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 offensive line.
4) New York Jets
Chris Bordelon (R)
Javarious Leamon (R)
Ben Braden (R)
The New York Jets’ offensive line was by no means a steady force last season, as it surrendered 35 combined sacks in front of a revolving door of quarterbacks (18th in the league).
The team’s running game also had trouble gaining steady traction. Matt Forte averaged 3.7 yards per carry in his first season outside of Chicago, the second worst mark of his career. Bilal Powell stood as one bright spot for this offensive line’s production, averaging 5.5 yards per carry, albeit in very limited work (8.2 rushing attempts per game).
As a whole, those numbers might not look so bad, but it’s important to remember that this year’s line is without two of its most important leaders from last season. Nick Mangold, one of the most prominent Jets and well rounded centers of the last decade, was jettisoned by the team in a series of moves that purged the roster of its talented, yet pricey veterans. Although Mangold played just 8 games last season, his leadership and character on and off the field will be missed by this unit. Ryan Clady, a longtime Denver Bronco, played in 9 games last season, and with him also gone from the team, the Jets’ o-line is left starving for a strong veteran presence.
Kelvin Beachum will now likely be looked to as one of the primary leaders of the group, and Wesley Johnson will be expected to step up as a full time starter a center. Whoever lines up under center this season will be expecting a very uninspiring group to protect them from another Ndamukong Suh-Cameron Wake sandwich like the one Bryce Petty endured last season.
3) Miami Dolphins
Eric Smith (R)
Isaac Asiata (R)
Miami’s offensive line has been the cause of fan exasperation and frustration for what seems like forever. Especially during the Ryan Tannehill era, the Dolphins’ front office has struggled to field a unit that can consistently both pass protect and run block. Things seemed to get better last season as Tannehill took a career low 29 sacks, and Jay Ajayi rushed for 1,250 yards at 4.9 yards per carry on the season. However, those numbers could have been even better had play from the o-line been more consistent, a fact that is clear when one looks at Ajayi’s 6 games of averaging under 4.0 yards per carry.
The blame for this issue can be spread out over a multitude of factors such as injury, lack of foresight in talent acquisition, and simply poor performance, but the fact remains, this offensive line is still a work in progress.
When it comes to the starting offensive tackles, Miami appears to be in good shape. Laremy Tunsil has given a clear indication that he was a steal at pick 13 of the 2016 NFL Draft, and should hold down the fort at left tackle for years to come. On the right side, the Dolphins extended the reliable Ja’Wuan James with a 5th year option, meaning he will be blocking for Tannehill and Jay Ajayi for at least two more seasons. Depth at the tackle position is a concern though. Behind journeyman Sam Young, the Dolphins have a plethora of uninspiring and inexperienced options, so the team could struggle if those guys are called upon.
On the interior is where things get really sticky. Despite Adam Gase’s statement that Jermon Bushrod was one of the team’s highest internally graded offensive linemen, Bushrod is 32 years old and seemed uncomfortable at times in his first year playing right guard. On the left, the Dolphins have a four-way battle for a starting guard spot. Ted Larsen and Kraig Urbik are the more experienced of the group and could start initially, but rookie Isaac Asiata certainly has a shot at getting the nod should he impress in training camp. Unfortunately, none of those options are anything to write home about. At center, Miami has an all-star in every sense of the word in Mike Pouncey. However, Pouncey will need to be able to stay healthy if he’s going to make any impact.
2) Buffalo Bills
Dion Dawkins (R)
Greg Pyke (R)
Zach Voytek (R)
Buffalo’s first place rushing attack is a clear indication of how impressive their line was in run blocking last season. LeSean McCoy rushed at an astounding 5.4 yards per carry on the year. His partner in crime, Mike Gillislee of the New England Patriots, beat that mark, toting the rock for 5.7 yards per carry. Those numbers are nothing short of extraordinary, and speak to the quality of this offensive line as a whole.
Unfortunately for the Bills, the fact that Tyrod Taylor and EJ Manuel took a combined 45 sacks in 2016 tells a different story than the running game might. To sum that story up for you; while this unit excelled in run blocking, its pass protection was far less impressive.
In terms of individual talent, Buffalo has Pro Bowl caliber players and reliable starters throughout the starting line up. Eric Wood’s career was trending upwards, with a Pro Bowl appearance in 2015, before being limited to just 9 games last season due to a broken leg. Should he bounce back from the injury, the Bills will once again be stable at he position. At guard sits Richie Incognito, a player infamous for his poor personal conduct off the field, but also famous for his high level of play on it. At tackle, the Bills have Cordy Glenn, who himself is a solid starter and was signed to a five-year $65 million contract extension in 2016.
1) New England Patriots
Tony Garcia (R)
Cole Croston (R)
Andrew Jelks (R)
Conor McDermott (R)
Max Rich (R)
Jason King (R)
Blocking for the best quarterback to ever play the game may make one’s job easier, but that should not take away from the accomplishments of this offensive line. Tom Brady, Jimmy Garoppolo, and Jacoby Brissett took a combined 24 sacks over the course of the 2016 season, with Brady taking just 15 in 12 games. A number that small speaks to the quality of pass protection that Bill Belichick demands out of this unit.
And with all of the hype around Brady, one can easily forget that the Patriots also averaged the 7th most rushing yards per game in the NFL last season despite lacking a star runner on the team.
On the outside, this powerhouse of an offense was led by steady forces at the tackle position in Nate Solder and Marcus Cannon. On the inside, the Patriots have budding stars in Joe Thuney and Shaq Mason, both of whom finished the 2016 season strong and project to start at left guard and right guard respectively. At center, David Andrews beat out Bryan Stork for the starting spot last year, and was rewarded for his steady play all season with a three-year extension from the team. As of now, it appears that Belichick is remaining steadfast in his quest to preserve his premier quarterback for as long as possible.