PFW roundtable: 5 key offseason questions in AFC East

Biggest impact rookie and defection, hottest seat, predictions, more

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PFW editors Bob LeGere, Eric Edholm, Greg Gabriel, Arthur Arkush and Hub Arkush answer 5 key AFC East questions.

 

1) Who will be the biggest impact rookie?

Bob LeGere: Patriots RB Sony Michel

I’m going with Michel, despite coach Bill Belichick’s unconventional use of his ball carriers in recent years. It’s true that Belichick often ping-pongs back and forth with his runners, leaving none with enough work to produce big numbers. But don’t forget that LeGarrette Blount rushed 299 times for 1,161 yards and 18 touchdowns for the Patriots as recently as 2016. Michel is hardly the same player as the bruising Blount, but he is big and physical enough to pound between the tackles and has more than enough speed to break some big runs.

Eric Edholm: Patriots OT Isaiah Wynn

I was close to picking Dolphins DB Minkah Fitzpatrick here, and I think he’ll be very good right away. But projecting a defensive back in a loaded secondary just didn’t feel perfect. Instead, I’ll go with Wynn, who will get first crack to be the left tackle — size worries be damned. His tape is fantastic, but protecting the crown jewel, Tom Brady, is still a heavy responsibility for a 21-year-old.

Greg Gabriel: Jets QB Sam Darnold

It's been years since the Jets have had a legitimate NFL quarterback. They wasted a second-round pick on Christian Hackenberg two years ago, and now it's imperative that Darnold succeeds. While there may be rookies in the AFC that make more plays than Darnold in '18, his development is the key to the future of the franchise.

Arthur Arkush: Dolphins S Minkah Fitzpatrick

Like the Jets' Jamal Adams last season, Fitzpatrick will restore order in a defense that deteriorated badly in Year 1 under Matt Burke. Alongside former Pro Bowler Reshad Jones, Fitzpatrick should push a young secondary and help instill a toughness and relentlessness that’s been missing. Clearly, this pick also illustrates my belief we won’t be seeing Sam Darnold or Josh Allen too soon.

Hub Arkush: Patriots RB Sony Michel

Regardless of whether Sam Darnold and Josh Allen become the future for the Jets and Bills, respecitvely, it seems very unlikely either will wrest the starting job from Josh McCown or AJ McCarron from Day One. At No. 11, the Dolphins got the steal of the draft in Minkah Fitzpatrick, who I expect to quickly become a perennial Pro Bowler and likely All Pro, but as a rookie let's just say Day One starter. Safeties can only be great as part of at least a very good defense, and the Dolphins will be suspect at first. Sony Michel, on the other hand, is a perfect fit for the Belichick/McDaniels offense and will clearly have a great unit around him. Expect Michel to be this year's Alvin Kamara, the reigning Rookie of the Year.

 

2) Which is the best under-radar addition?

BL: Dolphins DE Robert Quinn

The Dolphins essentially gave up only a fourth-rounder for Quinn, but, health willing, he could drastically upgrade a pass rush that consisted of little more than Cameron Wake last year. The Dolphins were 25th in sack percentage, with Wake’s 10.5 sacks representing more than a third of the team total. Quinn had 8.5 sacks last season, following two injury-marred seasons in 2015 and ’16, when he had a total of nine sacks but missed 15 of 32 games. He had 19 sacks in 2013, sandwiched between seasons of 10.5.

EE: Jets offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates

It’s a major stretch here to suggest that a coach who has been out of work the past few seasons could be a huge addition, but that’s what’s going down. I really think Bates’ enthusiasm and ability to connect with quarterbacks will be huge as the team tries to squeeze the last few drops out of Josh McCown while getting ready for Sam Darnold. The Jets’ offensive personnel is below-average for sure, and if Bates helps make this an average unit while developing Darnold, he’ll be a great add to the staff.

GG: Patriots WR Jordan Matthews

The Pats signed Matthews to just a one-year deal, but his addition could be a key one. The Pats' WR corps has never been loaded with outstanding names/talents; they get by with smart overachievers who fit the scheme. In Matthews' first NFL seasons, he made a huge impact in Philly. In his third year he made some mistakes in key situations and fell out of favor with the Eagles brass, leading to a trade to Buffalo last year. If he can regain the form he showed earlier in his career, Matthews can become Tom Brady's favorite target. 

AA: Patriots OT Trent Brown

Potentially Tom Brady’s blind-side blocker and heir to the NFL’s highest-paid O-lineman, Brown shouldn’t be flying under anyone’s radar. So, why did his acquisition, along with a fifth-rounder from the Niners, for the 95th overall pick, generate little buzz? A dancing bear in a contract year under the tutelage of Dante Scarnecchia, Brown lands in a great spot. Brady and Belichick aren’t BFFs currently, but this could be a shrewd Solder plan B.

HA: Bills EDGE Trent Murphy

The Bills are in desperate need of an upgrade to their pass rush, and Trent Murphy could very well prove to be a surprisingly significant part of that fix. Forget the six sacks he totaled his first two years in the league in Washington — in 2016, Murphy's third season, he totaled nine sacks and was emerging as a force, set to have a huge contract year last season, before he tore up his knee in training camp and missed the whole season. At just over $10 million guaranteed, Murphy will be a steal if he can add one sack or more and become a perennial double-digit sack guy. With a full year to rehab the knee and a predominantly NFC team schedule — read: a number of opponents that aren't familiar with him — I expect Murphy could have a breakout year.

 

3) Who is the key offseason defection?

BL: Patriots LT Nate Solder

The group award has to go to the mass exodus of the Bills’ O-line, as they lost C Eric Wood and guard Richie Incognito to retirement, although Incognito has since unretired but will play elsewhere, and traded LT Cordy Glenn to the Bengals. But the biggest single defection was the Patriots’ loss of LT Nate Solder, who signed with the Giants in free agency. Very few things are more important to the Patriots than protecting the blind-side of QB Tom Brady, who has never been very elusive and will be 41 in August.

EE: Bills C Eric Wood

Or the two guys who lined up to his left, making up the pillar of the Bills’ offensive line the past few years — left tackle Cordy Glenn and left guard Richie Incognito. Wood’s retirement, however, could unglue this group more than any other spot as his blocking and leadership were incalculable. Ryan Groy has been a career fill-in, and Russell Bodine was never an above-average center in Cincinnati. OL coach Juan Castillo and offensive coordinator Brian Daboll have big jobs filling all these holes, the biggest of which is Wood.

GG: Bills C Eric Wood

Wood did not "defect" but rather was forced to retire because of a neck injury. For years he has been the leader of the O-line in Buffalo, playing at or near a Pro Bowl level. His combination of leadership and strong play will be sorely missed by the Bills, who have not found a real replacement at this time.

AA: Bills C Eric Wood

The Bills’ bold offseason was predicated on their finding a successful bridge (AJ McCarron) to the future (Josh Allen) behind center. But Wood's sudden retirement, weeks before OG Richie Incognito’s and the trade of LT Cordy Glenn, could impede Buffalo’s QB development plan early on. In recent seasons, the most successful young quarterbacks have had strong infrastructure. Meantime, the Bills paired their preexisting problem — the NFL’s worst receivers — with a new one, losing their three best blockers, as they’re finding their QBs.

HA: Patriots LT Nate Solder

It's hard to ignore the Patriots, not only the only team in the division likely to be relevant to the rest of the league, but also arguably the NFL's most relevant team. Their next few months will be dripping with intrigue over whether they can protect their soon-to-be 41-year-old legend, with his personal protector, Nate Solder, now in New York. The Patriots' O-line has never been loaded with All Pros and has still been among the best groups in the league over the past couple of decades, in part due to the one and only Dante Scarnecchia coaching them, and in large part because just two studs — Solder and Matt Light — have manned that position almost the entire time. After releasing Antonio Garcia, whom the Pats traded up in the third round to draft just last year, we assumed as the heir apparent to Solder, it is unclear what happens now.

 

4) Which coach has the hottest seat?

BL: Dolphins coach Adam Gase

Adam Gase came to Miami with a reputation as an offensive mastermind, and in his first season guided the Dolphins to a 10-6 season and a playoff berth. But the Dolphins were 25th in yards and 28th in points during last year’s 6-10 season.

EE: Dolphins coach Adam Gase

We’re going with Gase by a mere nose ahead of the Jets’ Todd Bowles. The Jets taking Darnold has to come with some patience — the type the franchise showed prior to last season when Bowles rallied his troops to be quite competitive. There’s a bit of a more chaotic, more-cooks-in-the-kitchen feel in Miami, where another losing season with a lot of non-competitive efforts (six two-TD losses last in 2017) could be Gase’s end. Watching Jarvis Landry and Ndamukong Suh walk and counting on Ryan Tannehill to come back from a non-contact ACL injury feels a bit shaky.

GG: Jets coach Todd Bowles

Plain and simple, the Jets have to win or at least show drastic improvement with a rookie quarterback in order for Bowles and general manager Mike Macaggnan to hold onto their jobs. Looking at the roster, that could be difficult.

AA: Dolphins coach Adam Gase

Todd Bowles parlayed a plucky effort in a supposed “tank” year into a two-year extension through 2020. Sean McDermott overachieved as a rookie head coach, not unlike Adam Gase in 2016. Fire Belichick? LOL. That leaves Gase. We don’t think it’s fair, considering the QB whisperer hasn’t hand-picked a quarterback nor played a full season with his healthy entering Year 3, but it was an imperfect marriage from the start with Mike Tannenbaum, and the Dolphins lack of discipline last season reflects poorly on their coach, among others.

HA: Dolphins coach Adam Gase

It appears Gase could end up being a victim of his own success — the Dolphins' surprising 10-6 run to a wild card in his first season, which raised expectations sky high. The default to 6-10 last year after losing quarterback Ryan Tannehill in training camp was a big disappointment. Unlike Todd Bowles, who appears to be getting a pass for at least one more season with a rebuild underway and first-round QB to develop, the Dolphins' roster seems stuck somewhere in the middle. There is no clarity whetherTannehill can be the answer at QB, the Dolphins have jettisoned three of their best players since midseason last year in Jay Ajayi, Jarvis Landry and Ndamukong Suh, and yet no one around Miami seems to expect anything less than a wild-card run. Perhaps most troubling for Gase, his boss, Mike Tannenbaum, is one of the least competent executives in the NFL. Gase is a bright young coach who may just have too many handicaps to overcome in South Florida, and the faithful will lose it quickly with a slow start.

 

5) What's your predicted order of finish?

BL: 1. Patriots 2. Dolphins 3. Jets 4. Bills
 
The Patriots have won at least 12 regular-season games eight years in a row, and the there’s a good chance no other team in the AFC East breaks even in 2018. If Ryan Tannehill stays healthy, the Dolphins can be decent, while the Jets and Bills decide when/if to hand the reins to a rookie QB.

EE: 1. Patriots 2. Jets 3. Dolphins 4. Bills
 
It would take Tom Brady not showing up all season to make me move them from the top spot. The Jets are strangely intriguing, but can they generate enough points? I still see .500 to be quite the achievement. And yes, I have the Bills going from the wild card to the basement. In the 14 regular-season games Tyrod Taylor started, the Bills turned the ball over only eight times; there’s no way they can mimic that ball security with A.J. McCarron and/or Josh Allen at QB this year.

GG: 1. Patriots 2. Bills 3. Dolphins 4. Jets

Same old story in New England. The Bills have an excellent coaching staff, led by Sean McDermott, who took a group short on talent to the playoffs in 2017. While they may not make the playoffs in 2018, the Bills are going in the right direction. Miami has struggled under the leadership (or lack thereof) of vice president of football operations Mike Tannenbaum, who just hasn't provided Adam Gase the right pieces to the puzzle. The Jets are the least talented team in the AFC East, which isn't a very strong division. They may show improvement, but it won't show in the won-lost record.

AA: 1. Patriots 2. Jets 3. Dolphins 4. Bills

New England has proven for close to two decades now its ability to overcome distractions and unify to reach a common goal. Having the best coach and quarterback of all time helps. I was very impressed with the Jets' fight last year, and Bowles might finally have the ingredients in the secondary to cook up his nasty 'D.' I think Miami will be good defensively but the lack of cohesion on offense is concerning. It almost feels like Buffalo is resigned to a major regression.

HA: 1. Patriots 2. Dolphins 3. Bills 4. Jets

I'm putting the Dolphins, at 8-8, ahead of the Bills, just because there's not a lot about Buffalo's playoff run last year that feels real to me.

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