New England Patriots still reign while New York Jets have reason to believe in AFC East preview

Jay Asser 3/09/2018
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The AFC East has had an interesting dichotomy this century – it’s been one of the weakest divisions in the league year over year, while fielding a dynasty that has been the class of the entire NFL.

It’s unlikely anything changes this season, with the New England Patriots still expected to rule with an iron fist above an underwhelming trio of teams.

There’s some intrigue around the New York Jets and Buffalo Bills because of their rookie quarterbacks, while the Miami Dolphins are almost starting from scratch from last year.

Learn more on all four teams in our AFC East team guides.

BUFFALO BILLS

Head coach: Sean McDermott

Star player: LeSean McCoy

Last season: 9-7, lost in Wild Card round

Key ins: Star Lotulelei (Carolina), Russell Bodine (Cincinnati), Chris Ivory (Jacksonville), Vontae Davis (Indianapolis), Josh Allen (rookie), Tremaine Edmunds (rookie)

Key outs: Tyrod Taylor (Cleveland), Cordy Glenn (Cincinnati), E.J. Gaines (Cleveland), Preston Brown (Cincinnati)

Strengths: Talented in the secondary with several playmakers.

Weaknesses: Offence has a chance to be the worst in the league.

Verdict: Unless their quarterbacks perform much better than expected – particularly Allen – they’ll be in contention for the top overall pick in next year’s draft.

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MIAMI DOLPHINS

Head coach: Adam Gase

Last season: 6-10

Star player: Cameron Wake

Key ins: Ryan Tannehill (injury), Josh Sitton (Chicago), Danny Amendola (New England), Robert Quinn (LA Rams), Frank Gore (Indianapolis), Albert Wilson (Kansas City), Minkah Fitzpatrick (rookie), Mike Gesicki (rookie)

Key outs: Ndamukong Suh (LA Rams), Jarvis Landry (Cleveland), Mike Pouncey (LA Chargers), Jermon Bushrod (New Orleans)

Strengths: The defensive end group has depth and experience.

Weaknesses: Top-end talent is lacking on both sides of the ball.

Verdict: Gase may have something up his sleeve, but it’s hard to imagine them fighting for a playoff spot considering the foundational pieces they lost, even in a weak division.

Dolphins

NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS

Head coach: Bill Belichick

Star player: Tom Brady

Last season: 13-3, lost in Super Bowl

Key ins: Cordarrelle Patterson (Oakland), Trent Brown (San Francisco), Adrian Clayborn (Atlanta), Danny Shelton (Cleveland), Jeremy Hill (Cincinnati) Sony Michel (rookie), Ju’Whaun Bentley (rookie)

Key outs: Dion Lewis (Tennessee), Malcolm Butler (Tennessee), Brandin Cooks (LA Rams), Danny Amendola (Miami), Nate Solder (NY Giants)

Strengths: Continued stability with Belichick and Brady leading the way.

Weaknesses: Wide receiver corps is thin with Julian Edelman suspended.

Verdict: The defence should be better and as long as Father Time doesn’t catch up to Brady, they’ll be in the mix come January.

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NEW YORK JETS

Head coach: Todd Bowles

Star player: Leonard Williams

Last season: 5-11

Key ins: Trumaine Johnson (LA Rams), Spencer Long (Washington), Avery Williamson (Tennessee), Henry Anderson (Indianapolis), Isaiah Crowell (Cleveland), Terrelle Pryor (Washington), Sam Darnold (rooke), Nathan Shepherd (rookie)

Key outs: Matt Forte (retired), Muhammad Wilkerson (Green Bay), Demario Davis (New Orleans), Austin Seferian-Jenkins (Jacksonville)

Strengths: Secondary features some of their best players.

Weaknesses: Pass rushing again appears to be lacking.

Verdict: With Darnold, they have hope for the future, but this will be a developmental year.

Darnold

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Khalil Mack trade is an aggressive win-win for both Raiders and Bears

Jay Asser 1/09/2018
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The Oakland Raiders weren’t bluffing.

Clearly, there was fire behind the smoke as shortly after reports claimed the Raiders were considering moving Khalil Mack, they pulled the trigger by sending him to the Chicago Bears in a package worth at least two first-round picks on Saturday.

It’s a bold move for both teams and one that could fit the bill as a rare win-win.

Oakland initially look foolish for moving on from a generational talent, who is a year removed from being named Defensive Player of the Year and still just 27.

Mack had yet to report to Oakland as he held out all summer in the hopes of negotiating a monster long-term deal. By trading him rather than getting a contract ironed out, the Raiders are receiving criticism for botching the situation.

However, if the report by NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport is true that Chicago will hand a contract to Mack that will eclipse the one just signed by the Los Angeles Rams’ Aaron Donald, Oakland may have avoided a deal that was too rich for their blood while getting valuable assets in return.

It’s not that Mack isn’t worth the money, but if the alternative involves acquiring two first rounders and change, the Raiders can justify moving on from a player that couldn’t help lift the defence into the top half of the league during his time with the franchise.

The optics definitely look bad though, as Oakland spent $100 million on hiring head coach Jon Gruden this offseason but chose to be frugal with their best player.

Chicago, meanwhile, paid a steep price just to secure Mack, before any contract extension.

Their defence will instantly receive a boost as Mack, who has 40.5 sacks in four years, joins a nucleus consisting of Roquan Smith, Akiem Hicks, Leonard Floyd, Kyle Fuller and others.

It’s an aggressive move by the Bears to get better as soon as possible and will instantly raise expectations around the team for the coming season, although they still appear to sit behind Minnesota and Green Bay in the NFC North.

Mack’s talent is capable of accelerating Chicago’s rebuild, but the move also seems like one more fitting for a team that is a star away from being a Super Bowl contender – a place the Bears have yet to reach.

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Aaron Donald makes deserved jump into top tier of NFL contracts with record deal

Jay Asser 1/09/2018
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It was only a matter of time before the Los Angeles Rams opened up their chequebook and paid their best player the kind of money worthy of his talents.

Aaron Donald’s holdout has come to an end after signing a six-year, $135 million extension with the Rams on Friday that includes $87m in guaranteed money. It’s the richest deal for a defensive player in NFL history and puts the 27-year-old in exclusive company.

At $22.5m annually, Donald’s figure easily surpasses the previous high for a defensive player, clearing Von Miller’s $19.1m. The Rams pass rusher now sits among quarterbacks, ahead of Super Bowl winners Joe Flacco ($22.1m), Russell Wilson ($21.9m), Ben Roethlisberger ($21.8m) and Eli Manning ($21m). Only nine players – all quarterbacks – are set to make more than Donald yearly, led by Aaron Rodgers’ mark of $33.5m after the Green Bay Packers star inked his own record deal this past week.

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This is exactly the kind of contract Donald was seeking and one that was inevitable once he made his intentions clear that he wasn’t willing to accept anything less by holding out.

No non-quarterback arguably affects a game more as Donald’s ability to bring pressure up the middle is as destructive as anything on that side of the ball.

Since he entered the league in 2014, no defensive tackle has more sacks (39.0), quarterback hits (108), tackles for loss (72) or forced fumbles (nine).

Last year, Donald earned Defensive Player of the Year honours for racking up 11.0 sacks and five forced fumbles in 14 games to help the Rams win the NFC West and reach the playoffs for the first time since 2004.

Los Angeles were aggressive in the offseason to strengthen their defence, adding cornerbacks Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib through trades, and signing defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh to a one-year, $14m deal.

Donald, however, remains the lynchpin of the unit and should make life easier for Suh by absorbing double teams to open up pass-rushing lanes, while shortening the time Peters and Talib have to spend in coverage.

Suh, Peters and Talib weren’t the only noteworthy players the Rams added or handed lucrative deals to in the offseason though.

The team also traded for wide receiver Brandin Cooks before handing him a five-year, $81m extension; gave running back Todd Gurley a four-year, $60m extension; lavished right tackle Rob Havenstein with a four-year, $32.5m extension; and placed the franchise tag on safety Lamarcus Joyner, paying him nearly $11.3m for the coming season.

Despite splashing so much cash, the Rams have still managed to stay under the salary cap, with Donald’s cap hit for 2018 taking a small leap from $6.89m to $8.89m because of the way his deal is structured.

Los Angeles will also have wiggle room in the coming years, as their salary cap space stood at $58m for 2019 and $113m for 2020 before Donald’s new contract.

But even with several of their stars locked up for the foreseeable future, the Rams won’t be able to keep everyone long-term as Suh and Joyner come off the books next year, while the contracts of Peters and Talib expire in 2020.

That’s also when quarterback Jared Goff will be due for his next deal. Currently on his rookie contract, Goff affords the Rams a luxury as they can devote money that is usually slated for the starting quarterback on contenders to other parts of their roster, like the Seattle Seahawks were able to do when they reached the Super Bowl in consecutive years while Wilson was still on his rookie deal.

Since Wilson inked his extension in 2015, however, Seattle have struggled to reach the same heights and have discarded many of their veterans to free up money.

The Rams could potentially follow a similar trajectory, but considering the talent they’ve assembled, a win-now attitude is more than justified as they have the chance to be special over at least the next two years.

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