Four Downs: AFC East
by Rivers McCown
Welcome back to our offseason series of Four Downs. 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 5).
Biggest Hole: Offensive line
The sudden retirement of Eric Wood and the sudden Richie Incognito-ing of Richie Incognito left the Bills with an unsolvable puzzle up front in 2018. They had already committed to trading Cordy Glenn to the Bengals, and all of a sudden they were trying to paper over the middle of the line with bargain-bin free agents like Russell Bodine. Despite Josh Allen's incredible season running the football, the Bills finished 24th in rushing offense DVOA and 30th in adjusted line yards. Spencer Long, who struggled for the Jets last year, was signed as a cut free agent early in the offseason. That isn't nearly enough to fix this line, but at least it won't be part of the draft pick compensation format. The Bills should be trying to replace Wood with someone like Matt Paradis or Mitch Morse, and they could probably do better at guard as well if they wanted to invest the money. Remember, this team has roughly $77 million available to play with per Over The Cap. They can afford to pursue multiple upgrades, and they will have to since most of the non-Dion Dawkins line is hitting free agency.
Losing Williams is a big deal, but something the Bills have had time to prepare for. Harrison Phillips, a third-round pick last year, should get the first shot at replacing him. And, of course, while many offensive linemen are hitting free agency, there's not a whole lot here that is a must-keep. Miller had his best season and has some pedigree, so he might draw a little interest in free agency. But overall, expect these linemen to be regarded as depth pieces.
Biggest Hole: Offensive line
Last offseason the Dolphins made some gambles with the line that did not pay off. They let long-time center Mike Pouncey head to the Chargers, then replaced him with ex-49ers center Daniel Kilgore and longtime Packers and Bears guard Josh Sitton. Sitton played just 62 snaps before hitting IR, and Kilgore made it all the way to 182. (Given Kilgore's lengthy injury history, that was probably close to the over/under.) Already relying on undrafted free agent Jesse Davis at right guard, the Dolphins stacked their interior line with the Ted Larsens and Travis Swansons of the world and it left them vulnerable. The only offense that had a higher adjusted sack rate than the Dolphins last year was Houston, and even with a middle-of-the-pack adjusted line yards ranking, they were below-average in power situations.
With Ja'Wuan James hitting free agency, an argument can be made that only Laremy Tunsil deserves to have a starting spot locked in for 2019. No matter who the Dolphins wind up with at quarterback, be it Ryan Tannehill or a rookie, they'll have to improve the line play to be able to get a full evaluation for Brian Flores' new staff.
The major free-agent prize here is Wake, who could be in a ring-chasing stage of his career and might not have the patience for a rebuild as he enters his age-37 (!) season. James is up-and-down but will probably command enough of a market that the Dolphins will have to clear the deck of bad contracts to have a real shot at re-signing him. A tag could logically be applied to either of these players, but with Miami at around just $9 million in cap space, moves would have to come first to open up some cash.
New England Patriots
Biggest Hole: Receivers
Under contract at wideout next year, the Patriots have Julian Edelman (turning 33 in May), Matthew Slater, and a bunch of low-round rookies and UDFAs who haven't produced yet. Under contract at tight end are Rob Gronkowski (turning 30 in May, on Year 2 of retirement rumors), Dwayne Allen (a likely cap cut), and UDFA Jacob Hollister. Yes, they have two well-established performers -- but they're both at dangerous ages, and Gronkowski already runs like a shopping cart. The Patriots will see Josh Gordon into restricted free agency and will have to decide what that means to them. A big reason that the Patriots stagnated at times in the Super Bowl was because they didn't have a receiver capable of winning one-on-one outside. They have many advantages in finding one, such as their history of winning and having Tom Brady. But this position may need more than one move for New England to feel comfortable about it in 2019. And given Belichick's drafting history, this is one area where he probably can't be trusted to draft a solution.
With only $15 million in cap space, the Patriots will likely lose multiple players on this list. Flowers has been bandied about as the happy consolation prize of the edge rusher class -- he's not Jadeveon Clowney or Demarcus Lawrence but he's also not likely to be tagged. Flowers finished seventh in the NFL in pressures per Sports Info Solutions. McCourty played a huge role in the Super Bowl, and Brown had his best season after being brought over in a pick-swap trade with the 49ers. As one of the perceived best tackles on the market, Brown will probably get paid more than the Patriots can afford. Guess they'll have to take that compensation pick and try to re-create the scenario again! Drat!
New York Jets
Biggest Hole: Edge rusher
New York finished 24th in defensive pressure rate per Sports Info Solutions, and has not been above-average in that stat since 2015. New York's leader in quarterback hurries last year was not any of their edge players, but interior lineman Leonard Williams. Jordan Jenkins led the team in sacks with seven, and the team hasn't had anybody get 10 sacks since Muhammad Wilkerson was still healthy and inspired. The last pure edge rusher to get 10 sacks for the Jets in a season was Calvin Pace in 2013. Depending on how much you weight single-season situations like Pace, the Jets have arguably never replaced John Abraham.
The good news is that the Jets have a horde of cap space and that edge rusher is one of the strengths of this free-agent class. The bad news is that the last time they had a horde of cap room and a glaring need, they created Trumaine Johnson's 2018 season. New defensive coordinator Gregg Williams will definitely want to chase somebody to upgrade this room.
With a brutal 2018 as the team refused to let Sam Darnold dial up much in the way of deep passes, it'll be interesting to see if Robby Anderson actually has an RFA market worth talking about. He definitely has the jets that teams covet outside. Henry Anderson rebounded from the cacophony of injuries that felled him in Indianapolis and turned in his best season for the Jets. Claiborne has become a reliable stop-gap corner who should be able to find a starting job elsewhere if the Jets don't want him back.