Is The Changing Of The Guard Complete?
Typically, when you think of the AFC East, you think of the Tom Brady led New England Patriots as division champions. From 2001 through 2019 the Pats won 17 division crowns in 19 seasons. With Brady moving on to Tampa Bay, there’s been a new division kingpin, the Buffalo Bills. Are the Bills ready to put a Patriots like stranglehold on the AFC East’s top spot? Not likely! The better question is, can anyone in the division stop the Bills from making it three consecutive AFC East crowns?
2021 Record: 11-6
The Bills ascent to the top of the AFC East has coincided with the emergence of Josh Allen as an elite NFL quarterback. With Tom Brady no longer in the division, Allen has cemented himself as the top signal caller in the AFC East. But there is much more to this Bills team than Josh Allen. Buffalo ranked 5th in total offense in 2021 and returns most of their core pieces from last season while making some key offseason additions. Devin Singletary leads a deep and versatile running back room that added University of Georgia standout James Cook via the draft while retaining Zack Moss. With these pieces in place along with a solid offensive line, Buffalo should be able to match or possibly surpass last season’s 129.9 ypg on the ground, which was good for 6th in the NFL in 2021.
As for the passing attack, Allen has grown into one of the elite quarterbacks in the game and he has been blessed with a quality group of pass catchers led by Stefon Diggs. Gabriel Davis will start opposite Diggs with Isaiah McKenzie taking over the duties in the slot after the Bills moved on from Cole Beasley. Jamison Crowder was added in the offseason to round out the wide receiver corps. Dawson Knox is the number one man at tight end with Tommy Sweeney and Quintin Morris serving in reserve roles. With increased depth and a stable of pass catchers including Cook from the running back position that can beat opponents in a larger variety of ways than last year’s squad, look for Buffalo to top last season’s 10th ranked passing output of 261.8 ypg. About the only fly in the ointment could be the loss of offensive coordinator Brian Daboll, who is now the head coach of the New York Giants. Ken Dorsey has been elevated from quarterback coach and is expected to make very few changes to the offense.
The top ranked defense in the NFL last season should be even better in 2022. The Bills added Von Miller, Shaq Lawson and defensive tackle Jordan Phillips with designs on improving an already solid pass rush. Buffalo also brought in defensive tackles Tim Settle and DaQuan Jones to provide interior line depth and help Ed Oliver improve a run defense which ranked 13th in the league last season. Matt Milano and Tremaine Edwards are the bell-cows of a productive but thin linebacker corps. The secondary is one of the NFL’s best even with Tre’Davious White not back until Week 4 as he continues to rehab the torn ACL he suffered in late November. Look for 2020 7th round pick Dane Jackson and rookie first-round pick Kaiir Elam to man the outside corner spots until White returns. Taron Johnson returns as one of the NFL’s top slot corners. The safety spots are in the very capable hands All-Pro Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde.
The Bills are all set at kicker and in the return game. Tyler Bass has quietly become one of the NFL’s top placekickers while Isaiah McKenzie is one of the league’s better return men. After the sudden release of Matt Araiza, Buffalo signed former Broncos punter Sam Martin. Martin was third in the NFL in net punting average (42.8 yards per punt) and tied for fifth in the league with 28 punts inside the 20, so the punting duties should be in capable hands.
The Bills remain one of the top teams in the AFC. After coming withing an eyelash of the conference championship game last season, the front office made major improvements to the roster, making the 2022 edition an even better squad. Buffalo will have to tackle the 12th toughest schedule in the NFL this season but that shouldn’t slow down this very talented group. Anything short of a trip to the AFC Championship Game would be a major disappointment and a trip to the Super Bowl is a distinct possibility.
13-4, First Place in the AFC East
New England Patriots
2021 Record: 10-7
The 2021 Patriots offense was a middle of the road group led by rookie quarterback Mac Jones. Can Jones and company build upon what they accomplished in 2021 and become a top 10 offense in 2022? They certainly have the running game to take the next step. Last season’s 8th ranked rushing attack is led by the duo of Damien Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson. Ty Montgomery and 4th round pick Pierre Strong Jr. will provide depth and battle for snaps as the 3rd down/change of pace back, a role formerly occupied by the recently retired James White. The running backs will run behind a reshuffled offensive line that replaces both starting guards but retains center David Andrews and tackles Isaiah Wynn and Trent Brown. Mike Onwenu will replace Shaq Mason at right guard with rookie first-round pick Cole Strange filling the void left by the departure of Ted Karras.
While the running game looks poised for another strong season in 2022, there must be concerns with the passing attack. Quarterback Mac Jones seems to have the stuff to make plays and win games but may not be the guy to overcome an ordinary set of weapons and a limited offensive staff. With Josh McDaniels leaving to become the head coach of the Raiders, play calling duties likely will be handled by Matt Patricia with input from quarterbacks coach and former Giants head coach Joe Judge. Neither of these coaches is known for putting innovative offense on the field or putting their quarterback in the best position for success. The Patriots traded for DeVante Parker to be their top wideout in 2022. While Parker is big and fast, he is injury prone and outside of his breakout 2019 season he has not had more than 1,000 yards receiving in a season or been able to avoid the injury bug. Behind Parker is a capable stable of receivers but no difference makers or game changers. Jakobi Myers, Kendrick Bourne and Nelson Agholor are not going to give defensive coordinators many sleepless nights. Having a pair of quality targets at the tight end position in Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith will help.
In 2021, New England was 4th in total defense thanks to the number two pass defense in the NFL. The problem for the Patriots was a leaky run defense that surrendered 123.7ypg, good for 22nd in the league. Late season struggles including getting lit up by the Bills for 47 points in a playoff loss exposed a severe lack of speed on this defense. Changes were made to add speed to this unit, particularly at linebacker. Mack Wilson, who was brought in from the Browns and holdover Cameron McGrone will both play prominent roles, bringing speed and explosiveness to the second level of this defense. Matthew Judon and Ja’Whaun Bentley will remain prominent parts of the revamped linebacker corps. The big physical defensive front led by Christian Barmore, and Lawrence Guy remains largely unchanged. Devin McCourty, Adrian Phillips, Kyle Duggar, and free agent acquisition Jabril Peppers form a strong quartet at safety. Jalen Mills and Jonathan Jones will be the boundary corners with Myles Bryant in the slot . Depth will be provided by a mix of young players and aging veterans.
The kicking chores are capably handled by veteran Nick Folk while Jake Bailey should do his usual excellent job as the punter. Jakobi Myers should handle the punt return duties while Ty Montgomery returns kickoffs. One area of concern may be the coverage units as New England parted ways with several of their top coverage men in the offseason.
The 2022 New England Patriots are a solid but not elite football team. Unlike the top teams in the NFL, they have some glaring deficiencies on this roster that will keep them a step behind the Bills. While Bill Belichick’s coaching acumen can’t be questioned, the loss of Josh McDaniels is likely to hurt this offense. While the Pats attempted to improve their roster in the offseason, the work the Bills did was superior and widened the gap between the two clubs. New England will be in the playoff hunt right to the end but are far from a lock to make the postseason.
9-8, 2nd Place in the AFC East
2021 Record: 9-8
The 2022 Miami Dolphins offense will be as good as the left arm of quarterback Tua Tagovailoa makes them. If Tua can evolve into an elite NFL quarterback in his 3rd season this offense has a chance to be a quality unit, if he can’t this will be a bottom 3rd of the league offense this season. The Dolphins have given Tagovailoa everything he needs to elevate his play. Adding Terron Armstead and Connor Williams to the offensive line makes what was a poor line into a decent unit, more than capable of allowing a passing game to flourish. Acquiring Tyreek Hill from the Chiefs and adding Cedrick Wilson via free agency to go with Jaylen Waddle gives Miami a dangerous and explosive trio of wideouts. Throw in tight end Mike Gesicki and former Arizona Cardinals Chase Edmomds and Tagovailoa now finds himself with quite an array of weapons to exploit through the air.
The ground game doesn’t have the same level of talent and will once again most likely rank near the bottom of the league. Chase Edmonds, Raheem Mostert, and Myles Gaskin are all talented backs, but are not going take over games and pile up yardage. While the offensive line is better and has some guys that can open holes in the run game, this is still not a dominant run blocking group. The running game will be window dressing as the Dolphins will have to air it out to have success on offense.
Miami made few changes to a defense that finished the season 15th in yards allowed in 2021 but was much better down the stretch. The string of strong outings late in the season came against some poor offenses so there are still questions as to exactly how good this defense really is. Emmanuel Ogbah and Christian Wilkens anchor the line. Second year man Jaelan Phillips is the top dog on the second level. Phillips had 8.5 sacks as a rookie and could be poised to breakout and reach star status. The blitz happy Dolphins defense has a loaded secondary with safeties Jevon Holland and Brandon Jones along with corners Xavien Howard and Byron Jones. Jones will start the year on the PUP list so look for Noah Igbinoghene to start opposite Howard until Jones is ready to return.
The Dolphins hope kicker Jason Sanders can rebound from a down season, making 23 of 31 field-goal tries. Miami will have a new punter for 2022, replacing Michael Palardy with Thomas Morstead. The Dolphins don’t lack for return options with Tyreek Hill, Jaylen Waddle and Raheem Mostert all in the mix.
Like the Patriots, the Dolphins are level below the Bills. If Tua can elevate his game the Dolphins may have the second-best offense in the division. If the growth of the defense down the stretch was for real, Miami could be the number two defense in the division. That’s a lot of ifs. Expect the Patriots and Dolphins to battle hammer and tong for the second spot in the AFC East.
9-8, 3rd Place in the AFC East
New York Jets
2021 Record: 4-13
Despite ranking 26th in yards per game last season, the Jets offense is on an upward trajectory after finishing last in yards in 2020 by a substantial margin. Second year QB Zach Wilson had a tough rookie year, but there were moments that made it clear why the Jets drafted Wilson 2nd overall in 2021. General Manager Joe Douglas is starting to compile a nice group of pass catchers to help foster the development of his franchise QB and put this offense in a position to succeed in the near future. Wide receivers Elijah Moore, Corey Davis and rookie 1st round pick Garrett Wilson form a good core of young receivers. Throw in free agent signing C.J. Uzomah at tight end and Douglas has given Wilson plenty of places to go with the football.
New York is putting together one hell of a running back room with rookie Breece Hall and second year man Michael Carter leading the way. Both will also be factors in the passing game. Ty Johnson will be a topflight third running back who barring injury will not see many touches. If Mekhi Becton could stay healthy, the Jets would have the makings of an excellent offensive line. Pairing Laken Tomlinson with Alijah Vera-Tucker gives New York an excellent tandem of guards. Veteran George Fant will start at right tackle with the ageless Duane Brown stepping in at left tackle. This is not a deep unit so the starters will need to stay healthy.
Like the offense, the defense is also being rebuilt. The strength of this defense is the front four. Ends John Franklin-Myers and Carl Lawson along with tackles Solomon Thomas and Quinnen Williams are make up a solid starting front. Depth comes from tackle Sheldon Rankins and Vinny Curry. C.J. Mosley leads a linebacker corps in need of upgrades while Sauce Gardner was drafted with the 4th overall pick in this year’s draft to start the rebuild of the secondary.
Braxton Berrios will handle both punt and kickoff returns. Berrios was a first-team All-Pro kick returner in 2021. The Jets will try their luck with Greg Zuerlein as their placekicker and for the third consecutive year will hand the punting duties to Braden Mann.
The Jets are early in their rebuilding process and have a long way to go in what is now a very tough division. Joe Douglas is starting to put together an excellent core of talent that by 2024 could be some of the key components of a good football team. However, in 2022 the Jets are not a good team. Unfortunately, they don’t benefit from an easy schedule, having the 17th hardest schedule this season. There will be growth this season, it just won’t result in many wins.
5-12, 4th Place in the AFC East