Thursday, March 8, 2012

NFL Off-Season Preview: AFC East Edition

After Week 3 this year it appeared that the AFC East may have a new dog on top. The Bills beat the Patriots for the first time since 2003. But the Bills faltered down the stretch, and the Patriots won the AFC East for the 8th time in nine years. The Patriots offense by the end of the year was a machine that couldn't be stopped. They have a duel threat at tight end with Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez and the always pesky Wes Welker at WR. The Jets took a step backward last year, failing to make the Playoffs for the first time under Rex Ryan. And there is dysfunction in the locker room. The Bills finally looked ready to make the Playoffs for the first time in a decade, but they faltered down the stretch. The Dolphins started the season 0-7 and appeared poised to draft Andrew Luck first overall, but they finished strong going 6-3 in their last nine games. This is a strong division that only appears to be going up with teams like the Bills and Dolphins getting stronger.

New England Patriots
2011 Record: 13-3

The Patriots were two different football teams on both side of the ball last year. The offense was its consistent good self. Tom Brady didn't miss a beat last year. They ranked second in total offense. Brady threw for the second most touchdowns and most yards in his career. Rob Gronkowski set a tight end record with 17 touchdown receptions, and Wes Welker caught 122 passes. The offense was a typical New England offense. The defense, meanwhile, struggled all year. While the Patriots got constant pressure on the QB, they were also constantly torched in the secondary. The Patriots ranked 31st in total defense. That is not the trademark of a typical Bill Belichick team. If the Patriots did not have Tom Brady on offense then they would be a .500 team at best with that defense. Tom Brady and Bill Belichick had their chance to cement their legacy by winning another Super Bowl, but they let the Giants drive down the field on them and beat them for the second time in a Super Bowl. Now the Patriots have to get back to fixing their defense while trying to win one more Super Bowl to cement their legacy.

Biggest Question: Do The Patriots Need One More Super Bowl to Cement Their Legacy?
Man, I am really good at these segues aren't I? Tom Brady and Bill Belichick already have 3 Super Bowl wins to their resume. That's pretty good for a QB/Coach combo. But you know Brady and Bellicheck. They want more. They want to be remembered as the greatest QB/Coach combo of all time. And to them, that means winning another Super Bowl. They have the tools on offense to do so, but they have to improve their defense. Sooner or later, teams will find ways to stop Tom Brady. If you have a pass rush that can get to him, he won't move around in the pocket. Brady is also 34 years old, so he doesn't have too much time left to win another one. He has a lot of weapons on offense that will stretch defenders thin, and that will help them remain a favorite to win the Super Bowl every year. If the Patriots can't win another Super Bowl this year, the time to win one for the Brady/Belichick combo may close.

Top 3 Free Agents
1. Wes Welker: Wide Receiver
Welker was given the franchise tag so I doubt he is going anywhere. Both sides want to work out a long term deal, and I expect Welker to finish his career as a Patriot. He is a great slot receiver and Brady's favorite target.

2. Dan Koppen: Center
Koppen was a solid center for the Patriots this year before going down with a fractured fibula. I'm sure Brady will want his center back and the Patriots will appease him.

3a and 3b. Andre Carter and Mark Anderson: Defensive Ends
Both of these men had revival years under Bill Belichick. They each recorded 10 sacks. Both men will probably be seeking a raise after their performances this year. They fit well in a 4-3 scheme.

Top 3 Needs
1. Cornerback
The Patriots were constantly torched last year in the secondary. Sterling Moore played well in the Playoff, but can he be a solid compliment to Kyle Arrington?

2. Defensive End
If the Patriots can't re-sign Carter and Anderson then they will have big holes to fill in their 4-3 scheme. It is tough to replace 20 sacks.

3. Safety
As well as cornerback, the Patriots will need another safety to play opposite Patrick Chung. They can't keep getting burned on long pass plays.

As long as Tom Brady and Bill Belichick are around, this team will be contenders to win the AFC every year. The Patriots offense is only getting better with the addition of young tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. If the Patriots make some improvements to their defense via free agency, then there is no reason to think they won't be the favorites to win the AFC again this year. But they have to win one more Super Bowl. It will cement the legacy of Tom Brady and Bill Belichick as the greatest dynasty of all time. Anything short of a Super Bowl win should be considered a failure for this team.

New York Jets
2011 Record: 8-8

By the time the season ended last year, the Jets were a dysfunctional mess. People were wondering if Mark Sanchez was the long term QB solution. Santonio Holmes was called out for essentially quitting on the team in the last game of the season and players were calling certain players selfish behind the scenes. All of that masks the Jets season. They were 8-5 and seemed destined for another run as a Wild Card team in the Playoffs. But the Jets lost three straight to close the season and missed the Playoffs for the first time under Rex Ryan. Now the Jets face the ultimate task of rebuilding their offense under new coordinator Tony Sparano. The Jets have some key free agents on offense and face the possibility of a down turn if things aren't fixed behind the scenes quickly. The players will tell you everything is fine, but certain things linger with players and you can bet one wrong thing can cause someone to snap.

Biggest Question: Is Mark Sanchez the Future QB of the Jets?
There is no doubt that Mark Sanchez regressed last year. You could see it in the way he played. Sanchez wasn't comfortable in the pocket and made some very questionable decisions throwing the ball. While Sanchez had a career high in touchdowns, it was partly because he threw way too much, and the Jets didn't rely enough on their running game. Sanchez was one time thought of as the long term "Sanchize" quarterback for the Jets. Now people don't even know if he will be the quarterback next season. With the release of Peyton Manning, the Jets are expected to be in hot pursuit despite support for Sanchez by his coach. If the Jets can't land Manning, then Sanchez may have one more year to prove himself as the Jets QB. Another regression, and Sanchez is as good as gone.

Top 3 Free Agents
1. Sione Pouha: Nose Tackle
Pouha was a run stopping force up the middle for the Jets last season. He is going to be 33 years of age, but Pouha still showed last year he can be a dominating force up the middle.

2. Plaxico Burress: Wide Receiver
All Burress pretty much did last year was catch touchdown passes. He had eight total. But Burress lacks the same burst he once had years ago, and the Jets may part ways with him.

3. Aaron Maybin: Linebacker
Maybin looked lost in Buffalo, but he found new life with the Jets recording six sacks. Maybin seems to be a pass rushing specialist, that's it.

Top 3 Needs
1. Wide Receiver
Santonio Holmes may not be brought back, and Plaxico Burress is a free agent. The Jets might need to replace both their starters during free agency. That could hurt Sanchez even more.

2. Quarterback
Even if the Jets decide to go with Mark Sanchez for another year, the Jets need to get a quality back-up in case Sanchez struggles so much that he needs to be benched.

3. Linebacker
Even though Maybin played well for the Jets, you don't want him to be your leading sack getter. The Jets need an upgrade here.

There are lots of questions surrounding the Jets this off-season. If they can land Peyton Manning, then all of those questions will be resolved. But if they don't, then the Jets might have to go through another year of Sanchez under center, and hope that he does not regress even further as a quarterback. The Jets need to solve their dysfunction in the locker room before they do anything. If the problems become too big, then they may cause the on field production to struggle, and that could result in a very long season for the J-E-T-S Jets Jets Jets.

Miami Dolphins
2011 Record: 6-10

The Dolphins started the season 0-7 and appeared to be headed for the #1 overall pick in April's Draft. Fans appeared ready and excited at the prospect of Andrew Luck as the team's quarterback of the future. Well, everyone forgot to tell the Dolphins players that. The team went on to win 6 of their last 9 games to finish the season 6-10 and having to settle with the #8 pick in the Draft. Coach Tony Sparano still lost his job late in the season, and he was replaced by Packers offensive coordinator Joe Philbin. Dolphins Owner Stephen Ross is all about the glitz and glamour, so you can bet he will make a hard push for Peyton Manning the second he is released. But you almost have to wonder if new coach Joe Philbin would like to bring in Matt Flynn, a quarterback he worked with in Green Bay. Another thing to remember is that the Dolphins will be switching to a 3-4 scheme on defense this season. They already have some parts for it, but some of them are free agents that need to be re-signed.

Biggest Question: Who Is Under Center Week One?
Despite not wowing anybody, Matt Moore had a pretty decent season last year once he became starter. But he isn't a long term solution for the Dolphins. Moore may stick around as a back-up, but there will be someone different under center Week 1. Peyton Manning will more than likely be priority 1, 2, and 3 for the Dolphins this off-season. As I said, owner Stephen Ross is all about making news. Manning would make the Dolphins Playoff contenders, but I would still give the Patriots the edge in the division. We have no idea how Manning will play returning from multiple injuries. Even if he does play well, you still only have two, maybe three years left with him. The better long term answer might be Matt Flynn. Flynn knows Joe Philbin's offense and would fit in right away with the team. They could trade up for Robert Griffin, but that seems like the last option. I would put the Dolphins as the front runners for Manning's services.

Top 3 Free Agents
1. Paul Soliai: Nose Tackle
Soliai's stats won't wow you, but he is a tremendous run stuffer for the Dolphins. He can fit in the middle of the Dolphins 3-4 look and do the same. He must be retained.

2. Kendall Langford: Defensive End
Just like Soliai, Langford's stats won't wow you but he can stuff the run and put pressure on the quarterback. He's a good five technique fit in the Dolphins 3-4 scheme.

3. Vernon Carey: Guard
Carey played well at guard for the Dolphins and did not give up too many sacks. He can open up run lanes as well.

Top 3 Needs
1. Quarterback
Matt Moore will win games and play serviceable, but he isn't the team's future at the position.

2. Linebacker
Cameron Wake should be able to transition well to outside linebacker, but the Dolphins will need someone else to play opposite and get to the quarterback.

3. Right Tackle
Marc Colombo was atrocious last year. He couldn't pass or run block. He needs to be replaced, and the Dolphins could do that with their #8 pick.

If the Dolphins are able to land Peyton Manning, then they become an instant Playoff contender. I don't think he makes them Super Bowl threats because we don't know how well Manning will play. He still needs a solid running game and offensive line around him. The Dolphins also need to transition well into the 3-4 defense. If the Dolphins can fill in the missing pieces, they may challenge for a Playoff spot even without Manning. The Dolphins showed some promise late last year, and they hope to continue it under a new coach this year.

Buffalo Bills
2011 Record: 6-10

The Bills were an exciting team to watch in the first half of the season last year. They came back from down 18 at the half to beat the Raiders, and were down 21-0 to the Patriots in Week 3 before winning on a last second field goal. The Bills were 5-2 after their Week 8 win against Washington, but things went down from there. Injuries decimated the team. Ryan Fitzpatrick suffered a rib injury in the Washington game that affected his play the rest of the season. Fred Jackson, Guard Eric Wood, Tackle Demetrius Bell, Defensive Tackle Kyle Williams and Linebacker Shawne Merriman were all lost to season ending injuries. The Bills struggled in the second half on both sides of the ball. They showed their potential when healthy, but the team still needs to make some talent improvements on both sides of the ball if they want to compete for the AFC East Title.

Biggest Question: How Close Is This Bills Team to Ending Their Playoff Drought?
Being from Buffalo and living here my whole life, I can tell you that hopes were high after the wins against New England and Philadelphia. Needless to say, just like every other Bills season, things took a down turn quickly. But we didn't know that Ryan Fitzpatrick was hiding a rib injury. And the rash of injuries the Bills had are a rarity to see. The offense should its potential last year. When Fred Jackson went down with an injury, C.J. Spiller stepped up and showed that he could handle the duties of a #1 back. The Bills re-signed Stevie Johnson which was badly needed. The offensive line was one of the most underrated units in the NFL. Improvements, however, are needed on defense. The Bills need two pass rushers. They were awful getting to the QB. With the Bills switching to a 4-3 defense, they already have a great combo of Kyle Williams and Marcel Dareus up the middle. If the Bills add some pieces on defense, and a second wide receiver, they could challenge for a Playoff spot this year.

Top 3 Free Agents
1. Demetrius Bell: Tackle
The Bills re-signed Stevie Johnson, Rian Lindell and Scott Chandler. So Bell tops this list. Bell played well in six games last year, only giving up one sack before suffering a shoulder injury. Bell has shown potential, but his price tag may be too high and the Bills could Draft his replacement.

2. Kraig Urbik: Guard
Urbik was considered the weak point of the Bills line headed into the season, but he didn't give up a single sack the whole year. Urbik could be decent depth.

3. Chad Rinehart: Guard
Rinehart started as a reserve but filled in well when injuries caused a shuffling up front. Rinehart is still a young talent and should be retained.

Top 3 Needs
1. Defensive End/Pass Rusher
The Bills are switching to a 4-3, so the pass rushing will come from the defensive end spots. The Bills could use two of them. There will be plenty of options at the #10 pick.

2. Wide Receiver
The Bills don't have a solid compliment to Stevie Johnson. They should look to add one during free agency. There will be solid veteran guys available.

3. Cornerback
Terrence McGee can't stay healthy, Drayton Florence was average at best last year, and former first round pick Leodis McKelvin hasn't lived up to potential. 2010 2nd round pick Aaron Williams look to be a starter next year, but the Bills may need another one.

The Bills are a team that are a couple of pieces away from being playoff threats. Chan Gailey has turned the offensive into a formidable threat. If the defense can improve by switching to a 4-3 look, then the Bills will challenge for a Playoff spot this season. They have to be hoping that Peyton Manning doesn't land in the AFC East. It might be homerism, but I think the Bills are a Playoff team either this year or next.

Seven down, one to go. NFC East Preview this weekend.

Until Next Time,
Justin C
Follow Me On Twitter @JCWonka

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