AFC East Outlook: Pats Sit Atop a Tight Division
It's pretty apparent, over the past few years, that the Jets have emerged as big movers and shakers in the offseason. Playing in the AFC East can do that to a franchise, especially when other teams in the division employ the same strategy of reup and reload.
The Patriots likely started the spending spree when they restocked their receiving corps two years ago with the acquisitions of Randy Moss, Wes Welker and the since departed Dante Stallworth. The Jets upped the ante last spring, with a multi-positional haul that included RB Thomas Jones, NT Kris Jenkins, LG Alan Faneca and LB Calvin Pace, among others. Now, with the Bills surprise signing of WR Terrell Owens, and the Dolphins new status of reigning division champs, the AFC East is arguably at its tightest, since shrinking to four teams in 2002. All four franchises feel like they have a legitimate shot at taking the division.
With the Pats, an 11-win team that missed out on the playoffs only looks to improve with the return of Tom Brady. Surely, Matt Cassel looked just as good toward the end of the season, but out the window goes his learning curve after replacing Brady. The team restacked its offense, headlined by two aging veterans, RB Fred Taylor and WR Joey Galloway. On defense, they addressed their biggest weakness, the secondary, with the signings of CBs Shawn Springs and Leigh Bodden. Both are slated to start, but New England acquired a wealth of defensive back depth in the past two drafts, and on paper, looks like a team without a weakness.
The Bills will force teams to guard Owens and fellow WR Lee Evans straight up, so QB Trent Edwards' ability to get the ball downfield will be crucial. The Bills added RB Dominic Rhodes, who will form a committee with Fred Jackson until Marshawn Lynch is finished serving a suspension. All three backs can catch the ball, and the Bills are now going with a no-huddle offense in hopes of boosting a pass offense that has yet to shine with Edwards under center. As far as defense, the Bills were middle of the pack last season, and should remain in that realm without any big-time free agent signings this spring to report on.
That leaves the team that shocked the league last year, winning the AFC East after finishing 1-15 in the previous season. The Dolphins were impressive last season, but not dominating in any sense of the word. They finished around tenth in every team stat, from passing and rushing offense to passing and rushing defense. Second year coach Tony Sparano will continue to use the Wildcat offense, which should be enhanced by rookie Pat White, West Virginia's explosive QB. While expectations remain high for the Phins, it's wise to remember they took advantage of an easy schedule last season, and plan on easing Chad Henne into the starting QB role in the next two years.
All in all, the AFC East is both strong and one-sided. There's no reason to count out the Bills or Dolphins, but at the same time, the Patriots look very intimidating on both sides of the ball. Bill Belichick seems to be an expert at introducing new players to New England's system, and as long as Brady is back in form, you need to project a few more wins to last season's total of 11. The Jets have the talent to compete with all four teams, but all bets are off until a starting QB emerges, and even that wont be settled until a few weeks into the season.
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