All AFC East teams are out of the 2020 NFL playoffs. The Buffalo Bills and New England Patriots both made it to the Wild Card round but came up short against stiff competition. Now, they join the Miami Dolphins and New York Jets in preparing for free agency and the draft. Every team except for Miami could watch multiple starters walk away this offseason.
Before getting into the article, a few terms need to be clarified. UFA refers to unrestricted free agents who hit the open market and can sign with any team they want. RFA refers to restricted free agents. RFAs can receive offer sheets from new teams, but their old franchises may match those sheets and retain the player.
ERFA refers to exclusive rights free agents who must sign with their current team if the organization extends an offer. ERFAs may not negotiate with other teams as their current clubs hold exclusive rights over them.
Those explanations about UFAs, RFAs, and ERFAs, skim over a lot of detail, but that’s enough information for readers to understand the implications discussed in this article.
Biggest free agent- Jordan Phillips DT (UFA)
With a light class of pending free agents, the Bills look like they could get back all of their key pieces and overthrow the New England Patriots next season. Buffalo finished the 2019 season with a 10-6 record while the Patriots went 12-4.
Phillips is Buffalo’s most important free agent by far. The fifth-year defensive tackle underwhelmed in three and a quarter seasons with the Miami Dolphins before the team waived him in 2018. Buffalo claimed Phillips the next day.
Phillips didn’t start a game for Buffalo in 2018, but he broke out of his shell in 2019. After coming off of the bench for the first seven games of the season, Phillips moved into the starting lineup. He finished the season with 31 tackles, 9.5 sacks, and 16 quarterback hits.
Besides Phillips, Buffalo could also lose Frank Gore, Shaq Lawson, and Quinton Spain in free agency. Gore turns 37 this year. While he ran for 599 yards in 2019, he only averaged 3.6 yards per attempt. It’s unlikely Gore will return to Buffalo in 2020. However, the team may want to keep Spain since he started all 16 games at guard this past season.
While Lawson never delivered on the promise he showed at Clemson, the former first round pick did finish second on the team in sacks this past season with 6.5. He led the team with 18 quarterback hits, which were the most of his career by far. With his steady improvement, Lawson may be worth keeping around for the right price.
Cornerback Levi Wallace and wide receiver Robert Foster are both ERFAs. Wallace started all 16 games for the Bills this past season. Considering his success as a former undrafted free agent, the Bills will likely retain him. Foster is a different story. After playing a large role in the offense in 2018, he virtually disappeared in 2019.
Biggest free agent- Aqib Talib CB (UFA)
Miami’s upcoming free agent class means almost nothing to the Dolphins. Maybe there are one or two guys they want to resign, but the majority of action for Miami will come in the forms of signing new players and the NFL Draft.
Talib is Miami’s only household name free agent. The others are odds and ends that some fan bases may recognize, but they aren’t star players. The Los Angeles Rams traded Talib to the Dolphins in late October so they could clear him from their books. In his two seasons with the Rams, Talib played in just 13 games.
The Dolphins will assuredly not pursue Talib in free agency. The former All-Pro turns 34 in 2020, and his mounting injury history warrants concern. Miami plans to get younger this offseason, which means jettisoning veterans like Talib.
Outside of Talib, who never played a game with Miami, Evan Boehm and John Jenkins are on their way to unrestricted free agency. This past season, Boehm saw some action along the offensive line for the Dolphins. Jenkins made several started at defensive end and finished the season with a sack and 34 tackles.
Linebacker Vince Biegel and safety Adrian Colbert are both RFAs. Colbert made meager contributions during the season, while Biegel saw plenty of action. He finished the season with 2.5 sacks, 57 tackles, and an interception. However, he’s not the type of player an NFL team would commit to as a long-term starter.
New England Patriots
Biggest free agent- Tom Brady QB (UFA)
The Patriots are staring down the barrel of a long offseason. Brady’s time in New England might be at an end, as strange and silly as that sounds. The six-time Super Bowl champion is on track to be an unrestricted free agent. At 42 years old, Brady threw for 4,057 yards, 24 touchdowns, and eight interceptions in 2019. His 88.0 passer rating is the lowest since 2013 (87.3).
Outside of deciding whether to keep or say goodbye to the greatest player in NFL history, the Patriots face many other pending free agents. This offseason, the team could fail to resign several veteran players out of necessity.
On offense, Phillip Dorsett, Ted Karras, Joe Thuney, and Ben Watson are all UFAs. Dorsett topped off the second-most productive season of his career in 2019, finishing with 397 yards and five touchdowns. While Dorsett is replaceable, New England’s receiving ranks are already thin.
Watson disappointed in 2019, appearing in ten games and recording only 17 receptions for 173 yards. He still led all of New England’s tight ends in receptions and receiving yards. Karras started 15 games at center for the injured David Andrews. Since the Patriots drafted Thuney in 2016, he has started all 64 regular season games at left guard.
The Patriots could lose a lot of defensive weapons as well. Veteran and beloved safety Devin McCourty, who head coach Bill Belichick openly acknowledges as one of the best players he has ever worked with, is at the end of a five-year contract. The 32-year-old intercepted five passes in 2019, his most since 2012. In his ten-year career, McCourty has only missed four starts.
Jamie Collins, Danny Shelton, and Kyle Van Noy are heading toward free agency as well. Collins signed a one-year deal worth two million dollars with the Patriots last offseason. He led the team in tackles (80) and sacks (seven) this season. Collins also forced three fumbles and intercepted three passes. The versatile outside linebacker is 30 years old.
New England’s other outside linebacker, Van Noy, posted career-highs in sacks (6.5), quarterback hits (14), and forced fumbles (three) in 2019. He also recovered two fumbles and scored a touchdown. Van Noy will turn 29 before the start of the 2020 season. Shelton tied for the third-most tackles on the team with 61.
Matthew Slater, an eight-time Pro Bowl, two-time First Team All-Pro special teams player, is also an UFA. Slater joined the Patriots as a fifth round pick in 2008. He is the most recognizable special teams player in the game today.
New York Jets
Biggest free agent- Robby Anderson WR (UFA)
New York faces plenty of roster problems, and 2020 free agency won’t be kind to struggling organization. The team won’t lose any star players, but plenty of contributors are on expiring contracts. The rebuild in New York could continue without as many as nine significant players.
Starting at the team’s best pending free agent, Anderson is an UFA. The former undrafted free agent just finished a one-year deal worth roughly three million dollars. However, he can earn a much larger, long-term deal in free agency.
Consider that Adam Humphries just signed a four-year, $36 million deal with the Tennessee Titans last season. A year before that, Sammy Watkins got a three-year, $48 million contract from Kansas City. Over the past two seasons, Humphries produced 1,190 yards. Watkins racked up 1,192 yards, but Anderson outclassed both with 1,531 yards over the same time.
Besides Anderson, the Jets face several other potential losses, most of which can harm the offense. Ryan Kalil is a pending UFA. The former All-Pro started seven games at center for the Jets before an injury ended his season.
Left tackle Kelvin Beachum will hit the open market. Beachum started 45 games for New York over the past three seasons. Brandon Shell, the team’s starting right tackle, is also an UFA. Shell started 37 games over the past three years for New York.
The offense could also lose veterans Bilal Powell and Demaryius Thomas. Thomas is years past his prime, but he still started ten games for the Jets in 2019 and finished the season with 433 yards. New York originally drafted Powell in 2011. Now, the 31-year-old is coming off of his least productive season since 2014. The Jets may let the aging, versatile running back walk this offseason.
Defensively, both Neville Hewitt and Jordan Jenkins are UFAs. Hewitt started 12 games at inside linebacker for the Jets this past season. He finished third on the team in tackles with 72. Jenkins set a career-high in sacks with eight, leading the Jets in that category. The outside linebacker recorded seven sacks in 2018. Inside linebacker, James Burgess is a RFA. The former undrafted free agent led the team with 80 tackles.
Starting kicker, Sam Ficken is an ERFA. He connected on 70.4% of his field goal attempts in 2019.