As legendary professional wrestler Ric Flair often said: “To be the man, you gotta beat the man.” For the past seven consecutive seasons, the Patriots have been “the man” to beat in the AFC East, and even with Tom Brady’s four-game suspension to start the season, they’re still the heavy favorites to win the division in 2016.
In the Patriots first four games, backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo and the Patrioits offense will face the stacked Cardinals secondary, Ndamukong Suh, JJ Watt, and a Rex Ryan defense. Still, it’s not unrealistic to think they could pull out ugly wins over the Dolphins (who’ll still be adjusting to life under Adam Gase) and Buffalo (especially since this game will be in Foxborough). After that? Six of their last eight games are against teams that didn’t make the playoffs last year, and the other two are against Seattle (who they’ll also play at Foxborough) and Denver (who will be dramatically different than the Broncos team they played last year).
In typical Patriots fashion, the offense looks largely the same; after all, if you have #12 under center, there isn’t really a need for too much else. The only real changes made around Tom Brady are the acquisition of offensive lineman Jonathan Cooper (who New England received as part of the trade that sent defensive end Chandler Jones to Arizona) and the signing of tight end Martellus Bennett (who gives the Patriots their best #2 tight end since Aaron Hernandez). But again in typical Patriots fashion, they added several interesting and under-the-radar pieces to their defense, who could end up performing brilliantly in their system. Defensive tackle Terrance Knighton can anchor the middle of the defense in the way that Vince Wilfork used to. Jabaal Sheard is a pass rushing specialist who was never really developed in Cleveland, but has all the tools that an organization that New England could maximize. Same for linebacker Shea McClellin, who the Bears tried to play at multiple positions with little success. Point being, outside of Brady’s suspension for the first quarter of the season, the team isn’t much different than the squad that went 12-4 last season and lost in the AFC Championship game.
With all the bravado Rex Ryan that brought to Buffalo last season, only one year later, there’s already chatter about him coaching for his job in 2016. Given that, things couldn’t have gone much worse for him and the Buffalo Bills this offseason. Defensive end Shaq Lawson, their first round pick out of Clemson in 2016, had offseason surgery on his shoulder and could miss half of this year. Running back Jonathan Williams, the team’s 5th round pick in this year’s draft, was arrested for a DWI. LeSean McCoy was mired in legal issues during the offseason, in regards to a brawl that took place at a nightclub. His backup, Karlos Williams, came into camp badly out of shape; he admitted putting on a ton of “sympathy weight” alongside his pregnant wife. Stud wide receiver Sammy Watkins is still recovering from offseason surgery on his foot. Cornerback Stephon Gilmore held out through OTA’s, hoping to get a new deal.
At times last season, the New York Jets looked to have what it takes to knock the Patriots off the throne: an offense that could run the football and control the clock, a passing attack that could move the chains, and a defense loaded with talent along the front line and in the secondary. Yet one season later, they find themselves mired in question marks.
Not much good came out of Ryan Fitzpatrick‘s prolonged contract negotiations with the Jets. It’s not like he missed time learning a new system there; this will be Fitzpatrick and offensive coordinator Chan Gailey‘s third year together (once before in Buffalo, and last year with the Jets). But the conditioning, timing, and reps he’s missed away from the team would hurt any quarterback, including one as flawed as Fitzpatrick. Newly signed running back Matt Forte is definitely an upgrade from Chris Ivory, but he turns 31 years old in December, and it’s fair to wonder how much he really has left in the tank. On defense, they lost Damon “Snacks” Harrison to free agency and chose not to re-sign cornerback Antonio Cromartie; it’ll be hard to make up for the double-teams that Harrison commanded, and the Jets really don’t have anyone they can trust at cornerback opposite Darrells Revis.
Finally, the Miami Dolphins made a splash acquisition for the second straight offseason. Last year, it was signing defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh to an enormously lucrative free agent deal. This year, it was moving rapidly to secure the hottest head coaching candidate on the market: former Denver Broncos and Chicago Bears offensive coordinator Adam Gase. Gase’s primary responsibility will be to resurrect the once-promising career of quarterback Ryan Tannehill. Thankfully, both Gase and Tannehill will have plenty to work with on offense. Wide receiver Jarvis Landry is one of the most productive slot receivers in the NFL, and he’ll be flanked by last year’s first round pick DeVante Parker (who could be in line for a major breakout season). The team let Lamar Miller leave via free agency, and while the initial thought was that they would let running back — the team’s fifth round draft pick last year — take over the starting job, they recently signed Arian Foster as insurance. If Foster has anything left in the tank, he could be a sneaky-good acquisition in Gase’s offense. Either running back — along with Tannehill — will have the luxury of playing behind an offensive line that just added Laremy Tunsil from Ole Miss, who the Dolphins took in the first round of the draft.
Miami’s biggest questions, though, are on defense. Outside of Suh and the aging Cameron Wake, there’s not a lot to get excited about. The team added linebacker Kiko Alonso and cornerback Byron Maxwell in a trade with Philadelphia, but there are legitimate questions as to how much better those guys really make this defense. Same with free agent acquisition Mario Williams, who was an under-producing malcontent in Buffalo last year (and has a penchant for letting nagging injuries hinder his production). Besides Suh, strong safety Reshad Jones, and maybe Wake, there’s just not a lot to look forward to with this group, and it could be the biggest reason why the Dolphins may struggle in 2016.