With the NFL Draft in the rear view mirror and OTAs getting started, preparation for the 2017 season is in full swing. Right now, the rosters of all 32 teams currently stand at 90 players. But in roughly three and a half months time, that number will dwindle down to 53. Making an NFL roster is always tough and for some, their dreams of playing in the pros will be cut short or ended altogether.
But at the other end of the spectrum are those elite players who fans admire and everyone else in the league tries to emulate. They are the ones whose roster spots are never in question and who are expected to help lead their team to greatness year in and year out. While some are rare bright spots on mediocre teams, others comprise a core group of talented individuals on teams expected to contend for a spot in the Super Bowl.
Last Word on Pro Football is examining the top players in all eight divisions as the season approaches. In this article, the AFC East is on the radar. Some players aren’t much of a surprise while others may raise an eyebrow and spark debate. Find out which ones made the cut.
Top Players of the AFC East Heading Into the 2017 Season
1. Tom Brady, New England Patriots
There are an ever-decreasing number of heretofore unused superlatives to describe Tom Brady‘s on-field exploits. Just when fans think they’ve seen it all, he puts on another performance that serves as a reminder he’s in the running for greatest quarterback of all time. His effort in the Patriots historic comeback win over the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl LI is as evident an example as can be found.
Brady massively stepped up during New England’s second half resurgence. He completed over 76 percent of his passes for 284 yards and two passing touchdowns after Atlanta took a 28-3 lead. On what became the game-winning drive of the first overtime in Super Bowl history, Brady went five of six to set up James White‘s eventual game-winning touchdown scamper.
With his fifth championship, Brady now has more rings than any other quarterback to play the game. Though he’ll be 40 years old when the Pats take on Kansas City in the season opener, there remain no visible signs that “father time” is tightening its grip at this point. Until then, there’s no other player worthy of number one on this list.
2. Rob Gronkowski, New England Patriots
When healthy, there are few players at his position that approach Rob Gronkowski‘s talent. The proof is in the numbers. Excluding his rookie year, Gronk led all tight ends in receiving yards during the three seasons where he appeared in at least 15 regular season games. He also led the league in touchdown grabs in two of those three seasons (Tyler Eifert beat him out by two touchdowns in 2015).
But therein lies the issue. Gronkowski has dealt with myriad injury issues throughout his seven years in the league. 2011 remains the only season where he appeared in every game during the regular season. And his 2016 campaign was cut short after eight games due to a back injury that required season-ending surgery.
In 2017, though, there’s certainly added incentive to turn in a complete season. The Patriots announced on Tuesday that Gronkowski and the team agreed to a restructured contract that could make him the highest paid tight end in the league. Basically, if he appears in 90 percent of the team’s offensive snaps, has 80 or more receptions, finishes with 1,200 or more receiving yards or garners all-Pro recognition, his salary escalates to $10.75 million for the year.
Though it remains to be seen how off-season addition Dwayne Allen will figure into the offense, a healthy Gronk will once again function as Brady’s go-to target in the pass game.
3. Jay Ajayi, Miami Dolphins
Other than Cowboys rookie Ezekiel Elliott, no other running back in the league had more of a breakout season than Jay Ajayi. The second-year man out of Boise State rushed for 1,272 yards, the third-highest single season mark in Dolphins franchise history. He also became the fourth player in league history to rush for 200+ yards in three games during one year.
Now that Ajayi is clearly the feature back for the Dolphins, the next step for him is to become more consistent on a game-by-game basis. Other than the three aforementioned games, Ajayi managed over 100 rushing yards just once. And the Pittsburgh Steelers completely shut him down in their 30-12 win over Miami in the AFC Wild Card Round. Ajayi finished the game with a measly 33 yards on 16 carries.
If the Dolphins want to make the playoffs in consecutive seasons for the first time since 2001, Ajayi needs to continue acting as a force to be reckoned with in the backfield.
4. LeSean McCoy, Buffalo Bills
For the third straight year, it was close but no cigar for the Bills in terms of qualifying for the playoffs. It meant that the franchise’s dubious postseason drought now stands at 17 seasons which is currently the longest such stretch in the league. But the running game continued to emerge as a bright spot in 2016 in LeSean McCoy‘s second year with the team.
McCoy acted as the centerpiece of Buffalo’s ground and pound offensive identity during Rex Ryan’s two seasons as head coach. In both years, the Bills led the league in rushing yards including last year when they eclipsed second place Dallas in yards per game by a margin of 14.8 yards. McCoy’s 1,267 yards was sixth best in the league, while only LaGarrette Blount (18), David Johnson (16) and Ezekiel Elliott (15) finished with more rushing touchdowns than his 13 on the year. For his efforts, McCoy made his fifth Pro Bowl.
Heading into his ninth season, McCoy is likely to reach the 2,000 career carries plateau in 2017. He has dealt with a few nagging injuries during his two years in Buffalo. But at 100 percent, he remains one of the top players in this division.
5. Devin McCourty, New England Patriots
The old adage that defense wins championships may not completely encapsulate the Patriots recent Lombardi Trophy. After all, some guy named Tom Brady is their quarterback. But that’s not to say that New England’s quality on the defensive side of the football didn’t play a part in February’s triumph.
The Pats ability to render the opposition’s passing game less effective is of particular interest. During the regular season, only seven teams allowed fewer touchdowns and held opposing quarterbacks to a lower quarterback rating than New England. And Devin McCourty played a prominent role in it all.
The 2010 first round pick out of Rutgers finished second on the team with 64 tackles and led all Pats safeties with seven pass breakups. A look at the deeper analytics indicates McCourty was more important to his team’s pass defense than raw stats suggest. Pro Football Focus gave him the highest coverage grade among all NFL safeties. He also appeared in 1,209 snaps, third in the league behind Atlanta’s Ricardo Allen and Green Bay’s Ha Ha Clinton-Dix.
6. Malcolm Butler, New England Patriots
The Patriots are far from an underdog story but they have a player in Malcolm Butler who epitomizes that notion. Signed as an undrafted free agent out of West Alabama in 2014, Butler was working at a Popeyes’ before the Pats brought him in. Not more than a year later, he made the game-winning play in Super Bowl XLIX. His famous jumped route interception at the goal line sealed New England’s 28-24 win over the Seattle Seahawks.
Over the next two seasons, Butler continued to emerge as one of the league’s top cover corners. In 2015, he finished second on the team with 58 tackles and added two interceptions. Though his tackle numbers went down last year, his ability to make plays did not. He picked off four passes and finished tied for eighth in the NFL with 16 pass breakups. Pro Football Focus rated him as league’s seventh best cornerback.
The Pats rewarded him in the off-season, signing him to a first-round restricted free agent tender worth $3.91 million. Though it’s just a one-year deal with no guaranteed money, Butler has a chance to continue proving the doubters wrong while cementing his status as an elite player at the position.
7. Tyrod Taylor, Buffalo Bills
The Bills are one of those teams that never seem to have stability at quarterback. It’s a contributing factor to the franchise’s frustratingly long playoff drought. Current incumbent starter Tyrod Taylor isn’t immune from scrutiny, especially considering that Buffalo has drafted two quarterbacks in as many years. The team took Cardale Jones in the fourth round of the 2016 draft while drafting Nathan Peterman this year. They also signed T.J. Yates during the 2017 off-season.
Recent comments to the media from first-year head coach Sean McDermott hasn’t helped to quell speculation about whether or not Taylor is the future. Though he emphasized competition at the position, some might interpret that as not having confidence in the soon-to-be seventh year pro. It certainly leaves questions marks that will ultimately get answered over the course of training camp and preseason.
But here are the facts. Taylor is 14-14 as the starter despite having a receiving corps with a continued inability to remain healthy. Feature wide receiver Sammy Watkins appeared in 21 out of a possible 32 games over the past two years due to myriad ailments that have kept him out of action. In 2016, Buffalo’s top three wideouts in terms of receiving yards missed a combined 12 games, the second worst total in the league.
Among signal callers who’ve started a minimum of 14 games in 2016 and 2017, only Tom Brady had fewer interceptions than Taylor’s 12. Pro Football Focus rated his dual-threat capabilities last season as the second best in the league behind Colin Kaepernick. And his 2017 approximate value score of 15 (per Pro Football Reference) was tied with players such as Kirk Cousins, Devonta Freeman and Le’Veon Bell. In fact, only 15 other players in the entire league garnered a higher score.
It may be time to give Taylor more credit than detractors are meting out to him at this point.
8. Ryan Tannehill, Miami Dolphins
Another polarizing AFC East quarterback among NFL fans, Ryan Tannehill came into the 2016 season under a lot of pressure. The previous year, Miami fired Joe Philbin four games in and stumbled to a 6-10 finish. It was year one of a six-year, $96 million extension Tannehill signed in the off-season. Despite becoming the fourth quarterback in NFL history to throw for over 3,000 yards in each of his first four seasons, the lack of a playoff appearance in either of them put his body of work under a microscope.
That all changed in 2016, Adam Gase‘s first as Dolphins head coach. The team finished second in the AFC East with a 10-6 record and clinched a playoff berth for the first time since 2008. Tannehill posted career highs in completion percentage (67.1 percent), touchdown percentage (4.9 percent) and quarterback rating (93.5). Despite missing the last three games due to a knee injury, his offensive line finally pulled their weight. Tannehill was sacked just 29 times, the lowest mark of his career.
Going forward, Tannehill can improve situationally. Last season, his 54.6 QBR was 24th in the NFL and 13.6 points behind Tyrod Taylor. He also received a lower passing grade from Pro Football Focus than Taylor while also finishing five points lower in Pro Football Reference approximate value. Nevertheless, this team boasts plenty of momentum heading into 2017 coming off a postseason appearance and Tannehill having a quarterback whisperer coach in Gase.
9. Ndamukong Suh, Miami Dolphins
Another positive for the Dolphins in 2016 was the performance of their front four. Veteran edge rusher Cameron Wake finished tied for sixth in the league with 11.5 sacks. He also added five forced fumbles. But at 35 years old, questions abound as to whether or not he can continue at such an elite pace moving forward.
For that reason, Ndamukong Suh gets the nod on the Dolphins defensive line. In his second season with the team, the 2010 second overall pick proved a dominant force as an interior defender. Suh led all Miami defensive lineman with 41 tackles and six pass breakups while also contributing five sacks. He led all NFL defensive tackles in snaps while getting the fourth best player grade at the position from Pro Football Focus.
10. Marcus Cannon, New England Patriots
Tom Brady unsurprisingly makes the top spot on this list. So it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that one of his offensive lineman makes an appearance. After all, it’s the big guys up front whose skills in pass protection give him time to throw. Marcus Cannon rounds out the AFC East’s top players.
Him and left tackle Nate Solder both received rave reviews for their play on the Pats offensive line. Both received top-20 grades among players at the position by Pro Football Focus. But Cannon’s grade of 89.4 was third in the league behind the Bengals Andrew Whitworth (now with the Rams) and the Redskins Trent Williams. Only Pittsburgh’s Alejandro Villanueva appeared in more snaps at tackle than the 29-year-old Cannon.
Protecting Brady as he enters his 40s will become increasingly paramount. And Cannon, who signed a five-year, $32.5 million extension on November 29th of last year, will figure prominently into those plans.