New England Patriots (Projected Record: 12-4)
Key Additions: Cyrus Jones (2nd-Round Pick, 60th Overall), Martellus Bennett (Bears), Shea McClellin (Bears), Chris Long (Rams), Jonathan Cooper (Trade with Cardinals), Barkevious Mingo (Trade with Browns), Eric Rowe (Trade with Eagles), Bishop Sankey (Titans)
Key Losses: Brandon LaFell (Bengals), Chandler Jones (Trade with Cardinals), Akiem Hicks (Bears), Jerod Mayo (Retirement)
Garoppolo is talented, and has the opportunity to showcase his abilities in the first four games against Arizona, Houston, Miami, and Buffalo. I predict, at worst, the Pats will lose their season opener to the Cardinals, a strong pick to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl, and to the Buffalo Bills in Week 4. Don’t worry, New England fans. Even if Jimmy Garoppolo plays well while Tom Brady serves his four-game suspension, he’ll be riding the bench the rest of the season. This is still Brady’s Bunch and he will take the Pats to the playoffs once again.
The front office gave Brady some more weapons to work with this season, adding Nate Washington, and trading for Martellus Bennett. Yes, they have Rob Gronkowksi, but do you recall the duo of Gronk and Aaron Hernandez? They dominated before Hernandez decided to commit murder. Anyway, these new guys will pair well with Brady’s security blanket named Julian Edelman and the sure-handed Danny Amendola.
I’m a big fan of the Dion Lewis, LeGarrette Blount, James White, and Brandon Bolden. Lewis will certainly garner the most snaps, but the other guys fit well in goal line and third down passing situations. They’ll have the opportunity to take the pressure off the pass game behind a line that boasts significant depth. Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer enter their sixth and eight season with the Patriots, respectively. Solder, arguably the second-most important player on the roster, will get to protect Brady’s blindside, and Vollmer slots in at right tackle. Josh Kline is king of the depth chart at left guard for now, but Shaq Mason and Tre Jackson are capable of stepping in should Kline underperform or experience injury. Jonathan Cooper, who was traded from the Cardinals for Chandler Jones, will look to rejuvenate his career at the right guard spot. Bryan Stork gets to hand the ball to Brady under center. Bottom line: Bill Belichick’s offense is scary good, and will carry them to the playoffs.
Don’t sleep on the defense. Despite the departures of Akiem Hicks (Bears) and Chandler Jones (Cardinals), the Patriots pass rush should still put plenty of pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Rob Ninkovich, Jabaal Sheard, Chris Long, and Jonathan Freeny form an edge rushing rotation with a great mixture of experience and youth. Malcom Brown is set to stuff the run up the middle.
The linebacking corps is led by the formidable duo of Jamie Collins and Dont’a Hightower. Both guys are dominant in the run game and in blitz packages. Shea McClellin has yet to prove he can remain consistent for an entire season, but the quality of players around him should help improve his play.
The top four players in the secondary form arguably one of the best groups in the NFL. Malcolm Butler, Logan Ryan, Devin McCourty, and Patrick Chung are excellent in man schemes, and will continue to play off each other’s strengths. The slot corner position is up for grabs, but early training camp performance indicates second round selection Cyrus Jones can only lose the job at this point.
As long as the Patriots don’t stub their toe to start the season with an 0-4 record, I have no doubts they’ll make it deep into the playoffs once again. If Garoppolo can carry New England to a 3-1 or 4-0 record to start, it’s not out of the question for the Pats to secure home field advantage throughout the postseason.
New York Jets (Projected Record: 8-8)
Key Additions: Darron Lee (1st-Round Pick, 20th Overall), Christian Hackenberg (2nd-Round Pick, 51st Overall), Jordan Jenkins (3rd-Round Pick, 83rd Overall), Matt Forte (Bears), Ryan Clady (Trade with Broncos), Bruce Carter (Buccaneers)
Key Losses: Damario Davis (Browns), Damon Harrison (Giants), Chris Ivory (Jaguars), Khiry Robinson (Released)
Brandon Marshall and the Jets are excited to have Ryan Fitzpatrick back this season after he set the franchise record in passing touchdowns. A contract impasse with Fitz that leaked deep into summer forced the Jets to draft a quarterback in former Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg. After the Geno Smith Project failed, Bryce Petty also did not develop as quickly as the Jets had hoped. We’ll see what happens next offseason, but it appears New York will have another quarterback controversy down the road.
But in 2016 the Jets should be real contenders. I know I have them at 8-8, but they surprised a lot of fans last season and can do so again. The tandem of Matt Forte and Bilal Powell is arguably the best in the NFL at catching passes out of the backfield. Brandon Marshall, who dropped 19 pounds in the offseason, and Eric Decker are two competitive veterans looking for a Super Bowl title. They also help mitigate the weaknesses of the other pass catchers like Devin Smith (who I think has a lot of potential, but no experience), Kenbrell Thompkins, and tight ends Kellen Davis and Jace Amaro.
The front office shored up the left tackle position by trading for Ryan Clady. The four time Pro Bowler sat out the entire 2015 season with a torn ACL. He could turn out to be an incredible value for the Jets. Nick Mangold started 156 regular season games in ten years with the Jets, and lines up at center in his 11th season as a pro. James Carpenter and Brian Winters are atop the depth chart at the guard positions, with Breno Giacomini at right tackle. The right side isn’t very strong, so the Jets need competition from Ben Ijalana and others to push the starters.
Despite the loss of Damon Harrison, the Jets pass rush is still stacked with talent. Leonard Williams, Sheldon Richardson, and Muhammad Wilkerson are three of the best in the game. Steve McLendon is not elite, but he’s not the worst nose tackle in the league. Yes, the Jets will be without Sheldon Richardson for one game as a result of that bizarre incident in July of 2015 in which Richardson was caught driving 140 mph with a 12-year old, a loaded handgun, and the scent of marijuana in the vehicle.
Demario Davis was not a huge loss for the Jets, but they still added Bruce Carter and first round selection Darron Lee to the inside linebacker position. Both guys will mix in the rotation with David Harris and Erin Henderson. Jordan Jenkins, Lorenzo Mauldin, and Mike Catapano are slated to man the outside linebacker spots. In the secondary, Revis Island is still a place few quarterbacks are willing to visit. But behind the seven-time Pro Bowler, there isn’t much depth among the cornerbacks. Buster Skrine is the next best corner on the roster, but he allowed 17 touchdowns in two seasons with the Browns. Dee Millner is almost irrelevant, but he and Marcus Williams are in competition for the third and fourth spots. The safety play should be pretty solid for the Jets as Calvin Pryor enters his third season out of Louisville, and Marcus Gilchrist enters his second season with the Jets after starting all 16 games in 2015.
The lack of cornerback depth is really the only true weakness on the roster, but these holes can’t plugged overnight with guys who simply are not very good. They have non-divisional games against Andy Dalton, Alex Smith, Ben Roethlisberger, Russell Wilson, Carson Palmer, and Andrew Luck. When you factor in two games against Tom Brady, that’s half of the season against solid, if not elite, quarterbacks. If they can manage the clock with an effective run game and create a few turnovers, the Jets can certainly reach double-digit wins. In my mind though, they are not ready to dethrone the Patriots. The Jets and Bills will be amongst the teams vying for an AFC Wild Card spot.
Buffalo Bills (Projected Record: 9-7)
Key Additions: Shaw Lawson (1st-Round Pick, 19th Overall), Reggie Ragland (2nd-Round Pick, 41st Overall), Adolphus Washington (3rd-Round Pick, 80th Overall), Kroy Biermann (Free Agent), Reggie Bush (49ers)
Key Losses: Mario Williams (Dolphins), Nigel Bradham (Eagles), Marcell Dareus (4-Game Suspension), Karlos Williams (Free Agent), Manny Lawson (Released)
The front office in Buffalo has created a window of opportunity to solidify the Bills’ place amongst the top teams in the AFC. Tyron Taylor and the Bills agreed to a five-year, $92M extension last week. Here’s the caveat: if Taylor doesn’t play up to expectations in 2016, the team can release him from the contract, and only lose $3M in the process. For a quarterback that has only started 14 games in his NFL career, it’s a low-risk, high-reward contract in its simplest form. That’s a unique situation that offers incredible financial flexibility over the next several seasons.
Should Taylor play well, he’ll likely remain the leader of an offense that touts playmakers LeSean McCoy, Sammy Watkins, Robert Woods, and Charles Clay. They also brought in Reggie Bush to fill in for Karlos Williams while he serves a four-game suspension. The Bills’ offensive line has quality depth across the board. Starting left tackle Cordy Glenn handles the blindside, with Richie Incognito at left guard, and Eric Wood under center. Ryan Groy is a very capable backup guard should Incognito be sidelined with injury. Right guard John Miller started 12 games for Buffalo last season, and should remain there for the foreseeable future. Already with his third team in four seasons, Jordan Mills is set to start at right tackle. Lurking behind him is Seantreal Henderson, the third-year pro out of University of Miami. Despite starting 16 games in 2014, and 10 games in 2015, Henderson lost the faith of the Bills and will be confined to backup duty unless he can overtake Mills in camp.
Unfortunately for Buffalo, the team will be without Marcell Dareus for the first four games of the regular season after the two-time Pro Bowl nose tackle violated the substance-abuse policy for the second time. Veteran Kyle Williams, Jerel Worthy, and Corbin Bryant will have to pick up the slack in Dareus’ absence. 2015 made it clear it was time to cut ties with expensive defensive end Mario Williams. He was largely ineffective in a pass rush that was expected to put up gaudy sack numbers. The Bills ranked second-to-last last season with just 21.0 team sacks. The front office addressed the gaping hole in the offseason by drafting a dominant edge rusher in Shaq Lawson (Clemson), a bull rusher in Adolphus Washington (Ohio State), and signing free agent Kroy Biermann. This trio will pair nicely with Jerry Hughes who registered 10 sacks in both the 2013 and 2014 seasons.
The Bills added to quality depth at the inside linebacker position with the selection of second round pick Reggie Ragland. Preston Brown, Zach Brown, and Brandon Spikes are also in the mix on the inside. Manny Lawson takes up the backup outside linebacker duties behind Shaq Lawson and Jerry Hughes.
I’m not totally sold on the depth at the cornerback position, but it’s not too shabby for a team that invests a lot of money and picks in the front seven. Ronald Darby and Stephon Gilmore are definitely a solid duo on the outside, but the cornerback position lacks true depth with Nickell Robey-Coleman and Kevon Seymour manning the slot. Darby and Gilmore must stay healthy for the Bills to compete all season. Corey Graham enters his 10th season as the starting free safety with one Pro Bowl selection and a Super Bowl ring under his belt. Opposite Graham will be strong safety Aaron Williams, who enters his sixth year with Buffalo after being drafted by the team out of University of Texas in the second round of the 2011 draft.
I have the Bills splitting with the Jets and Patriots in divisional matchups, and losing to the Cardinals, Seahawks, Raiders, and Steelers. I think the retooled pass rush will take a large step forward and be a dominant group in 2016. I’m a believer in Tyrod Taylor because unlike the development of countless other dual threat quarterbacks, Rex Ryan and the other Bills’ coaches play to the strengths of Taylor. He is setup for success, and has $92M reasons to get the Bills to the playoffs. This squad is certainly talented enough to achieve double-digit wins, but they’ll need to keep everyone healthy and have some luck along the way.
Update (9/8/16): Manny Lawson was released by the Bills prior to setting the 53-man roster.
Miami Dolphins (Projected Record: 2-14)
Key Additions: Laremy Tunsil (1st-Round Pick, 13th Overall), Xavien Howard (2nd-Round Pick, 38th Overall), Mario Williams (Bills), Byron Maxwell (Trade with Eagles), Kiko Alonso (Trade with Eagles), Arian Foster (Texans), Justin Hunter (Titans)
Key Losses: Lamar Miller (Texans), Rishard Matthews (Titans), Olivier Vernon (Giants), Brent Grimes (Buccaneers), Brice McCain (Titans)
The Broncos had a terrible offseason because of the players they let go. The Dolphins had a terrible offseason because of the players they brought in. For some unknown reason, the Dolphins’ front office believes they can fix the team’s problems by adding big-name players that have been unsuccessful in recent years. They signed defensive end Mario Williams, who has never lived up to his first-overall pick hype. Williams managed just 5.0 sacks in 2015 with the Bills. After losing Lamar Miller in free agency to the Texans, the Fins turned around and signed Arian Foster. Foster has been incredibly injury prone throughout his career, starting 16 regular season games just twice in his seven-year career, and has not done so since 2012. The Dolphins completed a trade with the Eagles for Byron Maxwell and Kiko Alonso in early March in exchange for the team’s first round pick in the draft. Maxwell signed a six-year, $63M contract with the Eagles in the 2015 offseason. His statistics with the Eagles were not terrible (64 tackles, 2 interceptions, 2 forced fumbles, 10 pass deflections, and two touchdowns allowed to Julio Jones), but they certainly were not worthy of an average north of $10M per year. His success in the past was due in large part to the dominance of the Seahawks defense as a unit – not Maxwell’s talent alone. Alonso was traded from the Bills to the Eagles in exchange for LeSean McCoy in 2015 (yep, that’s still a head scratcher). In Week 2 he suffered a torn ACL and missed the rest of the season. So, why would the Dolphins trade for an inside linebacker with a surgically repaired knee and tackling issues? Who the heck knows?
Despite having Cameron Wake, Mario Williams, and Ndamukong Suh on the defensive line, this unit has too many holes to compete in the AFC East. Koa Misi, Alonso, and Jelani Jenkins are slated to be the starting linebackers. Maxwell, Tony Lippett, and Bobby McCain are the starting corners. Reshad Jones and Isa Abdul-Quddus are the starting safeties. Not an impressive group of players. Even if this group stays healthy, they’ll struggle to stop offenses consistently.
Miami’s offense has potential to be good in 2016, but the offensive line needs to protect Ryan Tannehill. The quarterback was sacked no less than 45 times each of the last three seasons, with a high of 58 in 2013. Tannehill enters his fifth season with the Dolphins with a few good, but not stellar, weapons at his disposal. I really liked what I saw last year from Jay Ajayi in his limited number of snaps. He’s a powerful rusher that reminds me of Marshawn Lynch at times. Jarvis Landry is no joke on the outside. The LSU product has as good a set of hands as any receiver in the league, and excels at creating space for himself in the open field. Devante Parker has plenty of room to grow as he and veteran Kenny Stills will battle for the second wideout spot in 2016. Jordan Cameron could be a big target for Tannehill this season, but it seems like the quarterback refused to take advantage of Cameron’s size in 2015. Yes, the Dolphins added pot smoking left tackle Laremy Tunsil with their first round selection in the 2016 NFL Draft. He’s very good, and the most pro-ready prospect this season. For now Tunsil is listed as the backup left guard on the depth chart. Protecting the quarterback is a collective effort, and I’m not sure that the group of Branden Albert, Dallas Thomas, Mike Pouncey, Billy Turner, and Ju’Waun James will get it done.
We’ll see if the host of new faces can rejuvenate their careers in the warm Miami sun, but I’m not holding my breath. It could be a long year for this team.