We kick off our preview of the AFC’s four divisions with a look at the one that produced last year’s Superbowl champion, which was of course the New England Patriots. Following a summer of controversy surrounding the now infamous #Deflategate the Patriots will be relieved that the season is just around the corner, with New England hosting the now traditional curtain raiser this evening when they welcome Pittsburgh to Gillette Stadium. Meanwhile their division rivals include the Buffalo Bills, now coached by former New York Jets head honcho Rex Ryan, while the Jets themselves welcome former Arizona defensive co-ordinator Todd Bowles to the fold. Last but not least the Miami Dolphins will be hoping to make waves in South Florida, with quarterback Ryan Tannehill their unquestioned offensive leader. For a more comprehensive preview, keep it right here.
Key Additions: RB LeSean McCoy (trade), QB Tyrod Taylor (free agency), WR Percy Harvin (FA), TE Charles Clay (FA)
Key Losses: ILB Kiko Alonso (trade), RB C.J Spiller (FA), TE Scott Chandler (FA)
The Bills are a much changed side from the one that took the field in 2014, with a new starting quarterback, new running back and of course a new head coach. Rex Ryan inherits one of the AFC’s top defences and with his track record it’s not unreasonable to think that they’ll improve further under his stewardship, although the former Jets coach’s offensive acumen is less famed. Former Ravens backup Tyrod Taylor is the new man under centre, and while he filled in admirably when called upon in Baltimore he lacks starting experience and will be under the microscope from his first snap. Taylor beat out former first round pick E.J Manuel and veteran Matt Cassel for the role. LeSean McCoy is expected to provide the majority of the team’s offense from the running back position after his surprise trade from Philadelphia, but after dealing with hamstring trouble throughout the pre-season it remains to be seen what kind of shape McCoy is in as week one approaches. Last year’s first round pick Sammy Watkins should be Taylor’s number one outlet in the passing game, although it’s possible that the lack of a productive quarterback and Ryan’s penchant for running the ball could stunt Watkins growth. Defensively the Bills possess a fearsome defensive line, including end Mario Williams and defensive tackle Marcell Dareus, and with Ryan operating the unit it’s more than possible that Buffalo engage in a number of low scoring contests in 2015. Ryan started fast during his tenure with New York, reaching two AFC Championship games, before he outstayed his welcome in New Jersey. If he can get off to a similarly encouraging start in his second head coaching gig then the Bills could be one of the NFL’s surprise packages this season.
Key Additions: WR Kenny Stills (FA), TE Jordan Cameron (FA), DT Ndamukong Suh (FA), WR DeVante Parker (draft)
Key Losses: WR Mike Wallace (FA), TE Charles Clay (FA), C Samson Satele (FA), CB Cortland Finnegan (retired)
Miami made the biggest splash in the free agent market by reeling in former Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh with the biggest deal ever handed out in free agency, a six-year $114 million pact. They weren’t done there as they attempted to upgrade the offensive skill positions with players including wide receiver Kenny Stills and former Browns tight end Jordan Cameron. They join an offense run by coordinator Bill Lazor, who last year implemented some of Chip Kelly’s up-tempo concepts which he learned as quarterbacks coach during his time in Philadelphia with the Eagles. Ryan Tannehill is the man at the controls of the offense, and his steady growth continued last year as he used his top-tier arm strength and underrated mobility to star as a dual threat QB in Lazor’s exciting system. Lamar Miller is the main man in the backfield for the Dolphins, and his performances last year made Knowshon Moreno expendable after just one season on South Beach. Defensively it’ll be all about Suh this year, while elite edge rusher Cameron Wake is the other big name on the starting defence. Wake racked up 11.5 sacks in 2014, and if he can replicate that production this time round opposing offenses will have to make a tough decision between double teaming either him or Suh. Brent Grimes and Louis Delmas form the basis of a strong secondary, however that group of four players aside question marks linger over the ability of the Dolphins defence to keep the team in games. If Suh has as big an impact in Miami as he did in Detroit the Dolphins should have enough about them to challenge for AFC East supremacy; however Tom Brady’s recently overturned suspension still gives New England the edge to retain their division crown.
New England Patriots
Key Additions: DE Jabaal Sheard (FA), CB Bradley Fletcher (FA), NT Malcolm Brown (draft)
Key Losses: RB Shane Vereen (FA), RB Jonas Gray (released), TE Tim Wright (FA), NT Vince Wilfork (released), CB Darrelle Revis (FA), CB Brandon Browner (FA)
Last year’s Superbowl champs had a tumultuous off-season, unable to fully celebrate their title as they dealt with the ramifications from the Deflategate episode that occurred during last season’s AFC Championship game. However with Tom Brady recently cleared by Judge Chris Berman, although the punishments handed out to the Patriots organisation still stand, New England’s attention is back on the field and their quest to repeat as champions for the second time in a decade. Tight end Rob Gronkowski returns as Brady’s most explosive weapon, with the reliable Julian Edelman supporting him on the outside. LeGarrette Blount is the team’s lead running back, although his position is less than assured judging by head coach Bill Belichick’s propensity to juggle running backs during his New England tenure. Defensively the team has taken a few hits, losing both starting cornerbacks from a year ago (Darrell Revis and Brandon Browner), with long-time nose tackle Vince Wilfork also moving on. However it would be foolish to doubt Belichick’s wisdom regarding those moves, as he’s shown time and time again during his coaching career that anyone, sans Brady, is replaceable in the long-term. Ultimately, so long as Brady and Belichick are united in New England the Patriots will be annual Superbowl contenders, and 2015 is no exception.
New York Jets
Key Additions: QB Ryan Fitzpatrick (FA), WR Brandon Marshall (FA), OG James Carpenter (FA), CB Darrelle Revis (FA), DT Leonard Williams (draft)
Key Losses: QB Mike Vick (FA), WR Percy Harvin (FA), CB Kyle Wilson (FA )
New coach Todd Bowles was introduced to the sometimes calamitous world of the Jets during training camp when starting QB Geno Smith was sucker punched by a teammate, suffering a broken jaw in the process. Unfortunately for Jets fans, such incredible scenes have been far from rare in recent years, and the franchise was desperately in need of a change of direction this past summer when Bowles was brought in to replace the departed Rex Ryan. Bowles inherits Smith, an inconsistent passer at best, and a solid running game headed by Chris Ivory. He also added the mercurial Brandon Marshall to the team’s wide receiver core to line-up opposite Eric Decker, although with Marshall’s propensity for getting into trouble the wisdom of such a move is debatable. He can, however, play his position extremely well, and if he stays out of trouble Marshall should be a great asset to Smith as he continues his development as an NFL QB. The defence improved measurably over the summer, with Darrelle Revis re-joining the team who he entered the league with, and the talented Leonard Williams was added in the draft. Both the offense and the defence have parts that Bowles can build a team around; however a lack of chemistry and a dearth of talent at the quarterback position should consign New York to another football-less January.