THE AFC EAST JUST PUNTED

The 2017 NFL season is a little over a week from opening night, and the New England Patriots have already been crowned the division champs for the season. There is a better chance of Saint Mary’s School for the Blind knocking off Alabama this season than there is of the Patriots not securing their division.

The odd part is that its seemingly as much on purpose as it is anything else. The Jets, and Bills have seemingly punted on the season already. The Dolphins believed they were positioned, if not to challenge the Patriots, then at least to secure a wild card birth. But that was before they got bit by the injury bug… actually, that’s not fair to say, they got swallowed whole, like by Jaws, or Andy Reid with a rack of ribs.

Now, the Dolphins may still salvage enough of their season to post a respectable record, especially considering their circumstances. But the rumor put forth by The Ringer’s Michael Lombardi that the Fins are shopping Jarvis Landry around the league, indicates that even they realize their attempts to claw their way to respectability this year are futile.

The Bills have made four notable late summer/early camp deals to jettison a few players that many thought were going to be part of the Bills foundation for the future. Reggie Ragland, Cardale Jones, Sammy Watkins, and Ronald Darby are all gone. The returns primarily being in the form of draft picks. Certainly E.J. Gaines and Jordan Matthews are capable NFL players, and will make their presence felt on the gridiron, especially in the vacuum of talent known as the Bills locker room. But the primary targets were the additional 2nd and 3rd round picks for 2018 acquired in the deal, along with the 2019 4th.

New Bills General Manager Brandon Beane already traded down in the 2017 first round to acquire the Chiefs’ 2018 first rounder. So as of right now, the Bills will have 6 selections in the first 3 rounds of next year’s entry draft. His mandate seems pretty clear. Hit the re-set button, clean house, and build for the future for the draft. No doubt, that as the draft picks he acquired turn into actual players, he’ll attempt to augment with some free agency signings, but part one of the master plan is absolutely to collect draft assets.

Some may question why the rush to send out Darby, Watkins, Ragland, etc. now, instead of letting them play through the season before trying to flip them prior to the 2018 draft weekend? Well, the reason is two fold. On the one hand, they’ll receive more value in return now, as the team trading for them now has their services for the upcoming season, as well as beyond. The other reason is to increase the value of their normally provided selections. In other words, if they give up their existing talent now, they’ll suck more during the season. The more they suck, the better their draft selections will become. Trying to limp through like the Dolphins could result in them approaching mediocrity, resulting in a less desirable draft slot.

Somewhere Sam Hinkie is grabbing a drink, some Buffalo Wings, and saluting the Bills in their endeavors.

Trust the process

Not only are the Bills punting on this season, that could have been done by trading the guys they’re sending out back in April to acquire picks for this season and kick off the rebuild now. But by waiting until now to make these moves (well, the majority of them anyways), they’re punting on next season as well, as that will clearly be a season of rookie development.

I don’t believe the Bills can rationally expect Tyrod Taylor to be their quarterback of the future. As such, it is reasonable to believe that you could see the Bills select a QB in the first round of the 2018 draft. I strongly suspect you’ll see many Bills scouts in Los Angeles, alternating between USC and UCLA practices and games.

LeSean McCoy might be gone in 2018, Marcel Dareus could be gone as early as the start of this season. This offseason has already seen them let Zach Brown, Michael Gilislee, Stephon Gilmore, Nikell Robey-Coleman, Cyrus Kouandijiu, and Robert Woods leave, the blood letting is well underway.

Jets logo

The Bills won’t be alone in their pursuit of crappiness. As much as the Bills will be bad this year, the Jets are going to SUUUUUUCCCCCCCKKKKKKKKK. Like golf ball through a garden hose level sucking going on. Their attempts to reach the lowest levels of the NFL totem pole have been much less pronounced and organic than the Bills.

While the Bills had seemingly been trying to build (Watkins, Darby, Gilmore, Ragland, Jones, Nikell-Coleman are all still young by NFL standards) before a new regime stepped in to tear it down, the Jets had been attempting to go all in with free agents, and aging veterans.

A lot of those aging vets were simply shown the door. Not re-signed, or released without compensation. Brandon Marshall, Eric Decker, Nick Mangold, Darrelle Revis, Eric Decker, David Harris, all gone, all let go or not re-signed for nothing. They’re even shopping Matt Forte around, though his $4 million dollar contract makes him seemingly untradeable. He too could be a camp cut. When you’re obviously trying to lose, keeping around a future hall of famer seems counterproductive.

As it was, they had one viable starting wide receiver on the roster in the form of Quincy Enunwa, but he was lost for the season early in training camp.

The quarterback competition always provided a clue that the Jets truly are punting on this season, and looking to re-set in the future. With the dual down to 2nd year QB Christian Hackenberg, he of the 2016 2nd round draft choice pedigree, or journeyman starter Josh McCown, the Jets went with McCown. While on the surface, that may indicate a desire to win now, to go with the vet over the young unproven signal caller. Except, while McCown has been serviceable, he’s never consistently won anywhere. So you can safely assume, if you’re the Jets, that things won’t change in the Meadowlands.

But if you put Hackenberg in, it allows him to develop, to create a situation where the fan base, and maybe ownership, clamors for you to build around him. But the Jets aren’t ready for that. They’re not looking to begin that rebuild process just yet. They’re waiting for next year.

The question is, why are these teams all now pushing to put themselves in a position to win not this year, not next year, but rather three to four years down the line?

Brady and Jimmy G

That’s when they feel the Patriots may become vulnerable. Tom Brady is signed through the 2019 season. After which he’d be a 42 year old (43 before the start of the 2020 season) free agent.

Back up Jimmy Garoppolo enters his fourth season as Brady’s apprentice. He is set to become a free agent after this, the 2017, season ends. At this point it is seemingly very likely that the Patriots would apply the franchise tag to Garoppolo. The two options then would be to trade him to a team to extend him, allowing the Patriots to recover an asset, or to keep him for one more year, giving themselves one more year of insurance to see how long Tom Brady can bitch slap father time.

For the vast majority of teams it would not be financially tenable to retain arguably the greatest quarterback of all time, as well as franchise tagging his back up. But as has been clearly shown the entirety of this century, the Patriots are not your average team.

Brady’s 2018 cap hit would be $22 million (to release him would result in $14 million in dead money, vs the $7 million in dead cap money that would result in his leaving after the 2018 season). The estimated amount to franchise Garoppolo would be about $22 million. So that is $44 tied up in the quarterback position for one season.

A large part of the Patriots’ sustained success is because Brady has never held the Patriots hostage with regards to his contract. They’ve never been in the position the Ravens found themselves in where it was either pay Joe Flacco and let everyone else walk, or let Flacco, and keep their other units intact. A situation that the Lions could very well find themselves in with the new Matt Stafford deal.

So to now turn around an invest such a large sum into one position would seem very unpatriotic. Except, all signs indicate that is exactly what they’re prepared to do. As of right now, the Patriots have $14,248,983 in cap space remaining for the 2017 season (as per PatsCap.com). Granted it is August 29th, and there will be additional moves made. We know Belichick will make a trade or two, injuries will result in the need to bring in some free agents, the Patriots will always continue to churn the roster in their unending journey to put together the best 63 they can (including practice squad). But I would still expect a large portion of that figure to remain intact as the 2018 league year rolls around. When it does, that remaining amount can be rolled over to the next season.

The 2017 NFL salary cap is $167,000,000. We do not yet know how much the 2018 cap will be, but it is safe to assume we won’t see a spike like the NBA’s summer of 2016. So for the sake of argument, lets say the cap remains static at $167 million. That means, that the 2017 team, one widely favored to win the Superbowl at this point, will cost approximately $153 million.

The presumed 2018 cap of $167 million increases $14 million for the Patriots with the carryover, putting it at $181 million, or roughly $28 million above what the 2017 payroll is. That would seem to allow for Garoppolo receiving a $21 million dollar a year pay bump.

Granted, that is an extreme simplification of the NFL Salary Cap, and assumes that other players aren’t in line for pay increases (they are, Brandin Cooks being an example), but it does illustrate what other teams are looking at as far as a timeline. They’re waiting out the Brady era.

It could very well be that the Patriots dynasty continues post Brady. Is Jimmy Garoppolo the quarterback that Belichick believes he is? If so it could continue. Could Belichick flip Garoppolo into a high draft pick that he turns into the next great Patriots Quarterback?

Those are bother hypotheticals. The Jets, Bills, and Dolphins can live with hypotheticals. They’re gambling that the Patriots can’t find lightning in a bottle twice, and they’re loading up to make their post-Brady push, because while they think the Patriots will become vulnerable then, they know, they can’t beat them now.

So when its 4th and 15, and you’re pinned on your own 15 yard line , do you make a wild throw? Or do you send out the punter, and hope to regroup on the next possession, hopefully in a better position to do something? The AFC as a unit has decided to punt after not being able to make it over mid-field for the last 15 years.

 

  • Jason Sullivan
  • You can find me on twitter at @TopDucker
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