Four Downs: AFC East

Four Downs: AFC East
Four Downs: AFC East
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Aaron Schatz

New England Patriots

Biggest Hole: Edge Rusher

Many will laud last spring's Chandler Jones trade as the latest example of Bill Belichick's managerial acumen, cashing in an asset for long-term value while also winning in the short term. New England's season ultimately turned out just fine without Jones, but it would be wrong to claim that the Patriots didn't miss their best pass-rusher.

Pick your metric. New England piled up 49 sacks and finished second in adjusted sack rate in 2015, but had just 34 sacks and plummeted to 26th in ASR last year. And based on Sports Info Solutions' charting, the Patriots were just 25th in total pressure rate. Chris Long was the only New England defender to garner at least 20 pressures according to SIS, and he has already declared his intention to leave in free agency. Jabaal Sheard also seems likely to price himself out of Foxboro given that the franchise tag took a trio of top pass-rushers off the market.

Belichick has recently favored players capable of rushing outside or inside on obvious passing downs, which minimizes the need for a traditional 3-technique defensive tackle. Trey Flowers showed some promise last year in this role, but he has barely played 500 career snaps and finished with the same number of pressures as All-KCW stalwart Mario Williams. Apart from Flowers, the Pats have 33-year-old Rob Ninkovich entering the final year of his deal (and perhaps career) in 2017, and not much else. Expect New England to throw a few darts at players who could fill Long's situational role in the draft and free agency.

Major Free Agents: Dont'a Hightower, LB; Martellus Bennett, TE; Logan Ryan, CB; Jabaal Sheard, DE; Alan Branch, DT; Chris Long, DE; LeGarrette Blount, RB; Duron Harmon, SS; Michael Floyd, WR.

With salary cap inflation lavishing teams with more money than they can spend, the Patriots will have some tough valuations to make. Dont'a Hightower is the one player on this list who seems like a clear cornerstone, but he's 0-for-5 in playing 16-game regular seasons and will almost certainly become the highest paid off-the-ball linebacker in the league. No matter what, you can bet the defense will look significantly different in 2017. Of the 11 players who played at least 500 defensive snaps in 2016 (postseason included), six of them are free agents (not including restricted free agent Malcolm Butler).

Miami Dolphins

Biggest Hole: Cornerback

Despite inconsistency and injury, this unit managed to contain the best receiving options of opposing offenses in 2016. The Dolphins ranked fourth in defensive DVOA against both No. 1 and No. 2 receivers. However, they cancelled out much of that success by ranking 31st against all other wide receivers, with quarterbacks repeatedly picking on Miami's inexperienced depth.

Byron Maxwell quietly had a decent bounce-back season after his disastrous year in Philly, improving from 62nd to 14th in success rate, according to SIS charting. But the callow trio of Xavien Howard, Bobby McCain, and Tony Lippett all struggled when called upon. When Maxwell went down in Week 15 with an ankle injury, the Dolphins were exposed. Miami allowed just four 100-yard receivers all year with Maxwell in the lineup, but the opposing No. 1 receivers in each of its last three games -- Sammy Watkins, Julian Edelman, and Antonio Brown -- all went over the century mark with no Maxwell.

The Dolphins have high expectations for the second-rounder Howard, who was a Week 1 rookie starter despite missing all of training camp with a knee injury. But McCain and Lippett were both developmental players who haven't shown much entering their third seasons. Even if Maxwell stays healthy and Howard takes a step forward, Miami needs to ensure that other teams' complementary options don't continue to toast them in 2017.

Major Free Agents: Kenny Stills, WR; Andre Branch, DE; Jordan Cameron, TE; Jermon Bushrod, G; Dion Sims, TE; Jelani Jenkins, OLB; Mario Williams, DE.

Kenny Stills was an important vertical threat in last season's offense who might garner far too expensive a contract on the open market. The reports of Stills getting $12 million per year might be hyperbole, but anything approaching eight figures would be almost untenable with an extension looming for Jarvis Landry. The Dolphins could use Andre Branch for edge-rushing depth, as he has finished with 15 and 15.5 pressures the past two seasons. Otherwise, Miami is in solid shape with more than $40 million in cap space to address its needs on defense and at guard.

Buffalo Bills

Biggest Hole: Wide Receiver

Regardless of whether or not Buffalo hangs onto Tyrod Taylor, whoever their quarterback is in 2017 would surely appreciate someone to throw to. Sammy Watkins had only 28 receptions in a disappointing injury-plagued 2016, but that's still more than 17 -- the combined career total of all the other wide receivers currently under contract.

The Bills may consider re-signing Robert Woods, but they'll need help at the position regardless. Since trading up to take Watkins in 2014, Buffalo has stayed away from the position, spending two late-round picks and avoiding anything other than longshot Percy Harvin types in free agency. The ground-bound offense Buffalo has relied on seems shakier with new offensive coordinator Rick Dennison's zone-blocking scheme, a drastic departure from the gap-based scheme that suited LeSean McCoy so well. This is especially true if the Bills split with Taylor.

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Buffalo will therefore need more credibility from its passing options to offset its likely rushing regression. Even if Watkins stays healthy -- no lock with recurring foot issues forcing him to miss 11 games the last two seasons -- the Bills need multiple additions around him to help out whomever ends up under center.

Major Free Agents: Stephon Gilmore, CB; Lorenzo Alexander, OLB; Zach Brown, ILB; Robert Woods, WR; Marquise Goodwin, WR; Jordan Mills, OT; Robert Blanton, SS; Corbin Bryant, DT; EJ Manuel, QB.

The Bills top the league with 23 unrestricted free agents, including six who played at least 500 snaps last season. Stephon Gilmore will be the most expensive of the bunch, and we recently argued that Buffalo might be better off letting him walk. Equally confounding are the situations of linebackers Lorenzo Alexander and Zach Brown, both of whom broke out in 2016, but neither of whom has a clear role in Sean McDermott's new defensive scheme. Buffalo currently ranks 24th in cap space with $22.2 million, but could free up an addition $13 million by declining Taylor's option.

New York Jets

Biggest Hole: Cornerback

What do you get for the team that needs everything? Despite several less-than-illustrious years in the DVOA era, last year's Jets fielded the worst pass defense they have had dating back to 1988. Injuries coupled with Darrelle Revis' demise were at the heart of the 31st-ranked pass defense. Per Spotrac, New York fielded the league's second-most expensive secondary by cap hit last season, yet did not rank better than 16th against any type of receiver.

The Jets should be able to find reinforcements in a deep draft for defensive backs, important for a team that lacks young talent on the back end. Former first-rounder Calvin Pryor has stagnated and probably won't have his fifth-year option picked up, while mid-rounders Juston Burris and Dexter McDougle haven't proven anything at cornerback. The defense might benefit if it can find another perimeter corner to push Buster Skrine inside to his natural slot corner role, but this is a deck-chairs-on-the-Titanic type of arrangement.

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Edge rusher, offensive line, wide receiver, and of course quarterback could all be reasonably compelling choices here as well. Mike Maccagnan doesn't sound inclined to draft a quarterback, so this looks like a situation where the Jets will try to construct a somewhat credible roster before tossing their next young savior to the wolves.

Major Free Agents: Geno Smith, QB; Benjamin Ijalana, OT; Bruce Carter, ILB; Erin Henderson, ILB; Antonio Allen, CB; Kellen Davis, TE.

This list doesn't include Ryan Fitzpatrick, Darrelle Revis, Nick Mangold, Brandon Marshall, Ryan Clady, Breno Giacomini, or Nick Folk, all of whom were released this offseason in roster bloodletting. Maccagnan really had no choice given that the Jets were actually over the cap to start the offseason, though the current roster is possibly the league's worst. Benjamin Ijalana is the one free agent who might be worth holding onto, as the 27-year-old held up reasonably well at right tackle in his first season as a starter.


41 comments, Last at 13 May 2017, 5:27am

#1 by mehllageman56 // Mar 07, 2017 - 12:24pm

Agree that the Jets have a horrible roster, but all those roster cuts would deserve it even if the Jets had had a better season. The only arguable one is Brandon Marshall. I also disagree with the line about tossing the next young savior to the wolves. Neither Petty or Hackenberg were forced to start their rookie years, and you can't blame MacCagnan or Bowles for what Idzik and Rex Ryan did to Geno Smith. You can blame them for drafting Petty over Brett Hundley (over 100 passer rating his rookie pre-season) and drafting Hackenberg in the second round.

MacCagnan needs to concentrate on building the rest of the team right now, and his record at Houston and New York is a lot better at drafting defense, the offensive line, etc, than at quarterback. The only quarterback drafted by Houston that's worked out for them at all is T.J. Yates, and that's because he's a 7th rounder who started a couple of games competently before getting cut. Houston did draft Clowney, J.J. Watt, DeAndre Hopkins and a bunch of other solid to really good players while MacCagnan was there, just no good quarterbacks.

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#2 by johonny // Mar 07, 2017 - 4:02pm

In all respect to the AFC south, this is the worst division in football. Since Miami last went to the super bowl the Pats have been there nine times. Representing AFC 28% of the time over that span. The division title has belonged to one team 13 out of 14 years. That's a whole lot of regular season dullness even for Pat fans. The AFC south might not be heading to the big game anytime seen, but hey in March you don't know who is going to win the division. The moves the Dolphins, Jets, and Bills don't matter unless Tom Brady is hurt (who wants to root for injuries [not me]) or the Pats lose their minds and trade Tom Brady to one of the other three teams. Barring that, it doesn't matter. Thus, I've grown to learn it doesn't matter what Miami does in the offseason they will never win this division with the current Pats system in place. Woot NFL football its fan...zzz.

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#3 by mehllageman56 // Mar 07, 2017 - 4:46pm

Definitely the most uneven or topsided, but the AFC South teams have historically been worse than the other AFC East teams since Peyton Manning left the Colts. Just last year the Jets were pathetic, and still finished better than Jacksonville. Generally the worst AFC South team has drafted earlier than the worst AFC East team, and the AFC South teams don't have the excuse of playing the Pats twice a year.

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#7 by theslothook // Mar 07, 2017 - 11:52pm

Even if Brady was lost for the season, the pats would be favored(and should be favored) to win the division. Of course, they don't sniff the sb without Brady, but the prior stated fact does suggest - its either afc east incompetence or Belichick nirvana that explains why vegas would still favor NE despite losing Brady.

Frankly, look over other divisions - how many would the pats still have a fighting chance in to win with Garrapolo as the qb? AFC EAST, AFC SOUTH for sure. I could also envision the NFC EAST. How many other team could you say that about if you ripped the starting qb off the roster?

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#33 by Hoodie_Sleeves // Mar 09, 2017 - 4:59pm

The Pats, with Brady out, would probably still be a greater than 50% chance of making the playoffs in any division in football.

This is a team that stomped a playoff team this year while basically playing the option offense with their 3rd string rookie QB.

(and it's ignoring the fact that Garrapolo actually had a higher DVOA than Brady)

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#8 by RickD // Mar 08, 2017 - 2:49am

Ludicrous to claim the AFC East is "the worst division in football". Just look at the standings and out-of-division records.
"Since Miami last went to the super bowl the Pats have been there nine times." And the Bills have been there four times.

I don't see why the cess pool that is the AFC South is being touted as better just because you don't know which weak team is going to represent them year after year. (Yes, the Texans beat the Carr-less Raiders, but so what??)

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#13 by MilkmanDanimal // Mar 08, 2017 - 9:27am

Also, the idea that the AFC East has been so awful for years is weird, because "crappiest division in the NFL" is clearly a rotating title. The NFC South looks like a very good division right now, and a few years ago it was awful. The NFC West was terrible to the point where a 7-9 Seahawks team won the division at one point, and all the other teams were even worse. Outside of the seemingly eternally 7-9 Bills, the rest of the AFC East has had plenty of success in the last 15 years.

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#14 by Bright Blue Shorts // Mar 08, 2017 - 10:15am

"Least competitive" would be a better way of describing the AFC East.

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#23 by MilkmanDanimal // Mar 08, 2017 - 3:31pm

I think that would be universally agreed to, because the Patriots have been so consistently good. It's not that the division is bad, it's that Belichick manages to field competitive teams every year by completely reshuffling his gameplans to whatever his roster happens to reflect. You swap the Patriots into any division, that division is going to be a lot less competitive in general just because they manage to do so well so consistently.

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#29 by Noahrk // Mar 08, 2017 - 11:51pm

The Jets, Bills and Dolphins have been bad for a long time now. Even a 10-6 record that includes two losses to New England is not representative of the quality of the Dolphins last year. They were more like 8-8, which is what they usually are when they are good. The Jets had a few good seasons mostly memorable because of their playoff runs under Rex, and the Bills I can't even remember the last time they were good.

On the other hand, none of those teams is terrible except every now and then. Never like the Browns, or Jags, or the Raiders of old. It's a weakish division, but no worse than the NFC North, West or South, let alone the AFC South.

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#4 by Digit // Mar 07, 2017 - 5:33pm

Thing is, the AFC East's records (and strength of schedule) is impacted by facing New England twice a year.

Take, for example, the Miami Dolphins. They went 10-6. It's not too difficult to imagine a scenario where they would be 12-4 playing in the AFC South, is it? Replacing the Patriots with, oh, the Houston Texans or the Indianapolis Colts instead.

You'd need to filter out the gignormous giant that sits on the AFC East to see how 'competitive' the rest of the AFC East really is, especially against non-NE foes.

The real problem, mostly, is that New England's record is pretty consistently good against anybody (except in Denver.)

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#5 by Noahrk // Mar 07, 2017 - 9:32pm

Actually, that's what strength of schedule measures. By DVOA Miami had the 26th hardest schedule, Buffalo 28th, and the Jets 12th. That's hardly a murderer's row.

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#9 by RickD // Mar 08, 2017 - 2:55am

"Hardest schedule" is mostly determined by the out-of-division foes. This season the AFC East played the AFC North and NFC West, both of which were down this year.

The AFC East finished 8 games over .500, trailing only the AFC West (12 games over) and the NFC East (14.5 games over).

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#6 by theslothook // Mar 07, 2017 - 11:47pm

I am curious to see how many people truly believe New England is a talented roster. Look it over, how many players do you really think would be great or even pretty good on other teams? Aside from Brady, if you could purge ne of their players and bestow them on a team like Miami, would you still favor Miami over NE even then?

The afc east stinks, but life is tough competing with NE. Even with superior talent, its not enough. The jets over the years have been better talent wise than NE has and still they can't crack through. I hate to say it, you need Peyton Manning in his prime to challenge Ne at this point. Anything less and you won't break through. In some private corridor, I bet BB knew the AFC was forever his once Mannning's quick decline occurred. I guarantee he does not fear Pittsburgh no matter what they add or do.

Seriously, this year made me appreciate PM even more. The only player who could reasonably dent into that armor was him(and even he failed more times than he succeeded, such is their hegemony). Seeing everyone else melt in front of them really changed my perception.

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#10 by RickD // Mar 08, 2017 - 2:58am

The Patriots have a very balanced roster. So whether they are "talented" or not comes down to how you measure the aggregate talent. They have fewer All-Pro level stars than some teams, but on the other hand they have no units that are glaringly weak. And as we've seen numerous times, often in football the game doesn't come down to a team's best player, but its weakest. With today's passing rules, one weak link in coverage will destroy a defense against any playoff-level team.

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#15 by SandyRiver // Mar 08, 2017 - 12:34pm

I think this is key. Apart from Brady, how many Belichick-era Patriots would you see making the HOF - limiting them to guys with half or more of their career in NE, thus short-timers like Moss and Seau don't count. Gronk, if he stays healthy for enough games, but IMO no one else on offense gets to the final 15. Defense - maybe Wilfork? Law? Seymour? Nobody? Most dynasties or near-dynasties put a number of players in the hall; Pats may not fit that mold.

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#17 by Travis // Mar 08, 2017 - 1:12pm

Would you believe that Vinatieri's now played more seasons and (regular season) games as a Colt?

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#19 by Bright Blue Shorts // Mar 08, 2017 - 2:26pm

I had it down as 10 years for each. But I'll believe you :D

If he gets in, it won't be going for his what he did as a Colt other than it adding longevity and another SB ring.

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#20 by SandyRiver // Mar 08, 2017 - 3:01pm

(Brain cramp) Of course, and as already noted, it'll be mainly for his NE time even if less than 50%.

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#18 by theslothook // Mar 08, 2017 - 1:21pm

Its possible, but saying NE has great depth may also be a result of Belichick being so innovative and great. I think as long as he gets players who have a baseline level of intelligence to understand his stuff and a baseline level of athleticism to execute his stuff - then he can get a lot of mileage out of such players.

The point to make is - those same players if sent to other teams are likely half as useful as they are inside NE. Its exactly the same as the coaches they have when they leave. When framed in that way, how talented are these players? Isn't the point of talent to judge a player's intrinsic value once you strip away all other external factors?

Its why I made the point above - is Ne really talented at all? If the depth is also a function of coaching, then I'm not convinced they are talented at all.

A thought experiment - name me all of the players who if another team signed them away, they'd be approximately as good as they are now. I can think of at most three.

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#21 by SandyRiver // Mar 08, 2017 - 3:06pm

Law, Seymour, Viniateri did okay, but the "Smurf" WRs of sb 36, 38, 39 kind of disappeared after heading south and west. (Branch was almost a reasonable #2 but Seattle had paid for a #1.)

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#22 by theslothook // Mar 08, 2017 - 3:10pm

I was referring to the current roster.

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#11 by RickD // Mar 08, 2017 - 3:04am

About the Pats' comments at top: according the, Hightower did play a full 16-game schedule his sophomore year. Also, he's never missed a playoff game. He's generally been healthier than Gronk and a number of other players.

And really, Aaron, you're whiffing on Trey Flowers. Comparing his season-long stats to players who played full-time all season long makes no sense. Flowers only got significant playing time in the 2nd half of the season. Admittedly the pass rush drops off quickly after him, but nobody really thinks Chris Long was the best pass rusher on the team, even if he had the most pressures over the course of the season. Nink is pretty close to done, and the Sheard situation is unclear. Yes, the Pats need more depth at the edge, but it's not quite as bad as you make it out to be.

The situation at CB may get dicey depending on the Malcolm Butler contract. We're assuming that Logan Ryan will live for a more lucrative contract than the Pats will pay. That makes retaining Butler essential.

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#34 by Hoodie_Sleeves // Mar 09, 2017 - 5:04pm

The whole argument about the Pass rush is a bit nonsense.

"New England piled up 49 sacks and finished second in adjusted sack rate in 2015, but had just 34 sacks and plummeted to 26th in ASR last year. And based on Sports Info Solutions' charting, the Patriots were just 25th in total pressure rate."

The Patriots defense was significantly better in 2016 than 2015 - the takeaway should probably not be that they need a better pass rush (although hey, why not?) - it should be that maybe a constant pass rush isn't a focus of their defense.

I come here for analysis that's more in-depth than "They got less sacks - need pass rusher". This whole series of articles has been dissapointing in that regard.

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#35 by theslothook // Mar 09, 2017 - 6:10pm

In defense of Aaron - he did reference their lacking pressure rate as more general evidence of a weak pass rush. And just because the pats finished better with a weak pass rush doesn't mean its not a hole still. One could assume if the pats pass rush was better, they'd have an even better defense.

Frankly - what other hole could you find on NE? Even their backup qb situation looks like a plus. This is like a reviewer of a Michelin Star restaurant complaining that the ice cubes in the water glass could have been a little colder.

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#36 by Bright Blue Shorts // Mar 10, 2017 - 5:25am

My initial reaction was that of HoodieSleeves that the Pats don't necessarily care about getting sacks.

But then as slothook says, what other weakness do they have?

Perhaps a better injury-rehab-prevention guy to stop Gronk missing games each year ...

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#37 by Hoodie_Sleeves // Mar 10, 2017 - 9:07am

For a team that has a "weak pass rush" they seem to get an awful lot of big, well timed sacks - didn't they?

The Patriots are going to play atleast a couple games a year where their defensive line plays contain, and they just cover. That is always going to make their passrush numbers look worse than they actually are.

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#38 by Bright Blue Shorts // Mar 10, 2017 - 9:46am

So what do you see as the weakest part of the current SB champions?

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#39 by ncuba // Mar 10, 2017 - 10:14am

I wouldn't try to find any takeaways from a statement like "The Patriots defense was significantly better in 2016 than 2015." Pats' defensive DVOA was -1.5%, worse than their -3.3% in 2015 or even their -3% in 2014.

Pats' biggest need is obviously a strength of schedule like last year.

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#40 by Anon Ymous // Mar 13, 2017 - 1:57pm

"maybe a constant pass rush isn't a focus of their defense."

It also could/should be noted that they played an unusually high number of mobile/inexperienced QBs where they generally prioritize contain over pressure. I would postulate that at least 25% of the drop off from 2015 could be explained by these factors.

That said, however you get there DE is the biggest need on the team. Long and Sheard are gone, Nink is on his last legs, no legitimate talent in the pipeline... even with the addition of Ealy, I expect at least one of NE's first four selections in April to be an edge defender.

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#12 by James-London // Mar 08, 2017 - 6:31am

Got to disagree with Aaron here. Miami aren't great at corner certainly, but they also have the worst group of linebackers in the league. Lots of the trouble against other receivers was RBs, TE's and slot guys running wild in the middle of the field, and Miami's LB's did nothing against the run either.
After LB, I'd say guard, as Tunsil's moving to LT and Bushrod's a FA it doesn't look like they'll re-sign. That's two starting guards needed, and it's not like Miami have a great record at evaluating the position...
Corner comes next (and you'd like a Free Safety as well) as you'd hope Howard, Lippert & McCain will be better (although this is where losing Vance Joseph might hurt most as his record coaching CBs is stellar), and then DE.

Big holes to fill- combine this with a (likely) more difficult schedule and some regression in 1-score games and Miami will go well to hit 10 wins again.

Phil Simms is a Cretin.

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#27 by Noahrk // Mar 08, 2017 - 11:38pm

Yup, that's it. 10 wins again, though? That would be epic. Just as it was this year.

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#31 by James-London // Mar 09, 2017 - 6:16am

10 wins this year would be a real achievement. They get the AFCW & the NFCS this year, plus the Ravens & the Titans (2nd place schedule). This also includes a 'home game' in London. 8-2 in one score games screams regression, so this years' team could be better and still finish with a significantly worse record.

Phil Simms is a Cretin.

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#32 by Bright Blue Shorts // Mar 09, 2017 - 12:15pm

The NFCS has been a contender for league's worst in recent years. Remember in 2014 Carolina won with a 7-8-1 record. The teams do seem to be on the up but the picture has also been skewed by the division providing the NFC champion.

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#24 by Anon Ymous // Mar 08, 2017 - 4:22pm

The Patriot section is fair, though I think there are very good reasons to think Flowers' play down the stretch was legitimate. Even if so, the need for several edge defenders remains high.

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#25 by RobotBoy // Mar 08, 2017 - 10:22pm

Hmmm...NE players would do as well elsewhere, let me think...
How about the punter, the long-snapper and the kicker!
(Thank you, and I'll be here all off-season).
When healthy, Gronk might be the best TE in NFL history, so there's him.
On the D Line, I'd say the talents of Branch and Flowers would translate. I think Flowers is going to be a monster.
At this point, Butler would be a #1 CB anywhere. Mitchell also seems to be developing nicely.
Certain positions on NE sacrifice glossy stats for the scheme. In BB's defense, gap control and setting the edge are emphasized over sacks. It's the reason why he was okay with dumping his two best pass rushers, including the uniquely gifted Collins.
In a marginally related note, I've been curious all year as to why NE's defenses generally surrender fewer points than apparent talent and yardage surrendered would suggest, and the role coaching plays in this. Inside the Pylon took FO's defensive drive stats and crunched the numbers a bunch of ways that seemed to establish that over the last 15 years, NE has allowed fewer points per drive than surrendered yardage would suggest at the best rate in the NFL. Good stuff.

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#26 by theslothook // Mar 08, 2017 - 11:25pm

I will agree with Gronk.

But why would you be so confident about Butler? Flowers maybe, but he's not now and certainly wasn't last year.

The fact that you came up with two confirmed names and a handful of maybe's sort of proves my general point. Other teams saddled with this roster would bemoan a lack of talent. Instead, Ne it becomes a non-discussion.

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#28 by Noahrk // Mar 08, 2017 - 11:42pm

I agree with your point. Newcomers generally blossom in New England and vets fade away when they leave. If they actually get something valuable for Garoppolo as has been reported, I don't expect anything to change.

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#30 by Raiderfan // Mar 09, 2017 - 6:06am

Thanks for the link...just what I needed, another sports site to bookmark. :)
I think the DLoS is the key for their success, much more than their "defensive philosophy".

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#41 by jeeny139 // May 13, 2017 - 5:27am

AFC should hire messi

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