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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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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.
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.