Written by Stephen Brown III
The other day, I broke down the AFC West, which might be one of the easiest divisions to predict a winner for in 2020, thanks to the dynasty-esque Chiefs. Today, we’ll look at the AFC East, a division that, for the first time in two decades, is not an easy prediction.
New England Patriots, Last year record: 12-4, 1st place
With Tom Brady gone, New England faces uncertainty for the first time in the Bill Belichick era. However, despite losing their future hall of fame quarterback, I actually really like the Patriots chances this season. For the longest time, it looked like the Patriots were just going to roll with Jared Stidham at QB. For those who don’t know, Stidham is an Auburn alum who was a rookie fourth-round pick for the Pats last year. His most notable moment as a rookie was throwing a pick against the Jets in a blowout game and subsequently getting benched. Stidham looked like the man after the Patriots didn’t draft anyone in the 2020 draft (even though I thought someone like Jalen Hurts or Jake Fromm would’ve been perfect for them). However, the Patriots made a splashy move by signing former MVP, Cam Newton. Offensively, Cam Newton can be great in the Patriots offense. The Patriots offense is predicated on running the ball, short passes, and screens. With how injured Cam Newton has been throughout his career, the Patriots’ passing game and solid offensive line should keep him healthy. Even though the Patriots didn’t really add any weapons on offense, I trust Josh McDaniels get this offense to a point where it’s productive.
Defensively, I still expect this defense to be great. Despite some key pieces sitting out due to COVID-19, this defense still has its most important piece: Bill Belichick. Belichick has repeatedly shown in the past that he can have a top ten defense despite lacking top ten talent. I expect this year to be no different.
While many expect the Bills to take a leap and be this year’s AFC East champions, I wouldn’t sell the Patriots short just yet. Some things to keep in mind: Sean McDermott has never beat Bill Belichick and the one time Belichick didn’t have Brady in the last 20 years, he went 11-5. While the division might be more of a struggle this year for the Pats, it is certainly not outside their grasp.
Final Record: 10-6
Buffalo Bills, Last year record: 10-6, 2nd Place
Many people are crowning the Bills AFC East champs already. They were 10-6 last year and no longer have Tom Brady in their way. While I already broke down why I think the Pats shouldn’t be counted out, let’s look at why I think people are too high on the Bills. It can really be boiled down to one player: Josh Allen. Coming out of college, a lot of people loved Josh Allen. He’s big, he’s strong, he’s fast, and he has an absolute cannon. He’s the ideal quarterback prospect. However, while he has loads of potential, he’s very raw. He’s shown issues with accuracy and decision making. And while it looks like he’s shown improvement, the improvement isn’t as significant as Bills fans would hope. On the surface, it looks like Allen is a pretty good QB who takes a lot of sacks due to his offensive line. However, we are in the age of advanced metrics and the advance metrics aren’t encouraging. Per Sports Info Solutions, Allen was 24th in QBR, 25th in net yards per attempt, 27th in throws over 10 yards, and had a negative Expected Points Added total. And while it might seem like Allen takes a lot of sacks, the Bills are ranked 24th in adjusted sack rate (per Football Outsiders) while the line itself ranks 5th in Pass Block Win rate (per ESPN). That means that the sacks allowed are due to Allen holding the ball too much. As far as turnovers, while Allen only had 9 ints and 4 lost fumbles, he had 14 total fumbles and 5 picks dropped by other teams. So, his improvement in turnovers seemed to be more a product of luck than improvement. And while anti-stats people might scoff at these stats, keep in mind that both Mitch Trubisky in 2018 and Blake Bortles in 2017 were ranked towards the bottom of the league in many of these same metrics before they fell off a cliff the following year. In fact, considering how good their defense was and the big question mark they have at QB, the 2020 Bills are looking a lot like the 2018 Jaguars and 2019 Bears. If the Bills are going to be good, they are going to need Josh Allen to take a big leap forward instead of a big leap backwards. With the upgrade of Stefon Diggs at receiver, there’s no reason Allen shouldn’t take that step forward if he’s truly the future of this franchise.
Defensively, this team should still be solid. Their big offseason loss was Shaq Lawson while their splashiest signing on defense was probably Josh Norman (who was a much splashier signing 5 years ago). With defensive-minded Sean McDermott still leading the team, I expect this squad to still be a top 10 unit. And with such a big transition in New England, along with two young starters in New York and Miami, this defense is poised to create chaos throughout the division. However, while the defense will maintain its elite status, I just don’t expect Allen to make the huge leap that everyone expects.
Final Record: 9-7
New York Jets, Last year record: 7-9, 3rd Place
This team was actually sneaky good last year. Well, sneaky-good for the Jets at least. 7-9 for a team that’s rebuilding with a young QB and a wide-open division isn’t a bad spot to be in. I’m still not sold on Adam Gase, but Darnold definitely showed improvements. In the 13 games he played in, he was 7-6, with 19 TDs, 13 Ints, and he averaged 232.6 YPG. Had it not been for mono keeping him out of games early on, this team could’ve potentially been in the playoff hunt late in the season. Another thing that people don’t realize about Darnold is: he’s super young. He was drafted at age 20 and will be 23 for the entirety of this season. He still has plenty of time to develop and improve. Offensively, this team really didn’t make any big moves. They signed Breshaud Perriman to be a deep threat and Frank Gore to back up Leveon Bell. While both players are fine depth additions, neither are going to be crucial in the development of Darnold.
Defensively, this team was pretty solid last year. By most metrics, they were a top 10 defense overall. They were a 7th ranked fantasy defense and 10th in DVOA according to Football Outsiders. The big reason for their success is Gregg Williams. This man has been pretty solid most places he’s been, especially recently with the Rams, Browns, and now Jets. However, he lost his best player this offseason when Jamaal Adams got shipped to Seattle after demanding a trade. After only playing two games last year due to injury, their big 2019 offseason signing, CJ Mosely, is opting out of the season. While I don’t expect this defense to be bad this year, I’d certainly expect to see some regression. However, if the offense can step up, the decrease in defensive efficiency could be mitigated. Ultimately, while I think this team will look better this year, I just don’t think they are ready to take a big enough step to leapfrog the Pats or Bills
Final Record: 8-8
Miami Dolphins, Last year record: 5-11, 4th Place
Remember the preseason narrative for this team last year? Some said they would be the worst team in football, with some even predicting they’d go 0-16. Tank for Tua was the motto that surrounded the Dolphins. And the icing on the cake? They unloaded anyone on their team worth anything. Ryan Tannehill, Kenyan Drake, Laremy Tunsil, Kenny Stills, Minkah Fitzpatrick, and Robert Quinn were all trade casualties of the Dolphins clear rebuild. And the season didn’t start well for this team. However, after starting 0-7, this team caught a bit of FitzMagic and finished the second half of the season with a 5-4 record. The biggest achievement for this team was beating the Patriots in week 17, knocking New England out of home-field advantage for the playoffs. Offensively, this team added Tua via the draft and added some solid running backs with Jordan Howard and Matt Breida.
Defensively, Brian Flores did a pretty good job with this team last year despite the lack of talent. This year, Flores has some shiny new toys to play with guys like Byron Jones, Shaq Lawson, Kyle Van Noy, and Emmanuel Ogbah joining the defensive side of the ball. Add to that first round pick Noah Igbinoghene, and we could be looking at a team that’s a top 10 unit.
This team has been executing the rebuild flawlessly. They have a ton of picks, they drafted their QB of the future, and they are starting to attract big free agents thanks to the great coaching and culture building by Brian Flores. However, one thing I’d advise is to let Tua sit for a year. This team, while improving, just isn’t ready to compete yet. Alabama QBs are notorious for being busts and nobodies in the NFL. While Tua is built a little different than his predecessors, I think it would still be beneficial for him to sit and learn for a year (or at least three-quarters of the season). This is the perfect time to start Josh Rosen again. He’s still young and if he can show flashes in the offense (which I think he’s more than capable of doing), then you can trade him next offseason and keep stockpiling picks for the future.
Final Record: 6-10
This division might be one of the most wide-open in football and it’s certainly the most unpredictable it’s been in two decades. While there aren’t really any teams that are serious Super Bowl contenders, there are certainly two playoff teams (and maybe even three). Honestly, if we are sitting here a year from now and you told me the Dolphins won the division, I wouldn’t even be totally surprised. This division has so many question marks which will make it one of the most exciting in football this year.
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