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AFC East: Patriots best of a mediocre bunch - NBC Sports

AFC East: Patriots best of a mediocre bunch
Brady, Belichick have Super Bowl shot, while Jets, Dolphins play catch-up.
August 26, 2014, 3:45 pm

We're running an eight-part NFL season preview series taking a look at all eight divisions. A new division preview will be released daily leading up to the season opener on NBC on August 4. First up, the AFC East.

Full disclosure: The record predictions are an estimation and the teams are listed in order of predicted finish.

Patriots (13-3)

Offense – Tom Brady remains one of the NFL’s five best quarterbacks, but at 37 years old, he can no longer turn luke-warm water into high-priced wine. Throwing to a talent- and injury-ravaged group of targets in 2013, Brady posted the-second worst completion percentage of his career. His touchdown total and yards per completion were also his lowest since 2006 (lost 2008 season withstanding). This season, Brady appears to have the deepest group of skill players surrounding him in years. Julian Edelman is coming off a Wes Welker-like 105-catch season, while Danny Amendola spent the offseason working out with Brady’s trainer to cut down on his injury problems. Second-year wideout Kenbrell Thompkins has reportedly been dazzling in camp along with free agent addition Brandon LaFell and Rob Gronkowski could return from a torn ACL as soon as Week 1. The running back group is deep, although practice MVP James White plays like just another guy in games. The offensive line is also a bit of a question mark with longtime coach Dante Scarnecchia retiring, competitions at both center and right guard and the trade of Pro Bowl guard Logan Mankins on Tuesday.

Defense – Thanks to free agency and the miracles of modern medicine, this is the most talented Patriots defense since their Super Bowl run in the early 2000s. New England signed cornerbacks Brandon Browner and Darrelle Revis in free agency to pair with underrated safety Devin McCourty. The Patriots have been wowed by Revis in training camp and he appears all the way back from the torn ACL he suffered midway through the 2012 season. Meanwhile, linebacker Jerod Mayo and defensive tackle Vince Wilfork are practicing without restriction after suffering season-ending injuries in 2013. The breakout star, though, could be linebacker Jamie Collins, who burst onto the scene in the Pats’ divisional round playoff over the Colts. Collins tormented Indy QB Andrew Luck, shut down TE Coby Fleener and played stout against the run. He'll be joined in the headlines by defensive end Chandler Jones, the 2012 first-round pick who looked like a monster against Panthers left tackle Blake Bell on Friday night. As good as Wilfork has been in his career, not since Richard Seymour's hey-day have the Pats had a down lineman dominate in the passing game.

More AFC: East | North | South | West

More NFC: East | North | South | West

Outlook – For the first time since they won a Super Bowl, the Patriots’ best unit could be on defense, an incredible notion when you consider Bill Belichick is their head coach and de-facto general manager. Revis and Browner (once he returns from the four games left on his suspension) give New England its best cornerback duo in years, Collins appears Pro Bowl-bound and the run defense should be good enough despite losing Brandon Spikes in free agency. The X-factor, of course, is Gronkowski, but if he’s healthy for even 12-14 games, the Pats’ offense should return to a top-five unit. If Revis regains his status as the NFL’s best cornerback (he will), this is the AFC’s best team.

Dolphins (8-8)

Offense – It’s a new look on this side of the ball for Miami as offensive coordinator Bill Lazor brings a form of Chip Kelly’s up-tempo scheme with him from Philadelphia. The Dolphins hope the offense can help steady quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who is incredibly gifted but as a converted wide receiver struggles making plays from the pocket. Outside of Lazor, the Dolphins’ biggest additions in the offseason were left tackle Brandon Albert, a desperately-needed boost, and running back Knowshon Moreno, who’s spent most of the offseason sidelined and out of shape. They also drafted receiver Jarvis Landry in the second round. Albert should make the much-maligned offensive line better, but it’s still a big enough question mark to sabotage Lazor’s offense before it even gets off the ground. Wide receiver Mike Wallace was a highly-compensated ghost in 2013, but with a more creative scheme should see more targets and more opportunities to make some of the big plays he was known for in Pittsburgh.

Defense – Despite losing Paul Soliai in free agency, the Dolphins’ defensive line remains the strength of their team. Up the middle, Randy Starks is still an effective player in his 11th season and Jared Odrick has developed into one of the better run-stuffers in the league. On the edge is where the Dolphins wreak havoc, with defensive ends Cameron Wake and Olivier Vernon terrorizing offensive tackles on passing downs. The Dolphins also boast a strong cover corner in Brent Grimes, who rediscovered his game in Miami last year. Miami’s linebacking corps is the weakest unit on the defense, with the overpaid, but athletic Dannell Ellerbe leading the way. The biggest wild card in the unit is second-year hybrid linebacker Dion Jordan, who starts the year suspended four games for PEDS. Jordan is expected to play in sub packages once he’s active and will have to show he’s worthy of being the No. 4 overall selection in 2013.

Outlook: Tannehill last looked markedly better in the preseason and has taken to Lazor’s quick-hitting passing scheme quite well. The question is whether the offensive line can keep Tannehill off the turf after he was sacked a league-high 58 times last season (the next highest QB, Joe Flacco, was turfed 10 less times on 25 more passing attempts). Albert will help, but the loss of center Mike Pouncey for two months is a huge setback and both guard positions are huge concerns. The defense is capable of playing at a playoff level, but another year of poor protection will keep Tannehill and Co. from reaching the poseason.

AP Photo

Jets (7-9)

Offense – On paper, this unit is much improved from last year’s 25th-ranked offense. The Jets added Eric Decker, Chris Johnson and Michael Vick in free agency and drafted tight end Jace Amaro in the second round. They also signed former Seahawks right tackle Breno Giacomini to replace the departed Austin Howard. The Jets are banking on Johnson, Chris Ivory and Bilal Powell to form a three-headed monster at running back, which, in theory at least, will lighten the load on second-year quarterback Geno Smith. Last season, Smith was an unmitigated disaster for most of the season before steadying his play somewhat in the final four weeks. Smith has looked calmer and more fundamentally sound in the pocket this preseason and his teammates have praised the work he put in during the offseason. However, there are still questions about his decision-making and accuracy and the Jets still boast one of the league’s weaker receiving corps outside of Decker.

Defense – Since Rex Ryan arrived, defense has never been a problem for the Jets, with last season’s 11th-ranked unit being the worst in Ryan’s tenure. After being a group defined by their secondary, New York’s defense now starts with one of the best defensive lines in football with Muhammad Wilkerson, Sheldon Richardson and Damon Harrison. The “Sons of Anarchy,” as they’re known, are a dynamic playmaking force and helped spearhead the NFL’s No. 3 rush defense last year. The problem is in pass defense, where the Jets were one of league's worst in 2013. Despite the drafting of playmaking safety Calvin Pryor, the Jets mostly ignored the secondary this offseason, allowing Antonio Cromartie to leave for Arizona and signing only oft-injured veteran Dimitri Patterson to replace him. The unit was further weakened when No. 1 corner Dee Milliner suffered a high-ankle sprain in Week 1 of the preseason and rookie cornerback Dexter McDougle tore an ACL in practice. The Jets are so desperate that when Patterson went AWOL and didn't show up for a preseason game (because he didn't like his spot on the depth chart), his "punishment" was a suspension for the final preseason game, which basically amounts to an extra week off before the season starts.

PFT's Five Questions: Patriots | Dolphins | Jets

Outlook – At 8-8, the Jets were one of the league’s biggest overachievers last season and saved Ryan’s job by winning three of their final four games. This year, they’ll face a tougher schedule and are still searching for a pass rush to complement their stellar run defense. The blueprint for success lies in last year’s Panthers, who relied on an athletic, playmaking quarterback, a strong run game and one of the league’s best pressure defenses to overcome a leaky secondary and an undermanned receiver position. If Smith can play at replacement level and linebackers Quinton Coples and Demario Davis (a shining star in training camp) can play significant roles on passing downs, the Jets could compete for a wild card spot in the weak AFC. But those are big ifs.

Bills (5-11)

Offense – The Bills have lacked a premier No. 1 wideout since Andre Reed left following the 1999 season. Yes, it’s been that long. So when they traded a future first-round pick to move up and get Sammy Watkins, it was easy to understand the excitement. Watkins has yet to disappoint this summer, dazzling throughout camp with highlight-reel plays that forecast a Pro Bowl future. Buffalo also boasts a three-deep stable at running back with ultra-talented C.J. Spiller, Fred Jackson and the intriguing Bryce Brown. Add in receivers Mike Williams, Robert Woods and Marquise Goodwin and you have one of the best collections of skill position players in the AFC. But those skill position players don’t start with the ball in their hands and EJ Manuel has yet to prove he’s capable of delivering it. The first quarterback selected in last year’s draft, Manuel wholly underwhelmed as a rookie while dealing with knee injuries that sidelined him three times. This summer, Manuel has shown flashes of consistency but has continued to disappoint overall.

Defense – After finishing 2012 ranked 21st in weighted DVOA defensively, the Bills went out and hired Mike Pettine as defensive coordinator, drafted Kiko Alonso and traded for talented pass rusher Jerry Hughes. It worked as Buffalo skyrocketed to fifth in weighted DVOA and Alonso was a rookie of the year candidate. Pettine has since left to coach the Browns, while Alonso is out for the season and Hughes has publicly sparred with head coach Doug Marrone. The Bills also lost former Pro Bowl safety Jairus Byrd in free agency and figure to have talented defensive tackle Marcel Dareus suspended for at least a game or two after his multiple offseason arrests. That’s the bad news. Now for the good. When healthy and active, Dareus teams with Mario Williams and Kyle Williams to form one of the best defensive lines in the league. The Bills also added run-stuffing savant Brandon Spikes from the Patriots this offseason and have solid corners in Leodis McKelvin and third-year player Stephon Gilmore.

Outlook – On paper, the Bills are one of the most talented teams in the conference and they have a coach in Marrone who the players raved about last season. However, their losses on defense are staggering and they have a major question mark at the game’s most important position. They also play a schedule that features a closing slate of at Denver, home for the Packers and then road games in Oakland and in New England. Ouch. Despite the talent, the Bills will miss the playoffs for the 15th straight season and could end up cleaning house once a new owner is installed.

Corey Griffin is an editor for Follow him on Twitter @CoreyGriffinNBC.

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