With the majority of the offseason now in the rear view mirror and the start of training camp just six weeks away, it's time to take a look at how the AFC Eastern division stacks up as we draw ever closer to start of the 2017 regular season. For the first time since the Great Lost Draft of 2013, the Dolphins made a concerted effort to fortify their defense in the early rounds this year, selecting DE Charles Harris, LB Raekwon McMillan and CB Cordrea Tankersley with their first, second and third (compensatory selection) round picks, but perhaps more than any other recent draft choice Miami has used on defense, I look for last year's second round corner, Xavien Howard, to make his presence felt this season.
At 6'0", 200, Howard has prototypical size for a corner and has shown a willingness to come up and stick it to opposing teams' ball carriers and receivers who venture into his area. Having left Baylor after his junior season, the kid was raw and unrefined when he came into the league a year ago, but he's a natural 'ball' athlete who possesses coverage skills that just can't be taught. As should have been expected, Howard took his lumps as a rookie and gave up his share of big plays in the passing game, but even on plays in which he was beaten, he was often running stride for stride with the opposing team's wideout and just missed preventing the reception, or even making a play on the ball himself. For example, in the Dolphins' December road win at Buffalo, go back and check the highlights for Sammy Watkins' long touchdown catch in the second quarter; only an absolutely perfect throw by Bills QB Tyrod Taylor enabled that ball to be caught just in front of the end line for a score. Howard was practically in Watkins' back pocket and very nearly swatted the ball away at the last instant. If that same play unfolds again this season, I look for Howard to disallow the reception. On the other side, many fans have high hopes for Tony Lippett, but until Lippett learns that when you're playing on defense, literally any player from the other team can hit you as hard as they want, whenever they want, he's going to be a target for opposing blockers. He's got the best hands of any defensive back I've seen in a long time, and if he can keep his head on a swivel and avoid being crushed by those blindside blocks, he could really come on this season. His most natural position may yet prove to be at free safety.
A much improved, at least on paper, Buffalo Bills squad figures to give the Dolphins the most competition for second place in the division. They have their first and second round picks from last year, DE Shaq Lawson and LB Reggie Ragland, back healthy this season; the two players missed a combined 21 games in 2016, and the Dolphins will be hard-pressed to rack up the kind of rushing yards they did a year ago against the Bills. Buffalo also drafted All-America LSU CB Tre' Davious White in the first round this Spring, in part to take the place of heretofore disappointing corner Stephon Gilmore, whom the Bills drafted tenth overall in 2012, just two spots after the Dolphins selected Ryan Tannehill.
Gilmore signed with New England this offseason, and, as usual, the rich continue to get richer in the division. In addition to signing Gilmore, the Pats also acquired former Saints WR Brandin Cooks, in exchange for the number 32 overall pick in the first round. New England also picked up former Panthers DL Kony Ealy, a stud for Carolina in the Super Bowl against Denver a couple of years ago, for a second round pick. Like just about everyone else outside the Northeastern U.S., Dolphin fans have been waiting seemingly forever for the Patriots to come back to earth, but they just seem to find a way to win the division year after year.
Finally, we have the Jets, who are now a hot mess. When Pro Football Talk isn't continuing their ongoing crusade to try and get former Niners QB Colin Kaepernick signed by some gullible NFL team, they're in agreement with just about everyone else who isn't living in a cave that the Jets are already throwing in the towel for the 2017 season. Trouble is, there doesn't appear to be a Peyton Manning or Andrew Luck awaiting them in the draft next Spring. New York had better hope that Southern Cal's Sam Darnold can be a reasonable facsimile.
Speaking of the Jets, don't the Dolphins have a guy working in their front office who used to work for the Jets? Oh, yeah, Mike Tannenbaum, who never seems to get the credit he deserves from Dolphin fans. If T-Baum is as average as everyone seems to believe he is, perhaps we should organize a petition for team owner Stephen Ross to call his buddy, Jets owner Woody Johnson, and inquire about a one-for-one swap: former Jets GM Mike Tannenbaum for current Jets GM Mike Maccagnan. After all, Tannenbaum's Dolphins won ten games last year, while Maccagnan's Jets won ten games in 2015. Maybe a change of scenery would serve both men, and both franchises, well. When he arrives in South Florida, Maccagnan can promptly waive virtually every Dolphins player who is aged 30 or older, or who has a big contract. Bye-bye, Wake, Suh, Tannehill, Matt Moore, Anthony Fasano, John Denney, William Hayes, Lawrence Timmons, etc. Then the Dolphins can compete with the Jets for the top pick in the 2018 draft. If Tannenbaum is such a stiff, would you feel better about having Maccagnan as the Dolphins' GM? I didn't think so. Have a great weekend, folks.