AFC East Over/Unders: Can Tua Get Dolphins to the Playoffs?
Andrew: Hello, and welcome back unusually quickly to another Scramble for the Ball, as we eschew the old tradition of lumping two divisions together for a weekly over/under column.
Bryan: Same amount of content; smaller plates. We're turning Scramble into a tapas bar in August, apparently. For the rest of the month, you can expect Scramble on back-to-back days as we go through the league, division by division. You're welcome, or our apologies, depending on how you feel about stupid jokes about terrible coaching decisions.
Andrew: Or terrible front office decisions, which is more in keeping with the theme of the preseason. Not even we are looking to spend time analyzing coaching decisions in preseason games.
Although, even if you're looking for terrible front office decisions, this specific column isn't really the one for you. Every team we're covering today looks set to be at least roughly as good as they were last year. Even the Jets finally saw some manner of sense this spring.
Bryan: Yesterday, we covered the NFC East, which I claimed had the lowest floor in the league. Today, we move to the AFC East, which is really is quite the opposite. Three of the four teams in this division I think will be, at worst, decent. There are a couple of other divisions that can at least challenge for that title; it's not a runaway or anything. And maybe it's just because I wrote the division's chapters for Football Outsiders Almanac 2021 (cheap plug!). But I think that fans of all four teams in the AFC East will be at least moderately happy with the 2021 campaign, albeit starting from very different points.
Andrew: Gone are the days when this division was a foregone conclusion before a ball had been kicked. A lot had to go wrong for the Patriots to miss the postseason, and most of it did, but the 2020 Bills were deserved division winners who may even have pushed a peak-Brady Patriots squad all the way. Add an improving young Dolphins squad and there's plenty of intrigue atop this division for the first time in what feels like forever.
Bryan: And then there's the Jets! We all love the Jets, right?
(Note: "Last Over" and "Last Under" below list the last time each team went over this year's over/under number. Yes, that's awkward with the shift from 16 games to 17. We're coping.)
Buffalo Bills (11)
Last Over: 2020 (Sean McDermott, Josh Allen)
Last Under: 2019 (Sean McDermott, Josh Allen)
Bryan: When the Bills won the AFC East last season, there was a meme going around that it was the first time Buffalo had won the division since the foundation of the internet. Now, that's an exaggeration, but Buffalo's last division championship does predate Football Outsiders. And the "Internet" we're talking about existing in 1995 was America Online taking you to, like, four GeoCities webpages with flame graphics and a spinning "under construction" banner, and where webrings connected you to pages teaching you how to do the Macarena.
The far off past of 1995 was the first year quarterbacks were allowed to have radios in their helmets! The career passing yardage king was Fran Tarkenton. The career receiving leader was James Lofton. It has been a while, is what we're saying.
Andrew: For all that history was against them, when the Bills did finally return to the top of the division, they did so at something of a canter, then proved that it wasn't a fluke by going all the way to the AFC Championship Game, albeit they continued the recent AFC playoff tradition of taking the lead on the Chiefs early before losing by two touchdowns. Last season wasn't just a fluke, but the result of a series of carefully planned roster decisions that came together at the right time. You and I were both skeptical before the season, but that was before we got to witness the new, improved Josh Allen with touch and timing and ... accuracy? Yes, accuracy.
Bryan: I thought we had seen the new, improved Josh Allen in 2019! He took a significant step forward between Year 1 and Year 2, with his accuracy improving to "can't hit the broad side of a barn" levels from the "lucky if the ball even lands on the farm" accuracy he flashed as a rookie. The fact that he'd not only keep those gains, but shoot off the charts to where he was one of the most accurate passers in football? It still beggars belief, and I spent most of the offseason watching it and trying to explain it.
And I really do believe it's real; a combination of a ton of work by Allen to improve his mechanics and grow comfortable in the system, and that system built by Brian Daboll that basically gave Allen every positive passing situation they could throw at him. The Bills gambled on a 5% chance working out, put him in the best position to succeed, and it worked. Astounding.
They're basically just running it back in 2021, too, and I think that's the wisest course of action to stay competitive for the next few years. They didn't mortgage the future or blow up their salary structure to bring in J.J. Watt or something; they re-signed the guys who made their defense work, drafted well, and are just trying to do the same as last year, only better. It feels weird to talk about the Bills as being well-run, but if the snowshoe fits...
Andrew: They also added Emmanuel Sanders to an already-dizzying array of targets; Sanders isn't what he once was, but he's still a very good receiver. Mitchell Trubisky was miscast in Chicago, but he could be a reasonable facsimile if Allen is forced to miss time for whatever reason. Really, the biggest threat to the prospects of this Bills team is probably Cole Beasley and his views on medical science.
Bryan: I doubt Beasley is alone in the locker room, which honestly is a major issue in terms of close contacts. As press time, however, the Bills have not been one of the teams slammed by the COVID list during training camp, so maybe whatever magical talisman granted Josh Allen phenomenal cosmic powers is being repurposed as we speak.
Barring a COVID- or injury-related disaster, I have a very hard time seeing Buffalo fall to single-digit wins. Maybe they take a half step back and struggle on the road against top teams—Kansas City, New Orleans, Tampa Bay, maybe New England. There's, uh, not a lot of gristle after that where I'd think the Bills were in trouble. Tennessee? Miami? That still gets me to 11-6.
Andrew: To project them below that, you pretty much have to assume that Allen was a one-year wonder and he'll turn back into a pumpkin with the advent of the new season. Otherwise, this is the same roster that went 13-3 last season, with an extra game on the schedule, dropping by three wins. I don't see it. If they're anything like they were last year, 11 wins is the floor, not the line. Over.
Bryan: If Allen had gone from 0 to 100 in one season, maybe I could get behind some caution here. And I would not be surprised if 2020 ends up Allen's best career season; some year has to be and that one was pretty special. Still. Over.
Miami Dolphins (9.5)
Last Over: 2020 (Brian Flores, Ryan Fitzpatrick)
Last Under: 2019 (Brian Flores, Ryan Fitzpatrick)
Bryan: Last year's 10-6 team was really more an 8-8 team with a couple FitzMagic bursts at the end. That's still a tremendous jump from where this team was in 2019, when we wrote one of our worst-ever articles about all the terrible records they were on pace to break after their Fish Tanky start. And, of course, they have had and will continue to have eight zillion first-round draft picks as they squeeze all the juice out of the Laremy Tunsil trade. Not a terrible place to be in as you claw your way back towards contention.
Andrew: Losing the FitzMagic hurts though; they won't be able to count on those late rallies again. However, the 2019 Dolphins finished ahead of schedule on the rebuild, and the 2020 Dolphins continued the trend. That speaks very well of Brian Flores as a head coach, and this is definitely a roster that is pointed in the right direction.
Bryan: Where do you fall on the "Dolphins should have drafted Trey Lance/Justin Fields/Not Mac Jones Please Not Mac Jones with the third pick" argument? Are you comfortable with them sticking with Tua Tagovailoa under center?
Andrew: I'm intrigued by the idea of a team drafting multiple first-round quarterbacks in successive years and letting them battle it out, because of the importance of the position, but I'm not sure that approach would work in the real world. Realistically, I think they were correct to build around Tagovailoa and try to establish what they have in him unless they were absolutely convinced that one of those other players would be a star. Evidently, they weren't.
Bryan: The fact that Tagovailoa produced essentially the definition of average first-round quarterback play in 2020, after a horrific hip injury and a global pandemic had a slight impact on his offseason development, is a very positive sign for me. Yes, there are clear areas he needed to improve on last season. (Throwing the ball more than half a yard downfield would be nice; we're not that desperate for an heir to Alex Smith's throne.) But Tua was adequate with room to grow, and I think Miami deciding to stock up on draft picks for the next few years makes more sense than giving up on Tagovailoa after the strangest season in NFL history.
And I'm not just saying that because the 49ers were the one who traded up, nope. This is entirely an impartial opinion, yes.
Andrew: What's important, for me, is that they have done a strong job of putting a solid roster around him. It's not flawless—Will Fuller's injury history is well documented, as is DeVante Parker's performance history—but they have a deep stable of receivers, resources invested in the line, and a number of very good players on defense, particularly in the secondary. They have made some astute veteran signings too, players on the back half of the roster who will fill a specific but necessary role.
Bryan: My biggest concern is with their offensive line, which was very young and very bad last season. At least it's better than being very old and very bad; Miami needs several players to take a step forward in 2021 and it is at least conceivable that they do so. I'm also not thrilled, if I'm a Dolphins fan, with Xavien Howard demanding a trade; that seems like the sort of thing that could indicate further hidden storm clouds ahead.
But at least for now, I think they're pointed in the right direction, and Flores has earned some trust that he knows what he's doing. I'm going with the over.
Andrew: I like that even if Tagovailoa struggles or gets hurt, they have a solid insurance policy on the roster in Jacoby Brissett. I like that secondary a great deal. I love that they get to play the Jets twice, the Giants, and the AFC South. That said, and I know they have been ahead of schedule so far, this line feels a wee bit high for me. As you noted before, they were effectively an 8-8 team that caught some breaks last year. I don't think they have improved that much, and I expect that a few of the teams they play against have. Put me down for a 9-8 season, a tiny little smidgen under.
New England Patriots (9.5)
Last Over: 2019 (Bill Belichick, Tom Brady)
Last Under: 2020 (Bill Belichick, Cam Newton)
Andrew: Just how much of an aberration was 2020, when the Patriots lost more defensive AV than any team in history, in large part due to veteran defenders opting out of playing through a pandemic? We had expected a dropoff anyway, but the Patriots pretty much tanked, putting up their third-worst defensive DVOA since 2005 and their worst offensive DVOA since the Y2K bug. The starting quarterback was never the same after contracting COVID, and they fell below 10 wins for the first time since 2002. Aberration, or new reality?
Bryan: It should be noted that the tanking Patriots still finished 7-9, so not too far back from this year's line. The standards and expectations from New England are unreal.
I think it's a little combination of both, if I'm allowed to take a wishy-washy way out. I think the days of the Patriots being the monsters at the end of the NFL's book are over, but I think 2020 was such a strange season that you have to take it with several hunks of salt. New England was basically the only team materially impacted by COVID opt-outs in 2020, and like you said, Cam Newton never really looked right again after he caught the virus. Considering all the defensive talent the Patriots have brought in this season, and Belichick's long track record there, I'm willing to chalk much of 2020 up to "man, that was strange" and move forward.
Andrew: The concern with Newton, unfortunately, is that his recent history is a growing list of "he never looked right after Event X" explainers. Foot sprains. Shoulder tweaks. Life-altering pandemics. COVID was certainly an exceptional circumstance, but the impact it had on Newton wasn't unfamiliar. We were bemoaning three years ago that we may have seen the last of a healthy Newton. He's still soldiering on, but soldiering on is about as good as it gets in the second half of any recent Newton season.
Bryan: If your QB1 is Healthy Cam Newton, your QB2 is a unicorn. A fantastical creature of myth, not something to be taken seriously.
And that brings us snugly to Mac Jones. I will say, I like "Mac Jones, 15th overall pick" better than "Mac Jones, third overall pick", but not as much as "trading up to get Justin Fields, 11th overall pick."
Andrew: I'm going to add that I like "Mac Jones, Patriots" better than most possible Mac Jones landing spots. How much of that is because I'm not a Patriots fan, I'll leave up to the reader's interpretation. But seriously, though, if any coach can get Mac Jones to play like a high first-rounder, it's ... well, it's Sean Payton, but Bill Belichick is up there, too.
Bryan: I'll also point out that a quarterback competition between a former MVP and a first-round pick is likely to produce higher levels of performance than, say, Drew Lock vs. Teddy Bridgewater or Andy Dalton vs. Nick Foles. This holds true even if you acknowledge that neither Newton nor Jones are the most deserving to hold their respective titles in this competition.
I do think having both raises the floor for the Patriots this season, but I'm not in love with Jones in general. Frankly, that kind of sums up the Patriots' entire offense for me. I like what Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith might do together, but I don't love paying them $12 million a year apiece. I like some of the veteran depth the Patriots have brought in along the line, but I don't love overpaying for interchangeable veterans at the expense of developmental snaps for your next stars. Really, it feels like the Patriots have paid a lot of money to keep their current incarnation competitive for as long as possible, which is what it feels like you do if your coach and general manager know they're not going to be around for too much longer in the grand scheme of things, and want to maximize competitive years in the short term.
Oh, and they made the mistake of letting Tom Brady leave one year too early. That kinda is important in discussing where New England is going, too.
Andrew: I get what they did with Smith and Henry. I don't get Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne at all.
Bryan: It can't be worse than their receiving corps was last year!
Andrew: Sure, but "better than last year's Patriots receivers" is damning with the absolute faintest of faint praise. And I say that in a tone utterly devoid of mirth, as I look at the Saints roster without Michael Thomas.
Bryan: I still might take Tre'Quan Smith and Marquez Callaway over who the Patriots are trotting out there, but at least it's no longer the worst corps in the league. Baby steps.
All things considered, and remembering the guy calling the shots from the sidelines, I'm taking the over here. If I sound pessimistic, it's just because I'm used to judging the Patriots by very different standards than the rest of the league. This is a cromulent team on the downswing who I think have another few kicks of life in them before they have to go with a full-on rebuild. That's not what Patriots fans are used to hearing, but there are worse fates.
Andrew: The argument in favor of the over is the huge influx of defensive talent, including returning opt-outs and the likes of Kyle Van Noy, allied to a receiving corps that at least has some professional-caliber targets now. The two tight ends are very well-suited to the offense that Belichick and Josh McDaniels like to run, and they have a greater degree of versatility with those pieces plus the receivers they have picked up. This probably isn't a 12-win Patriots squad, even with the extra leeway, but it should have a winning record. The upside should be bigger than the downside. Over.
New York Jets (6)
Last Over: 2019 (Adam Gase, Sam Darnold)
Last Under: 2020 (Adam Gase, Sam Darnold)
Bryan: I don't want to say that the Jets' quarterback room is inexperienced, but their career leading passer at the moment is receiver Jamison Crowder. With two.
Andrew: Are you saying maybe they should try to coax Terrelle Pryor out of retirement? At least they now have Zach Wilson signed. Boy, would that have cast a shadow over things. Really, the biggest move the Jets made this offseason was also the first. I didn't think it was possible for me to overestimate the prowess of Adam Gase, but even I didn't see him crashing the Jets that hard.
Bryan: Context makes everything different, doesn't it? You might find yourself trudging home through a driving rain after a long day of work, your boss yelling at you, your car broken and not starting, and feeling miserable. Or you might find yourself caught in a sudden rainstorm after spending a day out in the park, laughing and joking like you're stuck in some kind of terrible 2000s romcom. You'll feel a lot better after that second day, though you're still going to get freaking soaked.
That's basically going to be the difference between the 2020 Adam Gase Jets and the 2021 Robert Saleh Jets. They're still gonna suck, but at least it will be a more pleasant form of terribleness, as it's step one in a promising-looking rebuild as opposed to step a zillion on a march into oblivion.
Andrew: I wrote something similar in the Panthers chapter about the difference between Ron Rivera's last season and Matt Rhule's first. This is that turned up to 11. It almost doesn't matter what Saleh does, at least it's not Gase anymore. Saleh is free to do almost anything he wants, sling as much muck at the wall as he needs until some sticks.
Bryan: The important thing to keep in mind is that the Jets may well have had the least talented roster in the league entering the offseason, especially if you acknowledge Sam Darnold having one foot out the door already. There was no way to rebuild everything in one year, and, well, the Jets didn't. They spent most of their time adding players to the offense in the draft, counting on scheme (and, to be fair, Carl Lawson) to bolster the defense in 2021. I like that it's a focused strategy rather than just adding players all willy-nilly.
I don't like that there's a decent chance the staff of Football Outsiders could comprise a better cornerback room than the Jets currently have.
Andrew: There's something to be said for adding players all willy-nilly. It's an approach that worked out for the Seahawks in Pete Carroll's first couple of seasons. When you have the least talented roster, it behooves you to make sure every position is a genuine competition. I wouldn't be surprised if the Jets make more in-season transactions than any other franchise, or if the end-of-season roster looks very different from that of opening day. But yes, it's important to know what you're looking for, and have a goal in mind as you churn things.
Bryan: For the record, the leaders in roster churn over the past few seasons include the 2019 Fish Tank Dolphins and the 2018 Man Josh Rosen Was Wrong Cardinals, as well as the 2020 M*A*S*H Unit 49ers, so no bet on the Jets having the most distinct players on their roster in 2021.
What I mean about "willy-nilly" here is that it feels like that Saleh and company are being honest that they can't fix everything all in one go, so they should focus their attentions on getting something working; something to build on going forward, rather than getting overwhelmed trying to fix everything at once. They have some pieces on the defensive line, albeit not ones that match one-to-one with what Saleh has done in the past. Build off of that, leave the rest of the defense in a state of flux, and devote the rest of your time to bringing your offense into the 21st century. I really, really like it when I can explain what a team is doing when they rebuild. A plan, whether it's a good one or not, is better than just coming in and saying we're going to be tough and physical and competitive and ... well, we'll get to the Detroit Lions in due time.
To reiterate, though, the Jets gon' be bad. A six-win over/under? Let's try to count to six wins here. Home game against rebuilding Jacksonville, sure. The Eagles mess late in the season if that goes downhill. Uh. A Tennessee team that collapses under the Curse of 270? A Bengals team if Joe Burrow doesn't develop? The Dolphins in worst-case Tua scenarios? Even that stretch just gets me to five, so, what—London against Matt Ryan? The Patriots imploding? Josh Allen turning into a pumpkin? Taysom Hill being what we expect but Sean Payton sticking with him anyway? I just can't get to six. Enjoy the process, Jets fans, and we'll talk about results in 2022 at the earliest. Under.
Andrew: Jacksonville is farther along the rebuilding process than the Jets are. I repeat, Jacksonville is farther along the rebuilding process than the Jets are. Now some of that is because the Jaguars are more used to rebuilding than the Jets. But not all. Count 2021 as one long training camp for Zach Wilson, and look for reasons to be cheerful in 2022 and beyond. Under.
Bryan: And we're off, with two, count 'em, two disagreements. We're getting ornery and argumentative in our old age. Let's see if we can't keep that rolling next week.
Bryan and Andrew return next week as they pack up their saddle bags and go out West. Will Trey Lance or Jimmy Garoppolo start in San Francisco? Is Matthew Stafford the answer in Los Angeles? And what secrets does the mysterious inheritance of John Garrideb hold? These questions and fewer answered next week, same Scramble time, same Scramble channel.