AFC East Breakdown by Position: The Offense

As the 2015 NFL season approaches, the Last Word on Sports NFL department will be breaking down which teams within all eight divisions have the best individual units on both sides of the football.

Can anyone challenge Tom Brady and the Pats for supremacy within the division? If so, which pieces on offense might enable them to do so. Here’s an position-by-position breakdown of the AFC East by offensive unit, with “the best” at each position followed by “the rest” in descending order.

Be sure to take a look at our defensive breakdown of the division here.

AFC East Positional Breakdown: Offense

Quarterback

The Best: Patriots

The Rest: Dolphins, Jets, Bills

Until Tom Brady shows some drop-off in form late in his career or he retires (whichever comes first, I guess), the Patriots are as obvious a pick as you’re going to get here,Deflategate issues aside. Despite there being some speed bumps along the way in 2014, mainly that Monday Night Football blowout at the hands of Kansas City in Week Four, Brady once again led New England to victory in the Super Bowl. His 328 yard, four touchdown performance (with balls I’m assuming were inflated to a legal PSI) earned him Super Bowl MVP honors for the third time in his career.

Every other team in this division has had a revolving door situation at quarterback for an extended period of time, though the Dolphins seem to have found some stability with Ryan Tannehill. Now that he’s signed his big extension, the next step for him is to make Miami a playoff contender. The job security of his head coach, Joe Philbin, might depend on it.

The Jets received a little bit of near-term certainty at the position when IK Enemkpali’s fist made violent contact with Geno Smith’s jaw. Ryan Fitzpatrick, now entering his 11th season in the league, is expected to take the reins at least right out of the gate. He should have some familiarity with the Jets playbook considering his offensive coordinator is Chan Gailey. The two were united in Buffalo when Gailey was the head coach of the Bills.

Speaking of which, Bills fans have grown painfully used to quarterback quandaries and that’s exactly what appears that we have once again. The word out of the first few days of training camp was that neither of the three front-runners for the starting job, Matt Cassel, Tyrod Taylor, or E.J. Manuel, were particularly impressive. New head coach Rex Ryan’s decision on who eventually wins the starting job for week one might be one of the more anticipated news stories of the young NFL season.

Running Back

The Best: Bills

The Rest: Dolphins, Jets, Patriots

Heading into offseason free agency, the Bills running back situation seemed uncertain with Fred Jackson clearly in the twilight of his career and CJ Spiller likely to sign an extension elsewhere (he has since signed with New Orleans). Then, Chip Kelly came calling and before you knew it LeSean McCoy was on his way to Buffalo. Suddenly, at least on paper, their backfield appears to be a potential juggernaut heading into 2015.

Rookie Karlos Williams had an impressive outing in his first preseason game last Friday against Carolina. He was particularly decisive in hitting the hole and effectively running north-south and he did it early in the game against a handful of likely starting defenders. If the fifth-round pick out of Florida State can pan out as a viable second option, look out. This could turn out to be one of the best backfields in the league, let alone the division.

Lamar Miller had an under-the-radar season for the Dolphins in 2014. He finished as the league’s tenth-leading rusher, was one of 13 backs to eclipse the 1,000-yard rushing mark and his 5.1 yards per carry was top five among regularly starting running backs. He’s in a contract year and if he can replicate what DeMarco Murray did last year for the Cowboys, he could be in store for a big payday.

The Jets finished with the third most rushing yards in the NFL last year. Chris Ivory and Chris Johnson combined for 1,484 yards and seven touchdowns. Johnson has since departed and they will now look to Zac Stacy to combine with Ivory. I haven’t been overly impressed with Stacy so far in his career. After all, there’s a reason the St. Louis Rams drafted Todd Gurley when they already had him and Tre Mason, thus precipitating the trade that sent him to the Meadowlands.

Bill Belichick relied very much on a plug and play methodology for much of the 2014 season. The Pats didn’t have a single running back that had more than 500 yards. I anticipate LaGarrette Blount and Jonas Gray getting a majority of the reps heading into 2015.

Wide Receiver

The Best: Patriots

The Rest: Bills, Jets, Dolphins

I was really tempted to give the edge to the Bills here, but the Super Bowl pedigree of the current Pats receiving corps puts them slightly ahead. I think with the right quarterback in place, Sammy Watkins can blossom into one of the top young pass-catching weapons in this league. The problem is the fact it’s unclear whether he’ll have that in Buffalo this season.

Julian Edelman returns as the Pats go-to guy in the slot. His nine catch, 109 yard, one touchdown performance in Super Bowl XLIX nearly won him game MVP honors which eventually went to his quarterback Brady. Danny Amendola and Brandon LaFell also shined when the spotlight was brightest in Glendale last season. The latter finished the regular season with 953 yards and seven touchdowns in his first season at Foxborough.

The Jets certainly upgraded by trading for Brandon Marshall and drafting Devin Smith. Eric Decker enters his second year in Gang Green, having had a modestly good 2014 considering how miserable their quarterback situation was all year.

Putting together a useful receiving corps with some veteran leadership appears to be the plan in Miami. Rookie DeVante Parker joins Jarvis Landry, who’s about to enter his second season with the team along with Kenny Stills, a third-year man who came to the Dolphins via trade from the Saints. The three of them will hope to learn the ins and outs of the position from ten-year veteran Greg Jennings who comes in from Minnesota. This is a unit that has potential down the road but might not be ready this year.

Tight End

The Best: Patriots

The Rest: Bills, Dolphins, Jets

Much like quarterback above, it’s difficult not to go with the Patriots at tight end considering they have Rob Gronkowski lining up outside the tackles. He was one of only two tight ends to eclipse the 1,000-yard mark during the regular season last year and added 12 touchdown catches. He caught three more in the playoffs including one in the Pats Super Bowl win over Seattle. As long as he stays healthy he’s one of Brady’s most prolific weapons in the air.

In Charles Clay, the Bills are getting a versatile, blocking tight end that should prove a formidable weapon when McCoy runs the football. They also have a possible sleeper in sixth-round pick Nick O’Leary out of Florida State. The Dolphins picked up Jordan Cameron in the offseason who’s been productive when healthy but has struggled with concussions. I don’t even know what to say about the Jets, who have Jace Amaro and Jeff Cumberland as their primary options at the position. Yikes!

Offensive Line

The Best: Patriots

The Rest: Jets, Bills, Dolphins

Being able to prevent negative plays while both dropping back to pass and handing the ball off is one of many key characteristics of an effective offensive line. There are two metrics I like to keep an eye on that gauge this fairly well. There’s passes per sack in the case of pass protection and rushing attempts per tackle for loss when were talking about run blocking.

It’s not the be all end all for offensive line evaluation as there are certainly other elements that contribute to passing or running the ball well. Wide receivers, running backs, and tight ends have to block occasionally as well in different situations. And of course, not all wide receivers run good routes, some quarterbacks hold onto the ball way too long and there are running backs that simply lack the vision to find space even when their offensive line wins the battle up front.

Having said that, let’s take a look at the passes per sack and rushes per negative running play stats for all four teams in the division from the 2014 regular season. The higher the number, the less frequently you’re conceding negative plays and hence, the better.

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As you can see, the Pats had the fewest sacks allowed as well as negative rushing plays in the division. That front five of big men up front was a key piece of the puzzle in bringing a fourth Super Bowl trophy to New England last season. What’s scary for the other teams in the AFC East is that virtually all of the regular starters return, including Sebastian Vollmer and Nate Solder at tackle, Josh Kline and Ryan Wendell at guard and Bryan Stork snapping the ball.

I see opportunity for the most improvement out of the Jets O-line. They tried to address their pass protection issues (reflective in the 47 sacks last year) by signing left guard James Carpenter from the Seahawks. He’ll team up with Willie Colon on opposite ends of center. Colon is one of the best pass blocking linemen in the AFC East but is notoriously penalty-prone.

Between the Bills and Dolphins, I give the edge to the former. Richie Incognito is expected to add toughness and attitude to the unit. They selected John Miller with their second pick of the draft in round three who many are already impressed with in terms of being a potential long-term stalwart in the Bills power running scheme. I don’t think the Dolphins did enough in the offseason to upgrade this unit which allowed 46 sacks. That remains a possible weak link on the offensive side of the ball in Miami.

Be sure to check out our AFC East defensive breakdown here.

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