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AFC East 2022 NFL Draft Preview: Current projected starting lineups, biggest remaining needs and ideal draft targets

Pullman, Washington, USA; USC Trojans wide receiver Drake London (15) celebrates a first down against the Washington State Cougars in the second half at Gesa Field at Martin Stadium. The Trojans won 45-14. Mandatory Credit: James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

The AFC East can be split into three tiers: The Buffalo Bills, the current favorites to make it out of the AFC, stand atop the conference in Tier 1. The New England Patriots and Miami Dolphins fall into Tier 2 as playoff hopefuls in what figures to be an ultra-competitive conference. The New York Jets find themselves alone in Tier 3 as a team just looking to build some momentum and gain confidence in Zach Wilson at quarterback.

Team Odds to make playoffs in 2022 (Draftkings)
Buffalo Bills -550
New England Patriots +135
Miami Dolphins +135
New York Jets +900

The Dolphins have wasted no time pushing their chips into the middle to acquire proven veterans like Terron Armstead and Tyreek Hill to surround Tua Tagovailoa at quarterback. As a result, they don’t own a single top-100 selection in this year’s draft.

The Jets fall on the other end of the spectrum, with five top-70 picks to bolster their roster. It’s two different strategies to accomplish the same goal — to return to the playoffs for the first time in five-plus years.

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Buffalo Bills

Effective cap space (Over the Cap): -$3.2 million
Picks in the 2022 NFL Draft: 25, 57, 89, 130, 168, 185, 204, 232

Projected starters on offense
Position Player 2021 PFF grade rank 2022 cap hit
QB Josh Allen 3 / 32 $16.4M
RB Devin Singletary 34 / 62 $2.8M
WR Stefon Diggs 12 / 115 $17.9M
WR Gabriel Davis 10 / 115 $1.1M
SWR Jamison Crowder 76 / 115 $2.0M
TE Dawson Knox 33 / 70 $2.7M
LT Dion Dawkins 10 / 38 $12.7M
LG Rodger Saffold 15 / 36 $4.2M
C Mitch Morse 23 / 38 $8.0M
RG ?
RT Spencer Brown 29 / 44 $1.1M

Even with Emmanuel Sanders departure via free agency and Cole Beasley’s release, Buffalo still has plenty of firepower offensively.

Gabriel Davis is expected to take on a larger role after putting up over 200 receiving yards and four touchdowns in the Bills’ final game of the 2021 season, and Crowder steps in as the presumed starting slot receiver for Beasley. The Bills also added O.J. Howard in free agency to beef up their tight end group.

The only real starting question mark on offense — outside of a potential early-draft addition at running back — is the right guard position. Buffalo decided to match the four-year offer sheet Ryan Bates (66.3 PFF grade in 2021) signed with the Chicago Bears, so he joins Cody Ford (46.5) and Ike Boettger (59.8) in competition for the starting spot opposite the soon-to-be 34-year-old Saffold.

The Bills could still stand to add a young guard, as Saffold profiles as a short-term starting solution and there are no clear-cut starters behind him on the depth chart.

Projected starters on defense
Position Player 2021 PFF grade rank 2022 cap hit
DI DaQuan Jones 34 / 109 $3.6M
DI Ed Oliver 23 / 109 $6.3M
ED Von Miller 3 / 108 $5.2M
ED Greg Rousseau 28 / 108 $2.6M
LB Tremaine Edmunds 61 / 87 $12.7M
LB Matt Milano 19 / 87 $4.9M
CB Tre’Davious White 43 / 116 $16.4M
CB ?
SCB Taron Johnson 25 / 116 $4.5M
S Micah Hyde 5 / 92 $5.7M
S Jordan Poyer 12 / 92 $10.8M

Buffalo lost some pieces on the defensive line, but they wasted no time in replenishing those ranks with Jones, Miller and Tim Settle. They have depth up front, particularly on the edge with A.J. Epenesa, Shaq Lawson and Boogie Basham behind the starters listed above. The Bills’ starting linebacker tandem of Edmunds and Milano remains intact, as well.

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Cornerback is the biggest area of need on defense after three-year starter Levi Wallace walked in free agency to sign a two-year deal with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Dane Jackson (53.7 PFF coverage grade in 2021) is the favorite to start across from White after he filled in for him over the second half of last season. It’s a position that Buffalo should be looking to add additional starting competition and depth.

Ideal draft fit for biggest need: CB Kaiir Elam, Florida

The PFF Draft Guide highlights a press-zone scheme as the best fit for Elam, and that matches up well with Buffalo. The Bills ranked top-10 league-wide in press coverage looks across a diverse collection of coverages. At 6-foot-2 with sub 4.4 speed, Elam has the size and speed combination teams are looking for at the position. He had a down year from a grading standpoint in 2021 — due in part to seven penalties in coverage — but Elam earned PFF coverage grades above 80.0 in each of his first two seasons at Florida.

With the Bills deciding to bring back Bates and Boettger at guard, cornerback vaults to the top of their needs list. Elam fills that need while still providing good value at Pick 25.

New England Patriots

Effective cap space (Over the Cap): $3.2 million
Picks in the 2022 NFL Draft: 21, 54, 85, 127, 170, 201, 211

Projected starters on offense
Position Player 2021 PFF grade rank 2022 cap hit
QB Mac Jones 11 / 32 $3.5M
RB Damien Harris 3 / 62 $1.2M
WR Kendrick Bourne 21 / 115 $6.4M
WR ?
SWR Jakobi Meyers 32 / 115 $4.0M
TE Hunter Henry 10 / 70 $15.0M
LT Isaiah Wynn 17 / 38 $10.4M
LG ?
C David Andrews 5 / 38 $6.4M
RG Michael Onwenu N/A $0.9M
RT Trent Brown 15 / 44 $4.5M

There are a lot of positives to take away from Jones’ rookie season at quarterback, but there are still some questions about who will be surrounding him in 2022.

The Patriots spent big money to beef up their receiving corps last offseason. Two of those signings — Nelson Agholor and Jonnu Smith — are noticeably absent from the projected lineup above. New England utilized 12 personnel on just 14% of their offensive snaps (27th in the NFL) and Smith was a clear second fiddle to Henry. Meanwhile, Agholor put up fewer than 500 receiving yards in the first year on his two-year, $22 million deal and the Patriots have shown interest in adding veteran wide receiver help to replace Agholor via trade. New England needs a No. 1 to pair with Bourne and Meyers.

Guard is the other clear area of need. The Patriots lost both of their starting guards from last season — Ted Karras to the Bengals in free agency and Shaq Mason to the Buccaneers via trade. Onwenu should be the favorite to step back into his natural right guard position after playing musical chairs through his first few years in the league, but that still leaves a hole on the left side. James Ferentz is the current favorite to fill it.

Projected starters on defense
Position Player 2021 PFF grade rank 2022 cap hit
DI Christian Barmore 45 / 109 $1.9M
DI Davon Godchaux 42 / 109 $10.3M
ED Matthew Judon 66 / 108 $16.5M
ED ?
LB Ja’Whaun Bentley 23 / 87 $2.4M
LB ?
CB Jalen Mills 34 / 116 $6.1M
CB ?
SCB Jonathan Jones N/A $7.7M
S Adrian Phillips 8 / 92 $3.2M
S Kyle Dugger 31 / 92 $2.3M
S Devin McCourty 14 / 92 $5.8M

The Patriots are one of the trickier teams to narrow down a starting lineup for, hence the structure here with six defensive backs and three safeties. All of Phillips, Dugger and McCourty should see plenty of snaps, just like they did last season. And Jones figures to return to the starting slot role after a season-ending injury in 2021.

Cornerback remains arguably the biggest hole on the Patriots’ roster, though. Jalen Mills is the de facto No. 1 option with J.C. Jackson leaving town. Terrance Mitchell and the now un-retired Malcolm Butler are starting options outside, but that’s far from an exciting group for a team that wants to play a lot of man coverage.

The front seven has plenty of options, but there are still some starting questions. Does Mack Wilson take on a big role after the Patriots traded Chase Winovich for him? Who steps forward from the group of Josh Uche, Ronnie Perkins and Anfernee Jennings on the edge to earn more snaps? It wouldn’t be surprising to see the Patriots go defensive line or linebacker early.

Ideal draft fit for biggest need: LB Devin Lloyd, Utah

The Patriots could go a number of different ways with their first-round selection in this year’s draft. They could target speed at wide receiver in the form of Jameson Williams or a starting option at guard like Zion Johnson. Maybe New England will add a starting cornerback option like Kaiir Elam instead.

Lloyd makes a lot of sense as the top option if available, though. His ability to play in space in coverage and add value as a pass rusher on blitzes is the kind of skill set that the Patriots value at linebacker. Lloyd earned 80-plus PFF grades as a run defender, coverage defender and pass rusher in 2021 at Utah.

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Miami Dolphins

Effective cap space (Over the Cap): $13.4 million
Picks in the 2022 NFL Draft: 102, 125, 158, 225, 248

Projected starters on offense
Position Player 2021 PFF grade rank 2022 cap hit
QB Tua Tagovailoa 23 / 32 $8.3M
RB ?
WR Tyreek Hill 6 / 115 $6.2M
WR Jaylen Waddle 18 / 115 $6.2M
TE Mike Gesicki 21 / 70 $10.9M
TE Durham Smythe 47 / 70 $2.8M
LT Terron Armstead 14 / 38 TBD
LG Connor Williams 4 / 36 $5.7M
C ?
RG ?
RT ?

Miami dumped a lot of resources into adding talent — Hill, Armstead, Williams, Cedrick Wilson, Chase Edmonds, Raheem Mostert and Alec Ingold among others — around Tagovailoa in a make-or-break season. There is high-end talent and depth now at receiver with potential trade chip DeVante Parker and Wilson not listed among the starters.

The right side of the offensive line is where the most questions remain, but that isn’t necessarily for a lack of options. Austin Jackson, Robert Hunt, Liam Eichenberg and Solomon Kindley will duke it out for the starting right guard and tackle spots with Michael Dieter projected as the starting center as of now.

Projected starters on defense
Position Player 2021 PFF grade rank 2022 cap hit
DI Christian Wilkins 6 / 109 $4.9M
DI Raekwon Davis 109 / 109 $1.5M
DI Zach Sieler 3 / 109 $2.6M
ED Emmanuel Ogbah 20 / 108 $11.4M
ED ?
LB Jerome Baker 34 / 87 $9.7M
LB Elandon Roberts 44 / 87 $2.8M
CB Xavien Howard 23 / 116 $16.4M
CB Byron Jones 47 / 116 $5.9M
SCB Nik Needham 46 / 116 $4.0M
S Jevon Holland 4 / 92 $2.0M
S Brandon Jones 82 / 92 $1.3M

The Dolphins ran it back for the most part with a defense that has ranked sixth in EPA allowed per play over the last two seasons. They could potentially look to make an upgrade at linebacker or add another body on the interior defensive line, but the starting group is largely set.

2021 first-round pick Jaelan Phillips and Andrew Van Ginkel should both see snaps in the starting edge slot across from Ogbah — the lone question mark on the table above.

Ideal draft fit for biggest need: C Luke Fortner, Kentucky

The Dolphins are in an interesting position without a draft pick until the final five selections of Day 2. Fortner has started at all three interior offensive line positions over the course of his collegiate career, but he’s coming off a career-high 85.1 PFF grade in 2021 after making the switch to center. This selection would continue to bolster what has been one of the worst offensive lines in the NFL for several years and provide a potential starting alternative to Deiter at center in 2022.

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New York Jets

Effective cap space (Over the Cap): $3.9 million
Picks in the 2022 NFL Draft: 4, 10, 35, 38, 69, 111, 117, 146, 163

Projected starters on offense
Position Player 2021 PFF grade rank 2022 cap hit
QB Zach Wilson 29 / 32 $8.0M
RB Michael Carter 26 / 62 $1.0M
WR Corey Davis 55 / 115 $13.7M
WR ?
SWR Elijah Moore 45 / 115 $2.0M
TE C.J. Uzomah 34 / 70 $3.4M
LT ?
LG Laken Tomlinson 6 / 36 $5.4M
C Connor McGovern 9 / 38 $10.3M
RG Alijah Vera-Tucker 16 / 36 (at LG) $3.6M
RT ?

The Jets haven’t been shy in their pursuit of top wide receiver targets via trade, whether that be Amari Cooper, Tyreek Hill or Calvin Ridley. Their failure to bring in any of them points a giant sign to the idea that they’ll likely be chasing that wide receiver to pair with Davis and Moore early in the 2022 NFL Draft.

The only other real starting uncertainty is whether it’s George Fant or Mekhi Becton that flips over to right tackle. The honeymoon phase is over for Becton as he enters his third season with just over 700 offensive snaps under his belt due to injury.

Projected starters on defense
Position Player 2021 PFF grade rank 2022 cap hit
DI Quinnen Williams 37 / 109 $10.6M
DI Sheldon Rankins 95 / 109 $6.2M
ED Carl Lawson N/A $15.3M
ED John Franklin-Myers 16 / 108 $12.5M
LB C.J. Mosley 76 / 87 $17.5M
LB ?
CB D.J. Reed Jr. 8 / 116 $4.6M
CB ?
SCB Michael Carter II 98 / 116 $0.9M
S Jordan Whitehead 27 / 92 $4.2M
S ?

New York added some starting pieces in the secondary during free agency with Reed and Whitehead, but they still need more talent at both cornerback and safety. Lamarcus Joyner and Ashtyn Davis will be competing for snaps at free safety with Bryce Hall and Brandin Echols serving as the incumbents at cornerback.

There’s really not a position that the Jets can’t address on defense. They could use a bigger run-stuffing defensive tackle, an impact pass rusher off the edge and additional competition at off-ball linebacker.

Ideal draft fit for biggest need: WR Drake London, USC

London has been lumped into the jump ball, contested-catch wide receiver who can’t separate by some. Just because London is dominant at the catch point and in contested catch situations doesn’t mean he can’t separate, though. London is an excellent route runner who can win in a number of ways. He was averaging over 3.5 receiving yards per route run prior to his injury last season.

There are many worse ways to come out of the first round than with Kayvon Thibodeaux or Ikem Ekwonu and London if that’s how things break for New York.

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