AFC East Breakdown by Position: The Defense

With our positional breakdown series in full swing, it’s time to center our focus on defense within the AFC East. We will take a look at which individual unit is the “best” within the division, followed by the rest in descending order.

Be sure to check out our offensive breakdown of the division here.

AFC East Breakdown by Position: The Defense

Defensive Line

The Best: Bills

The Rest: Dolphins, Jets, Patriots

There is quite the real possibility that the AFC East currently boasts one of the best collections of talent on the defensive front in NFL history. Offensive lines throughout the league as a whole could be in for a long day when having to pass or run block against the lineman they’ll be facing in this division.

The Buffalo Bills starting front four combined for 40 of the team’s league leading total of 54 sacks and all four return for 2015. Defensive end Jerry Hughes was re-signed after becoming a free agent in the offseason. The team also added depth inside with defensive tackles Alex Carrington and Andre Fluellen joining Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams at that position. And of course, Mario Williams will be expected to continue being an effective edge rusher and build upon his 14.5 sacks in 2014 which was tied for fourth-best in the NFL.

It wouldn’t be a bold statement to say the Dolphins might be able to challenge the Bills for best defensive front in the division. They signed none other than Ndamukong Suh to the richest deal for a defensive player in NFL history this offseason. He joins an underrated front bookended by defensive ends Cameron Wake and Olivier Vernon who combined for 18 sacks in 2014. Rookie Jordan Phillips is a promising prospect the team picked in the second round of the 2015 draft. At 6’6″, 330 pounds, he certainly has the size to become a potential force along side Suh in the interior of the Fins defensive line.

Still another immensely feared defensive front in this division is that of the Jets. Sheldon Richardson and Muhammad Wilkerson combined for 14 sacks last year as the team’s two primary weapons at defensive end. Richardson will miss at least the first four games of the year due to suspension, and it remains to be seen if he could miss more time due to his arrest for multiple traffic violations during the offseason. This may be a huge opportunity for Leonard Williams, who was drafted by the Jets after a standout career at USC and could be the biggest steal of the first round considering he was looked at as a potential first overall pick.

The Pats really tried to add depth to their defensive front in the draft, selecting three players in the first four rounds to fill this need including 6’2″, 320 pound tackle Malcolm Brown with the final pick of the first round. Brown should certainly fill the void left by the departure of Vince Wilfork who has since signed with the Texans. The defensive end tandem of Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich, who had a combined 14 sacks last season, also returns.

Linebackers

The Best: Jets

The Rest: Patriots, Bills, Dolphins

The Jets inside linebacking combo of David Harris and Demario Davis might be among the best in the league. The two combined for 239 tackles and nine sacks in 2014. Outside the tackles, the Jets have a fairly effective duo in Quinton Coples and Calvin Pace who regularly get at the quarterback, registering 11.5 sacks between the two. Jason Babin and 2015 draft pick Lorenzo Mauldin add depth at outside linebacker for Gang Green.

Not too far behind is the Pats linebacking corps led by Jamie Collins. He had an impressive sophomore campaign in 2014, finishing fourth in the league among outside linebackers in total tackles with 116. He also picked up six sacks which is second best among all players at the position in the AFC East. Other players to look out for include fourth-year man Dont’a Hightower and veteran Jerod Mayo.

I worry about depth at this position for both the Bills and Dolphins. Last season, Preston Brown and Nigel Bradham led Buffalo’s linebackers in tackles and had an interception apiece. After them, there was a significant drop-off in production and I’m not sure the team addressed this need effectively in the draft or via free agency. Miami’s in the same predicament. Jelani Jenkins led the team with 110 tackles in 2014 but after him the next best linebacker in this category was Koa Misi with 64. The Dolphins didn’t take a single linebacker in the draft and only sparingly addressed the position via offseason signings.

Cornerbacks

The Best: Jets

The Rest: Dolphins, Bills, Patriots

If the Dolphins made the biggest splash in free agency on defense by signing Suh, the Jets may have made the second-biggest by bringing back Darrelle Revis. After separate one-year stints with Tampa Bay and New England, “Revis Island” returns to the team where his acumen as a shutdown corner was initially made famous over the first six seasons of his career. He doesn’t come cheap, having signed a five-year deal worth $70 million with $39 million guaranteed.

Antonio Cromartie also returns after a year in Arizona, where new Jets head coach Todd Bowles was his defensive coordinator. It must be said that Bowles’ expertise is in the secondary, and with Cromartie, Revis as well as Buster Skrine who finished tied for second in the league with 22 pass breakups last season with the Browns, the Jets corners could certainly impress in 2015.

The Pats lost quite a bit in the offseason when Revis departed for the Meadowlands and Brandon Browner signed with New Orleans. They tried to reload in free agency, bringing in Bradley Fletcher and Robert McClain from Philly and Atlanta respectively. I have to give the edge to both the Dolphins and Bills though. They return a ton of firepower at corner. Brent Grimes had five interceptions for the Fins which led the division amongst all defensive backs, while Leodis McKelvin and Stephon Gilmore nabbed seven between the two of them for Buffalo. The Bills also added more weaponry via the draft, picking Ronald Darby out of Florida State with their first pick in the second round.

I give a slight edge to the Fins given the fact the Bills corners tend to get beat with the deep ball. Both McKelvin, Gilmore and fellow corner Nickell Robey gave up 653 yards after catch combined last season.

Safeties

The Best: Patriots

The Rest: Dolphins, Jets, Bills

Sometimes continuity is key. It certainly is for the Pats safeties heading into the forthcoming season. Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung return after being stalwarts in the New England secondary en route to winning Super Bowl XLIX. The two have a combined 11 years of NFL experience between them and still appear to be in-their-prime kind of players given they’re both in their mid-to-late 20s. That said, New England selected Jordan Richards out of Stanford with their second round pick in the 2015 draft with a view towards the future. Richards was the fourth safety taken overall.

Remaining true to this theme of continuity, the Dolphins tried and tested duo of Louis Delmas and Reshad Jones will be looked at to shore up safety once again in South Beach. The two were among the best in the division at preventing big plays from opposing receivers. The problem for them is the recent season-ending ACL injury to Delmas. Free safety Cedric Thompson was drafted by the Fins in the fifth round and might need to step up as a result of what happened to Delmas.

New York Jets veteran safety Dawan Landry remains unsigned and it looks like Calvin Pryor, Jaiquawn Jarrett and new acquisition Marcus Gilchrist (signed from the Chargers) will get the majority of time in the middle of the secondary. Much like the Bills corners, their safeties, including Corey Graham and Aaron Williams have been susceptible to giving up big plays even though they’re also equally capable of forcing turnovers.

Special Teams

The Best: Patriots

The Rest: Bills, Jets, Dolphins

Pretty much the same cast of characters from all four teams field goal units return and it has to be said the advantage goes to the Pats with that in mind. Steven Gostkowski led the league in field goals made and successfully connected on 95 percent of his kicks, trailing only former Pat Adam Vinitieri in Indianapolis. Buffalo’s Dan Carpenter wasn’t too far behind with a 90 percent success rate on field goals while also hitting a 58-yarder on the season, tied for the longest kick of the season with Seattle’s Steven Hauschka.

That leaves us with the other two teams in the division and suffice it to say their kickers didn’t exactly set the world on fire. The Jets Nick Folk connected on just 82 percent of his field goals while Caleb Sturgis of the Dolphins was even less accurate with 78 percent which was tied for fifth worst in the league last year.

On kick and punt returns, perhaps the most exciting player in the division is Marcus Thigpen of the Bills. The 29-year-old returned a 75 yard punt for a touchdown in 2014 and averaged nearly 28 yards per kickoff return. The latter is the highest among all returning players within the division who have returned more than five kickoffs.

Coaching

The Best: Patriots

The Rest: Bills, Dolphins, Jets

In many ways, this column will end the way it began when you combine both offensive and defensive units. In discussing the quarterback position, it was pretty much a no-brainer as to who would come out on top in this division. Coaching-wise, it’s pretty much the same.

The Tom Brady-Bill Belichick pairing has been virtually impregnable for well over a decade. To further provide perspective, get this. Since the two led the Patriots to their first Super Bowl win when they were a massive underdog to the “greatest show on turf” St. Louis Rams in 2001-02, the other three also-rans in the division have gone through 18 head coaches. Only Rex Ryan has come the closest to Super Bowl contention in his first two seasons with the Jets when he was a game away from the big game each year.

Is it possible for him to do the same with the Bills? It’s too early to have a reliable answer to that question in the preseason but the outlook is murky. The quarterback situation is uncertain and running backs seem to be getting injured left and right in training camp.

Joe Philbin has steered the Dolphins to consecutive .500 seasons. Whether or not the pieces in place enable him to take this team beyond such mediocrity may be a deciding factor as to whether he’s the head coach beyond 2015.

And the jury is obviously still out on whether or not Bowles, who was named AP assistant coach of the year in 2014 for the Arizona Cardinals, can turn around the Jets. He has weapons on defense but is it enough to counteract the obvious deficiencies at the quarterback position?

The fact remains that the path to postseason glory in this division continues to run through Foxborough.

You can view our offensive breakdown of the AFC East by clicking here.

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