By Lucas Kochevar
It's time for the LK League Notes summer series where I breakdown each division in the NFL leading up to the preseason in August! There isn't a ton of news to talk about at this point in the football calendar. The first division preview takes up to the Northeast and a beach down south. The AFC East is one of the more intriguing divisions in football with four teams that have playoff potential. The Bills look to take advantage of their Super Bowl window. The Dolphins look to take the next step with Tua Tagovailoa. The Patriots look to get back to their championship ways. Lastly, the New York Jets look to compete with their new quarterback, the legendary Aaron Rodgers.
Buffalo Bills (12-4 Last Season)
The Buffalo Bills suffered a tumultuous season last year and bowed out at home in the divisional round. To say they failed to meet expectations is putting it lightly. In many ways, this feels like a make or break year for Josh Allen and co. The Bills expectations are AFC championship or bust and they can't afford to waste the primes of Allen and Stefon Diggs. Allen's contract jumps up $30 million next season and it feels like head coach Sean McDermott is on a warm seat. It's not the hot seat quite yet, but the expectations are still there. The Bills schedule has it's highs and lows with ten teams that were in the playoffs last season, nine if you exclude the Buccaneers. Offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey is entering his second season as the play caller. Their defense will have a different, but very familiar face calling the plays with McDermott taking over the play-calling duties from Leslie Frazier.
The Bills passing attack was dangerous last season, however, it was missing an element of consistency that emerging wideout Gabe Davis wasn't able to deliver. Their utilization of their two tight ends, Dawson Knox and Dalton Kincaid, could be the missing element to bring more throws to the middle of the field. Then there's the run game, which has never been a threat since Josh Allen has been the quarterback. They added Damien Harris and Latavius Murray, which could help, but they need to scheme the run game a lot better than what it has been. On top of the lackluster running scheme, their offensive line needs to elevate their play. In a way, I think their inability to run the ball correlates with their struggle to establish physicality along the O-Line. Their defense lost a couple players but the steady improvement of their younger players could help them. Matt Milano, Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde should provide steady leadership. Von Miller will also be a welcomed player back when he recovers from his torn ACL. As a unit, they also need to be more consistent, especially in the secondary.
All-in-all, I think the Bills are a talented team. This year will be a determining factor whether or not they've peaked. They are built to win a ton of regular season games, but the true glory and success comes in the playoffs. When picking games on their schedule, I can see them winning the division at 11-6. The Jets and Dolphins will provide difficult challenges in the division, but the connection of Allen and Diggs should help them win a majority of those games. It'll be intriguing to see this team in a critical year.
New York Jets (7-10 Last Season)
New York Jets fans have suffered for years and years, but this might be the time their luck changes. After suffering through eras of Sam Darnold, Christian Hackenberg and Zach Wilson, they finally welcome in multi-time MVP winner Aaron Rodgers. Similar to the Bills, the expectations are sky high. The team showed so much promise last season despite having essentially a sack of potatoes at quarterback last season. They swept the Rookie of the Year awards with Sauce Gardner and Garrett Wilson along with other young guys stepping up. Zach Wilson wasn't among those guys and is likely done in New York. The Jets have a grueling schedule to start the year, but fortunately they have an easier finish to the year. Now that head coach Robert Saleh has the quarterback, he won't have any excuses. This could be problematic for him if the Jets fail to make the playoffs.
Looking at their offense, it features a lot of different faces than they had last season. Obviously Rodgers is the big change, but names like Randall Cobb, Allen Lazard and Mecole Hardman Jr. are new to the receiver room. A big addition will be Breece Hall back from his ACL injury. Hall was on a tear in seven games before getting hurt and will definitely help balance out the attack with Rodgers. Garrett Wilson should also help out Rodgers in getting acclimated to the Jets. He went for over 1,000 yards in his rookie year and will benefit from having a much better quarterback. The biggest concern I have is the offensive line as it feels unproven and right tackle Mekhi Becton has had his struggles with staying healthy. Another X-factor will be offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett. Hackett failed to make as a head coach in Denver, but he returns to his previous role as an OC, but for the Jets instead of Packers. Hackett's familiarity with Rodgers should help the Jets make the transition to a successful offense.
With all of this optimism on offense, the real unit to be excited about is the defense. You can read all about them in my top five defense rankings here. Quinnen Williams is one of the big headliners and should get a massive contract extension soon. The Jets seem set up to win now and that's what I think they'll manage to do now that they have Rodgers. It could be bumpy at first with any big change, but the franchise will be rejoicing once they've made the playoffs for the first time in over a decade. I have the Jets going 11-6 with them making the playoffs as a Wild Card team. The division will be tougher than last year, but I think they'll win a lot more 50/50 games out of the division.
Miami Dolphins (9-8 Last Season)
The Dolphins, somehow, only lost by three points to the Buffalo Bills in last seasons playoffs. The score looks a lot more generous than what actually happened in the game, but they still were competitive. Tua Tagovailoa was injured for multiple weeks with three separate concussion related injuries so it does feel like that is lingering over the team, but when he played they won. Under first-year head coach Mike McDaniel, the Dolphins made great strides as a winning football team. This year they'll look to improve upon that and potentially win the division. With a few big time acquisitions, they can make the jump, however, Tagovailoa's heath will be the biggest key for Miami.
The Dolphins offense was full of explosion last season with Tyreek Hill and Jayeln Waddle joining the team. They'll both return next season along with Cedrick Wilson Jr. in the slot. Honestly, I thought the Dolphins were working with more than just these two guys. They'll still be very effective because Hill and Waddle are special talents with out of this world speed. This offense is missing an element and they could find that in a running back that just hit the market, Dalvin Cook. Cook was released by the Vikings. It wouldn't shock me if Cook went to Miami given the fact they Dolphins could upgrade that position and Cook is from Florida. Their offensive line also has to be better in defending their quarterback. Right tackle Austin Jackson and left guard Liam Eichenberg are draft picks that need to produce sooner than later. The defense will be the unit to watch with Vic Fangio taking over the reigns as defensive coordinator. They traded for Jalen Ramsey. They can also get the most out of Bradley Chubb after trading for him midway through last season.
The Dolphins will go as Tagovailoa goes. The Dolphins will run up against a tough division and a tough schedule and I think they'll barely miss out on the playoffs at 8-9. Outside of Hill and Waddle, I'm just not entirely sold on them to produce consistent points week in and week out. I think they'll have an explosion or two, but if either of those top two receivers get hurt, then I think they'll be in trouble. Although Tagovailoa has improved drastically as a distributor, he'll have to learn how to handle pass rushers and give up on a play. Whereas the Bills and Jets have pressure as a team, I think Tua is holding all the pressure in Miami during his contract year.
New England Patriots (Last Season 8-9)
The Patriots suffered one of their most dysfunctional seasons during the Bill Belichick era, yet they were still a game out of the playoffs. Between the QB controversy and play-calling from Matt Patricia, the Patriots offense was a mess. The biggest addition the Patriots are getting is familiar face Bill O'Brien. The former Texans head coach has been with Alabama as the OC for the past couple seasons and now returns to New England to try and help Mac Jones reach his potential. Patricia leaving doesn't solve all the problems, however. Despite ending the year as the starter, Jones still played down from where he was as a rookie. The once precision passer from Alabama looked like a shell of himself.
The biggest help that Jones has on offense is running back Rhamondre Stevenson. The dual threat back burst onto the scene and was the lone bright spot for the offense and he should improve with more experience. The receiving room doesn't look fantastic once again, but they added Juju Smith-Schuster. Love him or hate him, he provides a security blanket to the offense with DeVante Parker and Hunter Henry. Another advantage this team has is the continuity across the offensive line. Center David Andrews is just one of the veterans to help out protect Jones. Similar to the Dolphins, I think the Patriots defense is the exciting part of the team. Matthew Judon had a fantastic season and looks to build upon that. The best part of the Patriots defense is their secondary. Jonathan Jones, Marcus Jones and Kyle Dugger are all exciting playmakers that could make any quarterbacks life harder.
If you can't tell by now, this AFC East is full of four really good teams that can compete and win the division. Although, I do think the Patriots sit at the bottom of this list. Between the tough division and rest of their schedule, I see the Patriots finishing at 7-10. The team is solid, but the inconsistency of Jones concerns me. I can see them losing a number of 50/50 games. Like the Dolphins, the Patriots success relies on the play of Jones. Despite having a good defense and the greatest coach of all-time, the team will need Jones to step up to the plate. The third season for a quarterback is a sink or swim test and if Jones can stay afloat, I think the Patriots faithful can be happy.
Next Week: The NFC East
Sources: Image via Steven Senne, AP Photo