Every team, no matter how successful (or otherwise!) has areas of strength. The most produtive are clearly better endowed on the positive side, but even a struggling franchise has some bright light to cling on to. With that in mind, what would be one key plus point for each team in the AFC East heading into the 2016 season?
New England Patriots
As the NFL dynasty of the 21st century, the Patriots have more strengths than most, including one of the best quarterbacks to ever play the game. But with Brady suspended for four games, lets look beyond the obvious. The signing of tight end Martellus Bennett from the Bears allows the 2016 Patriots to return to their vaunted and much feared two tight end set. In 2010 they drafted Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, who between them terrorised defenses by creating mismatches all over the field. Since Hernandez’s arrest and incarceration in 2013, the Patriots have not managed to replicate this combination, until now. Gronkowski remains as one of the most unstoppable offensive weapons in the league and despite frequent two-on-one match ups, is almost impossible to defend. Add in Bennett, who is an energetic pass catcher with a rare combination of size and athleticism and it is clear that the Patriots have impressive weapons in the passing game. Bennett also contributes to the run game; his 1,066 yards after catch since 2013 rank behind only Gronkowski’s 1,208 yards after catch among tight ends. Their combination of size and strength make them difficult to defend if only one is on the field, but with both it could be nearly impossible. Just the type of offense that Jimmy Garropolo will need as he tries to fill some pretty large QB shoes in weeks one to four.
New York Jets
Despite losing nose tackle Damon Harrison, the Jets defensive line continues to be the biggest jewel in their crown heading into 2016. With Sheldon Richardson only facing a one game ban, there shouldn’t be much impact on the group who led the Jets to the second overall ranking in rush defense last year. Richardson, alongside Mo Wilkerson, who led the team in sacks last year, will go back into the trenches with second year Leonard Williams. Williams, the Jets’ first round pick last year, showed, in his rookie year, plenty of the promise which led him to be billed ‘best in the draft’ in 2015. With further time to embed and acclimatise to the NFL, he is expected to have a break out year in 2016. To replace Harrison, who signed with the Giants, the Jets added veteran Steve McLendon. He’s not going to rack up big statistics, but he’s a little more versatile and is quicker than Harrison. This should allow for some more creative deployment of everybody on the line. They also picked up Jarvis Jenkins, a former Redskin and Bear, whose performance hasn’t yet been able to match up to his high billing and potential. With the right coaching, which the Jets have in defensive specialist Todd Bowles at head coach and line coach Pepper Johnson, New York is the perfect place for Jenkins to flourish and show his starting calibre talent. To add further depth, the Jets also picked up several undrafted free agents in this positional group, with the hope of finding a diamond in the rough who can bolster the rotation. All things considered, the Jets defensive line look set to ensure that their defense remains in the top 5 in 2016.
The Dolphins are still struggling to find a way back to the greatness that the franchise came to expect. With a lot of shakes ups this off season, in both player and coaching personnel, their key strength is ‘good on paper’, but yet to be fully tested. However, no one can argue that a defensive line that includes Pro Bowlers Ndamukong Suh, Mario Williams and Cameron Wake isn’t one of the best fronts in the league, despite the loss of Olivier Vernon in free agency. Suh, whose 2015 6-year, $114 million contract made him the highest ever paid non quarterback at the time, didn’t have a great first season in Miami but is still ranked highly and has an incredibly high upside. Wake, a four time pro-bowler, is coming back from an achilles injury but again on paper is an elite talent. Long time veteran Williams has already impressed new head coach Adam Gase, as well as team mates, during OTAs. The Dolphins also have depth on the line, adding two other starting caliber players in Andre Branch and Jason Jones. In addition they have young talent; Jordan Phillips, their 2015 second round draft pick, looks to be a possible future star. This is certainly a ‘time will tell’ situation as similar predictions were made about the Dolphins line last season and things didn’t go so well. They allowed 126.2 rushing yards on 502 attempts and ranked 28th in the NFL in rushing yards allowed per game and 26th in total sacks. However, with their starting talent and roster depth, the Dolphins start 2016 with one of the most impressive defensive lines in the league.
The Bills led the NFL in rushing yards in 2015 with 2,432 overall and an average of over 157 per game. With their offensive line, led by a rejuvinated Richie Incognito, remaining intact for the first time in 20 years coming into a new season and the return of their number one running back LeSean McCoy, it seems that the run game could be once again the key strength for this franchise. McCoy ranked sixth in the league for rushing in 2015 and despite some dubious off field behaviour, will be expected to lead the charge once again. However, the Bills also have depth in the backfield. Karlos Williams turned up to OTAs a little out of shape (apparently due to his fiancee’s pregnancy!), but is another key piece to the Bills running back group. He particularly picked up the slack when McCoy was injured in week ten last year. Mike Gillisee, who was moved up from the practise squad last season due to injuries, had an immediate impact; averaging over 10 yards per carry over a four game stretch and ranking 28th of all NFL running backs, despite only starting one game (appearing in five total). The Bills have all these players back for 2016 as well as a claim on Dri Archer – one of the fastest backs ever to enter the league. Archer failed to report to OTAs and is currently on the reserve/did not report list so its still a possibility that he is added to the impressive stable of backs in Buffalo. And when you factor in the fact QB Tyrod Taylor loves to run the ball, the Bills running game is looking very healthy for 2016.
Next time, we take a look at the biggest area of weakness for each team.
Photo credit: Bleacher Report