With training camps completed and rosters close to finalized, we now take a closer look at how the new look New York Jets stack up against the competition within their division.
The Men in Charge
Ryan wasted little time in proclaiming that neither he nor his team would be intimidated by another coach or team in the AFC East, singling out the Patriots' coach Bill Belichick and starting a trash-talking battle with Miami Dolphins linebacker Channing Crowder.
He also wasted no time importing three members of his vaunted Baltimore Ravens defense, which helps. Clearly, Ryan's attitude is a stark and necessary change to the Jets' way of life if they were ever going to be taken seriously as playoff contenders.
That being said, Ryan has much to prove. He is pedigreed in the art of developing and implementing defensive units and packages that utilize player strengths and take advantage of offensive units' weaknesses, but this is his first head coaching job ever.
It's trial by fire in the competitive AFC East as he stands opposite the likes of Belichick and Parcells disciple Tony Sparano on the sidelines four times per regular season.
Belichick is, of course, Belichick, and Sparano has the complete support of his front office and proved that he can effectively game-plan according to his talent, winning the division last year.
In Buffalo, Dick Jauron is on the hot seat and under pressure to produce an exciting offense—at least more exciting than scoring zero points. After managing to score no points in the preseason, Jauron fired his offensive coordinator last week and scrapped the no huddle "K-gun" offense.
Jauron's defenses have traditionally been solid in his other stops when he has served as coordinator, but he has yet to build anything worthwhile in Buffalo. Look for that trend to continue, as Jauron will undoubtedly be sunk by his roster.
With more seasoning and another opportunity to remake the roster in his mold, look for Ryan to make his mark on the Jets and this division very soon.
When a franchise invests what the Jets have invested in Mark Sanchez, immediate results are expected. Experience cannot be substituted for at the QB position and growth needs to be seen from week to week.
Jets personnel and fans have witnessed this already in preseason, as Sanchez made some bad reads, threw an INT, and took some sacks only to bounce back after those moments and lead his huddle once more against some of the stronger defenses the NFL has to offer.
Sanchez showed confidence and patience in himself and teammates to make plays and his capacity for growth and making plays was such that incumbent backup Kellen Clemens would've had to play like Brady to force the team to stagnate Sanchez' further development in order to name him the starter.
And speaking of Tom Brady, yes...he's back.
Flanked by weapons such as Randy Moss and Wes Welker, Brady successfully translated his leadership skills and grittiness from his time as a "game manager", into his new role as "fantasy first round draft pick."
Brady has the arm and the intelligence to air the ball out deep down-field, as well as a knack for performing well in clutch moments. Clearly he is at the top of the sport when healthy, and for the first time in his career Brady's health is a question mark in 2009.
Outside of Miami, the general belief is the Dolphins' successes of last season won't be easily duplicated this year.
With teams more prepared to defend the wildcat offense this year (with many teams even copycatting the scheme themselves) while playing the tougher schedule of a division winner, a quick hook for the weak-armed Chad Pennington in favor of the younger, stronger Chad Henne could be looming if the team gets off to a slow start or the offense sputters.
Lining up opposite the solid Lee Evans, Owens could have plenty of opportunities to make plays in the passing game with Edwards under center for 16 games, particularly with the mandate from ownership that the Bills score points.
Couple this with Marshawn Lynch's three game suspension to start the season and Edwards' biggest concern will be staying healthy behind one of the worst O-lines in the NFL.
While kept upright, Edwards is a solid leader and has shown flashes of brilliance for the Bills. But he has missed time due to a concussion and a groin injury in his first two seasons. It's hard to bet on Edwards making it through 16 games, but if he does he is the Bills franchise QB.
For now, all of these teams have some questions to answer at the QB spot. Without the luxury of an elite play-making receiver, Sanchez must play smart football, spread the ball around to multiple targets, and make some plays with his arm.
Brady is the class of the division, while the other QB's all have something to prove to their respective teams. Sanchez has plenty of slack to work with, and he'll need every inch of it to get through this season and call it a success.
For the Jets, there are two things certain in life—Thomas Jones will put up elite rushing numbers and Leon Washington will provide the highlights.
With a committee of WR that are unproven and inexperienced, Mark Sanchez will be handing the ball off to these gentlemen often. It would be fascinating to see more two-back sets in the plans featuring them together, forcing defenses into tough positions.
Washington is as versatile a threat as one could ask for both in the rushing attack and special teams, while Jones simply lowers his head and punishes defenders particularly close to the goal line.
The addition of draft pick Shonn Greene should help elevate the running game to new heights as he helps spell Jones throughout the year.
Sanchez seems to be developing a budding connection with WR David Clowney in the same fashion that Chad Pennington and Laveranues Coles once did.
With the solid Jerricho Cotchery as the possession receiver, Chansi Stuckey providing random acts of greatness, Wildcat WR Brad Smith, and emerging star TE Dustin Keller in the mix, the Jets could give defensive coordinators fits.
At the time of this writing, the Jets were still scouring the waiver wires looking for WR help, but nothing is imminent.
In New England, one looks no further for game-breaking ability than to Randy Moss and Wes Welker. But the Pats suddenly have an intriguing logjam in their backfield, as for the moment they are carrying four running backs, all of whom have different attributes and contribute differently.
Laurence Maroney is running out of chances to be a featured back in the NFL, while the old men of the group—Kevin Faulk and Sammie Morris—can be counted on to deliver big plays whenever they are needed.
The most intriguing of the bunch might be newcomer BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who ran wild during preseason games and forced his way into the game-plan. This year, the Pats could be a much more balanced and dangerous offense than in 2007 and 2008.
The Dolphins have some key play-makers that they'll work to get the ball to again this season. RB's Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams complement each other very well and Brown is a proven featured back.
WR Ted Ginn Jr., a high first round pick of the previous regime, has the speed and ability to be a game-breaker but is hampered by the lack of strength in Pennington's arm. His main impact will likely remain stretching defenses deep and in the kick return game until a switch at QB occurs.
Miami also returns one of the top defensive units in the NFL as well as an improving O-line alongside 2008 No. 1 pick Jake Long. The key to Miami's season will be how much they must rely on deception in their offense to hide their lack of down-field ability against a much tougher schedule.
Regardless of how many individual talents Buffalo might have on their roster, the sum is not greater than its parts.
T.O and Lee Evans should provide a large chunk of the offense, but with little other help on the field given the three game absence of RB Marshawn Lynch and a patchwork offensive line protecting QB Trent Edwards, it's hard to see exactly how the team can expect anything beyond a handful of wins this season.
Yes, the outlook on backup RB Fred Jackson is positive, but the Bills will need more than that to open opportunities for Owens and Evans.
Overall, no team can claim the quality of play-makers that the Pats can. Their key position players know what it's like to win and were able to win 11 games in 2008 in a toned down offense playing with a QB who hadn't started since High School (Matt Cassel).
They are dangerous on every snap. The Jets are likely a few seasons and one big play WR away from sustained production as a unit.
The Men in the Trenches
Make no mistake, the New England defense was not its usual reliable self last season, and this year looks like it will be a bigger struggle for this unit. Perhaps no team in the NFL has ever lost so much leadership, experience, and ability on that side of the football than the Pats have before this season.
Gone are Bruschi, Vrabel, and Seymour, replaced by lower draft picks and free agents.
The backs patrolling the secondary are pedestrian at best, as a replacement for departed 2008 free agent Asante Samuel has yet to be found.
The Pats offense alone will be counted on to win games more this year than ever before. A Bill Belichick coached team will always be well prepared and special teams should prove no different. Wes Welker returning kicks can be a difference maker and help shorten the field for every New England possession.
The Jets, of course, have Rex Ryan. And that counts for something. The strong point of the Jets in recent years was their defensive unit and their ability to create turnovers.
I expect that trend to continue under Ryan and his schemes and blitz packages.
There is also merit to be found in the strength and depth of the linebacking corps (Scott, Harris, Pace, and occasionally Gholston), a healthy Kris Jenkins to stuff the run and Shaun Ellis on the end to pressure the QB, the unchaining of ball-hawking captain Kerry Rhodes and his new mate Jim Leonhard along with shutdown corner Darrell Revis and a hopefully rejuvenated Lito Sheppard rounding out the secondary.
Pace and Ellis will both serve suspensions to start the season, but by season's end this unit could turn out to be one of the better units in the league.
Miami's defense was average last year and kept the team in close games. While remaining solid and intact, the unit will have to improve in order to meet the demand of a tougher schedule. Last year's unit was in the bottom 10 defending the pass and top 10 in defending the rush. They will quickly be tested in the first three weeks of 2009 by the likes of Matt Ryan, Peyton Manning, and Philip Rivers. An 0-3 start is not out of the question.
Buffalo's defense is middle-of-the-pack also, with strengths in opposition to Miami's. Nothing has drastically changed about their unit, so it's reasonable to expect the same type of season from the Bills D.
What Does 2009 Hold?
While Brady and company are still among the elite in the NFL, there are plenty of questions to be answered and obstacles standing in their way of another SB run.
The defending division champion Dolphins will be looking to prove that they are not a one-year wonder and qualify for the playoffs again this year.
The Jets are a work in progress and should be viewed as such. Mark Sanchez will likely be a very good NFL QB and could potentially be great if given the chance to grow and correct mistakes. The Jets have the foundation of a playoff contender in place and will need to come together as a unit through this season and in the future, as every good team does, while adding some key pieces.
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