2015 Division Preview Series: AFC East

This is part one of our eight-part division preview series. I will pose two questions per team, one about offense and one about defense, and then predict each team's 2015 record and final standing within the division. Tune in each Sunday for a new part of the series!

 

Buffalo Bills (9-7 in 2014, 2nd in AFC East)

Will LeSean McCoy live up to his new contract?

The Bills gave McCoy a five-year, $40 million contract, which, when broken down by average, seems reasonable. McCoy will be the fifth-highest paid running back in terms of average salary, but his guaranteed salary is $26.5 million, which is not nearly as excusable.

The percentage of guaranteed money in McCoy’s contract is the highest of any running back on a veteran contract, and the amount of guaranteed money is second only to Adrian Peterson, who signed his current contract back in 2011. Still, this would not necessarily be a bad thing, were it not for the fact that McCoy is coming off a down year.

McCoy’s 2013 season was fantastic, as he racked up 1,607 rushing yards, 539 receiving yards 11 total touchdowns and only one turnover, all the while averaging just over 100 yards per game on the ground. Unfortunately, his 2014 campaign saw his numbers diminish in nearly every category. McCoy’s most drastic drops in output came in receiving yards (down 71 percent) and touchdowns (down 54 percent). His total yards from scrimmage also dropped (31 percent), and he had four turnovers. His overall rating from Pro Football Focus (subscription required) also fell dramatically, from 26.8 in 2013 to -9.3 in 2014.

In order for McCoy to live up to his big, new contract — and for the Bills to make the playoffs — he will need to put up 2013 numbers again. Another 2014 will not cut it.

How will Rex Ryan further elevate Buffalo’s defense?

Buffalo’s defense was pretty great in 2014. That is not really up for debate. The unit finished fourth in both yards and points allowed, and third in takeaways. The pass defense was especially dominant, coming in third, behind Seattle and Kansas City.

Bringing in the defensive-minded Ryan as the team’s new head coach makes sense, but what can he realistically do to make the Bills' defense that much better?
The 2014 Bills ran a 4-3 defense and were one of only two teams — the other being the Lions — to do so consistently, according to ESPN. Ryan typically runs a hybrid 3-4, which is far more common, though he claimed in January that he will run neither a 3-4 nor a 4-3. How well and how quickly the defense adapts to Ryan’s scheme, whatever he calls it, will determine how far this team can go.

Ryan has had no shortage of success defensively throughout his career, and he has even more talent on this Bills team than he did on last year’s Jets team. One thing seems to be certain: the Bills defense will be a fun unit to watch.

Prediction: 10-6, 2nd in AFC East

The Bills made a good move by going out to get a great running back in McCoy. He pairs well with Ryan’s ground-and-pound offensive approach, and he should take pressure off either Matt Cassel or EJ Manuel, whoever ends up starting. If Ryan can make the defense even better than its 2014 counterpart, the Bills can and will make the playoffs for the first time since 1999.

 

Miami Dolphins (8-8 in 2014, 3rd in AFC East)

Will Ryan Tannehill continue to improve now that the team has committed to him financially?

Tannehill is now the seventh-highest-paid quarterback in the NFL, annually, and is under team control through 2020. He often flies under the radar in the loaded QB class of 2012, but he has been the third-best QB of that draft, ahead of Robert Griffin III and behind Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson. Tannehill has improved statistically in each of his three pro seasons, most impressively raising his completion percentage by 8.1 points in just two years. One thing that separates him from the rest of the 2012 QB class is his lack of a playoff appearance.

Miami has an opening, however small, thanks to the Tom Brady suspension. While the Dolphins will not play a Brady-less Patriots team — regardless of whether his suspension is reduced — they have a chance to pick up serious ground in the division race. Four of Miami’s first five games come against teams that finished 2014 under .500, and two are against Buffalo and the New York Jets. Tannehill needs to be the leader of the offense if the team is to take full advantage of Brady’s suspension.

He has weapons now, including wide receivers Jarvis Landry, Kenny Stills, Greg Jennings and DeVante Parker, and it is time to take advantage of them. 2014 was Tannehill’s first 4,000-yard season, and he needs to do even more in 2015 in order to take the Dolphins to the next level. He needs somewhere in the range of 4,500 yards and 30 touchdowns to make that leap.

Can Ndamukong Suh prove he is worth nearly $20 million per year?

Miami’s defense was nothing special in 2014. The unit was a bit above average in yards allowed and takeaways and a bit below in points allowed. The lackluster output led the Dolphins to go out and land the biggest fish of the free-agent class, Suh, who joined the team on a six-year, $114 million with nearly $60 million guaranteed, good for the largest contract for a defensive player in NFL history. Suh was an absolute force in Detroit for the first five years of his career, and now he looks to replicate that in South Beach.

But how on Earth can Suh make a mark worthy of franchise QB money? No one is questioning Suh’s overall value — he ranked third among DTs in PFF’s 2014 rankings — but how can he prove he is worth almost $2.5 million per year more than J.J. Watt? In short, he can’t. Watt is underpaid, as insane as that sounds, and Suh is not a more dominant player than Watt is. In terms of value in a vacuum, Suh is not worth the same as Tannehill or Watt, but teams overpay in free agency; that is just the reality. What Suh can do to maximize the value of his contract: disrupt offensive lines, reach double-digit sacks for the second time in his career and stay on the field by avoiding unsportsmanlike behavior. That might be the best for which Miami can ask.

Prediction: 9-7, 3rd in AFC East

If Tannehill can continue his trend of improving every year, Miami could be in play for its first winning season, and playoff spot, since 2008. He needs to have a truly breakout year, instead of just slowly getting better, and he has weapons in the receiving corps to help him do just that. Suh needs to be a leader on defense and help improve a unit that did nothing special last year. If the team can get off to a fast start and take advantage of Brady’s suspension, Miami could do more than just hang around at the end of the regular season.

 

New England Patriots (12-4 in 2014, 1st in AFC East)

Will Jimmy Garoppolo shine in Brady’s absence, however long it ends up being?

The result of Brady’s appeal has not yet been announced, but it seems likely that he will miss some amount of time, which means Garoppolo will be making his first career start this year. We have not seen much from Garoppolo — he played in six games as a rookie, completing 19 of 27 passes for 182 yards and one touchdown — but that fact that he has been learning from both Brady and Bill Belichick makes his debut that much more anticipated. Throw in the fact that Brady backups tend to play well in New England, and it is easy to see why there may be unfair expectations placed on Garoppolo before he even takes his first snap as a starter.

Brady has always been good at getting more out of his receivers than they might provide a lesser QB. Garoppolo will have a couple solid targets in tight end Rob Gronkowski and receiver Julian Edelman, but beyond that, the receiving corps is lacking. The running game is not as solid as it used to be, either, with Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley both leaving in free agency. An experienced QB could make do with this supporting cast, but a green passer like Garoppolo could understandably struggle in such a situation. That is not to say that he cannot eventually become a great QB; it just is not fair to assume that he can stand in for Brady without a loss in production.

How will the secondary hold up without cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner?

Belichick is nothing if not inventive with his secondaries, but making this unit serviceable may be one of his biggest challenges yet. The insane drop-off from the Revis-Browner CB duo to Logan Ryan and Justin Green cannot be exaggerated. Keeping free safety Devin McCourty was huge, but it did nothing to solidify the sideline coverage, and McCourty can hardly be everywhere at once.

To answer the question, I am not sure the secondary can hold up. I would not be completely surprised to see Edelman making a cameo or two back in the secondary, as he did a couple seasons ago. I believe that Belichick will get the secondary playing as well as it can, but that may not be enough to fend off AFC East receivers like Brandon Marshall, Sammy Watkins or DeVante Parker.

Prediction: 11-5, 1st in AFC East

The Patriots have won at least 12 games every season since 2009, but I think this could be the season that streak ends, especially if Brady’s suspension sticks at four games. The combination of a crumbling secondary and an inexperienced backup QB taking the reigns just reeks of an overall drop-off for the team. Could the Patriots still win 12 or more games? Absolutely. Will they make th e playoffs for the seventh-consecutive year? Almost certainly. Will they win the division for the seventh-straight year? That seems less certain. Buffalo, Miami and the New York Jets are all making strides, and one of those teams could leapfrog New England while Brady sits. I am still picking the Patriots to win the East, but I would not be too surprised if Buffalo or Miami won it instead.

 

New York Jets (4-12 in 2014, 4th in AFC East)

Will Geno Smith finally make the leap?

Time is running out for the former second-round pick out of West Virginia, who has struggled to find his place in the NFL. Smith has a career completion percentage of 57.5 and has thrown nine more interceptions than touchdown passes through two years. Some thought the Jets might select Marcus Mariota in May’s draft, but when he went off the board second overall to the Tennessee Titans, that possibility went out the window. The Titans’ decision may have saved Smith’s pro career. Now Smith needs to take advantage of that opportunity by becoming a leader on offense and making the leap to deserving NFL starter.

Smith is 11-18 as a starter, and he only occasionally shows the skills necessary to be a starting QB in the NFL. In 29 starts, just two — at Atlanta in 2013 and at Miami in 2014 — netted him a quarterback rating in the triple digits, the latter a perfect 158.3. With the acquisition of Marshall from the Chicago Bears, Smith now has two solid receivers, the other being Eric Decker. He also has a committee of running backs at his disposal, including Chris Ivory, former Patriot Ridley, and former Ram Zac Stacy. The Jets defense and run game should be able to support Smith in a way that keeps him from being the focal point. He needs to step up and develop consistency, and the team can really take off.

How quickly can Revis and Antonio Cromartie fix the Jets secondary?

In a word: probably. Last year, without Revis or Cromartie, the Jets finished 14th in passing yards allowed. In 2012, the last year both were on the team, the Jets finished second in that category. After a disastrous 2013, Cromartie improved in 2014 as a member of the Arizona Cardinals and now has a chance to reunite with the last CB to bring out the best in him. Maybe the best part about Revis’ return is that Dee Milliner will not be starting anymore. That alone will really help the secondary out.

Prediction: 7-9, 4th in AFC East

With Revis Island back in New York (well, New Jersey, technically), the Jets have a distinct advantage over opposing offenses, which will especially help them out in divisional play. If the ground game can get going offensively, and if Smith can find some consistency, the Jets have a chance to make a big improvement on their 2014 record. I am not ready to predict a playoff spot for Gang Green, but an eight-win season actually would not surprise me.

Upcoming Games