Bills Need CBs to Maintain AFC East Supremacy
NFL Offseason - In these editions of Four Downs, we'll review the biggest hole on each team in the division and then give a short look at each team's major free agents for 2022.
All pressure, blown tackle, blown block, and coverage success data comes from Sports Info Solutions charting.
Biggest Need: Cornerback
Their season may have ended abruptly in a late playoff loss to the Chiefs, but the Bills completed their four-year rebuild under head coach Sean McDermott that took them from 28th in DVOA in 2018 to 13th, fourth, and finally second the last three seasons. Not only did they marry a now perennial top-10 offense with a post-breakout Josh Allen at quarterback with the No. 1 defense by DVOA, but the Bills built their team in the draft and with second-tier free agents, leaving them with mostly past-their-prime veterans and backups hitting free agency this offseason.
If the Bills have a major hole, it is a result of poor luck rather than poor planning. Top cornerback Tre'Davious White's ACL tear in November thrust Levi Wallace into the No. 1 role. And since Wallace rose to that occasion with 5.0 yards allowed per target—seventh-best among qualified corners—Wallace can ask for dramatically more in free agency and may price the Bills out of his market at their close-to-$10-million salary cap deficit per Over the Cap.
White was as good as ever in allowing just 5.1 yards per target before his injury. Assuming he makes a full recovery, he should again anchor the team's cornerback group in 2022. But the Bills should give White some help on the outside. Capable veteran Taron Johnson works primarily from the slot. Dane Jackson fared worse than Wallace with 7.8 yards allowed per target after his 2021 injury promotion and may never have been a Plan A as a seventh-round draft pick from 2020. Cam Lewis was undrafted and has played just 130 defensive snaps in his career. And Siran Neal has just one start in four years with the team and, like Wallace, is a free agent.
Major Free Agents: Jerry Hughes, DE; Emmanuel Sanders, WR; Isaiah McKenzie, WR; Levi Wallace, CB; Harrison Phillips, DT; Mario Addison, DE; Mitchell Trubisky, QB
The Bills have bigger names than Wallace in Jerry Hughes and Emmanuel Sanders hitting free agency. But the team planned for that. They have first- and second-round sophomore defensive ends Gregory Rousseau and Boogie Basham to replace Hughes and Mario Addison, and they have Gabriel Davis fresh off his 201-yard, four-touchdown playoff outburst to replace Sanders. Rousseau has yet to enjoy a pass-rushing equivalent to Davis' record-breaking day, but he did have a promising 20 pass pressures on just 531 defensive snaps in the regular season. Still, I expect the Bills would love if Hughes returned to the team to chase a ring. He may have had his fewest sacks (2.0) in a decade and may be 33 years old, but Hughes remains a dominant player. His 36 pressures paced the Bills and were tied for 15th most among all defensive players in 2021.
The Bills will likely have their longest discussions for their least-heralded free agent, Isaiah McKenzie. As primarily a special teams player, McKenzie saw his target totals decline from 39 in 2019 to 34 in 2020 and 26 in 2021 as he entered his prime years at 25 and 26 years old. And he seems not to have enjoyed a marginalized role. But when he has played, McKenzie has effectively matched slot starter Cole Beasley's position-leading 61.8% receiving success rate with a 61.2% rate in the last two regular and postseasons. And McKenzie adds speed to their offense the Bills do not have from another receiver, an element on full display in his 125-yard outburst in the regular-season Patriots rematch. The Bills would likely net some extra cap space if they re-signed McKenzie and released Beasley to save $6.1 million.
Biggest Need: Offensive Line
The Dolphins have poured a lot of their rebuilding resources into their pass protection. And it's an understatement to say those resources have generated a poor return on investment. First-round left tackle Austin Jackson blew 4.6% of his pass blocks as a rookie in 2020 and needed a move to left guard in 2021 to remain playable. Fourth-round left guard Solomon Kindley blew 3.0% of his pass blocks in 2020 and early 2021 before he hit the bench in the Jackson move. Jackson's replacement at left tackle, second-round rookie Liam Eichenberg, blew 47 pass blocks last season, nine more than any other offensive lineman. Needless to say, the Dolphins had a 47% pass block win rate that was the worst in football in 2021. Quarterback Tua Tagovailoa turned that into a palatable 6.9% adjusted sack rate (19th) with the third-quickest 2.52-second average time to throw per Next Gen Stats. But the Dolphins may not be able to properly evaluate their young passer's fitness for franchise quarterback status unless they follow last offseason's Chiefs example of a near-full line overhaul. Second-round sophomore right guard Robert Hunt is the team's only clear starter-worthy incumbent. He improved his blown pass block rate from 2.9% as a rookie to 1.6% in 2021.
Major Free Agents: Emmanuel Ogbah, DE; Mike Gesicki, TE; Will Fuller, WR; Elandon Roberts, LB; Jacoby Brissett, QB
Defensive end Emmanuel Ogbah may be the most valuable Dolphins free agent in a vacuum. He just missed the top 10 among all defenders with 38 pass pressures in 2021. But as is the discussion with the team's offensive line, the Dolphins will likely make offense their top free-agent priority in an effort to support and evaluate their quarterback. As such, Mike Gesicki and Will Fuller become fascinating free-agent decisions. Gesicki lapped his previous career highs with 112 targets and 73 catches in 2021. But his receiving DVOA rate regressed from 10.4% in 2020 to -7.4% in 2021. And his -1.13 YAC+ per catch was bottom-10 among wide receivers and tight ends with 75 or more targets, and suggests he may be a poor fit for his quarterback Tagovailoa and new head coach Mike McDaniel, whose respective poor arm strength and presumably Shanahan-inspired offensive scheme will likely steer them away from contested catch situations and toward opportunities for yards after the catch. Frankly, standout sophomore wideout Jaylen Waddle is the only obvious fit among the incumbent Dolphins skill players. Of course, the Dolphins have more than $56 million in effective cap space, the most in football. They can add whichever free-agent receivers they want, assuming they don't just add a different quarterback.
New England Patriots
Biggest Need: Off-Ball Linebacker
The Patriots have cycled through a lot of defensive players in the past decade. Linebacker Dont'a Hightower has been the major constant, but his impending free agency, plus those of positional teammates Ja'Whaun Bentley and Jamie Collins, could leave the team with an unfamiliar hole in their second level.
Hightower has developed an almost mythological reputation. He has won three Super Bowls, captained two Super Bowl defenses, and made two Pro Bowls, the latter in 2019. The Patriots just shouldn't expect those outlier contributions to continue if they bring Hightower back. He opted out of the 2020 season for COVID concerns and returned in 2021 with a 15.2% broken tackle rate that was about double his 7.0% and 7.7% rates from 2018 and 2019. And Hightower turns 32 in March. His prime seasons are likely behind him.
Bentley is an option with more of an eye on the long term. He just had his best season with a career-high in defensive snaps and a 59.1% allowed catch rate that was dramatically better than the 75%-plus rate he allowed in his first three seasons. His improved offseason training and experience seem to counterbalance the lack of speed that dropped Bentley to the fifth round in the 2018 draft.
With about $5 million in effective cap space, the Patriots have options. Maybe the only thing they can't do is stand pat. The team planned for the eventual losses of Hightower and their other veteran linebackers with their second- and third-round draft picks in 2020. But Josh Uche and Anfernee Jennings have suffered myriad injuries and played just 716 defensive snaps combined in their two seasons. If they have demonstrated their readiness to inherit a top-five defense, it hasn't been on the field in actual NFL games.
Major Free Agents: Trent Brown, RT; J.C. Jackson, CB; Dont'a Hightower, LB; Ja'Whaun Bentley, LB; Devin McCourty, S; Ted Karras, C; James White, RB; Nick Folk, K; Matthew Slater, WR
The Patriots' potential free-agency losses continue into their secondary, where safety Devin McCourty and cornerback J.C. Jackson represent two of their four base starters. Now 34, McCourty may retire. The Patriots could overcome that loss with Kyle Dugger and Adrian Phillips under contract at the position. But they would be hard-pressed to replace Jackson, who stepped out of former Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore's shadow to become a second-team All-Pro corner in 2021 with 6.2 yards allowed per target and a 61.9% coverage success rate, both in the top 25 among qualified corners despite consistently difficult defensive assignments. And while he does not seem to share any of his predecessor's eventual grievances with his front office, Jackson will command a top-of-position contract at just 26 years old that could price the Patriots out of his market. Of course, the Patriots could also franchise-tag Jackson at about $17.5 million, a total they could absorb by releasing right guard Shaq Mason and restructuring another veteran's contract. And that would keep the team from over-taxing less experienced corners such as Myles Bryant, Jonathan Jones, and Joejuan Williams, and from forcing the versatile Jalen Mills to play cornerback exclusively. But reports say the Patriots are not going to do this.
By player count, the Patriots offense should remain more consistent from 2021 to 2022. But the team might reasonably identify right tackle Trent Brown as their top free-agent priority in any case, especially with Mason a cut candidate and center Ted Karras another free agent. Working around a calf injury, Brown blew just 1.7% of his pass blocks last season, the seventh-lowest rate by a tackle with 200 or more pass-protection snaps. And second-year quarterback Mac Jones does not have the pocket mobility of many of his contemporaries to make up for a poor offensive line.
New York Jets
Biggest Need: Pass-Catchers
Zach Wilson had a -32.3% passing DVOA in 2021 that was the worst among the 34 quarterbacks with 200 or more pass attempts and in range of the one-and-done busts of the last decade such as DeShone Kizer (-28.3%), Dwayne Haskins (-42.0%), and Josh Rosen (-53.7%). If the 2022 quarterback class had better top-end talent, I wouldn't have been stunned to see head coach Robert Saleh look for his Kyler Murray with the team's No. 4 draft pick.
Constrained by reality, the Jets should likely consider pass-catcher as the biggest of their many holes so they can at least avoid the Dolphins' uncertainty of their quarterback's pro prospects two years into his development. Corey Davis failed to live up to his big-money free agent contract from last offseason with a decline from a 22.5% receiving DVOA in a career year in 2020 to a 1.1% rate last year. And while that decline may owe more to a drop from a 75.0% to 66.1% catchable target rate per Sportradar charting than to any skills erosion, Davis missed half of the season with a core muscle injury. And while second-round rookie Elijah Moore teased top-end potential with 0.14 YAC+ per catch, he missed time with a quad injury as well. The Jets cannot feel confident Davis and Moore will play every game in 2022. And the team has little quality depth behind them with former second-round pick Denzel Mims an apparent bust and wideouts Jamison Crowder, Braxton Berrios, and Keelan Cole and tight end Tyler Kroft entering free agency.
Major Free Agents: Marcus Maye, S; Morgan Moses, RT; Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, RG; Jamison Crowder, WR; Braxton Berrios, WR; Keelan Cole, WR; Folorunso Fatukasi, DT; Jarrad Davis, LB
Marcus Maye single-handedly won the Jets their Jamal Adams trade, finishing top-two among qualified safeties with 3.9 yards allowed per target and with a 70% coverage success rate in a breakout 2020 season. But, as you know, the Jets can't have nice things. After a franchise tag, Maye promptly ruptured his Achilles tendon in Week 9 of 2021. And with that injury and with his voiced displeasure that the Jets failed to sign him to a long-term extension before it, Maye seems unlikely to return to the Jets in 2022.
Beyond Maye, the Jets have about as many priority free agents as you would expect of a team that won four games last season. Right tackle Morgan Moses had a decent 3.4% blown block rate as an unexpected full-time starter in 2021. But the Jets are likely hoping that Mekhi Becton and George Fant can be their long-term tackle starters—and that the team can appease whichever of those two loses what looks like a training camp battle for the left tackle job. Laurent Duvernay-Tardif would have a clearer path toward playing time at right guard if he returned to the Jets. However, his calling as a doctor could create timing issues with a return from Canada that might have the Jets looking elsewhere to fill that position.
Crowder has been the more productive player in his career, but Berrios would be my choice to re-sign at wide receiver. The latter's All-Pro efforts as a kick returner spurred the team's only upper-half unit, the No. 2 special teams by DVOA. And despite limited opportunities on offense in his career, Berrios bested Crowder with a -0.29 versus a -1.04 YAC+ per catch last season.