Most pressing fantasy questions the AFC East has to answer

With the offseason now in view for the majority of NFL teams, it’s time to spin forward. While all 32 clubs will spend the next few months searching for every possible way to upgrade their rosters, each team has one major question front and center in their mind. Here, we’ll explore the most pressing question each AFC East team must answer before the 2019 NFL season begins, and how it pertains to fantasy.

New York Jets

Pressing question: What’s the plan for maximizing Sam Darnold?

The New York Jets enter 2019 with a new offensive head coach in Adam Gase paired with their young quarterback coming off a fine end to his first season. Sam Darnold had his shaky moments as a rookie passer but posted a 64 percent completion rate, 8.1 adjusted yards per attempt and a 6:1 touchdown to interception ratio in December.

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Gase came to Miami back in 2016 with an excellent reputation as a quarterback guru after helping to architect Peyton Manning’s prolific Denver attacks and getting some of the best versions of Jay Cutler in Chicago. His time as the Dolphins head coach didn’t go nearly as well.

Gase’s teams were the definition of mediocre and Ryan Tannehill never developed to the level of a reliable starter. Chief among his assignments for his New York Jets tenure will be making sure Sam Darnold shows results along the path of the former passers — not the latter.

Darnold was too often surrounded by a ragtag crew of players in the skill position slots. Quincy Enunwa and Robby Anderson had their moments as high volume wideouts but both clicked at opposite ends of the season.

Tight end Chris Herndon showed good promise in closing the season strong with Darnold, but will likely face an early season suspension following a DUI guilty plea. The backfield was jumbled for much of the year.

As of this moment, players like Charone Peake and Stacy Coley would be competing for playing time at wide receiver. At running back, the decidedly average Isaiah Crowell could be back along with the somewhat promising Elijah McGuire. That’s not good enough.

The work goes beyond the skill positions players, as well. Mike Maccagnan and Gase will need to find ways to improve the offensive line in front of Darnold. There was a stark difference between his ability to play from a clean pocket vs. under duress. Darnold was one of the two worst quarterbacks in football when under pressure with a 39.7 passer rating, but boasted a solid 93.9 mark when kept clean, accordingly to Pro Football Focus.

The Jets will enter 2019 with one of the great advantages in the sport: A cheap rookie contract-quarterback who they can feel reasonably confident is a plus starter. They need to spend this offseason going for it while building his infrastructure without any time wasted. It’s completely fair to be skeptical of both Maccagnan and Gase, but they have the resources to build something real with Darnold.

Priority No. 1, 2 and 3 for the New York Jets will be laying the groundwork for maximizing Sam Darnold’s rookie contract window. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)
Priority No. 1, 2 and 3 for the New York Jets will be laying the groundwork for maximizing Sam Darnold’s rookie contract window. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

Possible solutions

The Jets will have no shortage of resources in their efforts to maximize Sam Darnold’s potential while on his rookie contract. Only the Colts have more cap space heading into the offseason than New York and their $90 million. The team will also pick third in the upcoming NFL Draft and while they don’t have a second-round pick in the wake of the Darnold trade, they own a pair of third rounders.

The biggest dilemma will surround their desire to make a big splash. With all that cap room, Le’Veon Bell will be a point of discussion. Teams have been hesitant to pay running backs but this situation could prove an exception with all the spending room available and the possibility of a front-loaded deal on the table. Bell’s receiving chops would no doubt help their young quarterback.

With Anderson merely a restricted free agent, retaining him shouldn’t be difficult despite him seeming like the easy pick for the player Gase is destined to clash with. Enunwa was also inked to a new deal last year, so they have two vets with different skill sets they can rely on.

Another addition is nevertheless a must. The Jets could sniff around another outside receiver like Tyrell Williams or Devin Funchess in free agency. Neither would break the bank but would bring abilities that complement those already on the roster.

While the Jets will almost certainly invest in one of this draft’s many intriguing pass rushers with the third overall pick, watch for a potential skill position player add with one of those two third rounders. Depending on how the free agency period shakes out, we could see them take a stab at a wide receiver. A possible immediate contributor at running back also makes sense if they don’t add Bell. More interior offensive line depth is a strong likelihood, as well.

Buffalo Bills

Pressing question: How can we stabilize Josh Allen?

Josh Allen performed better than almost anyone expected him to as a rookie. He gave his team a legitimate spark in the second half of the season and endeared himself to the players and fans around him with his gamer mindset.

However, to put it nicely, you can’t deny he’s still erratic. Allen made a number of plays with his legs on improvisational scrambles and demonstrated his unreal arm on vertical throws, but still struggled with accuracy overall. While some of the kinks are unlikely to ever completely leave his game, the Bills need to better construct an offense around him to make some of his individual flaws less glaring.

Wide receiver is a big need. Robert Foster proved himself to be a viable vertical threat at the NFL level, with 43.2 percent of his passes coming on throws 20-plus yards downfield. He led the team with 304 deep yards gained.

Zay Jones leveled out his play after a disastrous rookie year by becoming a near-50-percent slot player in Year 2. One more playmaker at this position would help round out a reasonable trio but expect more than a single addition here.

All the same analysis could be supplied for the tight end position. A more reliable threat than Jones in the middle of the field would help create more open windows for Allen.

The Bills offensive line was ravaged by retirement and personnel exits in the offseason and it showed in the running game. LeSean McCoy barely found much running room. The lack of strong blocking only helped exacerbate the clear issues brought on by an aging back. For all the problems in the passing game, the Bills were not viable on the ground, boasting the 24th ranking rushing offense in Football Outsiders’ DVOA.

Allen’s hair-on-fire style will always lead to extra pass-rushing heat and he was under pressure on 43.4 percent of his dropbacks, per Pro Football Focus. Better linemen in front of him can only help. That unit is likely in need of a full rebuild.

Possible solutions:

It would be a significant step to take a receiver in the top-10 but N’Keal Harry looks like the potential mistake-eraser than a passer like Allen needs. He consistently makes big plays in contested situations at the catch point and can create after the catch. A receiver of this ilk would ease worries about Allen’s accuracy woes and give the offense a spark on short passes with the ball in his hands.

If the Bills want to sink their top-10 pick into an offensive lineman, they’ll have their share of options. Andre Dillard and Jawaan Taylor both look like potential options in the first 15 picks this year. Either would help rebuild a line that needs to improve in both the run and pass game.

The Bills also have $79.1 million in cap space. One lineman isn’t going to fix the job. A mid-level veteran addition should be in the cards.

Miami Dolphins

Pressing question: Are we really going to tank and what will that look like?

The possibility of a 2019 Dolphins tank job is already well in the zeitgeist of the Miami media. Veteran beat reporter Armando Salguero says “don’t doubt it,” on the subject of whether the organization has agreed to plan to lose for high draft picks in future years.

While it won’t sit well with every single fan or veteran player, it’s time for it to happen. Miami has long been a thoroughly middling team with the salary construction of an “all-in” operation.

Constantly trying to patch major holes with the highest-priced free agent available while never building a true foundation has created an untenable roster. The only way to fix the mess is to take it on the chin for a season.

The Sashi Brown era saw the rug pulled out early in Cleveland due to instability in the organization and a lack of commitment to the hardship his approach would require. Yet, it would be intellectually dishonest to deny that his vision to sacrifice the present for the future played a pivotal part in getting the once laughingstock Browns to the point where they are a team universally viewed with optimism heading into 2019.

If Miami wants to get itself out of the persistent 6-10 to 8-8 purgatory it’s lived in for the better part of the last decade, it has to commit to a full-scale teardown. That will make their 2019 a strange season, to say the least. The roster they’ll run out this year likely won’t feature many household names. We could be looking at a completely hands-off approach when it comes to the Dolphins in fantasy football this year.

Possible solutions

The first step in any tank job, or to be a bit kinder … “full-scale teardown rebuild,” is to shed bad contracts from the team in order to facilitate a better future. It appears the organization finally agrees the time has arrived to end the Ryan Tannehill era. They can get his $26.6 million cap figure off the books, but they’ll take a $13.4 million dead cap hit. The inevitable reality of that hit along with the full reset button is a key factor in why they’re punting on 2019.

Expect other veterans to exit along with Tannehill. Andre Branch, Robert Quinn, Kiko Alonso and Danny Amendola are other overpriced veterans who could be shown the door. These ghosts of patchwork roster-building of the past can no longer haunt the team.

We should also see the team invest in some of the young talent already on their roster and cheap help on the open market. The Browns didn’t completely eschew any player with talent during their teardown. Underrated assets like Albert Wilson, Kenny Stills, Xavien Howard and perhaps even the forgotten Kenyan Drake could find themselves more feature players on this team as the roster turns over.

While players of that ilk could find themselves in big roles, you have to expect major depth chart holes on this team in 2019. It will help reload down the line but this coming season will bring pain. The quarterback spot could be noticeably weak. The Dolphins are unlikely to target their future starter this year, which means we could be looking at a three-way rotation between a low-cost veteran, a Day 2 or 3 draft pick and someone already on the roster, like Jake Rudock or Luke Falk.

It’s bleak but smart and once again, we could be looking at a total “stay away” for fantasy football purposes.

New England Patriots

Pressing question: Who will stand next to Tom Brady as the face of this offense?

The beauty of the Patriots dynasty and one of the pillars of their long-term success is their status as the chameleon of the NFL. New England doesn’t have a decade’s long commitment to a scheme or personnel archetype — they change and adapt to best vanquish the rest of the league.

While that approach has allowed them to run circles around the league for years, it makes predicting their offense on a year-by-year basis a bit of a chore. It will be even more fascinating of an exercise this year, as it appears the offense is headed for a change of the guard around Tom Brady.

With a little more passing game chops in his arsenal, Sony Michel could be one of the most popular picks in fantasy next season. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
With a little more passing game chops in his arsenal, Sony Michel could be one of the most popular picks in fantasy next season. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

Whether Rob Gronkowski retires in the coming weeks or not, his 2018 output made it clear as day he is still an NFL starting tight end, but one no longer capable of being the center of the offensive universe. He’s been the key figure in the second act of the Patriots dynastic run, which was centered on Brady and the offense with the first act revolving around defensive mastery.

Reigning Super Bowl MVP Julian Edelman will of course be back to reprise the key slot receiver role in the Patriots offense. However, as crucial as Edelman (and Wes Welker before him) is to this scoring unit, New England has always preferred to have another difference-maker as the engine of the pass game.

It started with Randy Moss in the Welker years before transitioning to Gronkowski, who inhabited both slot receivers’ time in the sun. The Patriots have also supplemented both players with vertical outside receivers like Brandin Cooks and Josh Gordon over the last two seasons.

With Gordon likely (but not 100 percent) out of the mix for this team, the Patriots could target a new X-receiver in the offseason with Chris Hogan hitting free agency.

Of course, there’s always a chance the next face of the offense doesn’t come from the passing game. As the league focused more than ever on spread concepts and lighter fronts on defense in order to rush the passer, New England went full-on old school in the playoffs. Sony Michel turned into the battering ram leader of the offense to the tune of 336 yards and six scores on 71 carries across three postseason games.

It made sense against each opponent New England faced in the playoffs to take the air out of the ball and mash them with Michel. We can never count out that this was merely a short-term adaptation for the Patriots. But if what we saw was a glimpse into next year’s approach for this offense, the implications could be huge.

The Patriots backfield is constantly bemoaned among fantasy gamers, but it’s an absolute money investment when constricted down to two players. If the 2019 season resembles the 2018 playoff run with Michel as the featured battering ram, James White as a primary pass-catching option and just a small dash of Rex Burkhead, we might need to go all-in.

Possible solutions

If the Patriots do intend to make Sony Michel one of the faces of their offense, they would be wise to make him more than a higher pedigreed version of LeGarrette Blount. While no one will wrestle James White’s role from the passing game any time soon, it would help if having Michel on the field wasn’t a screaming giveaway a run is coming.

Michel ran just 55 pass routes during the regular season, ranking 83rd out of 88 backs with 10-plus targets. Even during the postseason, the rookie averaged just six routes per game and caught just one pass.

The passing game will never be where Michel makes the most noise, but giving him some opportunities in that realm would only increase the versatility of the scoring unit. We know that is like catnip to Bill Belichick.

With a few more passing game chops in Michel’s arsenal, he could be one of the most-discussed picks in fantasy next year and sneak into the end of Round 2, where he’d still be a risky bet. White would become one of the more popular picks in the mid rounds and a safe haven for those who target wide receivers early.

If New England does lose Rob Gronkowski and wants to find their next gravitational force in the passing game, they’ll likely look to the draft. The veteran free agent market will likely be all but dried up. The Patriots have other needs, but could invest in an asset from strong wide receiver or tight end classes in this draft at the 32nd pick.

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