By Henry McKenna
FOX Sports AFC East Writer
There weren’t many starters playing in the first week of the preseason, and that included most of the AFC East’s stars. The weekend games provided a platform for babble players to continue building their case to make the roster.
That means there isn’t much in the way of actual starting units, leaving no shortage of questions about this division as teams enter their second week of the preseason.
For our weekly mailbag, we dive into some of the AFC East’s biggest storylines, as well as some small, gritty elements. If you’d like to participate in next week’s edition, please tweet me @McKennAnalysis.
Let’s dive into your questions of the week.
From @gametime41: It’s obvious that Jet planes are a rebuilding team, but to compete in the AFC East, which players or position groups could help us find success in the division? What are the ways we can use other teams?
The thing that makes me stick with the Jets is that they are so young. The offense, in particular, will start the following players New York drafted the past two years: QB Zach Wilson, OG Alijah Vera-Tucker, WRs Elijah Moore and Garrett Wilson and RB Breece Hall. That’s probably five of their 11 starters on offense.
It’s hard to say what strengths will emerge offensively, as these players still have potential. They are unproven. But above all, Wilson has to be better. He hopes to return in time for Week 1 after injuring his knee in the preseason. New York’s season — and future prospects as a franchise — hinge on his health and development. So the Jets must find a way to exploit teams through his raw arm strength, the tantalizing quality that convinced the Jets to select him second overall last year.
Defensively, the Jets need a big year from their front seven. Linebackers C.J. Mosley and Quincy Williams combined for an insane 278 tackles last season. They will once again be the backbone of New York’s defense. But it should also be a huge year for Quinen Williams, who will help the lesser-known but definitely dominant defensive tackle with John Franklin-Myers (six sacks in 2021).
There is a lot of proven talent on that defensive front. And then you add a healthy Carl Lawson, who missed last year with an Achilles injury, and rookie Jermaine Johnson on the edge.
From @EnragedKermit: Will the Jets defense do better than last year?
The most important defensive stat in my opinion is points allowed. And the Jets were the worst in the NFL with 29.6 points allowed per game. They allowed the fourth-most rushing yards in the league, due in part to their unimpressive 4.5 yards allowed per carry. It was just as bad in the passing game, with New York giving up the third-most passing yards in the NFL.
It would be strangely impressive if they got any worse.
In an effort to fix the pass defense, the Jets signed cornerback DJ Reid (three years, $33 million) and defensive end Jordan Whitehead (two years, $14.5 million). Safety Lamarcus Joyner returns from a season-long injury along with Lawson.
And then there was the draft: cornerback Sauce Gardner and Johnson, a versatile rusher. Even DE Micheal Clemons, a 2022 fourth-rounder, was an absolute target in the first preseason game with seven pressures.
Coach Robert Saleh is a defensive coach. He’s clearly pushing to build around a strong unit, and the pieces are starting to fall into place. So the simple answer is: Yes, this defense will improve. But the Jets likely won’t be relevant in 2022 if the defense doesn’t jump into the top 10 — and that would be a surprise.
From @_JakeTHamilton: How things looked for accounts without Brian Daboll, so far? Is there any concern that the offense might go down a bit without his training/planning?
So far so good.
Josh Allen discussed getting to know new offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey in the small but important ways that will help them succeed together. The quarterback learns Dorsey’s tendencies, philosophies and communication styles.
During the first week of the preseason, Allen listened to Dorsey pay for backup quarterbacks. This should help Allen hear the play, pass it into the huddle and get to the line of scrimmage with effective timing. And then those two will work on their communication between devices and in the meeting room.
Is Josh Allen under more pressure than Zach Wilson?
Emmanuel Acho, David Hellman and Rick Bucher discuss whether the Jets QB or Bills QB is under the most pressure in the AFC East.
For the most part, the Bills are setting up both Dorsey and Allen for success.
“Honestly, we’re keeping the same verbiage, the same system,” Allen told CBS Sports HQ’s Pete Prisco last week. “Obviously some different nuances in our offense and a different voice in my headphones when we’re out there. So it takes some getting used to, but Dorsey does an amazing job.
“He’s coming up with a lot of really nice concepts for us. And he’s going to have a tough job trying to figure our guys out on the field because we’ve got some opportunities now and it’s good to have the guys we’ve got.”
The Bills are working on promoting receivers Gabe Davis and Isaiah McKenzie to more prominent roles while also seeing if they can use rookies like running back James Cook and receiver Khalil Shaqir. These are good problems for Dorsey. The offense looks good against the turnover.
But it will be worth watching. The Bills expect to win the Super Bowl. Technically, Dorsey will have to be better than former Bills OC Daboll to win it all. Those are high expectations.
From @mjbrait: Who will win the coordinator battle between Joe Judge and Matt Patricia to call offensive plays for Patriots?
Make what you will of Bill Belichick’s recent comments, but he made it clear Monday that there is no competition between Judge and Patricia.
During the first preseason game, Patricia called the play for the first quarter while quarterback Brian Hoyer was on the field. Then, late in the first quarter, rookie quarterback Bailey Zappé entered the game and Judge paid the punt. It was a bit odd considering Patricia is expected to call a play in Week 1 of the regular season.
If it’s not a competition, why not get him more reps in the preseason considering he’s only been called on defense in the past?
On Monday, both Judge and Patricia lined up under Belichick.
“Honestly, it’s just a collaboration from that point of view,” Patricia said. “We’re following coach Belichick’s lead. … We’re all just working together right now.”
And a judge?
“It’s my job to do whatever [Belichick] saying to the best of his ability,” he said Monday.
My bet on what will happen: Patricia will end up paying, with the judge helping with personnel management and the situational payment (red zone, third down). Belichick will listen carefully through the headphones to make sure his vision is being executed correctly.
From @gmoney8712: What are the odds Zach Wilson will struggle to take his job? Joe Flacco bc of how effective Flacco is running the offense / the coaches need to win at least a little bit this year?
I would put those odds at 3%. Maybe lower.
Even if Flacco is the better or more consistent quarterback, the Jets can’t waste a season relying on him. They need to develop Wilson with game reps. If he crashes and burns in 2022, New York will know they need to draft a new quarterback in 2023.
But playing Flacco would be a huge waste of time for the Jets franchise. Wilson has to play. He should develop into a franchise quarterback. And he can’t do that while watching Flacco.
From @DonBlais85: Curious what you think of the new rookie quarterback? #ForeverNOT
Zappe, a fourth-round pick out of Western Kentucky, faced an unusually high number of blitzes early in the preseason. While most teams will go in vanilla coverage and deploy uncomplicated three or four pass rushes, the New York Giants decided to pressure Zappe. (Belichick was visibly unhappy with New York’s decision, in part because he likely hadn’t spent much time preparing his rookie or his offensive line for blitz packages.)
Nevertheless, Zappe settled in well. He seemed more comfortable with blitzes — and that helped the quality of the contest drop throughout the game.
“[Zappe] showed a lot of guts,” Hoyer said after Thursday’s game. “That’s not easy to do in your first NFL experience, especially with what they were throwing at us on defense, a lot of zero blitzes, a lot of tight coverage, some blitz overload, so that some things we haven’t seen, and he stayed in there, made some great throws.”
In particular, the Patriots had to be pleased with Zappe’s touchdown pass. Despite a complex blitz package and an unblocked rusher in his face, Zappe picked off a ball that receiver Lil’Jordan Humphrey tracked into the end zone. It was an impressive decision in the face of a five-man race.
From @gmoney8712: How likely is the Patriots to carry 6 WRs (without Matthew Slater)?
The Patriots will definitely carry Devante Parker and Tyquan Thornton. They will almost certainly include Kendrick Bourne and Jacoby Meyers. They may consider trading Nelson Aholor, but his salary is so high that the Patriots may struggle to deal with him. (Would they cut it?)
Then there are true bubble players: Tre Nixon, Christian Wilkerson and Humphrey. I think the Patriots will only field five receivers. I’ll hold off on predicting exactly which ones – for now.
From @icyphoenix36: Jabrill Peppers was, in my opinion, a truly overlooked signing from New England in free agency. He played almost everywhere on defense last season for the Giants. But what position should we expect him to play in New England?
The Patriots didn’t let him play during the first preseason game, indicating they view him as a roster lock. He may not play much safety considering the Patriots have Devin McCourty, Kyle Duggar and Adrian Phillips. Those three are the foundation of what New England does defensively.
But Peppers is built like a linebacker with the ability to play safety. Belichick will come up with something to do with Peppers. Meanwhile, he will participate in special teams coverage and punt returns, potentially as a punt returner.
So… maybe everywhere? We will see.
Before joining FOX Sports as an AFC East reporter, Henry McKenna spent seven years covering the Patriots for USA TODAY Sports Media Group and Boston Globe Media. Follow him on Twitter at @McKennAnalysis.
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