2018 Countdown To Kickoff Power Rankings: AFC East
The Zone Press’ fifth annual countdown to kickoff is underway. Just like last year, we’re going division by division. Next, we take a look at the AFC East.
1. New England Patriots (Overall Power Ranking: 4)
2017 Results: 13-3 (Lost Super Bowl LII)
Last season was more of the same for the Patriots, but with one new wrinkle. As always, the Patriots cruised to the AFC East title, went deep into the playoffs, and then made it to the Super Bowl. After all, that is what everyone expected from the dynasty that won’t die. What no one expected, however, was a bit of drama. An ESPN article took us behind the scenes and showed us some tension between the game’s greatest coach and the game’s greatest owner. We wondered if this would be the silver bullet that would finally end the Patriots. Bizarre Super Bowl decisions and a loss only fueled that speculation. As things stand now, the status quo remains the same. Bill Belichick and Tom Brady are still together, and the Patriots are once again the class of the conference. But if there’s one thing last year taught us, it’s that not even the Patriots will last forever. The cracks shown in the armor look like their run is creeping up on its end.
Key Additions: Jeremy Hill, Cordarrelle Patterson, Jordan Mathews, Matt Tobin, Danny Shelton, Jason McCourty, Adrian Clayborn, and Trent Brown.
Key Losses: Dion Lewis, Brandin Cooks, Martellus Bennett, Nate Solder, Cameron Fleming, and Malcolm Butler.
The Ageless One: Brady will be 41 going into the 2018 season, and one has to wonder how much longer he can avoid father time. And this season, he will have a large load to carry. Brandin Cooks, Danny Amendola, and Dion Lewis are gone. Julian Edelman will have to sit out four games due to a PED suspension. Also, the offensive line has been overhauled. The Patriots offense will rely on Chris Hogan, Jordan Matthews, and Malcolm Mitchell for production in the passing game. Rookie Sony Michel will be tasked with running the ball for the team. It’ll be interesting to see how Brady is able to handle the new and old pieces along with the rigors of a 16 game regular season.
Zero Contingency: And if Brady doesn’t hold up over the season, the Patriots don’t have much of a contingency plan as a result of last season’s drama. Allegedly, Coach Belichick was grooming then back up Jimmy Garoppolo to take over once the 2017 season was over. Brady caught wind of this and went over Belichick’s head and Garoppolo was traded away. Whether that story is true or not doesn’t even matter anymore for the Patriots. What does matter is that they’re one injury or retirement announcement away from falling off of a cliff.
Stop Unit: The Patriots ‘bend but don’t break’ defense had a few leaks last season. During the first quarter of the season, teams were able to throw the ball all over the Patriots. After feeding on teams with average at best passing attacks, the numbers began to improve. But in the end, the defense was exposed again in the Super Bowl. Brian Flores will be taking over as defensive coordinator and the Patriots have healthy starters like Dont’a Hightower. New faces like Adrian Clayborn and Danny Shelton were brought in to strengthen the defensive front. Jason McCourty will come in and try to fill the hole left by Malcolm Butler. So expect the stop unit to get back to playing the Patriots style.
Season Outlook: As long as Brady is throwing the ball and Belichick is on the sidelines, the AFC East and a deep playoff run are pretty much guaranteed for the Patriots.
Fantasy Player to Watch: Sony Michel
2. New York Jets (Overall Power Ranking: 29)
2017 Results: 5-11 (4th in AFC East)
Going into the 2017 season, many believed that the Jets were going to tank the season in order to pick Sam Darnold at the top of the 2018 NFL Draft. After a 3-2 start, it looked as if the tanks weren’t coming at all. Then the Jets only won two more games and still ended up with Darnold in the end. So I guess that’s mission accomplished. With Darnold in place as the Jets quarterback of the future, the biggest question for the franchise this year is how long they wait before letting him take the reins. And that will mostly be dependent on how well each quarterback performs throughout training camp and the regular season. And with that, let the rebuild begin for the Jets.
Key Additions: Sam Darnold, Teddy Bridgewater, Isaiah Crowell, Thomas Rawls, Charles Johnson, Antonio Garcia, Travis Swanson, Spencer Long, Courtney Upshaw, and Trumaine Johnson.
Key Losses: Matt Forte, Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Wesley Johnson, Muhammad Wilkerson, Kony Ealy, and Demario Davis.
Sooner Than Later: Before the draft, the Jets picked up Teddy Bridgewater after the Vikings let the young quarterback go. Bridgewater was once considered the quarterback of the future for an up and coming Vikings team. His injury pretty much ended his career in Minnesota. And now, reports are already stating that he might be trade bait already. Josh McCown has made his career as a stopgap for a younger quarterback. So don’t be surprised if we see Darnold as the starter very soon. And with that, the young quarterback will be subjected to the typical growing pains that occur to nearly every young quarterback. The key for Darnold will be to maintain his confidence through the lows to come.
Coaching Up: One of the things working in the favor for the Jets is the fact that Todd Bowles is proving to be a very good head coach. Ever since he took the job as Jets Head Coach, it has felt as if Bowles has gotten everything he can out of what he was given. Five wins were considered high for the Jets last season considering their roster.
Emerging Talent on Defense: The Jets defense has a few names you should keep in mind. The first is Darron Lee, who has been tapped as the defensive shot caller by Coach Bowles. The third-year linebacker will be the leader and play caller for the entire unit. The second name is Leonard Wilkerson. The young defensive lineman will be called upon to play a leadership role as well and take control of the young line the Jets have.
Season Outlook: With one of the worst rosters in the NFL, good coaching got them to five wins. They have better talent now, so five or more wins should be the expectation. The sad thing is five wins may be good enough to be the second best team in the AFC East.
Fantasy Player to Watch: Robby Anderson
3. Buffalo Bills (Overall Power Ranking: 30)
2017 Result: 9-7 (Lost in Wildcard Round)
Strange is one word I’d use the describe the Bills season and the things that were going on with the team. Everyone could see that the Bills weren’t that into quarterback Tyrod Taylor. After all, they’ve been trying to replace him for a few years now. Then last season, they went ahead and pulled the trigger by starting Nathan Peterman against the Chargers. The results were disastrous and the Bills had to turn back to Taylor to save them. And in the end, the Bills were finally able to end their playoff drought with Taylor under center. Despite that, the Bills finally got their wish and parted ways with Taylor. In his place is A.J. McCarron and first-round pick Josh Allen. Along with losing their starting quarterback, the Bills lost three starters on their offensive line and a few key players on defense. Yes, they finally got a quarterback that they want, but it looks like they’ll be rebuilding in the short term again. I guess it’s better than flirting with a .500 record and maybe making the playoffs with no real chance to compete.
Key Additions: A.J. McCarron, Josh Allen, Tremaine Edmunds, Chris Ivory, Jeremy Kerley, Marshall Newhouse, Russell Bodine, Vontae Davis, Phillip Gaines, and Rafael Bush
Key Losses: Tyrod Taylor, Mike Tolbert, Jordan Matthews, Deonte Thompson, Cordy Glenn, Richie Incognito, Eric Wood, E.J. Gaines, and Shareece Wright
LeSean McCoy’s Situation: The Bills offensive MVP and best player is currently at training camp, but his future outlook is filled with uncertainty. On the field, he will be hitting the age of 30, where most running backs begin to decline. Off the field, he’s dealing with accusations stemming from a home invasion robbery involving his ex-girlfriend. It’s hard to project what will happen because no charges have been filed and the NFL’s style of discipline wildly fluctuates by scenario. It will be worth keeping an eye on this situation given that uncertainty.
Quarterback Battle: There’s a three-man quarterback battle brewing in Buffalo between Peterman, McCarron, and Allen. This will be McCarron’s first real shot at a starting job in this league after spending years as a backup in Cincinnati. Peterman had arguably the worst half of football by a quarterback last season, but Sean McDermott seems to like how he has bounced back since then. Allen has the canon for an arm while McCarron and Peterman leave something to be desired in their power game. The competition is going to come down to which player can make plays, limit mistakes and take command of an offense that is lacking talent at several positions.
Offensive Line: As previously mentioned, the Bills lost a lot of talent along the offensive line. Pro Bowlers Richie Incognito and Eric Woods were mainstays on the line for the past few seasons. In response, Vladimir Ducasse will shift to left tackle and the Bills brought in Russell Bodine from Cincinnati to replace Woods. Jordan Mills will likely be slotted at right tackle while Ryan Groy could play center. Either way, the Bills offensive line can expect to take a step back this season. And knowing that, I wouldn’t be surprised if Josh Allen is holding a clipboard for the entire season.
Season Outlook: Buffalo finally made the playoffs last year, but they’ll be taking a step back to hopefully make a giant leap forward. Josh Allen will need time to develop as a starter and the Bulls will need time to add better protection in front of him. They could be ready to make a run once Brady retires. As for now, don’t expect another playoff season.
Fantasy Player to Watch: Kelvin Benjamin
4. Miami Dolphins (Overall Power Ranking: 32)
2017 Results: 6-10 (3rd in AFC East)
Coming off of a playoff appearance in 2016, the Dolphins looked poised to build on that success and turn into a sustainable playoff team. That was before the injury to Ryan Tannehill that kept the quarterback out for the entire season. Miami attempted to bring in Jay Cutler to salvage the season, but it was too late. Despite playing close in many games, the Dolphins ultimately failed to make the playoffs. Once the offseason rolled around, the reset button was hit in Miami. Jay Ajayi was traded during the season in time for a Super Bowl run with the Eagles. After that, Jarvis Landry, Ndamukong Suh, and Mike Pouncey were traded or shown the door. It was clear that the Dolphins wanted to overhaul the team culture. And now, we’ll see what the results will be in 2018.
Key Additions: Frank Gore, Danny Amendola, Josh Sitton, Daniel Kilgore, Robert Quinn, and Minkah Fitzpatrick.
Key Losses: Jarvis Landry, Mike Pouncey, Ndamukong Suh, Jay Cutler, Julius Thomas, Lawrence Timmons, Nate Allen, and Michael Thomas.
The Culture: The Dolphins practically gutted portions of their ‘leadership group’ as terms like “culture change” echoed in the background. Clearly, Head Coach Adam Gase was unhappy with the play of his team last year despite Ryan Tannehill’s injury. And the ones to take the fall were the ones considered problematic behind the scenes. And whether or not you agree with the removal of Landry, Suh, and Pouncey, you cannot deny that they were all impactful players when healthy. But in some cases, players can be more trouble than they’re worth. Gase will have to prove that the right decisions were made by establishing a better culture moving forward.
The QB Spot: Tannehill’s return from a season-ending ACL injury will be welcomed by the team and the fans, but one has to begin to wonder how much longer Tannehill will remain the QB of this team. There were rumblings about the Dolphins interest in taking a quarterback during the draft. They ultimately decided to draft Minkah Fitzpatrick, but the question remains. Tannehill was under pressure to improve and leave no doubts who the quarterback of the future was in Miami. That pressure hasn’t done anywhere. And given the state of the team, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Dolphins decided to cut ties if Tannehill doesn’t show and prove this season.
Rookie DB: One player that many will have their eyes on is the first-round pick, Minkah Fitzpatrick. Fitzpatrick was considered by some to be the best player in this year’s draft. He’s a versatile defensive back who can pretty much play anywhere in the defensive backfield. Once T.J. McDonald’s legal situation is over, he and Fitzpatrick could serve as a great safety tandem.
Season Outlook: The Dolphins lost numerous talented players this offseason in exchange for what they hope is a better team culture. They also get back Ryan Tannehill, but that won’t change the reality. Miami got older and less skilled during the offseason. They’re going to have to take it on the chin this season and begin to move forward into an uncertain future.
Fantasy Player to Watch: Kenyan Drake