The summer is beginning to draw to a close, and soon, temperatures and leaves will begin to fall. The NFL preseason is currently underway, and true NFL football is nearly here. Welcome to M-FANS 2018 Season Preview, where our staff of talented University of Michigan student writers will share their insight into the NFL’s 32 teams and top players as we get ready for the kickoff of the regular season. Today, we take a look at the AFC East. Record predictions are provided, keeping in mind that this division faces a particularly hard schedule as they will face the NFC North and AFC South. Enjoy!

By Matthew Jo and Zane Harding

New England Patriots

By Matthew Jo

2017 Record: 13-3 (1st in AFC East)

Projected 2018 Roster

Coaching Staff
HC – Bill Belichick
OC – Josh McDaniels
DC – Brian Flores (unofficial)

Projected Offensive Starters
QB – Tom Brady
RB – Rex Burkhead
RB – James White
FB – James Develin
WR1 – Chris Hogan
WR2 – Cordarrelle Patterson
WR3 – Phillip Dorsett
TE – Rob Gronkowski
LT – Trent Brown
LG – Joe Thuney
C – David Andrews
RG – Shaq Mason
RT – Marcus Cannon

Projected Defensive Starters
LE – Adrian Clayborn
RE – Trey Flowers
DT1 – Malcom Brown
DT2 – Danny Shelton
WLB – Dont’a Hightower
MLB – Elandon Roberts
SLB – Kyle Van Noy
CB1 – Stephon Gilmore
CB2 – Jason McCourty
CB3 – Eric Rowe
NB – Duke Dawson
FS – Devin McCourty
SS – Patrick Chung

Projected Special Teams Starters
P – Ryan Allen
K – Stephen Gostkowski
PR – Braxton Berrios
KR – Cordarrelle Patterson
LS – Joe Cardona

Other Notable Players
RB – Sony Michel (31st overall selection in NFL Draft)
WR – Julian Edelman (SUSP 4G – PEDs)

Season Preview

The offseason began with a loss in Super Bowl LII and spiraled into the departure of key cogs in the Patriots organization.  From speed freak Brandin Cooks to Super Bowl XLIX hero Malcolm Butler, the team bled out before acquiring any new players. In addition to the crater in the roster, Matt Patricia walked away from his defensive coordinator job to become a head coach elsewhere.  The team will have to see what the loss of Patricia forebodes for a top 5 scoring defense of the 2017 season.

The Patriots did not make a huge splash in free agency as per usual, but they still brought in the likes of Adrian Clayborn, Jeremy HIll, and Eric Decker.  The bulk of the moves made in the offseason were through trades, introducing four new starters to the team – Trent Brown, Jason McCourty, Cordarrelle Patterson, and Danny Shelton.  With many holes to fill, all of these players will look to have integral roles in the game.

In between making these moves for proven veterans, the NFL Draft brought in a fresh crop of talent.  The two first-rounders of this class were Georgia offensive lineman Isaiah Wynn and running back Sony Michel.  Wynn has not taken as many reps with the starters as Trent Brown has, and Michel recently underwent knee surgery, so they have not had an immediate impact as first anticipated.  However, the second-round pick, Duke Dawson out of Florida, is projected to be the starting nickelback for the defense.

The Patriots offense looks to continue chugging securely along in 2018 (even with a lot of turnover this offseason). Although Julian Edelman will serve a four-game suspension to start the season, the trio of Tom Brady, Edelman, and Rob Gronkowski will be healthy and play together for the first time since 2016 (fingers crossed none of them get injured).  The wide receiving corps is thin, but fans will once again quickly forget the pass-catchers in the backfield. Running backs accounted for 31.8% of the offense’s receptions in 2017 and the team’s most efficient pass-catcher was Gronkowski, who accounted for 22.6% of receiving yards.  The hole at left tackle that was created by the departure of Nate Solder was quickly filled by the acquisitions of both Trent Brown and Isaiah Wynn. Overall, the offensive line looks to be a solid foundation providing Brady ample time to throw. This will be another well-balanced passing attack with schematic genius Josh McDaniels at the reins again.

Not many names on the defense jump off the page at first glance, but this team lives by the bend-don’t-break philosophy.  In the wake of Matt Patricia’s departure, Bill Belichick and Brian Flores will look to standout players Dont’a Hightower and Devin McCourty to rally the troops.  There are many newcomers to this starting lineup; half the defensive line has not played a snap for the team, and the starting cornerbacks have a combined three seasons of experience in this system. Regardless, there is talent in this system.  Similar to the miscommunications from the beginning of last season, expect there to be some growing pains. That said, expect the Patriots to have everything figured out come playoff time.

Predicted Record: 12-4

Players to Watch

Dont’a Hightower

The #1 scoring defense of 2016 rested upon the shoulders of Hightower.  Leading the front seven in tackles that season, Hightower was the field general for this defense.  After missing the majority of last season, he looks to return as a captain of this perennial Super Bowl team.  Watch for Dont’a towering over his opponents and terrorizing your favorite quarterback.

Sony Michel

The Patriots do not waste first-round picks on offensive skill positions. Ever. But this Georgia product seems to be worth it as he runs hard and runs routes even harder.  As a balanced running back, Michel looks to usurp touches away from not only a crowded backfield, but a lackluster (and depleted) receiving corps as well.

Braxton Berrios

An unheralded sixth-round pick by the Patriots surprising everyone with his talent – sound familiar?  This receiver out of Miami has been compared to Wes Welker, which bodes well for the rookie. With the receiver position so thin, Berrios will get ample opportunity to prove his abilities.  And in addition to running routes in the middle of the field, Berrios will have punt returning duties to show off his skills.

 

Buffalo Bills

By Matthew Jo

2017 Record: 9-7 (2nd in AFC East)

Projected 2018 Roster

Coaching Staff
HC – Sean McDermott
OC – Brian Daboll
DC – Leslie Frazier

Projected Offensive Starters
QB – A.J. McCarron
RB – LeSean McCoy
FB – Patrick DiMarco
WR1 – Kelvin Benjamin
WR2 – Corey Coleman
WR3 – Jeremy Kerley
TE – Charles Clay
LT – Dion Dawkins
LG – Vlad Ducasse
C – Russell Bodine
RG – John Miller
RT – Jordan Mills

Projected Defensive Starters
LE – Trent Murphy
RE – Jerry Hughes
DT1 – Star Lotulelei
DT2 – Kyle Williams
WLB – Matt Milano
MLB – Tremaine Edmunds
SLB – Lorenzo Alexander
CB1 – Tre’Davious White
CB2 – Vontae Davis
CB3 – Phillip Gaines
FS – Jordan Poyer
SS – Micah Hyde

Projected Special Teams Starters
P – Colton Schmidt
K – Stephen Hauschka
PR – Marcus Murphy
KR – Taiwan Jones
LS – Reid Ferguson

Other Notable Players
QB – Josh Allen (7th overall selection in NFL Draft)
WR – Zay Jones (Returning from knee injury)

Season Preview

Nobody circles the wagons like the Buffalo Bills.  In a year that saw one of their quarterbacks throw five interceptions in one half and a playoff berth in the same season, the Bills continued to find a new direction to move with the new regime of Sean McDermott and Brandon Beane.  This overachieving team lost many key pieces to find a groove moving into the 2018 season, and the offseason seems to be a mixed bag.

The Bills rode through a very up-and-down offseason where the defense gained Vontae Davis and Star Lotulelei in free agency, and the offense lost Tyrod Taylor, Richie Incognito, Cordy Glenn, and Eric Wood.  This surprise playoff team from last season has suddenly found itself rebuilding again in a desperate attempt to keep up with the Patriots and the rest of the AFC.

Draft time brought in a pair of rookies with huge potential in the first round: Wyoming’s Josh Allen and Virginia Tech’s Tremaine Edmunds.  Allen has the strongest arm in the draft class and will probably take over the starting job from the turnover-prone Nathan Peterman and the inexperienced A.J. McCarron early on in the season.  Edmunds is already leading the charge on defense as the starting middle linebacker.

The wide receiving corps has a lot of promise, and Josh Allen will most likely end up slinging the ball downfield to them at some point in the season.  But the absence of Tyrod Taylor and most of the starting offensive lineman from the previous season will be strongly felt, especially in the ground game.  Taylor was able to provide not only a solid aerial attack but also brought a dynamic aspect to the offense with his mobility. Although Allen is fast enough to run when need be, opposing defenders can now focus on bringing down an aging LeSean McCoy without keeping in check the tendencies of a scrambling quarterback.

This defense has talent waiting to explode against opposing quarterbacks.  In fact, the Bills held opposing passers to an average of a 78.8 QBR last season, good for 5th in the league.  With the additions of Lotulelei, Edmunds, and Davis, an already successful and well-coached group will look to build on last season.  Look for this team to be carried by its defense.

Predicted Record: 5-11

Players to Watch

Tre’Davious White

If White had been on a more glorified team last season, he would already be talked about as a top-tier elite cornerback.  PFF actually gave White their own Rookie of the Year Honors at the conclusion of the 2017 season. Now with a full year of experience, look for this sophomore to shut down all receivers who dare test him – no really, look for him because opposing quarterbacks will most likely shy away from even throwing it in his vicinity in the first place.

Tremaine Edmunds

This one was a bit obvious; Edmunds really could have been listed as my star player for the team.  Already commanding attention in the huddle, this middle linebacker will be the leader keeping the defense clicking.  A physical freak, Edmunds has the body of a bruiser and the speed and agility of a defensive back. Look anywhere on the field for #49 flying around.

Corey Coleman/Star Lotulelei

I wanted to go with all defensive players, but Coleman’s yet-to-be-unlocked potential intrigues me.  Coleman has shown flashes of what he can do on the Browns and I believe he can still be a solid receiver at the next level – just maybe not this year.  With the offense most likely using this season to find its identity, Coleman will not have much time to get into a groove with newly-drafted Josh Allen.  On the other side of the ball, Lotulelei was just thrown loads of money to help plug the middle of the defensive line. With quite the down year on the Panthers, the Bills seized the opportunity to pick up a player with potential.  He won’t make the flashiest plays, but if Lotulelei can block up space to help the stellar cast around him, maybe he can become a star in his own right.

 

Miami Dolphins

By Zane Harding

2017 Record: 6-10 (3rd in AFC East)

Projected 2018 Roster

Coaching Staff
HC: Adam Gase
OC: Dowell Loggains
DC: Matt Burke

Projected Offensive Starters
QB – Ryan Tannehill
RB – Kenyan Drake
RB – Frank Gore
WR1 – Kenny Stills
WR2 – DeVante Parker
WR3 – Danny Amendola
TE: MarQueis Gray
LT – Laremy Tunsil
LG – Josh Sitton
C – Daniel Kilgore
RG – Jesse Davis
RT- Ja’Wuan James

Projected Defensive Starters
LE – Cameron Wake
RE – Robert Quinn
DT1 – Jordan Phillips
DT2 – Akeem Spence
WLB – Kiko Alonso
MLB – Raekwon McMillan
SLB – Stephone Anthony
CB1 – Xavien Howard
CB2 – Cordrea Tankersly
CB3 – Bobby McCain
FS – Minkah Fitzpatrick
SS – Reshad Jones

Projected Special Teams Starters
P – Matt Haack
K – Jason Sanders
PR/KR – Jakeem Grant
LS – John Denney

Season Preview

After making the postseason in 2016 for their first time since 2008, the Miami Dolphins regressed in 2017 big time. The Dolphins offense and defense were both bottom five in the NFL last year, as they only scored 17.6 points per game on offense (28th in the league) while their defense allowed 24.6 points per game (29th in the league).

So, where did it all go wrong? It all started in training camp when Ryan Tannehill sustained a season-ending injury. The Dolphins convinced Jay Cutler to come out of retirement to run the team and, well, it did not work out too well. The team’s 31.7% third down conversion rate was dead last in the NFL, while their 29 turnovers were third worst in the league. The team made some major adjustments during the offseason because of this. They signed former 49er Daniel Kilgore and former Bear Josh Sitton in an attempt to fortify the offensive line, added Frank Gore to pair with Kenyan Drake (who enjoyed a nice breakout following the Jay Ajayi trade midway through last season), and the team signed wide receivers Danny Amendola and Albert Wilson to fortify their receiver depth, The team also traded Jarvis Landry to the Browns after contract disputes, putting extra pressure on Kenny Stills and DeVante Parker to perform well in 2018. All in all, the fate of this team is in the hands of Ryan Tannehill. Tannehill has shown flashes of brilliance throughout his career and had a particularly impressive 2016. If he returns to his 2016 form, the Dolphins could be an interesting wildcard contender to watch. Should something happen to Tannehill, however, Miami is doomed to watch Brock Osweiler or Bryce Petty. So, there’s that.

The biggest change on the defensive end for the Dolphins this year is the departure Ndamukong Suh to the Los Angeles Rams. While Suh is still an elite talent, cutting his contract will save the team $17 million in cap space. The team has no clear star on defense entering the season, though fans may recognize veteran linebacker Kiko Alonso and rookie safety Minkah Fitzpatrick. Should the team have a little more luck in producing turnovers this year (they were 28th in the NFL with 15 turnovers last year), things should turn around despite Suh’s departure. This unit was 16th in yards per game last year despite being 29th in points per game, and some better fortune (and longer offensive drives) would go a long way in improving the team’s results on the scoreboard. Look out for some positive regression to the mean in 2018.

All in all, it’s hard to buy into the Dolphins in 2018, even with a defense in line for a positive regression. The team has lost two of its best players from last year, is led by an injury-prone quarterback, and is not especially talented at any position group. This team has a ceiling of a wildcard and a floor of the number one overall pick. With games against the NFC North and the AFC South incoming, I’m expecting the absolute worst.

Predicted Record: 2-14

Players to Watch

Kenyan Drake

Through Week 11 last year, Kenyan Drake averaged 3.8 carries per game. Following the Jay Ajayi trade, however, Drake’s carries skyrocketed to an average of 18.2 carries per game. Though the results were mixed (he posted over 100 yards in the two games in which he received over 20 carries, but did not hit 80 yards in the remaining three games), Drake showed flashes in 2017. With Frank Gore to balance the workload this season and a better quarterback under center to improve the passing game, Kenyan Drake could be a very productive player (if not a star) in 2018.

Josh Sitton

The Dolphins offensive line has been a bottom-five unit in recent years, and they finished ranked 29th by Pro Football Focus in 2017. That said, they are ranked 20th entering 2018 thanks primarily to the addition of Josh Sitton (who posted an excellent 86.0 rating in 2017). Ryan Tannehill needs all the help he can get in a 16-game season, and Sitton should be a welcome addition.

Ryan Tannehill

The Miami Dolphins will live or die by Ryan Tannehill this season. That is all.

 

New York Jets

By Zane Harding

2017 Record: 5-11 (4th in AFC East)

Projected 2018 Roster

Coaching Staff
HC – Todd Bowles
OC – Jeremy Bates
DC – Kacy Rodgers

Projected Offensive Starters
QB – Josh McCown
RB – Isaiah Crowell
RB – Bilal Powell
FB – Lawrence Thomas
WR1 – Robby Anderson
WR2 – Quincy Enunwa
WR3 – Jermaine Kearse
TE – ??? (Clive Walford? Eric Tomlinson?)
LT – Kelvin Beachum
LG – James Carpenter
C – Spencer Long
RG – Brian Winters
RT – Brandon Shell

Projected Defensive Starters
LE – Leonard Williams
RE – Nathan Shepherd
NT – Steve Mclendon
ILB1 – Avery Williamson
ILB2 – Darron Lee
OLB1 – Jordan Jenkins
OLB2 – Josh Martin
CB1 – Trumaine Johnson
CB2 – Morris Claiborne
CB3 – Buster Skrine
FS – Marcus Maye
SS – Jamal Adams

Projected Special Teams Starters
P – Lachlan Edwards
K – Cairo Santos
PR/KR – Andre Roberts
LS – Thomas Hennessy

Other Notable Players
QB – Sam Darnold (3rd Overall Selection in NFL Draft)

Season Preview

“Who are you people?” – Patrick Star, Spongebob Squarepants, “Prehibernation Week”

The Jets did a major makeover this offseason. They parted ways with Christian Hackenberg and Bryce Petty at quarterback, sent Muhammad Wilkerson on his way, watched as Matt Forte retired, did not sign Kony Ealy, and lost Austin Seferian-Jenkins to the Jacksonville Jaguars. That said, the team added a lot of new faces. This includes 3rd overall pick Sam Darnold, Teddy Bridgewater (who will likely be third on the depth chart behind Josh McCown and Sam Darnold),  Trumaine Johnson, Morris Claiborne, Isaiah Crowell, Terrelle Pryor, former Redskins starting center Spencer Long and former Lions starting center Travis Swanson, and many, many more players. So, what does this mean for the team in 2018?

Let’s start with the offense. The Jets offensive line struggled in 2018, but the team added Long and Swanson to shore up that issue. The team also upgraded (or at the very least made a sidegrade) at running back by adding Isaiah Crowell to replace Matt Forte. Meanwhile, the team has some real potential at quarterback with Sam Darnold in the fold, though they will likely hope for lightning in a bottle from McCown and Bridgewater throughout the year. The wide receiver group is not particularly eye-catching, however, as Robby Anderson, Quincy Enunwa, and Terrelle Pryor will not intimidate most secondaries.

Speaking of secondaries, the team signed star cornerback Trumaine Johnson from the Rams to a five-year, $72.5 million deal. They did lose Muhammad Wilkerson, however, but the defensive line should still be formidable. The team is not particularly strong at linebacker, but all in all, the defense is pretty decent.

This is a developmental year for the Jets. There are going to be some growing pains, and as I mentioned with the Dolphins, playing the NFC North and AFC South will do the Jets zero favors. This is going to be a tough season to watch at times, though by the time it finishes, Jets fans should feel that their team is better than their final record.

Predicted Record: 4-12

Players to Watch

Trumaine Johnson

Trumaine Johnson was the Jets biggest signing of the offseason, as Johnson was the second-best cornerback on the market behind Malcolm Butler. Johnson may be three years removed from his breakout 2015 campaign in which he posted seven interceptions, but regardless, the team made a big upgrade in their secondary by picking him up, and seeing that he has only missed four games in the past three years, they should not have to worry too much about his health (fingers crossed).

Spencer Long

The Jets made a major upgrade at center this offseason by picking up former Redskins center Spencer Long. Long missed most of last season with knee and quad injuries, but prior to the injury, he was the 10th best pass-blocking center in the league per Pro Football Focus. Expect Long to anchor this line in the years to come.

The Quarterbacks

The Jets invested big in Sam Darnold this offseason and even though he may not see the field much in 2018, it will be interesting to watch how the Jets handle him. It was just one year ago that the Chicago Bears were poised to start Mike Glennon all year and let Mitch Trubisky watch before Trubisky was thrust into action in just the fifth week of the season.