The Buffalo Bills are the reigning, two-time AFC East champions. They didn’t punt in either of their final two games against the second-place New England Patriots last season, which highlights the gap between the teams.
Can anyone catch the Bills? It’s the top question when assessing the AFC East in 2022.
The Bills, who were 13 seconds from reaching the AFC title game, look as tough as ever. Led by quarterback Josh Allen, they have mostly kept their core together and are the No. 1-ranked team in ESPN’s offseason power rankings.
The Patriots, No. 15 in ESPN’s power rankings, had a low-key offseason after a flurry of free-agent activity in 2021. They are banking on continuity and internal development to close the gap.
The Miami Dolphins threw a firecracker into the AFC East mix when they traded for receiver Tyreek Hill and put their support behind quarterback Tua Tagovailoa. A coaching change — former San Francisco assistant Mike McDaniel was named head coach in February — further highlights a new look for Miami (No. 18).
And the New York Jets (No. 29) were widely praised for their work in the 2022 NFL draft with three first-round picks (cornerback Sauce Gardner, receiver Garrett Wilson and pass-rusher Jermaine Johnson II) and a high second-rounder (running back Breece Hall) to support second-year quarterback Zach Wilson. They appear primed to make a jump under second-year coach Robert Saleh, but how big will it be?
NFL Nation reporters Rich Cimini (Jets), Alaina Getzenberg (Bills), Marcel Louis-Jacques (Dolphins) and Mike Reiss (Patriots) take a closer look at each AFC East team.
Most intriguing position battle: Most of the starting jobs are set, but with Tre’Davious White working his way back from a torn ACL in his left knee, cornerback will be a position to watch. First-round pick Kaiir Elam and 2020 seventh-round pick Dane Jackson, who was solid in White’s absence last season, will be the starters at outside corner if White is unavailable Week 1. If White is available, Elam will have to earn that opportunity to start alongside him, with Jackson receiving plenty of praise in recent weeks.
Rookie most likely to make an impact in Week 1: Elam. Regardless of White’s status, the Florida product figures to see a high snap volume this season, and it’s possible he will be the No. 1 corner against the Rams in Week 1 if White can’t play. It doesn’t get much more impactful than that.
Biggest remaining need: Interior offensive line. The Bills did not address the middle of their line in the draft, despite it being among their biggest needs. Protecting Allen is the top priority, so making sure there is plenty of depth along the offensive line is critical. The team signed veteran guard Greg Van Roten to a one-year deal just before the start of mandatory minicamp, but adding more help would be wise.
Biggest division threat to the Bills: The trendy pick here is the Dolphins, but I’m going to stick with the Patriots. The Bills have learned the hard way to never underestimate coach Bill Belichick, and Buffalo is 7-1 against Miami since Allen arrived, winning the past seven meetings. — Getzenberg
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Most intriguing position battle: Center. The Dolphins have publicly supported last season’s starter, Michael Deiter, but Connor Williams, who signed as a free agent in March, took the starting snaps during spring workouts. Though Williams seems to have the inside track, this lineup is not set in stone.
Rookie most likely to make an impact in Week 1: None. Third-round pick Channing Tindall will have to work during training camp to crack the rotation at linebacker, and fourth-round pick Erik Ezukanma is a developmental prospect at wide receiver. Seventh-round picks Cameron Goode (linebacker) and Skylar Thompson (QB) are longshots to make the 53-man roster.
Biggest remaining need: Time. The Dolphins addressed their most pressing issues this offseason, adding quality players at receiver, running back and the offensive line. Now those the new faces need to learn McDaniel’s offensive scheme.
Biggest division threat to the Bills: Miami’s defense gave Buffalo trouble for at least half of both losses to the Bills last season. If the Dolphins put together four-quarter efforts, the gap is closer than fans in western New York might think. — Louis-Jacques
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Most intriguing position battle: Cornerback. After J.C. Jackson signed with the Chargers in free agency, the Patriots signed well-traveled veterans Terrance Mitchell and Malcolm Butler, then drafted cornerbacks Marcus Jones (third round) and Jack Jones (fourth round). If spring practices are any indication, Jack Jones could make a run for a starting spot opposite Jalen Mills.
Rookie most likely to make an impact in Week 1: Cole Strange. The first-round pick (No. 29) was immediately inserted at left guard with the top unit and looks like a plug-and-play starter similar to Logan Mankins (first round, 2005) and Joe Thuney (third round, 2016) in the past.
Biggest remaining need: Linebacker. The Patriots were lining up with Ja’Whaun Bentley and Raekwon McMillan as their top off-the-ball linebackers in spring practices after surprisingly not drafting a player at the position. Cameron McGrone (fifth round, 2021) and trade acquisition Mack Wilson Sr. could be factors, especially in certain nickel and dime packages.
Biggest division threat to the Bills: It’s the Patriots. As Belichick showed last season in an upset victory, he isn’t afraid to go the unconventional route and keep the ball on the ground, which the Bills sometimes struggle to stop. Of course, it helped that there were 40 mph wind gusts that day, too. — Reiss
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Most intriguing position battle: It’s Mekhi Becton vs. George Fant. What they’re competing for isn’t clear, which adds to the intrigue. Ostensibly, they’re battling for the left tackle job, but that plan could change before training camp if the coaches decide to move one to right tackle, a distinct possibility. No matter what happens, both will be starting somewhere on the line.
Rookie most likely to make an impact in Week 1: The Jets have four rookies who could make an early splash, but we’ll go with Hall at running back. He’s bigger, faster and a better receiver than incumbent Michael Carter. Make no mistake, Hall will get the rock. The three 2022 first-rounders — Gardner, Wilson and Johnson II — also will get early chances.
Biggest remaining need: Let’s go with two — offensive tackle and linebacker. Even though Becton is expected to be ready for the start of training camp, it behooves the Jets to sign a veteran backup/insurance policy. Becton has a weight problem and a surgically repaired right knee, not a good combo. And the linebacker depth chart is extremely thin after C.J. Mosley and Quincy Williams.
Biggest division threat to the Bills: The Patriots are ripe for a decline and the Jets are a year away, so it has to be the Dolphins. They have a lot of firepower on offense, but — sorry to sound like a broken record — it all hinges on Tagovailoa. He has to be a lot better than average for the Dolphins to challenge the Bills. — Cimini