Death, taxes, and the Patriots winning the AFC East. Some things in life are a given, and in the Belichick/Brady era, the Patriots are a near annual guarantee to win their division. Can the defending Super Bowl champions dominate the division once again, or will Adam Gase finally topple the Patriots from atop the division? As is tradition, the AFC East Head Coach game of musical chairs has taken place once more. Patriots defensive play caller Brian Flores has taken over the Head Coach role from Adam Gase in Miami, Gase in turn has now taken over the Jets HC position, the Bills continue their under-the-radar rebuild under Sean McDermott, and the Belichick/Patriots juggernaut continues its unwavering course.
So what are the major talking points for each team this season? Let’s take a look at them one by one.
New England Patriots
The number one question entering 2019 for the Patriots is how their offense will look. Following the retirement of Rob Gronkowski, the weapons available to Brady were paper-thin. However, Josh Gordon has been reinstated, and Demaryius Thomas has locked up a place on the 53-man roster. Despite suffering a torn Achilles in 2018, Thomas looked spritely in the fourth preseason game. Old faithful Julian Edelman should be ready for Week 1, and Sony Michel has looked electric in the preseason after a minor procedure to clean up his knee. Unfortunately first round pick N’Keal Harry will open the season on IR, but should be a candidate to return during the season.
No doubt, the most important (re)addition to this offense is Gordon, who despite spending considerable time away from football over the past few seasons, remains one of the most talented receivers in the league. At just 28 years old, he has plenty left in the tank.
Gordon didn’t join the Patriots in 2018 until Week 3, and even then he was slowly integrated into the offense following his trade from the Browns. He was also nursing a hamstring injury, and had been away from the Browns’ facility to tend to his mental health. Once he was up and running in the Patriots offense though, Gordon was outstanding, and his involvement this year spells trouble for the rest of the division:
Even more worryingly for opposition defense coordinators is how Gordon was used when Gronkowski didn’t suit up last season. Gordon garnered attention from Brady that would make Gisele jealous, posting 13 catches for 311 yards and 1 touchdown on 28 targets. Even with those gaudy numbers, it’s surprising to see that Gordon is the most efficient target of Tom Brady’s career. Yes, even more so than Rob Gronkowski:
If Gordon is 100% checked into football, he puts the Patriots offense into the top 5 in the NFL, and will help them challenge for yet another AFC Championship in 2019. Of course, given his history, it’s a big if, but a focused Gordon will single-handedly win football games for the Patriots.
New York Jets
It’s all change for Gang Green in 2019. New Head Coach Adam Gase, and a new General Manager Joe Douglas are tasked with elevating the Jets from the basement of the AFC East. Eyebrows were raised after former GM Mike Maccagan was fired after the 2019 NFL Draft, but Douglas comes highly regarded in the football world, and has already made his mark on the roster. Notably, he has already cut the Jets third round pick out of Florida, Jachai Polite. It’s quite clear Gase and Maccagan didn’t see eye to eye on that particular selection. More importantly for the Jets is who Douglas has added. He has talked Ryan Khalil out of his decision to retire, which should be welcome help to the Jets’ offensive line which was among the worst in football last season (per Football Outsiders).
The Jets also added free agent guard Kelechi Osemele. Osemele started his career as one of the better guards in the NFL (per PFF), but struggled mightily in 2018, allowing the most sacks since his rookie season. It was unsurprising to see the Raiders move on, but perhaps a change of scene will help Osemele rediscover some of his old form.
Any improvement in the offensive line should also aid new star running back Le’Veon Bell. Bell has had the luxury of playing his entire career behind an elite offensive line unit in Pittsburgh, so it will be interesting to see what his rushing efficiency looks like in New York. Bell’s true value to the Jets though, will be his ability in the passing game. Bell is just one of three running backs in the NFL to see at least 300 targets and average at least eight yards per target since 2014, and the only one in that group who is a true three-down back.
Having such an effective release valve in Bell will be invaluable to franchise QB Sam Darnold. Whilst he (unsurprisingly) struggled at times in his rookie season, he showed his potential in the back half of the season. Keeping him upright, and getting the ball out quickly to the likes of Bell, Robby Anderson, Jamison Crowder, and Chris Herndon (once his four game suspension is over) should be a priority for Adam Gase. Gase’s recent coaching history suggests the Jets offense will be anything but fast – his Miami offenses ranked dead last in the NFL in plays per game in 2016 and 2018, and just 22nd in 2017. Fortunately for the Jets, Gase has shown an inclination to run an up-tempo offense this preseason, which should provide some assistance to Darnold.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Jets have made some fine acquisitions, including arguably the best player in the 2019 NFL Draft, defensive lineman Quinnen Williams. Pairing him with Leonard Williams should cause some problems for opposing offenses. They also paid free agent inside linebacker C.J. Mosley handsomely, and he brings leadership and stability to the linebacking corps. Add in Jamal Adams who can stake a claim as one of the best safeties in the NFL, and this defensive unit is shaping up well. But, the glaring hole on this depth chart is at cornerback, so if the Jets can’t get to the opposition quarterback quickly, they may struggle to keep offenses in check.
Buffalo are quietly building one of the better defenses in the NFL. Ed Oliver is already looking like a steal at ninth overall in this years’ draft, and should form an excellent young defensive core with fellow first rounders Tremaine Edmunds and Tre’Davious White, who have both shown future Pro-Bowl ability. This blend of youthful talent, combined with the veteran presence of Jerry Hughes, Star Lotulelei, and the evergreen Lorenzo Alexander gives the Bills a strong defensive platform to build upon a solid 2018, in which they gave up the fewest passing yards per game in the NFL. Importantly, Oliver should help solidify the Bills upfront, where McDermott will be aiming to improve on their rushing yards per game conceded (16th), and woeful ranking of 31st in the NFL in opponent first down rushing percentage (37.88%). If the Bills can stop teams rushing for first downs at will, it should alleviate some of the pressure on their offense which struggled to make an impact in 2018.
One of the primary reasons the Bills ranked 30th in offensive points per game in 2018 was their offensive line. The unit graded out as the 26th rated unit in the NFL (per PFF). You can’t accuse the Bills of ignoring this problem as they have signed multiple linemen in free agency, including LaAdrian Waddle and Spencer Long from their AFC East rivals, as well as signing Mitch Morse to a generous contract.
They also invested the 38th overall selection in the 2019 NFL Draft on Cody Ford, a highly rated offensive line prospect out of Oklahoma. It’s hard to quantify how much the offensive line will improve in 2019, but it’s unlikely to be worse than what we saw last season.
Behind the line, questions remain at quarterback, and whilst Josh Allen is a popular pick in fantasy football due to his rushing ability and big play potential, the reality is he remains wildly inaccurate. He had the lowest completion and adjusted completion percentage in the NFL, and whilst his receiving options were fairly ordinary, accuracy issues have plagued Allen his entire footballing career. Whilst I hope that we see an improvement from him in 2019, I still have doubts as his legitimacy as a franchise QB. We will see some jaw-dropping throws this season, but his inability to complete simple throws, and tendency to force reckless interceptions on early downs will hold back the offense. Adding John Brown, and Cole Beasley should help somewhat, but any expectations of Allen to complete close to 60% of his passes this season should be tempered.
The Miami Dolphins are rebuilding, and so many questions hover over this franchise. How will first year Head Coach Brian Flores manage the increased responsibility? Will Josh Rosen get the chance to prove he’s an NFL calibre quarterback? Does owner Stephen Ross have the patience to allow GM Chris Grier the time to rebuild this roster from the ground up? The answer to these questions overlap somewhat, but one thing is for certain – 2019 will be a difficult season for the Dolphins.
On paper their roster is the worst in the division. We all know football isn’t played on paper, but they have gaping holes on both sides of the line. The offensive line enters 2019 as PFFs worst ranked unit, and that was before Laremy Tunsil was traded to Houston. Veterans Kiko Alonso and Kenny Stills have been shipped out in exchange for future draft picks, and Reshad Jones is rumoured to be on the trade block. It would be one of the shocks of the season, and a result of some masterful coaching from Flores if this Dolphins team doesn’t finish last in the AFC East. It’s not just me who thinks that – Vegas has the win total for this team at 4.5 wins, the lowest in the NFL.
On the bright side, Xavien Howard and Minkah Fitzpatrick should be staples of the defense for years to come. Howard has performed admirably in recent seasons, and the Dolphins have rewarded him accordingly, making him the highest paid cornerback in the NFL. It turns out that limiting De’Andre Hopkins, Julio Jones, Brandin Cooks, Amari Cooper, and Robby Anderson to just 151 yards on 125 routes in two seasons will get you paid (per PFF). Minkah Fitzpatrick has played well too, showing the hard hitting ability that made him a college standout at Alabama.
Whilst it is early days, the Dolphins might have found a steal in UDFA wide receiver Preston Williams, who can be a contributor if he can stay out of trouble off the field. Albert Wilson is one of the most electric players in the NFL, with home run ability every time he has the ball in his hands. His ability from the slot will be vital to who lines up under center this season. Kenyan Drake is a competent running back with excellent pass catching skills, but there isn’t much else to write about on offense for this team unfortunately.
Ryan Fitzpatrick has been named the starter for Week 1, but the Dolphins would be foolish to waste too many snaps on him this season. We all know what he is at this stage of his career. After giving up a 2019 second round pick for Josh Rosen, the Dolphins should use every snap available to them to evaluate whether he is “the guy” before the 2020 NFL Draft. Only time will tell how much of an opportunity he will get, but we can be sure that he finds himself in a terrible situation for a second consecutive season. You have to feel for him.
Who are you predicting to win the AFC East? Is it business as usual for the Patriots? Or will one of these second year quarterbacks usurp Tom Brady and Bill Belichick? Let me know on Twitter @FF_DownUnder!