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 defensive line.
4) New York Jets
Patrick Gamble (R)
While the Jets place last in this edition of the AFC East Position Power Rankings yet again, they by no means have a lack of talent on the defensive line. It’s just that the division happens to be very strong at the position despite some underwhelming performances by the Jets, Bills, and Dolphins in run defense last season. In fact, the case can easily be made that defensive line is where the Jets are the strongest, especially in star power. Muhammad Wilkerson, Sheldon Richardson, and Leonard Williams all have the talent to be game-wreckers. Unfortunately for the Jets, Wilkerson and Richardson both had down years last season, displaying poor play on the field, and poor behavior off of it. If the team wants to have some semblance of defensive dominance, the two starting defensive ends will need to show that they can turn themselves around.
On the other hand, Williams can be called the brightest spot on a very lackluster roster. He’s started 31 of 32 games for the Jets over two seasons, compiling 131 tackles and 10 sacks. He has the potential to be one of the top defensive tackles in this league and is a prime building block for the rebuilding team.
Where the Jets falter most at the position is depth. Behind the aforementioned Wilkerson, Richardson, and Williams, the Jets have no one to rely on as quality depth outside of longtime Steeler Steve McLendon. Should the team face injuries or a continued downward spiral by Wilkerson and Richardson, the defensive line may be left in dire straits.
3) New England Patriots
Deatrich Wise (R)
Derek Rivers (R)
Josh Augusta (R)
Adam Butler (R)
The Patriots may not have a star studded defensive line, but as evidenced by their third place finish in run defense last season, they don’t need one to be successful. Head coach Bill Belichick is a master of coaxing the very best out of his players on defense by putting them in a position to succeed, and that is what should be expected from this unit.
What places them ahead of the Jets, despite a lack of athletic dominance, is quality depth. The Patriots’ unit has more than enough talented players, especially at the defensive tackle position, to have a steady rotation between starters and backups without missing a beat.
Trey Flowers and Kony Ealy may not be household names, but they are both young and developing. No one should be surprised if the two combine to form a productive duo next season. Ealy, specifically, has a penchant for finding the football, shown by his three passes defended, two forced fumbles, and one interception last season. That was likely one of the deciding factors in Belichick nabbing him from the Panthers in exchange for a small fall on the draft board.
At defensive tackle, the Patriots have veteran Alan Branch and youngster Malcolm Brown penciled in as week 1 starters. Branch is experienced, reliable, and a good fit to mentor the less experienced Brown, who showed potential while making 25 starts over the past two years. Behind them sit former Baltimore Raven Lawrence Guy and a group of younger hopefuls who should get a shot at sticking around as rotational depth.
2) Buffalo Bills
Marquavius Lewis (R)
Nigel Williams (R)
The Bills have a very talented interior defensive line consisting of Marcell Dareus, Kyle Williams, and Adolphus Washington, the latter of whom has shown the potential to develop into a playmaker in limited time last season. Williams, despite his age, has been a constant force for the Bills over the years, and his partner in crime, Dareus, should be back to full form after injuries and a suspension hampered his production last season.
Defensive end is where the Bills are hedging their bets on the development of younger players. Outside of Jerry Hughes, who has accumulated 31 sacks over four years in Buffalo, there’s no one who presents themselves as an immediate starter. Ryan Davis has been limited to backup work in five years with the Jaguars and Cowboys, and 2016 first round draft pick Shaq Lawson failed to excite in 10 games coming off of a shoulder injury last year. Lawson could develop into a talented pass rusher now that he’s fully healthy, but that is by no means a guarantee.
Bills fans are certainly hoping new head coach Sean McDermott can right the ship after the team’s defense severely underperformed on the watch of Rex Ryan and the team’s defensive performance will be something to watch for this season.
1) Miami Dolphins
Charles Harris (R)
Cameron Malveaux (R)
Praise Martin-Oguike (R)
Joby Saint Fleur (R)
Davon Godchaux (R)
Vincent Taylor (R)
Miami’s defensive line boasts a plethora of both young and veteran talent throughout. The ageless Cameron Wake continues to perform at a high level into his mid 30s and is joined by game-wrecker Ndamukong Suh. To bolster the team’s depth, the Dolphins drafted Charles Harris in the first round of the draft back in April. On film, Harris looks extremely explosive and gives fans every reason to highly anticipate his debut in the NFL. He’s also shown an eager willingness to learn under Wake, and has even sought out legend and 2017 Hall of Fame inductee Jason Taylor for tutelage.
What really hurt Miami’s defensive development last season was a noticeable lack of grit and discipline defending the run. To correct that issue, the Dolphins traded for William Hayes, who has displayed a knack for setting the edge and stopping rushers in their tracks. Adding Hayes to go along with a rebuilt linebacker corps and a healthy Reshad Jones bodes well for the outlook of Miami’s 2017 run defense.
The Dolphins also addressed the serious lack of depth at the defensive tackle position this offseason. In this year’s draft, Miami selected Davon Godchaux and Vincent Taylor with consecutive late round picks. While both are raw and not yet ready to see significant time at the NFL level, they showed talent in college that could absolutely translate to the pros given mentoring and time to progress behind a player like Suh. Another story to keep track of is the development of Jordan Phillips. The supremely athletic interior lineman has shown flashes of stardom over two seasons in Miami, but has yet to put together a dominant series of games. Now being relied on as the starter next to Suh, it will be fascinating to see if Phillips has really committed himself to being ready for playing the majority of starting reps.