NFL Projections: The AFC EastBREAKING NEWS, News, NFL Wednesday, August 22nd, 2012
Much like the AFC South, there’s little question about which team owns the AFC East. This division has belonged to Tom Brady and the New England Patriots for the better part of the last decade, and it should remain that way for at least another season. The Patriots are a dominate team, but they’ve also got little true competition. The Bills and Dolphins seem stuck in a never-ending rebuilding phase, and the Jets have become more of a circus act than a serious threat.
The Dolphins are once again starting fresh. Gone are coach Tony Sparano, and disappointing quarterback Chad Henne. First-time head coach Joe Philbin is now in, along with top draft pick Ryan Tannehill. Its a full rebuilding project for Philbin, who won’t have to worry about success this season as he takes this season to find out what he has to work with down the road.
The first thing on Philbin’s list will be to pick a starting quarterback. If he doesn’t want to throw his prized rookie Tannehill to the wolves right away, he could start the season with either Matt Moore (who led the Dolphins to an impressive 6-3 finish in 2011) or former Jaguar starter David Garrard, who returns to the NFL after a year away from the game.
The running back position is set with Reggie Bush and Daniel Thomas splitting carries. Bush finally recorded his first ever 1,000-yard season in 2011, six years after being selected with the second overall pick in the draft. Former Houston starter Steve Slaton is also on the roster, giving Miami excellent depth at this spot.
Wide receiver will be a major issue for this team after trading Brandon Marshall to Chicago several months ago. Brian Hartline is now the team’s top wideout, and he had just 35 receptions for 549 yards and one touchdown last year. Miami didn’t do much to address this position in free agency or the draft, so just to put it in in perspective, this year’s receiving corp could rival that 1999-2000 Philadelphia Eagles tandem of Charles Johnson and Torrance Small. They recently gave Chad Johnson an opportunity, but released him due to off-field issues.
Defensively, Miami is anchored by a couple of veteran leaders in defensive end Cameron Wake and linebacker Karlos Dansby. They also have a pair of promising young corners in Vontae Davis and Sean Smith. Beyond these four players, the rest of the unit is rounded out with unproven young players and mediocre-to-average veterans. This isn’t a bad defensive squad, but they won’t dominate anyone.
Joe Philbin has a lot of work to do to get this program running the right direction. He can make it a successful season if he’s able to properly develop Ryan Tannehill to prepare for a more serious run in 2013.
Projected Finish: 4-12, 4th place.
New York Jets
Back when Rex Ryan first took over the Jets, I fell in love with the team. They had a great swagger about them, and backed it up with tough play and impressive upset victories. However, since the first couple of years in the Ryan era, I’ve slowly grown less and less fond of the team, and its at the point now where I just flat out don’t like the direction they’re going in.
The Jets needed to get better on offense. They either needed to get a dynamic upgrade from Mark Sanchez at quarterback, or they needed to get him much better help at the skill positions. Instead of going for a veteran quarterback, or looking for a better option than Shonn Greene at running back, the big off-season acquisition for the Jets was Tim Tebow.
As mentioned in the AFC North Projections, I’m not a Tebow-hater by any means, but I just can’t see his style of quarterback play translating into long-term success in this league.
Tebow might have been a nice backup option on a team with a prolific starter, but on this team he’s a bad fit. Mark Sanchez is already skating on thin ice because he’s improved very little since he first entered the league back in 2009, and he’ll now find it even more difficult to develop since the New York fans and media will be calling for Tebow at the first sign of trouble.
Bringing the Tebowmania circus to New York is not what this team needed, and it could help cost Rex Ryan his job.
The Jets didn’t do enough to improve their skill positions, and in fact may have gotten worse with the departures of LaDainian Tomlinson and Plaxico Burress. Shonn Greene is a decent player, but he’s best suited to be a complementary back, not a featured runner. Santonio Holmes is still a solid receiver, and Dustin Keller is improving as tight end, but there isn’t much depth behind them, even though the team does have high hopes for rookie wideout Stephen Hill, who will start right away.
The defense will still be the strength of this team. Cornerback Darrelle Revis can be counted on to take away a team’s best receiver, and the Jets hope their secondary improves with the free-agent addition of LaRon Landry.
They spent their first-round pick on defensive end Quintin Coples, and they hope that he and 2011 first-rounder Muhammed Wilkerson will team up to form a dynamic pass rush.
The linebackers are a bit of a concern, as this group is beginning to show their age. David Harris is still an excellent presence on the inside, but Bart Scott, Calvin Pace, and Bryan Thomas have all been in the league for over a decade, and each of them are coming off of down years.
I don’t see the Jets improving much on last year’s 8-8 record. There’s still some good talent on this football team, but they haven’t added enough to stay competitive with the rest of the playoff-caliber teams in the AFC. A favorable schedule should keep them in the mix for most of the year, but the Tim Tebow move is nothing short of baffling to me, and with Mark Sanchez’s continued struggles, I think this is a situation that has the potential to go south fairly quickly.
Projected Finish: 8-8 3rd place
Early in 2011, it looked as though the Bills were one of the surprise teams after jumping out to a 3-0 start. However, things would quickly fall apart for Buffalo, and they would only win three of their final 13 games to finish the year 6-10. Now Chan Gailey will to try to build off of what his young talent did well in 2011, and hope that a couple of big free agent signings will take the defense to the next level.
The most important key to the Bills’ season will be to get Ryan Fitzpatrick to stop turning the ball over. When he’s on top of his game, Fitzpatrick runs the offense quickly and efficiently, and finished the season with nearly 4,000 yards and 24 touchdowns. However, he also tossed 23 interceptions, a number which must decrease dramatically for Buffalo to be in the playoff picture.
The Bills have a pair of very talented running backs in Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller. Both backs averaged over five yards a carry, Jackson ran for over 900 yards in 10 games before fracturing his fibula. If these two can stay healthy, Buffalo will have one of the league’s most lethal tandems.
Fitzpatrick has a 1,000-yard receiver to throw to in Stevie Johnson. Johnson has great size, and is skilled at getting separation from defenders. David Nelson is a tough slot receiver who caught 61 passes and five touchdowns in 2011.
The Bills put a great deal of effort into improving their defense, signing free agent defensive ends Mario Williams and Mark Anderson to big contracts, and spending their first-round pick on cornerback Stephon Gilmore.
Williams and Anderson should dramatically improve a pass rush that generated just 29 sacks a year ago. Gilmore is a tall, physical corner that has the potential to develop into a shutdown guy. Safeties Jairus Byrd and George Wilson should be able to make a greater number of plays with a competent pass rush supporting them.
The Bills will be a very interesting team to watch. They’ve got a very favorable schedule in the second half of the season (there is only one team on their schedule in the final seven games that finished .500 in 2011), the defense has taken a big step forward on paper, and if Ryan Fitzpatrick can become much more careful with a football, this could be a surprise team that challenges for a playoff spot.
Projected Finish: 9-7, 2nd place
New England Patriots
Will Tom Brady ever capture that elusive fourth Super Bowl title? He came pretty darn close last year, after leading the Patriots on a stellar 13-3 campaign, and leading the AFC in scoring by averaging over 32 points per game. They came up short against the Giants in the Super Bowl, but there won’t be any Super Bowl hangover for this group.
Its incredible that Brady is in his mid 30′s, and his play hasn’t fallen off a bit. He’s coming off one of his best seasons, throwing for over 5,200 yards and 39 touchdowns in 2011. He’s established himself as one of the league’s all-time greats, and there isn’t any reason to think he won’t remain at that level this year.
Brady’s has an excellent array of weapons to work with. His top three receivers (Wes Welker, Rob Gronkowski, and Aaron Hernandez) combined for 291 catches, 3,806 yards, and 33 touchdowns. Deion Branch also chipped in 702 yards and five scores of his own. All four of those receivers return, and the Pats added three more starting-caliber receivers (Brandon Lloyd, Jabar Gaffney, Donte Stallworth) to the mix, giving New England as deep and lethal a receiving corp as there has ever been. Yikes.
Bill Belichick still doesn’t have a true featured running back to go to, but New England has gotten by just fine with a committee approach over the last decade.
The Patriots also have attempted to improve their defense by drafting Chander Jones and Dont’a Hightower in the first round of this year’s draft. While the two rookies should improve the quality of the front-seven, the secondary is still a major concern. New England’s defensive backs gave up over 4,700 yards through the air in 2011, which would have been a record if not for the even more atrocious secondary of the Green Bay Packers.
The Patriots are a shoe-in to remain at the top of this division, and will once again be one of the top teams in the AFC. As long as Tom Brady is in the lineup, this team will always be poised for a Super Bowl run. Maybe this is the year Brady finally wins fourth title, and puts himself in consideration as the best quarterback who has ever played the game.
Projected Finish: 13-3, 1st place
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