The fourth installment of our 2016 NFL Off-Season Review and Season Preview continues. We have discussed the AFC West, North, and South, but now it is time to discuss and breakdown what happened in the AFC East this off-season.
This division has remained pretty similar over the past 15 seasons. New England finishes in first, while everyone else files in behind them. The interesting part is usually who will contend for a Wildcard spot in the AFC East, but this year it is a little different. QB Tom Brady is suspended the first four games, and New England has yet to see what they have in backup Jimmy Garoppolo. Someone may be able to slide in and steal a division title.
Last season, the Miami Dolphins finished at 6-10. Their season included a coaching change from Joe Philbin, which left them in a waiting period, as Dan Campbell served as interim Head Coach. The Buffalo Bills got a good look at Tyrod Taylor, who proved to be a competent NFL QB. They also got a good look at Rex Ryan and their top-tier defense. At MetLife, the New York Jets started showing signs of competition. Behind Ryan Fitzpatrick, the Jets went 10-6, missing out on a Wildcard spot by a tie-breaker with Pittsburgh. Their offense looked strong with WR duo Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker, and they even had a top 10 running back in Chris Ivory. Don’t forget about their top ranked defense. New England finished 12-4 last season, as they were hit with countless injuries. With an extremely depleted roster, the Patriots still made it to the AFC Championship game, where they lost to the eventual Super Bowl Champion Denver Broncos.
Let’s take a look at what these teams did to prepare for the 2016-17 season.
The Dolphins had some of their stars taken away from them this off-season. Their notable free agent losses include DE Olivier Vernon, DE Derrick Shelby, RB Lamar Miller, WR Rishard Matthews, and CB Brent Grimes. Since both entering the league in 2012, Vernon and Shelby have never missed a game, and they have combined for 38 sacks. Not to mention that last season they combined for 35% of Miami’s sacks. Shelby may be easily replaced, but Vernon is one of the better pass-rushers in the league. Miller was never really given full control of the run-game. He was successful with the opportunities that he got, but he is one of the guys who is more effective as the game goes on. When you see the number of carries below 20, you are not going to see the best Lamar Miller. Matthews was Tannehill’s second favorite target last year, as he recorded the second most receiving yards and was tied for the lead in receiving touchdowns. That could be easily replaced from a guy like DeVante Parker. Brent Grimes was selected to the Pro-Bowl in all three seasons with Miami. He has made a solid career for himself since going undrafted. It is always tough to replace a true number one cornerback, as they learned in the past when they lost Vontae Davis. What hurt Grimes was the stigma his wife carried. As a radio host down in Miami, she was used to being vocal with her opinions. What she said effected her husband’s career, and that is a major part of his departure from Miami.
Miami added pieces to try to replace with they lost. The team added FS Isa Abdul-Quddus, DE Mario Williams, DE Andre Branch, CB Chris Culliver, and RB Arian Foster. Although the team never got to see FS Louis Delmas play in 2015, they were counting on him to be an impact player next to Reshad Jones. So, when his contract ended they knew there was a need for an experienced player at the position. Abdul-Quddus had his best season last year. He started in eight games and had a career high in tackles. The Dolphins hope that with an increased role, the numbers will continue to rise, and he will be a everyday starting safety in the NFL, which has yet to be seen. Williams has been an incredible pass-rusher since entering the league as the number one overall pick in 2006. He will likely slide in and put up numbers similar to what Vernon put up last year. Branch is another guy who capitalized on a contract year. He earned the starting job in Jacksonville and sacked the quarterback four times. He should slide in and replace Shelby easily. Culliver suffered a torn ACL and MCL in November of last year. Miami hopes he can return to form and be the teams number two cornerback, but he has not begun practicing with the team yet. Throughout his career, Foster has proved to be a more impressive version of Lamar Miller. When he is healthy, he is a threat with the ball and without it. The problem is his health. He suffered a ruptured Achilles last season, and this is already added to the hamstring and back issues he has had in the past. At 29, it will be harder for him to get back to his old self, but if he does, the Dolphins just got a steal.
The Dolphins swapped first-round picks with the Eagles. In return, they received LB Kiko Alonso and CB Byron Maxwell. Alonso received votes for Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2013, but was edged out by Sheldon Richardson of the Jets. He suffered a torn ACL in 2014 and missed the entire season. He was traded to the Eagles where he never really fit in. Now, with the Dolphins, another year removed from ACL surgery, the team and fans are hoping he can return to who he was in his rookie season. He will likely become their starting MLB. Maxwell, since leaving Seattle, has been terrible. This seems to happen often with players that are no longer matched-up with Richard Sherman. When they become number one cornerbacks, they are exposed. Maxwell is just another example of this. Without much depth at the CB spot, he is likely Miami’s number one, but not by choice.
With the 13th pick, the Dolphins selected OL Laremy Tunsil, despite rumors and videos put out during the draft. Although Tunsil was drafted as a tackle, he has been seeing a lot of starting reps at left guard. This should be seen as a major improvement for an offensive line that has let their quarterback get sacked 184 times in his four seasons.
2016 for the Dolphins is clouded by a lot of ifs. They are hoping on players returning to form after injuries and to turn it around after a poor season. Honestly, I don’t see enough change to this roster make any significant changes in their record. Tannehill is the same guy, nothing new there. New Head Coach Adam Gase has to make a lot happen with an offense that has under-performed for years. I expect the Dolphins to finish 6-10 again.
The Bills really only lost three big players this off-season in LB Nigel Bradham, DE Mario Williams, and CB Leodis McKelvin. Bradham was part of a ferocious front seven that struck fear in the eyes of opposing coordinators. His stats dropped off a bit during this last season due to the amount of talent on Buffalo’s defense, but he has a lot to give to the Eagles. Williams has been an outstanding pass-rusher in his time in Buffalo. For some reason, he was moved around last year. That significantly dropped his sack total. Now, it may have been disinterest in the Bills, or a sign of aging, but I think Williams has still got something left to show the league. Since 2008, McKelvin was a key player in the Bills’ secondary. At age 30, however, McKelvin appeared to be slowing down, as he only started in five games. With younger, more talented CBs on the depth chart, it makes sense that the team moved on from him.
The team’s only noteworthy addition in free agency was Reggie Bush. The 31-year old RB has fallen from the star he once was in New Orleans and Miami, but he still believes he has something left in the tank. If he can provide some relief for LeSean McCoy, I can say that he did his job and the signing was a success. He will actually have a bigger role in the first month of the season with RB Karlos Williams suspended four games due to a violation with the league’s substance abuse policy.
Buffalo drafted DE/OLB Shaq Lawson out of Clemson with the 19th pick in the draft. The front office was aware that the 22-year old would need surgery at some point, but they took him anyway, and he had surgery in May. The recovery time is expected to put him back sometime between September and November depending on how it heals. The team also drafted LB Reggie Ragland out of Alabama in the second-round. He was supposed to be able to replace Bradham, but he suffered a torn ACL in training camp and will miss the entire season.
DE Marcell Dareus was also suspended four games for violating the league’s substance abuse policy.
The Bills didn’t change much from last season, but the changes that were made were not better. It will be a tough first month for them, and without Dareus, Williams, and Lawson it is tough to see them winning consistently. I see the Bills finishing 7-9. There is just not enough improvement around the offense. The defense has been good for a few years now, and that just hasn’t been enough to get them anywhere.
New York Jets
The Jets lost a few contributors through free agency including DT Damon Harrison, RB Chris Ivory, and LB Demario Davis. Harrison was an underwhelming player on the stat sheet during his career, but what he gave to the Jets team was much more important than shows on record. He added more power and ability to stuff the run in the middle. He added depth and dependability to a defensive line that was one of the best in the game. He will likely see his reps replaced by last year’s first-round pick Leonard Williams. Ivory had his best season of his career. This may because he got 50 more carries than he had in any other season, but he was productive when he got the ball, accumulating over 1,000 yards and seven rushing touchdowns. He kept defenses honest, as they couldn’t run a lot of dime packages due to his threat of running through weaker tacklers. Davis was a consistent piece in the front seven for four seasons, as he has never missed a game. He was second on the Jets in tackles last season and will surely be missed.
CB Antonio Cromartie and LB Calvin Pace are both veterans who have spent many seasons with the Jets, but as of now, are unsigned. Pace, now 35, has played in every game since 2011, but showed some signs of aging last year. It is smart for the Jets to look to move on from him, but they will miss his veteran leadership. Cromartie was on his second stint with New York last season, but he was not as effective this time around. With the Jets still pretty shallow at the position, I wouldn’t be surprised if he made a return.
LT D’Brickashaw Ferguson retired this off-season after the team asked him to take a pay cut. He was a staple on the offensive line, playing and starting in every game since 2006. At 32, his play may have begun to fall, but I still think he could compete as one of the top starting left tackles in the league. Good luck to Brick in the future! Thank you for everything!
The only important acquisitions New York made were the signings of DT Steve McLendon and RB Matt Forte. Although they play the same position, McLendon will not be replacing Damon Harrison. McLendon is 280 lbs, which is pretty small if you think about the defensive tackle position. He did start a good number of games in Pittsburgh, but he will likely be a depth piece for the Jets. Forte, now passed that deadly 30 mark for RBs, has not shown signs of slowing down. He still provides a tremendous pass-catching ability and that will significantly help Ryan Fitzpatrick on check-downs. The one thing he really needs to continue to work on his pass-blocking. It is unlikely at this age, but if he can somehow add that to his arsenal, Forte would be one of the best all-around backs of the generation.
With their first round pick, the New York Jets selected LB Darron Lee out of Ohio State. On a strong defense, it is tough to predict whether or not Lee will be on the field as a starter in Week One. His skill set fits into what this Jets team is continuing to build towards, so there is a bright outlook for his future.
With the Jets offense back at full force after signing Fitzpatrick, there should be not much in their way. They have two Pro-Bowl caliber receivers. They have a competent NFL quarterback. They have an extremely talented defense. There is also a year of head coaching experience under Todd Bowles’ belt. I could see the Jets going 11-5 and making the playoffs. If they don’t compete for a playoff spot, it would be a disappointment.
New England Patriots
New England got lucky and didn’t lose too many impact players. Their two biggest losses were DT Akiem Hicks and WR Brandon LaFell. Hicks really found a role for himself in New England after being on the outs in St. Louis. His stellar run-stopping ability led to a new $10 million deal in Chicago. LaFell was a contributor to the Patriots Super Bowl run in 2014, but he fell back to earth in 2015. After returning from injury in the middle of the season, LaFell’s drops earned him unwanted attention. He was never able to return to quite the same level that he played at in 2014.
Another franchise type player retired a Patriot when LB Jerod Mayo hung up his cleats. He was the team’s first-round pick in 2008. He was the Defensive Rookie of the Year, a two time Pro-Bowl selection, and First-Team All-Pro in 2010. With the recent success of linebackers Jamie Collins and Dont’a Hightower, Mayo was forced to see less action on the field. He also dealt with season-ending injuries in 2013 and 2014. We wish him the best of luck and a healthy and happy retirement to Jerod.
Their biggest additions through free agency included DE Chris Long, DT Terrance Knighton, and LB Shea McClellin. Long had been forced out with the Rams due to recent performance issues. He was no longer the guy recording double digit sacks. After the Chandler Jones trade it was clear the Patriots needed experienced depth at the DE position. The team hopes he can provide some pass rush ability in a limited role. He may not get 10 sacks, but they are looking for atleast three timely ones. Knighton was considered a top defensive tackle during his time in Denver. He took a step backwards last year in Washington, which allowed the Patriots to get him at a lower price tag. Like Long, Knighton will be asked to play in a role. He may be able to contribute and help stop the run with guys like Alan Branch and Malcom Brown. McClellin is just another guy on a long list of former and current Patriots who look to succeed after dealing with performance issues in other locations. The Bears could not figure out McClellin who was their first-round pick in 2012. Bill Belichick scooped him up and plans to use him in a hybrid role as a defensive end and outside linebacker.
New England also completed a trade with the Chicago Bears to acquire TE Martellus Bennett. This was one of the most surprising moves of the off-season. The star tight end was apparently not a great locker room presence in Chicago, and they would take what they could get to get him out. Now, Bennett, a top 10 tight end in my opinion, is paired up with the best tight end in the league in Rob Gronkowski. Football fans, be ready to see some of the best dual TE packages you have ever seen.
The Patriots did not have a first-round pick as a penalty for “Deflategate”, so their highest draft pick ended up being CB Cyrus Jones out of Alabama at 60th overall. Jones has some raw talent that needs to be trimmed down, as he hasn’t shown great skills as an outside corner. He also shined in college as a punt and kick returner, even though he has not looked to promising throughout training camp. We all know how much Coach Belichick loves “four-down players”.
QB Tom Brady is suspended the first four games of the season due to “Deflategate”. 2014 second-round pick QB Jimmy Garoppolo looks to takeover the reigns for the first four weeks. I expect Jimmy G to go 2-2 to start the season off. He should be able to ride the tails of the defense and key guys like Gronk, Bennett, and Julian Edelman. If he performs to any high-level, that is just a plus. I predict the Patriots finishing 12-4 and winning the AFC East. They will, however, have their biggest test in a while with the Jets in the division.
Agree? Disagree? Let me know! Let’s talk football!