1. Buffalo Bills
This was definitely a close call. While the Jets also have loads of talent on both sides of the ball, as of now they still haven't signed QB Ryan Fitzpatrick, leaving them with Geno Smith--enough to push them down to #2. The Bills have no such QB conundrum with up-and-coming Tyrod Taylor calling the shots, and they've surrounded him with elite talent in LeSean McCoy, Sammy Watkins, and Karlos Williams. Buffalo will definitely be able to score in bunches, but their real strength is their defense.
Anchored by the young lockdown CB duo of Stephon Gilmore and Ronald Darby, the Bills have a top-10 pass defense. But their front seven is just as strong after they drafted DE Shaq Lawson and LB Reggie Ragland. And while the defense sputtered in his first year, (they fell from 4th to 19th in yards allowed per game), head coach Rex Ryan is known as a defensive guru. If he can't make the most out of this talented unit, nobody can. With all the talent on both sides of the ball, anything below 10-6 will be a disappointment. This team should definitely compete for a wild card spot.
2. New York Jets
While the Jets are loaded with talent on defense and at skill positions, they're still one step away. After stalwart left tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson retired and DT Damon Harrison and RB Chris Ivory departed in free agency, they lost some significant talent on both sides of the ball. While they signed Ryan Clady, Steve McLendon, and Matt Forte to replace the trio, there's no telling how fast they'll be able to grasp the new system, or if they'll perform at the same level--both McLendon and Forte are both much older than the guys they're replacing. Considering how well all three former Jets played last year, it's a big ask of the new trio. However, the Jets' biggest issue is Fitzpatrick. If they can't ink him to a deal STAT, they could be stuck with Geno Smith at quarterback: not an ideal situation by any stretch. In that unfortunate event, their immense WR talent could be wasted. Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker form one of the best wideout tandems in the whole league. The two tall receivers with the speed to stretch the field and the hands to bring down anything thrown their way kept opposing defensive coordinators up at night all last season. That could all change with Smith under center.
On D, Revis Island returns to anchor the secondary, but the second CB spot is a question mark after Antonio Cromartie was released. Calvin Pryor, while light on technique, lays down the hammer at free safety, and Marcus Gilchrist was a pleasant surprise at strong safety. However, neither one excels in coverage, which could be an issue without a strong CB2. Thankfully for Gang Green, the front seven is stacked with playmakers, from Muhammad Wilkerson and Sheldon Richardson to Leonard Williams and rookie Darron Lee. Even if the secondary struggles in coverage, a fierce pass rush should help prop them up--after all, opposing QBs can't exploit coverage mismatches under a mountain of 300-pound defensive linemen. Overall, however, everything still hinges on the QB situation. If Fitzpatrick returns, they could push the Bills for a wild card. If Smith starts, they might not finish at .500. With this team, anything can happen. Stay tuned.
3. Miami Dolphins
Its safe to say that last year wasn't the greatest year for the Fins. After star DE Cameron Wake's injury, the defense collapsed and Ryan Tannehill couldn't step up, leading them to a 6-10 record. On top of that, they lost speedy running back Lamar Miller and young pass-rusher Olivier Vernon to the Texans and Giants, respectively. While they nabbed Mario Williams from division rival Buffalo to replace Vernon, he's getting older by the day and his production has been unstable at best. Similarly, they snagged injury-prone Arian Foster to replace Miller. While Foster and Williams both have undeniable talent, they've both struggled with injuries throughout their careers, are old for their positions, and have been inconsistent when on the field. However, there is some hope. Jarvis Landry is one of the best young wideouts in the NFL, and Devante Parker finished last season on a tear. The speedy Landry and the tall and sure-handed Parker could be one of the best young duos in the league. With Tannehill on the hot seat, it's now or never. He can either prove that he deserves his new $97 million deal, or play his way out of South Beach. The organization has built around him since day one, and it's up to him to reward their faith.
The defense is another story. With Williams, Wake, and Ndamakong Suh, the pass rush figures to be fierce, and new linebacker Kiko Alonso helps a subpar corps. The cornerbacks are weak, with aging Brent Grimes and burn victim Byron Maxwell, but All-Pro Reshad Jones helps anchor the unit from the strong safety spot. It remains to be seen whether the Pro Bowl defensive line will be able to mask a suspect back seven--will the Dolphins' lack of cornerbacks come back to haunt them, or can they overcome on the strength of their pass rush? While there are definite studs on this Dolphins team, there are also a lot of question marks. 8-8 is within reach, but the playoffs are out of the picture for Miami.
Photos courtesy ESPN.com
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