By Bryan Altman (Bryan Altman)
You probably thought you had more time until you read your first article of the NFL offseason, didn’t you? But believe it or not, training camps around the NFL will be underway less than a month from today and there’s no shortage of juicy storylines for us to dive right into.
So – enough small talk, let’s get into three of the biggest burning questions surrounding each of the NFL’s 32 teams as we get ready to get ready for another NFL season.
Today we’re taking a dive into the AFC East, which is without a doubt – and I’m not just saying this because I’m a Jets fan – one of the most interesting divisions league wide as training camp approaches. Let’s get started.
Camp Begins: July 28 (Rookies), July 29 (Veterans) – Pittsford, NY
How will Rex Ryan and Rob Ryan work together and can their defense jell and become an elite unit?
The big top in Orchard Park is growing as another Ryan brother squeezes his way into the tent that houses the three-ring circus that is Rex Ryan.
It’s been more than 20 years since the Ryan brothers have stalked the same sideline during an NFL game – the last time was in 1995 when they were both members of their father’s coaching staff in Arizona – but now both Ryan boys are back in town in Orchard Park.
We know they love each other, we know they both like to have a good time and we know they’ve both carved out their place in this league thanks to their defensive prowess, but the question is, how will they work together?
What happens if the defense falters and the Ryan brothers find themselves at odds? Both have had their fair share of tiffs with their subordinates and higher-ups at their various NFL pit stops and it stands to reason that it could well happen in Buffalo.
Would the wheels come off? Could we witness an infamous Ryan family blowup on the sidelines in the middle of a game?
One thing that’s for sure – as it always is with Rex Ryan – it’ll be entertaining to watch unfold.
Right off the bat, the brothers have their work cut out for them. Last year, the Bills’ defense was down across the board in almost every measurable/meaningful metric we use to measure a defense’s aptitude when it comes to – well, defending.
That’s a wrong the Ryan brothers would do well to fix immediately if they’d like to work together beyond 2016.
Can Tyrod Taylor replicate last year’s success?
The hallmarks of a Rex Ryan-coached team of late have been stingy defenses and quarterback controversies, but that appears to have come to an end as we head into 2016.
Tyrod Taylor of all people has unexpectedly broken the mold and is poised to lead the Bills into the 2016 season barring any unforeseen setbacks (looking at you, IK Enemkpali).
While he didn’t turn heads in the stats department and was 23rd in yards passing and was last in the league among full-time starters in passing attempts per game, he made up for it with efficiency.
Taylor’s TD to INT ratio was 20:6 and his quarterback rating (QBR) was tied for seventh best in the league alongside Cam Newton at 99.4.
Aiding Taylor’s effort to repeat last year’s performance is the fact that the Bills’ entire offensive line from 2015 is back for the 2016 season. Astonishingly, that’s the first time the Bills will have the same starting five up front since the 1996 season.
That combined with a (hopefully) healthy Sammy Watkins returning for training camp could propel Taylor to a repeat performance of 2015, which could in turn help the Bills close in on an elusive playoff berth for the first time since 1999.
Can key players stay healthy after offseason surgeries?
The NFL’s offseason injury report is usually quite long. Think somewhere between the seventh Harry Potter book and your run of the mill encyclopedia long. Typically, the team that stays the furthest away from it usually fairs the best once the regular season gets underway.
The Bills are not off to a great start in that regard.
Populating the list of players with offseason injuries heading into training camp are numerous Bills who went under the knife this offseason. Among them are star wideout Sammy Watkins, first round draft pick Shaq Lawson and the Bills’ projected starting RT Seantrel Henderson.
Watkins is the most problematic name on this list and lands here after breaking a bone in his foot in April and having surgery to repair it shortly thereafter. There are mixed reports as to whether he’ll be ready for the start of training camp and foot injuries and wide receivers go together about as well as Roger Goodell and James Harrison. That is, they don’t.
On top of that, Lawson, who many projected would need shoulder surgery, needs shoulder surgery and is likely to miss the first few games of the season for the Bills.
Then there’s the case of Henderson, who had offseason surgery to help him deal with Crohn’s disease, which kept him out of the last five games of last season. It was unknown for a while whether Henderson would even return to the team, but has announced he will be back in 2016. Still, the question remains how effective he will be this year and as a part of the broader picture, whether these offseason surgeries will hamper these key cogs throughout the rigors of training camp and the NFL season.
Camp Begins: July 28 – Fort Lauderdale, FL
What will Ryan Tannehill do in a potential make-or-break year?
A major part of the reason the Dolphins hired quarterback guru/offensive-minded Adam Gase as their head coach this offseason is to get a complete and final meter reading on the mercurial Ryan Tannehill. Tanehill has run the gamut from ‘franchise quarterback in the making,’ to ‘serviceable NFL quarterback,’ to ‘is he even the guy in Miami?’ over the last four years and the time has come to make tough decisions.
Outside of his first year in the league, the Dolphins’ offensive line has been Top 10 in sacks allowed, including the 2013 season when they allowed a league-high 58 sacks on their young quarterback. Of course, a quarterback can be implicit in sacks as well, but it’s still worth noting as somewhat of an indictment of the offensive line.
On top of that, Tannehill has had a questionable core of wide receivers around him for many of those years. but both of those issues seem to be resolving themselves.
By all accounts, Tannehill and Gase are getting along famously thus far and are on the same page, which could set the stage for a big year for Tannehill.
However, Gase didn’t draft Tannehill and as a quarterback guy, you know he’ll be absolutely certain he’s got his guy before he hitches his wagon in Miami to a quarterback. It sounds like Tannehill will have every opportunity to be Gase’s guy, but a rocky performance this year won’t just sink the Dolphins’ hopes of ending a nearly 10-year playoff drought, but might signal the end of the Tannehill era in Miami.
How big of a steal will Laremy Tunsil end up being?
At the end of the day, the biggest benefactors of the now-infamous Laremy Tunsil ‘gas mask’ video could well be the Miami Dolphins. By all accounts, Tunsil was a sure-fire Top 5 pick in this year’s draft before that video emerged and allowed him to drop to the Dolphins at No. 13.
As we mentioned prior, the Dolphins have had issues with allowing sacks the last few years. Tunsil, who may or may not end up starting the season at left guard on pending a training camp battle with incumbent starter Dallas Thomas, still provides the Dolphins depth at the offensive line position and could help stabilize the unit this year.
Outside of Tunsil, the Dolphins are poised to have all of their starters from 2015 back and could plug and place Tunsil on the line as needed as they groom him to take over the left guard slot permanently should he lose out to Thomas.
If Tunsil can thrive in Year 1, it’ll go a ways toward helping Tannehill continue his development and answering burning question No. 1.
Who will replace Lamar Miller?
If there’s one area of concern surrounding the Dolphins it has to be surrounding their running game.
The Dolphins averaged 4.3 yards per carry last season, but they ran the ball a league-low 344 times. And that was with an established running back in Lamar Miller.
Now that Miller has moved along to the Houston Texans, the Dolphins running game will be spearheaded by Jay Ajayi and Kenyan Drake, who have a combined 187 yards between them in the NFL.
While the decision to spurn a veteran in hopes that one of these young backs can carry the load isn’t a completely terrible one and there is precedent for it (see: Atlanta Falcons/Tevin Coleman and Devonta Freeman), it could backfire, especially considering Miami’s need for a known commodity and a reliable back in the huddle in a make or break year for Tannehill.
New England Patriots
Camp Begins: July 24 (Rookies), July 27 (Veterans) Foxboro, MA
How will Martellus Bennett change the Patriots offense?
Back in 2011, before we knew Aaron Hernandez was a murderous psychopath off of the gridiron, he was the ying to Rob Gronkowski’s yang. On the field, the two were as dynamic a one-two tight end punch as the NFL had ever seen and were poised to change the game forever.
Obviously things didn’t go as planned from there.
But now, the Patriots have the most talented No. 2 tight end they’ve had since Hernandez in Martellus Bennett.
In 2014, Bennett put together a 90 catch, 916-yard campaign and made his first Pro Bowl in the process.
So assuming last year’s swoon was a byproduct of the tight end’s dissatisfaction with his contract and his balky quad and fractured ribs, the Patriots are getting a bona fide No. 1 tight end to pair alongside Gronk for the first time in years.
Malcontents that join the Patriots don’t often stay that way, or they don’t often stay, so that won’t be a problem here.
If Bennett buys in, the Patriots could look an awful lot like the 2011 incarnation of the team that made it to the Super Bowl and ran away with the AFC East.
What will the Patriots get from Jimmy Garoppolo?
For a team that always seems to find a running back, the Patriots are not a running team. The Patriots’ bread and butter is their vaunted passing attack and they have ranked at or near the bottom of the league in every rushing category routinely over the last several years.
That means that unless a major change of philosophy is to come down from Bill Belichick (unlikely) or Tom Brady’s four-game suspension is lifted (more unlikely), the Patriots will be relying on Jimmy Garoppolo to lead their aerial attack for the first quarter of the season.
As mentioned above, Garoppolo will have a smorgasbord of weapons to choose from in his arsenal, be it Gronk, Bennett, Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola or even Chris Hogan (signed in free agency), but can he use them as effectively as Tom Brady?
Let’s not kid ourselves – the answer is no. But Garoppolo will leave an indelible mark on this season one way or another and this will be the best chance for the Patriots to judge what they have waiting in the wings once Brady inevitably (we think…) slows down.
Just how good will this defense be?
If Belichick’s defense can live up to the hype it’s garnering this offseason, Jimmy Garoppolo might be able to sleepwalk this team to a 4-0 record to open the year. The Patriots are set to have a stellar defense as years of building through the draft, acquiring depth players and cultivating the free agent market for the best possible fits could be poised to pay off for the Pats in 2016.
Losing Akiem Hicks in free agency and trading Chandler Jones to the Cardinals does hurt the Patriots’ D, but not as much as it may appear at first thanks to the depth the Patriots possess on the defensive line and in their linebacking corps.
Terrance Knighton anchoring the center of the Pats’ defensive line alongside or alternating with 2015 first-round pick Malcolm Brown makes them stout against the run, and Chris Long’s addition gives them a veteran pass rusher to work alongside Jabaal Sheard as he tries to solidify his claim to Jones’ vacant edge rusher spot.
The area of least depth for the Patriots is at the linebacker position, but young studs Jamie Collins and Dont’a Hightower have emerged as two of the best in the business and should be able to carry that unit if they can stay healthy.
Meanwhile in the secondary, Malcolm Butler, Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung headline an underrated unit that should only get better with what should be an improved front seven.
Plus, Matt Patricia has done a great job in each of his four years running the defense and this year should be no different as he and mastermind Bill Belichick have extra pieces to play around with to find the right fit to get this defense rolling.
The Patriots were ninth in the league in yards per game allowed in 2015 (339.4), 10th in points allowed and 2nd in the league with 49 sacks. That’s pretty good, but if the cards fall right, they could be better in 2016.
New York Jets
Camp Begins: July 27 – Florham Park, NJ
How does the Fitz-drama shake out?
After leading his team to a 10-6 record and claiming the team record for most passing TDs in a season (31), Ryan Fitzpatrick’s reward thus far has been unemployment and contract drama. As we all know by now, Fitzpatrick, coming off a career year, wants more money than what the Jets are offering.
The Jets on the other hand, are content to play hardball knowing that Fitzpatrick’s only real chance to start Week 1 in the NFL is with the Jets. Plus, they’re clearly reluctant to overpay – or even adequately pay based on the current QB market – based on one year’s performance. (Personally, I agree with the Jets here but that’s neither here nor there.)
Regardless, the question is how does this whole thing shake out? Does Fitzpatrick blink first, or do the Jets and GM Mike Maccagnan? Do the Jets actually have the confidence to start Geno Smith Week 1? Is this just another prime example of ‘same old Jets’ doing their thing?
We’ll find out soon enough.
Can they survive their first six games?
As a Jets fan – regardless of how I feel about him as a quarterback – I’m worried about the contract situation with Fitzpatrick because of the distraction that it is and will continue to become. But what I’m more worried about is the Jets’ schedule in the early part of the year. Fitzpatrick, Smith, Bryce Petty, Christian Hackenberg, quite frankly, it might not really matter who starts when you look at the Jets’ first six opponents.
Here’s their schedule the first six games along with their opponents’ 2015 record:
Week 1 – Jets vs Bengals (12-4)
Week 2 – Jets @ Bills (8-8)
Week 3 – Jets @ Chiefs (11-5)
Week 4 – Jets vs Seahawks (10-6)
Week 5 – Jets @ Steelers (10-6)
Week 6 – Jets @ Cardinals (13-3)
Those teams had a combined record last year of 64-32 and the one ‘weak’ opponent of the bunch, the 8-8 Bills, beat the Jets twice last year, the latter of the two losses coming in Week 17 to keep the Jets out of the playoffs.
This is what we like to call a nightmare of a schedule. Especially when you take into account the fact that the Patriots – who have lost the AFC East just once since 2003 – are without Tom Brady for the first four games and those four weeks should be the Jets’ best chance to get a jump on the perennial division winner. But thanks to the schedule makers (we’re sure Belichick has no say in scheduling, right?), it’ll be a Herculean struggle.
Time for a quick take from a cynical Jets fan: By the end of this stretch of the schedule, for one or more reasons, whichever Jets quarterback started the season, will be on the bench. If it’s Geno Smith, he’ll be booed off the field by Week 4 against the Seahawks at the latest and replaced.
If it’s Fitzpatrick – who is still a 33-year-old journeyman quarterback who, quite frankly, I don’t think is that good – he’ll be benched after a brutal start to the year in favor of Smith once those teams are through with him.
But hey, maybe that’s just the cynical Jets fan talking. We’ll see if the Jets can make it out of this section of the schedule intact. A .500 record when Week 7 rolls around would likely be an admirable feat for this team and be enough reason for optimism.
Can Brandon Marshall continue defying father time?
There are certain things that we can nearly guarantee about the 2016 New York Jets. Their defense will be among the best in the league. Most of their core from last year is returning outside of Damon ‘Snacks’ Harrison and the Jets should be able to compensate for his departure with the trio of Leonard Williams, Muhammad Wilkerson (contract situation pending) and Sheldon Richardson (after he returns from his one-game suspension).
But on the other side of the ball – outside of the obvious question at quarterback – there are some major questions to be answered.
Brandon Marshall put together arguably the greatest season by a Jets receiver of all time last year and the Jets will need a repeat performance from the 32-year-old wideout if the offense is going to roll like it did last year.
Marshall hauled in 109 catches for 1,502 yards and 15 touchdowns and was Fitzpatrick’s fail safe option when plays went awry all year long.
There’s no reason to think that if Marshall stays healthy he can’t come close to 2015’s numbers, but the Jets are still going to be awfully reliant on an aging wideout to produce top 10 in the NFL wide receiver numbers if their offense is going to be competitive.
Can Marshall make it happen once more? The Jets sure hope so.
Bryan Altman is, for some reason, an unabashed fan of the Rangers, Jets and Mets. If he absolutely had to pick a basketball team it would be the Knicks, but he’d gladly trade them for just one championship for any of his other three teams.