Wednesday 23 August 2017 / 06:29 AM

SEASON PREVIEW: AFC EAST

Our 2016-17 NFL Preview will highlight each division in the NFL, with an in-depth look at each team as we head into training camp and preseason football. We’ll give predictions and summaries of the season ahead. We’ll also push out our first Power Rankings, as well as an early MVP preview and prediction.

The first look of our preview is the AFC East, where the Patriots look to keep their perch as the East’s best. Here are the predictions, in order of projected finish:

  1. New England Patriots

Offense:  The Patriots bring back a whole host of playmakers on offense, as well as some new additions in Martellus Bennett, a super-talented tight end from the Bears, and a duo of receivers in Chris Hogan and Nate Washington to replace Brandon LaFell. The offensive line will see a new addition in Jonathan Cooper, who will look to protect backup Jimmy Garoppolo as Tom Brady sits out the first four weeks. The offense will be just as explosive as ever, with a fully healthy starting lineup, and the return of Dion Lewis. Also, Gronk is still Gronk.

Defense: The Patriots’ defense was an overall solid unit last season, getting strong production out of a secondary that has become one of the most sound in football. Behind them is one of the best linebacker corps in football, lead by Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins. The Patriots line is a big question, however, as they struggled last season and lost their top sack artist from last season. Newly acquired end Chris Long has to turn into a solid addition for the Patriots to take the next step.

Best Case: The Patriots roll through Brady’s suspension, surviving at 3-1 and roll through an easier stretch of their schedule into November. The offense doesn’t miss a beat and the defense turns the corner, leading New England to their second Super Bowl in three years.

Worst Case:  The Patriots can’t find life without Brady and start 1-3 or 2-2, the Patriots get tripped up during their tough October and end up fighting for a Wild Card spot. The Bills overtake them and the Pats play catch-up all season, before being dropped out of the first round of the playoffs.

How They’ll Finish:  The Patriots are the best in the division, and it’s probably not a close race. Buffalo and NY have made strides, but this is still the Patriots’ division to lose. I don’t see much struggles coming from the offense under Garoppolo, and I think this team is just too good to not take a top seed in the AFC. It’s the Patriots’ league again.

  1. Buffalo Bills

Offense: The Bills’ offense was at one time seen as one of the breakout shows in the NFL, with Rex Ryan doubling down on a ground and pound system that brought new life to new back LeSean McCoy and new QB Tyrod Taylor. Taylor was good in his first real season under center, but he needs much more consistency for Buffalo to turn the corner. The passing game is virtually non-existent, and with players like Sammy Watkins and Robert Woods on the outside, big plays have to be more targeted for Buffalo to hope to compete.

Defense:  The Bills’ defense improved in their first season under Rex Ryan, but still below average across the board. The Bills addressed their bad play on the defensive line, adding Clemson’s Shaq Lawson. The line should be improved, but has to get better. The linebacker crop is also pretty bad, not providing any support in either run or pass defending. The corners are good, with Stephon Gilmore and Ronald Darby anchoring a good coverage unit. The defense has to get better to give the offense some support.

Best Case:  The Bills start strong, including beating New England without Brady, and rolling out to a 3-1 start and lead on the Patriots. They navigate an easy October and build around a Tyrod Taylor that’s turned a corner, emerging as a passing and rushing threat. The Bills steal the division from New England, going 12-4 and ride a strong offense to a trip to the second round.

Worst Case:  The Bills struggle with their Taylor, and Sammy Watkins gets more frustrated with his lack of targets. The Bills go back to EJ Manuel and struggle to get to .500. The Bills finish 7-9, and regress in Rex’s second year.

How They’ll Finish:  The Bills look ready to take a step, and Rex is the coach to get them there. I like them just a bit more than the Jets, and the promise on offense is just too much to ignore. If Ryan can get them playing together, the Bills could make a big turn. A wildcard competition is in their future.

  1. New York Jets

Offense:  The Jets’ offense last season put on quite the show, with Ryan Fitzpatrick playing the best football of his career, and they’ve added a strong running back in Matt Forte to help shoulder some of the load. Fitz is back, signing a big deal that he’s going to have to live up to if he wants respect around the league. Brandon Marshall is back, and is a superstar, and Eric Decker is great on the outside, too. The question mark is an offensive line that’s both aging and oft-injured. D’Brickashaw Ferguson retired, leaving a big hole on the left side, and Ryan Clady, his replacement, has some big injury concerns. Nick Mangold is good, but the right side of this line is bad.

Defense:  The Jets’ defense was incredible last season. The front line was arguably the best in football, with Muhammed Wilkerson, Sheldon Richardson and Leonard Williams crushing the run and punishing opposing quarterbacks. The Jets have a slight issue at linebacker, where they weren’t very good in coverage last year, and have added first-round pick Darron Lee to help. They are going to need some big improvement from the middle three. The corners are a question, with Darrelle Revis starting to look older and the Jets cutting Antonio Cromartie and going young. Defending against the pass is going to be a struggle for this team.

Best Case: The Jets’ offense keeps putting up big numbers, and Fitz turns into a consistent passer. The defense doesn’t miss a beat, and offsets their bad coverage in the passing game with a dominant rush up front, headlined by Lorenzo Mauldin and rookie Jordan Jenkins, who is thrust into the starting lineup early. The Jets get through a rough first month and then roll through a manageable November to challenge for a Wild Card spot.

Worst Case:  The Jets get shredded on the back end for a defense that doesn’t have the speed or coverage to stop any of the death row of premier quarterbacks they play on this loaded schedule. They can’t recover from a brutal September and October, and struggle to get to 8-8. The Jets recede back to a rough situation, and bumble to a 6-10 start, with the pressure mounting on Fitzpatrick and his shiny new deal.

How They’ll Finish:  Look, I have to be honest: this schedule is brutal. The Jets have Cincy, KC, Seattle, Pittsburgh, and Arizona in the first SIX GAMES. Not to mention they have New England twice, and a resurgent Buffalo. This is just brutal for a team that seems to have gotten worse from where they were a year ago. The Jets are going to take a step back.

  1. Miami Dolphins

Offense:  The Dolphins’ offense was pretty bad in 2015, and I mean bad everywhere. The run game was bad, with Lamar Miller departing, leaving just Jay Ajayi, a fifth-rounder in 2015 who has just 49 carries in his career, and rookie Kenyan Drake. Franchise QB Ryan Tannehill regressed, adding nothing to his game in a season they would probably like to forget. He’s surrounded by some good playmakers, but with a potential release in his contract next season, it’s time to prove something for Tannehill. But man, does this offense look inexperienced.

Defense:  For as bad as the offense was last season, the defense was worse, surrendering the second-worst rush defense in the league, to go along with a bottom-third passing defense. The Dolphins bet big on Ndamukong Suh, and it has paid off. But they’ll added Kiko Alonso and Byron Maxwell from Philly in a deal that cost them very little, and could pay off big if they play up to their potential. The defense has plenty of talent at most positions, outside of the backfield. They should recover pretty well, but the secondary is really inexperienced, and will probably get worse before they get better.

Best Case:  The Dolphins find some consistency in their offense, and Ryan Tannehill turns into the quarterback the franchise needs, and the running game finds some great promise in one of their young backs. The defense improves, especially up front, where Mario Williams and Cameron Wake create havoc opposite Suh. The Philly additions in Alonso and Maxwell provided immediate support and the Dolphins improve to a formidable young team, finishing about .500.

Worst Case:  The Dolphins’ offense gets worse, with a non-existent running game. The pressure is again put on Tannehill, who regresses with the added pressure. The Dolphins enter a quarterback battle between Matt Moore late in the season as the front office weighs a change. The defense doesn’t improve, with Alonso and Maxwell not living up to expectations, and no real pressure from anyone but Suh. The Dolphins finish with one of the worst records in the NFL.

How They’ll Finish:  The Dolphins just don’t have a lot of talent, and have some big holes. Tannehill needs to find himself for this offense to take a step, and to get some pressure off the young running backs. On the positive side, this team is very young. But they won’t be accomplishing much this year, just figuring out where to go next season.

Next Installment:  NFC East

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About the author

Austin Albertson

Austin is CBS' senior NFL and NBA analyst, bringing you commentary on everything between the lines and inside the hashes, from the film room to the scoreboard.

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