Best-Case/Worst-Case: AFC East Edition
It’s the Buffalo Bills year, and everyone else is just along for the ride - at least, that’s what the NFL Media would have you believe. To be fair, there are a lot of reasons for Bills fans to get excited about the upcoming season. With one of the most physically impressive quarterbacks the league has ever seen in Josh Allen, and the league’s top defense that added Von Miller and his 115.5 career sacks, this team has the potential to be elite offensively and defensively, a combination that should rightly give this franchise Super Bowl aspirations.
However, Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots lurk in the shadows. It’s never a good idea to count out the Pats. They’re like a vampire - if you really want to kill them, you need to cut their head off and stuff their mouth full of garlic, or something along those lines (sorry, I’m not a cryptid expert).
The Miami Dolphins, likewise, made massive additions in free agency and through trades. With new head coach Mike McDaniel in the building, is this the year Tua Tagovailoa shows the world why so many thought he was the top QB prospect in the 2020 draft class?
Up in New York, the Jets look like one of the most improved teams in the NFL. Between the additions they made in the draft and in free agency, this looks like an organization that’s on a mission for relevance. They might be hard-pressed to win the division, especially with the Bills standing in the way, but could they make a run for a Wild Card spot? It’s not out of the question.
DE Von Miller (free agent)
OG Rodger Saffold (free agent)
OT David Quessenberry (free agent)
CB Kaiir Elam (draft)
WR Emmanuel Sanders
WR Cole Beasley
DT Harrison Phillips
OG Jon Feliciano
Best-Case Scenario: 15 - 2, 2nd in the AFC East
Let’s be honest with ourselves - this is a really good team. Anything less than a Super Bowl appearance will be a disappointment. If everything goes the Bills’ way this season, this will likely be the team holding the Lombardi Trophy at the end of the year.
When you look up and down this roster, there’s a lot to like. Wide receiver Stephon Diggs is one of the best in the business, and his running mate Gabriel Davis erupted in the AFC Divisional Round, setting a playoff record with four receiving touchdowns, and adding 201 receiving yards to boot. Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde were both named All Pro at safety last year, and the secondary returns shutdown cornerback Tre’Davious White after he missed the majority of the season with a torn ACL.
The rest of the defense, while unheralded, was elite as well last year. Though they came up short in the Divisional Round versus the Kansas City Chiefs, this defense led the NFL in total yards allowed, total points allowed, and yards allowed per play. That’s impressive stuff, even if they couldn’t get it done in the most critical moment.
But beyond their talent on defense and among their skill position players on offense, the most important piece of this Bills team that makes them the preseason Super Bowl favorites is their QB - the one and only Josh Allen. After years of development and some rough patches, the Bills’ front office and their fans were rewarded for their patience with the 26-year-old signal caller.
After a season in which he threw for 36 touchdowns and added six more on the ground, Allen looks poised to take home the MVP at the end of the season. With his unbelievable combination of size, athleticism and arm talent, Allen might be the most unique QB in the league right now. And how potent his receiver options can be, there’s no reason he shouldn’t put up monster statistics in 2022.
This team was knocking on the Super Bowl door last year. They probably should have beaten Kansas City last year. Heck, had they managed to hold onto their lead with 13 seconds remaining, there’s a chance they would have knocked off the Cincinnati Bengals in the AFC Championship Game.
The Buffalo Bills have it all: a good head coach, a great QB, excellent receivers, a lockdown secondary, and a malleable and deceptively talented front seven that added two-time Super Bowl champion Von Miller to the mix. If everything clicks, this is the best team in the NFL. Don’t expect another repeat of last year’s Divisional Round.
Worst-Case Scenario: 9 - 8, 2nd in the AFC East
It pains me to have a worst-case scenario where the team has a winning record, but let me lay out a couple facts:
Josh Allen is amazing. Unless he gets injured, (which, for the record, I am NOT considering for this exercise. Injuries happen to every team, it’s impossible to predict who it will affect, how badly, and at which positions. It’s pointless to even speculate.) he should turn in an MVP-caliber season with all this talent around him.
This defense, as I mentioned earlier, led the NFL in total yards allowed, total points allowed, and yards allowed per play. Sure, they play in an offensively terrible division, but they won’t suddenly turn into a bottom tier defense.
The entire organization, from ownership on down, is on a mission to redeem themselves of the embarrassing finish to the Divisional Round game. Expecting them to be complacent or lacking urgency seems foolhardy to me.
Still, despite all the good vibes and gobs of talented players on this roster, this is not a team without holes. The offensive line, which wasn’t particularly good last year, has a lot of new parts. Roger Saffold and David Quessenberry, who were both added in free agency, will be expected to take a lot of pressure off Pro Bowl left tackle Dion Dawkins. If they cannot rise to the occasion, this O-line could end up being a big problem.
While this team should have very little trouble moving the ball through the air, moving it on the ground looks like a much different story, especially if the offensive line can’t maintain their blocks on a regular basis. The Bills added running back James Cook in the second-round of the 2021 NFL Draft to compete with incumbent Devin Singletary, but Cook is a little undersized and will likely be limited to a third-down/receiving back role. Singletary, meanwhile, was hardly a regular threat to defenses last year. Issues with the O-line could compound the Bills’ already-suspect running game.
Here’s the biggest issue, though: this defense will likely regress - and possibly in a big way too. Though they were certainly excellent last year, neither Jordan Poyer nor Micah Hyde has a long track record of elite play. White, who is still recovering from his knee injury, may never be the same player he was before the injury. Miller, who turned 33 in March and is entering his twelfth season in the league, could be due for some serious age-related decline.
Head coach Sean McDermott is a good coach and will be able to keep this defense playing at a reasonable level, but their play from last year may skew how people perceive this bunch for this season. When you add everything up, it’s hard to see this team falling below .500, especially with six games versus the New England Patriots, Miami Dolphins and New York Jets, but the worst-case scenario for the Bills may see this team just barely miss out on the playoffs.
WR Tyreek Hill (trade)
RB Raheem Mostert (free agent)
LT Terron Armstead (free agent)
OG Connor Williams (free agent)
QB Ryan Fitzpatrick
OLB Kyle Van Noy
Best-Case Scenario: 12 - 5, 1st in the AFC East
How big of an impact can new head coach Mike McDaniel make on third-year quarterback Tua Tagovailoa? That’s the question on everyone’s mind after the 39-year-old McDaniel took the Dolphins job. After coming over from San Francisco, where he was the Niners’ offensive coordinator, McDaniel will be tasked with implementing the West Coast/zone running scheme that’s sweeping the NFL. If he can bring out the best in Tua, this could be the year the Dolphins finally put it all together.
Though he’s always shown good accuracy, Tagovailoa has really struggled to complete passes downfield. To help remedy that, the Dolphins traded for Kansas City Chiefs speedy superstar Tyreek Hill. Possibly the fastest man in the NFL, Hill brings the kind of field-tilting presence that makes life easier for everyone around him. Second-year receiver Jaylen Waddle, who rivals Hill’s pure speed and set an NFL-record with 104 receptions as a rookie, will have more room to work the short and intermediate parts of the field than ever. With these two on the field at the same time, every play has the potential to go the distance.
Besides Hill, though, the Dolphins continued to add talent in free agency, especially along the offensive line, which was incredibly bad in 2021. New left tackle Terron Armstead has been one of the better performers at his position over the last five years and guard Connor Williams will help shore up the interior. New running back Raheem Mostert, who, like McDaniel, comes over from the Niners, also has the home run ability that makes Hill and Waddle so scary. There is, simply put, a lot of speed on this offense.
Defensively, this team should remain one of the stingier units in the NFL. They might have the top cornerback duo with Xavien Howard and Byron Jones returning. Second-year safety Javon Holland looked like a future star at times. They will miss former head coach Brian Flores’ defensive acumen (though defensive coordinator Josh Boyer does return), but the boost the offense gets should be enough to offset that regression. The Dolphins could be the surprise division winner of the year if everything goes right this year.
Worst-Case Scenario: 5 - 12, 4th in the AFC East
As is the case with so many of these worst-case scenarios, it comes down to QB play. If Tua proves he isn’t the guy Miami needs, this team will have a very difficult time moving the ball. And if the defense regresses too, this team could end up disappointing in a big way.
Many around the league are excited for what McDaniel can bring to this team, but as a first-year head coach (and someone who has exactly one year of offensive coordinator experience) McDaniel could be in for a rude awakening. In San Francisco, he was surrounded by players well-versed in Kyle Shannahan’s system. He had Deebo Samuel and Trent Williams to work with. There’s definitely talent in Miami, but it might take some time for the pieces to fit together nicely.
The defense, meanwhile, might also struggle without Flores there doing damage control. Howard, Jones and Holland make up a great secondary, but the rest of the defense still needs work. There aren’t any game breakers in the front seven. With teams reluctant to test their top tier pass defenders, the Dolphins could be exposed on the ground.
Altogether, when you consider the Dolphins’ worst-case scenario for 2022, it’s not too different from a lot of teams this year. A middling QB is facing a prove-it season with a rookie head coach, and that’s not usually a recipe for immediate success. This team could easily fall to the bottom of the AFC East.
New England Patriots
S Jabril Peppers (free agent)
OG Cole Strange (draft)
WR Tyquan Thornton (draft)
CB J.C. Jackson
RB James White
OG Shaq Mason
LB Dont’a Hightower
Best-Case Scenario: 11 - 6, 1st in the AFC East
Don’t doubt Bill Belichick. At least, that’s what a lifetime of watching pro football has taught me. So far, so good.
Though his reputation has taken a little hit with Tom Brady having so much success in Tampa Bay, Belichick is almost certainly the greatest coach in NFL history. Picking the Patriots to be losers in 2022 is like picking against Secretariat in the 1973 Belmont Stakes - it’s just not smart.
Besides, this Patriots team managed to eke out ten wins last year and reached the playoffs with a rookie quarterback starting all seventeen games. Now in year two, things are supposed to go backward? Somehow, I doubt it.
QB Mac Jones quickly made the rest of the NFL look foolish as he fell to pick #15 and was named a Pro Bowl alternate after his fine rookie season. With new weapons added around him and an extra protector added in the first round, the Patriots offense could be even better than last year. Running backs Damien Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson bring toughness and power to the ground game; while the receivers, though unremarkable, offer a diverse skill set to threaten defenses at all levels.
Belichick’s specialty, of course, is the defense, and it’s hard not to expect another strong performance from this group. Defensive tackle Christian Barmore looked like a steal in the second-round last year, defensive end Deatrich Wise Jr. is staunch in both run support and active while rushing the passer, and outside linebacker Matthew Judon is a terror off the edge. This front seven has the potential to be one of the best in the game.
The secondary isn’t as rock-solid as the front seven, but there’s still reason to be optimistic. Reliable safety Devin McCourty returns for his thirteenth season in the NFL, all with the Patriots, while third-year Kyle Dugger mans the other safety spot. Dugger looked like a burgeoning star after recording four interceptions in just thirteen starts last year. If the rest of the secondary can continue its upward trajectory, this could end up being the top defense in the league.
Again, much of this optimism comes from the fact that Bill Belichick still remains head coach of this team. After twenty-three years on the job, I’ve learned to stop doubting this man. The Patriots are fully capable of winning this division, and no one should be shocked if they do.
Worst-Case Scenario: 6 - 11, 3rd in the AFC East
It’s possible the game is starting to pass by the great Belichick. All things must come to an end (right?).
Throughout this preseason, there’s been a lot of chatter about how bad this offense has looked, and it’s hard to feel good about the direction it’s going right now. Instead of bringing in someone with experience to call plays, Belichick decided to hand the reins to his former defensive coordinator Matt Patricia and former special teams coordinator Joe Judge. Now, if that sounds like a questionable idea to you, just know that you’re not the only one looking at this with crossed eyes.
It’s possible that the loss of Josh McDaniels, who took the head coaching position with the Los Vegas Raiders in the offseason after spending the last ten years as Belichick’s offensive coordinator, is too great for the Patriots to withstand in 2022. This was a man who was able to bring out the best in Mac Jones without the benefit of elite, or even average, skill position players. Without his expertise, the offense could look really ugly this year. Frankly, this might be the worst unit in the league, and it might not be close.
Harris and Stevenson are decent, but neither is the kind of threat at running back that forces defense to change their approach. The receivers can barely separate. The Patriots’ two big offseason additions at tight end last year, Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith, both disappointed. The offensive line might be manageable, but without any downfield threats, the Patriots might be limited to a “three yards and a cloud of dust” style of offense. With all these dynamic, high-flying offenses around these days, that’s not a style that wins a lot of ball games.
With Belichick being such a defensive savant, it’s hard to imagine that this defense won’t perform at a reasonable level in 2022, but, again, it’s hard to get too excited. Judon is the only player in the front seven with a long track-record of excellence. McCourty has been dependable throughout his career, but as he heads into his age 35 season, it is reasonable to expect that he may have lost a step or two.
Their 2022 draft class didn’t turn heads either. First-round pick Cole Strange was universally considered a reach at guard. Second-round pick Tyquan Thornton is already injured and further diminishes a weak receiver corps. The rest of their draft picks will be lucky to see much playing time at all, let alone make a massive impact. If there was ever a year to sell your Belichick stock, this is the year. Six wins could be the high-water mark for the Patriots in 2022.
New York Jets
CB Ahmad Gardner (draft)
OG Laken Tomlinson (free agent)
WR Garrett Wilson (draft)
DE Jermaine Johnson (draft)
CB D.J. Reed (free agent)
OT Morgan Moses
S Marcus Maye
WR Jamison Crowder
Best-Case Scenario: 10 - 7, 2nd in the AFC East
This team has been in disarray for what feels like an eternity but could change finally be on the horizon? Jets fans all over the world seem to think so, and this year, they may actually have a point (for once).
With quarterback Zach Wilson heading into his second season, and with a wealth of options at the skill positions after years of stockpiling, the Jets may have a dangerous offense on their hands. It seems impossible, I know, but, if the draft prognosticators are correct, this team could be flush with playmakers.
Since being hired in 2020, general manager Joe Douglas and head coach Robert Salah have set out with one mission in mind: add talent, by any means necessary. So far, mission successful - at least, on paper, that is.
Wide receiver Garrett Wilson and running back Breece Hall both arrive in the Big Apple to provide their QB with the explosiveness he sorely lacked last year. Wilson’s size/speed combination should make him a fine fit next to nominal top target Corey Davis and the jitterbug Elijah Moore. Slot receiver Braxton Berrios also provides the sure hands to keep the chains moving, giving this Jets team four solid receiving options.
To help supplement their receivers, the Jets also added tight ends C.J. Uzomah and Tyler Conklin in free agency, from the Cincinnati Bengals and Minnesota Vikings, respectively. With his massive frame, soft hands, and surprising athleticism, Uzomah has all the tools to be a QB’s best friend, and Conklin as well will look to build upon his breakout 2021 season. Together, they represent the massive talent upgrade that’s permeated throughout this Jets organization.
The Jets didn’t limit their upgrades to the offense, however. Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner, the #4 pick in the 2022 Draft, already looks the part of a shutdown corner. Jermaine Johnson II, the third first-round pick for the Jets in 2022, adds to a pass rush that sorely needed an injection of youth and talent. Additions like defensive tackle Solomon Thomas, linebacker Kwon Alexander and cornerback D.J. Reed won’t be game breakers, but they provide two things the Jets desperately needed on defense: depth, and professionalism.
It’s been a long time since the Jets were relevant, but this could be the year they make a run at a Wild Card spot. It will probably be too much to catch the Bills for first place in the division, but a playoff appearance would affirm the decision to select Zach Wilson with the #2 pick last year. That, more than anything, is what Jets fans need to see.
Worst-Case Scenario: 5 - 12, 4th in the AFC East
Unfortunately for Jets fans, Zach Wilson was not good last year. Can he be better in 2022? I’m skeptical - after all, he didn’t even look like the best rookie QB on his team last year (hello, Mike White!).
If Wilson is unable to develop into a reasonable facsimile of a starting QB, the Jets are in serious trouble. He was one of the worst passers in the NFL last year, and the options behind him aren’t good, either (sorry, Mike White!). A bad QB can ruin an offense, no matter how talented. Jets fans are very aware of this.
Complicating factors is an offensive line that’s already lost one of its most important pieces: tackle Mekhi Becton. The third-year lineman looked like a future star during his rookie season, but two consecutive years of season-ending injuries has put his future in doubt. The Jets did bring in veteran Duane Brown as a replacement, but the depth isn’t great. If Wilson doesn’t have time to go through his progressions, it could further stunt his development.
Defensively, the additions of so many free agents and draft picks should help raise the floor for this group, but there aren’t any outstanding players to be found. Linebacker C.J. Mosley was supposed to be that guy when he was signed from the Baltimore Ravens in 2019, but he’s played a grand total of eighteen games since. Former Bengals defensive end Carl Lawson was supposed to provide a boost to the pass rush last year, but he ruptured his Achilles in training camp. He’s looked good so far this year in preseason, but live games will be a different story.
It also bothers me that Coach Salah was known as a defensive guy and his defense stunk last year. It’s not all his fault, but these defensive gurus should be able to coach and develop the players already on the roster. Year after year, decade after decade, guys like Belichick, Vic Fangio and Wade Phillips were able to find contributors, even if they weren’t highly drafted or thought-of players - why can’t Salah?
With all of the talent added to this roster, it’s unlikely the Jets finish with four wins like they did last year. Five wins, though, could be the ceiling. That may sound like a nightmare for Jets fans, but in fairness, haven’t they already been living in one for years now?