Welcome back to our offseason series of Four Downs. We’ll be reviewing each division one-by-one, looking at each team’s biggest hole going into free agency as well as the most important players who may be on the market.
Biggest Need: Wide receiver
In 2018, during Josh Allen’s rookie season, Buffalo’s wide receiver corps was filled with a slew of practice squad and fringe roster guys, including Zay Jones, Kelvin Benjamin, and Jason Croom. None of them would have earned 30 targets on a decent team, yet they all earned more than that in Buffalo. General manager Brandon Beane made it a point to fix the wide receiver corps coming into 2019, bringing in free agents John Brown and Cole Beasley. Unfortunately, that was not close to enough to fully solve the issue.
Brown and Beasley, for as good as they were in 2019, are still largely role players and should not be the clear No. 1 and No. 2 option on any team. Brown is an excellent vertical threat, even from the outside, and Beasley is a savant within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage, but there is no reliable do-it-all or contested-catch player on whom Allen can rely.
If the Bills could add at least one receiver to help fill in the gaps outside of where Brown and Beasley shine as role players, offensive coordinator Brian Daboll would be able to open up the offense even further for Buffalo’s developing signal-caller.
Major Free Agents: Quinton Spain, OG; Jordan Phillips, DT; Kevin Johnson, CB; Lorenzo Alexander, LB/OLB (retired); Shaq Lawson, OLB
A good chunk of Buffalo’s defensive front depth may be gone this offseason. Lorenzo Alexander, a hybrid player in Sean McDermott’s defense, has already announced his retirement. The other two key defensive linemen, Jordan Phillips and Shaq Lawson, are worth retaining at the right price. Phillips played fairly well as a bottom-of-the-roster run defender for the Bills last season after having bottomed out previously with the Dolphins. Paying run defenders is not ideal, but at the right price for a depth player, continuity is valuable. As for Lawson, injuries and middling production likely hurt his value on the open market, which could be great for the Bills. Lawson is a strong, sound edge defender who provides an excellent rotational presence. Assuming he will be had at a discount, Lawson should be with the Bills again in 2020.
Biggest Need: Offensive line
The Miami Dolphins had one good offensive lineman heading into the 2019 season: left tackle Laremy Tunsil. Before the season actually started, Tunsil was traded to the Houston Texans for a pair of first-round picks, leaving the Dolphins with exactly zero quality offensive linemen to protect the buddy cop movie version of a quarterback room featuring Josh Rosen and Ryan Fitzpatrick.
Unsurprisingly, Miami’s offensive line finished with a league-high 58 sacks allowed and a 28th-ranked adjusted sack rate at 8.6%. They also finished with a putrid 3.17 adjusted line yards in the run game, which was worst in the league by over a half of a yard. It is safe to say Miami’s offensive line was a liability across the board, and the handful of injuries they battled along the way only made things worse.
As Miami’s rebuild begins to swing upwards, however, now is the time to start building a young core on the offensive line. In addition to a league-high $93 million in cap space, the Dolphins have six top-70 picks in the 2020 NFL draft. All the ammo is there for the Dolphins to grab at least two new starters along the line, if not three or four.
Major Free Agents: Aqib Talib, CB; John Jenkins, DL; Evan Boehm, C; Walt Aikens, S; J’Marcus Webb, OT
As far as starting-level talent goes, Miami is not in danger of losing a whole lot. Granted, it is not as if the Dolphins were fielding 22 starting-quality players last season to begin with, but at least they will not be losing the few they had. Miami’s most impactful potential loss is Aqib Talib, who never played a game for the Dolphins last year due to a rib injury he sustained before being traded to Miami at the deadline. If Talib comes back in decent health, he is likely a starting-quality player for the Dolphins, at least in the current state of their roster. All the other “top” players potentially leaving Miami are backups, at best, and should not be any issue for Miami to replace considering their resources.
New England Patriots
Biggest Need: Pass-catcher
For the sake of the exercise, let’s assume Tom Brady is coming back for one last run, because otherwise quarterback would be the clear “hole” for the Patriots. The situation is too muddy right now to have a good idea about whether or not the Patriots will actually need a new quarterback. Instead, let’s focus on what will be an issue regardless of who is behind center.
New England’s offense devolved a slow, turbulent mess in the wake of Rob Gronkowski’s retirement. Of course, Gronkowski’s absence alone did not sink the passing offense, but without him or any other truly dynamic pass-catcher to force defenses to play a certain way, the Patriots offense struggled to get players open.
Slot receiver Julian Edelman held his own, as usual, but New England’s second-best pass-catcher in 2019 was Mohamed Sanu, a slowish possession receiver who wins over the middle of the field more than he does outside. His skills, while an upgrade over the field when the Patriots traded for him midseason, were redundant in the current offense. As the rotten cherry on top, rookie N’Keal Harry’s flashes came few and far between and he did very little to boost the Patriots’ outside receiving corps.
The Patriots are also in jeopardy of losing Phillip Dorsett this offseason. While Dorsett is ideally a fourth or fifth wideout, he was second among Patriots receivers in receptions and yards last season. Even if he would need to be pushed down the depth chart, losing that kind of production could prove to be painful considering the dearth of options they currently have aside from him right now.
Major Free Agents: Tom Brady, QB; Joe Thuney, OG; Phillip Dorsett, WR; Devin McCourty, S; Kyle Van Noy, OLB; Jamie Collins, LB; Danny Shelton, DT; Elandon Roberts, LB; Matthew Slater, WR/ST
New England’s roster is taking hits across the board this offseason. Aside from Brady, perhaps the most damaging loss would be Joe Thuney. A comfortably above-average guard, Thuney would be ideal for New England to keep around for continuity’s sake considering they are losing legendary offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia to retirement (again). Having to insert a fresh face in Thuney’s place would be tough not only from a talent perspective, but also with respect to trying to gel together a new offensive line chemistry. The other point of emphasis is linebacker, where the Patriots may lose as many as three of them in Jamie Collins, Kyle Van Noy, and Elandon Roberts. Bill Belichick has proven he can replace linebackers quite easily, but having to replace three starters at once would be a burden for any coach, even the greatest of all time.
New York Jets
Biggest Need: Offensive line
There is an argument for a number of Jets position groups, particularly on offense, but when in doubt, always fix the offensive line. Similar to the Dolphins, the Jets may be in line for five new offensive line starters this offseason.
The only starter from last season worth rolling out in 2020 is left tackle Kelvin Beachum, who is both old (31 years old when the season starts) and a free agent. While there is enough money in New York’s $56 million in cap space to pay Beachum’s presumably cheap price tag, it would be understandable if they wanted to just move on and reset at offensive line entirely.
In either case, three of New York’s other four starters are also free agents. The only starter currently under contract is guard Brian Winters, and there should be no reason that Winters’ starting spot is safe for 2020. As such, the Jets should be considering every offensive line spot in both free agency and in the draft. It is time to provide a developing Sam Darnold the protection up front he deserves.
Major Free Agents: Robby Anderson, WR; Kelvin Beachum, OT; Alex Lewis, OG; Ryan Kalil, C; Brandon Shell, OT; Brandon Copeland, OLB; Jordan Jenkins, OLB; Brian Poole, DB; Lachlan Edwards, P
Robby Anderson is the one guy the Jets may lose who is anything more than a fringe starter. One of the best deep threats in the league, Anderson really started clicking with Darnold toward the end of last season once he was healthier. It may make some sense for the Jets to move on from Anderson given they will almost certainly have to overpay to keep him in town, but they do not have any other receivers to fall back on right now. If the Jets let Anderson walk, they must be gearing up to throw money and picks at the position over the next few months. Of course, the other notable trend with the Jets’ free agent pool is the handful of offensive linemen, but aside from maybe Beachum, none of them should be brought back unless they can be had at massive discounts for whatever reason.