AFC East Reset: Is this the season the Dolphins overtake the Patriots?
The Dolphins have the best chance of giving the Patriots a run for their money in the division
So here's the deal, in the simplest, starkest terms: Since 2000, when Tom Brady came into the league, the New England Patriots have won the AFC East 14 times. That includes the past eight and 13 of 14.
This is what the Buffalo Bills , Miami Dolphins and New York Jets are up against. Just so we're clear, the Bills haven't been to the playoffs since 1999. The Dolphins made it in 2016 for the first time eight years. The Jets are looking at a seven-year drought that dates back to the early days of the Rex Ryan era. Meanwhile, Brady and Bill Belichick keep puttering along, racking up regular-season wins, division titles and Lombardi Trophies while the rest of the AFC East appears helpless to do anything about it.
But is this the year it all changes? The rest of the division has been asking that question for the better part of two decades and the answer has always been a resounding "nope." With free agency and the draft now in the books, and training camp only two months off, here's where each team stands.
Adam Gase is the biggest threat to the Patriots' dominance
It's easy to forget the Dolphins started 1-4 last season, Gase's first as coach. The offensive line was a mess, quarterback Ryan Tannehill 's confidence was bottoming out and Jay Ajayi had yet to emerge as one of the league's best young backs. But in mid-October, a week after getting pummeled by the Titans and with the season hanging in the balance, the Dolphins dominated the Steelers 30-15 thanks in part to Ajayi's 204 rushing yards and two touchdowns. Miami finished with a 10-6 record before losing to the Steelers in the wild-card round, but they were without Tannehill, who suffered a late-season knee injury. He will be ready for training camp and will be joined by perhaps one of the most underrated groups of play-makers in the league. In addition to Ajayi, there's also Jarvis Landry , DeVante Parker and Kenny Stills , as well as tight end Julius Thomas , who played for Gase when both were in Denver but struggled in two forgettable seasons for Jacksonville.
This offense will be fun to watch. And if the defense can improve on its bottom-third-of-the-league ranking from a season ago (they were 19th, according to Football Outsiders), they will be the best candidate to unseat the Pats atop the AFC East. Miami addressed its desperate need for a pass rusher in the first round when it took Charles Harris . The Dolphins got a run-stuffing inside linebacker in Raekwon McMillian, who could see time alongside free-agent signee Lawrence Timmons , and the secondary now includes safeties Nate Allen and T.J. McDonald (signed in free agency) and cornerback Cordrea Tankersley (a Day 2 draft pick).
On paper, the Dolphins look dangerous, but Gase wants to keep his players grounded.
"I want our team to just understand that we're starting over, we're 0-0," Gase said in April. "The last thing we can do is just rest on last year. It's basically dead and gone and we're moving forward. And our job is to get better every day. And it starts today, for us. ... Make sure you're learning from every experience that you have. Whether it be through a meeting or on the field or through a workout. And find ways to improve. Don't be complacent on what has happened in the past. Because at the end of the day, we're being evaluated on this season."
Shorter version: Do your job.
The Pats are somehow a lot better
We're not kidding -- the Patriots, the very same outfit that went 14-2 last season and mounted the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history, will field a better team in 2017. Think about that for a minute. We're not talking about the Browns improving on their one-win effort a season ago, or even a team like the Colts rebounding from recent subpar efforts. We're talking about the Patriots, an outfit with double-digit wins for 14 straight seasons, somehow being more formidable. And they've accomplished it without a pick in the first two rounds of the 2017 draft, and only four picks total. And that was by design. Yes, Bill Belichick addressed needs at pass rusher (Derek Rivers, Round 3) and offensive line (Antonio Garcia, also a third-rounder) but the immediate upgrades came in free agency and trades.
Consider this: The backfield now includes shifty, versatile play-makers Rex Burkhead and Mike Gillislee . They're not household names, but neither was Dion Lewis when he arrived in New England. The Pats also traded for one of the league's most explosive wideouts in Brandin Cooks , as well as tight end Dwayne Allen to replace the departed Martellus Bennett . And they sent the Panthers a second-round pick for pass rusher Kony Ealy , who was dominant for much of Super Bowl 50. Oh, New England also signed one of the Bills' best players, cornerback Stephon Gilmore, on the first day of free agency.
It's almost as if outscoring opponents by 12 points per game wasn't enough. For an organization with little left to prove, all that's left is thoroughly demoralizing the rest of the league. Seriously, this offense includes Brady, Julian Edelman , Danny Amendola , Chris Hogan and now Cooks. Allen joins Rob Gronkowski at tight end, and the backfield has Lewis and James White along with Burkhead and Gillislee. The offensive line, which is arguably the unit's weakest link, ranked No. 6 is pass protection and No. 9 in run blocking last season, via Football Outsiders.
So yeah. And we haven't even gotten to a defense that lost cornerback Logan Ryan but retained Dont'a Hightower and Duron Harmon and added Ealy, Gilmore and Lawrence Guy . This is where we mention that New England could trot out another replacement-level D (they ranked 16th a season ago) and still be heavy favorites to win the Super Bowl. That's how explosive this offense is, one that could rival the record-setting 2007 group that included Randy Moss, Donte' Stallworth and Ben Watson. For some perspective, that '07 team outscored its '16 counterparts by 148 points, or 9.25 per game.
In a surprising development, the Patriots are heavy favorites to win Super Bowl LII.which, frankly, sounds low.
With McDermott, are the Bills finally due?
The last time the Bills went to the playoffs, Bill Clinton was still president, Doug Flutie was the team's best quarterback and Wade Phillips was the coach. In the 17 years since, the team traded a first-round pick to division rival New England for Drew Bledsoe, drafted two more quarterbacks in the first round (J.P. Losman in 2004, EJ Manuel in 2013) and has churned through six coaches. Head coach No. 7 is Sean McDermott, the Panthers' former defensive coordinator who is tasked with getting this defense back on track, and more than that, bringing balance to an offense that is dominant on the ground but lacks consistency through the air.
Shoring up the defense should be a relatively straightforward task; McDermott fielded a dominant unit in Carolina and the Bills were chronic underachievers under Rex Ryan. Cornerback Stephon Gilmore is gone (to the Pats, no less) but Buffalo replaced him with first-round pick Tre'Davious White. He'll join a group that looks formidable on paper, and expect McDermott to translate that to the field.
The other side of the ball is a tad more problematic, mostly because an NFL team is only as good as its franchise quarterback. Long gone are the days of putting Trent Dilfer under center as an afterthought and letting Ray Lewis and that 2000 Ravens defense take care of the rest. The good news is Tyrod Taylor has shown glimpses of franchise-QB potential -- he has 37 touchdowns and just 12 interceptions in two seasons in Buffalo -- but the Bills' passing offense ranked 19th last season. The good news is that the running game, which Taylor is a part of but features LeSean McCoy , was the best in the league. Unfortunately, there is no correlation between dominating on the ground and deep playoff runs.
It's why the Bills traded up for wide receiver Sammy Watkins in 2014 ( , though we understand why they did it), and why they used a 2017 second-rounder on East Carolina wideout Zay Jones .
The Bills also took quarterback Nathan Peterman in the fifth round -- a year after using a fourth-round pick on Cardale Jones -- but if either ends up under center this season something has gone horribly wrong. As it stands, Buffalo is facing long odds to get back to the postseason, mostly because it hasn't done enough to compete with the Patriots, which has been a recurring theme for just about every team in the division since the turn of the century.
The Jets love safeties (but safeties can't play QB)
It has been eight years since the Jets hired Rex Ryan, though it seems like a lot longer. He led the team to back-to-back AFC Championship Game appearances thanks in large part to dominant defenses and a sound running game to protect Mark Sanchez from, well, Mark Sanchez. It was a blueprint that had worked in Baltimore, Ryan's previous stop, and in two short years, he had transformed the Jets into legitimate contenders to threaten the Patriots in the division. After all, Ryan didn't come to New York to kiss Belichick's rings. Of course, by 2011, Ryan's third year with the Jets, the team went 8-8 and missed the playoffs, which was a recurring theme for the rest of his tenure. By 2014, New York managed just four wins and Ryan was canned. Todd Bowles replaced him and the Jets won 10 games in his first season because of a top-five defense and Ryan Fitzpatrick playing out of his mind. The defense fell to 21st last season, Fitzpatrick turned into a pumpkin and the Jets stumbled to five wins. Bowles kept his job but that remains a tenuous proposition, particularly since the organization remains in the market for a franchise quarterback.
Yes, they used a fourth-round pick on Bryce Petty in 2015 and a second-rounder on Christian Hackenberg in 2016, but Petty was uneven in four starts last season (56.5 completion percentage, three touchdowns, seven interceptions, 13 sacks, 60.0 passer rating) and . There was some speculation that the Jets would use their No. 6 pick in the '17 draft on a quarterback but it didn't happen. Instead, New York took safety Jamal Adams, arguably one of the draft's best players. He fills an obvious need in the secondary, especially since Calvin Pryor didn't work out. But the Jets weren't done; they used their second-round pick on a safety too, taking Florida's Marcus Maye .
Just to be clear, the Jets were atrocious against the pass -- they ranked 31st, according to FO -- but they could catapult to the league's top unit in 2017 and still be one of the worst teams in the league. Why? Because unless you think 37-year-old free-agent signing Josh McCown is the answer, they don't have a quarterback.
The Jets do deserve credit for seeking play-makers to help whoever ends up under center -- the team drafted wide receivers ArDarius Stewart and Chad Hansen and tight end Jordan Leggett -- but the reality is that Tom Brady could be the Jets' quarterback and another five-win season would seem perfectly reasonable given all the other holes on the roster.
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