AFC East Mailbag: Will Tua or Mac Jones step up? Can Breece Hall be a top rookie?

By Henry McKenna
FOX Sports AFC East Writer

Training camp is hitting its final stretch. With one preseason game left, teams are fixing their gaze upon the first week of the NFL season.

It’s almost crunch time for coaches and general managers to determine how they’ll shrink their rosters from 80 players to 53, hoping to build teams that can make the playoffs and maybe even win a Super Bowl. 

So let’s dive into your questions from this week’s Twitter mailbag. Please feel free to participate next week by tweeting at me at @McKennAnalysis.

From @ryanoconnell79: Is it concerning that I’m weirdly optimistic about this year’s Patriots team? I don’t think they’re better than the Bills, but I can still see them making the playoffs. I think they’ll be an entertaining good, not great team.

Is it concerning? No! I’ll tell you a secret: All the fans of AFC East teams are optimistic. There’s an easy case for the Patriots, Dolphins and Jets to finish at No. 2 in the division behind the Bills, who — from my perspective — are the clear-cut No. 1.

With the Patriots, they have a few paths to the postseason. If quarterback Mac Jones develops into one of the NFL’s elite passers, then New England will make the playoffs. So far, however, the offensive transformation has slowed Jones’ development. So it’s probably more reasonable to expect him to take a step forward — but maybe not a substantial one into the elite. And that might not be enough to get New England into the postseason. 

Ranking the 2021 QB draft class

Colin Cowherd evaluates the 2021 QB class so far, including Trevor Lawrence, Trey Lance, Mac Jones, Zach Wilson and Justin Fields.

If Jones doesn’t assert himself in a big way, then the Patriots’ pass-catchers could emerge and elevate Jones. Nelson Agholor and Jonnu Smith are having promising training camps. Kendrick Bourne looked ready to break out in 2021. And DeVante Parker can provide the Patriots with the ability to stretch the field. 

Defensively, the Patriots have a young and impressive front-seven, one that might develop into an elite unit around Matthew Judon, Ja’Whaun Bentley and Christian Barmore.

At this point, the Dolphins strike me as the second-best team in the AFC East. But it’s never wise to count out Bill Belichick.

From @bchapz: Given the timeline for Zach Wilson‘s injury, do you think the Jets can take a real step forward in year two of the Robert Saleh era? What are you most excited to see out of the youth the Jets bring to the field? Either rookies or year two/three guys!

The Jets honestly might be better under veteran QB Joe Flacco, a steady presence who can play point guard in an offense full of young and electric playmakers. But Wilson offers upside. That’s why the Jets drafted him, and that’s why they’ll put him back on the field when he has recovered from his knee injury. In the short term, though, Flacco might get them more wins. So that uncomfortable dynamic could prove fascinating this season when Wilson returns. 

Ultimately, I think the Jets stick with Wilson when he’s healthy to see whether he can be the guy in 2023. Because if he flops, they might look at the loaded 2023 quarterback class and pick out the next guy.

As for the young Jets playmakers, they have no shortage. Elijah Moore is one of the most fun route-runners to watch — so much so that Flacco issued high praise for Moore, comparing him to a future Hall of Famer.

“I think of Steve Smith because of how explosive Steve was,” Flacco said. “Steve didn’t run routes like everybody else did, but he was always in the right spot. I think Elijah has some of that in him. You can kind of feel when he’s open. You might not always get the same depth. He may run the same route several times, completely differently every time. 

“You know that with a guy like that, with a guy that has his physical abilities, he’s going to be a little different than everyone else, and you have to let him use those superpowers to his advantage.”

Moore is one of the leaders in a receiver room that includes Garrett Wilson, an electric playmaker out of Ohio State and the 11th overall pick in the 2022 NFL Draft. Wilson, for now, is not a starter, but he’s clearly in the mix as WR4. 

And then there’s rookie running back Breece Hall. Like Wilson, the Jets are only rotating Hall as a substitutional player with the starters. At training camp, he has been explosive, including a 75-yard touchdown run against the Atlanta Falcons in joint practices last Friday.

From @brownpwrrngr: Is Tua Togavailoa ready to step up? How high are you thinking he’ll get? Because I’m not sure.

Tagovailoa will take a substantial step up from his 2021 season, when his stats were, frankly, pretty woeful. In 13 games, he had 2,653 passing yards, 16 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. The Dolphins surely wanted to see more progress from him in Year 2. 

Jimmy Johnson assesses Trey Lance, Tua Tagovailoa

Jimmy Johnson tells Colin Cowherd about his 2022 expectations for Tua Tagovailoa in Miami and for Trey Lance in San Francisco.

With Tyreek Hill, Jaylen Waddle, Cedrick Wilson and Mike Gesicki, Miami has equipped its young quarterback with a group of skill players who can help him elevate his game. It should help, too, that new coach Mike McDaniel is bringing the San Francisco 49ers‘ rushing attack that has helped another middling quarterback, Jimmy Garoppolo

If the installation of McDaniel’s system goes well and the playmakers play well, then the Dolphins will have an offense that will help Tagovailoa play good football. Now, that doesn’t mean he’ll be a star. Tagovailoa will reasonably finish in the top 15 in passing. While that may not be exactly what Miami wants, it will also be a sizable improvement from his first two seasons.

From @JerseyFinFan: How do you expect the Patriots’ offense to match up vs. this Dolphins defense?

Miami’s front boasts one of the NFL’s best defensive linemen: Christian Wilkins. Though his stats may not wow, he is sure to instill some fear in New England’s offensive line. 

But the Dolphins’ real strength is in their secondary, which will definitely prove frustrating for the Patriots. Cornerbacks Xavien HowardByron Jones and Nik Needham are lockdown defenders. They’re capable of shutting down New England’s top wideouts: Parker, Agholor and Jakobi Meyers. It’s only when the Patriots go 4-WR with Bourne — or make use of their tight ends — that they seem to have an advantage.

So the Patriots will have to use their new outside-zone run scheme that they’re installing during training camp. Maybe that scheme will help them get past Miami linebackers Elandon Roberts and Jerome Baker. The problem for New England? That run scheme has looked messy thus far.

From @gmoney8712: Does James Cook have a serious shot at overtaking the RB1 role by the end of the season? Or will it just be a timeshare the whole year?

Barring injury, the Bills are going to deploy a timeshare all season. Running backs Devin Singletary and Zach Moss bring unique skills to the group — just like Cook, who should serve as a matchup nightmare on third down. But every down? I don’t know if Cook, who came in at 199 pounds at the NFL Scouting Combine, will be a true RB1 during his career unless he puts on a lot of weight. A committee might not be fun for fantasy football players, but it should be exciting for Buffalo fans. This three-headed attack has the potential to be special.

From @BigStove_Sports: Do you think Bill Belichick overvalues old-school type players? Nose tackle? Safety? Davon Godchaux is good, but not top tier. Jabrill PeppersKyle Dugger and Adrian Phillips all do the same thing.

The Patriots drafted Barmore in the second round, and while he’s a defensive tackle, he is not an old-school nose tackle like Vince Wilfork. Barmore is light and nimble and an adept pass-rusher. Similarly, I don’t think that Peppers, Dugger or Phillips are old-school players. They are versatile safeties who can provide a number of different utilities to the defense. Dugger is turning into a knock-your-head-off type — reminiscent of Rodney Harrison. 

When has that been a bad thing for a defense? Physicality isn’t old school. It’s how the game is played.

Belichick changes with the times. And, yes, he gets excited about players like Godchaux, probably the closest thing to an old-school player. But my sense is that Belichick isn’t buying into a player like that because of nostalgia. It’s because he sees opportunity. He sees other teams shying away from these players because they’re supposedly old-school. So Belichick sees a chance to nab good value. 

The Patriots’ coach went so far as to say that Godchaux is “one of the best defensive linemen in the NFL.” That’s huge praise. Is it fair? Probably not. But Godchaux will get a chance to prove his coach right in 2022.

From @SteveSpaccareli: What is the likelihood of Breece Hall winning OROY?

Sports books have Hall’s odd of winning the Offensive Rookie of the Year award behind only Pittsburgh Steelers QB Kenny Pickett, Falcons WR London Drake and New Orleans Saints WR Chris Olave. Clearly, Hall has a legitimate chance.

The Jets were favoring Michael Carter as the RB1 at training camp during joint practices with Atlanta. But Hall clearly provides value as a power runner. He also has the feet and hands to contribute in the passing game. 

Jets headline most improved teams

FOX Sports’ Bucky Brooks selects the most improved teams in the offseason, including the Jets, Eagles and Chargers.

Tackle Mekhi Becton‘s injury certainly hurts the rushing attack, but the Jets added tackle Duane Brown, who is an excellent veteran with a proven record of success. He’s about as good of a replacement as New York could have hoped to find. Guard Alijah Vera-Tucker must take a second-year leap. If Brown and Vera-Tucker prove competent, they’ll go a long way in helping Hall make his case for Offensive Rookie of the Year.

From @JerseyFinFan: We all know Miami’s secondary is going to be excellent. What about up front on defense? I feel this team is going to get after the QB this year. How well do you see them handling run game? (I know that’s hard to gauge this time of year.)

Edge rusher Christian Wilkins is worth mentioning again. He’ll be at the core of what the front-seven does. So far this preseason, nose tackle Raekwon Davis has played well, with a batted pass and a pressure. The Dolphins feel great about how DE Emmanuel Ogbah is playing. Linebacker Jaelan Phillips has not flashed any big plays, and his progress will be worth monitoring. And we’ve seen nothing from Melvin Ingram in preseason, with the team resting him (a smart choice given his injury history).

I don’t love the two linebackers the Dolphins plan to start on the inside: Elandon Roberts and Jerome Baker. There are definitely stouter pairings of ILBs around the league. These two might just be the weakest link on defense for Miami in 2022.

From @_JakeTHamilton: What do you think the Patriots will do with their extra cap money once the roster is finalized? It’s not enough to make a big splash, but provides them with a little wiggle room to do something. Thanks!

The Patriots might want to add another tight end, a position that should prove extremely important in the new offense. New England has Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith, but past them, the Patriots need depth. Tight end Devin Asiasi has been OK, but the team can easily find upgrades around the league.

New England clearly wants to let its younger players shine at linebacker. So while I’m not sure if the Patriots have the talent they need in those spots, Belichick has thrown a lot of draft value at linebacker. The plan is clearly to give the spotlight to Josh UcheAnfernee Jennings and others.

Prior to joining FOX Sports as the 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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