Is this the year the AFC East becomes competitive?
Betteridge’s Law of Headlines suggests the answer is “No,” of course. But I have reason to believe, even if the division race ends up becoming another laugher the Patriots have locked up by December, that the other three teams are at least taking the right approach to building a contender. After a decade-plus of Patriots dominance, only occasionally interrupted by fluke ACL tears and standings tiebreakers, the other three teams have realized something New England has known since installing Tom Brady in the driver’s seat: the offensive passing game is the key to consistent long-term success.
Let’s look at what each of those other teams has done to upgrade their passing game this offseason.
The important new addition here is Sammy Watkins, who gives the Bills a legit #1 receiver for the first time since the heyday of Eric Moulds. I actually like the Bills’ skill-position talent on the whole: They had a deep group of wide receivers with diverse skill sets who would be best used as second or third options. Watkins gives the team a true #1 and takes the pressure off everyone else to do what they do best: Robert Woods as the all-around possession #2, Mike Williams as the big red zone target, and Marquise Goodwin as the deep threat. C.J. Spiller remains an explosive threat in the backfield; he still averaged 4.6 yards per carry and collected 33 passes in an “off” year where he was regularly banged up. (The Bills also traded a future fourth-round pick for Bryce Brown, so they’d better have a role planned for him.)
On the line, the team drafted Cyrus Kouandijo to beef up the right tackle spot, and fifth-rounder Cyril Richardson could compete for one of the guard positions. (They even took a seventh-round flyer on tackle Seantrel Henderson, a first-round body saddled with a beer-league work ethic.) All in all, the talent on offense is looking pretty good, and if the defense can maintain continuity after coordinator Mike Pettine’s departure, the Bills could field solid units on both sides of the ball.
The key, of course, will be second-year quarterback E.J. Manuel’s development. His rookie year was interrupted by injuries, which makes it both difficult to evaluate his chances and difficult to confidently project success, given the lost development time as well as factoring for an increased chance of future injury. I do like the skill position talent, and I do like Doug Marrone as an offensive coach. He was the offensive coordinator for the Saints during the early years of the Payton-Brees attack, and he was behind Manuel’s selection, so I still have some faith in his decision-making abilities.
The Miami Dolphins are the one team of these three that can be reasonably certain of their future at quarterback. Ryan Tannehill is entering his third year under center, and has played well enough that I think they can reasonably expect him to be their quarterback of the future.
It’s the rest of the offense that needs re-tooling.
The receiving crew was actually better than usual last year, thanks to the addition of Mike Wallace and emergence of Charles Clay, but still below average. Wallace’s suspect hands made him a disappointment as a #1 receiver. Steady Brian Hartline continued to produce, although he’s more suited to being a second or third option on an offense. Second-round pick Jarvis Landry should be a fine #2 someday, and will likely open the year as the Dolphins’ third receiver. He’s a solid addition for a team whose depth chart has been hurting, and although I think they would have done better to try to draft a true #1 receiver, it’s not always possible. The rest of the receivers are just guys, though Rishard Matthews had some solid games down the stretch, and some folks like Matt Hazel’s potential.
Still, though, the offensive line was the team’s obvious weakness last year, as Tannehill’s 58 sacks led the league, and the running backs combined to average fewer than four yards a carry. The Richie-Incognito-bullying-Jonathan-Martin disaster cost the team two starting linemen during the year and a third, guard John Jerry, after it. (They did manage to keep their above-average center who doesn’t learn from his bad decisions.) Enter free-agent signee Branden Albert to play left tackle, first-round pick Ja’Wuan James at right tackle, and third-rounder Billy Turner to man one of the guard slots (a surprise, since we projected him as a tackle). The line should be much improved from the complete tire fire of talent and chemistry it was in 2013.
The other big change comes on the coaching staff. Mike Sherman was hired as offensive coordinator to provide continuity for Tannehill, having coached him at Texas A&M, but Sherman’s offense was widely regarded around the league as dull and uncreative. Bill Lazor is the new offensive coordinator; he comes from Philadelphia, and the Dolphins are hoping he brings some of the philosophies and playbook of Chip Kelly to add some electricity to a stale attack.
I’ve been skeptical of the Dolphins in the Stephen Ross era, as his willingness to stick with Jeff Ireland for far too long suggested an out-of-touch owner, and his mandate that the new GM would have to keep head coach Joe Philbin (and the subsequent reluctance of legit candidates willing to interview for the job) suggested a meddling one. To his credit, though, the team’s braintrust seemed to realize drastic change was required this offseason, and they moved to overhaul parts of the team that were lacking. Time will tell if those seeds will bear fruit.
New York Jets
Mark Sanchez was a pretty bad quarterback, but he was done no favors by the Jets’ pitiful attempts at fielding a receiving crew. Jeremy Kerley, best suited to the slot, was the team’s best receiver by some degree last season, meaning they lacked both a #1 and a #2 on the depth chart. (Stephen Hill seems well on his way to being the latest evidence that being tall and running fast in a straight line is by itself not enough to play wide receiver.) So the team signed Eric Decker to a five-year deal in the offseason, then drafted Jalen Saunders and Shaq Evans in the fourth round. He’s a tight end, but I’d be remiss not to mention second-round Jace Amaro as well, since the team’s hope is that he can be more of a multi-purpose slot receiver a la Jimmy Graham.
I like Decker more than most– I think he’s got a good combination of size and speed and plays the position well– and I think he can be a competent, if not high-end, #1 receiver. It’s difficult to expect rookies to produce right away, but Saunders and Evans should get plenty of opportunities to learn on the job, as they’re already among the team’s four best wide receivers. Amaro should start as well, giving the team potentially five legitimate threats. Even if the receiving crew isn’t top-notch yet, it’s no longer unacceptable for an NFL team. Even in the base sets, the Jets will have reasonable targets in the passing game.
The team also drafted Dakota Dozier in the fourth round; if he’s as good as we project, he should replace departed right tackle Austin Howard. The Jets also signed Chris Johnson for those times they want someone to run outside and fall down at first contact. (Presumably he’ll also play passing downs, as Chris Ivory has no value as a receiving back.) Even with the signings of Decker and Johnson, the biggest name addition in free agency was Michael Vick. Although the team has insisted he’ll back up Geno Smith, he’ll push him, provide a baseline level of competence at QB, and hopefully mentor the second-year quarterback.
For the first time in a long time, the Patriots’ dynasty atop the AFC East may be in danger. While rumors of the Pats’ demise have been whispered in years past, they’ve successfully held off all competitors, only losing the division twice since the first Brady-Belichick Super Bowl, both times by a tiebreaker (and once when Brady tore his ACL eight minutes into the season). Those two are getting older, certainly, but the real reason the talk might have more weight behind it this year is that the other three franchises, who have exhibited varying levels of dysfunction during the Patriots dynasty, have finally realized the importance of having a high-level passing game in the NFL and have made the moves necessary to have air attacks of their own, even if they don’t all work out.