AFC East 2020 Preview

Since the turn of the century, this division has been owned by the Patriots. Including the 2000 season (Belichick’s first as HC), a team other than New England has won the division only three times. But for the first time since Belichick took over, the winds of change are starting to blow. Most analysts favor the upstart Buffalo Bills to win the division and, after the Pats had a league-high eight players opt out of the 2020 season, the talent on paper appears as shaky as ever. However, until somebody actually steps up and slays the New England dragon – it’ll always be around.

New England Patriots (O/U 9)

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Key Additions: WR Damiere Byrd, QB Cam Newton, QB Brian Hoyer, LB Brandon Copeland, S Cody Davis, S Kyle Dugger (2nd RD Pick), EDGE Josh Uche (2nd RD Pick)

Key Subtractions: QB Tom Brady, TE Rob Gronkowski, EDGE Kyle Van Noy, LB Jamie Collins, DI Danny Shelton, K Steven Gostkowski, WR Phillip Dorsett, CB Duron Harmon

The Patriots are going to be a completely new team this fall. They lost their franchise QB of the past two decades, their first-ballot Hall of Fame TE, and several key cogs to the defense. They’ve also lost several contributors due to opt-outs, Donte Hightower and Patrick Chung among the most prominent. So where’s the positivity? It all lies with the Hoodie. The Patriots front office and coaching staff doesn’t operate the same way most NFL teams do. They aren’t worried about the quarterback position. They aren’t worried about who’s going to fit into their scheme and play the 1-tech DT now that Danny Shelton is gone. They pick their players, adjust everything they do around the roster they have, and the opponent standing directly in front of them. They’ve always been the most versatile team in the league and therein lies the Patriot Way and what makes them so fascinating. The Patriots will perhaps be even more fascinating this year than ever before. America hasn’t seen Belichick without Tom Brady and they haven’t seen the new players and difference-makers that are sure to emerge.

My Prediction: 10-6

I’ve seen it floated that the Patriots could be tanking for Trevor Lawrence or whatever. It’s a ridiculous stance. Bill Belichick would sooner jump into a shark-infested vat of acid than lose football games on purpose. Plus, the stories about the strained relationship between Bill and Tom were real. Both sides want to prove they can have success without the other; especially in the case of Bill – who I personally believe tried to trade Brady a year or so back before he had his hand forced by the ownership to deal Jimmy Garoppolo instead. New England is at a significant disadvantage roster-wise, but they also have young guys to plug in at every spot. Kyle Dugger will get a chance at safety now that Chung is out, and Josh Uche can replace Kyle Van Noy as a speedball off the edge. And it’s no secret the Patriots want to change their offense to incorporate a more mobile quarterback. Because of the change, I think the Pats become even harder to gameplan for now, at least early on. They won’t be the powerhouse in the AFC we’ve grown used to, but they can absolutely win 10 games and get to the dance where anything can happen.

Buffalo Bills (O/U 9)

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Key Additions: WR Stefon Diggs, EDGE Mario Addison, DI Vernon Butler, DI Quinton Jefferson,

CB Josh Norman, LB AJ Klein

Key Subtractions: EDGE Shaq Lawson, EDGE Lorenzo Alexander, CB Kevin Johnson, DI Jordan Phillips

The Buffalo Bills are just waiting to explode. They’ve had the defense for awhile now. Whatever you may think of Josh Allen, he’s their guy and he’s proven at the very least he can lead a good team to the playoffs. Now it’s time for the next step. Sean McDermott is a legit coach and they’ve been a well-run organization from the moment he arrived. But they are also following close behind the wake of perhaps the greatest professional sports dynasty ever. The roster is loaded, and clearly the most talented in the division. But anyone who watched the Bills blow a playoff lead on the road in Houston this January saw what questions remain with this team. When the lights are brightest, can they close the deal? The spotlight was too much for Josh Allen last season, and for this team to take the next step he needs to improve his consistency as a QB and cut down on mistakes. The ball is in his court and this division is Buffalo’s to lose, because they are clearly more talented than their other three division rivals.

My Prediction: 10-6

I like watching Josh Allen. He’s one of the more fun QB’s in the league. He’s a wild card. I also would’ve never drafted him for that same reason. He has immense physical talent but in the tensest moments last fall he didn’t live up. When Deshaun Watson started leading the comeback effort for the Texans in that playoff game, he was a deer in headlights. The Bills are the best team in the division, but I’m not so sure they’ll win it. With a 3rd wild card team making the playoffs, I’d be surprised if they miss out entirely – but for them to win 11 or 12 games, Josh Allen has to have a breakout season and significantly improve from what he was a year ago.

Miami Dolphins (O/U 6.5)

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Key Additions: QB Tua Tagovailoa (1st RD Pick), T Ereck Flowers, RB Jordan Howard, EDGE Shaq Lawson, EDGE Kyle Van Noy, EDGE Emmanuel Ogbah, C Ted Karras, RB Matt Breida

Key Subtractions: S Reshad Jones, RB Mark Walton

Miami is building something in the summer heat. With their three first round picks they were able to notch their franchise QB, a blindside protector at T, and a corner to close. Widely considered one of the worst teams in recent memory, there weren’t very high expectations for the Dolphins last fall - so everyone came away rather impressed when they were able to win three of their final five contests to close. They’ve been active in free agency since the conclusion of the season, plugging holes ferociously. Their leading rusher in 2019 was Mark Walton, who barely eclipsed 200 yards. Head coach Brian Flores knows that won’t get the job done again in 2020, so he added some versatility to the position with downhill bruiser Jordan Howard and speedster Matt Breida. The big question as their training camp gets going revolves around the quarterback position, where the Phins selected Tua Tagovailoa - who is currently rehabbing a serious hip injury. Most would be shocked if he plays to begin the season, especially since Miami still has veteran journeyman Ryan Fitzpatrick coming off a solid 2019 campaign. Miami still has a way to go in terms of its roster, but the leadership and foundation is now in the building, and for Dolphins fans there’s certainly reason to be optimistic; just maybe not in terms of wins and losses this year.

My prediction: 4-12

I really like Brian Flores, and I absolutely LOVE what they did nabbing Tua. I haven’t been shy about this and if I end up being wrong then so be it, but I think Tua will be the best QB from this draft class. The Dolphins are headed in the right direction, and if they surpass my win prediction for them, I won’t be shocked. But they really struggle on defense, and I believe their pass defense in particular will get torched this fall. Their top CB Xavien Howard is a hit-or-miss player, with coverage grades under 60.0 in 14 of his last 33 games per Pro Football Focus (PFF). Their linebackers can’t cover. They also bid ado to both of their starting safeties from a year ago (Reshad Jones & Minkah Fitzpatrick). And while the addition of Shaq Lawson and Kyle Van Noy should certainly help pressure, neither of them is prolific enough to bail out the back end. The Dolphins should be a team on the rise in seasons to come, but this was never a roster designed to contend this fall.

New York Jets (O/U 7)

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Key Additions: T Mekhi Becton (1st RD Pick), T George Fant, C Connor McGovern, QB Joe Flacco, LB Patrick Onwuasor, WR Breshad Perriman, WR Denzel Mims (2nd RD Pick)

Key Subtractions: S Jamal Adams, WR Robbie Anderson, WR Demaryius Thomas, RB Ty Montgomery, C Ryan Kalil, T Brandon Shell, T Kelvin Beachum, CB Trumaine Johnson

The New York Jets are entering a pivotal year in their franchise. Their vaunted young QB Sam Darnold is entering his third year and has yet to really prove much. His head coach Adam Gase is surely on the hot seat with new GM Joe Douglas calling the shots. The landscape of the division is also changing, as New England enters a remodel and Buffalo ascends. The Jets have an opportunity to take a big leap forward, and they hope all the moves they made this offseason will be a good first step. The issue however is they’re also still in rebuild mode, shipping off their best player for multiple first round picks. For the coaching staff the mindset is, “Win today or get fired tomorrow.” But for the front office, they clearly view the team as a project – and who can blame them. The roster is still reeling from previous GM Mike Maccagnan’s torrent of ill-advised signings, and the amount of blue-chip talent on the team is slim to none. Everyone in New York appears to be on different pages, and if things go downhill in 2020 – sweeping change feels inevitable. The team just isn’t built to win now.

My prediction: 3-13

Keep in mind Adam Gase was hired by the previous regime. GM Joe Douglas didn’t hire Gase, and therefore probably won’t hesitate to make a change if he feels necessary. I honestly can’t see this team succeeding under Gase, and his firing is inevitable – just as Jay Gruden’s was in Washington last fall. The organization has made a lot of changes and getting a new coaching staff of Joe Douglas’ choice in place seems to be the last domino yet to fall. The front office is looking with an eye towards the future, so I’m not exactly sure how a flawed team to begin with succeeds in that ‘dead man walking’ environment. It’s a recipe for cultural disaster and if they reach their seven wins from 2019, I’ll be impressed.