2012 NFL Division Preview: AFC East
NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS
Key Pickups: WR Brandon Lloyd, WR Anthony Gonzalez, DL Jonathan Fanene, LB Bobby Carpenter
The Patriots are always a solid team that fills need in free agency. Brandon Lloyd was clearly their headliner this past off-season, he will give Tom Brady the threat on the outside that Chad Ochocinco was unable to do last year. Anthony Gonzalez is a bit injury prone, but has shown flashes of being a very solid receiver. Brady is the guy to help him reach that potential we’ve seen. Jonathan Fanene can play any position the defensive line, and will help tremendously in run defense, as well as being a capable pass rusher in situations needed. It’s really unclear what Bobby Carpenter brings to the table overall, but he is another guy who has shown potential. He can play linebacker in the 4-3 or the 3-4, and is a pretty good coverage linebacker.
Key Losses: RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis, DL Mark Anderson
The Patriots system allows them the luxury of letting a back like Green-Ellis walk. I always thought he was underused in New England, and it will remain to be seen if Stevan Ridley can fill his shoes. The Law Firm has excellent ball security, and has shown he can be a 1,000 yard rusher. It will hurt the Patriots a bit, but since their offense doesn’t revolve around the running game, expect Ridley to step in and fill the void in the system. Mark Anderson resurrected his career with the Patriots, garnering ten sacks on a quite unimpressive defensive squad last season. The Bills overpaid for Anderson, however. Couple Fanene with the solid draft the Patriots had, and I see Anderson’s departure not affecting the Patriots too dramatically.
Draft Picks/Grade: DE Chandler Jones, LB Dont’a Hightower, DB Tavon Wilson, DE Jake Bequette, DB Nate Ebner, CB Alfonzo Dennard, WR Jeremy Ebert.
The Pats cleaned up nice in this draft, most notably with Jones, Hightower, and the steal with Dennard. Jones is an elite pass rusher who can play defensive end or outside linebacker, which will make losing Mark Anderson almost insignificant. Shoring up the linebacking corps with Hightower was a great move, he’s a hard hitting run stopper with a nose for the ball. Dennard was projected to go much, much higher, as he has loads of talent but a few off the field issues. Given the play of their secondary last year, any talent will help. Grade: A
Bill Belichick, the hoodie himself, is still the head coach. He is the mastermind behind everything the Patriots do, and with him running the show you can be sure the guys under him will be held to a standard. They have, and will continue to have, an elite staff with BB at the helm.
Offensive Player To Watch: WR Brandon Lloyd
Everyone knows Tom Brady will perform. I am curious to see how Stevan Ridley embraces getting the majority of carries at RB, but for me the guy to watch is Mr. Lloyd. He has bounced around a lot in his career, but has shown he can get the job done at a high level. Now on the wrong side of 30, I am interested to see what Lloyd brings to this offense and how he clicks with Tom Brady. If he performs to his capabilities, the Pats offense could be downright lethal.
Defensive Player To Watch: DE Chandler Jones
This is very interesting to me, simply because the Patriots defense was so mediocre last season. Jones is an impact player, and I do believe he could be a plug and play guy (meaning he should start right away). He’s very versatile, and should be the immediate replacement for Mark Anderson. New England has a great coaching staff, and they should be able to have Jones ready to go by the time the season starts. It’ll be something to watch, seeing how this kid reacts to the big stage on a team so used to success.
Projected Outcome: 11-5
The Patriots are due for a regress, it happens to every team. There’s a lot of new faces in town, which usually means it takes a little bit of time to mesh. They’ll see some fierce competition from Buffalo this season, but the Patriots will win the AFC East again.
Key Pickups: DE Mario Williams, DE Mark Anderson
The Bills made a splash right away by signing Mario Williams to the largest free agent deal in NFL history (It’s a six-year deal with a maximum value of $100 million, $50 Million guaranteed). The Bills now have one of the best defensive lines in the league, as they transition to a 4-3. The Bills took filling their biggest need one step further though by adding Mark Anderson from New England, who might excel by exploiting single blocking on the other side of the line with Williams likely drawing double teams.
Key Losses: OT Demetrius Bell
Overall, the Bills didn’t lose a lot to free agency which is a huge benefit to them. Consistency is key, and Buffalo is returning most of the team from last year that started off looking very very good. Bell is one of the few losses at left tackle, and is being replaced by Chris Hairston. Hairston certainly has the size to do the job at 6’6 and 326 lbs, but athleticism is a worry with him. Left tackle is as important a position as any in the league, but Hairston should be able to do the job.
Draft picks/Grade: CB Stephon Gilmore, OL Cordy Glenn, WR T.J. Graham, LB Nigel Bradham , CB Ron Brooks, OL Zebrie Sanders, LB Tank Carder, G Mark Asper, K John Potter.
The first round pick, Stephon Gilmore, was a bit of a reach at the 10th overall pick but it wasn’t a bad one. He was a good value pick and GM Buddy Nix stuck to his guns with his “Best Player Available” philosophy. I think Cordy Glenn was a steal in the second round. His versatility on the offensive line is a great asset, and I think he’ll be a big name player in the future. The only real reach that I wasn’t a fan of was wide receiver TJ Graham. He was drafted in the third round, but could have gone as late as the sixth or seventh rounds. A few picks that also interest me are OT Zebrie Sanders (recipient of the famous C’mon Man from NFL Live) and LB Nigel Bradham (who is the only player I’ve ever seen that was ejected for a clean, albeit vicious hit). The defense seemed to be a focus during this draft and overall, I think the draft was successful and filled some holes in Buffalo’s scheme. Grade: A-
I think the coaching staff took a small step forward this offseason, but not a huge step. The new Defensive Coordinator is former University of Pittsburgh head coach Dave Wannstedt. Wannstedt is switching the defense back to the 4-3 scheme. The big one to watch this year will be head coach Chan Gailey. He’s coming into his third year as head coach of the Bills, and fans are ready to see Gailey take this team to the next level. Right now, his approval ratings with fans are at an all time high (This poll on Buffalorumblings.com says that it’s around 88% approve, 1% disapprove, and 9% unsure as of may 0f 2012). If the team doesn’t see success this year though, I expect those ratings to plummet quickly. Fans are tired of waiting, and if Gailey can’t turn the team around in three years I expect a lot of fans aren’t going to approve of him. I hope this isn’t the case because I believe Chan Gailey IS a good coach, but this is a make-or-break year for him.
Offensive Player to watch: WR Stevie Johnson
Stevie Johnson is the uncontested #1 receiver in 2012. By giving him a new contract ( a five-year, $36.25 million deal that includes $19.5 million gtd and over $24 million in deal’s first three years), Buddy Nix and the Buffalo Bills have given Stevie the stamp of approval. He’s the first wide receiver in Bills history to have back to back 1000 yard seasons, and despite some issues with excessive celebration (personally, I don’t think any of his celebrations were THAT outrageous) now that he has the contract I think his stats are only going to increase. I think this is the year that Stevie Johnson escalates into a top-tier guy and will be one of the best in the NFL.
Defensive Player to watch: DE Mario Williams
What else needs to be said about Mario Williams? 53 sacks in 6 seasons (82 career games). Although he spent most of last season battling injuries, he’s still one of the best defensive ends in the league. His presence will make the Bills defensive line better even if he doesn’t have an absolutely outstanding season because he’s GOING to draw double teams. No team is going to underestimate him, and that’ll leave the door open for players like Kyle Williams, Marcel Dareus, and Mark Anderson.
Projected Outcome: 10-6
I think this is the year it finally happens. I think the Bills are FINALLY going to get over the .500 mark and make the playoffs for the first time since 1999. The defense has improved drastically this offseason, key players with expiring contracts were re-signed, and they had a succesful draft. Last year, the team came out of the gate hot and then collapsed. If they can stay consistent and not get hit by the injury bug, I think 10-6 is definitely a possibility. As for a spot in the playoffs, I think a wildcard is possible. Do I think they can overtake New England for the division crown? No. Not yet at least. The team’s schedule is very favorable going into the home stretch of the season with games against Indy, Jacksonville, St. Louis, Miami, and the Jets to close out the season. 4 or 5 wins to end the season could be the final push that the team needs. I think it’s time Bills fans! Get excited!
NEW YORK JETS
Key Pickups: QB Tim Tebow, WR Chaz Schillens, S LaRon Landry, S Yeremiah Bell
Ahh, Tim Tebow, the most polarizing figure in sports. How can I not put him in this category. Who puts a backup QB in a key pickup section? This guy. But really, this was a good move for the Jets. If Mark Sanchez can’t play like he’s expected, they’ll take him and his extended contract and put him on the bench for Tebow. It might be two weeks into the season, and it might not happen at all, but one of two things happens. 1) Sanchez plays great. or 2) Tebow comes in, might not look pretty, but they win games. It’s good for them all around, from a leadership position, to a playmaker position. They also picked up Chaz Schillens who will be able to add depth at WR as well as be a red-zone presence. They beefed up the secondary by adding a couple safeties in Landry and Bell, a move that will not only add depth, but strengthen competition at the position.
Key Losses: WR Plaxico Burress, RB LaDainian Tomlinson
Plaxico might not be a name that anyone expected here, but he had 45 receptions at eight touchdowns in a down year for the Jets. I recently heard him on Sirius XM NFL Radio talking about not being at full strength last season, and if he wasn’t – he still put up decent numbers, so if he’s ready now, who knows what he’ll put up next year for a different team. Losing LaDainian Tomlinson hurts from a depth standpoint and a leadership role. He’s a guy that understands the game, and gets fired up about it when things aren’t going right. He said he is 95% retired, but with a nice enough paycheck that 5% could have gotten a whole lot bigger. The Jets must feel comfortable about their current RB situation, but I don’t.
Draft Picks/Grade: DE Quentin Coples, WR Stephen Hill, ILB DeMario Davis, S Josh Bush, RB Terrance Ganaway, G Robert Griffin, S Antonio Allen, WR Jordan White.
To be honest, I wasn’t thrilled with the Quentin Coples selection for the Jets. At first glance, I saw a player that didn’t have a high motor, nor did he have full motivation and I didn’t see him fitting in well with the Jets defensive scheme. But after some studying, I feel he can be what the Jets need IF he can stay motivated and keep the wheels turning. I like the pickup of Stephen Hill, as I think he can have the same success as Calvin Johnson and Demaryius Thomas. All three guys come out of GA Tech, and they make the transition well into the NFL, I thought Hill was a great pickup for this team. One thing I didn’t like, was taking a Running Back where they did, with the team wanting to go back to ‘ground and pound’ I thought they would have snatched up a back a little quicker, especially because they don’t have a true number one back on the roster. Shonn Greene has shown flashes, and LT is not returning, so that is still an area of weakness in my eyes. Overall a solid draft, but I think they could have done a little better. Grade: B
Rex Ryan remains the head coach for the Jets this season, but the offense will look a bit different. Brian Schottenheimer has left the building and they replaced him with former Dolphins Head Coach Tony Sparano, who should be able to utilize the talent he has to make things work. He also has head coaching experience so that on the field will be a plus. Mike Pettine returns as the DC, however it’s still Rex’s defense, so I wouldn’t expect to see much change on that side of the ball.
Offensive Player To Watch: QB Mark Sanchez.
Well, I think I covered this pretty well, but let’s go over it again. This is truly a make-or-break year for Sanchez. They brought in Tebow to put some pressure on him, and he’s said publicly that he’ll be the starter, and he’s not worried. But if he’s struggling in a game, you know good and well that in the back of his mind, he’ll be pressured. The Jets opened up the floodgates for him last year and he struggled quite a bit. He’s got a new offensive coordinator this season, so we’ll see how it works out for him. They’ve said they’re going back to the running game, but what they’ve done this offseason doesn’t indicate that. It looks as if Sanchez will have a lot on his plate this season, let’s see if he can clean it up and prove that he is a franchise QB.
Defensive Player To Watch: DE Quentin Coples
Jets fans booed when he was taken, as did I, and for good reasoning. He’s known for not being motivated enough, but I think under Rex Ryan and the Jets staff, they won’t let him slack off. He could end up being a very good player for the Jets, but it’s all up to him. To me, the rest of that defense is pretty proven, my eyes will be on Coples a lot this season. If he can play to his potential, I will take back my boos, but if he goes out there and lays an egg, I’ll stick with my original thoughts. He can be a great player, but he needs a little help. We’ll see if the fiery Rex Ryan can pump some adrenaline into Coples to get him going week in and week out.
Projected Outcome: 8-8
The Jets have a tough schedule this season, I really don’t see them picking up a win in the first five weeks. They play a lot of teams with good defenses, and it’ll be interesting to see how it plays out. But I think they’ll finish 8-8, give or take a game in each column. This isn’t the year for them in my eyes, but anything can happen. We’ll see how it plays out.
Key Pickups: CB Richard Marshall, QB David Garrard, LB Gary Guyton
The Dolphins had a quietly-loud Free Agent signing period. What I mean by that is we heard about a lot of players visiting the team, but none of them agreed to sign – the biggest search was for a quarterback. Peyton Manning and Matt Flynn both visited the Fins, and declined contracts. The ones that did sign, are some that can make significant impacts on the team. Richard Marshall, surprisingly, wasn’t well sought after by the Cardinals, and the Fins were able to snatch up a pretty good starter for their secondary. David Garrard was also added, but he had to take a year off to recover from a lingering back issue in which he had surgery to repair. His contract tells us that he’s there to compete for the starting gig, and even if he doesn’t win the job, he’s a guy that can bring his mind to the other QB’s on the roster and he’ll be able to add a bit of veteran leadership. Gary Guyton was a move that was very under-the-radar, he’s a former New England Patriot and he should be able to jump in and play sam-backer for the Dolphins and continue to produce like he did in New England.
Key Losses: WR Brandon Marshall, OG Marc Colombo, OT Vernon Carey, CB Will Allen
The biggest of the names here is the 2011-12 Pro Bowl MVP (Yes I know, the Pro Bowl is a joke, but nonetheless, he’ll have that on his resume). He was traded to the Bears for a few mid-round picks, later saying he was as tired of the Dolphins as they were tired of him, but on the field, this can be a big mistake for them. Marshall is a guy that drew double coverage, because, let’s be honest-he’s one hell of a receiver. He has been one of the bright spots for a dim Miami team for the last few years, and doing nothing to replace him could be disastrous. The losses of Marc Colombo and Vernon Carey aren’t ones that will turn heads, but they were decent players on a line that gave up the third most sacks in the league last season, and not on their side of the line. Will Allen is getting up there in age, but the former first round selection has veteran leadership that will be needed on the team, and he can still play the game. He might not be a interception machine, but he’s still been pretty good in coverage.
Draft Picks/Grade: QB Ryan Tannehill, OT Jonathan Martin, DE Oliver Vernon, TE Michael Egnew, RB Lamar Miller, LB Josh Kaddu, WR BJ Cunningham, DT Kheeston Randall, WR Rishard Matthews
Well, I’ve been known to be a basher of the Ryan Tannehill selection at eight overall, so I won’t go into too much detail here. He was ranked as the 54th best player on my draft board, and the mid-40’s on others that I saw. There was a ten spot difference between my board and the guys that get paid for this, but a 30-something drop off from the Dolphins board. Yes, he knows the offense I’ll give him that much, but he played WR in college, and had miniscule experience as a starting QB in the college ranks. To say the least, I don’t like the pick. I do however like the pickup of Jonathan Martin. They plan on moving him to the right side to play tackle, which I think he’ll fit in seamlessly. They needed to address the line, as I mentioned before they gave up the third most sacks in the league last year. They picked up some depth at other positions, but nothing that blows my mind when I look at this team’s draft. Grade: C-
This team underwent a makeover in the offseason, wiping the slate of the old staff and bringing in former Packers OC Joe Philbin to call the shots as the head man. We’ve seen his offenses with the Packers, and they look great. His ultimate goal will be to put the ball in the hands of the receivers and make big plays like we see Aaron Rodgers do week after week. Mike Sherman comes over to call the offense from Texas A&M where he brings his QB with him to make the transition easier. I like the hiring of Sherman, but we’ll see how much of the offense is actually his and not Philbin’s. Kevin Coyle is a guy not many people have heard of, but he’s a veteran coach in the league. He was DB’s coach in Cincinnati, and the Bengals have always had an impressive secondary. It’ll be interesting to see how he does calling the whole defense, rather than just coaching up the defensive backs, but there was rumors out of Cincinnati that if Mike Zimmer left, Coyle would fill his role without skipping a beat so I think he’ll be a nice fit for this Dolphins defense.
Offensive player to watch: RB Reggie Bush
Reggie Bush came out and said that he wants to lead the league in rushing this year. Some people laughed and said not a chance, but not so fast my friends. I laughed at one point as well when he said he wanted to be a feature back. I didn’t think he was able to be the between-the-tackles runner that he was last year, and he was pretty impressive while doing so. We know what he can do on the outside, but his game took a major step forward last year when he proved to the world he could be that guy. I’m not saying that he’s going to be the leading rusher when it’s all said and done, but if he can build off of what he did last season, he could be up there in the discussion for surprising running backs in the league.
Defensive player to watch: LB Cameron Wake
Wake is a hell of a ball-player. Coming off a season in which he had 8.5 sacks and 42 tackles, he took a step back in production last year. I think he’ll come out this year and have a good season under new DC Kevin Coyle. We saw the Bengals send different pressures last year, and Coyle has been in the meeting rooms with Zimmer for the last few years, so I’m sure he wrote down a play or two. Wake had 14 sacks and 57 tackles in 2010, and I look for him to have career numbers this year because he’ll be utilized well in the defense.
Projected outcome: 7-9
I don’t see this as the year the Fins have a breakout year, there are just too many holes to fill. The loss of Marshall is what really gets me and they need a go-to guy on offense. I think they’ll finish at a respectable 7-9, and continue to build for the future.
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