Written by Alexander Camejo, AFC East Beat Writer, goes by @alexcamejo10 on Twitter
Summer is coming to an end, school is back in session, and Madden 17 is fresh off the shelves, just being released. Those are only a couple examples of our calendar year heading towards the fall, but we all know that that move towards autumn truly only means one thing, football season is back! The start of the NFL season always brings us tons of excitement, along with some questions and concerns regarding how our favorite teams are being molded and shaped, but more importantly, how we want to build our fantasy teams. Though, before diving into specific draft strategies or tips, we should look through a broader and wider lens, and look at each conference, team by team. So without further or due, let us start out east where one team reigns supreme:
New England Patriots
When has a year gone by and we don’t see Bill Belichick, Tom Brady, and company wear the eastern divisional crown? The answer is not very often, if not at all. The Patriots have been a staple of consistency and excellence for success in the NFL for the better part of 15 years, including last year, going (12-4) and winning the AFC East division title. But, like I mentioned earlier, this New England squad isn’t immune to the questions and concerns coming into an NFL season. First, being the suspension of Quarterback Tom Brady. The deflate-gate saga came to an end and Brady received a four game suspension to begin the season. How should this affect New England going into the season? That is yet to be known, but we do know that the first four games, opening their season with second year QB Jimmy Garoppolo behind center, will be crucial in dictating and setting a tone for how the divisional race will shake up.
From a fantasy perspective, don’t take much caution with selecting Brady. Target him in the middle rounds, getting high value, as I expect him to be a potential Top-5 QB. One big loss for New England on the offensive side is with pass catching tailback Dion Lewis. He is a versatile piece of that offense in the back field and is going to be lost for 8-10 weeks with a minor ACL tear. It is still in question who will be the next in line when it comes to being the next big spread tailback for their offense. We all know Lagerrett Blount will be the bell cow of their running game, but in regards to a PPR heavy running back in that system, look for James White to get a good look with the first team. But, you can take that advice with a grain of salt, as Belichick is notorious for having a “what have you done for me lately?” mentality, when it comes to his Running Backs.
New England also sports a solid receiving core that complements Belichick’s philosophy of short intermediate passing. Julian Edelman seemed to have re-aggravated his previous foot injury a couple of weeks back, but it seems to be an after-thought and is now back practicing. Speaking of recievers, I would be remise to talk about the Patriots’ passing attack and not mention Rob Gronkowski, one of the most dominate players at the Tight End in recent memory. A player that can easily carry an offense when need be. He is a polarizing figure in this league, and one that many opposing fans love to hate, but honestly, would love to have on their side. I don’t think I can be any surer, when I tell you, that if healthy, Gronkowski will end the year as the league’s number one Tight End. Lock it!
On the defensive side, the Patriots have taken quite a hit, starting in February when former All-Pro Linebacker Jerod Mayo called it a career and announced his retirement. He will surely be a loss in the box for New England. Another big loss for the Patriots was with talented Defensive End, Rob Ninkovich, who early in August suffered a torn triceps. His time out is still unclear, but what is certain is he won’t be dressing to start the season. Another subtraction from New England’s defense was with Pro Bowl Outside Linebacker Chandler Jones. He was traded to the Arizona Cardinals for Offensive Guard Jonathan Cooper and a 2016 second round draft pick. Moving on to the secondary things look as they did last year, led by Strong Safety Patrick Chung. I don’t see the Pats defense being a big player when it comes to your fantasy team. The permanent loss of Chandler Jones and the pending loss of Rob Ninkovich will not bode well for their pass rush. Mixed with the East’s tough scheduling this year, I wouldn’t recommend keying on them in the draft.
New York Jets
We now move on to the runners up of the AFC East, the New York Jets, a team with a lot of questions going into the 2015 season, but a team that most recognized as exceeding expectations. Finishing the year (10-6), the Jets were a game away from making the playoffs when going to the last week of the season, as they lost a crucial game in Buffalo to the rival Bills.
Going into an offseason with lots of questions to be answered, and some voids to fill, New York first had to deal with the issue that was their starting Quarterback situation, and the trials and tribulations that were the signing of Ryan Fitzpatrick. After a long and winded standoff both sides finally came to a compromise and Fitzpatrick will once again hone the offense and be behind center for the Jets come opening week. On the fantasy side of the ball Fitzpatrick has a great deal of comfort in Chan Gailey’s spread offense. I see Fitzpatrick being possibly a late round edition to your squad, and if not at the very least being a good option for those who want to go with the stream approach and hit the matchup calendar.
A new addition to the Jets’ backfield is with Running Back Matt Forte. There is always a red flag when it comes to the “30 year old RB”, and with Forte he is surely no different. But if and when playing at 100% his past shows he is as dynamic as a RB can be in this league. His scat back ability along with great pass catching skills could be of great use for anyone’s team, especially in PPR formats. Look for him as a good RB2 option if you want to wait on Running Backs. The height of the Jets’ offense is no doubt with their receiving core. They sport a one-two receiver combo in Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker that can be difficult to contest with in this league. Look for the both of them to have very good seasons reminiscent of last year. Though even barring a little regression with Marshall and his age, look for him to still be a great WR2 option.
On the other side of the ball, New York comes back with a very good defense. Muhamad Wilkerson, supported by Sheldon Richardson and second year End Leonard Williams, lead the Jets and one of the more dominate front fours in the NFL. They do have a deficiency at the Linebacker position, but David Harris is a good veteran piece that can maybe get other younger players like rookie Darron Lee to further elevate their game. Outside, they sport a great secondary, led by Darrelle Revis. His accomplishments and accolades don’t need much explanation, as he has been a staple at the top of the Cornerback crop for a good part of a decade. Look for the Jets to be a good pick up, fantasy-wise. Once you can get by the first five games of their schedule, they could be of good value for your squad. They can force some turn overs in the secondary, and have a great knack for getting at the Quarterback, so expect a good deal of sacks from Gang Green.
Coming in at (8-8) and third place in the AFC East were newly hired coach Rex Ryan and the Buffalo Bills. A middle of the pack team that had some disappointments and some surprises, they finished the year as spoiler, as I wrote before, in defeating the New York Jets and knocking them out of playoff contention. And speaking of surprises, the biggest surprise for Buffalo and possibly the entire AFC East was Quarterback Tyrod Taylor. Taylor went into the season as the team’s backup QB, but in time beat out EJ Manuel for the starting job. A QB with the ability to move out of the pocket and use his legs is always one with added value, and Taylor brings those traits to the table. He’s someone that can underwhelm you and throw for 150 yards and an interception or two, but then come around and give you six or seven rushing attempts for 50 yards and a touchdown. There is always a trade off with mobile QB’s like this, so be aware. I do see him as a great pick down in the draft if you’re looking to wait long to draft a starting quarterback, he has very high upside.
Sammy Watkins followed up his solid rookie season with and even better sophomore year. As the offseason went, his stock continued to rise, and I look for him to be a great WR2 option to target in the early-mid rounds of the draft. Look for him, Taylor and RB Lesean McCoy with his all-around abilities to be the volume Buffalo’s offense.
Defensively, the Bills took some hits, losing Defensive End Mario Williams to free agency, losing Pro Bowl Nose Tackle Marcell Dareus for four games, in violation of the league’s abuse policy, and rookie Reggie Ragland suffering a torn ACL early in training camp. With all that said, they still have a solid secondary, led by Stephon Gilmore, but it is easy to see that there are more questions than answers when it comes to Rex Ryan and his defense. Look for Rex to muster up his usual complex packages and sets, to confuse opposing offenses and give them multiple looks. If they can find a way to put consistent pressure on the QB, and force some turnovers in doing so, I see them as a middle of the litter defense in fantasy. But I will always give respect to Rex and his defensive mind, so keep an eye on them early in the season. I can see them potentially trending on the up-side.
Now to round up the bunch we have the last place Miami Dolphins. In what I see as a testament to the Division as a whole, Miami being the “bottom of the pack” is only in placement. They were a team with good talent on paper but ended the season (6-10), to much disappointment considering the high expectations they had going into 2015. Coming into 2016, they added RB Arian Foster, replacing fantasy favorite last year, Lamar Miller. There are questions regarding Miami’s offensive line, along with the health and durability of Foster. If everything falls in place, Foster can be everything they could ask for from the running back position. But his trials and tribulations as a 30 year old RB go far beyond that of the previously mentioned Matt Forte. Foster has had chronic knee and back issues for the past three seasons. For fantasy purposes, expect the Dolphins to give him a long look as their first option at tailback, as he does have high upside in comparisons to his competition. Target him as a RB3 or RB4 with potential to move up in the ranks as the season goes on, pending health.
Ryan Tannehill has had an up and down career, in regards to expectation and performance. He’s planted himself as an average to above average QB in this league, and with protection can be very serviceable for your fantasy team. With talent like Jarvis Landry and Devante Parker to support him, he should be able to further cement himself as a solid Quarterback option, especially in good matchup situations. In regards to Landry, he is a high octane receiver, who will get the bulk of the targets in that offense. He is a great route runner, will bump most corners off the press, and has great hands. I expect another really good season out of him. He’s another great WR2 option or flex if you want to go the “Zero RB” strategy when drafting.
On defense, Miami took a big loss with Defensive End Olivier Vernon going to free agency. They still have a solid pass rush which includes newly acquired Mario Williams and Outside Linebacker Cameron Wake. Though, good on paper, I will say be warned because both are on the wrong side of their 30’s and coming off of down seasons. The upside of this defense is with Free Safety Rashad Jones. He is a guy that can play up and stuff the run while also covering overtop on the deep ball. He’s definitely one of the better Safety’s in the league and the best Miami has to offer. I see their defense at the bottom half of the league when it comes to fantasy. They have a solid pass rush, but one that comes with age, and along with their tough schedule, it will be tough for them to get any traction as a valuable fantasy defense. Barring any surprises, I don’t see them moving up in the rankings anytime soon and as the season goes on.
All in all, I think the story of the AFC East will be once again the New England Patriots. It is a very high floor type of division, with a team like Miami who was at the bottom last year potentially making a run at the wild card if all things fall into place. It’s very unconventional to make a claim like this, but the first four games of the season minus Tom Brady will truly dictate which direction this division will go in. It will be a key for Miami and Buffalo to take advantage of the opportunity and put a dent into New England’s season. I see the Jets and Bills as definite wild card contenders, and potentially making a claim for the division, if things don’t fall into the Patriots place. If not, look for New England to run away with things once again, and take the crown that has eluded New York, Miami, and Buffalo for so many years.