a 3-1 record to stay above water. Helped by a revamped running game and an even better secondary , a rejuvenated Brady leads a trail of destruction in his wake en route to an MVP-caliber 12-4 season. The Patriots win their fifth Super Bowl victory to close out a season of vengeance.
Worst Case: Belichick and McDaniels can’t prevent Jimmy G from playing like 2015 Matt Cassel en route to a sputtering 1-3 start. Hurt by an inconsistent running game, inexperience on the offensive line, a slightly worse defense and age, a mortal Brady can’t muster enough magic to take the AFC East. The Patriots then limp to a 9-7 wild-card season, but quickly fizzle out in the playoffs to close off a season of decline.
2016 New York Jets:
The first season post-Rex Ryan was a tremendous success for New York’s most maligned franchise, even if it missed the playoffs. The Jets finished 10-6 with a defense spearheaded by head coach Todd Bowles, ranked No. 5 by DVOA last season: despite missing star defensive end Sheldon Richardson for the first four games. And in those games, the Jets averaged an opposing 13.75 points per game. Even if this came against teams like the Browns, Colts, Eagles and Dolphins, this is still extremely impressive.
Most of the Jets’ defensive success comes from just how vaunted their defensive line is. Richardson, Muhammad Wilkerson and Leonard Williams arguably form the league’s best defensive line trio considering they anchored a defense that led the NFL in rush defense DVOA last year. The line also allowed a league-best 2.93 yards from scrimmage, essentially turning opposing running backs into dust during running plays. There’s little reason to think they’ll be significantly worse at stopping the run.
What’s more surprising for an average viewer is how talented the Jets offense is at its skill positions. Brandon Marshall, a still-effective and big possession receiver who was football’s fourth-leading receiver in yards last year is about as good as you could realistically ask for a No. 1 wideout. Eric Decker, a solid 6’3 and 210+ pound slot receiver adds another dimension of vertical potential for the team’s passing attack, which surprisingly ranked No. 10 by DVOA in the NFL last season, ahead of teams like the Lions, Giants and Bears.
Additional players like Matt Forte, Khiry Robinson and Bernard Pierce give the Jets options for receivers out of the backfield, as well as versatile rushing options. Given the age and experience of these players, the Jets are clearly in a win-now position.
Ryan Fitzpatrick looked good, throwing 31 touchdowns and 15 interceptions last season, but there’s reason to believe he’ll regress back to his career ratio, which are a modest 154 touchdowns and 116 interceptions. Last season, Fitzpatrick was one of the league’s luckiest quarterbacks when it came to interceptions, which varies from year to year for most players. This obviously played a huge role in the Jets’ offensive success, build mainly from Fitzpatrick’s effectiveness as a mobile gunslinger willing to throw the ball up to his big receivers in contested coverage. What happens if they don’t bring down the ball as much?
Considering the mess that makes up New York’s offensive line, Fitzpatrick may also be forced to make quick decisions, which he isn’t as comfortable with in comparison to throwing down the field. 32 year-old center Nick Mangold, a longtime Jet and former superstar, had a down year last year in which he ranked only No. 17 at his position for player grades by Pro Football Focus. The sudden retirement of left tackle D’Brickashaw Ferguson adds another hole in the offensive line, which the Jets filled by adding Ryan Clady: a former 2012 All-Pro with the Broncos coming off a lost year from a torn ACL.
That’s not even going into the right side of the line, which features the disappointing 2013 third round guard Brian Winters and the 30 year-old Breno Giacomini, who at this point in his career plays like a permanently petrified Final Fantasy character. Even if Giacomini doesn’t start at right tackle by the beginning of the season, New York has few options backing him up: it would have to pick between rookie Brandon Shell, the 6’7 and 315 pound raw beast in Brent Qvale and Ben Ijalana as Giacomini’s replacement. Only James Carpenter looked anywhere decent last season out of returning starters on the offensive line.
For a team with such a vaunted defensive line and blitz-heavy reputation, the Jets also weren’t very good at pressuring opposing quarterbacks last season. They ranked only No. 21 in Football Outsiders’ adjusted sack rate Not being able to get to passers consistently opens up the Jets to quick passes across the middle to slot receivers who will be covered by Buster Skrine, who often looked like a deer in the headlights in coverage last season, or even poor coverage linebackers like David Harris, Erin Henderson or rookie linebacker Jordan Jenkins.
This can negate the promise and potential of New York’s promising and young safety duo in Marcus Gilchrist and Calvin Pryor. It also diminishes cornerback Darrelle Revis, who is still one of the league’s better starters, but definitely no longer what he was in his prime or even what it was with New England.
Best Case: Offensive coordinator and quarterback whisperer Chan Gailey keeps the FitzMagic going, as the Jets turn up in a considerably easier second half of their schedule, only splitting games with New England. Meanwhile, the pass rush improves and Darrelle Revis turns back into the best cornerback in football en route to the Jets winning a division title at 11-5 and perhaps getting a Super Bowl appearance.
Worst Case: Left with the likes of Christian Hackenberg, Bryce Petty or the dreaded Geno Smith at quarterback after a poor offensive line gets Fitzpatrick hurt or benched near the start of the season, the Jets get murdered by their brutal opening seven-game stretch against the Bengals, Bills, Chiefs, Seahawks, Steelers, Cardinals and Ravens. Any kind of improvement in the second half of the season isn’t enough, as the Jets finish 7-9 with another offseason wondering when they’ll get a long-term starting quarterback and what to do with all the veterans they’ve spent money on.
2016 Miami Dolphins
Since 2008, when Miami finished 11-5 and won the AFC East, I’d imagine that being a Dolphins fan at this point in your life is probably frustrating. They’ve finished either 6-10, 7-9 or 8-8 in every season since, going through four head coaches and already on their fifth in Adam Gase. However, given Gase’s success as an offensive coordinator with the Broncos and Bears, there’s reason to believe he can turn around the Dolphins on the offensive end.
Though the Dolphins ranked only No. 22 in offensive DVOA last year, they were No. 8 in the year before, showing that they still have legitimate talent on the roster. With perhaps the league’s best slot receiver in Jarvis Landry, a solid No. 2 and deep threat in Devante Parker and the young but already starting-caliber quarterback in Ryan Tannehill, Miami is built for quick throws and ball control. Tight end Jordan Cameron, who often looked lost as a blocking tight end under former interim coach Dan Campbell’s, could be prime for a redemption-year at his position, not too different from how Gase developed Julius Thomas before his breakout year in 2015. First round draft pick Laremy Tunsil, marijuana predilections aside, also looks to be one of the best offensive line prospects ever and a long-term solution to Miami’s offensive line woes from previous seasons.
The Dolphins also have two strong duos on their defense: the menacing strong side rushers in Ndamukong Suh and Cameron Wake, not to mention a weak-side replacement for Olivier Vernon in Mario Williams: who is off an extremely disappointing year with the Buffalo Bills, but should be allowed to freely rush on the outside more in newly hired defensive coordinator Vance Joseph’s scheme, heavily based around a 4-3 set that Williams excels in.
Joseph, who has success coaching defensive backs for the 49ers, Texans and Bengals, should work well with safeties Isa Abdul-Quddus (signed from Detroit), All-Pro special teams player Michael Thomas and Reshad Jones, who for what it’s worth was the highest rated strong safety in Madden 17. Miami will almost certainly improve upon their No. 29 DVOA ranking in pass defense and No. 22 adjusted sack rate.
By the same logic I’m using to promote Gase’s credentials, you could have also said the same thing about Joe Philbin, who was fired near the beginning of last season and had a history of being a successful offensive coordinator with the Packers before. The offseason signing of Arian Foster also could be overstated, given how he might actually lose the starting job to the young Jay Ajayi, who suffered a knee injury yesterday in practice, causing even more questions at the running back position.
More concerning for Miami is its consistent lack of options near the right side of the line. Out of players that could start there next season are likely guards like the horrendous Dallas Thomas, fellow 2014 draft class disappointment Billy Turner or the still developing Ja’Wuan James. If left tackle Branden Albert and center Mike Pouncey regress, it would be asking a lot of Tunsil to lift up a line ranked No. 31 by Pro Football Focus. You could even say it’d be thinking too highly of him. Sorry for the pun.
On the other end, Joseph has talked about his fears for the Dolphins’ lack of depth behind their eleven starters. Having already seen Byron Maxwell brutally fail as a No. 1 corner in Philadelphia, Miami curiously decided to trade for him as its replacement for the departed Brent Grimes, while also collecting the talented, but glass linebacker in Kiko Alonzo. Both Maxwell and Alonzo are already questionable at coverage across the middle of the field, but outside linebacker Jelani Jenkins and slot corner Bobby McCain are arguably just as susceptible. It’s also asking a lot of second round cornerback Xavien Howard or sixth round safety Jordan Lucas to play significant minutes.
Best Case: Adam Gase finally manages to be the offensive mastermind that pushes Ryan Tannehill into the Top Ten conversation for NFL quarterbacks, as the Dolphins go back to having an above average offense and above average defense, improved by weapons like Tunsil and Williams in the trenches. Miami finishes 9-7 with a wildcard spot.
Worst Case: The offensive line play is inconsistent throughout the year and Gase is unable to give Tannehill the rushing help he needs to avoid getting sacked another 60+ times for another season. Injuries on defense rushes rookies and younger players to significant playing time where they get badly exposed en route to what Miami fans dread most: another 6-10 season that leads to a clean house for its front office.
2016 Buffalo Bills
If anyone told you heading into 2015 that Buffalo would have the No. 9 offense in football per DVOA, you would have had every right to laugh at them. Somehow, offensive coordinator Greg Roman turned quarterback Tyrod Taylor into a mini Colin Kaepernick, with a hugely successful 3035 passing yards, 20 touchdowns, six interceptions-filled yards season from the Virginia Tech prospect in 14 games. Coordinating an offense based around explosive plays from Taylor, running back LeSean McCoy and wide receiver Sammy Watkins, Roman completely shattered expectations heading into his first season with Buffalo.
What’s even more impressive is just how thoroughly dominant the weak side of Buffalo’s offensive line looked, with stellar seasons from standouts like left tackle Cordy Glenn, left guard Richie Incognito and a great showing from center Eric Wood. You don’t have to like Incognito as a human being to acknowledge his tremendous impact on the Bills last season, when he played like the best guard in football, being a huge part of Buffalo’s No. 2 ranked rushing DVOA attack.
Buffalo’s defense also seems prime for a rebound, given its uncharacteristically awful No. 30 rank in rush defense DVOA, No. 31 rank in adjusted sack rate and No. 24 rank in defensive rank in DVOA for defense, which they ranked No. 2 in 2014 in. Talent wise, there’s no doubt that Jerry Hughes, Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams form one of the biggest and baddest cores of a defense that should have more experience and better communication with each other as part of coach Rex Ryan’s 3-4 scheme.
Bringing along Hall of Fame safety Ed Reed as an assistant defensive backs coach is an underrated and brilliant move by Ryan to restore his reputation as one of the NFL’s greatest defensive masterminds ever. Especially given the talent Reed will be directly working with, like the excellent cornerback duo of Stephon Gilmore and Ronald Darby, who is off an excellent rookie season.
Though the Bills had an amazing offense last year, it’s hard to expect Tyrod Taylor to put up another 99.0 passer rating this season. Buffalo also recovered 64.29 percent of its fumbles last season, which should regress back to somewhere closer to the league median (52.94 percent) and cause a decline in Buffalo’s offense on its own. It’d be more realistic to expect Taylor to play like an average starting quarterback this season than the mobile menace he was last season for opposing defenses.
This could cause a huge problem for the Bills, who last season also led the league in three-and-outs in offense. Though the weak side of the line was incredible last season, it also didn’t mask John Miller or left tackle Jordan Mills, both among the worst at their position in football and contributing to a still awful strong side of the line. Buffalo’s only other options to deal with its lack of talent here are players like Cyril Richardson and Cyrus Kouandijo. One injury or return-to-Earth season for any of the vaunted left side linemen could drastically hurt Buffalo’s chances of having another good offense. The injury to Watkins this summer already could hurt the Bills’ ability to maintain a good offense.
On the other end, it’s tough to say if Buffalo losing its leading pass rusher (Mario Williams, who was tied with Hughes for most sacks) is the way to improve its No. 30 adjusted sack rate on the season. The Bills also still looks suspect in their linebacker score, with question marks surrounding the effectiveness of Preston Brown, Zach Brown and Manny Lawson, players who played a part in Buffalo’s weakness in defending the middle of the field, where they ranked 27th last year in DVOA. Rookie linebacker Reggie Ragland and rookie defensive end Adolphus Washington are prime for playing time, but also green for opponents to expose early on in the season. An additional injury to first round defensive end Shaq Lawson also could hurt.
Best Case: Motivated by last year’s disappointing results, the Bills defense beats everyone black and blue and makes it way back near the top of the league. Tyrod Taylor isn’t as effective as last year, but is good enough to lead his team a 9-7 record and possible wildcard appearance.
Worst Case: Buffalo’s offensive line suffers injuries as a cruel irony from them returning all five starters from last season and Tyrod Taylor gets hurt or benched as a result, leading to an EJ Manuel or Cardale Jones appearance. The Bills’ defense never gets back on track, instead more focused on getting flagged for personal fouls and Ryan becomes a laughing stock of his own division again after a 4-12 finish.
How do you think the AFC East will turn out? Tweet @ssbmjecht what you think!