AFC East Season Preview
It’s been a hectic couple of weeks in the NFL, giving sports fans some excitement and something to look forward to in a world of uncertainty. There was the NFL Draft, followed by the run on undrafted free agents. On Thursday, the NFL schedule was released, giving teams and fans an idea of when they were going to face the opponents that they were already aware of and giving clarity to their schedule. With that said, we can start taking a look at how we think the divisions will pan out in 2020. Today, we’ll start with the AFC East, which for two decades, has been the playground of the New England Patriots. With the winds of change blowing, will someone else take over the top spot this season?
1) Buffalo Bills
In 2019, the Buffalo Bills put together a solid season and gave the Patriots a run for their money en route to finishing second in the AFC East and making the playoffs for the second time in three years under coach Sean McDermott. It was an active offseason for the Bills, who don’t have a lot of glaring needs at this point in time. The team looks to take a step forward and earn their first division title in more than two decades in 2020.
2019 Record: 10-6 (2nd in AFC East, lost 22-19 in overtime to Houston in AFC Wild Card Round)
Odds to Win Super Bowl: 20/1
Odds to Win AFC Championship: 10/1
Odds to Win AFC East: 7/5
Key Additions: WR Stefon Diggs (trade with Vikings), CB Josh Norman (Redskins), DE Mario Addison (Panthers), T Daryl Williams (Panthers), LB A.J. Klein (Saints), DT Quinton Jefferson (Seahawks), DT Vernon Butler (Panthers), CB E.J. Gaines (Browns), RB Taiwan Jones (Texans), LB Tyler Matakevich (Steelers)
Draft Picks: DE A.J. Espenesa, RB Zack Moss, WR Gabriel Davis, QB Jake Fromm, K Tyler Bass, WR Isaiah Hodgins, CB Dane Jackson
Key Losses: DE/LB Lorenzo Alexander (retired), DT Jordan Phillips (Cardinals), DE Shaq Lawson (Dolphins), CB Kevin Johnson (Browns), RB Frank Gore (Jets)
Buffalo needed to bring in another receiver to help Josh Allen’s development and GM Brandon Beane went out and reeled in Diggs from Minnesota. Despite missing Adam Thielen for a big chunk of last season, he hauled in 63 passes for 1,130 yards and six scores. Pairing him with John Brown (72 catches, 1060 yards, six TD) and Cole Beasley (67 grabs, 778 yards, six TD) along with emerging tight end Dawson Knox (28 receptions, 388 yards, two TD) will give Allen plenty of options to work with in the aerial game. Allen took a step forward last season, hitting 58.8 percent of his throws for 3,089 yards with 20 touchdowns against nine interceptions while adding 510 yards and nine scores on the ground. With more weapons, you have to think that things will improve.
The run game will be headlined by Singletary, a third-round pick a season ago who supplanted the departed Gore in the second half of the season. He finished with 151 carries for 775 yards and two scores while adding 29 receptions for 194 yards and two scores. Moss will be a solid complementary back in the run game as he has the ability to get outside and run people over. One can’t overlook what Allen can do with his legs, either on RPOs, designed draws or on scrambles when the pressure is on. Buffalo’s offensive line from a year ago is back with Dion Dawkins, Jon Feliciano, Mitch Morse, Quinton Spain and Cody Ford will benefit from a year of continuity. That should help both in opening holes on the ground and in pass protection.
Defensively, the Bills were stingy last season, ranking second in the league by allowing only 16.2 ppg and third in total defense. Buffalo allowed only 15 touchdown passes last season, which was second-fewest in the league, while picking off 14 passes. Losing Phillips hurts but his 9.5 sacks last season were a career-high and it was going to be tough to see him matching that going forward. The Lawson departure was expected as his injury issues have been a concern. Buffalo used that money to sign Addison, who has 37 sacks in the last four years with the Panthers. Ed Oliver has a year of experience and the addition of Jefferson along with Butler, plus the return of Harrison Phillips from a torn knee ligament, adds depth to the defensive line.
Klein will get a chance to battle for the open linebacker spot created by the retirement of Alexander. Tremaine Edmunds (115 tackles, 10 tackles for loss, nine pass defenses, 1.5 sacks) and Matt Milano (101 tackles, seven tackles for loss, nine pass defenses, forced fumble, fumble recovery, 1.5 sacks) occupy the other two spots, giving Buffalo a solid linebacking group. The secondary is led by All-Pro corner Tre’Davious White (58 tackles, 17 pass defenses, 6 interceptions, two forced fumbles, four tackles for loss), along with an underrated safety duo in Micah Hyde (72 tackles, two forced fumbles, INT, two pass defenses, fumble recovery) and Jordan Poyer (107 tackles, four tackles for loss, three forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries, two INT) to limit opposing offenses.
The kicking job will be up for grabs as Stephen Hauschka hit 22 of 28 field goals and 30 of 32 extra points last season. His leg strength is eroding as he was just one of five from beyond 50 yards last season. By comparison, he drilled seven of nine in his first year in Buffalo and was four of seven from that distance in 2018. Bass hit 114 of 116 extra points and drilled 54 of 68 field goal attempts in his career at Georgia Southern. He led the Sun Belt in field goals in each of the last two years and has the leg strength to hit from beyond 50 yards without taking a step.
Buffalo has talent at all positions and they have continuity in the coaching staff. You have to think that the additions they made in the offseason, coupled with the Patriots losing talent, makes them the favorites in the division.
Projected Record: 11-5, 1st in AFC East
2) New England Patriots
For the past two decades, the New England Patriots have ruled the AFC East, led by the duo of Bill Belichick and Tom Brady. That won’t be the case in 2020 as Brady has left town. His final games in a New England uniform are ones that Patriots fans would love to forget: losing in week 17 to Miami, which knocked them out of a first-round bye. In the wild card round, the Patriots lost to the Titans to end their season with Brady’s last meaningful pass intercepted for a game-clinching pick-six. How does New England respond to personnel changes and the fact that they face their biggest threat to their divisional dominance?
2019 Record: 12-4 (1st in AFC East, lost 20-13 to Tennessee in AFC Wild Card Round)
Odds to Win Super Bowl: 20/1
Odds to Win AFC Championship: 10/1
Odds to Win AFC East: 1/1
Key Additions: S Adrian Phillips (Chargers), FB Dan Vitale (Packers), WR Marqise Lee (Jaguars), LB Brandon Copeland (Jets), WR Damiere Byrd (Cardinals), QB Brian Hoyer (Colts), DT Beau Allen (Buccaneers)
Draft Picks: S Kyle Dugger, LB/DE Josh Uche, LB Anfernee Jennings, TE Devin Asiasi, TE Dalton Keene, L Justin Rohrwasser, G Michael Onwenu. T/G Justin Herron, LB Cassh Malula, C/G Dustin Woodard,
Key Losses: QB Tom Brady (Buccaneers), LB Kyle Van Noy (Dolphins), S Duron Harmon (trade, Lions), LB Jamie Collins (Lions), DT Danny Shelton (Lions), C Ted Karras (Dolphins), LB Elandon Roberts (Dolphins), S Nate Ebner (Giants), TE Rob Gronkowski (trade, Buccaneers), WR Philip Dorsett (Seahawks), TE Ben Watson (retired), K Stephen Gostkowski (released)
New England has to figure out their QB spot for the first time in two decades as Brady went to Tampa Bay to play in the NFC South. There was no hometown discount this time around as the friction between the Patriots and their quarterback finally reached a breaking point. That means that Jarrett Stidham, who threw all of four passes last season, is in line to take over the reins. The team brought back Hoyer to compete for the starting job as the team passed on Andy Dalton. Cam Newton is still out there but it’s unlikely that the Patriots, who are cap-strapped, would find a way to pony up the cash for him. Julian Edelman (100 receptions, 1117 yards, six TD) is the #1 receiver by default but is running on fumes at this point. That leaves Mohamed Sanu (26 receptions, 207 yards, TD), Jakobi Meyers (26 receptions, 359 yards) and N’Keal Harry (12 catches, 105 yards, two TD) along with Lee and Byrd, to step up and produce.
The ground game will again be led by Sony Michel, who carried the ball 247 times for 912 yards and seven scores last season. It makes sense to think that the Patriots may have to lean on the run as Stidham is unproven at this stage. James White (67 carries, 263 yards, TD, 72 receptions, 645 yards, five TD) and Rex Burkhead (65 carries, 302 yards, three TD, 27 receptions, 279 yards) will also factor into the ground game. There’s nothing to speak of when it comes to proven commodities at the tight end spot as they have four rookies along with Matt LaCosse and Ryan Izzo in the mix. The offensive line is going to have to replace Karras and they hope that David Andrews, who missed last season with blood clots in his lungs, can return.
It’s an overhaul defensively for New England as well. Gone are Shelton, Collins, Van Noy and Harmon, each of whom started at least eight games last season. That’s a lot of personnel to replace from a team that was first in scoring defense last season by allowing 14.1 points per game. New England did lead the league in total defense, takeaways (36), turnover differential (+21), interceptions (25) and touchdown passes allowed (13) on the year. The Patriots are going to have to figure out how to replace that veteran leadership. New England may have to rely on their secondary, led by Stephon Gilmore (53 tackles, 20 pass defenses, six INT, two TD, fumble recovery), along with Devin McCourty (58 tackles, five INT, seven pass defenses, two forced fumbles, fumble recovery) and J.C. Jackson (36 tackles, 10 pass defenses, five INT) in order to have success. Figuring out how to replace Collins and Van Noy at linebacker is going to be critical.
While Belichick is still an elite coach, the fact remains that the Patriots have to replace a lot of key components from a season ago. When you go from a guy who has six Super Bowl rings at quarterback to a guy that hasn’t thrown six passes in the NFL, there’s going to be a drop-off. While Stidham may prove to be serviceable, he’s not Brady. There are too many holes in the dam for the Patriots to maintain their perch at the top of the mountain in the AFC East. They may earn a wild-card spot, but the reign at the top is over.
Projected Record: 9-7, 2nd in AFC East
3) New York Jets
Last season was a train wreck for the New York Jets and it began in week one. Leading 16-0 late in the third quarter of the season opener against the Bills, New York wilted, allowing 17 unanswered points en route to a one-point loss. That was the start of a disappointing year that saw the team rotate three different starting quarterbacks. Le’Veon Bell was a big investment in the offseason and he put up the worst yard per carry average in franchise history. There was friction between Bell and Adam Gase, not to mention a slew of horrible personnel decisions. While the Jets won six of their final eight games, their 1-7 start was too big a river to cross as they finished 7-9.
2019 Record: 7-9 (3rd in AFC East, failed to qualify for postseason)
Odds to Win Super Bowl: 100/1
Odds to Win AFC Championship: 50/1
Odds to Win AFC East: 7/1
Key Additions: RB Frank Gore (Bills), LB Patrick Onwuasor (Ravens), WR Breshad Perriman (Buccaneers), CB Pierre Desir (Colts), G Greg Van Roten (Panthers), C/G Connor McGovern (Broncos), T George Fant (Seahawks)
Draft Picks: T Mekhi Becton, WR Denzel Mims, S Ashtyn Davis, DE Jabari Zuniga, RB Lamical Perine, QB James Morgan, T/G Cameron Clark, CB Bryce Hall, P Braden Mann
Key Losses: T Brandon Shell (Seahawks), T/G Tom Compton (49ers), LB Brandon Copeland (Patriots), T Brent Qvale (Texans), WR Robby Anderson (Panthers), CB Darryl Roberts (Lions), CB Maurice Canady (Cowboys), CB Trumaine Johnson Jr. (released), C Ryan Kalil, T Kelvin Beachum, RB Ty Montgomery, RB Bilal Powell, WR Demaryius Thomas, P Lachlan Edwards
New York struggled last season as they were unable to put together consistent performances on either side of the ball. The Jets were the second-worst scoring team in the league last season as they averaged just 17.3 points per game. Part of that was the rotation at quarterback. Sam Darnold completed 61.9 percent of his throws last season for 3,024 yards with 19 touchdowns and 13 interceptions but missed three games with mono. In his stead, the team turned to Trevor Siemian, who was injured in his lone appearance, and Luke Falk, who was cut loose after Darnold returned. The Jets hope that the acquisitions of Perriman along with adding Mims via the draft can help bolster the passing attack. New York was 29th in passing offense last year and saw one of their top receivers from a season ago, Anderson, leave town. Jamison Crowder (78 catches, 833 yards, six TD) is back but he’s a slot guy and not someone you can count on to create big plays.
The run game has to be better for the Jets if they hope to turn things around. Bell, who sat out the entire 2018 season in a contract dispute with the Steelers, came to the Jets and was a disappointment. He finished the year with 245 carries for 789 yards and three scores with no run longer than 19 yards. Bell did add 66 catches for 461 yards and a score out of the backfield. With Powell and Montgomery gone, the Jets turned to Gore, who ran 166 times for 599 yards and two scores for the Bills last season, to be the backup. He’ll also provide veteran leadership to help Perine get up to speed in the NFL. New York overhauled their offensive line, bringing in guys like Fant, McGovern and Van Roten while drafting the massive Becton. It will be interesting to see how this group comes together after being a train wreck last season.
Defensively, the Jets were a middle of the pack team as they were 16th in scoring defense by allowing 22.4 points per game. New York was seventh in total defense but was hurt by the offense committing 25 turnovers, setting opposing teams up with favorable field position at times. The Jets were stout against the run, finishing seventh in rushing defense and allowing only 3.3 yards per carry, but had struggles against the pass. New York gave up 25 TD passes, putting them in the middle of the pack. The Jets hope that they get better health out of C.J. Mosley, another big dollar acquisition in free agency before last season, as he played in just two games before going down for the year. He’d be a key anchor in the front seven. Quinnen Williams needs to step up after a subpar rookie season while the Jets hope that Jordan Jenkins (32 tackles, team-high eight sacks, three pass defenses, two forced fumbles) can build off his showing last year in the pass rushing department.
Jamal Adams was the leader of the team last season from his strong safety spot as he delivered big plays and bit hits. He finished the year with 75 tackles, 6.5 sacks, 10 tackles for loss, seven pass defenses, two forced fumbles, fumble recovery, INT, TD) to make plays in all facets. Marcus Maye (65 tackles, seven pass defenses, INT) is solid at the free safety spot. Desir is expected to slot in at one corner while Arthur Maulet (38 tackles, tackle for loss, two pass defenses, INT) and Brian Poole (59 tackles, four tackles for loss, five pass defenses, forced fumble, INT, TD) are going to be the other corner and nickel back. The kicking game currently looks like a two-man battle between Sam Ficken (23 of 26 on extra points, 19 of 27 on field goals) and Brett Maher (36 of 36 on extra points, 20 of 30 on field goals with Dallas) for the gig.
New York made some necessary moves, like shoring up their offensive line, in an effort to improve from last season. Better health would be a plus for the Jets but they still have holes to deal with. There isn’t a true proven option in the passing game outside of Crowder and a slot guy doesn’t strike fear in opposing defenses. Bell needs to bounce back and Mosley has to prove that he can get back to form. Even if all things break right for the Jets, the schedule is going to be tough and it’s hard to see them improving all that much, if at all. It’s another year of discord and no playoffs for New York.
Projected Record: 7-9, 3rd in AFC East
4) Miami Dolphins
Last season, the Dolphins were a team in complete disarray early on in the year. Josh Rosen was the initial starter under center but inevitably got the hook, leading to veteran quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick taking over the reins in week 4. Under his leadership, Miami was more competitive, winning five of their final nine games after starting the season 0-7. That included wins over Philadelphia at home in week 13 and a critical road win over New England in week 17 that sent the Patriots to the wild-card round. Miami was active in free agency, throwing around big money in an effort to improve the team. The Dolphins also hope they’ve drafted their franchise quarterback but time will tell on that front.
2019 Record: 5-11 (4th in AFC East, failed to qualify for postseason)
Odds to Win Super Bowl: 100/1
Odds to Win AFC Championship: 50/1
Odds to Win AFC East: 7/1
Key Additions: LB/FB Elandon Roberts (Patriots), C/G Ted Karras (Patriots), DE/LB Shaq Lawson (Bills), RB Jordan Howard (Eagles), CB Byron Jones (Cowboys), LB Kyle Van Noy (Patriots), DE Emmanuel Ogbah (Chiefs), LB Kamu Grugier-Hill (Eagles), T/G Ereck Flowers (Redskins), S Clayton Fejedelem (Bengals), RB Matt Breida (trade, 49ers)
Draft Picks: QB Tua Tagovailoa, T Austin Jackson, CB Noah Igbinoghene, T/G Robert Hunt, DT Raekwon Davis, S Brandon Jones, G Solomon Kindley, DE/DT Jason Strewbridge, DE/LB Curtis Weaver, LS Blake Ferguson, RB/WR Malcolm Perry
Key Losses: C Evan Boehm (Bills), DE Taco Charlton (waived, picked up by Chiefs), DT John Jenkins (Bears), S Reshad Jones (released), CB Aqib Talib
Miami was just 25th in the league in scoring offense last season as they put up an average of 19.1 ppg on the year. Fitzpatrick completed 62 percent of his passes for 3,529 yards with 20 touchdowns against 13 interceptions while adding 243 yards and four scores on the ground. Miami went out and added Tagovailoa with the fifth overall pick in the draft in hopes that he is the QB of the future. The Dolphins need to find some capable targets in the passing game beyond DeVante Parker, who had 72 grabs for 1,202 yards and nine touchdowns a season ago. That means Albert Wilson (43 receptions, 351 yards, TD) and Allen Hurns (32 grabs, 416 yards, two TD) have to step up and help, along with tight end Mike Gesicki (51 catches, 570 yards, five TD) in order to take pressure off Parker.
The Dolphins’ run game last season was atrocious as Fitzpatrick’s total led the team. Based on that pathetic production, Miami brought in Howard (119 carries, 525 yards, six TD with Philadelphia) and Breida (123 carries, 623 yards, TD with San Francisco) to help lead the way on the ground. There are issues with that duo, however: Howard is a plodding back while Breida, while speedy and an excellent cutback runner, has dealt with injuries in his short career. Either way, it’s a step forward for the Dolphins after last season’s showing, when they were last in the league. Miami drafted a couple offensive linemen but there still is work to be done on a shaky unit for the team to have sustained success.
Defensively, Miami was dead last in the league in scoring defense as they allowed an average of 30.9 points per game. The Dolphins allowed at least 30 points in 10 of their 16 games last season, which was a major reason they struggled. Miami was 30th in total defense, 28th in takeaways (16), 26th in pass defense, 27th in rushing defense and dead last in touchdown passes allowed (39) last year. That was part of why the Dolphins overpaid, in the opinion of some people by a vast margin, to bring in Jones. The additions of Van Noy, Lawson and Ogbah will definitely help bolster what was a suspect front seven last year. It definitely will help out Jerome Baker, who finished with a team-high 126 tackles, three tackles for loss, four pass defenses, two forced fumbles and an interception.
The secondary will have Jones, who was solid last year for Dallas, as its leader. Miami will hope for a bounce-back year from Xavien Howard, who led the league with seven picks in 2018 but played just five games last season. He also is facing a potential suspension for an off-field incident during the offseason. The safety spots likely will be manned by last year’s duo of Bobby McCain (25 tackles, three pass defenses, two INT) and Eric Rowe (81 tackles, eight pass defenses, forced fumble, INT, TD), giving stability on the back line. Miami is going to need their new pieces to fit right in and improve things if the team hopes to have success.
There’s a lot of overhaul in South Beach as the Dolphins are dealing with a bit of transition. Three first-round picks and a ton of moves in free agency should help the team improve but with those moves, especially in an offseason that has been 100 percent virtual to this point, means that the ability to get up to speed with new teammates is going to take time. Will the Dolphins go to Tagovailoa during the season or entrust the reins to Fitzpatrick for the full year. There’s a lot of questions and not a ton of answers. Miami improves slightly, but they still have work to do in order to return to the postseason.
Projected Record: 6-10, 4th in AFC East