Are Patriots Worst Team In AFC East After Aaron Rodgers Trade?

Can New England defy expectations in a loaded division?


Apr 25, 2023

Despite being saddled with one of the NFL’s worst starting quarterbacks, the New York Jets finished just one game back of the New England Patriots and two games out of a playoff spot in 2022.

Their defense is one of the league’s best. They’re flush with young talent at the offensive skill positions, headlined by 2022 draft gems Garrett Wilson at receiver and Breece Hall at running back. They have a smart head coach in Robert Saleh who seems to know what he’s doing.

Give the 2022 Jets even a passable QB, and there’s a very good chance they would have at least made the postseason, if not been a legitimate threat in the AFC.

Well, they’re now about to add one of the greatest of all time.

More than a month after Aaron Rodgers stated his intention to play for the Jets this season, New York finally agreed to terms Monday on a long-awaited trade with the Green Bay Packers that will bring the four-time NFL MVP to the AFC East. The Patriots now will see Rodgers twice each season after previously facing him only quadrennially.

The Jets reportedly acquired the 15th and 170th overall picks in the 2023 NFL Draft along with Rodgers in exchange for picks No. 13, 42 and 207 this year, plus a conditional 2024 second-rounder that would become a first if Rogers plays at least 65% of their offensive snaps this season. So, as long as the veteran QB stays reasonably healthy, Green Bay’s return likely will be a second-round pick and a slightly higher Round 1 selection later this week, as well as a first-rounder next year. That’s a substantial price to pay for a player who, quite frankly, did not perform at an elite level in 2022.

Rodgers ranked in the bottom half of the NFL in most passing metrics last season, including a 39.3 QBR that was seventh-worst among starters. He threw more interceptions (12) than he had in any season since 2008. His passer rating was the worst of his career. His yards-per-attempt average was his second-worst. His completion rate, fifth-worst. The Packers, coming off three consecutive 13-3 seasons, nosedived to 8-9 and missed the playoffs after losing at home to the Lions in Week 18.

There’s no guarantee Rodgers will arrive in East Rutherford, N.J., and instantly elevate the Jets to Super Bowl contender status — or even to the first or second rung in a loaded AFC East. But even a 39-year-old, potentially diminished version of the Packers icon should be an exponential upgrade over Zach Wilson, who was so ineffective and unpopular in New York that he was demoted to third string less than two years after being drafted No. 2 overall.

That demotion came after Wilson went 9-for-22 for 77 yards in a 10-3 loss in New England. The Jets held the Patriots to one total offensive touchdown over their two meetings this season but lost both, thanks in large part to Wilson’s struggles. (He threw three interceptions in the first as the Pats won 22-17.)

Patriots head coach Bill Belichick clearly still holds Rodgers in high regard.

“Rodgers is just too good,” Belichick said after the Packers knocked off New England in overtime last October. “He made some throws that only Rodgers can make. We had pretty good coverage on some of those, and he’s just too smart, too good, too accurate, and in the end, he got us.”

Barring an injury, extreme regression or (very possible) behind-the-scenes blowup, Rodgers should deliver the Jets at least a few extra wins in 2023. Elsewhere in the division, the top-dog Buffalo Bills still have Josh Allen and a highly talented roster, and the Miami Dolphins, who looked legit when Tua Tagovailoa was healthy last season, made moves to beef up their defense, including the hiring of respected coordinator Vic Fangio and a blockbuster trade for cornerback Jalen Ramsey.

And then there are the Patriots, who made offseason improvements of their own.

From a coaching perspective, they’re undeniably better off after cutting bait on the Matt Patricia/Joe Judge experiment and hiring new offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien and O-line coach Adrian Klemm. They seem to be stronger roster-wise, too. New England made several offensive signings that, if all goes to plan, should be upgrades (JuJu Smith-Schuster in for Jakobi Meyers; Mike Gesicki replacing Jonnu Smith; Riley Reiff and Calvin Anderson bringing some short-term stability at tackle) and brought back nearly every member of a defense that ranked third in Football Outsiders’ DVOA last season, save for retired safety Devin McCourty. Belichick and company will have another opportunity to add talent when the draft kicks off Thursday night.

On paper, this Patriots team is better than the one that went 8-9 last season and finished a game back of a playoff spot, extending the franchise’s streak of years without a postseason victory to four. But will it be enough to make a difference in a division that now might be the NFL’s best? Oddsmakers aren’t buying that.

A day after terms of the Rodgers trade were reported, FanDuel Sportsbook had New England a distant fourth to win the AFC East at +750, well behind third-place Miami (+290). Only Arizona, Las Vegas, Washington and Houston had longer odds to win their respective divisions. The Patriots also were the only AFC East team with plus odds to make the postseason (+235) and the only one with an over/under win total below nine (7.5). Their +5500 odds to win the Super Bowl are their longest since 2001, per Pro-Football-Reference.

Preseason odds say more about the league-wide perception of a team than that team’s actual chances of competing. But that perception is that the Patriots currently are the worst team in their division, and it’s not especially close. Also, with Rodgers now joining Allen and Tagovailoa — who played at an MVP level in the first half of last season and is 4-0 in his career against New England — many would say the Patriots have the division’s weakest starting quarterback, be it Mac Jones or Bailey Zappe.

This is a foreign spot for the Patriots, who have not finished last in the AFC East since 2000 and, even in their post-Tom Brady period of QB uncertainty, always had an overmatched rival like Wilson or Sam Darnold to punch down at. They’ll enter the season as decided underdogs in the division they once dominated.

Thumbnail photo via Jeff Hanisch/USA TODAY Sports Images
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