Four Downs: AFC East
Welcome back to our offseason series of Four Downs. We'll be reviewing each division one-by-one, looking at each team's biggest hole going into free agency as well as the most important players who may be on the market.
Biggest Need: Off-ball linebacker
For the first time in years, the Bills find themselves without any major holes to patch. As currently constructed, their roster is more than capable of competing for titles, so their offseason to-do list involves managing the salary cap, picking which of their own free agents to re-sign and which to let go, and then just drafting the best player available every time they're on the clock in April. It's an enviable position to be in.
The most interesting decision might involve Matt Milano at inside linebacker. Milano's numbers were down in 2020, in large part due to hamstring and pectoral injuries that cost him about half the season, but he still managed to rank in the top 10 among linebackers in yards per target, per Sports Info Solutions. Buffalo's pass defense DVOA improved from 7.0% to -1.2% with Milano in the lineup as well; they felt his absence when A.J. Klein stepped onto the field. The question is whether an off-ball linebacker is worth double-digit millions of dollars, or if those dollars would be better used elsewhere. I suspect Milano's importance to Sean McDermott's defense will make retaining him a top priority, but it is unlikely the Bills will be able to resign every one of their major contributors this offseason. Decisions will have to be made somewhere.
Major Free Agents: Isaiah McKenzie, WR; Tyler Kroft, TE; Daryl Williams, OT; Ty Nsekhe, OT; Jon Feliciano, OG; Brian Winters, OG; Trent Murphy, DE; Matt Milano, LB; Josh Norman, CB
The Bills start the offseason about $1.8 million over the projected 2021 salary cap, per Over the Cap, but there are a couple of caveats that help them out here. First, the feeling around the league is that next year's cap will be significantly higher than the $175-million floor agreed upon last summer, and perhaps a little higher than OTC currently has it—a boon for teams right up against the hard edge. Secondly, it's not too difficult for the Bills to generate some cap space—cutting John Brown, Quinton Jefferson, Vernon Butler, and Lee Smith would free up nearly $20 million in cap space and allow Buffalo to be proactive in free agency; none of those players topped 45% of the team's snaps last season.
Matt Milano, Daryl Williams, and Jon Feliciano are the three big names the Bills need to prioritize, and it's unlikely they'll be able to keep them all. Spotrac projects the three to have a combined average salary of $29.9 million on their upcoming free-agent deals, and squeezing all three in would likely force Buffalo to slash other important players elsewhere. I suspect, if push comes to shove, the Bills will prioritize Williams over Feliciano; general manager Brandon Beane drafted Williams in Carolina and will place full credit on Williams' dominant season in 2020 as being the new normal for the tackle. Feliciano's run blocking was missed, but re-signing Brian Winters to a cheaper contract may be the financially prudent path to take here.
If the Bills do let Brown go for financial reasons, that ups the chances they work to re-sign Isaiah McKenzie, who had a 25.0% receiving DVOA in Brown's absence and provided 6.8 points of kick return value. Other than that, there are not a lot of names here worth breaking the bank for; they'll need some cornerback depth if Josh Norman leaves, but they can likely find better value elsewhere.
Biggest Need: Offensive line
The Dolphins successfully Tanked for Tua in 2019. Now it's time to build the line to protect him—or another quarterback of choice, if the rumors of them attempting to trade for Deshaun Watson have any truth to them. The Dolphins were one of five teams to rank 20th or worse in both adjusted line yards and adjusted sack rate, and they duplicated the feat in ESPN's pass block and run block win rates. Both Ryan Fitzpatrick and Tua Tagovailoa finished in the bottom 10 in time to throw last season, per Next Gen Stats; some of that was by design, but some of that was due to a lack of confidence in the big men up front. All five positions could stand to be upgraded.
It's worth noting that the Dolphins' line was very young this season. Austin Jackson, Robert Hunt, and Solomon Kindley were all rookies, and none of the primary five starters were older than 27. There's reason to hope that some of the young talent will continue to develop, but 2020 was not overly promising. Jackson had 28 blown blocks, and Kindley, Ereck Flowers and Ted Karras were not far behind. Considering Jackson and Hunt were picked in the first two rounds last season, it's probably too early to give up on either, meaning bolstering the interior line is a more promising direction. However, with Oregon tackle Penei Sewell likely to be available at the third pick, it would be tempting to shift one of them (likely Hunt) inside, theoretically boosting two spots on the line at once. Re-signing free agent Karras would shore up the center position, and you could do far worse than a Sewell-Flowers-Karras-Hunt-Jackson line in 2021.
Major Free Agents: Ryan Fitzpatrick, QB; Ted Karras, C; Elandon Roberts, LB; Matt Haack, P
Looks like Ryan Fitzpatrick's work in this here town is done; it's time for the legendary journeyman to saddle up to find the next stop on his never-ending travels. Fitzpatrick was significantly better than Tagovailoa—his 7.5% passing DVOA trumps Tagovailoa's -8.5%, and he added more value in the running game as well. Still, at age 38, Fitzpatrick isn't any franchise's future, and enough teams will want to sign him as a bridge to price him out of Miami.
Ted Karras is the real interesting decision for Miami. The Dolphins need a center, and Karras is fine, if unspectacular. Spotrac forecasts Karras as a $10 million a year player, and that's a price that makes you at least look around and see what other options are available. I'd expect the Dolphins to at least kick the tires on Corey Linsley or David Andrews and to sniff around the rest of a relatively deep free-agent class here; they have the cap room to make a move. They will almost assuredly sign a center in free agency. It just may not be Karras.
New England Patriots
Biggest Need: Quarterback
With the big three of Joe Burrow, Tua Tagovailoa, and Justin Herbert gone well before the Patriots' first selection in last year's draft, it's not overly surprising that Bill Belichick didn't use a first-round pick on a quarterback. What is surprising is that the Patriots managed to go all seven rounds without picking anyone as a potential replacement for Tom Brady, instead signing Cam Newton to a cheap, one-year deal late in the offseason. A -17.7% passing DVOA for Newton tells you just about how well that went, though he looked solid enough for a few weeks until he inevitably injured his shoulder again. And so the Patriots find themselves back where they were before last season started, trying to answer the unanswerable: how do you replace a franchise legend?
The answer likely isn't through free agency, unless the Cowboys somehow let Dak Prescott walk. The answer likely isn't through a trade, as it's doubtful New England can match any kind of package for Deshaun Watson. While it's possible the Patriots could be satisfied with a veteran castoff from elsewhere in the league (a reunion with Jimmy Garoppolo being the juiciest for headline writers everywhere), the likeliest answer comes from a quarterback-heavy draft. The five first-round prospects (Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson, Trey Lance, Justin Fields, and Mac Jones) may all be gone by the time the Patriots pick at 15, meaning they'd need to trade up to grab one; if someone Belichick likes falls out of the single digits, be alert for New England to make a move. Otherwise, Belichick could grab a mid-round prospect he likes, add a veteran in free agency, and roll from there. A Ryan Fitzpatrick/Kellen Mond/Jarrett Stidham quarterback room, anyone?
Major Free Agents: Cam Newton, QB; James White, RB; Jermaine Eluemunor, T; Joe Thuney, G; David Andrews, C; Deatrich Wise, DL; Lawrence Guy, DL; Jason McCourty, CB; Nick Folk, K
That's a fairly long list of free agents, but the Patriots have plenty of cash to work with; they rank fourth with $62.8 million of projected cap room per Over the Cap. While they haven't ruled out bringing Cam Newton back, the general consensus is that he'll be moving on this offseason, so that's one fewer name to worry about, at least. Joe Thuney likely will be allowed to leave as well, as Michael Onwenu was a great find in the sixth round of last year's draft.
That would leave David Andrews and James White as the marquee free agents, and the Patriots certainly have the cap room to keep both around if they so choose. Andrews is a team captain and valued leader, and one who is grateful to the organization for giving him a chance as an undrafted free agent. Assuming he doesn't get a Godfather offer from elsewhere in the league, I'd fully expect him to be back next season. As a receiving back, White fills a niche the rest of the Patriots' running backs don't. The Patriots need all the weapons they can get in the passing game, so they'll likely bring him back as well—while his receiving DVOA fell to 6.2% last season, White has had a DVOA above 10.0% in four of his six qualified seasons and never fallen into negative numbers; he has valuable football left in him.
As for the rest of the list, change is likely to be the buzzword this offseason. The Patriots are in a period of transition, if not quite a full rebuild. With the possible exception of Lawrence Guy, I'd expect the Patriots not to get involved in bidding wars on any of their free agents, instead using their cap space to bring in outside talent to bolster last year's 23rd-ranked offense.
New York Jets
Biggest Need: Quarterback
There's a lot of time before April to have a million different discussions, and wherever those discussions lead are where we are going to go in terms of making the best decision to get our organization better.
Yeah, he's gone. It's not that there's no chance that Darnold can improve; he's still just 24 years old and has escaped the bottomless pit that is the Adam Gase offense. It's just that Darnold, who has seen his DVOA drop in each of the last two seasons, has yet to show any flashes of the player who was drafted third overall in 2018. It's very much the kind of potential you want to let someone else pay you to gamble on, especially if they're willing to pay a late first-round pick, as Adam Schefter speculated.
Adam Gase's last gift to the Jets franchise were two late wins to take New York out of the Trevor Lawrence sweepstakes. Still, the second overall pick gives Saleh and company their pick of the remaining first-round caliber quarterbacks; Zach Wilson would seem to be the best fit for Mike LaFleur's offense, but they have a decent selection to choose from. Alternatively, they could package the pick as part of a trade deal for Deshaun Watson; the Jets are reportedly his team of choice thanks to the hiring of Saleh. Both strategies have their appeal, but the important thing is getting a passer they feel comfortable building their team around. The last Jets passer with a DVOA above 5.0% was Chad Pennington in 2006; that's the longest stretch in the league. It's not a coincidence that New York also boasts the longest playoff drought in the league. Go get a passer.
Major Free Agents: Breshad Perriman, WR; Jordan Jenkins, ER; Patrick Onwuasor, LB; Brian Poole, CB; Marcus Maye, S; Bradley McDougald, S
With a new regime comes a new philosophy, which often translates to letting all your free agents hit the road. Brian Poole and Marcus Maye may be exceptions, as Saleh looks to bring his defense to town. Maye might have been the Jets' best player last season; he was SIS's fourth-highest rated safety in 2020, a versatile player who can excel at free safety, in the box, or even in the slot in a pinch. Poole has finally found his niche as a slot expert, allowing just 6.6 yards per target last season. Both are still under 30, and both can be building blocks for Saleh's defense. Expect them both back next year.
Jordan Jenkins had just two sacks last season and 13 quarterback pressures per Sportradar, both career lows. The Jets have basically nothing on the roster in terms of pass rush, however—Bryce Huff, Kyle Phillips, and Jabari Zuniga all fit the type Saleh is looking for, but have a combined 21 pass pressures between them. Jenkins may well be re-signed just out of a need for warm bodies at the position. Apart from that, expect the Jets to go elsewhere to bolster their defense, perhaps targeting the plethora of ex-49ers defensive backs available this offseason.