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’ve given an overview of each position on each team, and ranked them according to skill and depth. Today, for our final edition of the AFC East Position Power Rankings, we review the linebacker position.
For a rundown of each position, click the links at the bottom of the article.
4) New York Jets
Dylan Donahue (R)
Connor Harris (R)
It just wouldn’t feel right to publish the final edition of the AFC East Position Power Rankings without the Jets occupying the fourth spot on the list, as they have for most of our other editions. Thankfully, they fit right into that spot in our linebacker rankings. After jettisoning their most reliable player at the position in the past decade, David Harris, this unit, and the defense as a whole, is left without a clear leader. Harris spent 10 seasons with the Jets, during 8 of which he played all 16 games, and during 9 of which he recorded over 80 tackles.
Now it’s time for a younger generation of Jets to step up. 2016 first round pick Darron Lee played reasonably well last season, accumulating 75 total tackles and 4 passes defended in 13 games. The team also has Demario Davis at the position, a player whom they let walk just a year ago to sign with the Cleveland Browns, and whom they traded back for this offseason. Davis has started at least 15 games in 4 of his 5 NFL seasons and has recorded at least 90 tackles in each of those 4 seasons.
On the outside, the Jets are relying on the development of some younger players. Lorenzo Mauldin and Jordan Jenkins will be counted upon to step up and play the majority of the team’s defensive snaps, although Sheldon Richardson could also line up at linebacker if need be. I counted Richardson as a defensive lineman for this exercise considering that is where he’s listed on the team’s official roster.
3) Miami Dolphins
Raekwon McMillan (R)
Chase Allen (R)
The Dolphins may have placed higher on this list if not for the injury to rookie Raekwon McMillan. The talented former Buckeye was projected to be the starter and play caller for this revamped defense before tearing his ACL on his first play in the National Football League during Miami’s first preseason game last Thursday.
Now, if the team declines to sign a replacement, second year linebacker Mike Hull may be asked to step up into a starting role. Hull played well in limited work last season, collecting 33 tackles, 1 pass defended, and 1 interception in 1 start over 16 games. However, much of that production was gathered on special teams, where Hull has flourished in his career thus far. Becoming a full time starter is a great deal to ask from someone who’s had such little work on defense thus far, which is why the Dolphins may also elect to look for help in free agency.
However, the Dolphins do have talent at the position on the outside. Kiko Alonso played astonishingly well over 15 starts last season. Coming over to Miami after being traded by the Philadelphia Eagles, Alonso amassed 115 total tackles, 4 passes defended, 2 interceptions, and 1 touchdown in 2016. He’s also become a leader both on and off the field, and someone who the franchise values, as evidenced by his three-year contract extension signed this offseason.
Across from Alonso is the newly acquired Lawrence Timmons. Timmons was a highly productive linebacker during his 10 years in Pittsburgh. Over 6 of the past 7 seasons, he piled up over 100 tackles each year. The year he didn’t, he recorded 93. Timmons is coming up on his age 31 campaign, and the Dolphins are banking on the former Steeler holding off a decline in production. However, the ultra-reliable defender has shown no reason to believe he will do anything else, even though he’ll wearing aqua and orange instead of black and yellow this season.
2) New England Patriots
Kyle Van Noy
Harvey Langi (R)
Brooks Ellis (R)
The Patriots retained one of the crowned jewels of the 2017 free agency period in Dont’a Hightower. While Hightower may not record the same type of tackle production as some of the NFL’s elite linebackers, the talented 27-year old is one of the unquestioned leaders of the Patriots’ defense and has made two Super Bowl saving plays over the past few seasons.
Projected to start alongside Hightower is the aforementioned Jet David Harris, as well as former Chicago Bear Shea McClellin. McClellin finished his first year as a Patriot with 41 tackles over 4 defensive starts.
While Hightower, Harris, and McClellin make a solid starting trio, the team also has quality depth. MLB Kyle Van Noy, as well as OLBs Jonathan Freeny and Elandon Roberts all have starting experience and make solid fallback options in case of injury.
1) Buffalo Bills
Abner Logan (R)
Matt Milano (R)
Tanner Vallejo (R)
The Bills have one of the better linebacking corps in the league despite losing one of last year’s key players, Zach Brown, in free agency to the Redskins. The unit is anchored on the outside by Lorenzo Alexander, a 34-year old who seemed to be on the back-nine of his career before undergoing a career renaissance with a 12.5 sack 2016 campaign.
Across from Alexander sits Gerald Hodges, a regular starter on the 49ers depleted defense last season. In 2016, Hodges managed 83 tackles, 2 passes defended, and 2 forced fumbles despite the lack of talent surrounding him. He’ll compete with career backup Ramon Humber for a starting OLB position.
The Bills are deepest at the MLB spot, where they have one of the most promising young linebackers in the league, Preston Brown holding down the middle of the field. Brown has played all 48 games in 3 seasons with the Bills, starting 46. In that time he’s accumulated over 100 tackles each season along with 7 total passes defended and 3 interceptions. He’s currently slated to start ahead of second year defender Reggie Ragland. Ragland, a first round talent who slipped to the second round of the 2016 NFL Draft due to a medical issue, tore his ACL last offseason and was placed on injured reserve before the beginning of the regular season. He should end up becoming a part of Buffalo’s linebacker rotation and develop behind Brown.