Friday, we detailed the positional rankings for each team in the NFC West, a division with plenty of parity on offense. Not so in the AFC East, as New England dominates most position groups while the Jets roster is in the midst of a complete overhaul. When complete, this series will consist of 16 parts, as we rank the position groups of each division in the NFL on both sides of the ball. Keep in mind that each position group is ranked based on current ability, with a lean toward “near future” projections thrown in.
1. New England Patriots – Tom Brady
2. Buffalo Bills – Tyrod Taylor
3. Miami Dolphins – Ryan Tannehill
4. New York Jets – Josh McCown/Christian Hackenberg
Analysis: Shocker, Brady tops this list with ease, and if he played until he’s 45 he would probably still do so. He’ll be 40 on Aug. 3, and the way he has maintained his physical skills and all-around abilities to still be the best quarterback in the NFL is simply remarkable.
Taylor and Tannehill are both mid-tier quarterbacks that operate much differently and are tough to compare. On a snap-to-snap basis Tannehill is more consistent and more accurate to the short-intermediate areas of the field, but I gave Taylor the overall edge because I think he has improved significantly in both of those areas and he offers much greater big-play potential. In the best performances of his career (against Seattle last year comes to mind), Taylor made plays in and out of structure, relying on his legs when necessary but also letting his arm do the work against one of the best secondaries in the NFL. If he could maintain his peaks for longer periods, Taylor could be an even better quarterback. But his play does suffer ups and downs, and not having Sammy Watkins fully healthy very often doesn’t help either.
Tannehill is a solid starter but doesn’t offer the same ability to create out of structure, or with his legs, as Taylor. While he is a little better within structure, he also makes more turnover-worthy mistakes and isn’t as aggressive downfield. I think both players are improving, but I give the slight edge to Taylor.
Then there is the Jets quarterback situation, and I’m not sure we need to say much more than that. They need to give Hackenberg every chance to prove he’s not the guy before taking a quarterback early in the draft next year.
1. Bills – LeSean McCoy, Jonathan Williams, Mike Tolbert
2. Dolphins – Jay Ajayi, Damien Williams, Kenyan Drake
3. Patriots – Dion Lewis, James White, Mike Gillislee, Rex Burkhead
4. Jets – Matt Forte, Bilal Powell, Elijah McGuire
Analysis: McCoy is a top-five running back in the NFL without question, and I think Williams is going to be one of the top backups in the league while putting himself in position to vie for a starting gig somewhere down the road. According to Pro Football Focus Elite, McCoy had 22 runs of 15 yards or more last season, tied for tops in the NFL at his position.
Ajayi is certainly on his way to a top-tier billing if last year’s production is to be believed, as the Dolphins running back posted three 200-yard performances on his way to over 1,200 yards rushing. Oddly enough, however, Ajayi only went over 100 yards in one other game last season, when he rushed for 111 yards on 24 carries against the Jets. His production was very boom or bust, and his three 200-yard performances came in two games against the Bills’ 29th-ranked run defense and one against a banged-up Steelers defense missing several starters. That’s not to take away from Ajayi, who ran very well on tape, but it does provide some context to show how he needs to be more consistent next season, especially against high end competition.
The Patriots’ stable of backs is always formidable, and Gillislee could be the next surprise stud after impressing in a backup role last year in Buffalo. Lewis and White are excellent receiving threats and change-of-pace rushers, while Burkhead is perhaps the most well-rounded back in the group. With Forte, who is declining, and Powell splitting carries again for the Jets, the Patriots edge the. Still, this is one of the best position groups on the Jets roster this season.
1. Patriots – Julian Edelman, Brandin Cooks, Malcolm Mitchell, Danny Amendola, Chris Hogan
2. Dolphins – Jarvis Landry, DeVante Parker, Kenny Stills, Leonte Carroo
3. Bills – Sammy Watkins, Zay Jones, Andre Holmes, Corey Brown
4. Jets – Quincy Enunwa, Robby Anderson, Charone Peake, Chad Hansen, ArDarius Stewart
Analysis: The only discussion here is at the top, where both Miami and New England have top-10 receiving corps in the NFL. The Patriots offense allows their pass-catchers to maximize specific skills on a consistent basis, so while Miami’s crew might be more well-rounded, New England has the edge in consistent production. Edelman is in contention with Landry to be dubbed the best true slot receiver in the NFL, and Cooks could be a dynamic big-play threat in the Patriots offense. Mitchell flashed consistently last season when healthy, and Hogan led the NFL in yards per catch. This group has all-around ability to separate and make big plays at all levels of the field.
If Parker takes the next step this season, Miami could push for the top spot. Landry is a terrific short-intermediate and post-catch threat, and Stills is a burner down the field. Parker has flashed often in his first two seasons, and could be poised to move into the 1,000-yard club with a little more refinement this year.
Sammy Watkins is elite when healthy, but he has spent a lot of his career banged up, and the rest of the Bills receiving corps is either unproven or underwhelming. Jones can be a quality No. 2, however, which could put the arrow up for a group that has lacked depth for a couple of years.
Enunwa was terrific for the Jets last season, but the team is down two quality targets in Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker and will look to rookies Hansen and Stewart to replace them. The former is more of a possession type while the latter is talented but unrefined, so the payoff could come down the road, perhaps when the rest of the Jets unit is ready to peak as well.
1. Patriots – Rob Gronkowski, Dwayne Allen
2. Bills – Charles Clay, Nick O’Leary
3. Miami – Julius Thomas, Anthony Fasano
4. Jets – Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Jordan Leggett
Analysis: Again, New England stands clear of the masses with the best tight end in the NFL and one of the league’s top no. 2 options at the position. Both Gronkowski and Allen can block or flex out, which lets the Patriots maintain their tradition of deceptively employing heavy personnel packages to create mismatches with linebackers on tight ends.
No one else in the division can come close to offering what New England does at the position, but Clay is a solid underneath threat in Buffalo and a good blocker. Julius Thomas offers more upside, but he has been injury prone and on the decline since leaving Denver, and was extremely fortunate to land somewhere he could be a part of the rotation, let alone the starting lineup.
The Jets again bring up the rear, as Seferian-Jenkins attempts to keep his career alive after work ethic and commitment concerns derailed whatever promise his early years held. The Jets added Jordan “Lazy” Leggett via the draft, and you can draw your own conclusions about how his earned nickname could mesh with ASJ’s issues.
1. Bills – Cordy Glenn, Richie Incognito, Eric Wood, John Miller, Dion Dawkins/Jordan Mills
2. Patriots- Nate Solder, Joe Thuney, David Andrews, Shaq Mason, Marcus Cannon
3. Dolphins – Laremy Tunsil, Anthony Steen/Isaac Asiata, Mike Pouncey, Jermon Bushrod, Ja’Wuan James
4. Jets – Ben Ijalana, James Carpenter, Wesley Johnson, Brian Winters, Kelvin Beachum
Analysis: The left side of the Bills’ offensive line, including center Eric Wood, is a fantastic group with three quality linemen, especially in the run game. Miller is an average starter and Dawkins will try to supplant Mills in the starting lineup after the veteran struggled last year, but the Buffalo line was absolutely a catalyst to the team’s offensive success last season.
The Patriots have a solid group as well, but Solder is declining and Thuney really struggled as a rookie starter. Cannon and Andrews both enjoyed the best years of their career and Mason is a force in the run game. The unit is extremely well-coached and aided in pass protection by one of the most efficient in-pocket quarterbacks in NFL history, so I wouldn’t expect a big drop-off in 2017.
Miami’s group could pass New England’s if Pouncey stays healthy and Tunsil adjusts quickly to his first season as a starting left tackle in the NFL. The Dolphins are weak at the guard spots however, as Steen struggled mightily last season when forced to fill in off the bench. There are serious question marks with the group that will need to be definitively answered if Miami is to repeat its playoff run from last year.
For the fifth straight position unit, the Jets are dead last. The tackles are coming off brutal seasons, though I like Beachum to bounce back to at least being adequate, and Wesley Johnson has really struggled in his brief time in the NFL. Winters and Carpenter just came off the best seasons of their careers and were still both very average, so don’t expect the Jets to get a boost from their front five in a season that seems destined to give New York the first overall pick in the 2018 draft.