NFL Football 2017-18 Season
AFC East Division Preview
NFL training camps just opened, which signals the official countdown to the start of the 2017 season. As usual, there is no lack of storylines to keep an eye on as we get closer to Week 1, with the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots at the forefront.
The Pats are among the Super Bowl favorites nearly every year, but this season it appears they are more likely than usual to add another Lombardi Trophy to the collection. There is veteran leadership, young talent and the elite coaching that most teams aspire to. That said, the roadblocks along the way can’t be easily dismissed. The Dolphins appear to be on the precipice of becoming a worthy divisional foil. Let’s take a look at what can deliver the AFC East teams this season. And don’t forget that it all begins September 7th. Join Fanpicks now to enter all of NFL’s Week 1 contests.
The Bills will look to improve on a unit that is lacking stars but ranked first in rushing offense and tied for 10th in scoring last season.
With few appealing options on the free-agent market, the Bills had little choice but to bring back quarterback Tyrod Taylor for a third year under a more cap-friendly contract. It was a prudent move as Buffalo’s new coaching staff under coordinator Rick Dennison will not have to waste valuable months staging a competition, and young prospects Cardale Jones and rookie Nathan Peterman can develop without any pressure. The Bills signed veteran T.J. Yates in case neither Jones nor Peterman can secure the backup job.
Taylor will need a full season out of wide receiver Sammy Watkins, who had two foot surgeries last year and was limited to 28 catches. Second-round pick Zay Jones, who caught an FBS record 399 passes for East Carolina, should be a nice complement to Watkins, along with veteran free agent Philly Brown. Tight end Charles Clay, who led Buffalo with 57 catches for 552 yards, is also begging to be used more. Watkins’ health is everything, though. The No. 4 pick in 2014 is at a crossroads of his career if he can’t stay on the field.
Taking some of the pressure off Taylor is a rushing attack that has led the NFL two years running. LeSean McCoy is still an elite cut-back runner who topped the 1,200-yard mark for the fourth time in his career. He had 50 catches and earned his fifth Pro Bowl nod. Losing top backup Mike Gillislee (5.7 yards per carry) to New England as a restricted free agent has opened a spot for second-year man Jonathan Williams.
When quarterback Ryan Tannehill’s season ended in Week 14, Miami’s hopes for a deep playoff run were dashed as well. After a rough start partially caused by growing pains in coach Adam Gase’s system, Tannehill rebounded to enjoy the best season of his career. Tannehill’s biggest improvement came on the deep ball. He tied for the NFL lead with seven completions of 50-plus yards, and his 7.7 yards-per-completion average was a personal best.
Behind the scenes, Gase pushed heavily for Dolphins management to re-sign wide receiver Kenny Stills. Those words carried heavy weight. Stills caught a career-high nine touchdown passes and averaged 17.3 yards per reception, which ranked third in the league. Jarvis Landry should be the next Dolphins wideout to cash in. Heading into a contract year, Landry remains Tannehill’s most trusted target. He was among the league leaders in third-down grabs while becoming the sixth receiver in Dolphins history with back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons. Miami is counting on DeVante Parker to make more of an impact entering his third NFL season. If he doesn’t, the Dolphins may pass on exercising the fifth-year option in his rookie contract.
At tight end, Julius Thomas should provide Tannehill with a boost in the passing game provided he avoids the injury problems that made him a high-priced free-agent bust in Jacksonville. Anthony Fasano, who played in Miami from 2008-12, returns primarily as a blocker with Dion Sims having left for Chicago.
The running game progressed from a concern in the preseason to a strength by the end of the year. Jay Ajayi, who was left at home for the Week 1 opener because of a bad attitude, changed his tune and quickly surpassed Arian Foster as Miami’s lead back. Ajayi finished with 1,272 yards. The next step for Ajayi is consistency. He finished with 79 or fewer yards in 12 games, including Miami’s first-round playoff loss to Pittsburgh.
New England Patriots
The stirring MVP performance that Tom Brady gave in the Super Bowl win over the Falcons tells you everything you need to know about his lasting ability to play the position even as he begins the 2017 season at 40 years old. He won’t go on forever, but that’s why the team retained backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo despite reportedly receiving repeated overtures from the Browns to trade him away. In so doing, the Patriots will be starting an all-time great at the most important position on the field while having an insurance policy who they believe can carry them to the promised land if Brady gets hurt.
On top of that, the Pats significantly upgraded Brady’s wide receiving corps when they dealt the No. 32 pick in the draft for ex-Saint Brandin Cooks. With the speedy Cooks in the fold, the Pats add the valuable element of a deep threat to an already potent unit. Cooks can also line up in the slot and be effective in traffic, something he will do more in New England than he did in New Orleans.
There is some uncertainty around the tight end position. Rob Gronkowski will be coming off back surgery, and the increasingly injury-prone star is becoming less and less reliable in terms of his availability. The Pats acquired Dwayne Allen to fill the void left by Martellus Bennett, who left for the Packers in free agency, but Allen has his own injury history.
The questions surrounding the running back position are of a different nature. The team swiped restricted free agent Mike Gillislee from the Buffalo Bills, and he could be the lead back in a deep rotation. But Rex Burkhead and Dion Lewis also can be effective in multiple facets, and third-down back James White seems like he will hold down that spot after receiving a contract extension in April. Rather than settle on a consistent rotation, the Patriots could use the backs based on game-plan need and leave opponents guessing as to which one they’ll have to worry about from week to week. That kind of personnel flexibility is something head coach Bill Belichick likes.
New York Jets
The main focus for the Jets in 2017 will be on the quarterback position. The Jets didn’t draft a QB, so they’re rolling with journeyman Josh McCown and youngsters Christian Hackenberg and Bryce Petty. This is a prove-it year for Hackenberg, whom the Jets drafted in Round 2 last year.
The Jets are also trying to incorporate younger wide receivers, now that Brandon Marshall is playing for the Giants and Eric Decker is with the Titans. Can Quincy Enunwa prove himself as a potential No. 1 threat, rather than just a hybrid receiver/tight end? What do the Jets have in Robby Anderson, who flashed last year as an undrafted rookie?
While the Jets drafted two receivers (ArDarius Stewart and Chad Hansen), they also selected tight end Jordan Leggett to bolster a position that was nonexistent under offensive coordinator Chan Gailey. Gailey retired, and the Jets replaced him with John Morton.
The running game was respectable — the Jets ranked 12th in the league — but Matt Forté averaged only 3.7 yards per carry, his lowest number since 2009.