Over the course of eight days, we will be unveiling our All-Division teams here at CBSSports.com. What does that entail? We're picking a quarterback, two running backs, three wide receivers, two tight ends, five offensive linemen, two defensive ends, two defensive tackles, four linebackers, three cornerbacks and two safeties from each division that we believe will have the best 2016 season. Over the last few weeks, we've narrowed down the final roster, and we'll present them in this space. We'll continue today with the AFC East.
Sure, Brady is suspended for the first four games of the season. But 12 games of Brady are still better than 16 games of Tyrod Taylor, Ryan Tannehill, or any of the myriad terrible options the Jets are choosing from. Even at 38 years old, Brady still led the NFL in touchdown passes (36) and interception percentage (1.1 percent) in 2015. New England's quick passing game is a perfect fit for his ability to out-think the defense and identify his target before the ball is even snapped. The Patriots' cadre of small and quick targets (Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola, Dion Lewis), as well as the monster-sized Rob Gronkowski, make the whole operation sing. They'll have to tread water with Jimmy Garoppolo for four weeks, but after that everything should be back to normal.
McCoy played just 12 games in 2015 and in the popular opinion is likely that he was a disappointment. Here's the thing, though: Across his six years as a Philadelphia Eagle, McCoy averaged 100.8 rushing and receiving yards per game combined. In his first year in Buffalo, that number was 98.9 per game. There were a couple games where he did next to nothing (26 total yards against the Dolphins, 37 against Washington), but otherwise it was pretty much business as usual. Karlos Williams snaked away some of his touchdown opportunities, but the second-year back is suspended for the first four games of 2016.
Jets fans will surely crow about the snub of Matt Forte for the second spot. That's somewhat justified. But Lewis was just too productive last season to ignore. In half as many games, Lewis had only eight fewer catches than Forte (44-36) and equaled his yardage total through the air. Lewis also averaged 4.8 yards per carry to Forte's 4.1. His 43 forced missed tackles led to him registering the highest elusive rating (a measure of broken tackles and yards after contact per touch) in the history of Pro Football Focus, BY FAR. His number was 165.2 and the previous high was 106.9. Yeah.
At 31 years old and with a career journeyman as his quarterback, Marshall might have just had the best season of his career: 109 catches, 1,502 yards, and a league-leading 14 end zone dances. He also managed to catch 63 percent of passes thrown his way, his highest figure since 2009. Whether Ryan Fitzpatrick returns to the Jets or not is irrelevant: Marshall is a monster and will be the passing game's clear No. 1 target no matter what. That means he'll be fed a heavy dose of targets and, because he's the biggest weapon the Jets have, opportunities in the red zone. That all points to another big year.
Tom Brady's top wide receiver will have to catch passes from Jimmy G for four games, but considering young quarterbacks tend to look for check-down options more often than vets, he should still be one of the most-targeted players with the neophyte under center. Once Brady returns, you can expect he and Edelman to return to their easy pitch-and-catch games. Edelman's averaged 6.6, 6.6, and 6.8 receptions per game the last three years. That's the equivalent of a 106-catch season. There's no reason to expect anything different in 2016.
We were going to give the final spot to Sammy Watkins, but his foot injury is too concerning. Instead, New York's No. 2 makes the list. Proving he wasn't just a Peyton Manning creation, Decker's averaged 77 catches for 994 yards and eight scores during his two seasons in New York. At 6-foot-3, 206 pounds, and 29 years old, he should still have plenty left in the tank. Like Marshall, his production likely isn't Fitz-dependent. He did just fine with Geno Smith and Mike Vick under center in 2014.
Gronk is the best tight end in football and that's not changing anytime soon. Easy pick.
As for Bennett, here's what our Sean Wagner-McGough wrote when he joined Gronk in New England via trade:
Since 2012 -- Bennett's only season with the Giants and the first time he was treated as a No. 1 tight end -- Bennett's played in 59 games. In those 59 games, he's totaled 263 receptions, 2,740 yards, and 19 touchdowns.
That might not seem like an overwhelming stat line over the course of four seasons, but according to Pro Football Reference's database, Bennett's recorded the fourth-most receptions among all tight ends in that span. Only Jason Witten, Jimmy Graham, and Greg Olsen caught more passes.
Watching his game tape, it's clear why and how he's excelled. Bennett is not only fast for a tight end, but he's built like a semi-truck. Per ESPN Stats & Info, Bennett's racked up 1,066 yards after the catch since 2013, which is second among all tight ends to Rob Gronkowski's 1,208 yards.
New England has made the whole two-tight end thing work before.
Solder's season-ending injury in Week 4 caused a ton of problems across the rest of New England's offensive line. While he was on the field, he wasn't quite as good as he had been during the previous for years of his career, but that top-level left tackle is still in there somewhere. The quality of the rest of the tackles in the division is pretty low, so he managed to get a spot here despite that downturn.
That low quality doesn't include Glenn, who is one of the NFL's best young tackles. He just signed a monster extension that makes him the second-highest paid tackle in the league, but he also allowed only two sacks and 16 pressures all of last year. That was despite the fact that his quarterback (Taylor) had the longest average time to throw of any regular passer. Glenn still needs to be more consistent and to improve his run-blocking, but he's still a 26-year old (he'll 27 by Week 3) high-level tackle.
Incognito came back from the Miami bullying scandal to play possibly the best football of his career. He got another deal from Buffalo this offseason after excelling throughout the year in the run game in particular.
In future years, we'll likely have a couple guys from the interior of the New England offensive line take the remaining spots, but for now, we're sticking with the Jets. Mangold has come down from the peak of his career and is coming off what might have been his worst season, but we think he can turn it around.
Carpenter, meanwhile, is coming off his best year and remains a good fit for New York's power running scheme. He's 27 years old and entering his physical prime.
Remember when we unanimously ranked the Jets' defensive line as the best in the NFL? These guys are why.
In five seasons, Wilkerson has 36.5 sacks, 301 tackles, 21 passes defensed, and 10 forced fumbles. Among all defensive lineman, he ranks third in Pro-Football-Reference's Approximate Value during that time. In other words, only J.J. Watt and Geno Atkins have been more valuable over the last five seasons than Wilkerson.
Richardson, meanwhile, is younger, possibly more versatile, and nearly as productive as his defensive line mate. He's got 16.5 sacks and 178 tackles in three seasons, and has excelled playing both inside and outside opposing offensive tackles. We'll see how he and Wilkerson fare playing with Leonard Williams more often now that Damon Harrison has traded Gang Green for Big Blue, but there's no reason to suspect they won't have excellent seasons.
(Apologies to Cameron Wake, but the Jets needed to be on the squad.)
Suh still needs to get the penalties under control (and try on a more consistent basis and not insult his teammates) but he is still among the most talented interior defensive linemen in the league. Over the second half of the 2015 season, he was back to his usual havoc-wreaking self. He had 60 total pressures on the season and was PFF's third-highest graded interior pass-rusher, and did his usual great work against the run. He won't have Olivier Vernon next to him in 2016, but Cameron Wake being back healthy should take some of the pressure off.
Dareus was not nearly as good in 2015 as he was throughout his first four NFL seasons. He went from averaging over seven sacks a season from his spot in the middle of the Buffalo defense to having just two last year. And he clashed with Rex Ryan over the fact that he had to occasionally drop into coverage. Assuming Rex smartens up and lets Dareus do what he does best, he should go back to being a top-tier player.
Collins and Hightower are my personal favorite pair of linebackers in the league, though a lot of that has to do with the way Bill Belichick and Matt Patricia elect to use them. They both move all over the formation. They both come up and play the run well. They both move well in coverage. And they are among the very best blitzing linebackers in football, especially when the Pats send them both through the A-gaps on delayed dog blitzes. Hightower has recorded 68 pressures on 325 pass-rush snaps over the last two seasons, per PFF, giving him the third-highest pressure rate among players at his position. Collins has gone from zero to four to 5.5 snacks in his three NFL seasons and his progression culminated in both Pro Bowl and All-Pro second team selections in 2015. The Pats sent Chandler Jones to Arizona, which might lead them to ask even more of their two remaining stud backers.
David Harris has never been what one would call an elite inside linebacker, but he's been a good one for a long time. He plays the role as it was conceived. He moves downhill and tackles well against the run (86-plus tackles in each season that he's played all 16 games) and has even added a bit of spice as a blitzing rusher over the last few years. He'll be 32 years old next season and is probably overpaid now, but he's on the field every week and plays solid football in the middle of the defense.
Alonso missed the entire 2014 season and played just 11 games in 2015; 11 games in which he didn't play nearly as well as he showed he has the potential to play when he was a rookie. He's likely to play middle linebacker in Miami's 4-3 defense, being that the Dolphins have Jelani Jenkins (another candidate for this team) on the weak side. He has as high a ceiling as any linebacker in this division.
Is Revis the clear-cut best corner in the league anymore? No. Does that mean he isn't still awesome? Of course not. So he's a top-10 corner instead of top-one. Oh well. He still takes away an entire side of the field on his best days, and makes things difficult for whoever he's guarding even on days where he doesn't totally have it. He allowed a 56.5 passer rating on passes thrown his way last season, per PFF, which was third-best in the league.
Butler followed up his Super Bowl-saving play with an excellent first season as a shutdown corner. Sure, he didn't do so great against Antonio Brown or Odell Beckham, but nobody does. Otherwise, he showed himself to be one of the best players at the position. He had two picks and 14 passes defensed (14th-most in the NFL) and he made the Pro Bowl. The Pats obviously have a ton of confidence in him, and for good reason.
The third spot here was a tough call. Logan Ryan has a good case. So does Gilmore's teammate Ronald Darby, who was excellent as a rookie. Gilmore has more experience, better size, longer arms, and has shown over the last two years that he can play in very different systems.
McCourty is a converted corner that has become one of the NFL's best safeties. The Pats moved him back to corner on occasion early in the 2015 season but that experiment didn't last long. He's a safety. New England moves its safeties around all the time depending on the game plan and McCourty is the most consistent of the three. (Patrick Chung and Duron Harmon are more plan-dependent players.) He's just a consistent player with very few weaknesses.
Jones, meanwhile, is coming off a career year. He was above-average against both the run and the pass, totaling 135 tackles and five picks (as well as a league-high two pick-sixes). He was snubbed from the Pro Bowl at first, but eventually made the roster. He skipped voluntary workouts at the start of the offseason, but he should play at a high level now that he's back on the field with the team.