Monday, September 2, 2013

NFL Divisional Previews - AFC East

For the last decade, except for 2002 and 2008, the New England Patriots have won the AFC East. That is an amazing level of consistency. This past offseason the Patriots dealt with more than just personnel losses, they dealt with one of their best players, Aaron Hernandez, being charged with murder. Knowing the Patriots though, they will keep chugging along like nothing happened. The Miami Dolphins are in year two of the Joe Philbin/Ryan Tannehill era. Tannehill struggled as a rookie, but had some positive moments, enough to give the Dolphins hope. The Buffalo Bills are trying to make the playoffs for the first time since 1999 but already are a complete mess at the quarterback position. The New York Jets are a complete mess everywhere.

1. New England Patriots    

2012 Record: 12-4, AFC East Champions

Head Coach: Bill Belichick (14th season New England, 205-109 career)
Key Additions: QB Tim Tebow, WR LaGarrette Blount, WR Danny Amendola, DT Tommy Kelly, S Adrian Wilson, KR Leon Washington, P Ryan Allen
Key Losses: RB Danny Woodhead, WR Wes Welker, WR Brandon Lloyd, TE Aaron Hernandez, G Brian Waters, S Patrick Chung, P Zoltan Mesko

2013 Outlook: The Patriots breezed through another regular season in 2012, but in what is becoming too common for the liking of Patriots fans, lost a playoff game at home, this time the AFC Championship game to the Baltimore Ravens. It has now been 9 years since Tom Brady and the Patriots last won a Super Bowl, and the question is becoming, will they win another before Brady has to eventually retire? He is still one of the best quarterbacks in the league, maybe the best. The Patriots are loaded at running back with Steven Ridley and Shane Vareen. Ridley was a beast last season, and Vareen was very effective in spot duty. It seems that Vareen will take a more active role in other spots on the field, similar to how Aaron Hernandez would line up at running back at times. Who Brady will throw to is a bit of a mystery. His favorite target, Wes Welker is now in Denver. The Patriots quickly replaced him with former Ram Danny Amendola. Amendola is good when healthy, but when healthy doesn't happen too often for him. It seems like Julian Edelman will be the number two receiver, so Brady will be throwing to some very short wideouts. Kenbrell Thompkins, who went undrafted has played well in the preseason and could be a factor in the passing game. TE Rob Gronkowski had about 55 surgeries this past offseason and could miss the first six weeks of the season. If so, that will leave Daniel Fells as the starter and he had just 4 catches last season. Offensive line is a strength for New England. You can tell that because any time Brady even has someone breath on him, it is immediately the reason people will point to if Brady struggles. Nate Solder, Logan Mankins, and Sebastien Vollmer are the Patriots premiere lineman. Defensively, the Patriots were good at stopping the run but once again struggled against the pass. Thomas Kelly and longtime Patriot Vince Wilfork should be monsters in the middle of the defensive line. The Patriots have high hopes for second year defensive end Chandler Jones, who battled injuries last season. The Patriots linebacking corps rivals some of the best in the league. Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes, and Dont'a Hightower are all excellent players. The Patriots made a move in the middle of last season to try to shore up their secondary, bringing in Aqib Talib. He was a free agent this off-season but the Pats brought him back with a one year deal. Alfonso Dennard lines up on the other side and is a solid player, even if he isn't a solid citizen. Steven Gregory and Devin McCourty are currently listed as the starting safeties, but newly signed Adrian Wilson should see some time as well. Patriots fans have never had to miss Adam Vinatieri as Stephen Gostkowski has been money ever since replacing him. Ryan Allen won the punting battle over Zoltan Mesko. I expect their win total to decrease this year, especially with some of the uncertainty on offense, but it should still be good enough for them to win the AFC East. However, I think it will be another Super Bowl-less year in New England.

Prediction: 10-6

2. Miami Dolphins    

2012 Record: 7-9, 2nd place AFC East
Head Coach: Joe Philbin (2nd year Miami, 7-9 career)
Key Additions: DE/OLB Dion Jordan, WR Mike Wallace, OT Tyson Clabo, OLB Philip Wheeler, ILB Dannell Ellerbe, CB Brent Grimes
Key Losses: RB Reggie Bush, WR Davone Bess, TE Anthony Fasano, OT Jake Long, OLB Kevin Burnett, ILB Karlos Dansby

2013 Outlook: Miami was basically the definition of average in 2012. Their longest winning streak or losing streak during the season was three games. What doomed their season was that they were less than average throwing the ball and stopping other teams from throwing the ball. Rookie Ryan Tannehill threw just 12 TD passes in his rookie season and only threw for over 300 yards once in the season. Some of that was on Tannehill but some of that was also the fact that he didn't have any receivers worth a damn. So the Dolphins went out to try to fix that and signed Mike Wallace to a gigantic contract. Wallace has the contract he wants, now the Dolphins hope he becomes the consistent threat that can make Tannehill into a star. The acquisition of Wallace moves Brian Hartline over to the number two spot, a spot that he will be much more suited for. Tight end is a question as longtime starter Anthony Fasano is gone. It will be a battle between a bunch of unknowns, Charles Clay, Michael Egnew, and Dion Sims. They had signed Dustin Keller to be the new starter but he was lost for the season in a preseason game. Reggie Bush was allowed to leave via free agency, leaving Lamar Miller as the new starter. He will be backed up by disappointing Daniel Thomas. Former number one overall pick Jake Long left for the Rams in free agency, and second-year man Jonathan Martin is his replacement. The Dolphins did get a nice addition to the line in bringing in former Falcon Tyson Clabo as their new starting right tackle. Mike Pouncey is a very good center, and Richie Incognito is good at blocking and getting under defensive lineman's skin. On defense, right defensive end Cameron Wake is one of the best in the league. He hasn't gotten a ton of publicity because the Dolphins have been largely irrelevant, but he did notch 15 sacks last year. The rest of the defensive line is basically no names, but no names that get the job done. Randy Starks had 4 1/2 sacks last season and Paul Soliai is a mountain of a man at 340 pounds. As you get further back into the defense is where you start to see major changes. Karlos Dansby and Kevin Burnett are gone at linebacker, replaced by Dannell Ellerbe and Philip Wheeler. They got younger at the position and talent wise stayed about the same for now. The hope obviously is Ellerbe and Wheeler grow into even better players. I think the acquisition of former Falcon Brent Grimes will really pay off as he comes the team's lead corner. Injuries are definitely a concern as Grimes has been injury plagued the last two seasons, but at just a one year deal it was a move Miami needed to make. Safety Reshad Jones just re-upped for 4 years and 30 million dollars, showing how much faith the Dolphins have in him. The other corner is Dmitri Patterson who was acquired from the Browns last season. He played the final two games of the 2012 season for Miami, and pairing him with Grimes, the Dolphins are confident they can improve upon their pass defense. Dan Carpenter is gone and in at kicker is rookie Caleb Sturgis from Florida. Brandon Fields is one of the better punters in the league. Marcus Thigpen will return both punts and kicks and is dangerous, having scored twice last season. I believe the Dolphins and more specifically Tannehill will make the leap this season to becoming a playoff team. I like the moves they made to improve the passing game and the defense. I think the Dolphins not only will make the playoffs but also win their first playoff game since 2000.

Prediction: 9-7

3. Buffalo Bills    

2012 Record: 6-10, last place AFC East
Head Coach: Doug Marrone (1st season Buffalo, 0-0 career)
Key Additions: QB E.J. Manuel, WR Robert Woods, QB Kevin Kolb, G Doug Legursky, DT Alan Branch
Key Losses: QB Ryan Fitzpatrick, QB Tarvaris Jackson, WR David Nelson, WR Donald Jones, G Andy Levitre, G Chad Rinehart, DE Chris Kelsay, DE Shawne Merriman, OLB Nick Barnett, CB Terrence McGee

2013 Outlook: After a 6-10, last place finish in the AFC East, the Bills knew they had to cut their losses with quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick and coach Chan Gailey and move in a different direction. They decided that Florida State quarterback E.J. Manuel was their quarterback of the future and took him way higher than anyone else would have taken him, with the 16th pick in the first round. They also brought in Kevin Kolb as insurance, but Kolb took a blow to the head in the preseason and with this being his third concussion in just a few years, his career could be over. Manuel also hurt himself in the preseason and so the Bills are looking at having to start something named Jeff Tuel in their season opener. One player that might finally get to maximize his talent is RB C.J. Spiller. New coach Doug Marrone says he wants to run him until he pukes. Fred Jackson is now clearly the backup, which is for the best since he can never be counted on to stay healthy. Stevie Johnson remains the Bills leading receiver, but the rest of the position has seen a shake up. Average receivers David Nelson and Donald Jones are gone, so the Bills drafted Robert Woods out of USC, and are set to start T.J. Graham opposite of Johnson. Woods will have to make an immediate impact or Johnson is going to have to be constantly fighting double teams. TE Scott Chandler has come back from a torn ACL and is a very dependable goal line target. The Bills have a pretty good offensive although they could be hurt by the loss of guard Andy Levitre. Doug Legursky was signed to be a possible replacement, but he also joined the Bills injury woes in the preseason, so Colin Browns figures to be the guy. Left tackle Cordy Glenn and center Eric Wood are solid. The Bills were a top 10 pass defense last year but mostly because teams ran wild on them and didn't need to pass. The Bills are moving to more of a 3-4 defense which will push defensive end Mario Williams to linebacker. DT Marcell Dareus and DE Kyle Williams had some success getting to the quarterback last season but Dareus will need to improve his play against the run. Manny Lawson was added to the linebacking corps, as Nick Barnett was let go. The Bills are pretty strong at corner with second year man Stephen Gilmore and Leodis McKelvin. Jairus Byrd is one of the better safeties in the league and led the team with 5 picks in 2012. McKelvin is not only a good corner but a dangerous punt returner, scoring 2 touchdowns last year. Rian Lindell was cut in favor of draft pick Dustin Hopkins, and punter Shawn Powell will likely be cut if he is 2013 is as bad as his 2012. It figures to be another non-playoff season for the Bills. The quarterback situation is so unsettled and Spiller will only be able to carry the offense so much.

Prediction: 7-9

4. New York Jets    

2012 Record: 6-10, 3rd place AFC East
Head Coach: Rex Ryan (5th season New York Jets, 38-32 career)
Key Additions: CB Dee Milliner, DE/DT Sheldon Richardson, QB Geno Smith, RB Chris Ivory, RB Mike Goodson, TE Kellen Winslow, G/OT Willie Colon, S Dawan Landry
Key Losses: QB Tim Tebow, RB Shonn Greene, RB Joe McKnight, WR Braylon Edwards, WR Chaz Schillens, TE Dustin Keller, OT Jason Smith, G Brandon Moore, G Matt Slauson, DE/DT Mike DeVito, ILB Bart Scott, CB Darelle Revis, S LaRon Landry, S Yeremiah Bell

2013 Outlook: Years of poor personnel decisions finally caught up to the Jets in 2012 and the bottom fell out, as the Jets missed the playoffs for a second straight season, winning just 6 games. Mark Sanchez continued to be exposed as being average to awful, as he no longer had a running game or defense to rely on. The Jets showed how little faith they had left in him by benching him at the end of last season, and then drafting Geno Smith. Sanchez and Smith were competing in preseason, but it looks like Smith might win by default, at least in Week 1, as Sanchez is out with a shoulder injury. Smith showed some promise in college, but has not played well so far in preseason so the learning curve will be steep. Plus, it doesn't help that the Jets have zero weapons on offense. Their starting running back is a Bilal Powell and their receivers are nobodies Jeremy Kerley and Stephen Hill. Chris Ivory was signed from the Saints and will also see some carries but he is never able to stay healthy. The Jets are hopeful that Santonio Holmes will be ready to return from injury in Week 1, which would give Smith at least one decent player around him. Tight end Dustin Keller is gone, leaving Jeff Cumberland as the starter, with Kellen Winslow backing him up. One area on offense where the Jets aren't lacking talent is offensive line. Left tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson and center Nick Mangold are two of the best at their position in the league. Willie Colon was brought in from Pittsburgh to be the new right guard, while the questionable Vladimir Ducasse is slotted to start at left guard. The Jets defense started to show its age last season and finished 26th against the run. A lot of new pieces will be shuffled into the defense this season with the departure of guys like Bart Scott, LaRon Landry and Yeremiah Bell. The biggest change will be the loss of Revis Island, as they traded him to the Buccaneers. They immediately drafted his replacement in Dee Milliner out of Alabama. The other corner, father of the year Antonio Cromartie quietly had a strong 2012 season. Interestingly, Dawan Landry replaces his brother at safety and reunites with Rex Ryan, as they were together when Ryan was defensive coordinator in Baltimore. Another rookie in the starting lineup will be defensive end Sheldon Richardson. Left end Muhammed Wilkerson showed promise last year, especially towards the end of the season. DeMario Davis will take over for Scott at linebacker, but the Jets may be without Quinton Coples at left outside linebacker to start the season as he deals with an ankle injury. Special teams remains the same with Nick Folk at kicker and Robert Malone as punter. They won't have Joe McKnight returning kicks anymore as they cut him last week. The Jets defense might be able to keep them in some games but the offense is likely to be turnover prone and horrific yet again this season. With another non-playoff season this will likely be the end of the road for Rex Ryan. Have no doubt though, Ryan will get quickly scooped up somewhere to be the defensive coordinator.

Prediction: 6-10

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