Comprised mostly of mediocrity, the AFC East is once again a one-horse race. The New England Patriots have the division firmly in their grasp once again, while the other three franchises continue to struggle to emerge from the league’s basement.
New York Jets
Its just painful to be a Jets fan these days.
The novelty that Rex Ryan brought with him to New York four years ago has worn off dramatically. The team doesn’t have the nearly the same overconfident yet effective swagger that they had back in 2009, and they’ve fallen into a losing mentality.
The team’s issues really start with the quarterback position. Mark Sanchez pretty much epitomizes what is wrong with the franchise. He’s not confident in his abilities, he performs at a mediocre level, and he doesn’t win football games. Sanchez is still making rookie mistakes after being in the league for four seasons. He’s a turnover machine, with the drafting of Geno Smith the Sanchez era may not last much longer in New York.
The bad news for the Jets is that Geno Smith may not necessarily represent any kind of significant upgrade over Sanchez. Smith brings with him a number of maturity issues, and has also reportedly shown up to training camp out of shape.
The team will have a new featured running back, choosing not to bring back Shonn Greene and acquiring power running back Chris Ivory from the Saints. Ivory was buried on the New Orleans depth chart, but he’ll get his chance to shine in a backfield that has almost no depth.
The wide receiver position is also a serious issue. Jeremy Kerley led the team with 56 catches for 827 yards last year, but he’s best suited for a role as a slot-receiver. Santonio Holmes returns from a Lisfranc injury, but he hasn’t had a 1,000 yard season in four years. The good news is that he’s still only 29, so there’s still some hope that he can regain his old form.
Defensively, the Jets said goodbye to Darrelle Revis, trading him to Tampa Bay. They’ve still got former San Diego Charger Antonio Cromartie, and they spent their first-round pick on Dee Milliner, but neither of these two will be able to replace what Revis was able to bring to the table when healthy. Former first-round pick Kyle Wilson is still on the roster despite making minimal contributions since being the team’s top pick in 2010. Just how bad is the rest of the depth in this secondary? The Jets currently have a seventh round pick from last year (Antonio Allen) starting, and they signed former Philadelphia Eagle Jaiquawn Jarrett to compete with him.
The rest of the New York defense isn’t that bad. The linebacking unit is anchored by veteran David Harris, who led the team with 139 tackles last season. Former first-rounder Quintin Coples will move to outside linebacker to try and take advantage of his natural pass-rushing ability.
Up front, the team has spent their last two first-round picks to fortify their defensive line. Muhammed Wilkerson had a strong rookie season, and could push to make the Pro Bowl this year. He’ll be joined by this year’s top draft choice, Sheldon Richardson, who is expected to primarily help the run defense.
The Jets have been a sinking ship for two years now, and this could be the year that this regime hits the bottom of the ocean floor. While they’ve got some individuals at certain positions with good talent, collectively this team has no upside. They’re going to have one of the worst offenses in the league, and the defense is going to get worn out quickly. Rex Ryan doesn’t have any answers for this mess, and at the end of the year I believe that both he and Mark Sanchez will finally be shown the door.
Projected Finish: 5-11, Fourth Place.
Its the beginning of a new era in Buffalo.
New coach Doug Marrone brings a fresh approach to the organization, and he also brings a fresh coaching staff to the Bills. Of Marrone’s staff, only 10 members of the 20-man staff have previous NFL coaching experience.
The Bills have a talented roster, but they’ve never been able to harness their ability.
At the quarterback position, the team used their top pick on E.J. Manuel. The Bills hope Manuel can do for them what Robert Griffin and Russell Wilson did for Washington and Seattle. Manuel has the skillset to run the read option, but he’s going to have to improve on his pocket presence. Manuel may not even begin the season as the starting quarterback, he’ll need to beat out former Philadelphia Eagle Kevin Kolb for the job. Kolb has never been able to stay healthy in his career, but continues to receive lucrative contract offers from NFL teams.
The running back position is the greatest asset of this team’s offense with the lethal duo of C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson. Spiller established himself as the featured back last season, rushing for over 1,200 yards and adding more than 400 receiving. He scored eight total touchdowns. Jackson struggled to stay on the field last year, but when healthy he’s capable of performing like a starting caliber player.
Defensively, the Bills have some talented pieces but not enough to translate into a quality unit. Last year’s big free-agent signings Mark Anderson and Mario Williams underachieved on the defense line. Anderson has since been released, and Williams did manage 10.5 sacks but also can’t seem to stay healthy. The team signed Manny Lawson to bring a veteran presence to a young linebacking group that will feature rookie Kiko Alonso in the middle and last year’s fourth-round pick Nigel Bradham.
The Bills have a couple of great young players in their secondary with Jairus Byrd and Stephon Gilmore. Gilmore was last year’s first-round pick, and was a solid physical presence. Byrd creates turnovers, and has made the Pro Bowl twice in his four-year career.
Buffalo is still building. They’ve just put another new coaching staff in place, and Doug Marrone will spend his first year trying to establish E.J. Manuel as his starting quarterback while figuring out what he’s got to work with on defense. C.J. Spiller is emerging as a top offensive weapon, and his presence alone will give Bills fans something worth watching, but ultimately this franchise is staring at least one more losing season in the face.
Projected Finish: 6-10, Third Place
The Dolphins exceeded the expectations of many last season by finishing with a 7-9 record, and proving to be more than just a pushover that many projected them to be. Unfortunately, the Dolphins lost just as many key contributors as they gained, which is going to make it difficult for them to really take another step forward in 2013.
Gone are Jake Long, Reggie Bush, and Sean Smith. Long, the former number one overall pick of the 2008 draft, had made four Pro Bowls with Miami, and he now leaves a serious hole on their offensive line. Reggie Bush had been one of their best offensive weapons, but was let go because he didn’t fit into the zone stretch running style that the team wanted to run. Smith was a solid starting corner who left to take a big contract with Kansas City.
Joe Philbin will try to help Ryan Tannehill take the next step in his development. Tannehill didn’t fare as well as fellow rookies Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III, but still played well in his rookie season. He threw for 3,294 yards with 12 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. He also played with a receiving corp. that generated just three touchdown receptions.
The Dolphins hope that number will increase dramatically this year with the addition of former Steeler Mike Wallace, who was the team’s biggest off-season addition. Wallace brings elite speed and a vertical threat that will help open things up for other players. Last year’s leading receiver Brian Hartline, who caught 74 passes for 1,083 yards, should benefit greatly from Wallace’s presence. The team also signed former New York Jets tight end Dustin Keller and former St. Louis Ram Brandon Gibson to add to Tannehill’s target list.
Without Reggie Bush, the Miami running game is a major question mark. Lamar Miller, a fourth-round pick from a year ago is going to get the first crack at the job, while former second-round pick Daniel Thomas and this year’s fifth-round pick Mike Gilllislee will also be in the mix.
The defensive line is arguably the Dolphins’ greatest strength. Cameron Wake remains one of the top pass rushers in the game, finishing with 15 sacks in 2012. Wake has some great complimentary players around him, with Jared Odrick starting at the other end position and Randy Starks and Paul Soliai on the interior. Odrick is a solid run defender who was second on the team with five sacks. Starks is one of the game’s more underrated defensive tackles, capable of performing well against the run and pass. Soliai draws double teams regularly. But the Dolphins added even more talent to this group, selecting Dion Jordan with the third overall pick.
The linebackers and secondary is filled with question marks. The team signed Dannell Ellerbe from the Baltimore Ravens to take over the middle linebacker position, with the hopes that he’ll bring with him a winning attitude. In the secondary, the team took a chance on former Atlanta Falcon Brent Grimes. Grimes is coming off of a torn Achilles, but is capable of performing at a Pro-Bowl level when healthy.
The Dolphins are headed in the right direction. Ryan Tannehill should improve in his second season, and he’ll benefit greatly from the additions the team made to his receiving corp. However, they’ve still got some holes to fill. Issues with the running game, offensive line, linebackers, and secondary are going to make it difficult for the Dolphins just to repeat last year’s 7-9 mark. As long as Tannehill continues to develop, it won’t matter if the team’s record drops from what it was in 2012. The future is bright in Miami, Joe Philbin just needs another year or two to finish building his roster.
Projected Finish: 6-10, Second Place
New England Patriots
If ever there was a “gold standard” in the National Football League, the New England Patriots would have to be the definition.
Tom Brady is still on top of his game, coming off of a season that he threw for over 4,800 yards with 34 touchdowns and only eight interceptions. However, as great as Brady is, he’s going to have a difficult time repeating last year’s performance. The three-time Super Bowl Champion has been stripped of most of his top receivers from a year ago. Wes Welker was picked up by the Broncos, Aaron Hernandez was picked up by the authorities, and veteran wideouts Deion Branch, Brandon Lloyd, and Donte Stallworth were not re-signed.
The team signed Danny Amendola from St. Louis, but he’s had serious difficulties staying healthy. The same can be said for Brady’s other top target Rob Gronkowski, who has spent the off-season dealing with back problems. If these guys can’t stay on the field, its going to make life difficult for Brady.
The good news is that the New England running game is in great shape, anchored by Stevan Ridley who ran for over 1,200 yards with 12 touchdowns a year ago. Ridley is joined by LeGarrette Blount, who was acquired in a trade with Tampa Bay.
The Patriots also have an improving defense. Young linebackers Dont’a Hightower, Jerod Mayo, Rob Ninkovich, and Brandon Spikes are growing together and becoming more cohesive with every year.
In the secondary, Aquib Talib is benefiting from playing is a positive environment, and Devin McCourty led the club with five interceptions. The team also signed former Arizona Cardinal Adrian Wilson, giving them a solid leader who has spent his career playing on a lot of bad football teams in the desert.
The Patriots should roll through this division with ease. I think they’re going to surprise a lot of people with how much they’ve improved defensively. Their young talent is taking strides every year, and the addition of a guy like Adrian Wilson could really do wonders. Even though you have to wonder about the health of guys like Amendola and Gronkowski, the Patriots have a strong offensive system that has allowed a lot of unknown players to be plugged in and enjoy success.
Projected Finish: 11-5, 1st Place