Four Downs
Offseason analysis of the NFL, division by division

Four Downs: AFC East

Buffalo Bills OL Cody Ford
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

For this May round of Four Downs, we will be looking at each team's biggest remaining need as well as notable undrafted free agents who will be going to camp with each franchise.

Buffalo Bills

Biggest Need: Offensive line/right tackle

This sentence feels as weird to write as it will to read: the Buffalo Bills' roster does not have a position group that poses a clear weakness. Questions about their young quarterback aside, Buffalo's roster is about as squeaky-clean as can be. They may be lacking stars in some position groups such as edge defender and tight end, but every unit at least passes the threshold for quality play in the NFL.

If any non-quarterback position stands out as a question mark for the Bills, it is the right side of the offensive line. Right tackle Cody Ford, in particular, had a rough go of things as a rookie. On just 405 pass-blocking snaps, Ford blew 17 blocks and allowed nine sacks. Ford's 2.2% sacks-allowed rate was the second-most among tackles with at least 300 pass-blocking reps last year, trailing only Panthers tackle Dennis Daley. Being in the same company as any Panthers tackle since Jordan Gross' retirement is never a good sign. However, maybe Ford should be extended some benefit of doubt being that he was a rookie and could turn things around next season.

Notable Undrafted Free Agents: Washington tackle Trey Adams was on track to be a first-round pick after his stellar sophomore and junior seasons in 2016 and 2017, but a slew of injuries -- including an ACL tear that ended his 2017 season a bit early and a back problem that kept him out for most of 2018 -- tanked his draft stock and playing ability. The hope is he may be able to recover in Buffalo. The Bills are also taking a swing on Auburn guard Marquell Harrell. With the Tigers, Harrell started just over 30 games alongside two 2020 NFL draft picks (tackles Prince Tega Wanogho and Jack Driscoll).

Miami Dolphins

Biggest Need: Edge rusher

Miami has a handful of great third or fourth pass-rushers, but nobody who should be considered the cornerstone of a pass-rushing unit. Former Buffalo Bills defensive end Shaq Lawson and former Kansas City Chiefs defensive end Emmanuel Ogbah were the Dolphins' biggest free-agent signings this offseason, but neither have earned more than 6.5 sacks in a season since entering the league together in 2016. While the Dolphins also signed Kyle Van Noy away from the New England Patriots, Van Noy is more of a utility piece and hybrid linebacker than he is a legitimate edge defender.

In the draft, Miami's only two swings at pass-rusher came in the fifth round with North Carolina's Jason Strowbridge, who should be more of a "big end" than a traditional pass-rusher, and Boise State sack-specialist Curtis Weaver. At 6-foot-2 and 265 pounds, Weaver has a short and hefty build, but he bends quite well for someone his size. He also racked up 34 sacks in three seasons at Boise State, earning at least 9.5 sacks each year. Our SackSEER projection system liked him as this year's sleeper edge rusher in the draft. Still, a pair of middling free-agent signings coupled with two fifth-round picks is not going to turn around the Dolphins' pass-rush in one offseason.

Notable Undrafted Free Agents: If Ole Miss defensive tackle Benito Jones' college development is any indication, the Dolphins may have found themselves a steal. A four-year contributor at for the Rebels, Jones improved his tackles for loss and sack total each season, going from 4.5 tackles for loss and a half-sack as a freshman to 10 and 5.5 as a senior. Miami also added Montana State defensive end Bryce Sterk. After beginning his college career in Washington, Sterk transferred to play his final two seasons in Bozeman, where he racked up a whopping 23.5 sacks over that span.

New England Patriots

Biggest Need: Wide receiver

You're probably wondering why this spot doesn't say "quarterback." Certainly we've insisted in past articles that analytics see Jarrett Stidham as a very unsure thing, but it's clearly not a hole the Patriots plan on filling. Like it or not, this is their guy and they're going with him. Going into the draft, the lack of pass-catchers was just as glaring a need but getting a lot less attention.

With two third-round picks invested in UCLA's Devin Asiasi and Virginia Tech's Dalton Keene, it is fair to assume the Patriots have found some players who will eat up snaps at tight end. Whether or not either of them will turn out to be quality players is yet to be seen, but at least there is some hope that top-100 picks can produce as fresh faces in the lineup. Wide receiver, however, is still a big ol' "maybe" featuring almost entirely the same cast as last season.

Maybe Julian Edelman will recover well from the handful of injuries that plagued him during the 2019 season. Maybe last year's first-round pick N'Keal Harry will take the next step after a lackluster rookie year. Maybe a healthier Mohammed Sanu will be able to better operate in the middle of the field better with a healthier Edelman to help him out. Maybe 2019 undrafted free agent Jakobi Meyers can build on a surprising rookie season and blossom into more than a role player. The Patriots' only effort to address all this uncertainty was to sign Damiere Byrd, who posted a -4.6% DVOA rating with the Cardinals in 2019.

Notable Undrafted Free Agents: Arizona running back J.J. Taylor was a cult hero for West Coast college football fans before a string of minor injuries hindered his 2019 season. At 5-foot-5 and 185 pounds, Taylor earned a reputation for himself as a "human joystick" type as he ducked and dashed around defenders with incredible quickness. Between the 2017 and 2018 seasons, Taylor ran for over 2,200 yards at 5.7 yards per carry. He also returned kicks in 2018, which may be where he finds value early on in New England. Auburn wide receiver Will Hastings is an athletic pass-catcher who underproduced in college, equal parts because of his raw skill set and poor quarterback play. The Patriots are also bringing in Washington cornerback Myles Bryant, a promising nickel prospect in 2018 who made a switch to safety in 2019.

New York Jets

Biggest Need: Edge rusher

Both in free agency and in the draft, the Jets threw everything they had at one side of the trenches. After signing tackle George Fant, tackle Greg Van Roten, guard Josh Andrews, and center Conner McGovern, New York went out and drafted Louisville tackle Mekhi Becton 10th overall and Charlotte guard Cameron Clark in the fourth round. If they wanted to, the Jets could field an entirely new starting offensive line and still have a new sixth man left out.

The other side of the trenches, however, was mostly ignored. Jordan Jenkins and Terrell Basham remain the team's top-two pass-rushers from last year, with Harvey Langi serving as backup. On any decent pass-rushing unit, none of these players would be more than a third option, yet here the Jets sit needing two of them to start. The only draft pick the Jets used to address this hole was in the third round with Florida edge rusher Jabari Zuniga, who was a moderately productive player for four seasons, yet never really broke out for the Gators. Expectations on this pass-rushing unit should be low.

Notable Undrafted Free Agents: The second-fastest player at this year's NFL combine is now a member of the Jets as an undrafted free agent. Utah cornerback Javelin Guidry measured in at just 5-foot-9 and 191 pounds, but took off in the 40-yard dash for a blazing 4.29s time, trailing only Alabama wide receiver Henry Ruggs. New York also signed Nebraska cornerback Lamar Jackson, who made 15 pass breakups in 2019, which was as many as TCU first-round pick Jeff Gladney. Most importantly, the Jets may have found themselves some wide receiver help with Georgia's Lawrence Cager. A transfer from Miami in 2019, Cager showed a fantastic rapport in his one season with quarterback Jake Fromm as a back-shoulder specialist, but injuries only allowed him to play eight games in his final season. Cager is an NFL wide receiver so long as health permits it.

Portions of this article originally appeared at ESPN+.

Comments

23 comments, Last at 12 Jun 2020, 9:46pm

1 Cody Ford started the season…

Cody Ford started the season splitting time at guard with Jon Feliciano and did fairly well there until injuries to Ty Nsekhe forced him to move to tackle.  Presumably, if Nsekhe is healthy he'll keep the RT position and Ford can move back to (his more natural position) at G.

2 Certainly we've insisted in…

Certainly we've insisted in past articles that analytics see Jarrett Stidham as a very unsure thing, but it's clearly not a

Inconsistent reasoning. You indicate WR was the Packers biggest hole even though they are similarly unwilling to fill it, and their existing players are more capable and more proven than Jarrett Stidham.

10 Heh. Well, in that case, it…

Heh. Well, in that case, it's still accurate -- WE (as in, Football Outsiders writers) have insisted that analytics see Jarrett Stidham as a very unsure thing:

Aaron Schatz: https://www.footballoutsiders.com/stat-analysis/2019/qbase-2019

Jeremy Rosen and Alexandre Olbrecht: https://www.footballoutsiders.com/stat-analysis/2019/qb-functional-mobility-model-2019

12 I mean, we'll see I suppose…

I mean, we'll see I suppose.

They got something out of Matt Cassell and certainly did well with Tom Brady, and if anything, they looked worse in college than Stidham did.

They've done pretty well drafting QBs, with really only O'Connell and Davey busting completely. Etling and Robinson were late-pick fliers from whom basically nothing was expected. Kingsbury at least turned into a decent coach. But they got something from Mallett (not much, admittedly), Cassell, Brissett, and Garoppolo. Even Julian Edelman, really.

20 Pat QB.

Objectively, this team has horrible offensive weapons, a hole at QB and a defense that has lost key components from last year.

I see this as a rebuilding year at best and would fully expect them to be 6-10 easily.  Especially with the rest of the league waiting to give them some paycheck from past years.

This is Belichick's time to show he's a great coach, but he'll find out that this league is about talent as much as coaching.  This team lacks depth and talent.  That combined with an unknown at QB will doom them.  

21 Uh Oh

In reply to by DIVISION

Be prepared to be disappointed. Belichick is by FAR the best coach of his generation. He could be a positions coach for every position in the league.

 

If you expect this team to go 6-10, then you'll be surprised.

22 If teams weren't "waiting to…

In reply to by DIVISION

If teams weren't "waiting to give them some paycheck [sic] from past years" all along, that's another issue altogether.

Although the payback/revenge factor against Belichick in particular appears to be very real, based on the Lions/Titans/Texans/etc.games the past few years.

I still think their defense will still be effective, and that Stidham won't be that bad.

If he falls behind Hoyer on the depth chart, though, as Ninkovich predicted - which seems ridiculous based on comparative preseason tape, and Hoyer's limited recent regular season tape - they might as well go sign Newton right now, unless they plan to tank.

4 With any luck, the Jets will…

With any luck, the Jets will make the playoffs and we can  see Lamar Jackson tackle Lamar Jackson, after Lamar Jackson just intercepted Lamar Jackson

14 1990 Bears-Bucs

In a 1990 Bears-Buccaneers game, Mark Carrier intercepted a pass intended for Mark Carrier, after which he was run out of bounds by Mark Carrier.

5 This sentence feels as weird…

This sentence feels as weird to write as it will to read: the Buffalo Bills' roster does not have a position group that poses a clear weakness.

You have no idea how awesome it is to see that sentence.

17 You can. It helps if your…

You can.

It helps if your mediocrity gets hot, but you can even if they don't. Rex Grossman and Jared Goff have started Super Bowls, and Trent Dilfer and the corpse of Peyton Manning have rings.

Hell, Brady had like 3 rings before he was any good.

23 "Hell, Brady had like 3…

"Hell, Brady had like 3 rings before he was any good."

 

I assume this may be half-joking, and 2001 he absolutely was about average by DVOA and 14th in 02 when he missed playoffs, but he was 11th in 03, and was essentially tied for 3rd with Roethlisberger and Brees in 2004.

Not elite in 03, but well outside the scope of the players mentioned, and at least in the slightly-above-mediocres-getting-hot category like 07/11 E.Manning and 2012 Quasi-Elite Flacco.

19 Allen's rushing numbers drag…

Allen's rushing numbers drag him up to good enough, I think. This is put-up-or-shut-up year, though.

It worked for Houston for a couple of years. After all, I'd rather start Allen than Hoyer in a playoff game, and his competition for the division title are led by another 3rd year guy who was worse than him last year, a rookie (unless it's Fitz, but I don't see that happening), and a total question mark.

It may be a shitty way to win a division, but I'll take it.

15 About Miami's ends

Let's not forget Miami plans to use Christian Wilkins at DE still. They drafted a big run stuffer whom I imagine is going to be the NT/DT of the future. If you count Wilkins as DE then they spent last years #1 pick on a hybrid end so it makes sense they didn't go heavy on replacing him. If his pass rush develops is another story...