The 2016 NFL season was an interesting year for all the teams in it. We saw the New England Patriots claim their fifth Super Bowl title led by Tom Brady as well as the Miami Dolphins making the post season for the first time since 2008. But the AFC East also had its lows as the Buffalo Bills stumbled to a 7-9 finish and fired head coach Rex Ryan during the process. Finally, the New York Jets were a complete disaster as they finished 5-11 and were plagued by injuries all season long. But 2016 is now in the books and here at VAVEL USA, some of our NFL writers got together and shared our opinions for the upcoming 2017 season.
Which rookie in the AFC East will have the biggest impact?
Robert Brunswick III: As a Jets fan and strong believer in the rebuild ahead of them, it’s my firm belief Jamal Adams is going to make a huge impact in the AFC. The Jets were lacking heavily on defense, and with fresh legs in the six-foot, 214 pounds Adams, there’s no telling how solid the defense will be this year. When push comes to shove, defense was where the Jets suffered most, regardless of Ryan Fitzpatrick’s horrid season. Adams will revolutionize the secondary unit and be a tank against receivers and speedy backs.
Kudzi Musarurwa: Charles Harris of the Dolphins. The Dolphins already had a solid defense last season and were a quarter back injury away from probably going deeper into their playoff run. Harris has the acceleration and hand awareness needed to improve the Dolphins defense this year if he progresses the right way. So far, people in Miami think he's succeeding with that during training camp.
Richard Sena: The AFC East saw a number of quality defensive starters added to the division via the draft. Despite not having a first or second round pick, the Patriots selected one of the most talented edge rushers in the draft in former Youngstown State prospect Derek Rivers. Rivers lit up athletic testing at the combine and profiles as a similarly built athlete to a former New England defensive player, Jamie Collins. If Rivers can break into the rotation during training camp, he should find his way into opponent’s backfields in no time.
Norman Tall: I believe the rookie who will have the biggest impact on the AFC East will be Jets Jamal Adams. Taken sixth overall by the Jets in this year's draft, Adams comes to New York as a lock to be a starter from day one. Adams is a physical, play-making safety and that should help the Jets mightily. In his final season at LSU Adams racked up 76 tackles, 7.5 for loss, one interception and four pass breakups, good enough for second-team All-SEC. If Adams can bring his play making abilities to the Jets, he will have an immediate impact with them and help them improve on what was a soft defense just a week ago.
Aidan Thomas: I think Zay Jones, the wide receiver for the Bills, will have the biggest impact on his team in the AFC East. The Patriots didn't have a selection in the first two rounds, significantly reducing their chances at a dynamic player. The Dolphins and Jets each have a few potential play making rookies, but none fit their squad like Jones fits Buffalo. Jones was an impact player for four years at East Carolina, ending his career with 158 receptions for 1,746 yards his senior year. He totaled 23 touchdown receptions over his career. In Buffalo, Jones, a second round pick, should slot in as their #2 receiver behind Sammy Watkins, which will give him plenty of touches. He will impact Buffalo more than any other rookie in the AFC East impacts their team.
Which free agent signing or player acquired via trade will have the biggest impact?
Robert Brunswick III: I actually have a couple of thoughts on this. First off, Stephen Hauschka was a major signing for the Bills. Dan Carpenter wasn’t too awful, but hitting 76 percent field goal rate was far weaker than Hauschka’s at 89.2 percent. Hauschka outscored Carpenter in points, though he made less extra points. Either way, Hauschka is a nice improvement and should make a big impact on the offensive side of the ball.
Meanwhile, the Patriots traded for Dwayne Allen and Brandin Cooks, both of which are adequate receivers for, quite possibly, the best quarterback in NFL history. They’ll be rotated in and out of the lineup and will likely have career years alongside Tom Brady.
Kudzi Musarurwa: The best signing was Julius Thomas, by the Dolphins. Ryan Tannehill just got another piece to his arsenal that can change the outcome of a game on his play alone. Thomas had what could be called a 'down' year by his standards in Denver last year but that could also be due to the quarterback issues the Broncos had. If the Dolphins can find a way to put him into their system, Thomas can show once again why he's regarded as one of the top TEs in the NFL today.
Richard Sena: It’s hard to argue the Patriots trading for Brandin Cooks not being the most impactful acquisition in the division - and arguably the league. Cooks shares a lot of athletic DNA with former Patriots receiver Deion Branch and would return the potency to the perimeter of the offense. Further, Cooks’ migration from catching passes from Drew Brees to catching passes to Tom Brady should be too much of an adjustment.
Norman Tall: Without a doubt, it has to be new Patriots wide receiver, Brandin Cooks. Cooks will be added to an already explosive offense featuring Julian Edelman, Rob Gronkowski, Chris Hogan and fellow newcomers Dwayne Allen and the versatile Rex Burkhead. Cooks will be just 24 when the season starts in September and he could be a core piece of this offense for years to come. And don't forget that the Patriots won the Super Bowl just last season. If the Pats weren't Super Bowl favorites heading into this season, they certainly are now.
Aidan Thomas: Brandin Cooks of the Patriots will have the biggest impact of any non-rookie newcomer to the division. Acquired in a trade with the New Orleans Saints, Cooks will be a dynamic receiver weapon for quarterback Tom Brady and the defending Super Bowl champs. The Cooks' trade was one of the reasons the Pats didn't have a selection until the third round, but his impact should be big enough that it won't matter in 2017.
Who will be the MVP of this division?
Robert Brunswick III: As much as I hate to admit it, Brady will take the cake on this one. He doesn’t seem to let age get in his way, and he’ll always have superb passing and vision with his receivers. Somehow, the Patriots executed trades and signings that managed to make the team even better, and with so much talent surrounding Brady, he’ll have options galore to make his passes look crisp and accurate. Congratulations Tom Brady, you win again.
Kudzi Musarurwa: The division MVP will be Tom Brady.
It can't be anyone else, can it? Brady continues to prove critics and naysayers wrong year after year and a healthy Brady will always be the best player in the AFC East. He's proven it over the years and is set to do so again this year,
Richard Sena: The MVP of the AFC East will also be an early frontrunner for the NFL’s MVP. Tom Brady will captain an inarguably more talented group of players in 2017-18 than he did last season. The additions of not only Cooks but backfield receiving maestro Rex Burkhead gives Brady an immense amount of firepower at his fingertips. Tom Brady may very well play his best season yet at the ripe age of 40.
Norman Tall: Barring any injuries or setbacks the AFC East's MVP should be Tom Brady. Brady shows no sign of declining and like a fine wine, he seems to be getting better with age. In addition, Brady has arguably the best supporting cast around him that he has ever had.
While Brady will likely be this divisions MVP, a player to watch out for would be LeSean McCoy of the Buffalo Bills. While injuries have proven to be a problem in the past, McCoy has shown flashes of brilliance when healthy, including over 16,00 total yards and 14 touchdowns last season. If he can stay on the field, McCoy will be a name to watch.
Aidan Thomas: Like him or not, Tom Brady has put up spectacular season after spectacular season, constantly posting jaw-dropping numbers, even at the age of 39. And until Brady, the five-time Super Bowl champ gives me a reason not to expect great things out of him, he will be my pick for MVP in the division, and possibly the league. Darkhorses could include Rob Gronkowski or Jarvis Landry, but Landry hasn't always been consistent year in and year out, and Gronkowski's health is too questionable.
Who will be the Patriots biggest challenger in the AFC East?
Robert Brunswick III: If the Dolphins could execute stronger defense and develop a strong, healthy offensive line, they might be the biggest threat to the Patriots this season. With the emergence of Jay Ajayi last season, the Dolphins’ offense thrived tremendously. However, without a good offensive line to back him up, he fell short of some quality running games. Meanwhile, Jarvis Landry had another quality year at receiver, providing 1,136 yards on 94 receptions and 131 targets. The firepower is there, the Dolphins just have to utilize it properly.
Kudzi Musarurwa: The Patriots biggest challenge will be the Dolphins. They weren't that far away last season from sneaking into first place and their free agency signings potentially fill the needs they had last year. I don't think they'll overcome the Patriots this year but if any team in the AFC East could do it, my pick would be the Dolphins.
Richard Sena: As the intersection of youth and veteran leadership converge, the Dolphins will be poised to make their first back-to-back playoff appearance since the 2000 and 2001 seasons. Adam Gase appears to be the right man for Ryan Tannehill and the offense as the Dolphins have quietly formed on of the most talented offensive skill groups in the league.
Norman Tall: While this may not be the most popular pick, I'm going to have to go with the Bills. Led by new a new, defensive-minded, head coach in Sean McDermott, I think the Bills could be poised to take a big leap this year. With offensive play makers such as Tyrod Taylor, Sammy Watkins, LeSean McCoy and rookie Zay Jones, the Bills could have an explosive offense in 2017.
On the other side of the ball, the Bills have a good mix of veterans and young players in Marcell Dareus, Jerry Hughes, Shaq Lawson, Reggie Ragland, and rookie Tre'Davious White. Also, Lawson and Ragland both missed their rookie seasons due to injuries so the Bills essentially have three young defensive rookies. If McDermott can get this Bills defense even close to what he did with the Panthers, the Bills should
Aidan Thomas: I don't see the Patriots losing control of the AFC East in 2017. Their biggest challenge will likely come from the Dolphins led by Tannehill and Landry, but the Pats have been so dominant and routinely win 12-13 games that it would take a truly special season for the Dolphins to unseat the Pats. I don't think the Dolphins have that kind of magic in them, especially after their horrendous performance in the AFC Wild Card game last season.
Who will win the division and how many AFC East teams will make the playoffs?
Robert Brunswick III: The Patriots are going to win the division hands down, most likely ending just shy of being undefeated. If I was a betting man, I could see the Dolphins sneaking in again as a wild card. Without a doubt, though, the Patriots are a sure-fire playoff team and there won’t be much of a chance for the Bills or Jets this season.
Kudzi Musarurwa: I think it will be the Patriots. You can't look past them to pick anyone else. They're just too strong and Bill Belichick is just too good of a coach to not let a relatively easy division title slip away and prevent his team from having home field advantage in the playoffs again. It would take a monumental collapse for the Patriots to not win the division again.
The Dolphins will join the Patriots in the playoffs this year if they play at least as well as they did last year. They have enough in them to at least pick up a Wildcard spot if nothing else.
Richard Sena: The Patriots are an easy-money bet to will the division this year considering how much stronger they’ve gotten coming off a Super Bowl championship. The Jets have gotten considerably weaker as a team and the Bills look like they’ve hit a performance ceiling until they can get their young talent on the field and producing. The Dolphins look to have the best shot to make the playoffs but will have to have a few breaks against better on-paper rosters in the AFC East and North.
Norman Tall: The easy pick here is the Patriots and I'm going to go with them. Coming off the team's fifth Super Bowl victory, they've only gotten better and should not suffer any sort of drop off this season. The Jets will be in contention for the top pick of the draft rather than the AFC East crown and I don't see the Bills or Dolphins making the playoffs either, leaving the Patriots as the East's only representative in the postseason.
The Dolphins went on a surprise run last year but that seems unlikely this year as they will have to beat teams like the Ravens, Bengals, Titans and whoever ends up as the wild card team from the wild AFC West.
Aidan Thomas: The Patriots will win the division, and they will be the only team to make the playoffs. Miami has the best chances besides New England, but I don't think they have the talent to keep up with the traditional powerhouses in Pittsburgh and New England, as well as the up and coming talent in the AFC West, where all four teams could make a push for the postseason. I don't think the AFC East gets a wild-card team in, making the Patriots their only representative.