As free agency and the draft approach, every team has some level of excitement. Some are looking to contend in 2021, while others only want to move in the right direction. The NFL is unique in that every team has a chance to win the Super Bowl each season. At the same time, only one team can lift the Lombardi next February. The other 31 will fall short, and there are reasons why each team will not have what it takes.
Let’s start with the AFC East.
Be sure to check out all of our individual team offseason previews.
For the Bills, the operative word is complacency. In 2021, they had an elite defense by just about every metric. They were first in points allowed, yards allowed, first downs allowed, passing yards allowed, passing touchdowns allowed, and yards per pass allowed. They allowed just 4.6 yards per play on the season. Not only was that best in the NFL, but it also ranked third in the last 10 seasons. The only teams since 2012 to allow fewer yards per play were the 2013 Seattle Seahawks (4.4) and the 2015 Denver Broncos (4.4). Both of those teams won the Super Bowl.
This would appear to be a great thing. However, their defensive metrics are inflated based on one of the worst runs of quarterbacks a team has ever played. Outside of Patrick Mahomes (twice) and Tom Brady, the Bills faced a slew of rookies or ineffective quarterbacks. Aside from Brady and Mahomes, the Bills had only four games against quarterbacks with a season passer rating above 90.8, the league average. Mac Jones accounts for three of those games, and in the second regular-season matchup, he attempted just three passes. In the other game, the Indianapolis Colts walked into Highmark Stadium and led by as many as 31.
The Bills might rest on their laurels and pretend they will replicate their success in 2022. They could point to the eight games without Tre’Davious White. They allowed 169 or fewer passing yards in five of eight games. However, this would be a gross misstep heading into 2022. As of now, the Bills will face five top-10 quarterbacks (Mahomes, Joe Burrow, Lamar Jackson, Aaron Rodgers, Matthew Stafford) rather than just two. Kirk Cousins, Ryan Tannehill, and Baker Mayfield also are on the docket.
New England Patriots
While the Buffalo may sit tight and hurt their chances, the Patriots might go too far in the other direction. New England was second in many of the same defensive stats that the Bills led, despite playing a harder schedule (such as playing Josh Allen three times). The Patriots would likely best be served to retain J.C. Jackson and take another shot at the division in 2022, but it is currently unlikely that Jackson returns. Beyond him, the Patriots’ secondary is barren. They play well in the system, but losing a player of Jackson’s caliber would be back-breaking.
Bill Belichick’s team might look to replace Jackson in the draft, but rookie cornerbacks are wildly inconsistent and the defense could take a dip as a result. Simultaneously, the offense will slip toward average. 22.5 percent of the Patriots’ scoring came in two explosions against the New York Jets and Jacksonville Jaguars. If those 50-burgers became just 40-burgers, they would have finished 12th in scoring rather than sixth. The offense should be workable, but too much change (such as losing Trent Brown) could spell disaster.
The best scenario for the Patriots is to keep their 2021 cast and hope the Bills suffer some defensive regression. However, Belichick’s arrogance will inhibit the Patriots from being Super Bowl contenders as both Brown and Jackson will likely leave. Without these two studs, New England will have a reduced margin of error and could fall victim to tough matchups in the AFC North and the pair of games against Buffalo.
The Dolphins’ 9-8 record was an enigma. On one hand, it was partially deflated by an injury to Tua Tagovailoa. On the other hand, it was inflated by a seven-game winning streak. During that, Miami played five teams that ended with top-six picks, a battered Baltimore Ravens team on a short turnaround, and Ian Book. Heading into 2022, the Dolphins are likely between a 7-10 team and a 10-7 team, but they have a critical flaw that will keep them out of serious contention.
For the most part, there are three kinds of offensive lines in the NFL. Elite offensive lines help an offense achieve its goals. Solid offensive lines exist in a neutral state neither helping nor hurting the offense. Bad offensive lines undermine the offensive game plan and force the quarterback and skill players into insurmountable positions. The Dolphins’ offensive line is such a catastrophe that they fall even below the “bad” category. They are an offensive line full of weak links. In 2021, PFF graded the Dolphins as the worst pass-blocking unit and third-worst run-blocking unit.
Eight offensive linemen played 100 snaps for the Dolphins in 2021. Robert Hunt was the only player to post above a 60.0 grade in both run-blocking and pass-blocking. Four of the eight posted marks below 60.0 in both facets. In total, four of the five players that Miami had on the field at a given time would not start for most of the league. Even Hunt would be a swing guard at best for many teams. This abysmal offensive line will stymie any development for Tagovailoa and any Super Bowl aspirations.
New York Jets
The Jets have a unique situation. They are a team with a horrific secondary (30th in PFF coverage grade in 2021), but they have zero interest in investing draft capital or cap space into the secondary to improve it. While the Bills can afford to be complacent on defense, the Jets cannot. It seems that New York will spend their two top-10 picks on players in the trenches. The Jets could use fortifications there, but both of those units are solid. Even with a limited Mekhi Becton, they were 21st in pass blocking and 13th in run blocking. The Jets had a workable pass rush, and they will be mixing Carl Lawson back into the equation in 2022.
The Super Bowl window is not currently open. Zach Wilson had just one game with a PFF passing grade above 70.0. After Week 4, Wilson just had three big-time throws. The likes of Justin Fields and Trevor Lawrence had their fair share of problems in 2021, but at least they made some spectacular plays. Wilson ranked 37th out of 42 quarterbacks with 100 dropbacks in big-time throw percentage after the fourth week. He did maintain a relatively low turnover-worthy play percentage, however.
Overall, the Jets have many flaws. They are multiple offseasons and one quarterback development away from contention. Even if Wilson pops in Year 2, the defense will not be fixed overnight. They ranked last in points allowed, yards allowed, first downs allowed, rushing touchdowns allowed, and second-to-last in takeaways. They were more likely to allow 45 points than to hold an opponent under 20. Similarly, they had as many games allowing over 500 yards as allowing under 300.
Are you an optimist? All four of these teams have a chance to win the Lombardi.