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By Matt Citak
The time has come. With NFL training camps underway, it feels great to think that from now until February, there will be football on every weekend. With the most glorious time of the year finally here, we are going to take a look at each division around the NFL and break down the best player at each position, on both offense and defense. We already took a look at the best players on offense and defense in the NFC East. Now it is time to check out the AFC East’s top offensive players.
QB: Tom Brady, New England Patriots
Is an explanation even necessary? After sitting out the first four games because of his Deflategate suspension, the ageless Brady went on to have one of the greatest seasons of his career, throwing for 3,554 yards, 28 touchdowns, and a 67.4 completion percentage, not to mention only two interceptions. Brady, who turns 40 today, somehow seems to get better as he gets older, as he finished last season with his highest QB Rating since his historic 2007 MVP season. As if they didn’t already have enough weapons on offense, the Patriots went out and acquired Brandin Cooks, Dwayne Allen, Mike Gillislee, and Rex Burkhead this offseason. The stage is set this year for Brady to become the oldest player to ever win NFL MVP.
RB: LeSean McCoy, Buffalo Bills
McCoy looked a whole lot better in his second season with the Bills. The running back carried the ball 234 times for 1,267 yards, averaging a career-high 5.4 yards per carry, and 13 touchdowns. McCoy also re-established himself as one of the best receiving backs in the league, catching 50 receptions for 356 yards and a touchdown. While he is approaching the dreaded 30-year-old mark for running backs, “Shady” proved last season that he still has the burst and speed that made him such a talented running back earlier in his career. McCoy will need to improve on his blocking though, as he was ranked the league’s worst blocking running back last season by Pro Football Focus.
WR: Brandin Cooks, New England Patriots
New England had one of the best offenses in the league last year, and have now added one of the most talented young receivers to the group. Cooks is coming off his second consecutive season of at least 78 receptions, 1,175 yards, and eight touchdowns, and has seen his yards per catch increase in each of his three NFL seasons. While the 23-year-old is leaving one Hall of Fame quarterback (Drew Brees) for another Hall of Fame QB (Brady), the Patriots have a much more balanced offense than the Saints. This should open the field up more for Cooks, who is likely Brady’s best deep threat since Randy Moss was in Foxborough. Don’t be surprised to see Cooks among the league leaders in receiving yards this season.
WR: Sammy Watkins, Buffalo Bills
Watkins’ presence on this list has more to do with the lack of WR depth in the AFC East than his performance over the last few years. The talent is certainly there for the 24-year-old receiver, but injuries have led to him missing nine games in his first three seasons (while playing injured in a lot of other contests). Watkins played in only eight games in 2016, finishing with a mere 28 receptions for 430 yards and two touchdowns. But the Bills are hoping he can revert back to his 2015 performance, when he developed chemistry with Tyrod Taylor and caught 60 receptions for 1,047 yards and nine touchdowns. Playing for a new contract, Watkins will have to prove he can stay on the field if he wants a team to break the bank for him next offseason.
WR: Jarvis Landry, Miami Dolphins
This was a tough call between Miami’s slot receiver and Julian Edelman, as the two finished with similar numbers last year. But with the former having Ryan Tannehill throwing him the ball, the nod goes to Landry. The former LSU Tiger has been very good since entering the NFL in 2014. He has yet to miss a game in his career, and has caught at least 84 receptions for 758 yards and four touchdowns in each of those three seasons. Landry has developed into one of the league’s top slot receivers, catching 205 passes for 2,295 yards and eight touchdowns over his last two seasons. Just like his college teammate and good friend Odell Beckham Jr., Landry seems to catch everything thrown in his direction.
TE: Rob Gronkowski, New England Patriots
Gronkowski is the best tight end in the NFL when he’s on the field. However that was a big issue for the tight end last season, who played in only eight games and missed New England’s Super Bowl run due to a back injury. Even though he missed half of the 2016 season, Gronk still finished with 25 receptions for 540 yards and three touchdowns. More importantly, his 3.18 yards per route run ranked first not only among tight ends, but also among all receivers. PFF recently ranked New England as the number one passing game in the NFL. With Gronk entering the season healthy and fully committed to Tom Brady’s diet plan, the tight end could be in for his biggest season yet.
LT: Nate Solder, New England Patriots
Solder narrowly beat out Buffalo’s Cordy Glenn for this spot. Solder came back strong after missing 14 games in 2015 due to a torn right bicep. The 29-year-old lineman appeared in 15 games for the Patriots last season, finishing the year with the eighth-highest overall grade among the league’s tackles, according to PFF. Take out the 2015 campaign and the Colorado-native has actually been very healthy throughout his career, never missing more than one game in a season. Solder has the important responsibility of protecting Brady’s blindside. Considering the fact that the quarterback has not missed a game due to injury since Solder arrived in New England, it seems safe to say the lineman has done a good job.
LG: Richie Incognito, Buffalo Bills
A lot of people around the league were unsure if Incognito would ever return to the NFL after the controversy in Miami a few years ago. But after spending a year away from football, Incognito has been one of the best guard’s over the last two seasons. The veteran guard allowed only 23 pressures on the quarterback last season, and was a large factor in Buffalo having the NFL’s best rushing attack. Incognito finished 2016 with a 87.2 overall grade from PFF, fifth-best among all guards, and was the only Bill to land on the website’s Top 101 Players of 2016 (No. 98). The 34-year-old lineman was also tied for the seventh-best grade among guards in both run- and pass-blocking last year. Despite his age, Incognito is still performing like one of the top guards in the NFL.
C: Mike Pouncey, Miami Dolphins
There is no doubt that Pouncey has been greatly affected by injuries over the last few seasons. The Pro Bowl center has missed 19 games over the last four seasons, including 11 in 2016. His absence was felt by the Dolphins, who wound up having the NFL’s third-worst offensive line last season, largely because their starting center went down after only 301 offensive snaps. Even with the injury concerns, Pouncey is still the AFC’s top center, and among the league’s better centers when healthy. Recent reports state Pouncey should be ready for Week One, which is great news for Miami. At only 28, Pouncey still has time to get his career back on-track. But with no more guaranteed money left on his contract, it will have to happen this year.
RG: Shaq Mason, New England Patriots
After being drafted in the fourth round of the 2015 NFL Draft, Mason really came into his own last season. The 6-foot-1 lineman started in 15 games for the Patriots, playing in 91 percent of the team’s offensive snaps, as well as every snap taken in the postseason. Mason’s season got off to a rocky start when he broke his hand during New England’s second preseason game. While he was on the field for almost all of the team’s snaps from Week Three on, it was clear that Mason was hampered by the injury. Following the Patriots’ Week Nine bye, Mason was ranked the top player at his position by PFF. Barring injury, Mason will likely take the next step towards being one of the league’s top guards.
RT: Marcus Cannon, New England Patriots
With 60 percent of New England’s offensive line on this list, it’s no wonder Brady wants to play well into his 40’s. Cannon had one of the biggest career-turnarounds you will ever see in the NFL. After five seasons of mediocre-to-below average play, and a realistic candidate to get cut prior to the 2016 season, Cannon took full advantage of the opportunity to grab the reigns as New England’s starting right tackle. The 29-year-old evolved into one of the NFL’s best tackles last season, finishing the year as a second-team All-Pro, as well as earning the fourth-best overall grade and fourth-best run-blocking grade among tackles by PFF. Cannon proved himself in the passing game as well, allowing only six QB hits, four QB pressures, and zero sacks in his 11 games with Brady.