AFC East Preview 2020
The AFC East has been dominated by the New England Patriots for two decades, but 2020 could see that run come to an end. The Pats no longer have superstar QB Tom Brady, so we will find out if Belichick can make his team successful without him. Their greatest challengers are the upstart Buffalo Bills, who pair a great defense, with a young offense. Both the New York Jets and Miami Dolphins are looking for progress after disappointing seasons. Miami probably has a better shot, since they added talent this offseason, while New York lost its star safety and may have locker room issues. Here's the AFC East as I see it in 2020.
Defense: This has long been Buffalo's greatest strength. They lost Shaq Lawson in free agency, but replace him with talented rookie A.J. Epenesa from Iowa. The rest of the d-line includes a good mix of veterans, like Trent Murphy and Quinton Jefferson, and up-and-coming players like Ed Oliver and Harrison Phillips. The secondary return starters Levi Wallace, Tre'Davious White, Micah Hyde, and Jordan Poyer, while adding former Pro Bowler Josh Norman to the mix. The linebackers could improve, but they're good enough for how this team is built.
Tight End: It's not an overwhelmingly impressive group:Dawson Knox, Reggie Gilliam, Tyler Croft, and Lee Smith. With that group, they seem to be banking on Knox's development. He finished his rookie year with 28 catches for 388 yards and 2 touchdowns, which is more than he ever had in a college season. It would be a little unreasonable to expect that kind of production consistently. The others have varying degrees of NFL experience, but have only been used sparingly throughout their careers thus far.
Offensive Depth: More specifically at the skill positions. It appears that each position is just an injury or two away from disaster. The backup QBs are a major drop-off from Josh Allen. The running back and receiver units could probably overcome one injury, but overcoming more than that would be asking an awful lot. Those situations would be forcing rookies or special teams players to take on larger roles than they're ready for.
The second year running back from Florida Atlantic had an impressive rookie season, running for 775 yards (5.1 per carry) and 2 touchdowns. With Frank Gore and LeSean McCoy gone, he is now the presumed top running back for Buffalo. Some backs struggle in Year 2, so you have to temper expectations a bit, but he's in a good position to break out.
Will they put up points?
The addition of Stefon Diggs should ignite the passing game, but Buffalo has been more of a conservative team that likes to run and rely on their defense. They certainly have the players to score points, but will they?
Can they overtake the Pats?
Buffalo played New England pretty well last year, but wasn't quite able to take control of the division. It appears to be a two team race, and, without Brady, the Pats are finally vulnerable.
Final Record: 10-6
Secondary: It was difficult to find many strengths in a team so early in the rebuilding process, but Miami does have a decent secondary. They signed Cowboys' standout Byron Jones and will pair him with the emerging Xavien Howard at corner. They added Noah Igbinoghene and Brandon Jones to a young, promising group through the draft. Eric Rowe had a good year after taking on a full-time starting role, and Bobby McCain has had his moments at safety.
Tight End: As a rebuilding team, Miami has many of the weaker units in the league, but I picked a few that were worse than the rest. Mike Gesicki had his best season yet in 2019, but they need more than 500 receiving yards out of these guys.
Offensive Line: Possibly the worst OL unit in the league. Their tackles were bad last year, and they'll hope rookies Austin Jackson and Robert Hunt can help fix that. They really like Michael Deiter on the interior, but it's a rather inexperienced group (like most of the team).
Wide Receiver: This receiving corps doesn't look threatening on paper at all. Stop Devante Parker and you stop the Dolphins passing game. Jakeem Grant has shown small flashes in his young career, and rookie Lynn Bowden Jr was a difference-maker in college, but there isn't much here for opposing defenses to worry about.
Yes, I listed this position as a weakness, but, barring the possibility of Tua actually playing this year, Gesicki is the best candidate. He showed signs of breaking through with a solid year last year. His best use to me is as a redzone target. At Penn State, he was great at using his height and strength to come down with contested catches. While he needs to put up more yardage, touchdowns will be his main draw. Honorable mention to DT Christian Wilkins.
Can other WR step up to help Devante Parker?
We've seen this before. Number 1 receivers can carry a team, but the team can go even further with more receiving threats available. The Dolphins aren't going anywhere this year, but this is a key part of getting to that next step. Miami has been here before with Jarvis Landry, and look where both parties are now. The bottom line is this: If they don't get Parker good sidekick, he may become unhappy and want to leave like many others have.
Final Record: 5-11
New England Patriots
Defensive Backs: The Patriots return most players of a stellar secondary, including the McCourty brothers and Stephon Gilmore. J.C Jackson has played well across from Gilmore, and they have several veteran players for depth. They somehow find ways to pull together a good enough unit to get by. This year, it's much better than that.
Belichick: Arguably the greatest coach of all-time, the six time Super Bowl champ is back. Having Bill is an advantage for any team. While Tom Brady is gone, they still have the guy who built the machine and the parts that he likes to use with it.
Tight End: The first season without Gronk was not great for Patriot tight ends. The top 2 tight ends on last years team combined for just 30 catches and 1 touchdown. Neither player returns this season, so they have their work cut out for them. Ryan Izzo leads their returning tight ends with just 114 yards on 6 catches from 2019. They drafted Virginia Tech's Dalton Keene and UCLA's Devin Asiasi, both of whom will have ample opportunity to start.
Wide Receiver: Julian Edelman is seemingly all alone in this unit. Mohamed Sanu was the one other accomplished player at the position, and he was cut. N'Keal Harry was disappointing as a rookie, and the others haven't shown much. Let's see if Belichick and McDaniels can pull a rabbit out of a hat.
If anyone will step up to help Edelman, it's Harry. He had a dominant career at Arizona State and was considered a steal in the late first round of the 2019 draft. He only had 102 yards on 12 catches, but New England needs him to break out. He's the best candidate they've got.
Can Cam Newton return to form and is he the answer?
Many have reported how much the Pats love Jared Stidham, but it's free agent signee Cam Newton who won the starting job. We all have seen what Cam can do when he's healthy. The question is, can he still be that? Are his injuries too nagging? How well does he work with this offense?
Do they have the offensive weapons?
I touched on this in the weakness section, but this seems like a bigger issue than ever before. They usually have at least a couple of guys to rely on. Now, they have a by-committee running game that lacks a true star, one receiver (maybe 2), a new QB, and no proven tight end.
Final Record: 9-7
New York Jets
Running Back: There wasn't much to pick from. This is a pretty bad roster overall. They do have Le'Veon Bell and Frank Gore, 2 veteran running backs who have been stars. Gore ranks 3rd all-time in league history in rushing yards. If Bell can return to his Pittsburgh form, it'll take much of the pressure off of QB Sam Darnold.
Defense: I didn't see much to brag about from this defense, especially without Jamal Adams. Pro Football Focus did a series of articles ranking each unit on all 32 teams, and each Jets defensive unit was in the bottom 10. Now that they've traded Jamal Adams, they're even worse. Low expectations.
Offensive Line: The offensive line was abysmal in 2019. Off the few games I saw, their QBs were running for their lives way too often. They drafted mammoth offensive tackle Mekhi Becton in the first round, but one man can only do so much.
Wide Receiver: Outside of Jamison Crowder, none of them have performed consistently at the NFL level. They'll have to hope Breshad Perriman keeps making strides after last season.
LB Blake Cashman
Cashman saw limited time as a rookie, but is looking to use that as a starting point for bigger things. He played well until a shoulder injury ended his season. I always liked how he played at Minnesota, where he was a tackling machine. I've always liked his effort and instincts, and those are part of a great foundation for a defensive player. This should be a good year for him, if he stays healthy.
Biggest Question Mark(s)
Does the team trust Adam Gase?
Gase has been a polarizing figure in New York. Some players have voiced their support, yet others, like the now-traded Jamal Adams and current RB Le'Veon Bell, have had publicized criticism of him. Their season may depend on which attitude the majority of the team has.
Will Le'Veon Bell bounce back?
Bell's saga has been well documented by the media. After emerging as the league's best back in Pittsburgh, a contract dispute led to him sitting out a year and going to New York as a free agent. While his first year with the Jets was far from ideal, Bell will try to be better now that he's had more time with the system.
Can the key players stay healthy?
Like many teams, they already have players sitting out the season for reasons surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic. Last year, Bell dealt with injuries and franchise QB Sam Darnold missed time with mono. They can't afford to have that this year.