2017 AFC East Breakdown by Position: The Defense and Special Teams

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During the month of August, Last Word on Pro Football is analyzing the top positional units within each NFL division. This article contains a position-by-position breakdown of defense and special teams in the AFC East. The breakdown will contain “the best” at each unit followed by “the rest” in descending order.

2017 AFC East Breakdown by Position: The Defense and Special Teams

Defensive Line

The Best: Buffalo Bills

The Rest: Miami Dolphins, New England Patriots, New York Jets

Over the past few seasons, the Bills front seven has been one of the team’s biggest strengths. It includes a defensive line that accounted for 20.5 of the team’s 39 sacks last year, the eighth best total in the NFL. In addition to veterans such as Kyle Williams, Jerry Hughes and Marcell Dareus, this unit boasts quite a few promising young talents including Shaq LawsonAdolphus Washington, and Eddie Yarbrough. With new head coach Sean McDermott formerly serving as defensive coordinator on a Carolina team that racked up the second most sacks in the league last year, a fearsome pass rush will continue to be the Bills bread and butter on defense moving forward.

The Dolphins added three defensive linemen via the draft, including edge rusher Charles Harris in the first round. It adds to a formidable front four that includes veterans Ndamukong Suh and Cameron Wake. If Jordan Phillips can begin to realize his true potential after two unimpressive seasons thus far, it can only help augment this unit’s performance in 2017.

Trey Flowers is heading into his third season with the Pats hoping to build on last year’s success. After missing most of his rookie season, Flowers broke out in 2016, leading the team with seven sacks. The team added Kony Ealy and Lawrence Guy via free agency to a unit that ranked among the top 25 interior or edge defenders by Pro Football Focus.

The only team who runs a 3-4 scheme in the division, the Jets certainly have a talented youngster in Leonard Williams. He led the team with seven sacks in 2016 while also forcing two fumbles. But there’s significant drop-off after Williams. Muhammad Wilkerson regressed last year and the team added a massive developmental project via the draft in fifth round pick Dylan Donahue out of West Georgia. And they signed two players in free agency, Mike Pennel and Devon Still, to one-year deals for a combined $1.675 million.

Linebacker

The Best: New England Patriots

The Rest: Buffalo Bills, Miami Dolphins, New York Jets

If you’re a fan of the other three teams in the division, you may want to look away from the next few units on defense. Without giving away the details, New England gets a top ranking in all of them. It begins in the linebacking corps. Though they lost Jabaal Sheard and Barkevious Mingo to free agency along with Rob Ninkovich to retirement, they gain a solid veteran presence in David Harris from the Jets. And fresh off his first Pro Bowl, Dont’a Hightower looks to continue his dominant presence up the middle at the MIKE linebacker spot.

Lorenzo Alexander came out of virtually nowhere to lead the Bills and finish tied for third in the NFL with 12.5 sacks. The 34-year-old signed a two-year, $9 million extension in the off-season and is now the leader of a unit that includes plenty of young players. Preston Brown is entering the fourth year of his career, while Matt Milano and Tanner Vallejo join as late round draft picks.

Kiko Alonso did just about everything on the weak side of the Dolphins linebacking corps in 2016. He led the team with 69 tackles and four fumble recoveries and also had two interceptions (including a pick six) and four pass breakups. But the team received some bad news when second-round pick Raekwon McMillan‘s rookie season came to an end due to a torn ACL suffered in the preseason opener.

The Jets lost their leading tackler when David Harris signed with the Patriots in free agency. Sheldon Richardson, whose fifth-year option the team picked up last year, was the only Jets backer to finish with a top 20 grade from Pro Football Focus among linebackers and edge defenders. The team hopes to get better play out of Darron Lee heading into his second year with Gang Green.

Cornerback

The Best: New England Patriots

The Rest: Miami Dolphins, New York Jets, Buffalo Bills

“Defense wins championships” is an oft-repeated statement almost to the point of it reaching cliché status. But Malcolm Butler put the notion into practice with his famous jumped route interception to clinch Super Bowl XLIX for the Pats. He continued his solid play in 2016, leading the team with four interceptions and 16 pass breakups. New England added Stephon Gilmore from the Bills on a five-year, $65 million deal. Together, they make up one of the most formidable cover corner duos in the NFL.

The Dolphins had a chance to challenge the Pats for top cornerback duo in the division with Byron Maxwell and Tony Lippett on opposite ends. But the latter suffered a torn Achilles during training camp and will miss all of 2017. In addition to McMillan’s aforementioned ACL injury, it’s another blow to a defense looking to make strides this coming year. But it may give an opportunity for rookie third round pick Cordrea Tankersley to make an instant impact.

The Jets hit the reset button on much of their secondary in the off-season. Gone are cornerback Darrelle Revis and safety Marcus Gilchrist. Morris Claiborne is a solid off-season addition and the team also signed Marcus Williams to a restricted free agent tender worth $2.75 million. So the Jets corner situation isn’t as much of a reclamation project as it may appear.

The same can’t be said about the Bills cornerbacks. The unit lost both starters from last year as Gilmore departed via free agency and Ronald Darby joined the Eagles in a preseason trade. But they got E.J. Gaines from the Rams and boast a promising rookie in Tre’Davious White. Still, uncertainly abounds at this position heading into 2017.

Safety

The Best: New England Patriots

The Rest: Miami Dolphins, New York Jets, Buffalo Bills

The Patriots were so confident in their safety tandem of Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung that they didn’t add a single player at the position via either free agency or the draft. Who can blame them? McCourty is one of the best centerfielders in the game, garnering the highest coverage grade in the league from Pro Football Focus.

There’s another highly talented safety in the division who plies his trade in south Florida. He goes by the name of Reshad Jones and he comes into 2017 having signed a four-year, $48 million extension in the off-season. The team added depth at free safety as well, signing Nate Allen and T.J. McDonald from the Raiders and Rams respectively. Despite starting just four games for Oakland last year, Allen tallied two interceptions.

The Jets edge out the Bills for third best safety group in the division. Though they’re likely to give rookies Jamal Adams and Marcus Maye a baptism by fire, there’s a reason they took them with their first two picks of the draft. Both are versatile, instinctual players who can cover ground and make big hits. There’s a lot of promise in East Rutherford that this tandem can function as bright spots on a rebuilding team in 2017.

Much like the Jets, Buffalo is going with a completely revamped safety corps this coming season. Only in their case, they used free agency to retool the position. Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer come in from the Packers and Browns respectively. Over his previous two seasons in Green Bay, Hyde averaged 48 tackles and totaled six interceptions and 15 pass breakups. Poyer is a little less proven, having made ten starts in his three seasons with the Browns.

Kicker

The Best: New England Patriots

The Rest: Buffalo Bills, Miami Dolphins, New York Jets

Since taking over for Adam Vinatieri beginning in 2006, Stephen Gostkowski has carved out his own legacy as a super-dependable kicker for the Patriots. He currently owns the highest field goal percentage (94.6 percent) in franchise history, a feat he accomplished in 2014. But last season was a bit of a step back. He managed to knock in only 84.4 percent of his field goals, the fourth lowest mark of his career. And the second year of the longer extra point appeared to fluster him. For the first time since his rookie season, he failed to have a perfect mark on PATs. New England fans are hoping it’s only a blip on the radar and that the 33-year-old can return to his status as one of the most reliable kickers in the league.

Buffalo made arguably one of the biggest free agency signings at the position in 2017 when they landed Stephen Hauschka from the Seahawks. It’s an upgrade over Dan Carpenter whose time with the Bills ended rather ignominiously as he missed several crucial kicks down the stretch. Dolphins kicker Andrew Franks had issues with field goals, making only two from beyond 40 yards last year. But his 97.6 percent extra point percentage ranked eighth in the NFL. The Jets parted ways with Nick Folk in the off-season, but didn’t exactly improve by bringing in Chandler Catanzaro. He’s infamously known for missing a 24-yard field goal that would’ve given the Cardinals an overtime win over the Seahawks last year. Instead, that game ended 6-6. Him and Ross Martin are vying for the Jets’ starting kicker position in the preseason.

Punter

The Best: Miami Dolphins

The Rest: New England Patriots, New York Jets, Buffalo Bills

When it comes to punting in the AFC East, there really isn’t a lot to write home about. All four expected starters ranked in the bottom half of the league in punting average last year. That included the Bills’ Colton Schmidt who finished dead last among players who had at least 2.5 punts per game. Lachlan Edwards of the Jets didn’t fare much better at 28th. Miami’s Matt Darr excelled at pinning teams back, with his 32 punts downed inside the 20 tied for seventh in the league. And teams found it hard to gain consistent yardage on punts from Ryan Allen of the Pats. Opposing teams averaged just five yards per return, good enough for second best in the league.

Returner

The Best: Miami Dolphins

The Rest: Buffalo Bills, New York Jets, New England Patriots

Teams are increasingly going with a punt/kick returner by committee nowadays. That’s evident in the fact that only ten players across the whole league averaged at least one kickoff return per game and 21 did so on punt returns. The only dedicated return specialist in the AFC East was the Bills Brandon Tate. His 963 combined kickoff and punt return yards ranked fourth highest in the league last year.

The Dolphins got the most out of their return game in 2016 from a pure yardage standpoint, finishing with 1,207 yards when combining kickoff and punt returns. They also were the only AFC East team to register a return touchdown of any kind. Jakeem Grant returned a punt 74 yards for a score in Week 5 against the Tennesee Titans. And Kenyan Drake‘s 96 yard touchdown scamper on a kickoff in the fourth quarter proved to be the game-winner in a 27-23 win over the New York Jets in Week 9.

The Jets and Patriots took the whole committee approach to quite an extreme. Eight players returned either punts or kicks for Gang Green, while ten did so for New England. The Jets were much more effective when the ball was kicked off from the 35 than on fourth down. They ranked fifth in kickoff return yardage while finishing dead last in yardage from punt returns. For the Pats, the opposite turned out to be true. Their 309 punt return yards ranked tenth in the NFL, while their 542 yards gained on kickoffs was good enough for 25th overall.

Be sure to check out the top positional units in the AFC East on offense.

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