AFC East defenses ranked from best to worst

New England Patriots outside linebacker Matt Judon (9) dives on top of a pile of players Saturday, Dec. 18, 2021, during a game against the New England Patriots at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.
New England Patriots outside linebacker Matt Judon (9) dives on top of a pile of players Saturday, Dec. 18, 2021, during a game against the New England Patriots at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. / Christine Tannous/IndyStar / USA TODAY

Trilby hat wearer and legendary Alabama coach Bear Bryant is credited with the often repeated quote, "Offense sells tickets. Defense wins championships." If that's true, and there's no reason to think otherwise, then the AFC has been home to the league's best defense in seven of the last ten seasons.

But what does that have to do with the AFC East?

Well, only the teams in the AFC North conceded fewer points than the AFC East teams did last year. That may be as irrelevant as it is interesting, but who will have the best defense in the Patriots' division this time out, and will that provide any hints about who will make the Super Bowl? It just might.

1 – Miami Dolphins 

No AFC East team allowed more points than the 2023 Dolphins did. Unsurprisingly, significant changes are afoot in Miami. Six players have left, and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio “mutually agreed to part ways” with the team.   

Fangio has been replaced by former Ravens and Texans defensive end Anthony Weaver. The 43-year-old spent the last two seasons in Baltimore as the Ravens' assistant head and defensive line coach. 

Weaver has plenty of new toys to play with in Miami Gardens, too. The Dolphins signed 11 experienced veterans on the defensive side of the ball. Four new linebackers, including Shaq Barrett, three new defensive backs, including Pro Bowler Jordan Poyer, and four new defensive tackles were signed. 

That’s not the most exciting part, though. The Dolphins bolstered their defense at the draft, too. They took Chop Robinson with the 21st overall pick and Mohamed Kamara in the fifth round. They recorded 41 sacks between them during their college careers. But more importantly, they were the second and third fastest EDGE defenders at the combine. 

With Barrett, Robinson, and Kamara all rotating in and out, plus Bradley Chubb, the Dolphins will give offensive lines nightmares. Poyer, Kendall Fuller, and Jalen Ramsey will have plenty of opportunities to snag tipped passes or intercept passes that have been hurriedly thrown up for grabs. 

2 – New York Jets 

Any Robert Saleh defense will make life hard for offenses, and only six AFC teams conceded fewer points than the Jets did in 2023. But they only drafted two defensive players this year, and despite six players leaving, they only signed three in free agency. One of those to depart was Bryce Huff who is now an Eagle. 

Huff signed with the Jets as an undrafted free agent in 2020, and even though he only started seven games during his time in New York, he was an essential part of the defense and the special teams unit. Huff played on 1,693 snaps in total, recording 17.5 sacks and 17 tackles for a loss in his four years as a Jet. Huff has been replaced by former Eagle Hasson Reddick. 

New Jersey native Reddick is three years older than Huff and led the Eagles in sacks last year. He took quarterbacks to the ground 11 times, 4.5 more than anyone else. Reddick contributed 26% of the team’s total sacks! But he’s racked up 50.5 sacks in his last four seasons, and that is going to take a toll on his body. It would be a surprise if he keeps that pace up as he approaches his 30th birthday. 

The Jets have strengthened their defensive front in free agency to help Reddick out. Javon Kinlaw arrived from Saleh’s old team, the 49ers, and 6-foot-3, 335-pound Leki Fotu moves to New Jersey from Arizona. But they’ve signed Isaiah Oliver. 

Oliver’s signing is primarily to provide some depth to their defensive backfield and maybe help out on special teams. But if he gets on the field with the defense, he’ll be a problem. In 2023, Oliver allowed 84% of passes to be completed and missed 10.7% of the tackles he was asked to make. When opposing quarterbacks targeted Oliver, they had a 101.0 passer rating.  

If the Jets' offense fires and keep their defense off the field they could be the best defense in the league. But Rodgers and Hackett haven’t been to the playoffs since 2021 so there’s no guarantee they’ll be tearing opponents apart from the off. 

3 – New England Patriots 

This is a worst-case scenario for the Patriots' defense, mainly because nobody seems entirely sure how it was run in 2023. Was Bill Belichick running it? Or was it Steve Belichick? And how much did Jerod Mayo have to do with it? Was he calling the plays?

His official job title was middle linebackers coach, but everyone seems to think he was in charge. DeMarcus Covington has been promoted from defensive line coach to defensive coordinator, but will Mayo be the one calling the plays this year? 

With so much uncertainty surrounding the coaching team, it’s good to know there are experienced players on the defense who can help develop the promising youngsters who are heading into their second year

Matt Judon’s return from injury will improve the pass rush and should allow Keion White to play on the defensive line, not as an auxiliary linebacker. Marte Mapu should also be fully fit for the start of the season, and he will be vital to the Patriots' defense in 2023. His ability to line up as a linebacker and play like a defensive back will be crucial for Covington (or Mayo).

Finally, Marcus Jones’ return will give the Patriots what they desperately lacked in 2023: elite speed. Whether in pass coverage, returning punts, or even catching screen passes, the diminutive Jones will be a sight for sore eyes. 

The Patriots didn’t draft a defensive player until the sixth round when they selected South Carolina cornerback Marcellas Dial. He produced a 40.5-inch vertical jump at his pro day that ranked in the 94th percentile for the cornerback class, but he is also largely unremarkable. Three new faces did arrive in free agency, though. 

Jaylinn Hawkins came from Los Angeles after playing ten games as a Charger. Hawkins is a bit of a tweener; he’s a bit undersized for a linebacker but a bit slow for safety. He made four interceptions and 121 tackles during his time as an Atlanta Falcon before his move to Los Angeles. It will be interesting to see how the Patriots deploy him.  

The 6'5', 307-pound defensive lineman Armon Watts arrives in New England from Pittsburgh, where he played 15 games last season. But he didn’t start any of them and only managed 15 total tackles and 0.5 sacks. He will provide some depth up front but won’t take many of Christian Barmore’s snaps. 

The final and most interesting addition is Sione Takitaki. He spent five seasons in Cleveland and figures to be the Patriots’ second-string off-ball linebacker. He’ll be behind Ja’Whaun Bentley on the depth chart, and he’s a full 12 pounds lighter than Bentley, so it’ll be fascinating to see how he fits in. 

If the Patriots can keep Christian Gonzalez, Kyle Dugger, Jonathan Jones, Isaiah Bolden, and Marcus Jones healthy, they will have one of the best defensive backfields in football. Like The Jets, they will need the offense to do its part and string together some drives so they can rest. 

4 – Buffalo Buffalo 

Only the Ravens and Chiefs conceded fewer points than the Bills last season. So, you would imagine they would do everything humanly possible to keep that unit together, wouldn’t you? Well, you’d be wrong, loud wrong. 

Nine defensive players left Buffalo in free agency! They signed seven new guys to replace them, drafted five, and then signed a further six as undrafted free agents. Seven of those new faces are defensive linemen. Even for a defensive genius like Sean McDermott, that’s some rebuilding! 

Bobby Babich is stepping up from his previous role as linebackers coach to be the defensive coordinator. Sean McDermott recently said that he wants to give Babich the chance to call plays, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he will do it during the regular season.  

The Bills' most interesting draft selection was Cole Bishop, who they took in the second round. Having signed Kendall Williamson to a futures contract and Mike Edwards in free agency, Buffalo didn’t seem to need another safety, but they drafted the 6-foot-2 Bishop out of Utah.

Boston-born Bishop’s 4.45 second 40-yard time was in the 86th percentile of the safety class, and his 39-inch vertical was in the 88th. But the Bills signed Dee Delaney in May, so there’s no guarantee Bishop will start in Week 1. 

Buffalo hopes Da’Quan Jones, Matt Milano, and Braylon Spector can stay healthy for the 2024 season. Those three missed 32 games between them in 2023! With so many new faces and potentially so many rookies in the mix, the Bills will need experienced players on the field. Milano wore the “green dot” for the Bills to begin 2023. His brutal injury against the Jaguars caused a wobble, and they only won three of their next seven games. 

McDermott’s charges eventually won the division last year after beating the Dolphins on the road in Week 18. With a lot of moving parts that need to fit together seamlessly and quickly in western New York this year, the Bills will have to fight and scrap just to find themselves in the same position. 

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