AFC East Primer

The AFC East has been dominated by the Patriots over the last 4 seasons and the same fate will most likely occur this season. Although the other teams have made some improvements over the course of the offseason, the quarterback position remains a rocky proposition for 2 out of the other 3 teams in the division.

Let’s take a quick look at the division in my last of an 8 part series of divisional primers.

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The Buffalo Bills dispatched Chan Gailey after another disappointing season in western New York. The Bills have not made the playoffs since the music city miracle debacle in 1999, which makes them the only team to have not made the playoffs in the 2000’s.

There has been much instability with regards to the Bills, whether we are talking about coaching, offensive coordinators but generally, the musical chairs philosophy at quarterback has been their undoing. Finally, the Bills addressed their quarterback needs and drafted one who appears to have a lot of potential in E.J. Manuel. Doug Marrone begins his first season as the Bills Head Coach and quite honestly, this is a terrific fit both schematically with the players they have and it also does not hurt that Marrone coached Syracuse previously in the NCAA. Before that, he was offensive coordinator under Sean Payton in New Orleans, so he obviously has good offensive pedigree.

Manuel had to have his knee scoped this preseason, which ended it abruptly, however when he did play, he showed good poise, the ability to command an offense and familiarity with playing under center, which is a rarity for rookie quarterbacks coming in the league. He also displayed terrific accuracy and the ability to take what the defense was giving him by not forcing the football into double coverage. What I loved as well as his ability to run Doug Marrone’s no huddle offense. In fact, his offense resembles the famous “K-Gun” offense that Jim Kelly ran during the Bills glory years of the late 80’s and early 90’s. The difference is that Manuel, unlike Kelly, will not be asked to call most of the plays at the line and it will be slightly more focused on the running game.

The Bills run game features C.J. Spiller who averaged 6.0 yards per carry last year and amassed over 1,200 yards rushing. Spiller is one of the most explosive players in the league and figures to have a bigger presence in both the run game and in the passing game. Of course, Fred Jackson will still be a factor in this offense, however the days of a running back by committee for the Bills are over. This is Spiller’s backfield and expect over 320-340 touches from this season.

Not many talk about the Bills offensive line, especially with the loss of Andy Levitre to Tennessee, but this was a unit that was 10th in the league in fewest sacks allowed last season and helped lead one of the most explosive rushing attacks in the league. Eric Wood is one of the best centers in the league but after him and Kraig Urbik, the unit is inexperience, although talented. The line will need to have another good season, as a lack of protection from the offensive line is one aspect that can derail a rookie quarterback’s season.

Out wide, Stevie Johnson appears to be showing more maturing as he progresses as an NFL player. His 3 straight 1000 yard seasons are impressive but he can take his game to an extra gear. In Doug Marrone’s offense, he will primarily play the slot position, which should amount to more catches for him. He has the ability to create separation and run all the routes needed to be a more than adequate slot receiver.

In terms of wide receiver depth, I absolutely loved the pick of Robert Woods. Forget about the 40 yard times and bench press numbers. From a pure skills standpoint, Woods was the best receiver in the draft. He is a natural hands catcher and runs superb routes. Look for him to be a sleeper rookie of the year candidate.

Keep an eye out on Marquise Goodwin as well, who was a former track athlete at the University of Texas. The former Longhorn came .03 seconds shy of Chris Johnson’s 40-yard dash record time of 4.24, in the 2013 NFL Draft combine. Look for him to be a main fixture in the return game.

Scott Chandler will never lineup in the slot or out wide like many of the games elite hybrid tight ends.  He is however a terrific in-line blocker and his 6-7 frame allows him to be a viable red-zone threat. Pencil him in for 40-50 catches and 6-8 touchdowns as a great safety valve for E.J. Manuel.

The Bills offense will need to protect E.J. Manuel and run the football with authority. The talent is there and Manuel can have the type of season that Joe Flacco had in 2008 when he was a rookie quarterback. He will not be counted on to win football games on his own. With the players around him, he can give the ball to his playmakers in easy situations, which Marrone has the playcalling pedigree to do.

Defensively, the Bills could potentially have one of the better defensive fronts in the league. Marcell Dareus, entering his 3rd season as a former 3rd overall pick is due for a breakout campaign. He has the skill set that you only see from the great interior defensive lineman with the ability to rush the passer, with 5.5 sacks in each of his first two seasons. Once he learns how to play the gaps better, he will be a force. Kyle Williams is a nice interior run stuffer from the 3-technique position. The key is Mario Williams who, as a $100 million man, must provide better production than he did last season. He is paid like an elite pass rusher and he must become that for the Bills to be stout on defense. The rest of the defense is middle of the pack talent wise, although there is some talent at the secondary position with Jairus Byrd, who had 5 interceptions last season and Leodis McKelvin who is a solid corner, albeit, unspectacular. Stephen Gilmore who had a great season at cornerback last season for the Bills will be sidelines for the first 6-8 weeks this season with a wrist injury. Justin Rogers and Ron Brooks will need to step up to fill in for Gilmore’s absence.

The Bills finished yardage wise, as the 11th best defense in the league, however  they were the second worst team against the run allowing upwards of 145 yards per game. The linebacker corps will need to play much better and that is where the front four again much be stellar, despite being inexperienced led by rookie middle linebacker, Kiko Alonson.

Overall, the playoffs, especially in this division, will be a daunting task for the Bills. For now though, the team should settle for an 8-8 season, development of their rookie quarterback and continuing to add young talent to the team.  Doug Whaley is the new general manager,who worked as a personnel director for the Steelers for nearly 10 seasons. Look for the Bills to be a very dangerous team in the next few years.

The Miami Dolphins have embarked not only on a major face lift with a new logo and new digs but they have also made a big splash in the player acquisition department. The biggest splash was the signing of Mike Wallace and then add to that the additions of Brent Grimes, Dannell Ellerbe, Philip Wheeler among others. The addition of Wallace will give Ryan Tannehill a terrific deep threat and should open up plenty of room for the likes of newly acquired Brandon Gibson and the steady Brian Hartline. At training camp, Tannehill was raving about Wallace’s speed but I want to see him continue to make that ascension towards being a complete pass catcher, which means not only making plays from the slot and in motion but overall improving his hands. He seemed bottled up last season, partly due to Todd Haley’s short passing scheme but also because of the absence of Antonio Brown and defenses rolling coverages towards his side. We will see if he can regain that 1,200 yard receiving form.

The key for the Dolphins, as with most teams, will be with the quarterback position and how Ryan Tannehill develops in his second season as a quarterback. We must remember, that he started out as a wide receiver at Texas A&M and went on to transition as a quarterback. He is still quite raw as a quarterback, yet if you look at his season last year, amassing over 3300 yards, he showed a bevy of potential. Tannehill will need to improve on his accuracy and decision-making, like most young quarterbacks but he needs to take more of a leadership role with Jake Long and Reggie Bush gone. He has the talent and his arm strength will be on display for him to throw some big time passes to Wallace. Now let us see if he can grasp the little nuances of the position. He has a good support system with Joe Philbin, who will begin his second season as the head coach of the Dolphins and Mike Sherman who was Tannehill’s former head coach with the Aggies, who also begins his second season as the team’s offensive coordinator.

There has been so much talk about Lamar Miller this offseason and how the departure of Reggie Bush will give him the reigns of the starting running back position. Miller has outperformed Daniel Thomas but he has not blown anyone away during preseason. The keys for any young running back will be how he handles pass protection and picking up the blitz and if he is able to withstand the rigours of a full season. So far, reports appear that his pass protection has been up to par. Ultimately, the Dolphins will rely on Miller for his incredible burst and explosiveness. He has the potential to be a 1,300 yard back so we will see how he will fair. He is definitely spearheaded by a very good run-blocking line that features Mike Pouncey and Richie Incognito.

Defensively, the Dolphins defensive line is one that cannot be taken likely. Cameron Wake, as a pure pass rusher, is one of the best players in the league with 14, 8.5 and 15 sacks seasons over the past 3 seasons. He continues to improve and show more facets of his game as he gets more accustomed to the NFL game. Randy Starks and Paul Solilai provide a great interior presence to keep Wake from being double teamed.  As a unit, they were 7th in the league in sacks. With the addition and trading up in the draft to select Dion Jordan, the Dolphins pass rush could be absolutely scary. However, young pass rushers like Jordan very rarely start right away as they need to get acclimated with gap control and learning how to stop the run. However, you better believe the ‘Phins will let Jordan run wild on obvious passing downs. Athletically, he has scary talent.

The Linebacker corps gets a tremendous boost with Dannell Elerbe, who was one of the defensive MVP’s of the Ravens during the regular season and playoffs of last season. Philip Wheeler is a young linebacker who can cover many of the athletic backs and tight ends while having the ability to move from sideline to sideline.

As mentioned previously, the secondary gets a much needed boost with Brent Grimes, who returns from a torn achillies tendon in 2012. Grimes had a terrific 2010 season in which he recorded 87 tackles and 5 interceptions to reach the Pro Bowl. Consider him one of the most underrated corners in the league.

Chris Clemons and Reshad Jones are a strong safety duo who can control the running game and are decent against the pass. They are tremendous tacklers as well. The key will be to find a reliable and consistent corner opposite of Grimes and right now, Dimitri Patterson or Nick Carroll appear to be the front runners.

Miami struggled against the pass as a bottom 6 defense but were generally a middle of the pack team against the run. The additions that they made would make me believe they can be a top middle to top tier defense under the tutelage of second year defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle. He has a bevy of coaching experience, tallying 35 years and can most recently be linked as the secondary coach of the Bengals where he coached talented players in Leon Hall, Jonathan Joseph and Reggie Nelson.

Despite being in a division which features the Patriot, the Dolphins can surprise people and at the very least, be a 9-10 win team with a team that has as much talent as any Dolphins team since the 1999 season.

The New York Jets embark again on another season where they are the biggest talk of the town and expectations are as low as they have ever been.

The quarterback competition is well documented between Mark Sanchez and Geno Smith. Sanchez has been a turnover machine over the past season and half and while many are calling for him to be supplanted, I still get a general sense that he is well respected from his teammates.

Of course, when you have a new general manager in John Idzik, the drafting of a quarterback to tie to his hip and finally a coach on the hot seat, you have a situation where a rookie quarterback may supplant a 5 year veteran. Smith has the talent but asking a rookie quarterback to come in a run Marty Mornhinweg’s sophisticated west coast principles is a daunting task. What swung the pendulum one way or the other would have been Smith’s terrible performance against the Giants in week 3 of the preseason, yet Sanchez did get injured during the forth quarter of that same game. Head Coach Rex Ryan still has yet to make a decision but If I had to make a judgement, it would be that Sanchez, as long as he is healthy, gets the nod in week 1. The bottom line is that whoever starts at quarterback, will be hard-pressed to have a banner year with a team devoid of talent.

At the wide receiver position, Stephen Hill and Jeremy Kerley are solid players who should continue to learn in their second seasons with the Jets. Hill especially, has a chance to be a breakout players because of his size and speed combination. Kerley is a smaller player who does not burn defenders but does have good quickness and can play as a slot receiver. If Santonio Holmes can recover from a lisfranc injury from last season, the Jets can be a solid overall unit at that position. The loss of Dustin Keller will hurt whoever plays at quarterback. He was Sanchez’s favourite target and if Smith ends up starting, especially in a west coast offense, he will definitely need a safety blanket. Jeff Cumberland has potential and with the addition of Kellen Winslow, if he can stay healthy, could supplant the loss of Keller.

The offensive line is a strong one from a run blocking standpoint. D’Brickshaw Fergurson and Nick Mangold are two of the best players at their positions. The addition of Willie Colon at right guard will also bolster that spot that has been in flux. The Jets will need to do a better job with pass protection for whoever starts at the quarterback position.

In the backfield, Bilal Powell has looked terrific in the preseason and while Chris Ivory has not played much so far, his talent, incredible size and speed combination will strike fear in the eyes of defenders. The consensus was the Ivory would win the job by default of his flashes as a New Orleans Saint but Powell has been very impressive in camp. Both Ivory and Powell are definitely playing themselves into a timeshare. As much as the casual fan may not know that much about Powell and Ivory, the talent is there and this duo should not be underestimated.

If the offense is a major question mark for the Jets, as has always been the case in the Rex Ryan era, you know the defense will be stout. Dee Milliner will be asked to play a major role as the replacement of Darrelle Revis. While that is a heavy load to put on a rookie, Milliner shined in a similar press man scheme that left the cornerbacks on an island (no pun intended). Milliner will face his struggles but he is too skilled and talented to not eventually play up to his draft position.

On his opposite side, you have Antonio Cromartie. Although he is the butt of many jokes due to his propensity to father many children, you cannot name 5 better corners than him last year. Quite frankly, what he did last year, despite the loss of Revis was incredible and it proved that he can and is an elite corner. Cro’ has even taken an important role as a leader by hosting for the second straight season, all the defensive backs on the team for a 3 day long workout session. Cromartie should have another banner year. I think an underrated corner could also be Kyle Wilson who showed a lot of promise last year. The former first round from Boise State could be a great candidate as a nickel corner.

Dawan Landry and Antonio Allen round out the secondary at the safety positions.

The linebackers are not household names but are effective. Calvin Pace has been a reliable pass rusher for the team for quite some time. Quinton Coples had a nice rookie season with 5.5 sacks. Unfortunately an ankle injury will sideline him indefinitely and this will be a huge blow to a team that has a lack of depth at the outside linebacker position. David Harris will man the middle linebacker spot in Ryan’s 3-4 scheme and he remains one of the more reliable players at the position.

The interior line will be anchored by 3rd year pro Muhammad Wilkerson who is lining up to be a star. His 69 tackles and 5.5 sacks made for a productive season and he looks to best those numbers as he matures as an NFL player. He is a strong player with terrific leverage who plays the run well and can offer some much-needed pass rush help. Sheldon Richardson was the first defensive tackle selected out of the 2013 NFL draft. He will play the other 5-technique position in that 3-4 defense. Similar to Wilkerson, Richardson has good pass rush instincts as he is an athletic defensive lineman. He did not play as much of a two-gap role in college, so it will be interesting to see how he adjusts as a 5-technique. His skill set is more suited as a 4-3 defensive tackle but in any case, he has a lot of talent as a rookie. Together, Wilkerson and Richardson will be asked to provide most of the pass rush, as they lack pass rushing depth at linebacker.

If you give Rex Ryan at least a respectable offense, he will keep you into ball games. Ryan is a defensive mastermind who can scheme around his players as well as any coach in the game. A true teacher of football, Ryan’s defensive catapulted the Jets to back-to-back AFC Championship games in 2009 and 2010. This defense, while not the most talented in the league, has some pieces to be a top 10 unit. That alone can make the Jets a dangerous team, especially with their backs against the wall (that is when Ryan coaches at his best).

The New England Patriots, once again are the favorites to win the division once again. Tom Brady continues to show that he is one of the best quarterbacks in the league with another terrific season last year. Although there are very few signs of declined play, if we did have to nitpick, it would be regarding his 63% completion percentage in 2012, which was his lowest in 5 season. Conversely, his deep completion passing percentage of 39% is his lowest in that same time frame and is also lower than Drew Brees'(44%) and Aaron Rodgers (51%). Regardless, Brady remains one of the top signal callers in the game and can dissect a defense and read coverages as well as anyone in the league. It will be interesting to see how he fares with the combined 283 catches from Aaron Hernandez, Brandon Lloyd, Danny Woodhead and Wes Welker, who are all either with other teams, currently free agents or on the verge of incarceration.

Danny Amendola, during his 5 year career has only once played a 16 game regular season. Durability issues aside, he has the same skill set to be a similar slot demon in the Wes Welker mode. Conversely, Amendola is a bigger and faster player who does not necessarily need to be pigeonholed solely into the slot position. Welker has averaged 96 catches per season with the Patriots since 2007 and the Patriots and their fans seem to think that type of production is easily replaceable from a similar player who again, plays predominantly in the slot, is white and also played at Texas Tech. The talent is there but Welker’s feats should not be taken for granted and his accomplishments, despite whether it is scheme or Brady-driven, were spectacular.

Outside of Amendola, Kenbrell Thompkins, Aaron Dobson, Josh Boyce and Julian Edleman will all be vying for the second receiver spot. Right now, Thompkins appears to be the front-runner with Aaron Dobson showing flashes in practice and during preseason. The key will be whether a deep threat can emerge from this conglomerate, as that has been a missing component of their receiving unit ever since the departure of Randy Moss.

At tight end, there was speculation that Rob Gronkowski may miss the first 4-6 games recovering from forearm and back surgeries. As of today, he has been added to the 53 man roster and has avoided the PUP list which increases his chances to play in the first or second game of the year. Either way, the Patriots will need his terrific pass catching skills as soon as possible. I have not see him be stopped by a defense scheme or player in the last 2 1/2 years. The Patriots have very good depth at tight end in case Gronkowski’s injuries flare up. Jake Ballard and Michael Hoomanawanui will fill in as in-line blockers but look for Zach Sudfeld, a 6-7 rookie out of Nevada to play a big role as well. Sudfeld has been making terrific catches in preseason and training camp and has the type of talent to potentially supplant some of the production that will be missed from the release of Aaron Hernandez.

The offensive line features three great players in Nate Soldier, Logan Mankins and Sebastien Vollmer. They allowed Tom Brady and that quick strike offense to be the 3rd least sacked team in the NFL.

The running game is as versatile a unit you will see in the league. Stevan Ridley was a near 300 carry back with over 1,200 yards. He has good wiggle and enough power to get 20-25 tokes. Having said that, we know Bill Belichick’s propensity to have a running back by committee offense and one bad fumble, missed assignment in pass-protection or wrong read could lead to a being sent to the bench. After Ridley, you have Shane Vereen, who continues to show terrific receiving skills as a receiver out of the backfield. With the loss of a bevy of pass catchers, look for Vereen to makes plays as a pass catcher and even line up at wide receiver, where he may pose mismatch problems if he gets linebackers or safeties on him.  LaGarrette Blount and Brandon Bolden are both bruising runners who round out a unit which any of the four players could be 1,000 yard backs.

On defense, the Patriots are terrific against the run ranking as the 7th best unit in that department.

Where they struggle is against the pass as they have ranked 29th, 31st and 29th in the last 3 seasons. The mid-season addition of Aqib Talib was a fruitful one and it greatly improved their pass coverage. Talib is a tenacious defender who loves to press at the line of scrimmage. He reminds me a lot of former Patriot great Ty Law, who was of similar stature and played a physical brand of defense at the cornerback position. On the other side, Alfonzo Dennard has the potential to be a very good player and he showed some promise against the Texans in the divisional round. He needs to stay on the field and avoid any off-field distractions as he was arrested this offseason.

At safety, Devin McCourty revived his career with a move to safety and last season he played quite admirably. With more experience and a background as a corner, look for him to improve his safety play as he possesses the raw tools to flourish. At strong safety, Steve Gregory is not talented enough to play starters minutes and is more of a special teams mainstay. Adrian Wilson is still a great tackler but he is a complete non-factor in coverage. Look for him to play a majority of his snaps at linebacker and truly only play safety on red zone defensive situations.

When you play in a Bill Belichick defense, you must have versatility. The Patriots often deploy 3 or four man fronts depending on the team they are playing and the down and distance. The linebackers of Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes and Donte’ Hightower are all talented but more is expected out of this unit. Mayo is the more senior of the group and has been a very solid player overall. Spikes and Hightower need big years to help propel this defense, especially Hightower who fits that hybrid rush linebacker mold. They will need him to play a big factor in pass coverage and as well as attacking the quarterback.

The defensive line also switches from a three-man front with Vince Wilfork as a 0-technique nose tackle or to a four man front with Wilfork and newly acquired Tommy Kelly as 3-technique players. Either way, Wilfork is a dominant player whose number do not tell the entire store. Not many players play a two-gap system better than he does. On the ends, Rob Ninkovich is a good player who can offer 8-10 sacks in a given season but he is not a full-time player. Chandler Jones however looks to have a breakout year after posting 6 sacks last season, despite playing only in certain situations. Ultimately, the Patriots need to get back to the days when they would terrorize quarterbacks. Their pass rush has been inconsistent and has subsequently put undue strain on their secondary.

As long as Tom Brady is under center, the Patriots will be okay. The offense will be fine and look for more emphasis on a talented running game. If one of their young receivers step up and they can hold firm until Gronkowski is back, they may not miss much of a beat from their offseason defections. Look for New England to win 11-12 games again and win this division.

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