2013 NFL Season Preview: AFC East

New England Patriots

Overview

The Patriots had a kind of busy offseason. The Tim Tebow coverage was self-inflicted but the Aaron Hernandez situation was something that is tough for a team to deal with from a public relations standpoint as well as an organizational standpoint. Removing his current legal situation and looking at Aaron Hernandez the football player, he was a massive part of this offense and a very good football player.

New England underwent a bit of a philosophical change and decided to clean up some of the personalities and trouble makers on the roster before the entire Hernandez situation came to light. That plus an effort to get stouter up front led to a major roster change. Besides Hernandez, the Pats lost RB Danny Woodhead, WR Wes Welker, WR Brandon Lloyd, G Donald Thomas, G Brian Waters (sort of), DE Trevor Scott, DT Kyle Love, DT Brandon Deadrick, and S Patrick Chung. The Pats added RB LeGarrette Blount, WR Danny Amendola, WR OT Will Svitek, DT Tommy Kelly, and S Adrian Wilson (who is now hurt). The Pats added LB Jamie Collins to provide some athleticism to the LB unit, as well as preseason standout receivers Kenbrell Thompkins, Josh Boyce, and Aaron Dobson.

Bill Belichick is one of the best coaches in the game. There are very few football minds that are good enough to manage the personnel side and the coaching side as well as he does. He always has his teams well prepared and is one of the most forward thinking coaches in the game today. His job security allows him to try out things that other coaches might be afraid to try because if it fails it could cost them their jobs. While everyone else is trying to copy what Belichick is doing, he’s planning his next new wrinkle.

Strengths

It wouldn’t right to talk about the Patriots without mentioning the starting quarterback as a strength. Tom Brady makes it look easy because he’s so poised and calculated. He never looks surprised. Even though I thought he missed a few more throws than normal last season, his preseason shows he’s still in form. The offensive line may not boast big names but offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia is the best offensive line coach in the league and always has his guys ready to play. This unit is good in both pass blocking and run blocking. Some of the blocking designs they ran last season were some of the most complicated in the league. The running backs are very good and very deep. Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen have completely different skill sets and will be used in tandem and will be matchup problems for teams all season. The defense is led by Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly up front with a very good linebacker group behind them. Rob Ninkovich is a gutty player who is very savvy getting off of blocks and getting to the ball. Chandler Jones is a great pass rusher who sets up blockers well but I would like to see him stop hesitating so much and just attack the QB. Jerod Mayo is one of best middle linebackers in the NFL.

Weaknesses

The Patriots are a team that are good pretty much at every position. The weakest link probably falls on a pass rush that needs to improve. In the secondary, CBs Aqib Talib, Alfonzo Dennard, and Kyle Arrington are very good cornerbacks but the Patriots need better play out of their safeties. Devin McCourty is a very good play but Steve Gregory offers limited athleticism and mediocre cover skills.

Name To Know

Danny Amendola, Kenbrell Thompkins, Aaron Dobson, and Josh Boyce – These are the young receivers that will make up what might be the best receiving corps that Brady has had since Moss left. Thompkins is phenomenal at the option route. Aaron Dobson has a major league catch radius and huge but inconsistent hands. Dobson could end up being the best receiver out of this group. Boyce is a smooth accelerator who can play inside or outside and can quietly get beyond a defense. Amendola will fill Wes Welker’s old role but with an added element of burst that will let him get deep.

Prediction

It would be foolish to bet against the Patriots in a division that is full of question marks once again. The Patriots went 12-4 last season and I see a much improved team on both sides of the ball. 12-4 is probably a good guess for a record but 13-3 isn’t out of the question. The Pats should be playing the Broncos in the AFC Championship Game.

 

 

Miami Dolphins

Overview

The Dolphins can be a bit of an enigma. They have a young QB who looks the part in Ryan Tannehill. They have a very good head coach in Joe Philbin. They have a defensive line that can get after the quarterback fairly decently. So what’s up with the 7-9 record last season? Well, pretty much everything else was suspect and the Dolphins weren’t amazing in the other areas to make up for the suspect ones, which makes for an average team.

This year Miami has added speedster WR Mike Wallace, WR Brandon Gibson, TE Dustin Keller (now on IR), OT Tyson Clabo, DT/DE Vaughn Martin, LB Dannell Ellerbe, LB Phillip Wheeler, and CB Brent Grimes. First round pick, LB Dion Jordan will contribute heavily to the pass rush when he is healthy. CB Jamar Taylor, G Dallas Thomas, and RB Mike Gillislee are rookies who could contribute significantly. The Dolphins let a lot of talent slide out the door in RB Reggie Bush, WR Davone Bess, WR Marlon Moore, TE Anthony Fasano, LT Jake Long, DT Tony McDaniel, LB Kevin Burnett, LB Karlos Dansby, CB Sean Smith, and S Jonathan Amaya. Miami sure didn’t replace as much as it lost.

A lot of the success of this team will revolve around the progression of Ryan Tannehill and on Offensive Coordinator Mike Sherman’s ability to open up the offense and provide Tannehill with something to grow into. Otherwise, Tannehill’s growth could be stunted and the offense could sputter.

Strengths

Cameron Wake may be one of the best players in the NFL who doesn’t get the recognition he deserves. This guy terrorizes quarterbacks on a play to play basis. The front line is stout against the run and gets to the quarterback well, too. The linebacking play was solid last season but there’s a whole new unit in place. Reshad Jones is a really good football player at the safety position and so is Chris Clemons. CB Brent Grimes was a very good CB in Atlanta before his knee injury and it should be expected that he returns to form in Miami.

Weaknesses

Left tackle is Miami’s biggest concern. Jonathan Martin was one of the worst blockers in the league last season and only looked slightly improved in the preseason. It’s sort of odd that this position wasn’t addressed considering the shiny new young QB that the Dolphins have to protect. The offensive line as a whole could get better. After Grimes at CB, there is a lot of unknown. The offense lacks playmakers outside of Mike Wallace. There are no viable TE receiving threats while WRs Hartline and Gibson offer limited abilities.

Name To Know

Reshad Jones – This guy is the epitome of a football player. He’s physical, smart, and gets to the ball quickly. Everyone should know his name.

Prediction

It’s easy to go back and forth on Miami. Young QB with good head coach spells success, right? Lack of CBs and OL spells disaster, right? Again, we come back to an average team whose positives can’t outweigh the negative. Miami is an 8 or 9 win team simply because of a weak conference.

 

 

New York Jets

Overview

The New York Jets are probably one of the most misperceived teams in the NFL right now. The media wants to, and does, make a mockery out of the Jets because it’s fun and compelling and draws in readers. The offense has a lot to laugh about, but don’t transfer that over to the defense. This defense was quietly pretty good last year while having to defend a shortened field due to a lackluster offense.

Many call Rex Ryan a “lame duck” head coach but it should be easy to cheer for a guy who everyone seems to be against and just waiting to fail. Rex overcoming an offense that lacks weapons and has a major question at QB, only to win 8 or 9 games this season and possibly vie for a playoff spot? Now there’s a compelling story.

The Jets traded away the best cornerback in the league in Darrelle Revis and that will have a major affect on Rex Ryan’s game planning. New GM John Idzik ushered out QB Tim Tebow, Shonn Green, WR Braylon Edwards, TE Dustin Keller, OT Jason Smith, G Brandon Moore, G Matt Slauson, DT Sione Pouha, LB Bryan Thomas, LB Bart Scott, S LaRon Landry, S Yerimiah Bell, and S Eric Smith. This makes it evident that Rex doesn’t have control over the roster as many of those players were “his” guys. In place of them, the Jets traded for RB Chris Ivory, and added RB Mike Goodson, TE Kellen Winslow, G Willie Colon, DT Antonio Garay, LB Antwan Barnes, and S Dawan Landry.

Strengths

Muhammed Wilkerson is a name many should be familiar with by now, but if you aren’t learn it. This guy is a force at DE and will be for a long time. Adding Sheldon Richardson and Kenrick Ellis to that line and it’s a very solid group. The linebackers got better when Quinton Coples switched from DE to OLB and will be primarily a pass rusher off the edge. The cornerbacks should be good once again with Antonio Cromartie, Kyle Wilson, and rookie Dee Milliner providing three very good options.

Weaknesses

Dawan Landry and Antonio Allen as safeties isn’t ideal. The QB situation is what it is. Geno Smith will start the season and we’ll get to see what he’s got while Mark Sanchez nurses a sore shoulder. The real weakness is the lack of receiving threats for any of these QBs to throw to. Without Santonio Holmes, the best option may be TE Kellen Winslow who was signed after only playing a few snaps total last season.

Name To Know

Quinton Coples – Coples’ switch to OLB will be a pivotal move in this defense. It will be interesting to see if he can manage in coverage and if he has the closing speed to get to the QB with consistency. If he does, this defense could be a pain for any offense to deal with all season.

Prediction

I want to say the Jets will be good. I want Rex to come out on top. Geno Smith could turn out to be a phenomenal QB but I thought he was a bit of a project in pre-draft evaluation. He really probably should sit to catch up to the speed of the game and not get overwhelmed. As it is, he’s starting week one and he’ll need to learn to adapt immediately. But with that question hanging over an offense that lacks an explosive threat, the defense can’t carry this team past 5 wins on their own.

 

 

Buffalo Bills

Overview

The Buffalo Bills are another intriguing team. They have a new coaching staff that has put an emphasis on speed and athleticism at the skill positions. New QB EJ Manuel seems like a good fit for that offense and it fits that one of the most explosive rushers in the NFL, CJ Spiller, was already waiting for them on the roster. Any evaluation of the Bills probably falls in line with how positively or negatively you feel about EJ Manuel as a passer. With that said, take this analysis of the Bills with a grain of salt as I’m not optimistic in how Manuel will perform in the NFL in his first season. I had him as a 5th to 7th round pick and a major project to become a good NFL QB in my pre-draft evaluation.

Aside from Manuel, the Bills added veteran QB Kevin Kolb to back him up, G Doug Legursky, DT Alan Branch, and DE Jerry Hughes, in addition to draft picks WR Robert Woods, LB Kiko Alonso, and WR Marquise Goodwin. The Bills had a lot of holes left to fill by losing QB Ryan Fitzpatrick, QB Tarvaris Jackson, WR David Nelson, WR Donald Jones, G Andy Levitre, G Chad Rinehart, DE Chris Kelsay, DE Kyle Moore, DE Shawne Merriman, DT Spencer Johnson, OLB Nick Barnett, LB Kelvin Sheppard, CB Terrence McGee, and S George Wilson.

Losing so many players and only adding a few via free agency and the draft means the Bills have a young team for this season. This means that they could be prone to a lot of mental mistakes in critical situations. That and the details of the game are a little blurry, which means there will be a lot of plays that are “just missed” or that don’t go the Bills way.

Strengths

The Bills have an interesting group of wide receivers. Stevie Johnson and TJ Graham are slated as the starters but Robert Woods and Marquise Goodwin could see a lot of playing time as I expect this to be a spread offense that uses a ton of shotgun and 3-4 WR formations. The running backs are deep and CJ Spiller’s game speed and athleticism are special.

Weaknesses

There are a lot of names that are recognizable on the defensive side of the ball but the production has been lacking. They displayed a porous run defense. The offensive line was very good in pass blocking last year but lacked physicality in run blocking. There needs to be more balance, especially if Manuel is going to be running some read option and QB sprints.

Name To Know

Robert Woods – Woods is a guy that many compare to Reggie Wayne. He shows great feet and a strong set of hands to snatch the ball out of the air. He’s not afraid to go over the middle, he’s a polished receiver, and he should be able to contribute early and often.

Prediction

The Bills seem to be on their way to turning things around based on a roster that is loaded with very good weapons at the skill positions. Again, much of that depends on how EJ Manuel turns out as a passer and a QB, not just a runner at the QB position. There is no doubt he can run, but he’s got to display a better pocket tolerance and hang in versus the rush. He can’t take off if his first read isn’t there like he liked to do in college. EJ Manuel will be a good case study in how this type of QB can adapt to the NFL. He’s a very smart guy and his numbers are off the charts. He has plenty of weapons around him and a good pass blocking offensive line. The defense has a ton of names, Marcell Dareus, Kyle Williams, Mario Williams, and Stephon Gilmore, but the production hasn’t matched the names. Maybe new defensive coordinator Mike Pettine changes that and gets these guys on the same page. That’s a lot of optimism for a team that hasn’t played well in a long time. 4-5 wins is all I can justify. If Manuel turns out to be a good QB and Pettine puts together a solid defensive effort, this team could finish 2nd in the division at 9-7 and make a run at the playoffs. Too many unknowns bring me back to a 5-11 record.

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