The AFC East has essentially been run by the same team for over 15 years. The New England Patriots have dominated the division season after season, riding on the success of the most prolific quarterback this league has ever known and a head coach who always seems to be three steps ahead of the rest of the NFL.
That being said, each team in the division, the Patriots, New York Jets, Buffalo Bills, and our Miami Dolphins, have their strengths and weaknesses. Over the offseason, I’ll be giving an overview of each position on each team, and ranking them according to skill and depth. Today, we review the cornerback position.
4) New York Jets
Derrick Jones (R)
Jeremy Clark (R)
Xavier Coleman (R)
The Jets may have 10 cornerbacks on their roster, but that’s not going to stop them from coming in at the bottom of our list. Their unit is headlined by the oft-injured Morris Claiborne, who despite his strong start to last season, simply can not be trusted to be a regular starter. He’s never recorded more than one interception in a season and has only played in 47 out of 80 possible games during his five-year tenure with the Dallas Cowboys.
After jettisoning Darrelle Revis this offseason, the Jets are left with Buster Skrine (whose production has declined since his best year with the Cleveland Browns in 2014) and a mess of backup options or unproven rookies as depth. There’s really no other way to say it: the Jets are in for a tough year in 2017.
3) Buffalo Bills
Tre’Davious White (R)
Marcus Sayles (R)
Just as with our running back rankings, the Bills would have been higher on the list had they not lost one of their best players at the position to the division rival Patriots. The Patriots payed a hefty price for free agent Stephon Gilmore, and it absolutely hurt the Bills in the secondary. Buffalo also failed to retain the undersized, yet underrated Nickell Robey-Coleman, and the combined losses forced the Bills to address the cornerback position in this year’s draft.
Buffalo made a very intelligent move on draft day by trading down the board with the Kansas City Chiefs and acquiring a solid player in Tre’Davious White. White is an ultra-athletic cornerback with great instincts and coverage ability. He should start across from Ronald Darby on the boundary, or in the slot, at the start of the season. Darby himself is a good player who the Bills are hoping will continue to make strides this season. After a very strong rookie year, Darby proved to be a capable starter for the Bills, and will be heavily counted on after the departures of Gillmore and Robey-Collman.
2) Miami Dolphins
Cordrea Tankersley (R)
Larry Hope (R)
Torry McTyer (R)
This season, the Dolphins are counting on multiple young players to continue to develop and round out their cornerback unit. After a slow start to his first season in Miami, Byron Maxwell stepped up during the second half of the year, showing why he’s earned the hefty contract that Philadelphia gave him just a few seasons ago. Whether or not Maxwell will remain a Dolphin in 2018 has been hotly debated, but the fact that the Dolphins are counting on him to remain a top tier corner in 2017 is a definite certainty. Maxwell has also taken on a mentorship role this year to aid in the growth the team’s young corners.
Speaking of young corners, Xavien Howard, who is entering his second year, will likely earn the nod as the starting outside corner opposite Maxwell after an up and down rookie season. Tony Lippett, who was forced into a starting role last year due to several injuries, will likely be counted on as the team’s first corner off the bench. Lippett racked up 4 interceptions last season, and will look to continue improving and growing as a reliable option on the outside. Bobby McCain struggled at times against bigger receivers as the Dolphins’ primary slot option last year, but his feisty play style and quick-twitch athleticism will keep him in afloat during training camp battles against other possible starters. Cordrea Tankersley, Miami’s 2017 third round draft pick, will also fight for playing time. Despite the possibility of replacing Maxwell after this season, the two have quickly developed a connection, and the older vet has said that he will embrace a mentoring role for the young rookie, who hopes to emulate Maxwell’s playing style.
Should the Dolphins avoid the injury bug this season, their cornerback unit should be ready to make the leap to round out an improving secondary.
1) New England Patriots
D.J. Killings (R)
William Likely (R)
Kenny Moore (R)
Dwayne Thomas (R)
The Patriots top this list due to the pursuing and signing of Stephon Gilmore, which not only weakened their division rival Bills, but, when paired with Malcolm Butler, gives this team the strongest starting cornerback duo in the division. The Patriots attempted to move Butler via trade to the New Orleans Saints, but ultimately decided to keep him when they were not offered the trade compensation they desired. That decision will allow the former Super Bowl hero and subsequent star corner to earn a big paycheck should he continue to display strong play against opponents’ number one receivers this season.
The Patriots also have strong young depth in Eric Rowe, Justin Coleman, and Jonathan Jones. Rowe, after being traded from the Philadelphia Eagles, settled in as a rotational starter last season along with Logan Ryan (now with the Tennessee Titans), while Coleman should fight with Jonathan Jones and Cyrus Jones for the team’s number four cornerback spot. Cyrus Jones is the most difficult player in this group to assess. The Patriots had high hopes for him both as a returner and a defender after drafting him in the second round in 2016, but he struggled in both roles last season. His performance this year will very likely determine his stance with the team moving forward.
Despite the uncertainty surrounding Jones, there’s still an absolute certainty at the cornerback position, Bellichick will know how to make the most of this talented unit.