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Division Previews

AFC East Preview and Wagering Opportunities

by Warren Sharp
Updated On: September 10, 2020, 6:31 pm ET

Don't miss Sharp's other Divisional Previews: NFC East | NFC South | NFC West | NFC North | AFC North | AFC South | AFC West

New England Patriots

Many people believe “if Tom Brady couldn’t get anything out of this offense what could Cam possibly get?”  But there is a huge difference between Brady and Newton in the way defenses can play them. 

Across the NFL, defenses typically play 58% of snaps with five defensive backs (nickel), 28% of snaps with four or fewer defensive backs (base), and 14% of snaps with six or more defensive backs (dime). Over the last two years against the Patriots, defenses have played almost 18% of snaps with six or more defensive backs.  But the last time Newton was healthy (2018), defenses played dime against the Panthers on only 5% of snaps. Because of the added threat Newton brings as a runner, and especially considering his size, defenses have tended to keep heavier personnel out on the field. This is something Brady never had the luxury of facing. 

Another thing that’s different as a result is more men in the box, and productivity when running against it. Over the last two years on early downs in the first half, looking at run plays, the only time the Patriots were efficient was when they got defenses to play with six or fewer men in the box. Then they gained 5.7 YPC (fourth) and earned positive EPA (0.15 EPA/att). But against seven-man boxes they gained just 2.5 YPC with negative EPA. And forget about it with 8+ man boxes, where they gained just 2.1 YPC and more negative EPA.  However, the Panthers with Newton could do anything they wanted, and were productive against all types of boxes. They averaged 6.0 YPC against six-or-fewer men in the box, even better than the Patriots, and were top-10 even against 7 and 8+ man boxes.

The Patriots would be wise to use more play-action to help Newton. The Patriots always have seen tremendous boost from play-action, but last year they used it the sixth-least often on early downs in the first three quarters. They saw YPA improve from 6.0 to 8.4 with play-action, and success rate jumped 10 percentage points. Frankly, without healthy fullbacks last year, the Patriots should have increased their play-action rate in 2019, but they used it even less frequently last year (29%) as they did in 2018 (35%).

The Patriots have always been a great screen team, and target upside receiving backs frequently. Between adding more play-action and utilizing running backs as receivers, especially on screens, this offense could be friendly to Newton, who had a lot of success throwing to Christian McCaffrey.

While I don’t think the offensive drop-off of switching QBs will be as critical as many people believe because it comes with Josh McDaniels and Bill Belichick designing the offense which should be absolutely dynamic.  But my concerns with this team in general revolve around the COVID-19 opt-outs, which hit this team’s starters unlike any other team.  Additionally, this defense was not nearly as good as what they appeared to be to start the 2019 season.  They looked stronger thanks to their schedule of opposing offenses.  Last season the Patriots played four above-average passing offenses and went 1-3 in those games (11-1 in their other 12 games). This season, instead of playing only four above-average pass offenses, the Patriots play double that number.

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Buffalo Bills

I am optimistic about the Buffalo Bills thanks in large part to the creativity of their OC, Brian Daboll, and the overall strength of their roster, on that is extremely balanced on both sides of the ball.  They are far from perfect, but are likely to win the division.

Passing wins games in the NFL and with a quarterback like Josh Allen, the Bills cannot expect him to perform like Patrick Mahomes or Deshaun Watson to make countless plays through the air while things dissolve in the pocket. The Bills must give their passing offense every edge possible if they want to receive the passing efficiency which will be required to win enough games to achieve their goals.

Other strategies the Bills can use to improve their passing efficiency include using more play-action. Buffalo was the NFL’s worst passing offense when passing without play-action in 2019 as they averaged 6.2 YPA and a 42% success rate. But when using play-action, they raised their YPA by 2.0 yards and improved their success rate by 13 percentage points.

The Bills were only one of three offenses to move from below-average without play-action to above-average with play-action. And yet they used play-action on just 21% of passing plays. Their play-action usage on early downs in the first three quarters of games was the seventh-lowest of any team.

Additionally, incorporating more pre-snap motion could benefit the passing offense by giving Allen easier reads. The Bills were seven percentage points more successful when passing with pre-snap motion (fifth-highest in the NFL) but used the second-least pre-snap motion on early downs in the first three quarters of games.

The Bills did what they could to help Allen in the offseason. They gave him a huge boost by trading for wide receiver Stefon Diggs, a year after they added John Brown and Cole Beasley in free agency. I mentioned last offseason how the Bills made adjustments at wide receiver personnel to add smaller, faster players capable of getting open to make targets easier for Allen, rather than going with taller, bigger but slower targets.

Last year the Bills won double-digit games despite losing five games by one score. That’s a feat very difficult to accomplish. The 10-6 Bills saw five of six losses by that narrow, one-score margin. How rare?  They were the only team in 2019 to win 10+ games with 5+ losses by one-score. And in the last 30 years, it only happened 23 times in total pre-2019 Bills.

How do those teams perform the next year? Of the 23 teams, 17 won double-digit games the following season (74%) and 13 actually won more games than the prior year. Only five of 23 (22%) posted a losing record the next season. And on average, these teams won 10.2 games.

Where it gets toughest is for Josh Allen. The Bills played the eighth-easiest schedule of pass defenses in 2019 but play the eighth-toughest in 2020. No offense faces a tougher increase in caliber of pass defenses faced from 2019 to 2020 than the Bills.

New York Jets

The 2019 Jets Offense ranked 32nd in EDSR and 31st in overall offensive efficiency.  This wasn’t a team moving forward in Adam Gase’s first year. 

Whenever I see a team ranking 31st in third down conversion rate, as the 2019 Jets Offense did, the first place I look is average yardage to go on third down. In 2018, the Jets averaged 7.5 yards to go on third downs, which ranked eighth-worst in the NFL. But in 2019, the Jets averaged a ridiculous 8.1 yards to go on third down. Dead last in the NFL. In the first half, they averaged an even worse 8.3 yards to go on third down. Also, dead last. Clearly, the Jets’ 32nd rank in early down success not only resulted in few third downs skipped, it resulted in incredibly long yards to go on third down

The 2019 Jets ran third-most on 2nd and 10+ yards to go. These runs produced just 15% success and gained 3.0 YPC. They averaged -0.34 EPA/att. No, the upgrade from Isiah Crowell and Bilal Powell to Bell wasn’t worth anything on these plays. 

The answer isn’t bringing in a better pedigree running back to run on 2nd and 10. It’s to stop running on 2nd and 10. Such plays simply result in third and long, which the Jets couldn’t convert in 2019, and likely won’t convert in 2020 either.  Overall the Jets ranked 29th in EDSR and 32nd in first half yards-to-go on third down. 

Out of all the teams in the NFL last year, only six used fewer unique lineups on offense than the Jets. When something isn’t working and isn’t efficient, the least likely way a team will improve is to continue doing it repeatedly.  Some coaches may believe the repetition to be beneficial and eventually, the team will turn the corner and perfect things. But if you’re putting too limited a catalog on tape, defenses know exactly what to expect. You may be slightly better, but defenses can anticipate what’s coming from the lack of diversity. And your efficiency is unlikely to improve.

Last summer I forecasted the Jets would play the NFL’s second-easiest schedule. I was close, as they played the fifth-easiest schedule. But in 2020, they will face the NFL’s third-toughest schedule. It’s easily the biggest shift from easy to hard for any team in the NFL.  The schedule gets tough on Sam Darnold, especially. The 2019 Jets played eight games against top-half pass defenses and went 2-6 in those games. They played seven games against bottom-10 pass defenses and went 5-2. But in 2020 they play 10 games against top-half pass defenses and only four games against bottom-10 pass defenses. Overall, I forecast the Jets to face the fourth-toughest schedule of pass defenses. 

Miami Dolphins

The tank is over.  The Dolphins are trying to win games.  The 2020 Dolphins signed as many players with an average salary of $7.5 million as they did in the prior seven years combined. That’s remarkable.

Miami gave cornerback Byron Jones the most lucrative contract of any free agent this offseason. Five years, $82.5 million. No team spent more on a single player.  In addition, the Dolphins gave former Patriots linebacker Kyle Van Noy $51 million, which was the seventh-highest in the entire 2020 free agent class. They also added EDGE Shaq Lawson (from Buffalo) for $30 million, guard Ereck Flowers (from Washington), and EDGE Emmanuel Ogbah (from Kansas City).

What Miami did defensively in 2019 was start the NFL’s least experienced unit. Looking at the 2019 Dolphins defensive snaps, they played the least experienced roster in the NFL. The average age per snap was 25.1 years old. For comparison, the Patriots’ defense – Brian Flores’s old team and one of the best defenses in the NFL – had the oldest defense with an average age of 28.2 years.  Miami started (not just played in games but actually started) 10 rookies last year on defense (53 total games started between the 10). They also saw 33 games started by five players with just one year of experience. 

And the good news is the 2020 Dolphins Defense still gets to play an easy schedule of offenses, that is made even easier without Tom Brady twice a year. Miami will face the tenth-easiest schedule of opposing offenses, including the eighth-easiest schedule of passing offenses and the sixth-easiest schedule of opposing run offenses.

The AFC East is laden with incredible defenses and given this virtual offseason, I think it will be difficult for this group to make a one-year jump to be in that conversation. But they’ll be noticeably better than 2019 and are well on their way to providing the offense with the support they’ll need by 2021.

Wagering Opportunities

Buffalo Bills to win the AFC East +125
NY Jets to finish 4th in the AFC East +130

Don't miss Sharp's other Divisional Previews: NFC East | NFC South | NFC West | NFC North | AFC North | AFC South | AFC West

Warren Sharp

Warren Sharp is a football and betting analyst for NBC Sports. As a leading voice in football analytics, Warren writes a yearly book previewing the upcoming season from all angles at his Sharp Football Analysis website. You can follow Warren Sharp on Twitter @SharpFootball.