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Toughest Division in Football? – 2023 AFC East Preview

2023 AFC East Preview

Scott Logush

Associate Editor

The AFC East had been New England’s punching bag for the better part of two decades with the Tom Brady and Bill Belichick duo. Now it’s a new era, with the Patriots starring down the barrel of being stuck in the AFC East basement. The rest of the division is in an arms race with the Jets adding Aaron Rodgers, the Bills continuing forward with Josh Allen, and Miami having the fastest offense with Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle at wide receiver. Coach Belichick can’t ever be written off, and the AFC East is a contender for the toughest division in the NFL. Let’s see what they have in store in 2023.

Buffalo Bills

The Bills have been a top team over the past couple of seasons with Allen putting himself in the truly elite tier and establishing himself as a top-three quarterback in the league. Last year, we saw a much more reckless Josh Allen, a true gunslinger type that was fun to watch but also brutal for the Bills in certain situations. Allen led the league with 44 big-time throws (7.4%), which was ten more than second-place Geno Smith and Tom Brady. However, he also led the league in turnover-worthy plays at 29 (4.2%) and was tied with Geno Smith who also had 29. Jared Goff has the next most at 24. Allen had eight games with multiple turnover-worthy plays and four with zero, he was all over the place last year. He has all the physical ability in the world, but with Brian Daboll’s departure came a regression in play, now it’s up to him to turn it around and correct some mistakes. Stefon Diggs is a top-tier receiver and Gabe Davis has the flashes of a great deep threat but lacks the consistency to be a good number two. Rookie tight end Dalton Kincaid could be the answer for a third option in the passing game, as he had 376 inline tight end snaps to 306 slot and wide receiver snaps in college in 2022. Their offensive line just needs to be average, but outside of Dion Dawkins, every spot is a concern. Rookie O’Cyrus Torrence is likely to start at right guard, Spencer Brown at right tackle hasn’t shown the most consistent improvement after allowing 30 pressures in 2021 and 42 in 2022, and center Mitch Morse has been a below-average center over the past few years but has been consistent.

The Bills do boast one of the more impressive defensive units in the league, with a formidable front with Von Miller and Gregory Rousseau holding it down on the edge. Miller is still capable of 40 pressures, he put up 45 before going down for the season with an injury in Week 12. Rousseau put up 42 pressures as he developed into a strong pass rusher. Buffalo also has a solid safety duo in Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde, and Tre’Davious White holding down the number one corner spot. They’ll work on replacing Tremaine Edmunds and have Matt Milano holding down the fort at the inside linebacker spot. And who could forget the incredible story that is Damar Hamlin? I’m not going to place wide expectations on him, but him just being able to return to practice is incredible. The Bills have been knocking on the door for the past two years, this has to be the year they put it together.

Miami Dolphins

The Miami Dolphins enter 2023 with some high expectations. They pushed their chips in acquiring Bradley Chubb at the trade deadline and going after Jalen Ramsey via trade with the Rams this offseason. Although they ultimately failed to win a playoff game due to key injuries to Tua Tagovailoa, the Dolphins gave the Bills all they could handle. The Dolphins boast an impressive defensive front with 2021 first-round pick Jaelen Phillips and 2018 top-five pick Bradley Chubb. Both are 50-pressure guys, and Jaelen Phillips tallied 70 in 2022 for Miami. Christian Wilkins and Zach Sieler are both capable of getting 30+ pressures from the interior and are even better against the run with 55 and 41 run stops respectively in 2022.

Their offensive line is good enough, left guard and right tackle are glaring weaknesses but everywhere else is good, especially with Terron Armstead at left tackle. Their wide receiver group may be the most dangerous in the NFL, and certainly the fastest with Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle. They missed out on the Dalvin Cook sweepstakes, but have an incredible amount of speed with Raheem Mostert in the backfield. The big questions come at quarterback and if Tua Tagovailoa can remain healthy. I don’t want to hold his head injuries against him, especially with the scare against the Bengals, but health is a real question and concern for Tua. Backup quarterback is an important position for the Dolphins and they have Mike White. Quarterback stability is what’s holding the Dolphins back from being considered Super Bowl contenders.

New England Patriots

How the mighty have fallen. After years of dominance, the Patriots have found themselves in mediocrity and knocking on the door of being outright bad. The person to blame for all of this? Bill Belichick. Belichick the general manager has seemingly sabotaged this roster and staff. They had a camp battle between Joe Judge and Matt Patricia to be their offensive coordinator last year. The last time Patricia had anything to do with offense was in 2005 when he served as an assistant offensive line coach, and Joe Judge had one year as an offensive coach that came in 2019 as a wide receivers coach. This setup was destined to fail from the beginning. Now they’ve brought back Bill O’Brien which positions their offense to greatly improve but the skill players leave a lot to be desired. Last year we saw Mac Jones becoming a bit more of a gambler, pulling the trigger and taking some chances. He had a big-time throw percentage of 4.7% and a turnover-worthy play percentage of 2.7, both higher than his rookie season. We saw full gunslinger Mac in week three against the Ravens with the good of five big-time throws and the bad of four turnover-worthy plays. Let’s see if Bill O’Brien can get some more of the good and weed out some of the bad. The offensive line is still very good, and they brought in Ezekiel Elliot with a value signing. But their number one wide receiver is Juju Smith-Schuster. We saw this experiment with the Steelers when they had a significantly better quarterback and it still failed to produce. Smith-Schuster may just be that big slot that can give you tough catches and reliable first downs on the inside but lacks the top speed to consistently win vertically. 

A consistent sign of a Bill Belichick team is a strong defense, and that trend will continue this year in 2023. Ja’Whaun Bentley had a strong year at the inside linebacker spot, and the Patriots will return a strong defensive front. Although they may not have a single elite player, they have multiple rock-solid guys who can make very meaningful plays. Matt Judon, Josh Uche, Deatrich Wise Jr., Trey Flowers, Christian Barmore, Anfernee Jennings, Lawrence Guy, and Davon Godchaux. The secondary should be solid as well. With Jonathan Jones returning, and first-round cornerback Christian Gonzalez has looked fine in the preseason so far. He has yet to miss a tackle in 59 snaps. They have a strong safety duo with Kyle Dugger and Adrian Phillips, with the greatest coach in the history of the league calling the shots. A rebound for Mac Jones is necessary for the Patriots to return to the playoffs, don’t kid yourself with Bailey Zappe.

New York Jets

The Jets have quietly built a strong team that was a quarterback away, and now they have their quarterback. Aaron Rodgers is Aaron Rodgers, and while we saw some decline last season I’m not concerned. The physical talent was absolutely still there, and while his accuracy dropped off a bit he had a fractured thumb on his throwing hand. As that injury heals, expect his accuracy to return. Garrett Wilson had a strong rookie year despite horrible quarterback play, and the Jets have a strong running back room with second-year player Breece Hall and the newly signed Dalvin Cook. They brought Allen Lazard over from Green Bay who can fit in nicely as a second option with the recent retirement of Corey Davis. Their offensive line is fine, concerns regarding Becton’s health and ability to make it through a season are justified. Duane Brown’s play has been slipping for a couple of seasons now, and the Jets brought Nathaniel Hackett on as their offensive coordinator. The Jets are all-in on the Rodgers dream.

As for their defense, it has all the makings to be a top-five defense in the league. Headlined by interior defensive lineman Quinnen Williams who received a nice payday in the offseason. The Jets also have some strong pieces along the defensive line with Al Woods, Carl Lawson, Michael Clemons, John Franklin-Myers, Jermaine Johnson, Bryce Huff, and 2023 first-round selection Will McDonald to round out the rotation. Their secondary is on the verge of being an elite unit as well. With first-round stud Sauce Gardner locking down just about any receiver across from him, and other very good players like D.J. Reed, Michael Carter II, Jordan Whitehead, and Chuck Clark rounding out the group. A team’s secondary is a weak link position group, it doesn’t matter how great your best is if your weakest is getting beat every play. The Jets don’t have a weak link in their secondary, which makes it one of the better ones in the league.

Final Prediction:

Ultimately, the bottom of the AFC East is pretty set with the Patriots. They lack the firepower to keep up with the other three high-powered offenses. The battle between the other three is intriguing, with the Bills being my pick to be the best with the best quarterback. I also don’t trust that Tua can remain healthy for an entire season, which is a massive factor in how closely I view the Jets and Dolphins. With a refreshed Aaron Rodgers and a great team around him, the Jets should be making noise when the playoffs come.

Standings:

  1. Buffalo Bills
  2. New York Jets
  3. Miami Dolphins
  4. New England Patriots
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