AFC East preview: Is the Patriots' dynasty finally over?
They say all things must end, and for everyone who dislikes the Patriots, the end of the dynasty appears to have arrived. The departure of Tom Brady, along with many other key players, has opened up the AFC East for a possible new champion for the first time in a very, very long while.
Let’s break down the four teams in the AFC East, and see who has a chance to dethrone New England
New England Patriots
2019 record: 12-4, lost in wild-card round
Key Additions: QB Cam Newton, DE Josh Uche (draft), TE Devin Asiasi (draft), DE Anfernee Jennings (draft), LB Kyle Dugger (draft), DT Beau Allen
Key Departures: QB Tom Brady, LB Kyle Van Noy, LB Jamie Collins, K Stephen Gostkowski, DT Danny Shelton, S Duron Harmon, TE Rob Gronkowski
Tom Brady is actually gone. Even as I type those words, knowing they are true, it is still very hard to believe. Cam Newton was brought in on a cheap, one-year deal, and if there is anybody who can revive his career, it would be Bill Belichick. If the gamble pays off, they might be able to bridge the gap between Brady and heir-apparent Jarrett Stidham, and cling to yet another divisional crown. If it does not, they will cede their top spot for the first time in over a decade.
Newton will not have even a hint of the weapons that Brady had during much of his run, however. Gronk is no longer retired, but he was traded to the Buccaneers to join his partner in crime. Julian Edelman will be 34 before the season ends, and is not what you would call a top-level wideout anymore. Kicker Stephen Gostkowski is also gone, taking away the safety net of knowing you could get a nearly automatic three points if you got inside the 35 yard line.
None of the running back trio of Sony Michel, Red Burkhead, and James White can take over a game. The defense was held together at times last year by duct tape and bubble gum, and appears to not be any better than it was last year, especially with the loss of LBs Jamie Collins and Kyle Van Noy.
It all comes down to Newton, and whether Belichick can work his magic yet again. Given Newton’s injury history over the past few years, it might take more than even the Patriots’ head coach can conjure. It looks like the end truly has arrived in Foxborough. Don’t be shocked if they tank in the hopes of landing Trevor Lawrence in next year’s draft.
2019 record: 10-6, lost in wild-card round
Key Additions: WR Stefon Diggs, DE Mario Addison, DE AJ Epenesa (draft), CB Josh Norman, CB EJ Gaines, DE Quinton Jefferson
Key Departures: DL Shaq Lawson, DL Jordan Phillips, RB Frank Gore
The Buffalo Bills return the most starters of any team in the NFL from a squad that lost in overtime to Houston in last year’s wild-card round. QB Josh Allen took a big step forward last season, although he has quite a bit of room to grow still.
The one thing the offense severely lacked was a big-play receiver, so the front office rectified that by packaging multiple picks, including their first-rounder, to land Stefon Diggs from the Vikings. He gives Allen a massive weapon in the passing game, and should help take some pressure off the young running back Devin Singletary, who will have to take on more of a load with the departure of RB Frank Gore.
Defensively, the Bills were terrific last season, ranking in the top 10 in almost every major category. Despite those lofty numbers, they arguably improved in the offseason and will likely be among the league’s best units.
Between free agency and the draft, they added three outside pass rushers in Mario Addison, Quinton Jefferson, and AJ Epenesa who should make their anemic pass rush much better than it was last year. The addition of Josh Norman in the secondary is a bit of a risk, but it’s one that could pay big dividends if he can behave himself.
This is the Bills’ best chance to win the division and make the playoffs for just the third time in the 21st century, and perhaps win their first playoff game in 25 years.
New York Jets
2019 record: 7-9
Key Additions: WR Breshad Perriman, OL Josh Andrews, OT George Fant, DE Jordan Jenkins, OT Mekhi Becton (draft), WR Denzel Mims (draft)
Key Departures: S Jamal Adams, WR Robby Anderson, WR Demaryius Thomas, OT Ryan Kalil, LB Brandon Copeland
Hopes were high entering the offseason after the Jets finished the year on a 6-2 run, thanks in part to the play of QB Sam Darnold. However, those hopes were quickly dashed by the NFL—who took the Jets from having one of the five easiest schedules in the league, to having one of the five most difficult.
The franchise also lost some major pieces in the offseason, and replaced them with, well, a bunch of not-so-major pieces. WR Robby Anderson was replaced by Breshad Perriman, which is about the only place where the front office was able to keep the talent level somewhat even with where position groups were last year. They traded away All-Pro safety Jamal Adams to the Seahawks, to the frustration of many in their fanbase.
Offensive line was the one area they did focus on, drafting athletic freak Mekhi Becton at tackle and signing George Fant to anchor the other end of the line. The other line, however, continues to be very weak, as the Jets still lack a real threat in their pass rush. They were poor at cornerback last year and did not address that position, either.
They have the drama that is the Le’Veon Bell saga hanging over their head, with three years left on his deal and no desire by the coaching staff to really use him. Given all the turmoil surrounding this team, and the lack of weapons or even a vision, I will be shocked if the Jets finish anywhere but dead last in the division.
2019 record: 5-11
Key Additions: QB Tua Tagovailoa (draft), LB Kyle Van Noy, OT Erik Flowers, DE Shaq Lawson, DE Emmanuel Ogbah, CB Byron Jones, RB Jordan Howard, OT Austin Jackson (draft)
Key Departures: OT J’Marcus Webb, S Reshad Jones
If the Dolphins don’t improve in 2020, it won’t be for a lack of trying. They capitalized on their league-leading cap space and dished out more than $230 million in contracts to their free agent signings. They look to improve a team that started 0-7 last year, but might have helped steer the course of the entire season by defeating New England on the final weekend of the year. Now they turn their offense over to Tua Tagovailoa, whose injury issues took him from a certain No. 1 pick two years ago, to a fifth-overall selection and a huge risk.
As for the rest of the team, there should be improvement at nearly every position. The loss of S Reshad Jones hurts, but they could not afford to keep him. However, they made huge strides in the front seven, bringing in edge rushers Shaq Lawson and Emmanuel Ogbah, while snatching LB Kyle Van Noy from the Patriots. Bryon Jones will be a vital improvement in the secondary, as well.
Offensively, RB Jordan Howard will give Tagovailoa some help, and the improvement of WR DeVante Parker was a bright spot in last year’s season. If the rookie quarterback (or Ryan Fitzpatrick, if he’s not healthy) can simply provide average play, the Dolphins could make a run at a .500 record this season.