Posted by Jack Tumen
It’s been a long offseason, but after a summer filled with World Cup fever and NBA free agent madness, we’re finally ready to get back to football. This is the first post in a series that will break down and preview each division in the National Football League.
Our journey begins in the AFC East; a division that’s been owned by the Patriots for the last decade, with the Jets, Bills and Dolphins typically fighting for a wild card spot. Most people would easily chalk up another division crown for New England as long as Tom Brady’s at the helm, but this is a division that has some underrated rivalries and deserves a closer look.
Let’s begin with New England; a team that on paper should have gone .500 last season but thanks to a legendary QB/coach combo, ebbed and flowed their way to 12-4 while falling in the AFC Championship Game. This was essentially a two-man team between Brady and Julian Edelman, who finished the regular season with 105 receptions – good for 4th in the league. Their receiving corps was a mess of injuries, rookies and injured rookies. Rob Gronkowski’s yearly ailments have started to become a “when” not “if.” Danny Amendola and Aaron Dobson were practically non-existent. They were also lucky enough to have the best version of Legarrette Blount that will ever step onto a football field…ever.
However, the Patriots were able to completely re-vamp their secondary this offseason by bringing in Brandon Browner and of course former Jet, Darrelle Revis. With other young studs like Jamie Collins and Chandler Jones poised for big seasons, this is a defense that could soon become a strength rather than a weakness for New England.
Other Notables: Rookie RB, James White, should contribute off-the-bat to compliment passing back, Shane Vereen and fumble-prone, Stevan Ridley; WR Brandon LaFell could make for a nice body on the outside while Dobson tries to make a year-2 leap; Rookie WR, Jeremy Gallon, fits perfectly in the Pats’ small-ball passing game.
One pressure cooker to watch in the NFL this season will be the Miami Dolphins. Joe Philbin will be coaching for a job that by all rights he shouldn’t even have anymore after the team was in the news for all the wrong reasons on the way to an 8-8 season. The locker room completely imploded in the wake of the Incognito-Martin scandal, tearing apart this team from the inside-out.
Now going into his 3rd NFL season, Ryan Tannehill has been the definition of an average quarterback since being drafted 8th overall in 2012. He won’t face much competition from Matt Moore (who’s one of the better backups in the league) but the fact that he couldn’t produce in Mike Sherman’s offense (yes the same exact one he ran in college with Mike Sherman himself) speaks to his ceiling at the professional level. He faces a make-or-break season before the organization has to bite the bullet on a top-10 whiff and look elsewhere for help.
Mike Wallace severely underplayed his ridiculous 5-year, $60 million dollar contract in year one and is on the books for $17.25 million this season, $10 million more than any other Dolphin. After displaying zero chemistry with Tannehill last season, the chatty wideout needs to prove he’s worth the money, or else.
Amidst all the bad, there are parts of this team to be excited about; a.k.a., the defense. Cameron Wake has always been a force for this defensive unit; and despite turning a quiet 32 years old in January, he still racked up 8.5 sacks in 2013. Olivier Vernon has emerged as one of the most underrated young pass rushers in the league, tallying 11.5 sacks a year ago. The additions of Cortland Finnegan and Louis Delmas in the secondary should help to improve their league average 234 passing YPG as well.
The only catch is Dion Jordan – the 3rd overall pick in the ’13 draft whom Miami promptly (and unwisely, in my opinion) moved from his college position of D-end to outside ‘backer. After a meager 26 combined tackles and just 2 sacks from his rookie campaign, the freakish athlete is also riding a 4-game suspension stemming from a failed drug test this offseason, meaning he won’t see action ’til week 6 because of Miami’s week 5 bye. The jury’s still out on Jordan, but he’s currently treading water.
Other Notables: RB Lamar Miller could get a second chance to prove himself in the absence of FA acquisition, Knowshon Moreno; Rookie WR, Jarvis Landry, has the potential to become Miami’s no. 1 wideout down the road; Dannelle Ellerbe and Phillip Wheeler are a strong combo at LB; Reshad Jones is quietly one of the league’s best safeties; TE Charles Clay can be a mismatch in between the hashes.
A year ago, the New York Jets were dead last in ESPN’s preseason power rankings. However, as we found out in a big way last season, defense does indeed win championships; and the Jets have a helluva defense, if anything. Contrary to Miami’s unsatisfactory 8-8, the Jets seemed to overachieve at 8-8 last season, with marquee wins over Atlanta (at the time,) New England and New Orleans while saving Rex Ryan’s job on the way.
The Jets’ boast one of, if not the best defensive line in football. Muhammad Wilkerson more than doubled his sack total from the previous year with 10.5 in 2013. Sheldon Richardson burst on the scene to earn Defensive Rookie of the Year honors (and two goal line touchdowns) while the unheralded Damon “Snacks” Harrison was one of the best run-stuffers in the league last year as an UDFA. After a career year from Calvin Pace and the recent signing of Jason Babin, the only questions on this defense remain in the secondary. Dee Milliner, who struggled early but came on in December as rookie, is the default no. 1 corner. Veteran, Dimitri Patterson, will likely start on the opposite side while top draft choice, Calvin Pryor, will look to become an enforcer at safety.
With an injured Mark Sanchez watching from the shadows, Geno Smith stepped in as the season-long starter last year with a chip on his shoulder. It was a bumpy ride for the rook, who threw 21 interceptions and had trouble adjusting to the speed of the game. As the season went on, however, he began learning how to use his legs as a weapon; the Jets were undefeated in all six games that Geno scored a rushing TD. In addition, he led all NFL QBs in 3rd-and-long conversions with 12 and mustered 3 game-winning drives as a rookie.
Critics who love to hate on Geno need to remember he had no supporting cast to help him; GM John Idzik made sure that would not be the case this year as he went out and acquired WRs Eric Decker and Jacoby Ford while adding former Titans’ RB, Chris Johnson. Additionally, he used a 2nd-round choice on star TE, Jace Amaro. The additions should vastly improve Marty Mornhinweg’s West Coast offense – and with a nice three-headed backfield of Johnson, Chris Ivory and the underrated Bilal Powell (whom I liken to a B-version of Rashad Jennings,) New York will also look to improve upon it’s 6th-ranked rushing attack from a year ago.
Other Notables: If you think Michael Vick is at all threatening Geno’s starting job, you’re sorely mistaken; WRs David Nelson and Jeremy Kerley deserve more recognition than they receive; OLB Quinton Coples and WR Stephen Hill need to prove themselves this season; MLB David Harris is still a rock in the middle of this defense.
Much uncertainty has swirled around the Buffalo Bills’ franchise in recent months. After the passing of long-time owner, Ralph Wilson, questions about a possible relocation to Toronto picked up once again as the team searches for new ownership. Then, star MLB, Kiko Alonso, tore his ACL during an offseason workout in Oregon, leaving a 159-tackle void (good for 3rd in the league) in the heart of a promising defensive unit.
However, not all hope is lost for a team that hasn’t made the playoffs since last millennium. Buffalo made the flashy move of trading up for the equally flashy Sammy Watkins in the draft, albeit, at a costly price. With the speed to take the top off a defense, the Bills are hoping the addition of Watkins will help the ongoing development of EJ Manuel. Now entering his second season as the Bills’ starting quarterback, Manuel needs to show he was worth the investment as a 2013 first round pick in a QB deficient draft.
It’s no question that the offense will revolve around getting the ball in the hands of Watkins; but the volume of success will stem from how much Robert Woods and Mike Williams can draw attention away from the explosive rookie. Woods is coming off a solid rookie campaign where he caught 40 balls and 3 touchdowns as the team’s no. 2 option. Mike Williams was acquired for peanuts in a trade with Tampa Bay and provides a veteran presence who can hold his own on the outside. With Stevie Johnson now a 49er, those two will compete for the no. 2 spot while the overlooked Marquise Goodwin will come in as a situational deep threat.
A fast offense only gets faster when you throw CJ Spiller in the backfield. Last year’s no. 2 rushing attack will also bring back the ageless Fred Jackson and newly acquired Bryce Brown, who LeSean McCoy predicted would be the Bill’s no. 1 back. It’ll be interesting to see how Doug Marrone chooses to distribute touches among them.
Other Notables: LB Brandon Spikes took a shot at his former Patriots in a big way this offseason; CB Stephon Gilmore is a young leader on defense; DT Marcell Darius reported to camp out of shape but looks to right the ship; DE Mario Williams is still the centerpiece of this defense; LB Nigel Bradham will have the opportunity to fill Alonso’s shoes; S Aaron Williams will try to keep improving his play.
New England: 11-5
New York Jets: 10-6
The AFC East has it tough this year as they face the always strong NFC North and an AFC West division that produced 3 playoff teams last season. However, there’s been enough all-around improvement that I expect them to successfully compete with the rest of the league. This is still Tom Brady’s division; If the oh-so terrible Geno Smith won half his games last season, their offseason additions give them at least two more victories; Buffalo’s offense will surprise many but a late-season collapse dips them under .500; Miami’s defense isn’t strong enough to keep an anemic offense afloat as Joe Philbin loses his job mid-season and the Dolphins draft in the top 5 next year.
Next up: AFC North