With Brady gone, AFC East looks scrambled

By Brady Kannon  () 

While it came with having to pay a high price, betting on the New England Patriots to win the AFC East has been one of the most successful wagers in the NFL for 18 seasons. The Patriots have won the division 16 times since 2002, the last 11 in a row. But with Tom Brady’s 20-year run having ended, the AFC East title might finally be up for grabs for the first time in two decades.

Buffalo Bills

2019 record: 10-6

2020 season win total: 9

2020 division odds: + 125

2020 non-division games: at Cardinals, at Broncos, at Titans, at Raiders, at 49ers, Chiefs, Chargers, Rams, Seahawks, Steelers

After the Bills missed the postseason for nearly two decades, coach Sean McDermott has taken them to the playoffs in two of his first three seasons. Buffalo has lost both of those postseason games, but the progress this team has made is obvious, as is McDermott’s ascension as one of the NFL’s top coaches.

McDermott’s background is entirely on defense, and this is where the Bills flourish, ranking fourth against the pass in 2019 and 11th in defending the run. Defensive end Shaq Lawson has departed to Miami via free agency, but Buffalo immediately grabbed an excellent replacement in Mario Addison, who has averaged nearly 10 sacks per season the last four years. Addison, 33, comes over from Carolina, where McDermott coached him from 2013-16. Cornerback Josh Norman was added from Washington and reunites with McDermott from their time together in Carolina. A.J. Klein is a solid veteran at linebacker who comes over from New Orleans and — yes — spent multiple years with McDermott and the Panthers. Vernon Butler and Quintin Jefferson were added to the defensive line. Butler was a 2016 first-round draft choice for Carolina when McDermott was defensive coordinator. The Bills were 12th in the league with 44 sacks in 2019.

The emphasis on defense continued in the draft as Buffalo’s first selection was A.J. Epenesa, a defensive end from Iowa. This looks like a good pick, as many projected Epenesa to go in the first round, but Buffalo got him in Round 2 with the 54th pick. On offense, I like the third-round selection of Utah running back Zack Moss. He’s a bruiser at about 220 pounds who can pass-block and catch balls out of the backfield. He is a nice thunder-and-lightning complement to second-year back Devin Singletary. The question will be Moss’ durability, as he is a punishing runner who racked up a lot of carries in college. Along with T.J. Yeldon, this ought to be a good trio, coming off a 2019 season in which the rushing attack ranked seventh in the NFL. The area open for improvement is through the air, as Buffalo ranked 27th in passing offense. Stefon Diggs was acquired via trade with Minnesota and should be a tremendous aid to quarterback Josh Allen with receivers John Brown and Cole Beasley. Two more receivers were drafted, Gabriel Davis in the fourth round and Isaiah Hodgins in the sixth.

The Skinny: Amassing double-digit wins was a first for the Bills in the McDermott era, but I believe they have a good chance to get there again. This team seems to become more of a threat every season, and the division rival Patriots do not look to be the powerhouse they normally are. The schedule appears very difficult, drawing the AFC West and NFC West for non-division opponents. If Allen can continue his growth and the additions to the receiving corps pay off, the Bills ought to be serious contenders to come out of the AFC. I am not in love with their division number of + 125, but I do lean Over the season win of 9. Maybe the most intriguing bet I see right now is 12-1 to win the conference, which is a nice enough number to set up a hedge opportunity. If Kansas City and Baltimore slip, the Bills could be next up in the AFC.

Miami Dolphins

2019 record: 5-11

2020 season win total: 6.5

2020 division odds: 8/1

2020 non-division games: at Cardinals, at Broncos, at Jaguars, at Raiders, at 49ers, Chiefs, Chargers, Rams, Seahawks, Bengals

My biggest takeaway from the Dolphins’ 2019 season is that rookie coach Brian Flores seems well suited to the job. The front office fleeced this team of its star players in 2019 and planned for the future, yet Flores kept his team motivated and playing hard. Early in the year, bets were available on the Dolphins going 0-16. They started 0-7 but finished 5-11.

Flores’ background is on the defensive side, spending 11 years and four Super Bowl seasons with the New England Patriots before coming to Miami. After ranking 27th in the league in rushing defense and passing defense, Flores emphasized this direction in free agency. Former Patriots linebackers Kyle Van Noy and Elandon Roberts are headed to South Beach via free agency along with former Eagles LB Kamu Grugier-Hill. Landing former Cowboys cornerback Byron Jones was a big score, as was defensive end Shaq Lawson, coming over from Buffalo. On offense, Flores went back to the Patriots and scooped up center Ted Karras. He also raided the Eagles for running back Jordan Howard to improve a rushing attack that ranked dead last in the NFL. Finally, 2015 first-round pick Ereck Flowers was obtained in free agency for the offensive line in an aggressive and productive offseason for Miami.

Speculation had arisen that the Dolphins might trade up in the draft from their fifth spot, perhaps for an offensive lineman. But they made the easy play, drafting Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa at No. 5. Flores immediately went to work on protecting his new quarterback with offensive tackle Austin Jackson of USC, guard Robert Hunt of Louisiana Lafayette and guard Solomon Kindley of Georgia. Of 11 selections, the Dolphins went with five offensive players, five defensive players and a long snapper, Blake Ferguson of LSU. Miami also used a fifth-round pick to trade for 49ers running back Matt Breida, who looks like a solid starter in the backfield alongside Howard. On defense, Miami added two players from the SEC who will start Week 1. Auburn cornerback Noah Igbinoghene was Miami’s third first-round pick and a great grab at No. 30 overall. At 56th in the second round, defensive tackle Raekwon Davis from Alabama was added to the impressive haul.

The Skinny: The Dolphins have improved all over the field this offseason and took advantage of having a slew of draft choices. They are immediately improved, and I would lean on them getting to seven wins. The question is: How soon will Tagovailoa make it into the lineup, and will that switch be timely or out of desperation? And to whom will he or Ryan Fitzpatrick throw the ball? Miami experienced a great deal of injury at wideout last season, but after legitimate No. 1 DeVante Parker, two or three other threats will have to emerge. The Dolphins are getting close. I’d say they’re threats to win the division in a year or two if the quarterback project is successful.

 

New England Patriots

2019 record: 12-4

2020 season win total: 9

2020 division odds: + 125

2020 non-division games: at Texans, at Chiefs, at Chargers, at Rams, at Seahawks, Broncos, Cardinals, Raiders, 49ers, Ravens

The 20-year run is over. Bill Belichick remains coach, but quarterback Tom Brady is off to Tampa Bay. Does this mean the streak of 11 straight AFC East titles and 16 of the last 18 will come to a halt?

The Patriots picked up a few solid players via free agency, getting versatile players who figure to be good special-teamers. Most players who left New England in free agency headed for Detroit or Miami, teams now coached by former Patriots staffers Matt Patricia and Brian Flores. It leaves the Patriots a lot of holes to fill. Four spots along the front seven were vacated. The Pats did pick up linebacker Brandon Copeland from the Jets and defensive tackle Beau Allen from Tampa Bay. Defensive back Adrian Phillips is an excellent pickup from the Chargers. Phillips was out for most of 2019 with a broken arm but was a Pro Bowler in 2018. Fullback Dan Vitale was acquired from Green Bay and should help Sony Michel improve New England’s below-average rushing offense, which ranked 18th in the league last season.  

In the draft, the Patriots went right back after it, trying to fill defensive holes with versatile players and special-teamers. Division II star safety and kick returner Kyle Dugger was selected in the second round, 37th overall, out of Lenoir-Rhyne. Belichick went linebacker with the 60th pick and in the third round, then grabbed an edge rusher and two tight ends. New England selected the first kicker in the draft in the fifth round, Justin Rohrwasser out of Marshall, now that Stephen Gostkowski has been released. With some offseason changes to the offensive line, the Pats grabbed two guards in the sixth round and a center in the seventh.

The Skinny: Nothing seems too momentous here besides the fact that Brady is gone, but let’s not forget that New England was No. 1 in passing defense last season and eighth against the run. The Pats have lost some key pieces of that defense but have done a decent job plugging in replacements. The passing offense was ninth in the NFL, but now Jarrett Stidham is the quarterback with aging and unproven weapons. Julian Edelman will be 34. Mohamed Sanu has not helped, and the jury is still out on N’Keal Harry. It looks like a year to bet against the Patriots, even as hard as that is. Also consider that this team was tops in the league with a turnover differential of + 21 last season and ranked third in DVOA. It is nearly impossible to repeat those two feats. I think the Bills win the division, and all Patriots bets are a pass for me right now.

New York Jets

2019 record: 7-9

2020 season win total: 6.5

2020 division odds: 8/1

2020 non-division games: at Chiefs, at Colts, at Chargers, at Rams, at Seahawks, Broncos, Raiders, Cardinals, 49ers, Browns

The Jets endured a weird 2019. It was filled with hope, a new coach and some star talent — followed by injuries, illness, ugly losses, some unexpected victories and some typical Jets head-scratching moments. Adam Gase embodies his coaching record the last two seasons: 7-9 each year. The squads have been below average and undisciplined with a lack of respect yet looked talented with much potential. Gase does not appear to be the personality to give this team double-digit wins or the confidence and swagger to put fear in opponents. Gase just seems stuck in quicksand carried with him from his time as the Bears’ offensive coordinator and stints as head coach with the Dolphins and Jets.

In steps new general manager Joe Douglas, who brings a much more charismatic persona to the table. Douglas was a scout with the Baltimore Ravens for 14 years, including their two Super Bowl seasons, and was VP of player personnel with the Philadelphia Eagles in their Super Bowl season of 2017. Douglas went hard in free agency for the Jets, completely retooling an offensive line that contributed to ranking 31st in the NFL in rushing offense in 2019. Panthers guard Greg Van Roten, Colts guard/center Josh Andrews, Broncos center Connor McGovern and Seahawks tackle George Fant were acquired, while guard Alex Lewis was re-signed. Wide receiver Breshad Perriman was brought in from Tampa Bay, and future Hall of Fame running back Frank Gore came over from Buffalo. Gore joins Le’Veon Bell and newly drafted running back La’Mical Perine out of Florida in the backfield. That doesn’t look too shabby.

Before selecting Perine in the fourth round, the Jets went after more offensive line help by grabbing behemoth offensive tackle Mekhi Becton out of Louisville with the 11th overall pick. Baylor wide receiver Denzel Mims was taken in the second round at No. 59, and many had graded Mims as a first-round talent. I really like the two third-round selections of Cal defensive back Ashtyn Davis and Florida edge rusher Jabari Zuniga. The first half of the Jets’ 2020 draft looks very impactful.

The Skinny: With the re-signings and acquisitions on defense, New York looks solid — and this was a unit that ranked 17th against the pass and second in defending the run. Obviously, the offensive line rebuild is a major commitment toward helping quarterback Sam Darnold blossom into the player they are hoping he can be in his third season. The starting wide receivers look promising in Perriman, Mims and Jamison Crowder, but there is little depth beyond that. Douglas has been impressive in his first act with New York, but 2020 could be a make-or-break campaign for Darnold and Gase now that many pieces of the puzzle look to be coming into place. It is hard to imagine that this team will not be improved, but I’m not betting this is division-winning material. Going Over 6.5 wins seems like the right side, but the problem is one of the more difficult schedules in football. The 10 non-division opponents have an average season win total for 2020 of nearly nine — and Over 9 for the five teams the Jets play on the road. This is another pass for me in what ought to be one of the most interesting divisions in football. What was once a division that could be labeled “foregone conclusion” seems to provide the greatest unknowns.

 

 

 

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