Four Downs
Offseason analysis of the NFL, division by division

Four Downs: AFC East

Miami Dolphins
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

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.

Buffalo Bills

Biggest Need: Off-ball linebacker

For the first time in years, the Bills find themselves without any major holes to patch. As currently constructed, their roster is more than capable of competing for titles, so their offseason to-do list involves managing the salary cap, picking which of their own free agents to re-sign and which to let go, and then just drafting the best player available every time they're on the clock in April. It's an enviable position to be in.

The most interesting decision might involve Matt Milano at inside linebacker. Milano's numbers were down in 2020, in large part due to hamstring and pectoral injuries that cost him about half the season, but he still managed to rank in the top 10 among linebackers in yards per target, per Sports Info Solutions. Buffalo's pass defense DVOA improved from 7.0% to -1.2% with Milano in the lineup as well; they felt his absence when A.J. Klein stepped onto the field. The question is whether an off-ball linebacker is worth double-digit millions of dollars, or if those dollars would be better used elsewhere. I suspect Milano's importance to Sean McDermott's defense will make retaining him a top priority, but it is unlikely the Bills will be able to resign every one of their major contributors this offseason. Decisions will have to be made somewhere.

Major Free Agents: Isaiah McKenzie, WR; Tyler Kroft, TE; Daryl Williams, OT; Ty Nsekhe, OT; Jon Feliciano, OG; Brian Winters, OG; Trent Murphy, DE; Matt Milano, LB; Josh Norman, CB

The Bills start the offseason about $1.8 million over the projected 2021 salary cap, per Over the Cap, but there are a couple of caveats that help them out here. First, the feeling around the league is that next year's cap will be significantly higher than the $175-million floor agreed upon last summer, and perhaps a little higher than OTC currently has it—a boon for teams right up against the hard edge. Secondly, it's not too difficult for the Bills to generate some cap space—cutting John Brown, Quinton Jefferson, Vernon Butler, and Lee Smith would free up nearly $20 million in cap space and allow Buffalo to be proactive in free agency; none of those players topped 45% of the team's snaps last season.

Matt Milano, Daryl Williams, and Jon Feliciano are the three big names the Bills need to prioritize, and it's unlikely they'll be able to keep them all. Spotrac projects the three to have a combined average salary of $29.9 million on their upcoming free-agent deals, and squeezing all three in would likely force Buffalo to slash other important players elsewhere. I suspect, if push comes to shove, the Bills will prioritize Williams over Feliciano; general manager Brandon Beane drafted Williams in Carolina and will place full credit on Williams' dominant season in 2020 as being the new normal for the tackle. Feliciano's run blocking was missed, but re-signing Brian Winters to a cheaper contract may be the financially prudent path to take here.

If the Bills do let Brown go for financial reasons, that ups the chances they work to re-sign Isaiah McKenzie, who had a 25.0% receiving DVOA in Brown's absence and provided 6.8 points of kick return value. Other than that, there are not a lot of names here worth breaking the bank for; they'll need some cornerback depth if Josh Norman leaves, but they can likely find better value elsewhere.

Miami Dolphins

Biggest Need: Offensive line

The Dolphins successfully Tanked for Tua in 2019. Now it's time to build the line to protect him—or another quarterback of choice, if the rumors of them attempting to trade for Deshaun Watson have any truth to them. The Dolphins were one of five teams to rank 20th or worse in both adjusted line yards and adjusted sack rate, and they duplicated the feat in ESPN's pass block and run block win rates. Both Ryan Fitzpatrick and Tua Tagovailoa finished in the bottom 10 in time to throw last season, per Next Gen Stats; some of that was by design, but some of that was due to a lack of confidence in the big men up front. All five positions could stand to be upgraded.

It's worth noting that the Dolphins' line was very young this season. Austin Jackson, Robert Hunt, and Solomon Kindley were all rookies, and none of the primary five starters were older than 27. There's reason to hope that some of the young talent will continue to develop, but 2020 was not overly promising. Jackson had 28 blown blocks, and Kindley, Ereck Flowers and Ted Karras were not far behind. Considering Jackson and Hunt were picked in the first two rounds last season, it's probably too early to give up on either, meaning bolstering the interior line is a more promising direction. However, with Oregon tackle Penei Sewell likely to be available at the third pick, it would be tempting to shift one of them (likely Hunt) inside, theoretically boosting two spots on the line at once. Re-signing free agent Karras would shore up the center position, and you could do far worse than a Sewell-Flowers-Karras-Hunt-Jackson line in 2021.

Major Free Agents: Ryan Fitzpatrick, QB; Ted Karras, C; Elandon Roberts, LB; Matt Haack, P

Looks like Ryan Fitzpatrick's work in this here town is done; it's time for the legendary journeyman to saddle up to find the next stop on his never-ending travels. Fitzpatrick was significantly better than Tagovailoa—his 7.5% passing DVOA trumps Tagovailoa's -8.5%, and he added more value in the running game as well. Still, at age 38, Fitzpatrick isn't any franchise's future, and enough teams will want to sign him as a bridge to price him out of Miami.

Ted Karras is the real interesting decision for Miami. The Dolphins need a center, and Karras is fine, if unspectacular. Spotrac forecasts Karras as a $10 million a year player, and that's a price that makes you at least look around and see what other options are available. I'd expect the Dolphins to at least kick the tires on Corey Linsley or David Andrews and to sniff around the rest of a relatively deep free-agent class here; they have the cap room to make a move. They will almost assuredly sign a center in free agency. It just may not be Karras.

New England Patriots

Biggest Need: Quarterback

With the big three of Joe Burrow, Tua Tagovailoa, and Justin Herbert gone well before the Patriots' first selection in last year's draft, it's not overly surprising that Bill Belichick didn't use a first-round pick on a quarterback. What is surprising is that the Patriots managed to go all seven rounds without picking anyone as a potential replacement for Tom Brady, instead signing Cam Newton to a cheap, one-year deal late in the offseason. A -17.7% passing DVOA for Newton tells you just about how well that went, though he looked solid enough for a few weeks until he inevitably injured his shoulder again. And so the Patriots find themselves back where they were before last season started, trying to answer the unanswerable: how do you replace a franchise legend?

The answer likely isn't through free agency, unless the Cowboys somehow let Dak Prescott walk. The answer likely isn't through a trade, as it's doubtful New England can match any kind of package for Deshaun Watson. While it's possible the Patriots could be satisfied with a veteran castoff from elsewhere in the league (a reunion with Jimmy Garoppolo being the juiciest for headline writers everywhere), the likeliest answer comes from a quarterback-heavy draft. The five first-round prospects (Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson, Trey Lance, Justin Fields, and Mac Jones) may all be gone by the time the Patriots pick at 15, meaning they'd need to trade up to grab one; if someone Belichick likes falls out of the single digits, be alert for New England to make a move. Otherwise, Belichick could grab a mid-round prospect he likes, add a veteran in free agency, and roll from there. A Ryan Fitzpatrick/Kellen Mond/Jarrett Stidham quarterback room, anyone?

Major Free Agents: Cam Newton, QB; James White, RB; Jermaine Eluemunor, T; Joe Thuney, G; David Andrews, C; Deatrich Wise, DL; Lawrence Guy, DL; Jason McCourty, CB; Nick Folk, K

That's a fairly long list of free agents, but the Patriots have plenty of cash to work with; they rank fourth with $62.8 million of projected cap room per Over the Cap. While they haven't ruled out bringing Cam Newton back, the general consensus is that he'll be moving on this offseason, so that's one fewer name to worry about, at least. Joe Thuney likely will be allowed to leave as well, as Michael Onwenu was a great find in the sixth round of last year's draft.

That would leave David Andrews and James White as the marquee free agents, and the Patriots certainly have the cap room to keep both around if they so choose. Andrews is a team captain and valued leader, and one who is grateful to the organization for giving him a chance as an undrafted free agent. Assuming he doesn't get a Godfather offer from elsewhere in the league, I'd fully expect him to be back next season. As a receiving back, White fills a niche the rest of the Patriots' running backs don't. The Patriots need all the weapons they can get in the passing game, so they'll likely bring him back as well—while his receiving DVOA fell to 6.2% last season, White has had a DVOA above 10.0% in four of his six qualified seasons and never fallen into negative numbers; he has valuable football left in him.

As for the rest of the list, change is likely to be the buzzword this offseason. The Patriots are in a period of transition, if not quite a full rebuild. With the possible exception of Lawrence Guy, I'd expect the Patriots not to get involved in bidding wars on any of their free agents, instead using their cap space to bring in outside talent to bolster last year's 23rd-ranked offense.

New York Jets

Biggest Need: Quarterback

New head coach Robert Saleh has praised Sam Darnold, arguing that he has untapped potential and unbelievable arm talent. So, he's your guy for 2021, right, coach?

There's a lot of time before April to have a million different discussions, and wherever those discussions lead are where we are going to go in terms of making the best decision to get our organization better.

Yeah, he's gone. It's not that there's no chance that Darnold can improve; he's still just 24 years old and has escaped the bottomless pit that is the Adam Gase offense. It's just that Darnold, who has seen his DVOA drop in each of the last two seasons, has yet to show any flashes of the player who was drafted third overall in 2018. It's very much the kind of potential you want to let someone else pay you to gamble on, especially if they're willing to pay a late first-round pick, as Adam Schefter speculated.

Adam Gase's last gift to the Jets franchise were two late wins to take New York out of the Trevor Lawrence sweepstakes. Still, the second overall pick gives Saleh and company their pick of the remaining first-round caliber quarterbacks; Zach Wilson would seem to be the best fit for Mike LaFleur's offense, but they have a decent selection to choose from. Alternatively, they could package the pick as part of a trade deal for Deshaun Watson; the Jets are reportedly his team of choice thanks to the hiring of Saleh. Both strategies have their appeal, but the important thing is getting a passer they feel comfortable building their team around. The last Jets passer with a DVOA above 5.0% was Chad Pennington in 2006; that's the longest stretch in the league. It's not a coincidence that New York also boasts the longest playoff drought in the league. Go get a passer.

Major Free Agents: Breshad Perriman, WR; Jordan Jenkins, ER; Patrick Onwuasor, LB; Brian Poole, CB; Marcus Maye, S; Bradley McDougald, S

With a new regime comes a new philosophy, which often translates to letting all your free agents hit the road. Brian Poole and Marcus Maye may be exceptions, as Saleh looks to bring his defense to town. Maye might have been the Jets' best player last season; he was SIS's fourth-highest rated safety in 2020, a versatile player who can excel at free safety, in the box, or even in the slot in a pinch. Poole has finally found his niche as a slot expert, allowing just 6.6 yards per target last season. Both are still under 30, and both can be building blocks for Saleh's defense. Expect them both back next year.

Jordan Jenkins had just two sacks last season and 13 quarterback pressures per Sportradar, both career lows. The Jets have basically nothing on the roster in terms of pass rush, however—Bryce Huff, Kyle Phillips, and Jabari Zuniga all fit the type Saleh is looking for, but have a combined 21 pass pressures between them. Jenkins may well be re-signed just out of a need for warm bodies at the position. Apart from that, expect the Jets to go elsewhere to bolster their defense, perhaps targeting the plethora of ex-49ers defensive backs available this offseason.

Comments

28 comments, Last at 22 Feb 2021, 1:33pm

1 why the Patriots didn't use a late pick to draft a QB

They'd done that the year before.  At the time of the draft they were reportedly still high on Stidham.  Clearly that didn't last.  But were there late-round QB options that were better?  

QB is a need, but given the collapse of their front seven, I'd say that "help on defense" is an equal need.  

3 Watson isn't aiming for the…

Watson isn't aiming for the Jets as a landing spot.  His list has come out; Denver and San Francisco are on it, but not the Jets.  The earlier hype was probably leaked by the Texans, since the Jets have the most draft capital to hand over.  I have no proof for the second assertion, but it makes sense.

4 From the rumors

It sounds like Miami will go oline in free agency to add depth-competition to the young line they have. Apparently they want Joe Thuney, G which would make it harder to shift Hunt inside. Of course, no one is signed yet so who knows how it will play out. But for that reason, I'm not sure we'll see an oline with the first two picks. Maybe one in the second round. It still sounds like they're going WR-LB-RB-X with those first four picks. Then again, a trade down may also happen. I, for one, would be sorry to see Fitz go. He seems like a good fit for the staff post career. He fits Flores mindset. 

5 They're going to have to…

In reply to by johonny

They're going to have to fight the Pats and Jets for him probably.  Thuney is going to get a lot of money this year, but he deserves it.  

I would love to see Fitz go to New England, just so he can say he played for the entire AFC East.  I wouldn't mind if the Jets signed him if they traded Darnold, since any rookie is going to need time to adjust.

Honestly think this division will be brutal next year.  New England should be better even if they don't have their guy at QB; all the defensive players coming back, and all that cap room.  Bills and Dolphins should be good, and while the Jets are rebuilding they should be improved with the draft picks and cap space, as well as more competent coaching.

10 To play devil's advocate: as…

To play devil's advocate: as of now there is only one above average QB in the division under contract (and he looks like a regression candidate next season). Tua may develop, and the Jets will surely draft/trade for somebody, but its tough to project huge offensive improvement for either. The Pats will obviously be competent, but aren't scaring anybody anymore without a QB. Longer term the outlook looks good for this division, with seemingly good coaching in place throughout, but next season might be a little early for it to be described as brutal. 

14 True, but in terms of cap…

True, but in terms of cap room/managability this may be the least messed up division; Jets and Pats have tons, Dolphins are good and could even swing Watson under their cap if they got the chance, and Buffalo is barely over.  The only other division that can say that is the AFC South, and even then Tennessee is in worse shape than Buffalo.

17 I would love to see Fitz go…

I would love to see Fitz go to New England, just so he can say he played for the entire AFC East.

Alternatively, if he goes to an AFC West team then he'll have been in every AFC division. So...Broncos?

To make it into every division, he would also need to add the NFC North and NFC East.

I envision him signing with the Broncos, getting cut when Drew Locks turns out to be actually good, and then signing mid-season with the Giants to replace Daniel Jones, who I'm pretty sure is not good.

6 Darnold

I'm a loyal, life long Jets fan (there are about 7 of us) -and I feel like QB is the only position that isn't awful. Seems to me no matter who the QB is on the Jets they aren't going to do very well since they won't have any protection or time, no #1 WR to throw to, no #1 RB to hand the ball off to, etc. I would think the Jets might be better off solidifying the OL, and providing just a couple competent skill players (weapons) for their QB. I would like them to keep Darnold, add Sewell to the OL, give him a good receiver to play with Mims (if he ever gets on the field consistently) and a good CB could help the Jets, too.

Or they could bring in a different QB and let him run for his life and get crushed by defensive linemen like they do with all of their other QBs.  (smh)  Even Mahomes cant score a TD if he has no time and his receivers don't get open (see the SB).  Darnold can't perform under that duress either. No one can.

9 "Darnold can't perform under that duress either. No one can."

In reply to by Jerry Garcia

Uh...no...Flacco? Lol. There are a lot of better QBs out there. Also wouldn't call Jamison Crowder or Mekhi Becton awful.

Like the article says you're better off letting someone else fix him. You gave him two different head coaches and if the 3rd doesn't think he can be fixed, move on/don't let him stop you from drafting one.

12 I can certainly respect this…

In reply to by Jerry Garcia

I can certainly respect this argument - especially if the trade market for Darnold is underwhelming.  Give him one more year with Becton + Sewell in front, and a WAY better coaching staff.  Who knows?  It might click.

Either way, Jets will be back up near the top of the draft next year should they need to spend another high pick on a QB.

7 There's levels to this, though

Mahomes, KC, and the Super Bowl is a particularly bad example, though...it's extremely rare to see a line quite that terrible, inexperienced, and unprepared.

 

That line had 4 of 5 slots filled with backups, with the only actual factual starter being Austin Reiter...a guy who's arguably not quite replacement level to begin with. KC's line had been dramatically underperforming all season as it was. It wasn't just Fisher's iniury; he'd been...fine, at best even before he was lost. The entire line was the kind of mess professional teams rarely even see, much less try to take into a Super Bowl.

 

Simply by existing and not being iniured, Becton alone makes the Jets' line orders of magnitude better than what KC took into Tampa. 

 

That said, prior to Fisher's injury, Mahomes had managed to ride that line into a 14-1 record and a conference title...an elite mobile QB can make a hilariously bad line look that good.

 

So the "any QB would be stuck running for their lives behind a line this bad" thing is only true for certain rarely-seen definitions of "bad". Put a similarly elite QB (say a guy like Watson) behind the Jets' existing line (which was already better than KC's), and the Jets could have the kind of success they haven't seen in multiple decades, even if it's not ideal for winning a Lombardi.

13 Anyone but Winters

Winters was terrible. The Bills would be better off kicking the tires on any other guard in that price range than re-signing him.

23 Literally anyone else. Find…

Literally anyone else. Find the money for Feliciano, and they get Ford back, and we're back to the line that was giving Allen ridiculous time during the first part of year.

15  Miami scream regression…

 Miami scream regression. Defense-first team that was reliant on turnovers and good ST? We've seen that movie before. It's very possibe that improvement from Tua and the O-line offset any slippage from the D, but I wouldn't want to make any bets on that right now. I don't think they'll be bad (unless Tua is a disaster), but I wouldn't buy playoff tickets just yet...

O-line's a concern, but there's hope for growth.  WR might be more pressing. Outside DeVante Parker, it's a mediocre group at best. I understand there's another "best WR class in history" coming in the draft, but I'd really like to see Allen Robinson or Chris Godwin (or both?) signed.

What I'd really like is one of those WRs and Deshaun Watson, but that's crazy talk

16 I actually quite like the…

I actually quite like the duo of DeVante Parker and Preston Williams, though I think this is a Buffalo-esque situation, where Miami could use a true number one receiver to make everyone's life that much easier.

19 That's a good comparison…

That's a good comparison. Biggest issue with Williams is health, but If he's your #3 you're in good shape. Godwin's abilty from the slot might make him a better fit, though I think Robinson's great.

20 yeah

We all like Parker, Hurns, Williams, and Wilson on paper. But on paper is the only place those 4 have appeared at the same time healthy. I think Grant is toast. You have to figure one of the converted QBs will find a spot. I still wonder if Perry moves into a 3rd down back/wr roll similar to White on Pats. Not much running, lots of patterns from the back position. If they draft a WR and pick up a free agent, then one of those big four won't be back. Maybe two. Then there is Ford... There's a lot of Bs, but Miami needs to find an A-/A threat for once.  

18 Buffalo Bills Biggest Need:…

Buffalo Bills

Biggest Need: Off-ball linebacker

Are you sure? They may not have any holes, but they badly need to add an impact player to their mushy D-line. They get pushed around and don't get to the passer, which isn't gonna cut it against the Chiefs now that we know the blueprint to beat them.

It's interesting to me how it's still unclear whether it's better to build a defense coverage-first (Bills, Pats) or pass rush-first (SF, WFT). Teams have found success both ways.

21 Value

I think Belichick has seen it as both cheaper and more sustainable to build from the back end and rely on things like stunts to generate pass rush. Belichick has been willing to pay for a #1 CB in a way that he never has for a edge rusher (instead hoping to find something on the scrap heap). They've done pretty well also at developing good DBs from undrafted or unheralded players so it seems they have a system in place that allows them to derive maximum value from the talent they find.

22 Certainly, they followed the…

In reply to by RobotBoy

Certainly, they followed the analytics and the result was an elite shutdown defense. What's interesting to me is that the classic dumb-guy approach of drafting 1st round DL year after year also still works in today's game.

25 A Ryan Fitzpatrick/Kellen…

A Ryan Fitzpatrick/Kellen Mond/Jarrett Stidham quarterback room, anyone?

I'm just going to roll forward my prediction from when Miami benched Fitzpatrick:

by spybloom // Oct 21, 2020 - 10:51am

In reply to Can you imagine if… by Aaron Brooks G…

A part of me is expecting this, but not this year. Cam's only on a one-year deal and thanks to COVID the forecast on college QBs this year is cloudy. Sign Fitzpatrick next year as a stopgap, and then draft your guy in 2022.

Fitzpatrick then signs with the Vikings in 2022 after they release Kirk Cousins and free up $35MM in cap space. You saw it here first.