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01 Mar 2018

Four Downs: AFC East

by Rivers McCown

Welcome back to our offseason series of Four Downs. Over the next three weeks, 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 (provided they aren't franchise-tagged or re-signed before March 6).

Buffalo Bills

Biggest Hole: Front Seven

Buffalo finished 31st in run defense DVOA last year. They finished 28th in Adjusted Sack Rate, and, per Sports Info Solutions charting, 31st in pressure rate (subscription required). The defensive line is watching stalwart Kyle Williams become a free agent, and the Bills have received almost no return so far from their first-round investment in Shaq Lawson. Outside of Jerry Hughes, this unit is completely barren.

At linebacker, scrap-heap find Lorenzo Alexander was second on the team in hurries, at 22.5. He's also turning 35. Preston Brown is a free agent with average-at-best tape. If I put the rest of Buffalo's linebackers in a list with Madden Franchise draft picks, only true fans would know the difference.

And, then, of course, there's the fact that Buffalo actually has a few weaknesses. They seem hellbent on getting rid of Tyrod Taylor, Eric Wood's sudden (yet delayed for salary cap purposes) retirement leaves them with a hole on the interior line, and their wide receivers are still bad. Things could be going better in Buffalo.

Major Free Agents: Kyle Williams, DL; E.J. Gaines, CB; Jordan Matthews, WR; Shareece Wright, CB; Preston Brown, LB; Leonard Johnson, CB.


The major re-sign target here is E.J. Gaines, whom the Bills acquired as part of the Sammy Watkins swap. Per Sports Info Solutions charting, Gaines finished ninth in yards per pass allowed among qualifying cornerbacks (subscription required). Jordan Matthews barely played after the Bills acquired Kelvin Benjamin, and it's hard to tell if that's a bigger indictment on the Bills or Matthews.

Miami Dolphins

Biggest Holes: Guard and Off-Ball Linebacker

With the return of Ryan Tannehill, Miami's big issue shifts to the line protecting him, as per usual. After moving Laremy Tunsil to left tackle, Miami could only provide a heaping helping of replacement-level guys who have been kicking around for a while at guard. Jermon Bushrod was probably the best of them, and he wasn't much. Panthers guard Andrew Norwell is the best of the lot in free agency, but the Dolphins don't figure to have much money to spend as they are one of two teams already over the cap.

Bafflingly committed to Kiko Alonso, the Dolphins were shredded by tight ends last year, allowing a 17.2% DVOA to the position that ranked 28th in the league. All Alonso did of note last season was look lost in coverage and ring Joe Flacco's bell on Thursday Night Football. Lawrence Timmons and Koa Misi are also fairly replaceable at this stage of their careers. The Dolphins will be hoping that second-round 2017 pick Raekwon McMillan can rehab from a torn ACL to fix these problems.

Major Free Agents: Jarvis Landry, WR (franchise tag); Jay Cutler, QB; Nate Allen, S; Jermon Bushrod, OL; Matt Moore, QB; William Hayes, DL.

By tagging Landry, the Dolphins have committed to either trading him or making other roster moves to accommodate his cap space. Lawrence Timmons ($5.4 million in cap savings) and Julius Thomas ($6.6 million) are likely cap casualties. They could also sign Landry out of the tag with a long-term deal that paid little early on.

It would be no surprise if Jay Cutler were now free to go into broadcasting. The only curious case outside of Landry is Matt Moore. Are the Dolphins still rolling with their playoff game starter from 2016, or will they try to draft or sign a replacement?

New England Patriots

Biggest Hole: Front Seven

With the expected returns of Derek Rivers (ACL tear) and Dont'a Hightower (torn pectoral), the Patriots have some upside, but also some instability up front. Players such as Elandon Roberts and Kyle Van Noy have been inconsistent, and after dealing away Jamie Collins and Chandler Jones, lack of talent was a major reason why the Patriots cratered to 31st in defensive DVOA.


The Patriots don't have the means to completely fix this in one offseason, because the problem isn't depth, it's a lack of top-line talent. Top-line front seven talent just doesn't hit free agency often. Demarcus Lawrence is almost a lock to be franchised. Ezekiel Ansah, despite his lack of production last year, may also be franchised. The best New England could hope for in these areas are older players on the Rodney Harrison path (Julius Peppers?) or a nice, solid player with some limitations like Trent Murphy or Avery Williamson.

With just $13 million in cap space as of this writing and little to borrow from Tom Brady, the Pats might be making keep/release decisions on Dwayne Allen, Martellus Bennett, and Alan Branch to finance whatever they do.

Major Free Agents: Nate Solder, LT; Malcolm Butler, CB; Rex Burkhead, RB; Dion Lewis, RB; Danny Amendola, WR; Cameron Fleming, RT.

The Patriots are somewhat prepared for Solder's departure, as they selected tackle Antonio Garcia in the third round last season. Butler is assuredly walking away after what happened in the Super Bowl. The curious question will be what that market looks like for their running backs. Dion Lewis has been one of the best backs in the NFL over the last two seasons. He led all qualifying NFL running backs in rushing DVOA ... in his first 16-game season ever. Rex Burkhead was a chess piece that most defenses didn't have an answer for ... when healthy. Does Bill Belichick value these guys over James White and Mike Gillislee? How much so?

New York Jets

Biggest Hole: Quarterback

I figured out why the Jets want to give Kirk Cousins an offer he can't refuse: they don't have a good option at quarterback. Josh McCown is a free agent and can't make it through a full season as a starter anyway. Bryce Petty has proven to be fungible, and Christian Hackenberg will be an NFL punchline for the rest of his career.

The Jets enter the offseason with a full war chest of cap space and the sixth overall draft pick, in a class that has as many as four different franchise-capable quarterbacks depending on who you believe in. Even if the answer is not Cousins, but Sam Bradford and a first-round pick, the Jets must address quarterback before the notion of them making the playoffs isn't laughable.

Major Free Agents: Morris Claiborne, CB; Wesley Johnson, C; Austin Seferian-Jenkins, TE; Demario Davis, LB; Kony Ealy, EDGE; Josh McCown, QB.

As mentioned, the Jets have more cap space then they'll be able to spend this year. Nothing should keep them from re-signing these players if they want them back. Morris Claiborne had a nice little year as a stopgap solution, ranking 36th of 81 qualifying cornerbacks in Success Rate per Sports Info Solutions. Austin Seferian-Jenkins re-established his value with a 50-catch season and some red zone success. Wesley Johnson may get looks from other teams, though it's a deep market for interior linemen.

Posted by: Rivers McCown on 01 Mar 2018

15 comments, Last at 03 Mar 2018, 3:20am by Theo


by fyo :: Fri, 03/02/2018 - 5:46am

Miami needs to make a decision on RT Ju'Wuan James. Timmons and Julius Thomas are gone which helps to the tune of $11 million, but James is looking at a $9.3 million payday for 2018. That's the third highest amount for a right tackle and James isn't a top-tier right tackle. If the Dolphins decide to stick with him, they need to get him under a new contract (he's in his final year) that should shave at least a couple million dollars off the cap hit. That could still make him the 5th highest paid RT in the league.

What really hurts the Dolphins is that Suh is hitting the back end of his contract. The "this really hurts" part of it. To the tune of a $26 million cap hit in 2018 (and even more next year).

by jtr :: Fri, 03/02/2018 - 10:56am

Cutting Timmons will give them cap space for the next expensive veteran linebacker mistake in Miami! Timmons, Alonso, Ellerbe, Wheeler...it's an annual tradition at this point.

by Noah Arkadia :: Fri, 03/02/2018 - 12:40pm

That's not fair. They make plenty of mistakes at other positions, too.

by jtr :: Fri, 03/02/2018 - 10:52am

>Ezekiel Ansah, despite his lack of production last year, may also be franchised

Already happened, several days before this was published. There are a couple of these mistakes in Four Downs every year. I know you guys write these articles ahead of time, but it's just sloppy to not give it a quick pass right before you publish. There are only two guys who have been franchised so far! Just give the article a quick ctrl-F for those two names before you push the article.

by Aaron Schatz :: Fri, 03/02/2018 - 12:39pm

That's my fault, I'm publishing this stuff while I'm also running around the combine talking to people.

by Noah Arkadia :: Fri, 03/02/2018 - 12:08pm

I wonder if Bradford would consider signing for a team like the Jets knowing he could be Glennoned if they take a 1st round QB. So many teams need QBs he'll surely get a chance to be the guy somewhere, right? We need an article breaking down the QB madness.

by jtr :: Fri, 03/02/2018 - 12:25pm

The Jets have a gazillion dollars of cap space this year, they can certainly afford to throw a lot of money at a veteran AND draft a QB if they so choose, and still have plenty left over to paper over some of the other cracks in the roster. Cousins or one of the Vikes trio would be a significantly better QB than Glennon, and so much more likely to actually play for most/all of the new QB's rookie year as the new guy gets settled. It does look to me like between the strong QB rookie class and particularly rich FA class, there are quite possibly more QB's than spots this offseason, so somebody is going to have to sign to be a backup or a Warner-in-NY kind of quality veteran placeholder.

by Theo :: Sat, 03/03/2018 - 3:18am

I keep reading this about the Browns too - they should go after Cousins AND draft a QB of choice 1st overall.
I wonder though, if Cousins takes into consideration if his new team is going to draft a new QB high in the draft.
And if you're the Browns (or another team) and you just signed Cousins - are you still going to invest a top pick on a QB? If you're the Browns, I would catch every opportunity to finally get a QB. But I'm not sure if a team would do that.

by MilkmanDanimal :: Fri, 03/02/2018 - 1:39pm

Bradford's injury history plus the fact Zimmer used the dreaded word "degenerative" the other day means his options are probably going to be more limited than he wants. Realistically speaking, the Jets are a great choice, as whoever they draft at QB will probably be awful just because of whatever curse rests upon their heads. He could be there for years.

by Noah Arkadia :: Fri, 03/02/2018 - 2:01pm

Ha! Yeah, that's true. But then, again, being the Jets, they will surely play the rookie until the year after they give him an extension.

But after doing the math, it seems there are fewer QB-needy teams than I thought. DEN, ARI, NYJ, CLE, MIN. Am I missing anyone? Of course, if teams like the Bills, Bengals or Dolphins were to change QBs, that would add another vet QB to the pool. So it seems that 4 rookie 1st rounders + Cousins that takes care of just about everyone.

by mehllageman56 :: Fri, 03/02/2018 - 2:06pm

Todd Bowles has repeatedly gone with the older more experienced guy at quarterback, sticking with Fitzpatrick after a six interception game over Geno Smith, and not playing Petty last year until McCown got hurt. The problem is, Bowles could be gone next year if things don't improve, and starting Bradford probably won't do that. Unless the Jets sign Cousins, they'll draft somebody early, maybe not first round but probably second and third.

by Noah Arkadia :: Fri, 03/02/2018 - 8:19pm

I don't know why I keep thinking it'll be Keenum that ends up in NY.

by Steve in WI :: Fri, 03/02/2018 - 2:30pm

I think with his long injury history, any team would be insane to anoint him as "the guy." I think the best he can hope for is being brought in to compete with a young QB, and if he bucks the odds and remains healthy, being given a fair chance to win the starting job.

Glennon got something like $16M guaranteed, so I'm not saying Bradford should have to sign for the league minimum or anything. I just think any team would be crazy to sign him for much more than that.

by Theo :: Sat, 03/03/2018 - 3:20am

If you're going to sign Bradford, you at least need to have a solid backup plan.

by Mike B. In Va :: Fri, 03/02/2018 - 12:38pm

The Bills will need line depth, but right tackle is a bigger need than center. Ryan Groy played very well there in 2016 after Wood broke his leg.

Has any team ever gone from a dominant defensive line to such a disaster so quickly?