AFC East Preview: The Pats Are Back
Opponents—(NFC South, AFC South)—NE (BAL, DEN)—BUF (KC, CLE)—MIA (SD, PIT)—NYJ (OAK, CIN)
(1 - Every division plays one division from the other conference. 2 - Every division plays one division from the same conference. 3 - The remaining eight teams in the conference are split amongst the divisional teams [referred to as variable games])
Offense: They return the same offensive line for the third consecutive year, helping the offense maintain continuity. They also added depth to the position by drafting 6'8" Sebastian Vollmer, who can play guard and tackle, in the second round of this past year’s draft.
Also returning are Randy Moss and Wes Welker to the receiver positions, and they will be supported in the WR corps this season by Joey Galloway (TB) and Greg Lewis (PHI).
They will miss Jabar Gaffney, an underrated third receiver. Gaffney had built a solid chemistry with Brady since joining the Pats in the middle of the 2006 season.
In the '07 season, Gaffney had 24 receptions and 4 touchdowns between Weeks 11 and 16. Also, 2006 season’s playoffs, Gaffney had 18 catches in the first two games.
The tight end position welcomes two new veteran additions to the mix, Chris Baker (NYJ) and Alex Smith (TB). Both Baker and Smith, and fourth-year man David Thomas, will compete, presumably, for the No. 2 TE slot behind Benjamin Watson.
At running back, the Pats added one new guy to the mix, Fred Taylor (formerly of JAX). It’s unclear who will start and, most likely, playing time will be distributed among all of NE's backs (Sammy Morris, Kevin Faulk, Laurence Maroney, and Taylor).
The biggest news for the offense is the return of Tom Brady. Brady looks healthy so far this offseason. He is backed up by Andrew Walter (OAK) and second year man Kevin O’Connell.
Look for the offense to continue to put up numbers, even with the loss of Josh McDaniels. The offense will be the same, spread style of attack, so expect Faulk to receive the bulk of the plays as the receiving/third down back. The Pats will need either Galloway or Lewis to step up as defenses key on Moss and Welker. If neither can, quarterback-turned-receiver Julian Edelman and Mathew Slater appear to be their only competition, and neither have real NFL experience.
Defense: For the sixth straight year, the Pats will have the same three starting on the defense line. Richard Seymour, Ty Warren and Vince Wilfork (all first round picks) have been constants on an otherwise revolving door of players on defense.
Wilfork is in negotiations with the Pats about extending his deal, and although it is unlikely, if he were to be traded, expect Ron Brace to replace him at nose tackle.
At linebacker, the Pats have two sure things—second-year man Jerod Mayo and Adalius Thomas. Tedy Bruschi will most likely share time with second-year man Gary Guyton at MLB as Bruschi continues to age.
The other outside linebacker is a crap shoot. The Pats just got Derrick Burgess (OAK) and are apparently interested in Kevin Carter (TEN). They also have Tully Banta-Cain (SF), who’s been with New England before, and young guys Pierre Woods and Shawn Crable. Expect Burgess to emerge and Woods to receive time at the position as well.
The secondary returns one starter from last year, James Sanders, and will replace Rodney Harrison with third-year man Brandon Meriweather. The corner positions will most likely be filled by Leigh Bodden (DET) and Shawn Springs (WAS). Also in the mix are Jonathan Wilhite and rookie Darius Butler.
The defense should be a top-10 defense, but the stats will be a little skewed if the Pats have a good offense, forcing their opponents to throw more than normal. Look for rookie Pat Chung to get a lot of playing time at SS in the nickel with Meriweather moving to nickel back in those packages, something he played the last two years. The biggest thing will be who emerges as the other OLB opposite Thomas. I think Woods will receive the most time, with Burgess playing in pass rush situations.
Outlook: The Pats are poised to return to the playoffs. If Brady is healthy, look for an 11-14 win season. The key stretch in New England’s schedule will be weeks 9-15. Following a week 8 bye, the Pats will play four of their six divisional games in this seven-game stretch, as well as having to go to Indy and New Orleans.
Offense: Buffalo's offensive line is in stark contrast to New England’s. It returns two starters, Langston Walker and Brad Butler, but neither is playing the same position. Walker is moving from LT to RT, Butler from RG to RT. Buffalo is also starting two rookies, one at RG Eric Wood (28th pick), and one at LG, Andy Levitre (51st pick).
At center, they bring in Geoff Hangartner (CAR) who started at the position four games last year for Carolina. Look for veteran Seth McKinney (CLE), who has 45 career starts at G to replace one of the rookies unless they perform well.
Marshawn Lynch will miss the first 3 games of the year for a suspension. The Bills have Dominic Rhodes (IND) and Fred Jackson to grab most of the carries, with young guy Xavier Omon as a dark horse in the competition.
At tight end, look for three guys (Derek Schoumann, Derek Fine, and Shawn Nelson) to see playing time, with third year man Schoumann starting.
It is going to be interesting to see who gets playing time at wide receiver. Most likely, Buffalo will go with three-wide, and that presumably leaves Roscoe Parrish as the fourth man out. With Terrell Owens (DAL), Josh Reed, and Lee Evans, the Bills will have a very good receiving corps.
At quarterback, the Bills need Trent Edwards to step up if they want to be a winning team. Edwards is most likely going to have an inconsistent offensive line in front of him and it will be up to him to get the ball out to his receivers before a constant rush. They are backing him up with Ryan Fitzpatrick (CIN) but the job is clearly Edward’s.
The development of the offensive line will be huge. They need a running game to take the pressure off the offensive line in the passing game, but without Lynch for the first three games, that may be a struggle. I don’t see T.O. being a distraction, but more of an afterthought. Think Randy Moss in 2006 with Oakland when he had 42 receptions. I say this because if the offensive line can’t protect Edwards, the Bills will have to resort to a short passing game. Owens could get a lot of receptions in a system like that, but not a lot of yards or touchdowns.
Defense: The D-line returns all four starters, including Pro Bowler Aaron Schobel who only played five games last year before going down to injury. Look for Ryan Denney, who replaced Schobel after his injury, to also work in as a three-man rotation at DE.
The three starting linebackers return this year as well. Paul Posluszny enters his third season in the league at middle linebacker. Look for him to make a jump to over 100 tackles this year.
At safety, Bryan Scott, who started seven games at SS and FS last year, will replace Ko Simpson as the starting SS this year. Terrence McGee returns at Corner and Leodis Mckelvin will start this season at the other corner spot.
The defense has 11 guys who all started last year at least five games on their team. There should be a good chemistry with the defense. Donte Whitner is young and talented, and the Bills will need him to produce. Buffalo’s first round pick, DE Aaron Maybin is still unsigned and may not have much playing time this year. To me, Maybin is a 3-4 outside linebacker, not a 4-3 DE, but he will most likely work into the rotation next year.
Outlook: The Bills look like a good team right now if the offensive line can develop chemistry quickly. The Bills were 14th in yards allowed last year and look for an improvement on that with almost everyone back, but expect an overall record not much different from last season, about 6-9 wins.
The key part of the Bills schedule is weeks 1-3. They go on the road to New England, then play home games against Tampa and New Orleans without No. 1 running back Marshawn Lynch. Buffalo can’t get off to a bad start because five of their next seven games are on the road.
Offense: The offensive line returns two good tackles, Vernon Carey and Jake Long. The LG, Justin Smiley, also returns but the Dolphins brought in Jake Grove (OAK) to play center and are using second year man Shawn Murphy at RG. Look for teams to key on the right side of the line trying to force Murphy into mistakes.
Miami has Anthony Fasano and David Martin returning at TE, but also have Ernest Wilford as their fifth TE. This team is looking for wide outs and it would seem someone like Wilford would work because he did it in Jacksonville, grabbing 140 receptions in his first four years in the league. With that said, last year, in his first year with Miami, Wilford only had three receptions.
At WR, the Dolphins drafted Patrick Turner and Brian Hartline; look for Hartline to emerge as a top receiver on the team. Right now, their top four receivers are Devone Bess, Ted Ginn, Greg Camarillo and Hartline. That's a lot of speed right there, but look for the TE position to be the go-to receiver in the red zone as Hartline being the tallest of the bunch at 6’2”.
At running back, the Dolphins return one of the best 1-2 combos in the league in Ricky Williams and Ronnie Brown. The combo had 1,600 yards last year and look for that to remain the same this year.
At quarterback, the Dolphins still have Chad Pennington but are backing him up with Chad Henne and rookie Pat White. If Pennington suffers an injury, look for them to try and add someone like Cleo Lemon rather than go with Henne. Pat White is appealing because he can be their wildcat quarterback, or he can play receiver or running back. How the Dolphins ultimately use him will be interesting.
The offense is good and I think Hartline can be a real good receiver. The key to this offense is how Pennington plays. Pennington has never started more than nine games in an odd year. He is injury-prone and it seems to bite him the worst in odd numbered years. Look at his games played stats: ‘02—15, ‘03—10, ‘04—13, ‘05—3, ‘06—16, ‘07—9, ‘08—16. If he goes down or plays poorly, look for this offense to struggle badly. Pennington led the league in completion percentage last year. This team needs him.
Defense: The defensive line is average in Miami. They like second-year DE Kendall Langford. But this team only needs its D-line to fill up gaps because they now have Jason Taylor (WAS) returning to the team as an outside linebacker.
If Taylor stays healthy, he and Joey Porter could dominate, combing for 25+ sacks this year. Their MLBs Akin Ayodele and Channing Crowder are very solid players. This team will force opposing offenses to keep a TE or RB in the backfield to help with Porter and Taylor.
At CB, they start Will Allen, a sure tackler, but someone who gets beat a lot for a No. 1 CB, and Eric Green (ARZ) who only has two career picks in four seasons. They drafted Vontae Davis and I like him a lot. He’s physical but he’s the same as Will Allen: a good tackling corner, but one who gets beat a lot. Davis can probably beat out Green sometime this year but also look for second-round pick Sean Smith to get some playing time and for the two to be starters next year.
At safety, the Dolphins have a great combo. Yeremiah Bell and Gibril Wilson (OAK) are both excellent safeties. The only downside is both guys are better at strong safety and playing near the line, but look for Wilson to make an easy adjustment to FS.
Bringing back Taylor, as well as Wilson, was a big addition. If the defense stays healthy, they should have a good year. They were ninth last year in defensive points per game and they could jump into the top five this year. (Interesting note: one would think with Taylor’s age, that he’d only play about 60% of the plays, but the starter at OLB last year, Matt Roth, is listed as the #7 OLB right now.)
Outlook: I think the Dolphins will have a good defense, but will struggle offensively because I see Pennington getting injured or struggling. I see them staying in a lot of games and winning 5-9 games this year. The Dolphins have a very hard schedule. For their two variable games, they have SD and PIT.
I would like to point to one spot of the schedule that’s important. The Dolphins start out with three playoffs teams (@ATL, vsIND, @SD), then get two home games, but it’s against divisional opponents Buffalo and New York. Then from Week 8 to Week 15, they have six road games. In addition, one of their two home games during that stretch is against New England. Also, they get Pittsburgh in week 17, and they better hope the Steelers have already secured a playoff spot, or that could be a rough one.
Offense: The Jets return all five offensive line starters and you should expect the O-line to be even better this year. The offensive line has a combined 480 starts between the five starters. I don’t have the full numbers in front of me, but that must be among the NFL's leaders. Also, every lineman has at least 48 starts and they have combined for 10 Pro Bowl selections.
Dustin Keller remains the team's No. 1 tight end, but their depth chart has recently converted DE Kareem Brown to the No 2. The other three tight ends are all undrafted rookies. Look for Keller to get almost all of the minutes in this group.
Chansi Stuckey and Jerricho Cotchery are the No. 1 and 2 WRs for the Jets. Brad Smith is their No. 3, but after him, it’s a very thin group. Look for Wallace Wright to emerge as the No. 4.
At running back, New York goes three-deep, including rookie Shonn Greene, who has been impressing people in camp. Thomas Jones is still the No. 1 and Leon Washington the No. 2, but Greene should be getting a good amount of carries by the middle of the season.
Quarterback is a very interesting spot with the Jets. It’s a two-way competition with Kellen Clemons and rookie Mark Sanchez.
The offense has good running backs and a great O-line. With that said, their receivers are underwhelming, and if Sanchez does start, as most people think will happen, you don’t know how he’ll respond. The AFC East is filled with talented defenses. This team should do a lot of running because Greene is ready now.
Defense: Marques Douglas (BAL) is the new DE starter for this team, joining Shaun Ellis and Kris Jenkins on the D-line. Douglas is a good, solid player who is very durable. He’s played all 16 games the last six years of his career.
The Jets added Bart Scott (BAL) to anchor the defense this year. He and Douglas come over with Rex Ryan. The other three linebackers—Calvin Pace, David Harris and Bryan Thomas—all return as starters from last year.
At corner, the Jets added Lito Sheppard (PHI) and have moved second year man Dwight Lowery to the nickel corner. Darrelle Revis still starts at the other corner spot.
Kerry Rhodes returns to start at FS, but SS is an open competition between Jim Leonhard and Eric Smith. Smith started six games last year, but look for Leonhard to win the competition as he is currently in the lead.
It’s hard to say how good this defense will be since it’s a new system with Rex Ryan compared to Eric Mangini’s. I like Lito Sheppard and they now have corner depth in case of injury but SS worries me because neither Smith nor Leonhard is a great player. Like Baltimore's, their linebacking crew will be asked to do a lot, but only Bart Scott seems ready for that burden. Look for them to struggle a bit unless they only run a skeleton defense of what the Ravens run, which is pretty complex.
Outlook: I think this team takes a step back as it installs a new coach and a new regime. They don’t have a quarterback and their receivers aren’t very good. Look for the Jets to win around 5-8 games. The key stretch in the Jets' schedule is Weeks 2-6. They host New England and Tennessee, and then go to New Orleans and Miami before returning home to face the Bills. This stretch is all the more important if Sanchez is the starting QB; he has to face the Pats D and the Titans D in weeks 2 and 3.
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