The player under the most pressure for every NFL team: AFC East (7/12/19)

It’s hard to put a perfect definition on “pressure” in the NFL world, much less decide who is under it the most. Sure, the quarterback is a leading candidate, given the nature of the game. His performance week-in and week-out is usually a good indicator of how good a team is. That comes with an enormous amount of pressure.

But the week-to-week outcome doesn’t always indicate the pressure on the players. Does Tom Brady feel a ton of pressure right now? Sure, he’ll use the doubters — about his age, his performance and his team—as fuel, but he doesn’t have a ton to be worried about. There’s no one who he needs to prove wrong (or right), no great pressure on him to prove anything(he already has; check out his six rings) or anyone coming for his spot on the depth chart. He doesn’t need to live up to a big contract or step up to help his team become a contender. He skipped OTAs because he knows how stable his position is and how stable of a franchise he has helped build.

There are players in contract years. There are youngsters who need to progress and veterans who need to prove they’re still effective. There are players battling for roles. Pressure is felt in a variety of ways and comes from a variety of sources. Here’s who’s feeling it the most as we head toward the start of training camp.

New England Patriots: Sony Michel, RB

Last season, the New England offense ran the ball on 45.09 percent of its plays. That was the highest number for the Patriots since 2010 and was seventh-highest in the league last year. Michel was a big part of that, leading the team by a wide margin in carries (209) and yards (934) despite playing in just 13 games and starting just eight.

The Patriots, given Rob Gronkowski’s retirement and Brady’s age, will likely continue to trend in the direction of running the ball at a high rate. Michel, after a very good debut season, has more to prove in his sophomore campaign. He must prove he can stay healthy after missing the season opener and two midseason games, both times due to knee issues. He has to continue to progress as a runner, especially in the red zone. Michel had the sixth-most red zone carries in the NFL last year but finished with just the 11th-most yards. With Gronkowski no longer in the fold, Michel must be a more reliable option when the field shortens. Though the Patriots have James White and Rex Burkhead to fill the pass-catching back role, Michel improving in that department wouldn’t hurt.

In Gronkowski, Cordarrelle Patterson and Josh Gordon, the Patriots lost some top physical skill this offseason. Michel was New England’s first first-round running back selection since 2006. In his second year, he’ll look to prove it was a smart decision.

Other options: Old friend Ben Watson was brought in to help assuage the loss of Gronkowski. Then he was promptly suspended four games, so Matt LaCosse, who had some nice moments in Denver last year, will shoulder that responsibility to start the season. N’Keal Harry—the only first-round wide receiver the Patriots have drafted under Belichick—will also be counted on heavily in his debut. Michael Bennett needs to provide a strong presence off the edge after the team let rising star Trey Flowers walk.

New York Jets: Le’Veon Bell, RB

Who says running backs are a dying breed? The first two teams we review have their running back as the player under the most scrutiny. The Jets are in the exact opposite boat as the Patriots—young quarterback, new coach, poor recent history—but both teams need their running backs to play well to help their quarterbacks: Michel limits the physical toll on the aging Brady and balances the quick-strike offense while Bell helps the young Sam Darnold as he develops.

The book on Bell is a long one: He sat out all of last year looking for a better contract and got a big one (though not the biggest one) at four years and $52.5 million in New York. On the field, Bell is a skilled three-down back who can be used in a variety of ways. The issue has been keeping him on the field: He’s played in all 16 games just once in his career and missed 15 games in his three most recent seasons combined due to injury and suspension.

But what Bell can mean to the Jets shouldn’t be understated. He is a terrific running back with outstanding patience, vision and burst through the hole. He catches the ball extremely well and is very tough to tackle in space. He’s a three-time Pro Bowler and two-time All-Pro in five seasons.

Bell can be enormously helpful for Darnold, who had some pretty significant ups and downs in his rookie year. In Bell, Darnold gains a great underneath option who can beat stacked boxes and draw the defense’s attention wherever he goes. Darnold averaged 9.3 intended air yards per throw (per Next Gen Stats), which was fourth-highest in the league. On completions, though, he averaged just 6.5 air yards. The 2.8-yard difference was sixth-largest in the NFL. Bell should help provide balance for a quarterback who looked to throw deep quite often and help him as a short/intermediate passer. The Jets have some nice young pieces. Bell can help them deliver on that promise.

Other options: It’s already been covered, but Darnold’s progression is key. He threw 15 picks, tied for second-most in the NFL. Bell should help, but Darnold has to be better with the ball. Robby Anderson oozes potential but has to find a way to stay on the field in what will be his fourth season. Trumaine Johnson majorly disappointed in his first year of a huge contract. Both he and his team need a bounce-back performance. Due to Bell’s patient running style, offensive line play is a key, meaning veteran free agent acquisition Kelechi Osemele will need to return to his Pro Bowl form. After signing C.J. Mosley this summer, the Jets have high hopes for a talented defense.

Miami Dolphins: Xavien Howard, CB

The Dolphins are in an interesting position. They have a new coach in Brian Flores. They have a new quarterback in Josh Rosen (or Ryan Fitzpatrick). They hope they have some better results.

It would be easy to plug Rosen in as the player most under pressure here. His first two years haven’t gone as planned. He earned the labels of “millennial” and “too smart” after a very good career at UCLA, which may have contributed, somehow, to him falling to 10th overall. He was put on an awful Arizona team that never had much of a chance of being good. Once he took over for Sam Bradford, Rosen found himself with a putrid offensive line, a misused supporting cast and a variety of coordinators. Then in came Kliff Kingsbury, which inevitably led to Kyler Murray, which inevitably led to Rosen’s departure. So now here he is starting over in Miami just one year removed from being a top-10 pick. It’s unprecedented. But the expectations for the Dolphins are low, and if Rosen fails, Fitzpatrick is right behind him, and a 2020 rookie is behind them. In that sense, he’s not under as much pressure.

Howard is the choice here. He just signed a record-setting five-year deal after a sterling season that earned him Pro Bowl and second-team All Pro honors. He led the league with seven interceptions and was simply terrific blanketing opponents’ top targets. He’s going to be in South Beach for the foreseeable future, and he needs to live up to his contract for the long-term health of what could be a multi-year rebuild. With Bobby McCain, Eric Rowe, Minkah Fitzpatrick, T.J. McDonald and Reshad Jones all in the fold at defensive back, Howard leads the team’s best position group.

Other options: DeVante Parker is as talented as he is inconsistent. After some sparring between him and former coach Adam Gase last year, Parker is back in Miami under a new regime after an extension. The former first-round pick has been slowed by inconsistency and injury issues. Nevertheless, the new coaching staff decided he was worth the risk, and Parker, who is just 26, could turn that into a big payday down the road if he puts it all together. Rosen’s situation is far from ideal, but at least it’s a fresh start. It’s time for former first-rounder Laremy Tunsil to step up. After sharing the backfield with Frank Gore, Kenyan Drake will be the feature back in a contract year, which could lead to big things for his future.

Bills: Josh Allen, QB

Allen was drafted as a long-term project, but in the midst of what would become a 47–3 opening week shellacking against the Ravens, the Bills turned to him anyway. His results were middling and showed why the Bills’ original intention—long-term project—was the right one. Allen threw for 10 touchdowns and 12 interceptions in 12 games. He completed just 52.8 percent of his passes. Buffalo’s 16.8 points per game were third-fewest in the NFL. Allen also missed four games with an elbow injury.

Allen has a long way to go—as do the Bills as a whole—and all parties involved know that. But it’s important for the second-year signal-caller to show progress after Buffalo invested significant capital to improve the supporting cast around him, especially up front. Buffalo added an above-average center (Mitch Morse), a potential starting tackle (Ty Nsekhe), three wide receivers (Cole Beasley, John Brown and Andre Roberts), a tight end (Tyler Kroft) and two veteran running backs (T.J. Yeldon and Frank Gore) in free agency alone. The Bills then doubled down on improving the supporting cast with tackle Cody Ford, running back Devin Singletary and tight end Dawson Knox on the second day of the NFL Draft. None of the players listed above are huge names, but that’s 11 new members all brought in with the explicit purpose of building around Allen.

The Bills don’t have to take some glorious gigantic leap to the playoffs this year. They, for the most part, have a very young core, but many of the players they added this offseason are guys who have proved themselves as NFL-caliber starters or important role players. There are several ways Allen can improve, and Buffalo hopes the upgrades around him expedite that process. Allen’s a special physical talent. He finished second among quarterbacks in rushing yards and made some absurd throws behind an oft-overwhelmed offensive line and oft-underwhelming skill position group. His progress in his second year will be a good indicator of whether this team is headed in the right direction with him under center.

Other options: Coming off his least productive NFL season ever, LeSean McCoy finds himself joined by plenty of new and intriguing faces in the running backs room. He has been one of the most productive and reliable running backs in the league for the last decade, but his time could soon be coming to an end. Former Texans first-round pick Kevin Johnson was hit-or-miss in four years in Houston and played in just one game last year due to concussion issues. The Bills have him on a one-year deal that could make or break his career. Ed Oliver was at one point thought of as a potential No. 1 overall pick, but he had an up-and-down junior year. The Bills got him at 9, and he’ll look to make an impact right away. Tremaine Edmunds could be a star in the making.