Wednesday, October 28, 2020

We’re coming for you AFC East!

There is a small beam of light shining on the face of the AFC East, a ray of hope and excitement for a new beginning. For Brady and Gronk are no more, casting their dominance on pastures new and with it, destabilising the bedrock of a dynasty that has ruled ruthlessly for the greater part of two decades.

Overly dramatic? Maybe, True? Absolutely. For the first time in many a Patriot fans’ short memory they are no longer the uncontested owners of the AFC East crown. This division has been blown wide open and all four teams could have their say in who fills the power void. So, who is the new heir apparent?

AFC East is up for grabs

Tom Brady won't be winning the AFC East this year. But what about the Patriots?
Tom Brady won’t be winning the AFC East this year. But what about the Patriots?

Now, we can’t simply rule out the Patriots because they’ve lost one of the greatest quarterbacks to play the game. They still have Bill Belichick which like it or not, brings tremendous competitive advantages (unscrupulous methods to name just one).

They have a seasoned and competitive offensive line, decent receivers when fit, and a defence that had the fewest missed tackles in the NFL in 2019 with 66. Add to that a Quarterback, once hyped as a potential number 1 overall pick before a disastrous transfer to a run-heavy Auburn, in which the franchise seems to have placed their trust to move the legacy forward.

It would appear they should still be in the running. But have they lost their mojo? Only time will tell.

Josh Allen will be expected to lead the Bills to the AFC East title this season
Josh Allen will be expected to lead the Bills to the AFC East title this season

Looking at the division from an outsider’s perspective, the natural successor might appear to be the Buffalo Bills. After making the playoffs last season they have added strength in the offseason, upgrading their WR core by trading their first-round pick to the Vikings for Stefon Diggs and adding to their already solid defence in the selection of pass rusher A.J. Epenesa with the 54th overall pick from Iowa.

Question marks still hang over quarterback Josh Allen and his accuracy and ability to step up to elite level, further solidified by the surprising 5th round pick of Georgia quarterback Jake Fromm. 

The Jets also had a productive draft, adding OT Mekhi Becton and WR Denzel Mims along with acquiring former 1st round pick and deep threat target Breshad Perriman in free agency. They also added former Dolphin Frank Gore to try and create a one-two punch in the backfield alongside Le’Veon Bell in order to improve on their 31st ranked rushing offense.

But they still lack an identity and it’s difficult to get excited about a team when Adam Gase is the skipper.

Sam Darnold might still be seeing ghosts after last season

Dolphins on the up

So, where does that leave the Dolphins in the mix for the AFC East crown? If we look at the stats from the 2019 season there are a lot of positives the team can expand and improve upon which could lead them to the lofty heights of the divisional dark horse.

Let’s start with the defence. It’s not being overly critical to say that at the start of the season was a mitigated disaster. In the first 4 games of the season we shipped 163 points compared to 26 scored which included an embarrassing 0 – 43 lock-out at the hands of the Patriots at home.

Players seemed to be coming and going every week and there was no stability or consistency of play. But the coaching staff made a few adjustments, moving players into different positions and it had almost an immediate impact with several of them blossoming, Needham to name just one.

The defence grew both in strength and confidence through the remainder of the season and what better way to cap off a ‘tanking’ season than with a pick 6 to bring home the win away at Gillette Stadium by a former Patriots player in the form of Eric Rowe. Still, major improvement required.

Fast forward to 2020 and it looks bright in Miami from a defensive perspective. The CB room is brimming with not just AFC East but league-leading talent with the pairing of Byron Jones with Xavien Howard and the drafting of a potential starter at nickel in Noah Igbinoghene.

The lack of pass rush has been addressed with the additions of Shaq Lawson, Emmanuel Ogbah, and Jason Strowbridge at DE and the versatility of Kyle Van Noy and Curtis Weaver adding rushing ability at OLB. Brandon Jones adds some depth to the safety room and Raekwon Davis to the line.

Ryan Fitzpatrick led a resurgent Dolphins in the second half of 2019 © Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
Ryan Fitzpatrick led a resurgent Dolphins in the second half of 2019 © Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

We still lack an out and out Nose Tackle and time will tell if the Safety position has found an incumbent, but on paper, this new-look defence should hold up well, particularly in divisional games with an untested QB in Stidham and the inaccuracy of Allen having their passing options limited.

Moving on to the offence it was a very similar story but with some welcome standouts. Firstly, the not so goods. The O-Line  was being talked about as one of the worst in the history of football, not helped by the carousel approach taken by the coaching staff.

This lack of a cohesive unit led to the worst rushing offence in the league and sat joint top of the list with the Panthers for sacks allowed at 58. They struggled to be able to name a consecutive starting 5 week after week, and although it improved towards the end of the season, it was clear that this was probably the part of the team that needed improving the most, and quickly.

Thankfully, they addressed this and addressed it well. It is highly likely that the 2020 offense line will consist of just one regular starter from the 2019 season in Jesse Davis and could potentially include none of them. The potential line could consist of Austin Jackson, Erik Flowers, Ted Karis, Solomon Kindley, and Robert Hunt.

This is undoubtedly an instant upgrade on the previous crop, it may just take time to work as a cohesive unit and I’m always a little bit nervous when both tackles are rookies. Overall though, we should be excited to see what they have to offer and remember, there may be further fortifications acquired in 2021 if needed.

There’s not really a lot to say about the Miami Dolphins running game, simply because there wasn’t one. Fitzpatrick was the teams leading rusher with just 243 yards. Again, high staff turnover didn’t help, cutting Mark Walton who was looking productive due to off the field behaviour and trading Kenyon Drake to the Arizona Cardinals who then ran for 643 yards and 8 touchdowns in just 8 games!

Kalen Ballage was thrust to the forefront and had a disastrous second season, rushing for only 135 yards in 12 games, spending the rest of the season injured and averaging a cringe-worthy 1.82 yards per carry.

Like the O-Line, things can only get better. Despite calls from the fans to draft an elite calibre Running Back in the draft the management stuck to the game plan and resisted, however they did trade a 5th round pick for the electrically quick Matt Breida from the 49ers. They also added Eagles back Jordan Howard and it’s highly anticipated the two will split the carries.

Giving Howard the higher volume ‘thunder’ role, taking advantage of his physicality and downhill running and Breida taking on the ‘lightening’ change of pace role, both adding instant upgrades to the current talent pool. I expect that the 3rd spot on the roster will come down to who can impress the most out of Ballage, Laird, and Gaskin.

Now the positives and firstly, the quarterback. This is somewhat crowded at present and it’s only going to be a matter of time before Tua gets the nod to start (see here), but until then we’ve got last year’s best quarterback in the AFC East to keep the seat warm.

Yes, Ryan Fitzpatrick was the best quarterback in the division last year, and with that O-Line! Brady aside, he threw for more yards per game 235), had a higher pass completion % (61.95), and threw more touchdowns (20) that Darnold or Allen. With a bit more time in the pocket and the support of an actual running game, there’s no reason to think that whoever is under center, we can expect the production at QB to increase.

We round it off in the weapons room. Firstly with Tight End Mike Gesicki. After a lackluster rookie year, mainly due to Adam Gase failing to take advantage of his strengths and using him primarily as a blocker, Gesicki’s talent shone through in his second season where his skills were better utilised.

He totaled 570 receiving yards and 5 TD’s and averaged an impressive 11.18 yards per reception. These stats made him the most productive TE in the AFC East and playing in the slot in the 2020 Chan Gailey spread offence should see these stats increase. Durham Smythe provides ample cover and will serve as the primary run-blocking TE.

It was great to see Devante Parker finally live up to the expectations and deliver in an offense that was heavily reliant on him, amassing 1202 receiving yards and 9 TD’s, placing him 4th and tied 3rd for receivers respectively.

Again, these figures were the best in the AFC East. Preston Williams was on track for an incredible rookie season as an undrafted free agent until the Miami WR injury curse took hold in week 9, with him being the teams leading receiver at the time.

Injuries have been the biggest issue for the WR core having an impact on Albert Wilson, Allen Hurns, and Jakeem Grant. Expect 2020 to be a year where these and others such as Isaiah Ford and Mack Hollins get the opportunity to fight it out amongst themselves for 2021 roster spots, as all being well we should be able to use one of our top 4 picks on a receiver. 

So in summary, we now have a defence with the confidence and ability to go toe to toe with any offense coaches dare to throw at us, a much improved and upgraded O-Line and running back room along with the divisions leading Quarterback (and the hottest new Quarterback on the block), Wide Receiver and Tight End! Watch out AFC East, we’re coming for you!

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