EARLY ANALYSIS: AFC East 2016-7 Forecast

 

Last season, the New England Patriots won the AFC East with a 12-4 record and were the only team to clinch a playoff berth from that division. The New York Jets and Buffalo Bills showed much improvement but both teams barely missed the playoffs a year ago. The Miami Dolphins finished with a 6-10 record but there is room for optimism with a new head coach in Adam Gase and a young but talented roster.

New England Patriots: It is crazy how the whole first part of the schedule can change so drastically in one day. Tom Brady’s appealed 4 game suspension has been reinstated by a federal appeals court. This means they will be without Brady when they travel to Arizona and Houston and play division rivals the Dolphins and Bills at home. They could win some of those games but it would not be a surprise if they lost at least one of the divisional games without Brady. They still have the best TE in the game in Rob Gronkowski and a solid slot WR who can split out wide in Julian Edelman. Last year they ranked 10th in total defense but lost versatile OLB and pass rusher Chandler Jones who is now in Arizona. One thing about the Patriots over the years is whenever they lose stars they never seem to lose a step, as more guys step up to replace the production. Expect the same this year, they might also want to draft a pass rusher as this draft is loaded with them. They might drop a few games early on without Brady, but this team will definitely be one of the best teams in the AFC in 2016.

Miami Dolphins: Miami is coming off a disappointing 6-10 season, and has a new head coach in Adam Gase. A new coach always means a new culture and early optimism, especially because the Dolphins have a talented QB in Ryan Tannehill who threw for 4,208 yards with 24 TDs and 12 INTs. They have an emerging superstar WR in Jarvis Landry who caught 110 passes for 1,157 yards. They also have a 2nd year WR receiver DeVante Parker who was their first round draft pick in the 2015 draft. They need to get him more involved in the offense as he only had 26 catches last year. They lost RB Lamar Miller and must have someone step up to replace him, perhaps that will be Jay Ajayi who showed flashes last year but must stay healthy. Defensively the Dolphins were 25th in total defense and 21st against the pass. They also lost star CB Brent Grimes in free agency and should invest in the defense in the 2016 draft. The Dolphins have talent offensively but just need to put it together so they can be competitive in the division.

New York Jets: The Jets were supposed to be a cellar dweller last year, but all they did was win 10 games and nearly made the playoffs. They did this with much improved QB play by first year starter Ryan Fitzpatrick, who threw for 3,905 yards with 31 TDs and 15 INTs. The Jets seem undecided about his future, as they have not yet resigned him with rumors about drafting QB Paxton Lynch in the first round. The Jets should stick with Fitzpatrick and try to address other needs, a rookie QB would set back their success too far. On offense they have talent around Fitzpatrick, with star WR Brandon Marshall (109 receptions for 1,502 yards and 14 TDs) and Eric Decker who is a good complement to Marshall. They also signed versatile RB Matt Forte this offseason who is a solid receiver out of the backfield and a have a RB with game changing speed in Dri Archer. The Jets were in the top five for both total defense and rushing defense, if there is an area that they should address it is in the backend as they ranked 13th. This draft class is deep with talented CBs and they could maybe take Eli Apple or William Jackson to help improve the secondary. The Jets have lots of talent to compete for the division, it all just depends on whether or not they feel Ryan Fitzpatrick is their QB or not.

Buffalo Bills: The Bills had arguably the breakout player of the year in QB Tyrod Taylor. Many felt he could not beat out E.J. Manual or Matt Cassel for the starting job during training camp. All he did was win the job and throw for 3,035 yards, 20 TDs and 5 INTs while also running for 568 yards and 4 TDs. Taylor led them to an 8-8 record and nearly got them a playoff berth. He seemed to find instant chemistry with superstar WR Sammy Watkins who caught 60 passes for 1,047 yards and 9 TDs while missing 3 games due to injury. RB LeSean McCoy missed 4 games but still managed to rush for 895 yards. Karlos Williams also showed promise when McCoy was out. The Bills defense was supposed to be a strength heading into the season, but turned out to be a major liability. They finished 19th in total defense, 16th in rush defense and 19th against the pass. Rex Ryan has always been known for his great, physically imposing defenses and if the Bills want to make the playoffs they must get back to that style of defense. They might want to address the defensive line in the draft as they lost DE Mario Williams. The Bills would be smart to take Jarran Reed in the first round because he is a space- eater inside a great run defender. In order for the Bills to make the playoffs, they must keep their key players healthy. Tyrod Taylor, Sammy Watkins and LeSean McCoy all missed games last year and they must also improve an uncharacteristically bad Rex Ryan defense.

Bottom Line: The AFC East will not have to deal with Tom Brady for the first 4 weeks, but the Patriots will once again be extremely competitive when he returns. The Jets must figure out their QB situation but have the talent to compete for the division. The Bills must stay healthy and get better defensively and the Dolphins must buy in to a new coach and culture to have any chance at competing. Right now, the Patriots still look like the best team in this division but the Bills and Jets are closing in on the reigning division champions.

[Analysis by NFL expert Preston Rowe]