With the exception of the 2002 and 2008 seasons, the New England Patriots have won the AFC East every season since 2001, which coincides with Tom Brady taking over as quarterback. At some point, somebody else will take over the division. But that doesn’t project to happen this year. In 2019, the gap between New England and the rest of the AFC East appears as big – or bigger – than ever.
Last season: 6-10
Key players to watch: Josh Allen, Tre’Davious White, Micah Hyde
Projected record: 5-11
Josh Allen’s emergence towards the end of last season as a running quarterback was a revelation. But he’s going to have to be better throwing the ball if the Bills want to improve on last season’s record. Buffalo may pick up an extra win or two more than they would otherwise by virtue of being in the AFC East, maybe the NFL’s worst division – outside of New England – but six wins might be around the ceiling for this team (again). They have some good young talent but lack the depth and playmaking to really raise some eyebrows around the league.
Buffalo has built a really sound defense, especially in the secondary. Cornerback Tre’Davious White and safety Micah Hyde are All-Pro candidates. The question, however, will revolve around the pass rush and ability to consistently stop the run. Though even if the defense outperforms expectations, it wouldn’t be crazy to wonder if the other side of the ball can provide enough points for this team to have a winning record.
The Bills aren’t finishing high than the Patriots in the division. That puts the highest accomplishment left as obtaining one of the two AFC wild-card spots. While it looks like one (if not both) of those spots will be up for grabs in a conference with two powerhouses (New England and Kansas City) and an expected contender (Pittsburgh), that leaves a few of the unknowns with a lane to make a run. Buffalo, however, goes into the season squarely behind Cleveland, the Los Angeles Chargers, Baltimore, and maybe a few others across the AFC. Besides, a couple more top-ten draft picks won’t the Bills any.
New York Jets
Last season: 4-12
Key players to watch: Le’Veon Bell, Sam Darnold, Leonard Williams
Projected record: 6-10
The Jets clearly prioritized putting weapons around second-year quarterback Sam Darnold this offseason. There are legitimate questions about whether the team will get any return on investment with the Le’Veon Bell contract. However, any team that can find a competent quarterback on a rookie (or relatively cheap) contract will find themselves with extra money elsewhere. New York chose to spend that extra cash on Bell. Given how much the new Jet running back can help out of the backfield in the passing game, though, his deal may not be near as bad as some doomsday sayers think.
On defense, the Jets look they could be perfectly fine within the context of their team’s timeline. At least on paper, they have solid, consistent pros, specifically across the front-seven. The backside of the defense is a little unproven, however. That, along with being short on players that could be classified as dynamic playmakers, puts a cap on their defensive potential.
New York scored the 23rd-most points per game in the NFL last season and gave up the fourth-most. As of right now, the offense and defense are on track to improve, but not enough to make the Jets a contender. New York is a team that will have to wait at least one more year.
Last season: 7-9
Projected record: 4-12
Key players to watch: Kenyan Drake, Kenny Stills, Xavien Howard
Miami is the NFL’s closest thing to a team tanking. But that won’t stop the players on the team from playing hard. The Dolphins have a roster full of players wanting to earn new contracts, more playing time, or just a spot on the 53-man squad. But Miami is clearly deficient in the talent category. They do have a noteworthy, albeit not the most appealing, quarterback battle going on. The organization made a low-risk move to bring in second-year signal-caller Josh Rosen after Arizona deemed him dispensable in the lead up to the Cardinals selecting Kyler Murray with the first overall pick in the draft. This team does appear to be hungry to draft another QB in the 2020 draft, where there figures to be at least a couple franchise-changing quarterbacks available.
The Dolphins didn’t make it easy on whichever quarterback they choose to start between Rosen and newly acquired Ryan Fitzpatrick. Outside of Kenny Stills and Kenyan Drake, Miami’s offense is chock-full of unknowns. (And it might even be a stretch to call Drake’s production a certainty.) It wouldn’t be surprising in the least if the Dolphins ended the season with the worst-rated offense in the league. If that’s the case, it will be near-impossible to the Dolphins to sniff a winning record.
In regards to Miami’s defense, it may be slightly ahead of where the offense is, but not by a whole lot. The Dolphins made a decision to get off high-value contracts or to not re-sign players who commanded high salaries. Instead, Miami chose cornerback Xavien Howard as the one player to extend and build around while the holes left Cameron Wake and Ndonokung Suh (among others) will prove tough to fill, at least with what’s currently on the roster.
Choosing to strip the team down to this extent was probably the right play. The Dolphins’ winning window is now scheduled to take place approximately as the Patriots come down from the reign atop the AFC East, conference, and league. Thus, there could be a lot of meaningful football games played in South Beach in the future, but the Dolphins will struggle mightily this season.
New England Patriots
Last season: 11-5, won Super Bowl
Key players to watch: Tom Brady, Julian Edelman, Dont’a Hightower
Projected record: 12-4
As time marches on, the Patriots will have to keep reinventing themselves. The magic of Tom Brady isn’t that his skills aren’t diminishing – they are – but rather that Brady has found a way to minimize the scale of his own decline while finding subtle ways to compensate for things he can’t do anymore … or do as well. Except for the annual couple of games where Bill Belichick decides to run 30 times as a strategical move, Brady will be counted on plenty. Even though Rob Gronkowski decided to retire, this might be one of the better receiving corps the organization has put around its franchise quarterback, which should make the aging process just a little more manageable.
For a team that has had the level of the success New England has had, it’s perplexing that they’ve done so without a consistent pass rush. They addressed that a bit this offseason in the draft by taking Chase Winovich out of Michigan and trading for Michael Bennett. New England also brought back Jaime Collins Sr. at the linebacker position. Regardless, the Patriots defense revolves around the steady play of Dont’a Hightower, who has been one of the most underappreciated players on the roster since he’s been there.
New England was top ten in points scored and points allowed last season. That figures to roughly stay the same, especially considering the cakewalk the team gets as a divisional schedule. However, many were surprised by how low-scoring last season’s Super Bowl was. In reality, that game may have been symbolic of a new Patriots style. And it may propel them into a position to repeat in 2020, As for the AFC East itself, New England doesn’t stand to see much of a threat for the division crown this year.