2018 AFC East Preview

Welcome to the 2018 AFC East preview.  This is the initial installment of our eight part series in which will preview the entire NFL for the 2018 season, looking at each division one at a time.  We will cover what to expect from each team, make a prediction on every team’s Vegas win total, and look at some highlights from the division as a whole.  As mentioned, we will begin with the 2018 AFC East preview.

A point of clarification; the order in which the teams appear is my prediction as to what the divisional standings will be at season’s end.

New England Patriots – O/U 11 – Over

The Patriots have won 11 or more games in every season since 2002.  They have made the playoffs in 15/16 seasons, with the lone season of missing the playoffs coming the year Tom Brady tore his ACL and New England didn’t get in despite going 11-5.  So, yea, until the Patriots don’t win 11+ games I’m going to bet on them winning 11+ games.

Last we saw Tom Brady he threw for 505 yards against a very good Eagles defense in route to what should have been his 6th Super Bowl victory if it weren’t for the high school football caliber defense he dragged to the big game letting him down.  I know that quarterback drop-offs happen without warning, and what Brady is doing at his age is unprecedented, but once again, until he isn’t an elite player at any position, I’m going to assume that he is.

The Patriots went 13-3 last season and overachieved by a single win.  Given their point differential last season (tied for the best in the NFL) they would have been expected to win 12 games based on their pythagorean win expectation.  Perhaps the overachievement can be attributed to a soft schedule in 2017.  Well, as you probably gleamed from the Tweet embedded at the beginning of this article, at least one person believes the Patriots have the easiest schedule this upcoming season.  For what it’s worth, FiveThiryEight views the Patriots schedule as the third easiest in 2018.  I know this is an oversimplification, but, I’ll take the over on 11 wins with Brady and Belichick vs a top 3 easiest schedule.

But you aren’t here to rehash last season or take out a second mortgage in order to bet the over on the Patriots.  What you want to know is how the mass exodus of key contributors from last season will affect the 2018 Patriots, and did Belichick do enough to address this defense after the Super Bowl debacle.

Let’s start with the contributors lost.  People will look at the losses of Nate Solder, Dion Lewis, Danny Amendola, and Malcolm Butler and go, whoa boy, that’s a lot of talent gone.  It is a lot of talent gone, but it isn’t as dire a situation as it looks on paper.

While Amendola did come up huge for the Patriots in the playoffs time after time, is anyone really that concerned about Brady making the next guy up into a viable slot option?  Brady still has Gronk, Chris Hogan, Julian Edelman (after suspension), James White, Rex Burkhead, and now Sony Michel to work with.  I’m not crying over Brady’s weapons, and neither should you.

Dion Lewis actually lead all running backs last season in DYAR, and was second in DVOA.  Lewis was quite good, but when was the last time the Patriots didn’t at least manufacture a good enough running game?  When was the last time you thought to yourself “gee, I dunno how far the Pats can go this year due to their running backs”?  For this exact reason I was not a fan at all of the Sony Michel pick, as that valuable of a resource should have gone to a defensive player (literally any defensive player).

But more fun facts about 2017 Patriot running backs; Burkhead ranked 7th in DYAR among players that had 20-99 rushing attempts last season, and 8th in both receiving DYAR and DVOA among running backs with at least 25 receptions last season.  The Patriots are fine without Lewis, and look for Burkhead to be utilized in the slot prior to Edelman rejoining the team.  Hopefully this “slight” knee tear is able to heal.

Letting Butler walk hurts but the Patriots weren’t willing to pay him what the market was willing to pay him.  Also, for as instrumental as Butler has been during the Patriots Super Bowl runs, he has never been a top tier lockdown corner.  Butler is really a solid second corner, which is still someone the Patriots could really use, but Belichick believes he can replace that production for a fraction of the cost.  Jason McCourty is surprisingly on the roster bubble despite it being assumed he was brought in to replace Butler.  The new McCourty has had a very solid, underrated career, so the team must be very impressed with the young corners this preseason if McCourty may get cut.

The loss that hurts the most, however, is definitely Nate Solder.  While Solder was always a better run blocker than pass blocker, having the chemistry with Brady cannot be under appreciated.  A new face will now be protecting Brady’s blindside, which is maybe not what you want when your quarterback is 41 years old.

First round pick Isaiah Wynn suffered a tore achilles and will be miss the 2018 season.  I was ok with the pick at the time, and the thought process of the pick is still valid, but this loss makes a sketchy first round by New England more questionable.  The team brought in Trent Brown this offseason as well, so he will now presumably be starting on the left side.  He spent his firs three years playing on the right side for San Francisco, so all we can do is wait and see how he will perform on the left.

Regarding the defense, the downgrade from Butler hurts, but there were improvements elsewhere, just not where you would want them.  Belichick brought in Danny Shelton and Adrian Clayborne this offseason to improve the run defense.  I happen to think that these moves, coupled with the return of Dont’a Hightower, should result in the Patriots having one of the better run defenses in the NFL.  But the Patriots needed more pass rush production and coverage play, and I don’t know if those items were addressed.

Trey Flowers is a budding star who had 60 total pressures from 466 pass-rushing snaps in the regular season of his third year in the league.  He has improved each season of his career and there is no evidence to suggest that won’t continue.  Outside of him, however, there is a lack of pass rush.  Deatrich Wise is a nice contributor, and in the preseason the team is once again experimenting with Hightower as an edge defender, but it seems Belichick placed a large bet on 2017 third round pick Derek Rivers being the impact pass rusher he was drafted to be after missing his entire rookie season with an injury.

The Patriots also have virtually no interior pass rush to speak of whatsoever.  Furthermore, a weakness for years has been the team’s lack of coverage ability from the linebacker position.  The team took some fliers in the late rounds of the 2018 draft to possibly address this hole, but when your season is either Super Bowl or bust shouldn’t you have put more resources into this grave an area of need?

New England enters the season with the 13th ranked secondary, the 27th ranked pass rush, an inability to cover at the linebacker position, an easy schedule, and, of course, a pair of GOATs.  New England will be fine.  They will win this division going away, probably get a first round bye for the millionth straight year, and find themselves in the AFC title game, possibly hosting the AFC title game.  I’m not sure it’s true this roster is a downgrade from last year’s roster, as I see it as more of a lateral move.  However, I was skeptical all last season of the team’s true ability to win the Super Bowl given the defense, and that will be the same feeling I have all season this year.  I still rate them as the best team in the AFC, but the gap has certainly closed.

Miami Dolphins – O/U 6.5 – Under

The Dolphins are also an AFC East team that outperformed their pythagorean win expectation in 2017 (you’ll notice this is a running theme in the division).  In 2017 the Dolphins went 6-10, despite an expected 4.9 wins.  You can easily say “well, Cutler was their quarterback and now Tannehill is back.”  That is definitely true, but at this point can we count on Tannehill to either remain healthy or improve? Plus Ndamukong Suh is gone, leaving behind what looks to be one of the worst defenses in the NFL.

I’ve been very critical of the Dolphins front office before, but in case you were wondering how inept this franchise is, consider the following Tweet from Bill Barnwell:

Yup, there are the Dolphins, who grossly overpaid both Danny Amendola and Albert Wilson in free agency, talking about how they want to use more formations that include three tight ends on the field at once.

Anyway, back to Tannehill.  Here is where he has ranked in each year of his career in DYAR, DVOA, and QBR:




QBR Rank





















Help me understand why Tannehill is being viewed as some savior walking through those doors, destined to lead the Dolphins back to glory?

To make matters worse, the Dolphins have still not adequately addressed their offensive line (probably because they won’t stop overpaying wide receivers).  They get credit for bringing in Josh Sitton, but their offensive line ranks 20th heading into the 2018 season.  If my quarterback had twice torn his ACL I would want my offensive line to be better than below average.  At least Miami has a million receivers and Kenyon Drake.

As previously mentioned, without Suh in town the Dolphins project to have one of the worst defenses in the league.  They rank 23rd in projected pass rush and 26th in projected secondary.  If you can’t apply pressure or cover anyone, well, that’s a bad combination.  Perhaps they will look good against Josh Allen though.

For those of you pushing back against such a poor pass rush by saying Robert Quinn and Cameron Wake make up one of the best pass rush duos in football, the truth is they don’t, but the potential is there.

According to Pro Football Focus, Robert Quinn has been extremely poor each of the past two seasons.  Maybe you can chalk last year up to playing in a new position in a new scheme, but given the absolutely lack of edge rush the Rams currently have on their roster, if the team that sees Quinn in practice every day thought that 2013 Quinn was still in there, they wouldn’t have traded him away for peanuts.

Wake dipped in performance last season, but it’s the only season of his career that is below at least a solid starter performance.  You can easily argue he will bounce back to his career norm, given how large of a track record he has, but at 36 years of age it is fair to wonder if last year was the beginning of a new trend.

A below average quarterback, below average offensive line, below average/poor pass rush, poor secondary, and a head coach on the hot seat.  What am I missing here?  The saving grace is the Dolphins schedule is relatively easy, ranking 12th according to Mike Clay.  Still, it’s hard to see this team reaching 7 wins without some luck in close games.

NEW YORK JETS – O/U 6 – Under

Before I get into the roster, I want to go on record as saying I would start Teddy Bridgewater if I were the Jets.  What is the point in starting McCown?  If the team wants to start McCown it is at least in part because they don’t want to throw Darnold into the fire too early, which is fine.  But why not put Teddy out there and see if he can rehabilitate his trade value so the Jets can then flip him for a draft pick before the trade deadline.  What if some team’s starter goes down, just like what happened to the Vikings and Bridgewater, and out of desperation they send a 2nd rounder to the Jets?  I don’t think this idea is so outlandish.

Part of the reason I would start Bridgewater, and presumably part of the reason the Jets don’t want to rush Darnold out there (although there are now whispers he could be the opening day starter), is because this offensive line is abysmal.  They rank 31st by PFF heading into the 2018 season.  I almost feel bad saying they should put Teddy out there behind such a line given the injury he has overcome.  Regardless of who is out there, they won’t have much time to go through their progressions, which is a massive issue because..

..the Jets may have the worst stable of weapons in the entire NFL.  I’ll revisit this as I work through all the division previews, but the Jets roster is bare bones.  Robby Anderson, Jermaine Kearse, Terrelle Pryor, is this a joke?  “Oh, but Robby Anderson was good last year!”  Yea, ok, he ranked 41st in DYAR and 47th in DVOA among wide receivers.  And this is the best receiver they have on the roster.

We’re talking about the Jets here so we can just skip over the tight end position, an annual tradition that seems to be going on year 1,000 now.  I’m still somewhat of a Bilal Powell truther, and so far in the preseason it does seem as if he will be the starter over Isaiah Crowell (thank god), but this backfield situation isn’t pretty by any stretch of the imagination.  Add in the putrid offensive line and this ground game is going nowhere.

The defense isn’t much better.  It may actually be worse just because the Jets have three decent-at-worst quarterbacks on the roster.  Their pass rush ranks dead last in the NFL heading into next season, and the secondary is the team’s best unit, coming in at a sterling 22nd.

The team has two cornerstones in Leonard Williams and Jamal Adams, but they won’t be enough to save this defense.  The front office gave Trumaine Johnson approximately a billion dollars in free agency, but he has never posted a PFF grade of a quality starter or better in any season he has ever played.  We know Morris Claiborne isn’t good, and that Buster Skine is, uh, not the best option as your nickel corner.

Not that Todd Bowles would do this, but given his and Mike Maccagnan’s contract extensions, job security is presumably one thing Bowles has, so while I’m not saying he should or will tank the season, he can spend more time trying to evaluate young players on the roster instead of chasing meaningless wins in November and December.

Bad weapons, bad offensive line, bad pass rush, bad secondary, a coach that doesn’t have to rank up useless wins to save his job, plus a rookie quarterback starting for more than half the games (presumably).  What am I missing?

Buffalo Bills – O/U 6.5 – Under

The Bills are my bet to end up with the first pick of the 2019 NFL Draft.  I don’t want to rehash the entire Josh Allen thing here, but to sum up the Bills gave up plenty of resources to get an inaccurate quarterback that doesn’t make plays on schedule and withers against top competition.  With the news that A.J. McCarron suffered a broken collarbone in the preseason it appears Allen or Nate Peterman will be the starter this season.  Either player represents a massive drop off from Tyrod Taylor, so that’s already a huge strike against this teams prospects versus the 2017 version.

I do, for the first time ever, want to be fair to Josh Allen.  All of the following clips are from the Bills first preseason game.  Instead of the good, the bad, and the ugly, you can consider this the repulsive, the ridiculous, and the incredible-in-theory.

So, here is Josh Allen doing Josh Allen things:

Next up, we have Josh Allen making a throw that, like, at most five other quarterbacks in the NFL could possibly make (Rodgers, Stafford, Roethlisberger among them):

Lastly, we can see why all the #armstrength scouts were drooling over Allen, despite all the red flags:

I don’t know that there is another quarterback in the entire league that could have fit that ball into that window.  However, we got the full Josh Allen experience on this play, because if you watch again and keep an eye on the top of the screen, Allen has a receiver running free for an easy touchdown, but Allen doesn’t see him and then fires a ball into triple coverage because he is used to getting away with that at the collegiate level.  Take away what you will from this play.

Back to the team as a whole.  The metrics aren’t encouraging us to think what Buffalo did last season would have been repeatable had they held onto Tyrod anyway.  Despite Buffalo going 9-7 in 2017, the team finished 21st in point differential, with a negative 57 mark.  This point differential lead to a pythagorean win expectation of 6.3 wins last season for Buffalo, meaning the Bills won 2.7 more games than expected given their level of performance in 2017.  This 2.7 overachievement is the single largest overachievement of any team in the NFL last season, and now we’re massively downgrading the quarterback play for the 2018 season.

“Protecting” the new quarterback in 2018 will be a porous offensive line.  According to Pro Football Focus, Buffalo enters the season with the 29th ranked offensive line.  The team’s three best lineman from 2017 – LT Cordy Glenn, LG Richie Incognito, C Eric Wood – are no longer with the team, and instead of investing draft capital into trying to protect their new “franchise” quarterback, the Bills decided to consolidate draft picks in order to move up and select an off-ball linebacker.

On the defensive side of the ball, Buffalo has the 31st ranked team pass rush in the NFL.  The best pass rusher on the team is Jerry Hughes who has been solid four of the past five seasons, but isn’t the impact pass rusher you want your best edge defender to be.  The other defensive lineman you’re familiar with on this team – Kyle Williams, Star Lotulelei, Shaq Lawson – all perform better as run defenders than as pass rushers.

The strength of this team is easily the secondary, which is actually one of the best in the league.  I named Tre’Davious White Co-Defensive Rookie of the Year last season.  Jordan Hoyer and Micah Hyde form one of the best safety tandems in the league, and combined they had 21 interceptions plus pass deflections last season, the best among any safety duo.  If Vontae Davis is able to perform to the levels he did earlier in his career then the Bills may even be looking at a top five secondary unit in the entire NFL.  No one can cover people all day long though, so the impact of this secondary may be at least somewhat hindered by the lack of pass rush on this team.

The Bills overachieved last season and were a playoff fraud.  They have the worst quarterback situation in the league, a bottom five offensive line, a bottom three pass rush, and a head coach that thinks it’s a good idea to start Nate Peterman over Tyrod Taylor while chasing a wild card spot.  What am I missing here?  Pound the under if you aren’t a Bills fan, and if you are a Bills fan, you can safely pre-order your Nick Bosa jerseys.

Quick Hitters

Offensive Rookie of the Year: Sam Darnold, QB, New York Jets

As long as he plays enough games, he is a quarterback that will rack up some decent numbers since his team will always be trailing.  This is his to lose, but if Sony Michel is healthy he may have a less hyped but superior performance in 2018.

Defensive Rookie of the Year: Minkah Fitzpatrick, S, Miami Dolphins

Another one that should be a lock in this division, Fitzpatrick was the highest drafted defensive player in the AFC and was viewed as an immediate contributor among scouts.

Excuse me who did Tom Brady just throw to?: Get used to the name Braxton Berrios

Breakout Player: DeVante Parker, WR, Miami Dolphins

I’m a Parker apologist, always claiming the talent is there despite the lack of production.  His broken finger isn’t helping this prediction, but with Landry gone Parker should see as many targets as he ever has in 2018, and I bet this is the year it all clicks.

Who has more wins, the Pats or the Bills+Jets+Dolphins?

Is it that far fetched that the Jets and Dolphins combine for 10 wins, the Bills win 1 or 2 games, and the Patriots go 13-3?  I don’t think so.  The combined O/U for the Bills/Jets/Dolphins in Vegas is 19, but I don’t think setting it at 12.5 would be all that crazy.  I’ll take the Patriots to rack up more wins than the rest of the division combined, but I want odds.

filed under: NFL

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