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What Are AFC East Teams Doing to Prep for a Tom Brady–less World?

The least-competitive division in football feels up for grabs for the first time in 19 years. With next week’s draft rapidly approaching, let’s take stock of the offseasons for the Dolphins, Bills, and Jets.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!”

The pharaohs ruled Egypt for 30 centuries. New England’s reign hasn’t lasted that long, but forgive their AFC East rivals if it feels like it has. Of all the avenues to map the Brady-Belichick empire, the easiest to overlook is the iron grip they’ve held on their division. The Patriots have won the AFC East for each of the past 11 years, a span in which every other division has been won by at least three teams. Since New England’s reign began in 2001, the Patriots have won the AFC East in 17 of 19 seasons (89.5 percent). The Brady-Belichick Patriots won their division at a higher rate than Michael Jordan made free throws and than condoms prevent pregnancies.

The Brady-Belichick Patriots are no more. Tom Brady signed with Tampa Bay last month, and barring an unexpected move the Patriots will head into the 2020 season with Jarrett Stidham, a fourth-round pick out of Auburn last year, or Brian Hoyer, a 34-year-old journeyman, as their starter. This creates a huge opportunity for the rest of the AFC East. While the Patriots have been basking in the spotlight, the Dolphins, Bills, and Jets have been trapped in darkness. This period of Patriots uncertainty shines a ray of hope onto these cellar-dwellers, but new light can be blinding for those accustomed to the darkness. Which of the three other AFC East teams are using this opportunity to reach toward the light? Ahead of the NFL draft, let’s look at how these teams are preparing for the next chapter of history.

The Short-Term Usurper: Buffalo Bills

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert.

When the Buffalo Bills made December news in the recent past, it was usually because their fans threw dildos onto the field, not because of anything their players did. But under head coach Sean McDermott, things have changed. After not making the playoffs since 1999, the Bills have qualified twice in three years. Last year, Buffalo went 10-6, its best mark of the 21st century, and nearly won the division for the first time since Josh Allen was born. The Bills are clearly the team best positioned to topple the Patriots in 2020, and they have treated this offseason with the urgency that task requires.

Buffalo sent its 2020 first-round pick plus a few mid- and late-round selections to Minnesota for receiver Stefon Diggs, who has been more productive in his career than most receivers in Bills history. Just three Buffalo receivers (Andre Reed, Eric Moulds, and Stevie Johnson) have multiple seasons with 1,000 receiving yards and six touchdowns. Diggs has done it in each of the past two years, is entering his prime at 26 years old, and is exactly what the Bills need. Last year, speedster John Brown was one of the NFL’s most underrated pass catchers, but the Bills lacked credible threats around him. The only Buffalo players with more than 29 catches last year were Brown (72) and Cole Beasley (67). Diggs could pair with Brown to form one of the league’s best one-two combos.

Diggs will also help Buffalo’s downfield attack. Allen is known for his big arm, but the Bills were a fairly average deep-passing team last year. Allen went 18-of-68 on deep passes last year, ranking 33rd in adjusted completion percentage among the 36 quarterbacks with at least 20 deep attempts. Adding Diggs, who tied for the third-most deep targets in the NFL in 2019, will help the Bills establish the vertical passing game that they’ve lacked.

Diggs ranked second in yards per route run last season with 2.7, behind only New Orleans’s Michael Thomas. If he produces similar results with the Bills, he should help Allen with the progress the young quarterback has been making. While the enduring memory of Allen from last season will be him trying (and failing) to put the team on his back in their wild-card loss to the Texans, that game was an outlier in a season when he lowered his turnover totals. In 2019, Allen nearly cut his interception rate in half while raising his touchdown rate by more than a third. Whether Diggs will be happy in Buffalo the first time Allen fires a screen pass 5 yards over his head is another matter, but he and Allen figure to make a lot of exciting plays and raise the ceiling for Buffalo’s offense before the team has to decide whether to re-sign Allen long-term. Diggs was a smart acquisition to keep Buffalo competitive for the short term and the medium term.

Buffalo has also bolstered the other side of the ball. Its defense has been top-notch for each of the past two seasons, ranking in the top six by efficiency both years. This offseason, Bills GM Brandon Beane, who like McDermott came from the Panthers, added some key former Carolina pieces. Buffalo signed cornerback Josh Norman, who was a first-team All-Pro when McDermott was Carolina’s defensive coordinator. Norman is likely going to fare better in Buffalo’s defense, which primarily uses zone coverage, than he did in Washington’s man-heavy system. Buffalo also added former Panther Mario Addison at defensive end, where he can provide more of a pass-rushing presence than Shaq Lawson, who signed with the Dolphins last month. The biggest hole on Buffalo’s defense is the one left by the retired Lorenzo Alexander, who was a versatile player capable of both effectively rushing the passer and dropping into coverage.

If the Bills find a player they like in the draft, especially one with Alexander’s skill set, it wouldn’t be surprising if they were aggressive about moving up. Since Beane took over Buffalo’s front office in 2017, the Bills have traded up to take seven of the 10 players they’ve drafted in the first three rounds. Following the Diggs trade, the Bills’ only picks in the first two days of the draft are no. 54 and no. 86, but they could package them in a trade. “If there’s a guy that I think fits a need and the value, that’s probably where I get—some people may say—too aggressive in the draft,” Beane told reporters in a video chat last week. “But if there’s a guy that I think is a real sure fit, if I overpay a little bit so be it. It’s better than waiting, sitting on my hands, and [then] I’m not really fired up about a guy when my pick comes up.”

Beane knows that if Buffalo’s players aren’t bringing a buzz onto the field in December, their fans will.

The Long-Term Challenger: Miami Dolphins

Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read

Miami wasn’t as bad in 2019 as you remember. For the first half of the season, Miami played like an expansion franchise, losing its first three games by a combined 117 points. But the Dolphins finished the season with a 5-4 stretch, beating the Patriots in Week 17 to rob their rivals of a first-round bye. If head coach Brian Flores was able to find some continuity last year, when the team used a record amount of players throughout the season, he might do well with the team’s incoming talent. And there will be a lot of incoming talent.

The Dolphins have three of the first 26 picks and six of the top 70. Toss in that Miami also has Houston’s first- and second-rounder next year, and the Dolphins have a combined eight picks in the first two rounds over the next two drafts. That could produce a large amount of talent and give the Dolphins the chance to get better quickly.

The Dolphins have already revamped their roster this offseason. Miami let last season lie fallow so that its salary cap could be fertile for years to come, and this year Dolphins GM Chris Grier spent big but intelligently in free agency. He gambled on athleticism at cornerback by signing Byron Jones and on former first-rounders by signing offensive lineman Ereck Flowers and edge defender Shaq Lawson. The Dolphins also added linebacker Kyle Van Noy, center Ted Karras, and running back Jordan Howard. Given the way the contracts are structured, the spending spree shouldn’t handcuff the team in the future.

The One Without a Clear Plan: The New York Jets

Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed

New England’s rise was most personally offensive to Jets fans, whom Bill Belichick spurned after initially agreeing to take the Jets job two decades ago. New York might have a chance to win the division if it could get its act together, but the man who was hired to ignite New York’s offense, head coach Adam Gase, has done anything but. In 2019, the Jets had one of the worst offenses in the league by almost any measurable category.

Jets Yards Per Drive Stats

Statistic Jets' Ranking (among 32 teams)
Statistic Jets' Ranking (among 32 teams)
Plays per drive 30
Yards per drive 32
Points per drive 32
Touchdowns per drive 32
Field goals per drive 31
Punts per drive 31
3-and-outs per drive 32
Time of possession per drive 30 (tie)
Drive success rate 32
Avg. line of scrimmage 29
Average lead 27
Football Outsiders

Gase did have struggles to overcome. Sam Darnold was diagnosed with mono early in the season, and backup quarterback Trevor Siemian injured his ankle in his first start. But, in true Jets fashion, Gase and CEO Christopher Johnson had already set themselves up for failure before the season began. Johnson let former GM Mike Maccagnan spend an NFL record amount of guaranteed money in free agency in 2019 and draft for the team before firing him and replacing him with Joe Douglas, who may not want Le’Veon Bell or any of the players Maccagnan signed or selected. Unsurprisingly, the season did not go smoothly. The team publicly feuded with its starting guard over whether his shoulder injury required surgery, Gase switched up the starting offensive line every other week seemingly on a whim, and Douglas alienated safety and team captain Jamal Adams midseason, prompting Adams to take shots at the general manager.

The Jets have trouble getting out of their own way but this draft would be a great time to start doing so, beginning with fixing the two positions they most need help with on offense: receiver and offensive line. In the first three rounds of the draft, the Jets have picks nos. 11, 48, 68, and 79. They are expected to address one of their two biggest needs with their first pick. Both needs are glaring. Last year, the Jets ranked third-to-last in pass blocking, according to Football Outsiders. They were even worse in run blocking, where they ranked second to last. Douglas and Gase responded by retooling most of the offensive line in free agency, signing Seattle’s George Fant to play left tackle, Denver’s Connor McGovern to play center, and Carolina’s Greg Van Roten to play guard. Even after the influx of new talent, the Jets are the league’s only team without a first- or second-round offensive lineman on their roster. The Jets could fix that by drafting one of the four tackles The Ringer’s Danny Kelly has in the top 13 on his big board: Iowa’s Tristan Wirfs, Alabama’s Jedrick Wills Jr., Georgia’s Andrew Thomas, and Louisville’s Mekhi Becton. One of those players could slide in at the right tackle spot to replace Chuma Edoga, the team’s 2019 third-round pick. If the Jets do draft one of those linemen at no. 11, or even another tackle at no. 48, it will be the first time the Jets have drafted an offensive lineman in the first two rounds since 2010 and just the second time since 2007.

The only position that might be more important for the Jets to address is pass catcher. New York lost receiver Robby Anderson to the Panthers in free agency, leaving them with last year’s injury-prone free-agent signing, Jamison Crowder; this year’s injury-prone free-agent signing, Breshad Perriman; and not much else.

Quincy Enunwa’s season ended early because of a neck injury, and Josh Bellamy played just seven games before going on IR with a shoulder injury. No receiver currently on the roster has ever had 900 receiving yards in a season. Douglas bought a scratch ticket by signing former Washington first-rounder Josh Doctson (who is also injury-prone), but this is the league’s least-talented receiving group even when fully healthy. New York would be well served by adding one of the top receivers in this year’s class, either Oklahoma’s CeeDee Lamb or Alabama’s Jerry Jeudy. Jeudy’s Alabama teammate, Henry Ruggs III, would also provide a speed element that the team desperately needs.

Jets fans should be happy if the team addresses those needs early in next week’s draft. Darnold is the only offensive player the Jets have drafted in the first round since Mark Sanchez, so it’s not surprising the talent around him is weak. Some back-of-the-napkin draft analysis suggests the Jets can change that. If we assume that LSU quarterback Joe Burrow, Ohio State defensive end Chase Young, Ohio State cornerback Jeff Okudah, and at least one other quarterback will be drafted in the top 10, the Jets are guaranteed to have one of the top four tackles (Wirfs, Thomas, Wills, or Becton) or top three receivers (Lamb, Jeudy, or Ruggs) fall to them.

But nailing their first-rounder isn’t enough. The Jets under Maccagnan were one of the worst at using their Day 2 draft picks, and the Jets have three this year. In one of the deepest receiver classes in years, the Jets would be lucky to leave with a second- or third-rounder who can contribute at the position. The Jets wrangled the no. 68 pick from the Giants in a rare cross-city trade, and could use it on a wideout. But last year the Jets also had the no. 68 pick and used it on Florida pass rusher Jachai Polite, who was waived in August. If the Jets want to begin competing anytime soon, they need to start hitting on their early draft picks, especially on the offensive positions they’ve been ignoring.

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

The Patriots will enter a season without Brady as their starting quarterback for the first time since September 2001, but the team has lost more than just the future Hall of Famer. Linebacker Jamie Collins, linebacker Kyle Van Noy, and defensive tackle Danny Shelton left in free agency and defensive back Duron Harmon was traded to Detroit. They also lost receiver Phillip Dorsett and cut longtime kicker Stephen Gostkowski, who was with the team longer than Adam Vinatieri. But the Patriots have churned through entire cycles of talent at just about every position before and come out just fine, and they’ve been fine at quarterback in the rare instances they were missing Brady. It might be foolish to assume the Patriots will treat this offseason any different than the past ones. New England has 12 draft picks (half of which are in the sixth and seventh round), and will likely trade back to accumulate even more in future years. The team has just over a million dollars in free cap space—not even enough to sign its incoming draft class—suggesting players like franchise-tagged guard Joe Thuney could potentially be traded to create cap room and yield even more picks. The Patriots are likely going to do what they’ve typically done—trade back, accumulate more assets, and not make any headlines on draft weekend or select any sexy players.

Brady’s departure sets up football’s chicken-or-the-egg question: Was Belichick’s success the result of Brady’s greatness, or did Brady get the credit that Belichick deserved? The answer to that simplistic but unavoidable question is likely somewhere in the middle, but with their threads now untangled we can finally observe Brady and the organization independently. For all the emphasis on Brady and the Buccaneers, it doesn’t matter if Tom flames out in Tampa Bay—his legacy will not be tainted by what he does at 43 years old. The more consequential chapter for football history—and the most harrowing scenario for the Bills, Jets, and Dolphins—is what happens if the Patriots empire replaces Brady seamlessly. If Jarrett Stidham leads the Patriots to a 12-4 record and a 12th consecutive AFC East title, Brady may be viewed as Ozymandias: the King of Kings with the big statue near the parking lot. Perhaps the rest of the division can wait for the sands of time.