Reason to be cheerful: defence
Its’ remarkable that the Bills had the league’s second-best defence (in yards allowed per game), given how ineffective the offence was. That is all credit to head coach Sean McDermott and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier.
The unit’s strength is clearly its linebacking corps, comprised of underrated edge rushers Jerry Hughes and Lorenzo Alexander (who both made it onto sports analytics site Pro Football Focus’ top 101 players of the 2018 season). In addition, last year’s first round pick Tremaine Edmunds led the team with 121 combined tackles, whilst his teammate Matt Milano added 78 tackles and three interceptions.
The secondary also includes its own difference makers such as safety Jordan Poyer (100 combined tackles; 4 INTs; 2 sacks) and veteran Micah Hyde (3rd highest coverage grade amongst safeties according to Pro Football Focus). Now if, the offence could be just above average…
Reason to be fearful: will the offence hold the team back from a playoff berth?
Buffalo’s offence was pretty putrid last season, ranking 31st in the passing game. Whilst the run game was the 9th best in the league, the Bills didn’t have a single player rush for more than 700 yards.
Most of the damage was done by veteran running back LeSean McCoy (514 yds; 3 TDs) and rookie quarterback Josh Allen (631 yds; 8 TDs). The Bills ineffective pass game and lack of weapons on the perimeter meant opposing defences could stack the box against McCoy and overwhelm Buffalo’s deficient offensive line.
Looking forward the team have holes to fill at wide receiver (Zay Jones led the team in receiving with 652 yds); tight end (where Charles Clay has recently been released); and the offensive line. In addition, the team need to consider McCoy’s eventual replacement: the 30-year-old back cannot carry the offense any longer.
The team will be hoping QB Josh Allen can develop as more of a threat in the passing game rather than as a runner. The Wyoming product was always likely to need more NFL seasoning, but he needs talent adding around him in order to grow as an effective signal caller.
Reason to be cheerful: a reset and restart with hope
For a number of years, it’s seemed the Fins haven’t had a long-term plan for the direction of the franchise.
For a number of years, they always seemed to be involved in attempting to add highly priced free agents, recently moving away from this approach and more towards adding high character veterans who could improve the locker room culture.
Reports out of Miami this offseason seem to indicate that the team’s new decision makers, general manager Chris Grier and head coach Brian Flores, are going to tear this roster down to start again. The franchise needs a coherent plan and too many of their additions to the roster in recent years (either through the draft or free agency) haven’t had a significant impact.
The team can feel positive moving forward with Flores, who is likely to demand the level of accountability players have to show at his previous team in Foxboro.
It’s even comforting that the Dolphins haven’t gone with the ‘sexy’ hire, picking a defensive coach as their new head man whilst the rest of the league goes crazy for young offensive coaches. The addition of Jim Caldwell as assistant head coach should also help Flores settle into his new role, whilst providing some spark to the offence.
Grier comes from a scouting background and is a highly rated executive, who can help end some of those draft woes.
Reason to be fearful: short term pain
It’s not been called ‘tanking’ in South Beach, but the rumours are that whilst Miami will let several of their veteran players walk, they will not be highly active in free agency spending the big bucks to replace them. That’s been Miami’s approach in previous years and it hasn’t yielded results. That may make the next season or two for Fins fans a little hard to bear as they try to build through the draft and add low risk, inexpensive free agents.
Whilst there are some young building blocks for this team, such as defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick, cornerback Xavien Howard (7 INTs last season) and linebacker Raekwon McMillan, the offence has a number of question marks. The wide receiver position is filled with functional players who haven’t demonstrated consistent productivity to keep opposing coordinators up at night and the offensive line only has four players under contract. The team doesn’t appear sold on Ryan Tannehill as the future at quarterback and so is likely to be looking to add a starter there too.
Reason to be cheerful: key contributors in place
The key components of New England’s dominant run game, which powered them to Super Bowl victory, remain in place. That obviously includes first year running back Sony Michel who will likely be the lead back next year with less of his carries being eaten into, particularly as Cordarrelle Patterson is a free agent.
Nonetheless power back Rex Burkhead will remain in the rotation as will pass catching running back James White, who actually ranked second on the team in receiving yards (751 yds). The O-line will continue to remain a strength as long as position coach Dante Scarnecchia is in place, whilst on defence, leading tackler Kyle Van Noy is still under contract, as is play making cornerback Stephon Gilmore (22 passes defended; 2 INTs; 2 forced fumbles).
If this team adds some serious weapons at wide receiver this season, they have to be amongst Super Bowl favourites again.
Reason to be fearful: at a push…finding Tom Brady’s successor
There is very little for this team to worry about. They play in a division in which every other team is rebuilding and the majority of their coaching staff remains in place, with the exception of defensive playcaller Brian Flores who the team lost to Miami. The team’s free agents include their left tackle (Trent Brown), team sack leader (Tre Flowers), arguably their second wideout (Chris Hogan) and starting cornerback (Jason McCourty). But no franchise has been better at replacing departing players without skipping a beat, and that shouldn’t become a problem this season.
Nonetheless, it will start to become more imperative for the team to find the long-term successor to Brady.
Whilst Brady is likely to continue to play at a high level for the next season or so the team needs to start preparing for when he can no longer maintain that standard. This season Brady gave up double digit interceptions for the first time since 2013 and had his lowest passer rating since 2014. The Patriots need to consider whether those are warning signs or if they reflect the lack of effective weapons the team had in the passing game this year.
Reason to be cheerful: a franchise QB to build around
Third overall pick Sam Darnold had his growing pains, which any rookie QB would expect in the NFL, especially one on a team with a real dearth of talent.
Nonetheless, Gang Green has hope under centre for the first time in years. The former USC signal caller only had a completion percentage of 57.7% but maintained a positive TD: INT ration (17: 15) and flashed dominance in games. That included against Detroit in the season opener (76.2% completion percentage; 2 TDs; 1 INT); against the Colts (80% completion percentage; 2 TDs; 1 INT) and Green Bay (68.6% completion percentage; 3 TDs).
In order for Darnold to take the next step, the team needs to invest some of the significant cap room they have in weapons to aid the California native’s development. There are needs right throughout the offence, most significantly at wide receiver where Quincy Enunwa remains the main player of note, but who was out with injury last season.
Reason to be fearful: can the GM and coach do their job effectively?
The team handed a massive contract worth over $70m to free agent cornerback Trumaine Johnson last offseason. However, the play of the former LA defensive back was criticised and raises the question of how effective the team will be in using the second highest cap space in the league this offseason.
As mentioned previously, the team has needs all over the roster, but also has the space to use it.
Very few of the team’s free agent signings over the past couple of offseason’s remain on the roster as key contributors. General manager Mike Maccagnan has spoken publicly about building through the draft, where they have added key players like defensive leader Jamal Adams, but the team needs to be able to hit on some of its free agency investments, like it did with Avery Williamson last year.
New head coach Adam Gase was probably not the hire Jets fans were hoping for after a couple of losing seasons in Miami and the question is whether he is the coach that led the Dolphins to the playoffs in his first season, or the coach who seemed to lose the locker room the season before last. Gase will hopefully have learnt enough from his time in South Beach to not repeat some of the mistakes in the Big Apple.