This is still New England’s division to lose, however Tom Brady’s four-game suspension coupled with improvement by the rival teams in the division may make this year’s AFC East a much tighter race than previous seasons.
When Brady returns to the lineup, New England has an offense capable of performing at a top-five level. Brady comes off of a fantastic season in which he threw for nearly 5,000 yards, 36 touchdowns, and only seven interceptions. He’s as fierce a competitor as there is, and will be as motivated as ever upon return from his suspension.
The biggest problem New England faces is that Brady’s supporting cast is filled with injury-prone players that can’t be counted on to stay healthy. Dion Lewis, Julian Edelman, and Danny Amendola all missed time with various injuries a year ago, and even superstar tight end Rob Gronkowski has had more than his share of injury problems in the past.
The weakness within their offense was their offensive line, and the team tried to address it by trading one of their best pass rushers, Chandler Jones, to Arizona in exchange for guard Jonathan Cooper. Cooper has already been injured in training camp. The team added Chris Long to replace Jones, but their defense is average at best.
The Patriots should turn in another solid, division-winning season, but the health of the skill position players and effectiveness of the offensive line will determine whether or not they can go on another deep playoff run.
Projected Finish: 11-5, 1st Place
The Dolphins have been one of the most poorly run organizations over the last five years, but there’s reason for hope after the franchise landed one of the top head coaching candidates this year in former Bears and Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase.
Gase, who is revered for his work with quarterbacks, now has an opportunity to help Ryan Tannehill take the next step in his development. Tannehill hasn’t been a bad quarterback by any means during his career, but he hasn’t been able to find a way to take his game to another level.
This is the make-or-break year for Tannehill. The team has high expectations for his playmakers at the wide receiver position with Jarvis Landry (coming off of a 110-catch season) and emerging DeVante Parker. The running back situation is a little murky, with Jay Ajayi and Arian Foster vying to replace Lamar Miller.
Defensively, the Dolphins brought in a handful of veterans to upgrade the unit. Mario Williams was their prized acquisition in free agency, and hopes to team with Cameron Wake and Ndamukong Suh to form a dominate defensive line.
Often-injured Kiko Alonso and highly-paid Byron Maxwell were picked up in a trade with the Eagles, and both are expected to step in and start for this team.
Miami has enough upside on the offensive side of the ball to be a fairly competitive team, especially if Gase is able to work his magic on Tannehill. They aren’t good enough to seriously challenge the Patriots for the division title, but they could find themselves with a winning record and a second place finish.
Projected Finish: 9-7, 2nd Place
New York Jets
The New York Jets were one of the surprise teams of 2015, finishing with a 10-6 record, although falling just short of a playoff appearance in head coach Todd Bowles’ first season.
Ryan Fitzpatrick returns as the starting quarterback following a long standoff with management over the offseason, but his presence is necessary for the team to compete this season. Fitzpatrick is a great for this team, and established great chemistry with top weapons Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker.
The Jets did undergo a couple of key changes on the offensive side of the ball, losing offensive tackle D’Brickashaw Ferguson to retirement, and running back Chris Ivory to free agency. Veteran Matt Forte was signed in free agency to upgrade the backfield, and New York hopes he’ll provide Fitzpatrick with another stable target out of the backfield.
Defensively, the Jets still have great strength up front with Sheldon Richardson and Muhammed Wilkerson, but the secondary was a disappointment, with Darrelle Revis showing signs of decline and fellow starter Antonio Cromartie not retained.
The Jets were a team that surprised, but also probably overachieved a year ago. Bringing back Fitzpatrick saves them from the disaster that would have been Geno Smith, and makes them a competitive bunch, but this is a team that doesn’t have a lot of ascending young talent, and will most likely take a step back from their 10-win season of a year ago.
Projected Finish: 7-9, 3rd Place
Rex Ryan’s act in the NFL has very nearly run its course.
Ryan took a defense that was ranked in the top 5 in 2014, removed defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz and changed his scheme, and Buffalo regressed to the 19th ranked defense. Now, Mario Williams, Nigel Bradham, Leodis McKelvin, and Ron Brooks all left via free agency, leaving the unit with a great gap in talent.
Tyrod Taylor overachieved as the team’s starting quarterback last season. He had some nice moments, but was ultimately inconsistent and erratic. Sammy Watkins has the potential to be a top-10 wide receiver in this league, but Taylor isn’t a guy that
LeSean McCoy is on the downside of his career, dealing with various nagging injuries, and doesn’t have nearly the same explosiveness that he had in the prime of his career. The team tried to improve their depth behind McCoy by signing another injury-prone, aging running back in Reggie Bush.
The Bills are doomed to be a middling, mediocre franchise once again. Expect Tyrod Taylor to regress, and Rex Ryan to be among the NFL coaches shown the door before the season ends.
Projected Finish: 6-10, 4th Place