AFC East Draft Needs: Will the Jets Find a Quarterback?
Football has always been declared to be much more of an even playing field than other sports due to its salary cap. The logic is: if every team can only spend a certain amount of money, no one team can hoard all of the top talent like the New York Yankees tend to do in baseball.
If ever there was an argument that football is more of a caste-based society than every other sport, you would look no further than the AFC East.
Yes, at the very top we have the uber-wealthy, the New England Patriots, who just put the finishing touches on their 13th playoff appearance in the last 15 years, their 8th Super Bowl appearance in team history (and 6th since 2001), and 4th Super Bowl championship since the turn of the century.
After that, in recent history, it’s been a large puddle of mediocrity. Still, at this time of year, everyone’s standings have been reset. It’s a new chance for every team to compete in 2015, and that starts with the NFL Draft. With each team looking for just the right pieces to push them over the top in their hopes of competing –- whether now, or a few years down the road –- the draft has become one of the most electric events in the NFL calendar.
So, what do AFC East teams need in order to bump themselves up for 2015?
Biggest Need: Offensive Line
We can bash quarterback EJ Manuel all we want for not being developed at this point but, frankly, the Bills should have known that he was a developmental project when they selected him in the first round of the 2013 draft. Not only have they not given him a chance to really prove himself over the past two seasons, but they gave him no weapons to work with when he was a starter. And -– most criminally -– they've sent him no protection to give him time to work. This offensive line has potential physically, but they’ve traditionally been better run-blockers. Kraig Urbik, Seantrel Henderson, and Tiny Richardson are not the answers to keeping whoever Buffalo’s passer is off of the turf.
Even the Buffalo running backs haven’t been able to do much behind these should-be behemoths. In 2014, Fred Jackson did end up as the 15th-best back by Total NEP with over 100 rushing attempts, but all of his value came from his receiving ability. His Rushing Net Expected Points (NEP) on a per-attempt basis ranked tied for 32nd among 44 backs -- when he wasn’t making plays in space, Jackson was highly ineffective, and it was not all due to age. The big problem for the Bills: they can’t even begin to consider addressing any positions until Round 2, thanks to the fallout from last year’s draft day Sammy Watkins trade.
Potential Picks: OT Jake Fisher (Oregon), C/OG/OT Cameron Erving (Florida State)
Biggest Need: Wide Receiver
It doesn’t matter how good your quarterback is if he doesn’t have someone to throw the ball to. Last year, we saw another huge step forward in development from third-year passer Ryan Tannehill (4.91 Total NEP in 2013, 58.94 in 2014), but he will go into the 2015 season without his top receiver from last season. Mike Wallace was traded to the Minnesota Vikings this offseason, after ranking 32nd in the league in Total NEP among receivers with at least 30 targets.
The upside is that Tannehill will return with Jarvis Landry, now in his second year, who was given 112 targets and caught 75% of them; he’ll be a reliable possession player in the slot. He also gained new toys in tight end Jordan Cameron and wide receiver Kenny Stills. Stills ranked 24th in Total NEP in 2014 on only 83 targets, but this reveals his usage mainly as a deep-threat specialist. He won’t be a high-volume play for his new quarterback, and there are injury concerns to worry about with Cameron. The Dolphins will have a lethal unit if they can add one more outside receiver -– a bigger-bodied one, preferably -– to bookend with Stills.
Potential Picks: WR Devante Parker, WR Sammie Coates
New York Jets
Biggest Need: Quarterback
We all know it. This one is as clear as the water off the coast of Maui: the Jets haven’t had a competent signal-caller since, well, it's been a while. It's been over a decade of ineptitude under center for New York, and it's led the Jets to some pretty poor finishes in the league, despite an incredible defensive unit that ranked top 10 in the league from 2009 through 2011, per our schedule-adjusted Net Expected Points metric. Defense and a strong rushing game can do some pretty exceptional things in the NFL still (am I right, Seattle?), but even the Super Bowl XLVIII Champion Seattle Seahawks have a very good quarterback.
Putting it in terms of NEP, Geno Smith had –- even in a year in which he improved –- a Total NEP just slightly better among quarterbacks than Charlie Whitehurst, but just a tad worse than Brian Hoyer and Drew Stanton. This was good for 29th in the league. Geno might have potential, but if the Jets want to go anywhere fast, they need to upgrade at this position quickly.
Potential Picks: QB Marcus Mariota (Oregon), QB Brett Hundley (UCLA)
New England Patriots
Biggest Need: Running Back
As much as everyone is clamoring for the Patriots to improve their pass-catching corps, their three highest-scoring skill position players by Total Net Expected Points (NEP) in 2014 were tight end Rob Gronkowski and wide receivers Julian Edelman and Brandon LaFell. Part of this is due to the way NEP looks at receiving value (passing and catching is much more efficient) versus rushing value (they're being stopped for small gains consistently), but even the best back on the Patriots’ roster –- undrafted rookie Jonas Gray -– had a Total NEP just higher than Washington fullback Darrel Young.
Gray actually did fairly well carrying the load as the team’s big back for 90 attempts in 2014, but he's arguably the only runner with both real value and experience on the Patriots’ squad. Head of the committee, Stevan Ridley, was let go of in free agency, and even Shane Vereen, who became the versatile scatback in the team’s multiple-phase offense, is now a New York Giant. There are rookies, former special teams players, and others that could step up to take a bigger role in this backfield, but it might behoove the Pats to look at a top-flight runner.
Potential Picks: RB Jay Ajayi (Boise State), RB Karlos Williams (Florida State)