Curran: Ranking the AFC East's top 20 skill position players originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston
Patriots fans, I have some good news and some bad news. The good news -- as you might have suspected -- is that the New England offense is actually pretty deep at the skill positions compared to the rest of the AFC East.
Deeper than everybody else, in my opinion. Bad news (which can actually be spun as good news)? Neither Jonnu Smith nor Nelson Agholor cracked the top 20 best skill position players in my mostly objective assessment. Based on potential and based on paycheck, that shouldn’t be the case. But it was.
Using last year’s stats, overall grades from Pro Football Focus and projecting a bit into the upcoming season I came up with a list that had five Bills, four Dolphins, four Jets and seven Patriots.
Here is ... the list.
Josh Allen, Bills
Allen threw for 4,407 yards last year with 36 TDs and 15 picks. He ran for another 763 (6.3 YPC) and ran it in six times. His overall grade from Pro Football Focus (PFF) was 86.6. He’s 26 years old, 6-foot-5, 237 pounds and entering his prime. He’ll probably be the division’s best player for a few more years.
Tyreek Hill, Dolphins
In six years with the Chiefs, Hill has built the foundation of a Hall of Fame career. Now that he’s in Miami we’ll see if his numbers drop without Patrick Mahomes. Last year, he had 111 catches for 1,239 yards and nine TDs, down from 15 receiving TDs in 2020. His overall PFF grade from 2021 was 85.1. He’s still just 28.
Stefon Diggs, Bills
In two seasons with Buffalo, Diggs has caught 230 balls for 2,760 yards and 18 TDs. Insane productivity for the 28-year-old who was outstanding in Minnesota but has been unstoppable with the Bills. Diggs’ PFF grade was 82.1 last year.
Mac Jones, Patriots
Jones oozes competency and stability but he doesn’t do it in a half-scared "I don’t wanna f*** up way ..." like Kirk Cousins. To have already shown that in his first NFL season when he threw for 3,801 with 22 TDs and 13 picks and had a PFF grade of 79.3 is monumental. We’ll see how high the ceiling is. We already know the floor is real high.
Jaylen Waddle, Dolphins
Waddle had a great rookie season with 104 catches and 1,015 yards catching passes from Tua Tagovailoa. Now, with defenses having to give extra attention to Hill, Waddle may get even more of a chance to shine than he did in 2021 when his PFF grade was 78.3.
Hunter Henry, Patriots
Henry didn’t make anyone forget Gronk. But he did help take the sting out of the Matt Lacosse-Ryan Izzo-Devin Asiasi-Dalton Keene procession of irrelevant tight ends the Patriots trotted out. He caught 50 of the 74 passes sent his way for 603 yards and caught nine TDs. A really good 2021 free agent signing who put up a 73.6 PFF grade.
Kendrick Bourne, Patriots
I’ll bet Bourne won’t roll up the numbers to get a Pro Bowl nod but I’m sure we’ll be talking about his snubbing in about six months. After a 55-catch (on 67 target), 800-yard, five-touchdown season that also saw him run for 125 yards on 10 carries, Bourne’s ready for more in 2022. And he’s only 26 (almost 27).
Tua Tagovailoa, Dolphins
For all the darts thrown at Tua for his popgun arm, he’s 13-8 as a starter with 27 TDs and 15 picks while completing 66.2 percent of his passes. His PFF grade last year was 68.3. Now, with Waddle, Hill and tight end Mike Gesicki AND a competent defense, he’s in a great spot to flourish.
Damien Harris, Patriots
It’s a close race between Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson to say who’s the best running back on the Patriots. But that shouldn’t diminish Harris’ 2021 production when he went for 929 yards on 202 carries (4.6 YPC) and 15 touchdowns. There’s a lot to like about his game and his PFF grade from 2021 showed it (87.8).
Mike Gesicki, Dolphins
Gesicki is as much a slot receiver as a tight end, hence the fat catch numbers (73) and low TDs (2). Regardless, he’s productive as hell for Miami with the 73 catches going for 780 yards. His PFF grade last year was 68.7.
Jakobi Meyers, Patriots
All Meyers does is produce for the Patriots. His build and speed measurables are outside the norm for a Patriots slot but he’s been their most productive pass-catcher two years running, with 142 catches for 1,595 yards and two (yes, only 2) touchdowns. PFF loved Meyers last year with a 74.9 grade.
Dawson Knox, Bills
Knox is a very handy threat in the Bills offense as a smooth pass-catching tight end. He had 49 catch for 587 yards and nine TDs last year -- all numbers similar to Henry’s -- and had an overall PFF grade of 62.4.
Rhamondre Stevenson, Patriots
Who’s better, Stevenson or Harris? Who cares? They’re the top two running backs in the division entering 2022. Stevenson had 20 carries of 10-or-more yards last season and finished the year with 606 yards (4.6 YPC). The overall PFF grade for his rookie season was 79.2. The Patriots aren’t likely to throw gobs of money at Harris when he becomes a free agent at the end of the year -- it’s not what they do. So the road to being the bell cow is clear for Stevenson.
Zach Wilson, Jets
My general belief is that a quarterback who plays at a 6 on a scale of 1-10 is still more important to a team that a wideout who’s an 8. There’s just so much on a QB’s plate that adequately needs to be valued. Wilson wasn’t adequate for the Jets in his rookie season. He threw for a meager 2,334 yards with nine TDs and 11 picks and took 44 sacks in 13 starts. He played better down the stretch but if I were a Jets fan, I wouldn’t hold my breath on Wilson returning them to the Super Bowl for the first time since we landed on the friggin' moon. PFF grade last year? 59.3.
Devin Singletary, Bills
Singletary had a stealthily useful year for the Bills, running for 870 yards (4.6 average) and pulling in 40 passes for another 228. Buffalo did spend a second-rounder on Georgia running back James Cook which could cut into Singletary’s impact this year, but he’s a productive runner. Had a measly 64.8 PFF grade though.
DeVante Parker, Patriots
It was a down year for Parker in Miami which is a big reason he’s now in New England. Parker caught just 40 passes for 515 with two TDs in 10 games. With the varied weapons on the Patriots offense he may not get up over 50 catches, but the potential to be an impact-maker is there. His PFF grade was 72.8 last year.
Corey Davis, Jets
Davis went to the Jets from Tennessee as a free agent. Things didn’t go so good. He played in nine games, caught 34 passes for 492 yards and four touchdowns. His PFF grade was 68.8. Like Parker, Davis isn’t elite but can be a pretty productive player. Tethered to Zach Wilson is a tough place to be though.
Elijah Moore, Jets
Moore was part of the Jets brigade of little receivers last year and had a very nice rookie season with 43 catches for 538 and five TDs in just 11 games. A second-rounder from Ole Miss, his PFF grade was 71.2.
Braxton Berrios, Jets
Like it or not, the former Patriots draftee is a pretty useful player for the Jets. He caught 46 of the 60 balls sent his way for 431 yards. He had just one drop, he scored twice, his PFF grade was 74 and the Jets rushed to re-sign him in the offseason. He has skills the Patriots could have used.
Jamison Crowder, Bills
Last on the list edging out big-ticket Patriots Jonnu Smith and Nelson Agholor is Crowder, who had 51 catches and 447 yards for the Jets last year and now heads to Buffalo to take over for wacky Cole Beasley. The 20th spot came down to Crowder, Agholor and Jets tight end C.J. Uzomah. Crowder and his PFF grade of 64.0 gets in because he just did more as a skill player last year than Agholor (37 catches for 473 yards) and figures to do more than Uzomah, who joined the Jets from Cincy and had 49 catches for 493 and five scores last year. As for Jonnu? He just wasn’t good enough last year with 28 catches on 43 targets for 294 yards and a single touchdown (PFF grade 59.3).