2009 NFL Outlook: Spotlight on AFC East
The AFC East certainly gave NFL fans something to talk about last year, and the off-season has festered and produced even more questions for the upcoming season. One thing is for certain: unpredictability will be the story this year.
We start at the top of the division with last years AFC East Champs, the Miami Dolphins. As far as defense goes, the Dolphins were middle of the pack last year in total defense. They played a bend but not break defensive style though, as they finished in the top ten in scoring defense.
The addition of playmaking CB Vontae Davis out of Illinois will help shore up their secondary which was a problem at times for them last year, as they finished 25th in passing defense. Also in to help out the cause are CB Sean Smith and FS Chris Clemons, who will add depth and speed.
The offensive side of the ball was a huge bright spot for the Dolphins in 2008. Chad Pennington led a passing offense that ranked 10th in the league, and head coach Tony Sperano also helped integrate the Wildcat formation into the offense, which enjoyed moderate success.
Miami drafted QB Pat White out of West Virginia, who will certainly see time in the Wildcat package, and will compete with Chad Henne for the backup role. The running back tandem of Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams proved to be successful, and I expect the running game will only improve as the offensive line matures.
Miami will be good again in 2009, but I don't see them repeating as division champs. There are still questions about Pennington's durability and arm strength, although he proved he didn't need a gun of an arm to win last year.
Teams will also be more on the lookout for the wildcat as well, so it may not be as successful as it was last year. I give the Dolphins anywhere from 8 to 10 wins, and they will certainly compete for a playoff spot.
Next on our list are the New England Patriots. The Patriots bounced back to finish 11-5 last year despite losing their MVP quarterback Tom Brady in week one. Brady will be back, and a reloaded defense should give Patriots fans expectations of bringing the division crown back to Foxboro.
The Patriots struggled on offense at times last year, which was to be expected with Tom Brady out of commission. However by week five Cassel hit his stride and the Patriots began to prove that they are not a one man show.
With Brady back I fully expect the offense to be near tops in the league again, with perhaps the most dominant passing attack in the NFL.
New England also proved that they were not just a passing attack last year, when they finished fifth in the league in rushing offense. When Lawrence Maroney was out last year, the combined efforts of Kevin Faulk, Sammy Morris, and Benjarvus Green-Ellis carried the Pats' running game.
With the addition of Fred Taylor, New England enters the 2009 season with perhaps the deepest running back corps in the league.
The one area of improvement need for the Patriots this offseason was on defense. Despite giving up the eighth fewest points in the league, New England was dominated by opposing offenses at times, particularly by Miami, San Diego, Pittsburgh, and the Jets. This will have to improve if they want to go deep into the playoffs.
To address their defensive needs, the Patriots looked to the draft, where the picked up seven defensive players. Of note are SS Patrick Chung and OLB Tyrone McKenzie, who should both see significant time in 2009.
The rest of their draft will provide depth and relief for some of their aging players, while the rookies will gain experience and playing time as they look to take larger roles in the future.
The Patriots will be much improved in 2009. Not that they need any motivation, but finishing 11-5 yet missing the playoffs will certainly be bulletin board material. I expect them to finish with at least 11 or 12 wins, and I wouldn't be surprised if they had as many as 14.
Next up we have the debacle of the New York Jets. The 2008 season initially showed so much promise for them, but a floundering Brett Favre, a late season collapse, and a new coach leave the Jets looking for answers in 2009.
On the offensive side of the ball, the Jets passing game will be a big question mark. The number five overall pick Mark Sanchez will compete with Kellen Clemens for the starting job.
I was never impressed with Clemens in his limited play two seasons ago, and a rookie quarterback will always show growing pains, no matter how good. Whoever wins out the starting job, it will be a rebuilding year for the passing offense.
When looking at the running game, the Jets ranked 9th in the league, and have added a beast of a running back in Shonn Greene out of Iowa. I expect Greene to combine with Thomas Jones to form one of the leagues most dominant rushing attacks.
This will have to be the focus of the Jets offense if they want to succeed in 2009. Ball control will be key, with a focus on the rushing game and an emphasis on taking care of the ball for the quarterback.
The Jets will also have to improve on the defensive side of the ball if they want to succeed in 2009. They finished 16th and 18th in total defense and scoring defense, respectively. Defensive problems contributed largely to their late season collapse, as they only held one opponent to under 20 points in their final five games.
New York was able to stop the run, as they finished ninth in the league in rushing defense, but they gave up an average of 234.5 yards per game through the air, a total of 3,752 yards, and good for fourth worst in the league.
The Jets have not done much to address their issues in the secondary and will have to see significant improvement from the players that they had if they want to have a better defensive season.
With a young and unproven quarterback under center, a new coach at the helm, and a suspect defense, I expect the Jets to fall to the basement of the division in 2009. It will be a rebuilding and learning year, and I give them 5-7 wins.
We finally arrive at last year's fourth place finishers in the division, the Buffalo Bills. With a good draft, an experienced coach, and Trent Edwards in his second year as a starter, look for the Bills to be moving up.
Trent Edwards performed well at the beginning of the 2008 season, but his performance declined as the season went on, and he suffered injury in weeks 15 and 16. He should be more comfortable this year as a starter, and I expect his performance to improve, but his consistency and durability will remain a question mark until we see more of him.
The addition of Terrell Owens will help Edwards out tremendously, and will take some of the focus off of Lee Evans, allowing him to see loosened coverage by the defense.
The addition of TE Shawn Nelson will also help Edwards, as he likes to throw to his tight ends, and Eric Wood and Andy Levitre will provide some much needed depth and protection on the offensive line.
The Bills had a mediocre defense in 2008, and they spent five of their eight draft picks on defensive players. They gave up 5.4 yards per play which will have to improve.
The addition of four defensive backs in the draft, most natably CB Jairus Byrd, will give some help to Terrance McGee, Ashton Youboty, and Donte Whitner, who had to shoulder the load for the secondary last year.
The Bills had a great third down defense in 2008, finishing ninth in the league in that category. The addition of first round pick Aaron Maybin will help in the pass rushing game, and should take some of the focus off of Aaron Schobel, which will allow this category to improve significantly.
The pass rush will help the Bills improve their overall pass defense as well, which finished a modest 13th in the league last year.
Buffalo should be much improved in 2009, and fans should see the development of some good young players. I expect anywhere from 9 to 11 wins for this team, and they will compete for a playoff berth.
The AFC East will be perhaps the toughest division in the conference, with at least three teams being legitimate playoff contenders.
I see New England as the clear-cut favorites, and the competition within the division will make it tougher on Miami and Buffalo to make that run. It is doable for both teams however, and whatever happens in 2009 it will certainly keep AFC East fans entertained.
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