2015 AFC East Preview: Can Anyone Take Down the Patriots?
In the Star Wars universe, the Galactic Empire was the most feared force in the galaxy, responsible for wiping out the Jedi Order, possessing a planet-destroying spacecraft aptly named the Death Star, and commanding an Imperial Army comprised of tens of trillions of soldiers and Stormtroopers.
And to this day it still amazes me that the Empire's reign was ended by none other than the Ewoks.
Yup, the most powerful, technologically advanced entity in the entire galaxy was defeated by a group of three-foot tall teddy bears using sticks for weapons.
So when I look at the dominance the New England Patriots have had over the AFC East since the turn of the century -- winning the division in 12 of the last 15 seasons -- I realize that perhaps the idea of the Jets, Dolphins, or Bills beating them out for the AFC East division championship this season perhaps isn't as absurd as it sounds. Indeed, while the Patriots are dealing with a gutted secondary and question marks at quarterback thanks to Brady's "Deflategate" suspension, the rest of the division has spent the offseason upgrading their teams on both sides of the ball.
But through all this, the question remains: will any of it be enough for one of these teams to take down the New England Patriots' empire?
4. New York Jets
The big question on everyone's mind for the Jets going into the 2015 season is whether Chan Gailey can help rescue Geno Smith's once promising career. Gailey has had a track record of getting the most out of his players, and in his last stint as a coach in the NFL, C.J. Spiller had by far the best season of his career under Gailey's watch. His reputation of getting the most out of his quarterbacks is well-documented as well. Gailey has squeezed out impressive seasons from the likes of Kordell Stewart, Jay Fiedler, Tyler Thigpen, and Ryan Fitzpatrick, and the hope is that Smith is next on this list.
[Editor's Note: This was written prior to Geno Smith's jaw injury. For a breakdown on how his injury impacts the Jets' playoff chances (it doesn't), click here.]
And as I wrote about earlier this offseason, if Smith is going to prove to the Jets he has what it takes to be a starter in this league, he won't have to do it alone. In an attempt to improve on the league's worst passing offense from last season, New York's front office traded for a true number-one wideout in Brandon Marshall and drafted speedster Devin Smith to help stretch defenses.
Beyond this, the team also added Stevan Ridley via free agency and Zac Stacy in a draft day trade to bolster a rushing offense that already ranked third in the league in 2014. While much rests on the shoulders of Geno Smith this season, the Jets hope that these upgrades and new additions to their offense will be enough to improve on their abysmal 17.7 points per game scored last year.
Run by now-Bills head coach Rex Ryan, the Jets churned out a top-six total defense in 2014. But a deeper look into the numbers doesn't paint quite as rosy a picture. The Jets surrendered 25.1 points per game (24th) due in large part to an Adjusted Passing and Rushing Net Expected Points (read more about Net Expected Points, or NEP, in our glossary) per play that ranked them in the bottom half of the league in each of these metrics.
With Todd Bowles now calling the shots for the Jets, the front office has made a number of moves to ensure that their new head coach has what he needs to succeed in his first season in New York. Perhaps in their most publicized move, the Jets are bringing the band back together in the secondary, signing both Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie within days of one another. These two are expected to shore up a passing defense that gave up the 19th most passing yards in the league last year.
And on a defensive line that already boasted two first-round studs in Muhammad Wilkerson and 2013 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Sheldon Richardson, the rich got richer with their use of another first-round pick on the big, game-breaking defensive tackle out of USC, Leonard Williams.
Projected Record: 7.8-8.2
Division Probability: 15.2%
Playoff Probability: 32.2%
3. Buffalo Bills
Every year in each of the past two seasons, the Buffalo Bills defense has finished as a top-10 unit. And each of these years, the Bills offense has failed to carry its own weight, ranking 19th and 26th in total offense in 2013 and 2014, respectively.
This offseason, the Bills front office did all they could to make sure this wouldn't be a repeat occurrence in 2015.
Buffalo shocked the world by trading away oft-injured Kiko Alonso to Philadelphia for elite tailback LeSean McCoy before signing versatile wideout Percy Harvin and former Dolphin tight end Charles Clay to play alongside their talented second-year man Sammy Watkins. In total, these moves give the Bills by far the best group of skill position players this team has had for some time.
Despite these upgrades to the receiving and running game, not everything is golden with the Bills, however. The biggest question mark for this offense still remains at quarterback. The retirement of Kyle Orton was a huge blow for the Bills, who -- as our own Brandon Gdula noted this past December -- turned in the best quarterbacking season in Buffalo since 2002. In his place will either be incumbent E.J. Manuel or free agent signings Matt Cassel or Tyrod Taylor. And with Cassel being who we thought he was, and Taylor being a career backup with the Ravens, this may turn out to be a war of attrition with the least bad option rising to the top of the heap.
If the Bills do enter the top half of the league in passing offense, it likely won't be on the arm of one of their signal callers currently under contract.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Bills biggest move was bringing in defensive guru Rex Ryan to serve as head coach. As Joe Redemann wrote in January upon Ryan's hiring, "Ryan has helped coach or assemble a top-five overall defense half of his time in the league, leading the league four of those seasons."
And Ryan inherits a team that -- despite losing linebacker Kiko Alonso to a torn ACL for the entire 2014 season -- not only managed to improve on its 2013 performance, but also ended the year as the fourth-best team in both yards and points allowed per game. The Bills accomplished this with a highly efficient defense that ranked second in Passing NEP allowed per drop back, and ninth in Rushing NEP given up per attempt.
With a likely switch to Ryan's preferred 3-4 defense, the Bills will be able to full advantage of Mario Williams' versatility, lining him all over the field in the "joker" role on this unit. And with key starters such as linebacker Jerry Hughes, defensive tackle Marcell Dareus, and cornerback Stephon Gilmore giving Ryan the versatility he needs to run his defense, it's scary to think that this top-five unit from 2014 could be even better in 2015.
Projected Record: 8.4-7.6
Division Probability: 24.0%
Playoff Probability: 43.0%
2. Miami Dolphins
Last season, Ryan Tannehill took a big step forward as Miami's franchise quarterback, eclipsing 4,000 passing yards for the first time in his young, three-year career. This, alongside solid running by Lamar Miller -- whose performance last season raised the team's Adjusted Rushing NEP per attempt to a top-five 0.04 figure -- helped lift the Dolphins to 14th in total offense (350.1 yards per game) and 11th in scoring (24.2 points per game). And with the sure-handed Jarvis Landry joining these two rising stars to anchor the offense, Miami's front office went about upgrading the rest of the team this offseason.
The Dolphins moved a fifth-round pick to New Orleans to acquire the most efficient wideout the past two seasons, according to our Reception NEP metric, in Kenny Stills. They then signed veteran receiver Greg Jennings to provide leadership for this young receiving corps, and stole the 6' 5", 250-pound Jordan Cameron right out from under the Browns' noses to shore up their red zone efficiency.
And in the draft, Miami landed not one, but two game changers, first selecting the explosive playmaker out of Louisville DeVante Parker in the first round before getting an absolute steal in former Boise State tailback and consensus top-three round talent Jay Ajayi, where questions regarding his long term longevity due to past knee issues caused his draft stock to slide all the way to the fifth round.
With these weapons around him and a second season in Chip Kelly-disciple Bill Lazor's system, the pieces are in place for Tannehill to not only potentially make the leap into the top tier of quarterbacks this year, but also for the Dolphins to surprise quite a few people with their offense.
Despite finishing 12th in the league in total yards allowed -- giving up just 343.4 yards per game -- the Dolphins finished the year as the 20th-ranked scoring defense, surrendering 23.3 points per game to opposing offenses. This was due in large part to their inability to stop the ground game, with their run defense ranked in the bottom-10 of the league in 2014, giving up 0.01 Adjusted Rushing NEP per attempt.
This offseason, the Dolphins went about righting the ship with a big splash in free agency, signing defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, who anchored the top run defense in the league with the Lions last year. And when paired alongside Cameron Wake -- the team's best pass rusher with 11.5 sacks last season -- this duo will also help improve a passing defense that already ranked as a top-six unit in 2014.
All in all, expect the Dolphins defense to improve in all facets of the game with everything starting and ending with their new $114-million man in Suh.
Projected Record: 8.4-7.6
Division Probability: 24.4%
Playoff Probability: 44.2%
1. New England Patriots
With all the changes the rest of this division has made to their respective rosters, the defending champion New England Patriots seem to have adopted the "less is more approach." Rather than make big moves to acquire new blood in free agency, the team is instead bringing back the majority of their offense. As the old saying goes, "if it ain't broke, don't fix it."
The Patriots ranked 11th in total yards and 4th in scoring last season at 29.2 points per game, and marked by the efficiency of your typical Belichick-coached team, they also ranked 5th and 6th in Adjusted Passing and Rushing NEP per play last season, respectively.
Their biggest weapon, All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski, has enjoyed his healthiest offseason in years and will be ready to dominate the passing game as he has in seasons past. And though both Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen are now with new teams in New York, this likely isn't a huge issue for a team that has built a reputation for shuffling the deck at running back on an almost a weekly basis. Ridley's contributions to their recent Super Bowl run were minimal, playing in just six games before a torn ACL cost him the rest of the season and playoffs, and while Shane Vereen played an exceptional receiving back for this team -- accumulating 53 receptions and 32.69 Passing NEP in this role -- the Patriots are confident that either Travaris Cadet or James White can fill in for the now New York Giant.
The real concerns for this team are with Tom Brady and his impending four-game suspension on account of his (alleged) role in "Deflategate." All eyes will be on second-year man Jimmy Garoppolo early this season to maintain the course for this team until Brady can return. And while many are ready to write off the Patriots for the first month of the season, these same people would do well to remember that, in 2008, Bill Belichick coaxed an 11-win season out of a team that was quarterbacked by Matt Cassel.
The Patriots ranked 13th last season in total defense on the strength of their efficient pass defense that ranked fourth in Adjusted Passing NEP allowed per drop back. With Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner blanketing opposing wideouts, this secondary was considered by some as perhaps one of the best units in the league, and we all know just how instrumental this group was to their Super Bowl victory over the Seahawks.
It's therefore obvious that the Patriots' decision to part ways with Revis, Browner, and Kyle Arrington -- their three starting cornerbacks from Super Bowl XLIX -- will have major repercussions for this team. The Patriots may be forced to move cornerback-turned-safety Devin McCourty back to corner, and may also need to rely on newly signed free agent corner Tarell Brown -- who himself is coming off a broken foot suffered at the end of the 2014 season -- to provide competition for underwhelming ex-Eagle corner Bradley Fletcher.
To compensate for these losses in the secondary, this defense has seemingly opted to rely on their depth and talent at their other positions. The Patriots still possess a dominant defensive line which, despite the release of Vince Wilfork this offseason, still boasts the up-and-coming pass rusher Chandler Jones, workhorse Rob Ninkovich, and first-round All-American defensive tackle Malcom Brown. And at linebacker, the Patriots hope that if Dont'a Hightower and Jerod Mayo can return to their pre-injury forms, their play alongside athletic freak Jamie Collins will be able to compensate for a lack of playmakers at their corner positions.
Projected Record: 9.1-6.9
Division Probability: 36.4%
Playoff Probability: 65.7%
The Battle for the AFC East
With Brady's four-game suspension to start the year and the wholesale improvements the Jets, Dolphins, and Bills have made to their rosters, this may be the year the Evil Empire of the AFC East is toppled.
But the Patriots also aren't the only ones with question marks at quarterback. In New York, this may be Geno Smith's last chance to prove he was worth the second-round pick the Jets spent on him two seasons ago, and the potential starting quarterback in Buffalo, E.J. Manuel, has yet to prove he's more than anything but a replacement-level talent.
The team with perhaps the best quarterback situation to start the year, the Miami Dolphins, are also a very young, unfamiliar unit on offense. And on defense, we still don't know if Suh will be the one to flip their run defense from worst to first like he did in Detroit, or if he'll be just another overpaid distraction.
Either way, things are shaping up to be a far closer race in this division than what New England has been used to. With just two games separating our fourth-ranked team, the New York Jets, from our top-ranked team, the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots, depending on how each team's quarterback situation shakes out, this division could be anyone's to win.