For the first time in decades the AFC East is up for grabs.
Miami Dolphins Managing Editor Kayla Morton sat down with fellow AFC East Managing Editors, New York Jets’ Jesse Thermer, New England Patriots’ Mike D’Abate and Buffalo Bills’ Brandon Ray to break down the strengths and weaknesses of each team in the division.
From team youthfulness, to new complimentary players, to completely new faces leading teams, all four rivaling teams have something each team in the division must look out for if they want to take the game, the reigns and march on to a division victory.
On the flip side, inexperience, too many options and not enough options work against these teams and could give opponents easy cake walks in matchups if they’re not careful.
Join Kayla, Jesse, Mike and Brandon in their round table to see the 2020 AFC East break down ahead of opening weekend.
Positives the AFC East Need to Look Out for in Miami:
Jesse: Miami is a young team with a young head coach. After the disastrous start to their 2019 season, Miami managed to start to turn things around. The psyche of the team is something to fear. Miami feels like they’re putting it together, genuinely. This isn’t typical preseason hype- there’s something different in Miami. With the draft capital obtained from cutting talent, the team is poised for a proper rebuild. They landed arguably the better quarterback in the past draft, and have surrounded him with quality talent. Additionally, wide receiver DeVante Parker is one of the most talented, underrated pass catchers in the league.
Brandon: The Miami Dolphins arguably have the brightest future in the division so it will be a matter of time for when they click and get things going. Head coach Brian Flores has shown to be a tough coach and has set the tone of the culture. The Dolphins needed that change after the Adam Gase era. A healthy QB Tua Tagovailoa will bring the Dolphins back to winning football games and with young receivers in Preston Williams and DeVante Parker, the passing game may take a step forward. The defense also acquired immediate fixes that will allow the organization to bring in future players and keep the defense loaded.
Mike: Miami might end up being the most intriguing team in the division. Their decision to draft Tua Tagovailoa will pay dividends for this team for many years to come. However, pay special attention to the Dolphins defense this year, which continues to further embody the image of head coach Brian Flores. The acquisitions of linebackers Kyle Van Noy and Elandon Roberts will add immediate upgrades to both the pass rush and run defense. The secondary, led by cornerback Xavien Howard, will take a step forward, as well. WR DeVante Parker has the talent to be the most productive receiver in the division, and will be a dangerous weapon for either Tagovailoa or starter Ryan Fitzpatrick.
Positives the AFC East Need to Look Out for in Buffalo
Jesse: The Bills are on the edge of being a team that can make a deeper playoff run. While the organization has made a handful of wildcard appearances, it’s never manifested into more. Now, with the additions of a legitimate No. 1 wideout, and the additions made to their defense, Buffalo is poised to attack. In fact, they very well could be in a position to win the AFC East this year. Running back Devin Singletary lit up the fanbase last year as well. With a full season, can he take over as a legitimate running back threat?
Kayla: Buffalo added complementary running back Zach Moss to play alongside stud Devin Singletary. The Bills could easily create a more effective 1-2 punch in 2020 than it did with Singletary and veteran Frank Gore last season. Even if Buffalo chooses to run them as a committee, both are young, elusive and have fresh NFL legs. Pairing them with growing success in the passing game behind quarterback Josh Allen, Buffalo could be a bigger threat than it has been in a decade with the two backs and three optimal wideouts.
Mike: While much will be made about the Bills’ acquisition of wide receiver Stefon Diggs, Buffalo’s offense will benefit greatly from the emergence of tight end Dawson Knox and running back Devin Singletary. Each shows flashes of stardom in 2019, and their experience will lead to greater production on the field in 2020. Josh Allen is expected to show that he is ‘the guy.’ Barring injury, he is poised to do just that. However, the Bills’ defense will continue to be the dominant force on this team. Versatile linebackers, and formidable front seven and a lock down secondary will ensure that Buffalo will be able to compete each time they suit up.
Positives the AFC East Need to Look Out for in New England:
Jesse: New England is still the headquarters for head coach Bill Belichick. No matter what negatives the football gods have thrown at New England, Belichick has always made it work. It’s what makes him one of the greatest coaches of all time. The Patriots have a very unique ability to take players who may only be good at one or two things, but make them a stud at that skill and create an effective player. While the long list of opt-outs hurts, the New England Patriots still have a legend commanding the ship. While they might not be Super Bowl bound, the Patriots will still remain competitive.
Brandon: Eight opt-outs, Tom Brady is gone and the Patriots lost a solid crew on defense in Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins, Elandon Roberts and Danny Shelton. Although, did we forget who the man is behind the operations? As long as Bill Belichick is the head coach and continues to win, the Patriots should be considered favorites of the division. The quarterback competition is one that will be viewed leading into Week 1. Cam Newton has been named the starter and he is coming back for vengeance. He signed a contract based off on incentives so he has a lot to prove. Who knows if we will ever see another 2015 MVP Newton, but never count anything out.
Kayla: Veteran NFL Most Valuable Player and three-time Pro Bowl quarterback Cam Newton signed nearly one month ago on a one-year deal to play for New England. The Patriots were expected to go into a slug fest like Miami did last year with borderline mediocre QBs in Brian Hoyer and Jarrett Stidham, but the newfound signing points to New England still wanting to be competitive despite all of its offseason losses on both sides of the football. Naming Newton the week one starter further proves that narrative.
Wide receiver Julian Edelman should remain the team’s No. 1 WR easily, being an adaptable receiver who can play outside and in the slot. The Patriots will also have second-year WR N’Keal Harry back and healthy, who showed flashes of successful 50-50 ball completions last season as well as an option in the red zone. Sony Michel and James White should head the backfield and are a duo who have worked together for a few years now. No growing pains there.
Positives the AFC East Need to Look Out for in New York:
Kayla: The Jets went for arguably their biggest area of need with their first pick in the 2020 NFL Draft: offensive line. They brought in brick wall, 367-pound Mekhi Becton to the line that already bolsters the protection of QB Sam Darnold who is healthy again. The 21-year old is someone I wanted Miami to take if it decided to go OL with one of its three first-round picks.
I also think WR Jamison Crowder is underrated for as much as the Jets like to use him in the receiving game. While it’s unsettling that he’ll sometimes garner double-digit targets and only produce 60 or so yards, it proves that New York feels comfortable relying on him in short-yardage situations, which screams short third downs to me.
Brandon: The Jets should have a healthy Sam Darnold, who has proven to keep the team in games last season. After sitting out the first couple of weeks of the season, he led the Jets to a 7-9 season (7-6 as the starter). The offensive line slowly improved and it shows a little more promise that most people may think. Going on the defensive side, defensive lineman Quinnen Williams is a player who is out to have a bounce back year after a disappointing rookie season as the third overall pick in 2019.
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Mike: The Jets needed an immediate upgrade to their offensive line. Credit general manager Joe Douglas for doing just that. QB Sam Darnold was constantly under pressure in 2019. Darnold’s high turnover rate in the first half of the year was the result of this terrible protection. The selection of left tackle Mekhi Becton at No. 11 overall in the NFL Draft should be a game changer. He will be expected to protect the blindside of their franchise quarterback. Improvements along the offensive line should facilitate the running game, as well, leading to a resurgence of sorts for Le’Veon Bell.
Needs of Improvement for Miami:
Jesse: Miami is still a very young team. While the fan base has set high-expectations for the Dolphins, it’s important to remember that Tagovailoa is a rookie. While he lit up the SEC under the wing of legendary college coach Nick Saban, Alabama isn’t a school that produces quarterbacks with much NFL success. There is still the looming concern of Tagovailoa’s injuries, although he has been practicing in full. Granted, it’s the game of football and injuries are seemingly inevitable, but there seems to be a little too much buzz over his durability. If the Dolphins can’t keep Tagovailoa up, who’s to say what happens to the team after they make the move from Fitzpatrick?
Brandon: The running game looks a lot better than last year with the addition of Matt Breida, but how long until an injury pops up? The Dolphins may want to consider bringing another option at running back even with Jordan Howard. The offensive line is young and will struggle in the beginning. If they can somehow manage to bring in veteran help, it may keep the line a little more consistent.
Mike: It can be said that Miami’s offensive line slowed the progression of their offense in 2019. For this reason, the Dolphins made their best attempt to upgrade; using free agency to bring in guard Ereck Flowers from Washington and center Ted Karras from New England. They also selected three offensive linemen in the 2020 NFL draft — offensive tackle Austin Jackson (in the first round), second-round guard/tackle Robert Hunt and fourth-round guard Solomon Kindley. While their line will improve, they are still young and some growing pains should be expected as they see to gel as a unit.
Needs of Improvement for Buffalo:
Jesse: Buffalo is as good as ringmaster QB Josh Allen will allow them to be. Bills fans themselves are incredibly high on Allen. But the rest of the league remains sceptical. Does Allen have a winning record as a quarterback? Yes. What else does he have? Time to find out?
Kayla: I’m not so sure this whole Stefon Diggs acquisition is going to work for Buffalo. The Bills have now added another weapon for Allen, yes, but WRs John Brown and Cole Beasley are capable of being one of the top duos in the league. I think we could see a 2019 Cleveland Browns situation: too many targets in the air and on the ground without enough footballs to go around. We saw Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry implode selfishly at different points throughout the year last season after earning little targets week-to-week. Diggs, Brown, Beasley, Singletary, Moss and the rumors of trying to get tight end Dawson Knox more involved in games? Seems like a rocky scenario that could lead to an underwhelming season if guys turn into hotheads and play for “I” instead of “TEAM”.
Mike: QB Josh Allen has been both revered and maligned at a pretty equal clip. Allen is praised for his progress and his versatility. However, his ability to connect on the deep ball remains a punchline. Last season, Allen was 7-for-39 on passes thrown 25-plus yards down the field, for two touchdowns and two interceptions. Those numbers are not exactly comforting to Bills fans. The addition of WR Stefon Diggs, and the progress of WR John Brown should help in this department. However, Allen will need to step up and show command and accuracy when challenging defenses down the field.
Needs of Improvement for New England:
Jesse: Yes, signing Cam Newton is a flashy deal. But outside of the former NFL MVP….what is there? The Patriots are stuck in a very similar boat to last year. Not that they got kicked with the COVID-19 opt outs, there’s still no solidified skill group.WR Julian Edelman is Julian Edelman, but players acquired by New England, whether it’s former 1st round WR picks N’Keal Harry or Jakobi Meyers, there has yet to be a “Wow!” candidate. Josh Gordon spent some time with New England, but now he’s back in Seattle. Now, this isn’t a bad group. But in typical fashion, offensive weapons, specifically receivers, continue to be an issue.
Brandon: Cam Newton will have the exact same problem that Tom Brady had last year; no deep threat receivers. N’Keal Harry shows promise after flashes of potential down the stretch last season, but the receiving corps in New England is arguably the worst in the division. The linebacker core will have a tough time keeping up with opposing offenses’. Dont’a Hightower opted out and now it’s time for young guys to step up earlier than expected.
Kayla: Obviously New England needed to solidify its QB situation, but I also think a topic flying under the radar is the run game struggles. Something is wrong with RB Sony Michel and it isn’t being talked about enough. The Patriots aren’t as confident in handing him the ball as much as they were when he came out of the University of Georgia, yet he’s not losing rushes to other backs. If the Patriots were smart, they’d work with RB James White (use the RB tag loosely) to be more effective on the ground instead of being available for just dump offs and pass-catching duties out of the backfield. Is he a receiver? Didn’t think so. If Cordarrelle Patterson can identify himself as a running back now and put in the work, surely Belichick can make a minor adjustment with White.
New England also lost a plethora of defensive players during free agency to inner-division teams and then lost more due to COVID-19 outbreaks. The Patriots have relied on their secondary in the last few seasons to keep them in games. It’s silly to think they can rely on them so heavily anymore going forward. As I see it, this team has hole after hole waiting to be exposed.
Needs of Improvement for New York:
Kayla: The biggest weak spots for the Jets is their secondary leadership and their wide receivers. While to me losing WR Robby Anderson isn’t a big deal, they seemingly think WR Breshad Perriman is the answer. Breshad Perriman? Nope. I mean, feel free to prove me wrong, but all I’ve seen him do successfully is catch yeeted balls from wild card QB Jameis Winston in Tampa Bay for just a handful of games. Thankfully New York added WR Denzel Mims in the 2020 NFL Draft, but even for a team that will likely have to throw a lot because they’re behind, Mims’ first game he’ll suit up for is the season opener after the NFL lost its preseason.
On defense, Jamal Adams gave up on New York and was traded to the Seattle Seahawks. It seemed like he took on multiple positional roles last season with the continuous secondary injuries to the Jets, and now we’ll have to hope the Jets have the depth to actually fill those positions. Nevertheless, the unit is still lacking in needed leadership.
Brandon: The Jets considered bringing in a complimentary back with Le’Veon Bell, but chose Frank Gore. While Gore is a veteran, this looks like another person head coach Adam Gase has worked with that he just chose again based on previous experience. Someone who can take the rock and run with it so that Bell does not have to do all the work…will that really be Gore? The defense is what needs the most improvement though. C.J. Mosely is out for the season and now Jamal Adams will be suiting up for the Seattle Seahawks. Who will take over the leadership of the defense? The Jets defense may end up being the worst of the unit, much different than what it was last season.
Mike: The Jets defense is young, versatile and promising. However, it will be an area of concern in 2020 as they attempt to take a step forward. Gone are safety Jamal Adams (via trade) and C.J. Mosley (via opt-out). Defensive tackle Quinnen Williams and cornerback Blessuan Austin will need to build on some promising flashes shown in 2019. Still, the Jets remain in need of an effective edge rusher. New York was among the worst teams in the NFL at getting to the quarterback a season ago. While Joe Douglas made some impressive moves this offseason, he failed to add a true pass rusher to the defense. Rookie Jabari Zuniga has potential. However, the Achilles’ heel of the Jets defense will be the lack of an end who can get to the quarterback effectively.
Are You Ready to Name a Division Winner?
I don’t think we are either.
Each AFC East team is equipped with ways to take home the crown, but all have many uncertainties too. It’ll be an exciting time in the AFC East this season and we may just see a new ruler plant itself on top.
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