Forecasting the AFC East: Balanced Division Will Depend on Brady’s Return
In a division that has shifted from a one horse race to a balanced field in just a year, the battle for AFC East supremacy in 2009-10 hinges on the return of Tom Brady and his supposedly healthy knee. While New England has dominated the division since 2001, we all witnessed on-field improvements from virtually every team in the division a year ago, and going into 2009 this looks to be the best top to bottom, competitive division in football..
Last year, with Matt Cassel under center, the Patriots lost a first place tie-breaker with those upstart Fish and missed out on the playoffs, while Buffalo and New York were unable to maintain their quick starts. Belichick’s crew is, however, 33-9 in the division since 2002, and you can be sure that New England will be eager to reclaim the AFC East crown from Miami.
Let’s take an in depth look at the key additions and departures each team has experienced this off-season and how those changes affect their offensive and defensive units. Then, I’ll make some predictions and we’ll sort out which team should rise to the top in 2009.
2008-9 Record: 7-9
Key Additions: WR Terrell Owens, DE Aaron Maybin, CB Drayton Florence, C Geoff Hangartner
Key Losses: OT Jason Peters
2008 Assessment: The Bills started fast a year ago, getting to 5-1 before losing eight of their last ten games and finishing the year in disappointing fashion at 7-9. Buffalo finished in the bottom third of the league in both offensive YPG and passing YPG, while they held their own defensively despite a lack of big play ability. Offensive depth and explosiveness were big questions after Buffalo’s second half fizzle of a year ago.
Offensive Outlook: Buffalo believes they’ve remedied their lack of big play ability with the arrival of Terrell Owens. We all know how destructive Owens can be off the field, but assuming he keeps his head on straight and plays with a purpose, he’s a guy who will help stretch the field vertically for the Bills and offensive play caller Turk Schonert. His speed and presence at the second level will open up the slot for Lee Evans, Roscoe Parrish, and Josh Reed, and the Bills should more effectively be able to maximize their play-action calls given Owens’ height and size advantage on the outside. Alongside Marshawn Lynch and Fred Jackson at running back, Trent Edwards under center, and a fortified offensive line, Owens compliments what should constitute an improved offensive core for the Bills.
Defensive Outlook: Defensively, this is a solid unit that is only going to get better under defensive-minded coach Dick Jauron. The Bills finished 2008 with a solid, but not spectacular, defensive resume. As a team they were right in the middle of the pack in YPG and PPG, but they sometimes struggled turning other teams over, as they finished tied for third worst in the AFC with just 22 takeaways.
However, just like with the vertical passing game, this is something they feel they’ve addressed in a big way during the off-season. With the 11thoverall selection in the draft, Buffalo nabbed Penn St. DE/LB standout Aaron Maybin. Maybin is a big, physical athlete with quickness around the edge and should be a real asset and weapon for Jauron to use in a number of different formations. While he’s not quite the playbook whiz that Jerod Mayo was last year for New England, I feel Maybin could have a similarly impactful season with Buffalo. The Bills also addressed their secondary in acquiring Drayton Florence from Jacksonville and drafting Jairus Byrd out of Hawaii, while LB Paul Posluszny, a first round pick three years ago, returns from a knee injury.
Thing that worries me most: Is Trent Edwards “the” guy? He started strong a year ago, showing promise, poise, and impressive reads throughout Buffalo’s fast start. Then injuries and a lack of weapons were cited as the main reasons for Edwards’ regression during the second half of the year. Edwards did battle concussion issues, which can be very taxing mid-season. The addition of Owens, a dedication to pounding the ball with Fred Jackson and Marshawn Lynch, and improved health shouldcreate an atmosphere conducive to optimal production for Edwards. If, however, Edwards fails to get Owens the ball and create things down field, things could spiral downward quickly. Buffalo simply cannot afford that.
2009-10 Prediction: I like what Buffalo has done in the off-season, and I generally believe Dick Jauron is a sound football coach. There are no weeks off in the AFC East, and getting to 3-3 in the division would be viewed as a success for this Bills team. Outside of the division, Buffalo has to battle three playoff teams from a year ago on the road, and they also draw Indianapolis. I think they have an unfavorable schedule, but they made undoubted improvements on their roster from a year ago. Their season will hinge on Edwards and the offensive line. With New England back at full strength, I think a wild card berth is Buffalo’s most realistic shot at playoff play, but that is an attainable goal.
2009-10 Record: 9-7
New York Jets:
2008-9 Record: 9-7
Key Additions: LB Bart Scott, QB Mark Sanchez, S Jim Leonhard, CB Lito Sheppard, RB Shonn Greene
Key Losses: QB Brett Favre, WR Laveranues Coles
2008 Assessment: Acquiring Brett Favre, in the end, was a relatively lateral move for the Jets. Favre and the Jets raced out to an 8-3 record, and after big wins on the road at New England and then undefeated Tennessee, some people thought the aging Favre could lead a Broadway renaissance. As the end of the year illustrated, however, Favre’s arm turned out to have just slightly more juice in it than Chad Pennington, who had been lambasted n New York for his lack of down field ability. Favre played banged up, the Jets defense turned into a fairly mediocre unit, and the Jets lost four of their last five games en route to third place in the division. By all accounts, 2008 was a disappointment, and the firing of Eric Mangini demonstrates that.
Offensive Outlook: This is a unit in flux. If the reigns are handed to rookie Mark Sanchez, can we honestly assess the Jets offense in May? If Kellen Clemens wins the starting job and Rex Ryan elects to give Sanchez a year of tutelage on the sideline, then it’s fair to say the Jets will be trying to win games with a below average quarterback under center. One thing is for sure: Thomas Jones, Leon Washington, and Shonn Greene (assuming the first two get their contracts finalized) will form a three headed monster at running back that should be extremely hard to contain, especially playing behind one of the better offensive lines in the AFC. Jerricho Cotchery, Chansi Stuckey, and Brad Kelly constitute a below average group at WR, but young tight end Dustin Keller emerged late in 2008 and could be very special. Keller gets down the seams better than most with good route running and plus hands, and when in fact Sanchez wins the job, the chemistry of those two will be something to watch closely.
Defensive Outlook: With Rex Ryan coming over from Baltimore, this is a unit that could emerge as one of the ascending groups in the NFL. Ryan brought linebacker Bart Scott and safety Jim Leonhard over with him from the Ravens, two glue guys who should establish attitude and create a comfort with the system. Up front, the Jets are stout with Calvin Pace, Shaun Ellis, and Kris Jenkins. The Jets have developing contributors in the secondary in Kerry Rhodes and Darelle Revis, and the addition of Lito Shepphard from Philly and the aforementioned Leonhard could allow Ryan to be creative and take risks at the second level. Ryan also grabbed special teams veteran Larry Izzo from rival New England. One big development to watch will be how Ryan teaches, engages, and utilizes last year’s first round pick, Vernon Gholston, who tallied just 13 tackles and zero sacks in his rookie campaign. Is he a mega bust, or has he just not been used and motivated properly? That question and the degree to which Ryan can establish his smash mouth Baltimore-style defense will dictate how stingy this group can be.
Thing that worries me most: Even more so than Buffalo, the quarterback position scares me with this team. If Clemens starts, they are going to be challenged in the passing game given their limited receiving resources. If Sanchez starts, he’s going to struggle like any rookie quarterback. Either way they go, New York is going to dig itself a hole behind center.
2009-10 Prediction: The Jets are built to last along their offensive and defensive lines, and usually such strengths lead directly to success. But given the transition of bringing in a new coach and the inherent growing pains of either Clemens or Sanchez, the Jets simply won’t have enough in such a demanding division.
2009-10 Record: 8-8
2008-9 Record: 11-5
Key Additions: DE Jason Taylor, C Jake Grove, ATH Pat White, CB Vontae Davis,
Key Losses: None
2008 Assessment: Pennington, Parcells, and “The Wildcat” spelled success for Miami a year ago, and year in which the Dolphins won ten more games than the year before. It was a confluence of positive seasons, from the comeback of Pennington to the reemergence of Joey Porter. Although the Fish got trounced in the first round of the playoffs, no team exceeded expectations more than Miami.
Offensive Outlook: The drafting of WVU’s Pat White adds yet another element to a ground attack that already includes Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams. Miami’s schemes and short game from a year ago were as sound as any team in the league. My only concern is whether or not Chad Pennington can be counted on to deliver such a stellar season again. His receiving corps is lacking in elite talent, and one would think defenses will be more prepared and acclimated to Wildcat formations this year. And if Pennington struggles or has shoulder issues once again, will Chad Henne be ready when called upon? The line is anchored well with Jake Long in place, and they are going to attack the edges and use deception better than any offense in the NFL. Assuming the health of the quarterback position, Miami should continue to produce with their slashing and scheming abilities.
Defensive Outlook: Bringing back Jason Taylor adds an element of edge pressure and veteran leadership that would make any team better. Do people forget how dominant Taylor was two season s ago? They are built well at linebacker, and the addition of Vontae Davis and CB Sean Smith through the draft could solidify their struggling secondary. The wildly athletic Davis is a bit of a hot head, but he has elite talent that could be harnessed under intense coach Tony Sparano. The Dolphins certainly need shutdown production from their corner-backs, something that was really lacking a year ago. Getting after the football should be a marked strength, and usually that is a recipe for success.
Thing that worries me most: A lack of elite talent at the receiver position is Miami’s most glaring weakness. Ted Ginn Jr. and Davone Bess showed promise a year ago, but in my opinion Miami failed to land a true outside threat during the off-season through the draft or free agency. Draft picks Patrick Turner (3rd Round) and Brian Hartline (4thRound) are not going to give them much in 2009-10. If they had a true outside threat, defenses wouldn’t be able to pack it in and protect against the end-around, double reverse, or whatever it is Brown, Williams & White are showing on that given play. Their offensive unit is going to be compromised by a lack of down field production.
2009-10 Prediction: Miami is moving in the right direction and has a spirited group coming back, but I think they take a small step backwards this season. That is easy to do given their glaring success of a year ago. With Brady back and New England healthy, I think Miami’s road to the top is going to be tested more fervently while their strength of schedule is the toughest in the NFL. This could still be a playoff team, but given the fact that the Dolphins went 7-2 last year in games decided by a touchdown or less, I think they’re going to regress back towards the mean a bit in 2009-10.
2009-10 Record: 9-7
New England Patriots
2008-9 Record: 11-5
Key Additions: QB Tom Brady (injured), RB Fred Taylor, CB Shawn Springs, CB Leigh Bodden, WR Joey Galloway, WR Greg Lewis
Key Losses: QB Matt Cassel, LB Mike Vrabel, CB Ellis Hobbs
2008 Assessment: To some, the season was a failure. To others, it was one of Bill Belichick’s greatest successes. Finishing 11-5 while losing a prime future Hall of Famer at the quarterback position is a testament to “The Patriot Way” and the foundation they’ve built. On the other hand, when you’re coming off a season of near perfection with redemption ripe in your mind, 11-5 and no playoff berth can be seen as a failure to some. To this writer, the season turned out as well as it could have after Bernard Pollard’s fateful lunge. For all intensive purposes, the Pats played playoff caliber football while simultaneously converting another late round draft pick in Cassel into future value and roster flexibility.
Offensive Outlook: Perhaps more so than with any other group in this division, the health of Tom Brady and the Patriots offensive core is the focal point of this team. If Brady’s back to his old habits, this unit should be the NFL’s best with a reliable cast of running backs, an above average line, and a comically deep receiving corps. Moss and Galloway on the outside with Welker and Greg Lewis in the slot could be a four-wide set that drives defensive coordinators nuts. Fred Lewis and Sammy Morris provide stability out of the backfield, while Laurence Maroney remains a wild card talent on the fringe. If, however, Brady is less than 100% or he re-aggravates the injury, the Patriots will have to turn to second year man Kevin O’Connell. New England has certainly showcased an ability to produce elite quarterbacks from the depths of the draft pool, but O’Connell is not as developed as Matt Cassel was last year. Patriot faithful are hoping Kevin O’Connell isn’t a name we hear much from this upcoming season.
Defensive Outlook: Usually Bill Belichick’s 3-4 defenses are the backbone of championship runs and the biggest asset of the team. Last year, and in recent years as a whole, if we’re really being honest, that simply wasn’t the case. The Patriots have never been a team that focuses on the sack or pressuring the edges. Belichick has always preferred to sit back and rely on reads and schematic advantages, as well as veteran leadership, to create opportunistic turnovers. A trend that has been developing lately and continued last year, however, is that New England’s second and third levels were exposed and simply couldn’t support the 3-4 philosophy. The likes of Pierre Woods and Gary Guyton were stretched thin at linebacker, while Teddy Bruschi and Adalius Thomas battled injuries. And in the secondary, Rodney Harrison was lost for the year while the biggest concern coming into the year- cornerbacks- were awful.
The Pats still have needs at linebacker after ignoring that position in the draft, but they added depth and skill in the secondary by signing Shawn Springs and Leigh Bodden and drafting Patrick Chung and Darius Butler. Coupled with last year’s young nucleus of Jerod Meyo, Brandon Meriweather, James Sanders, Terrance Wheatley, and Jonathan Wilhite, the defense as a whole should be more athletic and much more explosive in passing downs. At the very least, Belichick will have more looks and fresh legs at his disposal. With the foundation of an All-Pro front three in place in Richard Seymour, Vince Wilfork, and Ty Warren, the New England defense should be better than a year ago.
Thing that worries me most: Obviously Brady’s health is perhaps the biggest swing factor for any team in the NFL, and I am also skeptical of the linebacker group. Mayo is an excellent franchise player, but the secondary group on the roster is thin. Pierre Woods, Eric Alexander, Tully Banta-Cain, Shawn Crable, and Gary Guyton lack the necessary athleticism and coverage skills that make Belichick’s defenses click.
2009-10 Prediction: Assuming #12 stays upright and injuries don’t ravage the roster as they did a year ago; this is a team that should be looking at a first round playoff bye. The acquisitions during this past off-season eerily resemble those of two seasons ago, when Belichick added a host of low risk, high reward type veterans and landed on the verge of perfection.
2009-10 Record: 12-4