(Tyrod Taylor photo courtesy of the Buffalo Bills)
(Jimmy Garoppolo photo courtesy of the New England Patriots)
Talk of Fame Network
Tom Brady has opened the season as New England’s quarterback for 14 consecutive seasons now, and the Patriots have qualified for the playoffs in 12 of them, winning four Super Bowls.
So dynamic is Brady’s presence that the Patriots have won the AFC East for seven consecutive seasons, the longest current reign by any team in any division. But for the first time since 2001, Brady will not be the opening-day starter of the Patriots. He has been suspended by the NFL for the first month of the season for his perceived role in Deflategate.
So how will his four-game absence impact the AFC East race in 2016? That’s the subject of our weekly Talk of Fame Network poll – who will win the AFC East this season? Here are your candidates:
Buffalo Bills. How far can Tyrod Taylor take you? Signed as a free agent away from Baltimore a year ago, Taylor delivered a .500 finish in his first season as an NFL starter. That’s not Jim Kelly-esque, but it’s a step in the right direction, given the Bills haven’t qualified for the playoff since 1999. That’s the longest current drought of any NFL franchise. Taylor passed for 3,035 yards and 20 touchdowns with only six interceptions and also rushed for 568 yards and four more scores. Is that his ceiling? The Bills swept both the Dolphins and Jets last season but lost twice to the Patriots on the way to that 8-8 record. With the legs of Taylor and LeSean McCoy, the Bills return the NFL’s best rushing attack. But there was a pass-rush deficiency a year ago when the Bills finished last in the AFC with 21 sacks, and leading sacker Mario Williams became a salary-cap casualty. Offseason shoulder surgery to first-round draft pick Shaq Lawson is yet another setback to the pass rush.
(LeSean McCoy photo courtesy of the Philadelphia Eagles)
Miami Dolphins. The Dolphins fell to the bottom of the AFC East with a 6-10 record a year ago, and it cost Joe Philbin his job. Quarterback guru Adam Gase replaces him, and it will be his task to find the ceiling for Ryan Tannehill, who passed for 4,208 yards last season but only 24 touchdowns. But he’s still throwing too many interceptions (12). The Dolphins lost their best pass rusher Olivier Vernon in free agency but moved quickly to replace him by signing Buffalo discard Mario Williams. Miami also lost its leading rusher, Lamar Miller, in free agency (Houston). That weakens the NFL’s 26th-ranked offense. But in addition to Williams, the Dolphins hope to strengthen the NFL’s 25th-ranked defense with linebacker Kiko Alonso and cornerback Byron Maxwell, who were both acquired in a fire sale conducted by the Eagles. First-round draft pick Laremy Tunsil will be a walk-in starter at offensive tackle, which should buy Tannehill some time to find his elite wide receiver, Jarvis Landry.
(Ryan Tannehill photo courtesy of the Miami Dolphins)
New England Patriots. The Patriots failed to defend their NFL championship a year ago, losing to the Broncos in Denver in the AFC title game. Getting there might be a little more difficult this season with Brady set to miss a quarter of the season. Filling in will be Jimmy Garoppolo, who has thrown just 31 NFL passes in his two-year career. But he’ll have a dynamic Pro Bowl tight-end duo to catch his throws in Ron Gronkowski and Martellus Bennett, who was acquired in the offseason from Chicago. Brady took a beating in the AFC title game, getting sacked four times and absorbing countless hits even when he did get the pass off. The Patriots took steps to address that by adding a couple of guards, acquiring Jonathan Cooper in a trade with the Arizona Cardinals and drafting Joe Thuney from North Carolina State in the second round. But in acquiring Cooper, the Patriots traded away their best pass rusher (Chandler Jones, 12 ½ sacks). New England hopes to replace that production with Chris Long, a former first-round pick of the Rams who became a salary-cap casualty in the franchise’s move to Los Angeles.
(Rob Gronkowski photo courtesy of the New England Patriots)
New York Jets. For the fourth consecutive season, an NFL team with a 10-6 record missed the playoffs. This time it was the Jets, who benefited playing a schedule that pitted them against the NFC East and AFC South. The champions of both divisions wound up with a worse record (9-7) than the Jets. New York finished in the Top 10 in offense and Top 5 in defense but took a couple of healthy hits in free agency. Departing were 1,000-yard rusher Chris Ivory and defensive tackle Damon Harrison, a key element in the NFL’s second-ranked run defense. The Jets also cut loose starting CB Antonio Cromartie. Ryan Fitzpatrick gave the Jets a career year, passing for 4,432 yards and 35 touchdowns, but the club has been reluctant to pay him this offseason and have already taken the steps to replace him by drafting Penn State’s Christian Hackenberg in the second round. The Jets also hope to replace Ivory’s production with Matt Forte, a former Pro Bowl running back signed away from the Chicago Bears in free agency.
(Christian Hackenberg photo from Talk of Fame Network files)