AFC East Over/Unders: Vibing with the New York Jets
NFL Preseason Week 1 - Bryan: Welcome back to our preseason over/under coverage, as we reach the halfway point. That takes us out to the AFC East, home of Super Bowl favorites, rookie sensations, and more tampering than you can shake a stick at.
Cale: Call it a hot take, but I think the AFC East might be the most interesting division in the NFL in 2022. No, it doesn't have the upside of its western counterpart, but in terms of storylines, this is the division I'll be tapped into all season.
Everything practically feels upside-down in the AFC East. The Buffalo Bills that built their brand off being perennial underdogs are now the favorites to win the Super Bowl. The New England Patriots, three years removed from losing Tom Brady, somehow feel like they have more question marks across the board than ever before. The Miami Dolphins are building a YAC machine in the 305 with their new head coach straight off the Vans Warped Tour, and the New York Jets have, dare I say, genuine optimism in their young core?
Just kidding, Jets fans and offseason optimism go hand-in-hand; usually, it's unjustified optimism at that.
Buffalo Bills (11.5)
Bryan: Let's start by just kind of stepping back and admiring that number. At 11.5, the Bills have the highest over/under in the league this season. OK, technically, they're tied with the Buccaneers, but over for Tampa Bay is at -120; for Buffalo, it's at -140. The sportsbooks seem to think the Bills will be the most successful team this year, at least in the regular season. It's a big number, and lots of expectations to go with it.
On an unrelated note, the Bills and Buccaneers are my Super Bowl picks, because I am exciting and fun at parties.
Cale: I mean, you're probably right to pick them. Rule out the cosmic cruelty that would be Buffalo finally getting over the hump and making the Super Bowl, only to promptly square off against the 45-year-old that beat them into submission for the better part of two decades. This Bills team is GOOD. There's a reason that, when previewing the Bills on the Football Outsiders Podcast, Aaron, Scott, and I just ran out of things to talk about. There are next to no flaws in this roster. The Bills came into the offseason with one of the most complete depth charts in football, only to add Von Miller to their defense and address their biggest concerns—a second cornerback and a pass-catching running back—with their early draft picks.
If we're poking holes, what's there to even talk about? The fact that the offensive line is only slightly above average? I suppose there are some concerns about what Buffalo has at receiver behind Stefon Diggs, but I am astronomically high on Gabriel Davis, and a big Isaiah McKenzie fan to boot.
Bryan: I think it's worth noting that the regular-season Bills in 2021 were not as good as the postseason Bills, at least not on a week-to-week basis. We saw Buffalo lay a bunch of eggs last season—the Week 1 loss to the Steelers, the Week 6 loss to the Titans, the Week 9 loss to the Jaguars, and the Week 11 loss to the Colts all stand out as days where the Bills floundered against inferior teams, for varying values of "floundered" and "inferior." That Jaguars contest was one of the worst games I have seen from a really, really good team—Josh Allen, at this point, should not be leading his offense to a -58.3% passing DVOA against a squad led by Urban Meyer.
The point is not "oh, the Bills secretly aren't very good" or anything like that. The point is that the Bills had the most variance last season and were the good team most likely to lose to a bad team on a weird, random day. That doesn't change my opinion of them as playoff contenders or Super Bowl contenders or anything of that nature, but it does at least raise some questions about hitting 11.5—a few off days can really change the odds of getting that high. Will that continue to be a problem going forward, or was it a one-year fluke? I don't know! They had more variance than average in 2020 as well, although not as high as it was last season. Perhaps the Josh Allen experience is a really good rollercoaster—a lot of thrills, but watch out for the dips.
Cale: Yeah, and this isn't the AFC of years past. Even with Buffalo looking like the team to beat, the competition around them has drastically improved. Their six-game slate before the bye—at the Rams, hosting Tennessee, at Miami, at Baltimore, hosting Pittsburgh, and at Kansas City— is going to be some tough sledding. That doesn't even consider the games against Green Bay, Cleveland, and Cincinnati in the back half, or the competition in-division. While I don't think there will be any gale-force winds like that Monday Night Football game against New England to create some outlandish conditions, this is a division of teams that have notoriously beat up on each other in the past. I guess it comes with the territory of being the team to beat in the NFL. Playing a first-place schedule means you have to play the best.
Bryan: Are we all ready for the bye-week "what is wrong with the Bills?" articles, with Buffalo sitting at, oh, let's say 2-4? Because they're going to happen, and then Buffalo's going to rattle off five or six wins a row and we'll get the next flood of "they're back!" articles. Buffalo will be fine. Eventually. But the road might be a little bumpy on the way.
I think I have talked myself into the under here, just because going 12-5 in the AFC seems like a really tough ask this year. Drawing the AFC and NFC Norths isn't ideal, you point out the division is tough, and the Bills are just inconsistent enough that I think 11-6 or even 10-7 is entirely reasonable. I still have them as my AFC favorites, mind you, but I'll play the odds and go with the under.
Cale: There are some really interesting scheduling wrinkles in here, at least anecdotally speaking. Like, that Thursday night game in Detroit following their game against Cleveland has the makings of last year's Josh Allen Bowl in Jacksonville. I still think 11-6 could be a competitive record for top seeding in the AFC, and this does not discredit Buffalo's Super Bowl odds in the slightest, but under just feels safer. Heck, I'm the guy who said "it wouldn't be gambling without taking a few risks" when betting the over on Jacksonville just last week, but I feel more comfortable playing conservatively when it comes to a team with such high variance.
Besides, when's the last time the team with universal preseason praise actually lived up to expectations? The entire Sean McDermott-Josh Allen era has been built on defying odds and silencing critics. I guess in this case living up to predictions would be defying the odds by my logic, but I at least want to see them do it first.
Miami Dolphins (9)
Bryan: So, Miami had a nice, quiet, uneventful offseason, right? I have no idea what we could possibly talk about here.
Cale: Where would you like to start, Bryan? The tampering penalties, the tanking allegations, the Tyreek Hill acquisition, the Deshaun Watson courting, the complete upheaval of the coaching staff? Or do you want to just cut to the chase and talk Tua?
Bryan: We could talk about new head coach and Internet Cool Guy Mike McDaniel, who should be a lot of fun this season. Note that fun doesn't necessarily correlate with success in any real way, but at least the press conferences should be memorable.
Cale: You gotta love a guy who's still making "Mike Jones!" jokes in 2022. I'm kidding, but only partly. McDaniel genuinely seems like a great guy and a strong offensive mind. There's a reason Kyle Shanahan had dragged him to every new destination since his days in Houston. I'm just starting to reach my limit on the young offensive wunderkin storyline.
Bryan: We all know that importing the Shanahan offense to the AFC East pays immediate dividends. Just look at Mike LaFleur in New York last season!
OK, the Dolphins are a little more talented than last year's Jets were, and it's going to be really interesting to see how quickly McDaniel gets all the pieces in place to replicate the system he's used to running. A lot of the Dolphins key players are square pegs for round holes—I firmly believe that the reason Mike Gesicki did not get a long-term deal this offseason and is instead playing on the franchise tag is that he doesn't fit the YAC-and-blocking paradigm that McDaniel wants to have. There will be some growing pains as things kind of shunt over to the wide zone rushing scheme and the catch-and-run offensive philosophy.
That being said, adding Tyreek Hill and Terron Armstead is a big gain for any offense, scheme or no scheme, and guys such as Raheem Mostert and Cedric Wilson add some nice complementary pieces as well. That does kind of put a lot of pressure on the shoulders of Tua Tagovailoa, and, well…
Cale: I mean, this really all falls on his shoulders, doesn't it? It's obviously a make-or-break year for Tua, and I think this complete overhaul of skill position players will benefit him. If all we have to go off of are viral social media posts of Tua making heaves downfield in shorts, he has at least improved over the course of the offseason.
My concern doesn't lie with scheme or skill position, it's in the offensive line. Landing the best tackle on the market will absolutely improve Miami's situation, but give me the Cincinnati line-building strategy every day. Build through multiple second- or third-tier signings to raise the talent through median performance instead of landing one top-tier guy who is expected to act as the rising tide to lift all boats.
This line still has massive holes in it. Liam Eichenberg blew 42 pass blocks last year, four more than any other lineman in the league. His job should be made easier by being bumped inside to left guard, but it's still a glaring hole. Connor Williams also shuffles from left guard to center, and Austin Jackson bumps from left guard to right tackle. Musical chairs on the offensive line has never been a great sign of anything, but I suppose locking up the most important position on the line with Armstead will help bring this unit out of the league's basement.
Bryan: I think if the Dolphins are let down this season, it's more likely to be by the defense. Losing Brian Flores hurts there, as I feel a lot of their pressure came from scheme and design as opposed to just raw talent in pass rush—not that the players the Dolphins have up front are bad, just that they were used to the utmost by Flores, and I'm concerned the offseason shakeup will be bad for them. Cornerback is another real problem, with Byron Jones not living up to his hype when he joined the team; I'm not sure you want to have cornerback problems in a division with Josh Allen!
I don't know. I feel like this is going to be a rough, choppy transition year—which I suppose fits in with the entire feeling of their offseason, so I suppose it is at least on brand. A nine-win line is basically betting on whether or not they'll have a winning season. The Dolphins were fortunate to have winning seasons the last two years, and I'm not really feeling a repeat. I'm going with the under, and we'll see where they wind up 12 months from now.
Cale: I'm very wary of the preseason hype in Miami. The Tyreek Hill press tour isn't doing the job I think he thinks it's doing. Sure, the ceiling's high if everything on this offense goes well, but it ignores all the questions you just raised on the other side of the ball. And I like some of the pieces on this defense! Xavien Howard and Jevon Holland is a great core to build around, but there's not a lot beyond that. The pieces in the front seven—Christian Wilkins, Melvin Ingram, Emmanuel Ogbah, Elandon Roberts—aren't moving the needle for this defense with the issues in their secondary.
It doesn't help that McDaniel has some of the least pressure of any head coach to succeed in his first year. The team already has built-in scapegoats on both sides of the ball. Bad on offense? Tua's gone. Bad on defense? Flores just left, give it time. If this team is as easy-going and laid back as their coach has been portrayed thus far, the pressure won't be there to push to succeed. I'm ready for an under and a Miami letdown.
Hey, if Tua's really gone after this year, I wonder if they'd trade up for a new quarterba—ah, wait. Blame Stephen Ross for that one.
New England Patriots (8.5)
Cale: The New England Patriots: no coordinators, no titles, no problem. There wasn't much in terms of additions this offseason, outside of DeVante Parker and some (head-scratching) draft picks. Most of this offseason was full of losses. No more Josh McDaniels, no more J.C. Jackson, and the prototypical Patriot linebackers in Dont'a Hightower, Jamie Collins, and Kyle Van Noy have all skipped town. This is a team betting big on their youth in spite of having a Cronenberg-esqe hybrid of Matt Patricia and Joe Judge running this offense.
Bryan: It feels a little like Bill Belichick is daring us to say bad things about the team. Patricia and Judge as important pieces of your staff? No coordinators at all? Letting Jackson leave town? Do you dare doubt the Belichick, destroyer of worlds? Can you withstand the glare from underneath the hoodie?
Cale: To be completely honest, I'm weirdly optimistic about this Patriots team in spite of my better judgements. Writing the New England chapter in Football Outsiders Almanac 2022, all I had were questions: questions about what this offense was going to look like, how the coaching changes would affect Mac Jones' development, who would be the player to step up in each of the three levels of this defense.
Call it Stockholm Syndrome, but the more time I spend ruminating on the Patriots , the more I like their chances in 2022. As a contender in the AFC East? Probably not. But I think their offense is just all-encompassing enough to take on any defense they face. Each of the wide receivers has at least one thing they can do well. If the downfall of the 2021 Buccaneers, the 2021 Rams' ability to take multiple ACL tears in stride, and the moves made by Green Bay and Kansas City this offseason have taught us anything, it's that receiver depth and versatility may be more important that top receiver talent.
On top of that, the running back room is loaded. Mac Jones, looks-wise, is a far cry from the shirtless cigar photos he took after Alabama's National Championship, and the camp tape of his deep ball shows it. At least offensively, I have cautious faith that they can break free of the constraints placed on them by Joethew PaJudgia.
Bryan: I'm not a million miles from where you are, although I think I'd phrase it as heavily cautious, contingent optimism. I'm very interested to see where Mac Jones goes in Year 2. The book on him coming out was that he had the highest floor of the rookie class, but the lowest ceiling. So, a year after he was the best of the rookie class, where does he go from here? Were the scouts wrong about his potential, and will he improve in his second season the way good rookies tend to do? Because if Jones can jump into the top 10 in passing DVOA, that optimism is fully justified. If, on the other hand, his solid rookie season ends up being his limit, which is what the "low ceiling" takes would have you believe, where does the Patriots offense go from here? And I have negative faith in PaJudgia continuing to develop anyone; not after the general reaction Lions and Giants fans had to their meddling when they were in charge.
Cale: I just keep falling back on the old stories of Belichick and Brady spending all week dissecting defenses and almost reverse-learning offensive development through that. They're like comforting bedtime stories you tell New England children when they think PaJudgia is hiding under their bed.
If I had any concerns about this team (which I do), it's on the defensive side of the ball. On top of the personnel changes the Patriots are making, their current roster necessitates schematic changes as well. New England was already running more zone than they had in previous years, and that trend should continue because a combination of Jalen Mills, Terrance Mitchell, Malcolm Butler, and Jack Jones is not going to help you run man against any top offenses in the AFC. As mentioned earlier, the hulking, run-heavy linebackers of old are gone, replaced by leaner off-ball linebackers who can drop into pass coverage in the flats instead. This doesn't mention the big bets they're taking on guys such as Josh Uche, Christian Barmore, and Ja'Whaun Bentley to take the next step and become bona fide NFL starters.
Do I think some of these bets pay off? I'll put my money on one of the most cerebral NFL coaches and one of the best defensive minds to ever work in the game. Do I think they all hit? That's a stretch.
Bryan: High praise for Matt Patricia, there.
This is a tough one—possibly the toughest line in the league, at least outside teams with potentially suspended quarterbacks. There are so many moving parts in play here that there's a lot of variance between the best and worst outcomes for the Patriots this season. And while we rightfully praise Belichick for being able to navigate choppy waters, I'm not sure we have ever seen him work with this much schematic uncertainty at one time. With one of the 10 hardest schedules in the league, New England faces an uphill battle to match last season's results, and I don't think anyone would be surprised if they slipped a bit.
I am still going to go with the over. It's not one I'm happy about, and I wouldn't put any real money on this line, but I suppose I still do have faith in Belichick figuring things out, and Jones taking that next step forward. But this is a very unpleasant line, and I would stay far away from it.
Cale: Wow, I really thought this was going to be where we differed, but I'm glad to hear my irrational optimism has persuaded you.
Belichick has one losing season as head coach of the New England Patriots, and it was with the 7-9 team that brought Cam Newton in to start mid-summer, had the most adjusted games lost from COVID of any team in the league, and also boasted Damiere Byrd as its top wide receiver. This team is objectively better than that one, and it may be an apples-to-oranges comparison to liken the two together, but the 2022 line is only a game-and-a-half over this one.
It feels as though all we talked about was "if" and "hopefully" in this write-up, and it would take a lot for all those to come to fruition, but I also think there's a lot of people undervaluing the pieces that are already in place. Plus, on top of playing the NFC North, you can always count on New England to pick up some in-division wins and beat some opponents that may out-match them on paper. Give me the over.
New York Jets (5.5)
Bryan: On the podcast, you expressed some optimism about the New York Jets, and then lightning struck and you lost all power. That isn't ominous at all.
Cale: The powers that be don't want the public to know that the Jets might be a good (read: fun) team.
I had the opportunity to spend two days at Jets camp this week, and the one thing I noticed: the vibes are immaculate. (That's how we judge things at an analytics website, right? Vibes?) But seriously, I really think there is some promise to this Jets team on both sides of the ball. This is obviously a very young team. They were the eighth-youngest roster by snap-weighted age and started the second-most total snaps from rookies in 2021, then put four bets on rookies in the top 35 draft picks to play starting positions. But I really think those rookies (coupled with other veteran acquisitions) can really open things up for this team.
Take the secondary, for example, which got torched last year and put up a league-worst 29.0% defensive passing DVOA. The whole unit was built out of Day 3 picks, and it showed. Now, though, those young picks have a year of experience and can slot in behind Ahmad "Sauce" Gardner and D.J. Reed to provide some much-needed depth at corner. Or the wide receiver position, where Garrett Wilson's positional versatility opens things up for Elijah Moore to either play outside or in the slot. Or at running back, where Breece Hall becomes the bell-cow back and frees up Michael Carter to be used much more efficiently (and take way fewer hits).
Bryan: I hear you, and I think there's a lot of improvement at a lot of key locations. But where do the "Joe Flacco is outplaying Zach Wilson" stories come into your immaculate vibes? I'm 90% sure that's typical August nonsense from the training camp site at Lake Woebegone, but usually, the hype is directed at your second-year quarterback, not away from him.
My usual standard for judging rookie quarterbacks is to ignore all the bad they do and focus on the good. In Year 1, I want to see signs that something you're doing is working on the pro level; flaws and errors can be fixed as time goes by. So when Justin Fields and Trevor Lawrence have very bad years in year one, you can still point out some decisions and great throws and mobility as things that can be built on; examples of the potential they showed popping through. The list of things Wilson did well as a rookie is … very slim.
Cale: But Bryan, Zach Wilson deleted all the social media off his phone. That alone counts for at least two wins, right?
The term I kept coming back to when breaking down Wilson was "hero ball," just this incessant need to extend plays, do things out of structure, and take every shot downfield regardless of whether it was open or not. He could do that at BYU, when he played Louisiana Tech and North Alabama. But performance like that is how you end up throwing four interceptions in your second NFL start, each more egregious than the last.
I keep coming back to that Tampa Bay game in Week 17. Not because Antonio Brown ran off the field at halftime, but because Zach Wilson learned the most important lesson imparted to him by Mike White: checkdowns and throwaways are OK. I think the Jets might have actually beat the Buccaneers had Wilson had more than Braxton Berrios to throw to at that point in the season. There are still accuracy issues (Wilson finished dead last in CPOE among qualifying quarterbacks), but I think the bump in surrounding skill position players, some more protection on the line, and receiving a humbling from Mike effing White should at least raise Wilson's floor of performance by default. He can't get worse, right? Right?
Bryan: If, and it's a sizeable if, Wilson can elevate his play to even just below average, I think the Jets could be sneaky good this season. OK, "good" might be a stretch, but sneaky respectable. The defense has had so much work done to it, and I still think Robert Saleh is going to generate a good unit sooner rather than later in New York. Last season, they basically only used assets to bring in Carl Lawson on defense as they focused on the offensive side of the ball, so when Lawson went down in training camp, they were just kind of SOL. The additions to the secondary and pass rush should make things much more competent. A successful Jets team this season, no matter how you want to define success for the Jets, is going to be a defensively-led team, and I think they'll come out alright. Maybe not eighth-best in the league like our projections have them, but enough to where that won't be the bit people are worrying about next offseason.
To go for the over here, you have to believe that Zach Wilson will not be the worst quarterback in football. Are you there? Do those late-season improvements in Wilson's processing lead you to believe we'll see a more competent professional in Year 2?
Cale: Honestly, a little? I just think confidence in the system put in place by Saleh and Mike LaFleur, plus some additional coaching in the offseason, will help things go much more smoothly for Wilson. 5.5 wins feels like a very attainable number. Their first half of the schedule is a gauntlet, though. Kicking off the year by running through the whole AFC North, hosting Miami, then going at Packers, at Denver, New England, and Buffalo before their Week 10 bye? There's a world where they eke a few of those games out and look like feisty wild-card material. There's also a world where they kick off the year, what, 1-8? 2-7?
Honestly, that would put them on decent pace to clear 5.5, just given how easy their back half is, but it would be a big vibes killer. I'm taking the over just off the fact that this team is definitely one-and-a-half games better than last year's 4-13 roster. There's a big bet on Wilson, but I think the talent around him is good enough to get there. Worst case, Flacco makes his triumphant comeback in the back half, they pick up some games against the NFC North, and the quarterback search begins again. Cue my Sisyphus reference from the Jets chapter of FOA 2022.
Bryan: Part of me wants to say you have been hanging out with Dionysus, not Sisyphus, if you think the Jets are going to be good this year, but that's just because it's a funny line. A line of 5.5 wins is very, very low, and I still have faith in Saleh and the rest of the San Francisco exports to make a halfway-talented team with time. It does require Wilson to take a step forward, but only to "not totally embarrassing." I think that's well within the realm of possibility, so I'll take the over as well.
Man, all this Jets optimism is crazy. Hopefully, this time we won't be struck down for our hubris and have another massive power failure in the middle of talking about this f