Top 10 Players In The AFC East Entering 2016

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The AFC East has produced some of the top players in the NFL in recent years, who will the top player in the division be in 2016?

Jun 7, 2016; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) directs receivers during mini camp at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

The AFC East is home to some of the top talents in the NFL. The division is home to the New England Patriots – a team that has made the AFC Championship game the past five seasons. With offensive talents such as Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski, Jarvis Landry and defensive superstars such as Darrelle Revis, Muhammad Wilkerson and Ndamukong Suh – the division has some of the elite players in the entire league.

While there are a huge number of talents in the AFC East, the New England Patriots have won the division 12 or the past 13 seasons – only missing out in 2008 when Tom Brady was down for the season with a knee injury. This season, the New York Jets, Miami Dolphins and Buffalo Bills have loaded their defenses with talent, hoping to unseat the defending AFC East champion Patriots.

Who is the best player in the AFC East entering 2016? Which talents will lead their team to a successful campaign? Can any of these teams or players unseat the New England Patriots? Find out who the top-10 players in the AFC East are entering the 2016 NFL season.

Jan 16, 2016; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler (21) celebrates from the field against the Kansas City Chiefs during the second half in the AFC Divisional round playoff game at Gillette Stadium. The Patriots won 20-27. Mandatory Credit: Stew Milne-USA TODAY Sports

10) CB Malcolm Butler – New England Patriots

The New England Patriots decided to move on from Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner in 2015 in no small part because of their belief in Malcolm Butler’s progression. The man who is known for making arguably the most important interception in Super Bowl history proved that he was worth the risk, and looks to build on that in 2016.

Butler is an aggressive, strong cornerback who has all the skills needed to play press-man coverage. He and Logan Ryan did a terrific job filling very big shoes in 2015, but Butler has the inside track to take the next step in 2016. He will be playing for his next contract, and to prove he is more than a one-year wonder.

Butler finished with 17 pass defenses and two interceptions in 2015. Those 17 pass defenses were more than Richard Sherman, Aqib Talib and Darrelle Revis. While those players may still be a step above Butler overall, but he is quickly proving that he has the skills to be considered at that high level.

If Butler can take that next step in 2016, which many believe he will, he could move way up the list of top players in the AFC East and the NFL.

9) DT Ndamukong Suh – Miami Dolphins

After inking a huge-money contract ahead of the 2015 season, many thought Suh’s 2015 season was a disappointment. While he was not the most dominant player in the AFC East, or even on the Miami Dolphins roster, Suh still finished with his second highest tackles total and six sacks.

With one year under his belt in Miami, Suh should start to show some more of his dominant pass rush form in 2016. He still has the explosive step and disruptive push of the pocket. The Dolphins will also be relying on him to make up some of the production that they lost when Olivier Vernon left and while Cameron Wake recovers from injury.

The increased pressure could be a catalyst to a resurgent season of dominant form. It could also lead to a lackluster season. Either way, it is a huge season for Suh and the Dolphins need him to become one of the top players in the AFC East – not just one of the top names.

Dec 27, 2015; East Rutherford, NJ, USA; New York Jets defensive end Sheldon Richardson (91) sacks New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) during the fourth quarter at MetLife Stadium. New York Jets defeat the New England Patriots 26-20 in OT. Mandatory Credit: Jim O

8) DT Sheldon Richardson – New York Jets

There are many who believe Sheldon Richardson is on his way to becoming one of the top defensive linemen in the NFL after three great seasons to start his career. Richardson is part of one of the best defensive lines in the NFL with Muhammad Wilkerson and Leonard Williams lining up with him.

Richardson is a disruptive force with a terrific burst off the line of scrimmage. He has great leg drive and pushes the pocket quite well. He is also dominant against the run, holding up and defeating blocks on a consistent basis. He is one of the better 3-4 defensive linemen in the entire NFL, not just the AFC East.

He will be suspended for the first game of 2016 after playing in only 11 games in 2015, but his progression as a more complete player has been noticeable over his three seasons. While he is not making as many tackles, he is doing a better job holding up blocks and a better job of getting in the backfield. He could be the next Jets player to get a big-money extension, and could be forcing Muhammad Wilkerson off the roster. He will have to have a big 2016 if he wants to do that.

Dec 27, 2015; East Rutherford, NJ, USA; New England Patriots outside linebacker Jamie Collins (91) returns recovered fumble for touchdown during the third quarter at MetLife Stadium. New York Jets defeat the New England Patriots 26-20 in OT. Mandatory Credit: Jim O

7) LB Jamie Collins – New England Patriots

The New England Patriots have a two linebacker system that has emerged as a dominant duo in the AFC East. Jamie Collins and Dont’a Hightower work extremely well in Bill Belichick’s system, with Collins rising to the top as one of the most unique and dangerous defenders in the AFC East and the NFL.

Collins long, muscular frame and freakish athletic talent make him dangerous in run coverage, pass coverage and pass rushing situations. Even with all of his talents on display, Collins appears to still have room to grow as a linebacker.

He finished 2015 with a career-high 5.5 sacks and 6 pass defenses – all while missing four games with a mystery illness. He missed those four games and took some time to get back into the flow of play – making his progress even more impressive. When he gets another season of full health, Collins’ development should catapult him to the elite linebacker talk.

His ability to cover tight ends and running backs make him a rare coverage linebacker that can also bring power and speed in the pass game. He did struggle in the AFC Championship game in coverage, but showed vast improvements throughout the rest of 2015. Come 2016, expect Collins to be the best linebacker in the AFC East, and be in the conversation for one of the best linebackers in the NFL.

Dec 6, 2015; East Rutherford, NJ, USA; New York Jets defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson (96) and nose tackle Damon Harrison (94) celebrates beating the New York Giants in overtime at MetLife Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

6) DE Muhammad Wilkerson – New York Jets

There is some question around whether or not Muhammad Wilkerson will report to the Jets this season due to his displeasure with being under the Franchise Tag. Whether or not he reports does not change how talented Wilkerson is and his standing amongst talents in the AFC East.

Wilkerson is part of one of the more dangerous, dominant defensive lines in the entire NFL, anchoring the crew that includes Sheldon Richardson and Leonard Williams. They are the catalyst for Todd Bowles’ defensive system, and Wilkerson is the mold that teams look for when needing a 3-4 defensive end.

He is strong, quick, disruptive and has terrific hands. He collected a career-high 12 sacks in 2015, proving he is more than just a run-downs player. He showed a step up in his pass rush ability, getting up field a bit more while maintaining his dominance at the line of scrimmage in the run game.

Jets fans are hoping Wilkerson and the Jets will find a way to get him on the field, if they do not they will be without one of the more dominant and important defenders in the AFC East.

Dec 27, 2015; Miami Gardens, FL, USA; Miami Dolphins wide receiver Jarvis Landry (14) against the Indianapolis Colts during the second half at Sun Life Stadium. The Colts won 18-12. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

5) WR Jarvis Landry – Miami Dolphins

Jarvis Landry emerged as the go-to option for Ryan Tannehill in 2015. He finished 4th in the NFL with 110 receptions and did so with nearly no help from other receivers on the roster. He finished with 63 more receptions than the next leading receiver – which was running back Lamar Miller. Landry finished with 67 receptions more than the next leading wide receiver, Richard Matthews. Both of these players are now gone via free agency.

This makes Landry’s role even more important, a role he is more than willing to embrace. Landry should have a little more help after the Dolphins drafted Leonte Carroo and DeVante Parker has a full healthy season, but Landry’s role is still massive.

Landry is a precise route runner who has the speed and toughness everywhere on the field. He is not afraid to run routes over the middle, but can also go over the top of a defense. He has very strong hands and makes the hardest catches look easy. With more help, Landry’s touchdown numbers should rise – making him a more complete threat. His skill is undeniable, but the Dolphins need him to be the top receiver in the AFC East if they want to have a successful offense in 2016.

Aug 20, 2015; Cleveland, OH, USA; Buffalo Bills defensive tackle Marcell Dareus (99) celebrates after a sack during the second quarter of a preseason game against the Cleveland Browns at FirstEnergy Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

4) DT Marcell Dareus – Buffalo Bills

The Buffalo Bills had high expectations going into the 2015 season – expectations that were not exactly met. They will look to win behind a strong defense again in 2016, led by Marcell Dareus. Dareus is coming off a down season, totaling only two sacks – a career low.

The 6-3, 331-pound defensive tackle is an explosive, disruptive force on the inside when he is at his best. He has a quick first step and great strength to hold up against the run or push the pocket against the pass. It appeared there was some disfunction in Buffalo in 2015, but the addition of Rob Ryan and the subtraction of Mario Williams the Bills are hoping for a more motivated and attacking defensive line in 2016.

Dareus benefits from Kyle Williams next to him and Jerry Hughes to his outside, but when he is at his best he is one of the top linemen and top overall players in the AFC East.

Dec 19, 2015; Arlington, TX, USA; New York Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis (24) makes an interception during the first quarter against the Dallas Cowboys at AT&T Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

3) CB Darrelle Revis – New York Jets

Did Darrelle Revis have his best season in 2015? No. It may have been Revis’ worst season that he played the full season. Some think Revis may be slowing down as he goes over 30, others think it may have just been a “hangover” after winning the Super Bowl with the New England Patriots the year before.

No matter how one looks at it, Revis still has all the skills and experience to be one of the top players in the AFC East.

This high of a ranking could be projecting based on reputation, but Revis has the opportunity to prove his dominant play early and often. Revis will be covering the likes of A.J. Green, Sammy Watkins, Jeremy Maclin, Doug Baldwin and Antonio Brown in the first five weeks of the season. His ability to play aggressive man coverage forces quarterbacks to throw away from him.

If they try to go after Revis, he has shown that he has the skills and veteran tricks to slow down receivers without getting flagged and making plays on the ball. He has terrific footwork and fluid hips. His skills are undeniable, and if he rebounds he should have a resurgent 2016 season.

Jan 16, 2016; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski (87) celebrates after scoring a touchdown against the Kansas City Chiefs during the third quarter in the AFC Divisional round playoff game at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

2) TE Rob Gronkowski – New England Patriots

In his six seasons of NFL experience Rob Gronkowski has become one of the most players in the entire league. Not only is Gronkowski one of the most important and dominant players in the AFC East, he has become one of the most important and dominant tight ends in NFL history.

The 27-year-old Gronkowski is coming off a 2015 season with 72 receptions for 1,176 yards and 11 touchdowns – leading the Patriots in all three categories. He is big, strong, fast and has terrific hands. Gronkowski lines up all over the field – creating mismatches from inline, flex and wide positions.

Gronkowski will also have some help in 2016 with the new addition of Martellus Bennett. This will be the first time since 2012 that Gronkowski will have a counterpart that draws attention from defenses. Bennett’s presence should get Gronkowski more single coverage, something no team really wants to do.

His ability to get free over the middle of the field and in the end zone make him one of the most difficult covers in the NFL. He also does a terrific job “uncovering” himself – jumping over or overpowering defenders to make contested catches. He is also one of the best blocking tight ends in the NFL, making him a complete player. His dominance makes him arguably the most important player in the AFC East. There is just one exception, that being the man who gets the ball to Gronkowski.

Jan 16, 2016; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) throws a pass during the second quarter against the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC Divisional round playoff game at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

1) QB Tom Brady – New England Patriots

The top player in the AFC East might stake the claim as the best player in the AFC or the NFL (depending on who is ranking them) – Tom Brady. Brady is entering his 17th season in the NFL, and is staring down a possible four-game suspension due to ongoing litigation from DeflateGate.

Suspension or not, Brady is still one of the top players in the NFL. Brady is coming off a 2015 season with 4,770 passing yards, 36 touchdowns and just seven interceptions. Those stats were good enough to finish 3rd in passing yards and lead the NFL in passing touchdowns.

Even at 38 years old, Brady is still at the top of his game. He will also have a full complement of receiving options with Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola, Dion Lewis and Rob Gronkowski all returning along with the new additions of Chris Hogan and Martellus Bennett.

Not only will Brady have the full complement of receivers, but he will have a fully healthy offensive line – something he was lacking at the end of 2015. Nate Solder will be back to protect Brady’s back, allowing the rest of the line to slot into their usual places.

It is difficult to know whether or not Brady’s suspension will be overturned, or if he will miss the first four games of the 2016 season. Either way, Brady’s skills, command of the field and ability to elevate players around him make him the most important, and best player in the AFC East entering the 2016 NFL season.

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