2018 Preseason All-AFC East Team: Tom Brady leads a roster stocked with Patriots
New England has more players on this team than Jets, Dolphins and Bills combined
Over the next two weeks here at CBSSports.com, we'll be unveiling our annual preseason All-Division teams. We begin today with the AFC East, and will continue the rest of this week with the AFC North (Aug. 7), AFC South (Aug. 8), and AFC West (Aug. 9). Starting next Monday, we'll run through the NFC, starting first with the NFC East (Aug. 13) and continuing on through the NFC North (Aug. 14) and NFC South (Aug. 15 before finishing up with the NFC West (Aug. 16). Enjoy.
It's been nine years since a team other than the New England Patriots won the AFC East, and 17 years since the Pats finished worse than second in the division. During that time, Tom Brady and Bill Belichick have absolutely dominated their rivals, racking up an 83-29 record in divisional games. There's no reason to expect that dominance to come to a halt in 2018, when the Pats look like overwhelming favorites to once again repeat as division champions.
It's fitting, then, that you will find Patriots all over our 2018 preseason All-AFC East team. In fact, there are more Patriots (15) on this roster than there are players from the Buffalo Bills, Miami Dolphins, and New York Jets combined (14). That may seem a little outlandish, but given the relative quality of the teams in the division, there was really no other way to go about this.
We'll start, of course, with the entire exercise's most obvious pick.
Tom Brady, Patriots
Brady is coming off a 2017 season during which he led the NFL in pass attempts and passing yards, and led the Patriots back to the Super Bowl for the eighth time in his illustrious career. If he is not the single best quarterback in the NFL, he is damn close. But even if he wasn't, he'd have this roster spot racked up because the rest of the division is severely lacking at the QB position. (Even if you have high hopes for Sam Darnold and/or Josh Allen, I think we can acknowledge that neither is coming close to touching Brady's level of performance anytime soon, let alone this season.)
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This is one of the few positions at which the Pats do not have the obvious best player.
McCoy has been one of the NFL's best running backs for nearly a decade at this point; and with his being expected to serve as the foundational piece of the Buffalo offense in 2018, we should expect him to have another big season. McCoy, if healthy, is a shoo-in for 220-plus carries and 1,000 or more yards on the ground. He's also an excellent receiver out of the backfield and still one of the shiftiest players in the league.
The second choice here was much more difficult, but it eventually came down to Dolphins back Kenyan Drake, who seemingly has a ton of upside, and Patriots back Rex Burkhead, who is the kind of versatile piece that excels in New England. With the Dolphins bringing in Frank Gore this offseason, it seems like they want to go with a time-share in the backfield. Meanwhile, Pats first-round pick Sony Michel just had knee surgery, Dion Lewis decamped to Tennessee, and Jeremy Hill is still Jeremy Hill. Burkhead looks like he's in line for a whole bunch of backfield work on arguably the best team in the league, so he gets the nod here.
Yes, Julian Edelman is suspended for the first four games of the season after violating the league's performance enhancing drug policy. Yes, he is also coming off a lost season due to a torn ACL. But during each of his four previous healthy seasons with the Pats, he caught at least six passes per game from Tom Brady. Nobody else in the AFC East has that kind of track record, and very few receivers in the division come close to that kind of upside.
While Edelman is out, Hogan figures to serve is Brady's primary target on the outside. Brandin Cooks is in LA. Danny Amendola is in Miami. Braxton Berrios is unproven. Eric Decker got to camp, like, yesterday. Cordarrelle Patterson has never put it all together. Philip Dorsett has a long way to go. Hogan was electric catching passes from Brady early last season before he succumbed to injury, and the bet here is that they get their chemistry going again.
Elsewhere in the division, Robby Anderson looks like the best of the bunch. He had a breakout season last year (63-941-7), developing excellent chemistry with Josh McCown. If McCown starts again, look for them to build on their connection. Anderson can play outside or in the slot, work as a possession guy and beat the defense down the field. He's got all the tools to be really successful -- assuming he can stay out of trouble during the offseason.
Gronk is the best tight end in the league when he's healthy, and the highest-upside tight end ever. Done and done.
The rest of the division is incredibly weak at tight end. The Dolphins have Bills castoff MarQueis Gray and rookie Mike Gesicki, who reportedly was struggling to pick up the playbook earlier this offseason. The Jets have 2018 fourth-rounder Christopher Herndon, 2017 fifth-rounder Jordan Leggett, and former Raiders draft pick Clive Walford. And so, the Bills' Charles Clay gets the spot almost by default, given that he's coming off five straight seasons with at least 49 catches and 500 receiving yards. He's getting a downgrade at quarterback almost no matter who starts in Buffalo, but it's fairly clear he's the best of a very bad tight end group outside New England.
Buffalo traded Cordy Glenn this offseason, which means the two best tackles in the division are probably the Patriots' tackles. Trent Brown comes over from the 49ers, where he played on the right side. Moving back to the left will be an adjustment, but he's been a solid pro along the line for a while now and he seems like a safer play than Laremy Tunsil, who had a below-average season in his first go-round as a full-time left tackle last year.
Cannon, meanwhile, has emerged as one of football best tackles on the right side of the line. He's come a long way over the course of his career, and the Pats rewarded him with a nice new contract last offseason. He played well before hitting injured reserve last season, and now that he's back healthy, he should be right in the prime of his career.
Sitton is on his third team in four seasons but he might be the best overall offensive lineman in the division. He missed a few games due to injury during each of his two years with the Bears, but he kept up his extremely high level of play. Sitton is moving into his mid-30s and may slow down eventually, but he is still excellent in pass protection on the interior of the offensive line and he's an above-average run-blocker as well.
Mason was one of the NFL's best guards last season, anchoring the New England offensive line and absolutely mauling interior defenders in the run game. He should continue to do so as he moves into the prime of his career, especially as he works in tandem with the next player on our list.
David Andrews, Patriots
Andrews, like his linemate Mason, is one of the best players in the league at his position and is entering the prime of his career with no signs of slowing down. Like Mason, he is a monster run-blocker, but he's an even better pass-protector than his teammate. He is the key member of this New England offensive line that keeps Brady upright and helps power one of the league's most efficient and explosive offenses.
Wake is heading into his age-35 season and he'll no longer have the benefit of playing next to Ndamukong Suh, but at least the Dolphins brought in Robert Quinn to rush the passer across from him. Wake got a late start to his pro career at 27 years old; since he entered the league in 2009, not a single player has more sacks. And it's not like he racked them all up early and has dropped off of late. Wake's 22 quarterback takedowns over the past two seasons rank sixth in the NFL.
Trey Flowers has 13.5 sacks during those two seasons, which comes in far behind Wake, but he is coming into his own as an excellent player. He was just a part-time rushman in 2016 but became a complete force along the defensive front last year. Flowers totaled 62 tackles and 6.5 sacks, along with three passes defensed and two forced fumbles. He's a budding monster -- and he doesn't turn 25 until next week.
Interior Defensive Lineman
Speaking of budding monsters ... how about Leonard Williams? He has never missed a game in his NFL career. He's played 77 percent of the Jets' defensive snaps or more during each of his three seasons. He has 25-plus run stops, 25-plus hurries, and 10-plus quarterback hits during each of his three seasons. Over the past two seasons, according to Pro Football Focus, Williams has notched 37 combined sacks and hits; among interior defenders, only Aaron Donald has more. Yeah. He's good.
Also good: Malcom Brown. He's not a pressure player like Williams, but rather a block-eater and run-stuffer in the mold of former Pats nose tackle Vince Wilfork. Only Brown has the agility to slice through blocking schemes as well, making plays in the backfield with athleticism in addition to strength and power. He's a better run-defender than against the pass, but he's no slouch there, having notched 2.5 sacks or more in each of his three seasons despite operating primarily on early downs.
Here's our first (and only) position group where we have absolutely no Patriots on the roster. Fittingly, it is the position group with the least-inspiring crop of players in the division.
If Jets defenders Jordan Jenkins or Darron Lee had shown more of the talent that got them drafted in the mid-rounds back in 2016 then maybe we'd be having a different conversation here, but as is we are rolling with a 35-year old coming off an obvious regression-to-the-mean season and who may or may not have a ton left in the tank (Alexander) and a high-upside, low-floor athletic marvel who struggles to stay healthy and at peak performance in anything less than ideal conditions (Alonso).
Hightower's absence lingered over the Patriots' defensive performance for much of last season. He is arguably their best pass rusher, their best second-level defender against the run, and is also strong in coverage. He didn't even make it through Week 1 before getting injured, and he lasted less than four games after coming back before going down for the year. Assuming he's fully recovered, he should pick up right where he left off as one of the NFL's best -- and most versatile -- inside linebackers.
Williamson is a newcomer to New York, replacing the departed Demario Davis, who signed with the Saints. Williamson brings a lot of the same skills and will be looking to prove he's a three-down player after the Titans began removing him on passing downs the past couple years. He certainly has the athleticism to work in the passing game but he has not necessarily shown the coverage skills just yet. Maybe Todd Bowles can bring the best out of him.
White was marvelous during his rookie season with the Bills, emerging as a top-flight starter and inner-circle Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate. White allowed a touchdown or a first down on just 26.4 percent of targets, the seventh-lowest rate among corners who played at least 400 passing-down snaps, per PFF, which awarded White its DROY award. White is 23 years old and should just be getting started on a long career as a shutdown corner.
The other two corners on this list are further along in their respective careers.
Johnson is coming to New York from the Rams, who franchised him each of the past two years. Johnson played well while on the tag, earning himself a big payday from the Jets. He's not been a high-interception player for most of his career, but he does get his hands on a lot of passes and is physical at the point of catch. That should be a good fit with Bowles, who has experience coaching bigger corners like Patrick Peterson.
Gilmore is entering his second year with New England, and Bill Belichick should have an easier time figuring out the best way to use him. His debut season with the Pats was a bit up-and-down, but the talent is obviously still there and they paid him handsomely for a reason. The smart money is on Belichick getting things to work out as well as possible.
McCourty is the Patriots' longest-tenured defender, and he is still the backbone of their defense. The 2017 campaign was not his best but we're betting he bounces back with a big year with a bit more of the Pats' normal talent in front of him. He's still a center-fielder of the highest order, and he knows exactly how to execute Belichick's schemes to take away whatever the opponent's best passing-game option is. And of course, he's excellent coming downhill to make tackles in the run game.
The second safety in this division was a tough choice. The Jets' two rookies impressed last year, but both of the Bills' safeties were arguably better than them. In the end, Micah Hyde has the best track record of the four players, so he got the nod based on his experience and high floor of quality play.
The Patriots don't have to punt very often, but Ryan Allen always does well with the directional kicking when they do. Cairo Santos gets the nod over Stephen Gostkowski at kicker, because Gostkowski has been a bit shaky in recent seasons. And Jakeem Grant ranks eighth in kick return yards and 13th in punt return yards over the past two years.
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