2008 NFL Season Preview: AFC East

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2008 NFL Season Preview: AFC East

The problem with writing a weekly NFL preview story with predictions, projections, and prognostications is that if you make those picks and figure out records, matchups etc., things have to remain in stasis for those predictions to have any relevance.

We love the NFL because "stasis" will never be part of the vocabulary. Of particular importance is the activity in the AFC East. Two teams who had tremendous uncertainty at the quarterback position heading into the offseason now have proven starters, one a Hall of Fame QB and the other the NFL's career completion percentage leader.

Not too shabby for two teams who finished a combined 5-27 in 2007.

Another issue with this type of column: No fan is ever satisfied. I could write 10,000 words on the Miami Dolphins and some crazed 'Phin supporter will tell me I forgot to mention how important rookie running back Lex Hilliard from Montana will be for this team.

Relax, I can't get to every player's impact on the team. If I don't mention the backup tight end your team signed, or the good camp your fourth-string defensive tackle is having, the world won't end.

There is a reason a team has media guides and it is 300 pages. This is not a media guide, but rather a cursory glance at a division, team by team. I could be like Bill Simmons and just talk about the Patriots/Red Sox/Celtics, even though I stopped writing a Boston sports column 10 years ago, would that be better?

(For the record I love and hate Bill Simmons, but that is a totally different topic.)

I have to say, with all these new pieces all over the NFL, I expect competitive games each and every week this season, and I think up to five teams in both the NFC and AFC have legitimate opportunities to win a championship. Don't worry Patriots fans, your team may not go undefeated, but they will certainly be in it come January.

Let's get to it.

 

Buffalo Bills (2007 Record 7-9)

Offense: No one will accuse Dick Jauron of being an offensive genius. To be sure, his forte is defense as a former NFL safety, and it has showed in his tenure with the Bills. Buffalo was near the bottom of the league in passing and points last season. However, there are some reasons to be optimistic in 2008.

Marshawn Lynch may have been Offensive Rookie of the Year in a different year (e.g. when Adrian Peterson was not ALSO a rookie). The former Cal standout rushed for 1,115 yards and seven touchdowns last season, showing versatility in the passing game to go along with his bullish running style. If he can stay out of trouble, the Bills have their franchise running back.

Jason Peters opens holes for that running game at tackle and anchors a solid group upfront. The Bills were much better than expected along the offensive line last season, and an improving running game will only help Trent Edwards, as defenses will be prevented from simply pinning their ears back and taking their shots at the young passer.

Finding a target to play opposite Lee Evans was a top priority this offseason for offensive coordinator Turk Schonert and his staff. Buffalo drafted 6'7" James Hardy out of Indiana to be that guy, but injuries have limited Hardy's effectiveness in camp to this point, but when he has been on the field, he has looked solid.

Jake Reed will start at the No. 2 for now, but don't be surprised to see Hardy get more and more reps with multiple wide receivers.

While still not an explosive group outside of Lee Evans, and occasionally Roscoe Parish, this offense should be better in Trent Edwards' first full season as the full-time signal caller.

Defense: Injuries demolished the Bills' defense last season. Paul Posluszny is back and starting in the middle. Kawika Mitchell came over from the Giants this offseason and will start on the strong side, while Angelo Crowell, one of the most underrated linebackers in the AFC, will start opposite Mitchell. That presents a solid mix of veteran leadership with young talent.

Marcus Stroud joins the Bills to beef up the interior, and when Stroud is around, he brings the whole cow. An immovable object in the middle, Stroud will eat up blockers and free up the cerebral linebackers to make plays. He should also open lanes for Chris Kelsay and Aaron Schobel to rush the passer off the edge.

Schobel's numbers were down significantly in 2008, but he remains just one season removed a 14-sack season. In fact, 2007 was the first time in six seasons Schobel failed to tally at least eight sacks in a season.

The secondary, much like the offense, is young and very talented. Donte Whitner and Ko Simpson have excellent upsides. Whitney loves to hit, and Simpson has ballhawk potential.

Terrance McGee and Jabari Greer may not be spectacular, but with Ashton Youboty, William James, and first-round pick Leodis McKelvin, the Bills have a deep group of young corners who will push each other and hopefully raise the overall level of play.

Overall: The Bills have done what is necessary to get better where they had been weak. Mediocre teams become good, and then great by simply addressing key needs and not tinkering too much. The Bills will cause some problems in the AFC this season and will give powerhouses like New England, San Diego, and Jacksonville all they can handle.

They just aren't quite there yet. The Bills played an ugly 7-9 2007 campaign. 7-9 sounds about right again, but Buffalo will be in every game, and it wouldn't surprise me if they stole a few victories and turned into a 9-7 borderline playoff team.

 

Miami Dolphins (2007 Record 1-15)

Offense: Ugly. Some variation of that word is really the only way to express the 2007 Dolphins. To be fair, their best offensive player was lost for the season when Ronnie Brown tore his ACL after playing just seven games.

However, pessimists (or Jets fans) will point out Brown had 601 rushing yards (991 total) through Week Seven, well on his way to the Pro Bowl, and yet the Dolphins were 0-7.

Brown appears healthy, Ricky Williams may or may not be clean, and this running game will be the staple of Tony Sporano's team. Ronnie Brown could establish himself as an elite rusher this season, as the focus of this offense.

If he doesn't, no doubt part of the reason will be because the Dolphins have no quarterback. Josh McCown was slated to be the starter, but he has been marginal at best. Second-year QB John Beck has been underwhelming in minicamp, and rookie Chad Henne has been good enough to push Beck and McCown for playing time.

But when your team signs a quarterback who didn't play last season on a 4-12 team (and when he did he was putrid), you know you're in trouble at QB. Chad Pennington will right the ship to some degree, but he is not the answer in Miami, and bringing him in, I believe, was a mistake.

Earnest Wilford and Ted Ginn Jr. give the Dolphins excellent speed at wide receiver, but not much in the way of a true No. 1 target. Derrick Hagan has shown flashes of his talent, but still drops way too many.

Greg Camarillo was the hero in the Dolphins' only win, but certainly is not the next Wes Welker. That means whoever is under center will not have many options. 

Luckily, the Dolphins' offensive line should see steady improvement. Jake Long would have been better suited to play right tackle, but there is no Dwight Freeney in the AFC East, so he should be fine at left tackle for now.

Also, rookie Shawn Murphy and second-year center Samson Satele are big, talented youngsters that will grow under the tutelage of Tony Sporano (which, for you HBO watchers, seems too close to suggesting Satele and Murphy will be made men by season's end).

Veterans Chris Liwienski and Vernon Carey round out a group that has the potential to be solid.

Defense: For the Dolphins to have a chance to win, the defense has to keep them in games. Some new faces on this defense should help sure up a once solid defensive group.

Jason Ferguson joins the defensive line from Dallas and should help anchor against the run.

Clemson rookie Phillip Merling will have Jason Taylor's shoes to fill, although I hope he sticks to cleats and not dancing shoes. Merling will not be the pass-rusher Taylor was, but he hustles and will get to the quarterback. More importantly, the former Clemson Tiger will be stout against the run.

I am concerned this team cannot generate enough pass-rush to help a weak secondary.

Speaking of that secondary, all four of the Dolphins' current starters started at least one game last season. That may or may not be a good thing for a team who couldn't stop anyone from passing the ball, something that doesn't bode well for a team in the same division as Tom Brady and Brett Favre.

The Allen's, Will and Jason, are solid, but aren't playmakers, while Yeremiah Bell (besides his parents not being able to spell Jeremiah) and Michael Lehan are average at best. They will need to get better if they want to win games in 2008.

The strength of the defense is the linebackers. Joey Porter's stats in '07 actually compared favorably with Adalius Thomas in New England, whom everyone raved about. He can still get after it and be an impact player. Channing Crowder possesses athletic raw talent in the middle, but has grown quickly.

Lastly, Reggie Torbor comes over from the Giants and has the versatility to play the run and the pass. They will need these three to supplement the pass-rush to protect the secondary.

Overall: The Miami Dolphins clearly don't feel like being at the bottom of the AFC East for long, spending boatloads of dollars in the offseason on free agents and new coaches.

The Dolphins will struggle putting pressure on the quarterback and will give up plenty of points through the air. Unfortunately, they don't have a QB of their own who has proven much in the NFL, and no, Chad Pennington doesn't count because he's never won anything in this league.

This is a better team in 2008, but with a tougher division and another tough schedule, more than a few wins would be a huge surprise.

 

New York Jets (2007 Record 4-12)

Offense: All Jets fans want to hear is Brett the Jet. Yes, "Jet" Favre will make his debut in September, and yes, he makes this team significantly better than the 2007 team. But more importantly, the Jets have a solid offensive line, a serviceable running game, a deep group of tight ends, and a slightly above-average stable of receivers.

I don't know what I can say about Favre that hasn't already been said. 

Luckily for Brett, he won't be throwing to a washed-up Antonio Freeman and a never-was Bill Shroeder, but it won't be Driver, Jennings, Jones, Martin, and Robinson, like he had in Green Bay.

Laveranues Coles may not be the deep threat he once was, but he still has a gear few corners can stick with. Jerricho Cotchery has serious upside and could be a big-time fantasy sleeper this season. Add Bubba Franks, Chris Baker, and Dustin Keller to that group and there will be plenty of targets for those famous Favre fastballs.

Contrary to popular belief, there are other people in the backfield with No. 4 in this offense.

Tony Richardson brings his Pro Bowl talent to a running game that underperformed last season. His blocking may not be what is used to be, but Richardson can still get it done as a lead-blocker and has versatility in the passing game.

Thomas Jones should have less pressure to perform with a Hall of Famer calling the shots. With defenses geared up to stop Favre, Jones should have a bounce-back season.

Defense: The biggest surprise for the Jets in 2008 may not be their offense. In fact, expectations are high for the J-E-T-S offense this season. However, I believe this defense has the potential to really be disruptive if they can stay disciplined and tackle.

Adding Kris Jenkins give the Jets a proven stopper inside. Kenyon Coleman may be nothing to write home about, but he's not pushover either. Shaun Ellis just continues to go about his business and be a solid 3-4 end for the Jets.

This group won't grab the headlines, but their job is to let the linebackers get the glory and this unit has the capabilities to eat up blockers for their running mates.

That group of backers will be lead by David Harris, which I couldn't be happier about. When Harris fell to the second round, I knew plenty of teams had missed out. After Jonathan Vilma went down, Harris replaced him and wasted no time showing he should have been playing all along.

The former Michigan Wolverine tallied an unbelievable 127 total tackles in just nine starts. He and Eric Barton will be a handful inside.

On the edges, it is up to Bryan Thomas, Calvin Pace, and rookie phenom Vernon Gholston to get to the quarterback. Thomas and Pace have shown flashes of that ability, but both remain inconsistent. Perhaps the presence of Gholston, with such high expectation and unparalleled talent, will push all three to be better.

Beyond them, Darrelle Revis has shut-down corner potential. Justin Miller boasts outstanding speed, but it has yet to translate into top-level corner play. David Barrett and Hank Poteat do give the Jets solid depth on the outside.

Add Kerry Rhodes, who is coming into his own as a safety, and the Jets have plenty of playmakers on defense to slow offenses like New England and San Diego. If they play tough, this team could be a playoff team.

Overall: Count me in as a person who believes Brett Favre makes the Jets a dangerous team in the AFC. Don't count in as a person who believes they have a chance to unseat the Patriots for the division.

I thought the Jets were a five or six win team without Jet Favre, but with him, they are certainly an 8-8 squad, and if things click early, 10 wins will not be out of the question.

 

New England Patriots (2007 Record 16-0)

Offense: So the '07 Pats had an all-time great offense, a record-setting QB, and a receiver who proved to the world he is still the best in the game. What will this team do for an encore?

Expect much of the same.

Tom Brady eclipsed Peyton Manning to claim the top spot among quarterbacks in today's game. Randy Moss was more unstoppable last season that any receiver since Jerry Rice, and in some ways, more so.

Wes Welker will suffer from losing Dante Stallworth. Unless Chad Jackson somehow figures it out tomorrow, teams will find a way to cover these receivers using the blueprint from late in the year when defenses were able to alter the Patriots' game plan.

Jabar Gaffney and Kelley Washington are critical role players, but can't be counted on to shoulder any kind of offensive burden should Welker or Moss miss any time (people forget how healthy the key players on the Patriots' offense were last season).

This offensive line is stellar, but showed some vulnerability on the edges late last season, and those big bodies can break down in a hurry. Expect teams to attack this offensive line, particularly in the middle, to try and get in Brady's grill.

A solid running game will certainly help. Laurence Maroney's playing time was all over the place, but he still certainly represents, by far the Patriots' best option in the running game. Sammy Morris and Kevin Faulk can also get it done, and their versatility is what makes this offense so scary because they can score from so many areas.

This offense is great, and I mean all-time great, but it won't be 16-0, 50 touchdown passes great in 2008.

Defense: Five of the 11 Patriot defensive starters are 30 or older, Jerod Mayo will start at middle linebacker as a rookie, and 24-year-old free safety James Sanders has never started all 16 games in a season (to be fair, he started 15 last year).

This is a defense that wore down late last season, but always seemed to get stops when they needed them. Bill Belichick is a master schemer, so I never doubt any team he coaches.

Up front, the Patriots might have the best front three in a 3-4 scheme in the NFL. Richard Seymour, Vince Wilfork, and Ty Warren all play at a Pro Bowl level, and all are 28 or younger.

They can rush the passer and, with the enormous Wilfork in the middle, can anchor against the run as well. This line gives the Pats incredible flexibility, but injuries have been a concern with this group making depth an issue.

The linebackers are household names. Bruschi, Vrable, and Thomas are cerebral, smart players and can really get after it. Off the edges, they can be as tough as any rush linebackers in the game to defend, particularly now that Thomas will move back outside to his more natural position.

Jerod Mayo, by all accounts, looks like a perfect fit for the Pats, and some people (for the record, not me) believe Jerod Mayo could be Defensive Rookie of the Year.

The defensive backfield should be a concern for New England.

Asante Samuel plays in Philly now, Randall Gay is in New Orleans, and the Pats didn't do very much to fill the void. Fernando Bryant appears to be Samuel's replacement, but he is 31 and showed his age for the Lions.

Ellis Hobbs can play, but the depth and versatility of this group has been lost. That doesn't even take into account Rodney Harrison's decline and James Sander's inexperience.

This group could be vulnerable, and I cannot wait to see quality offenses like Seattle, Indianapolis, San Diego and Pittsburgh attack it, not to mention this defense will see Brett Favre twice a year.

Overall: An undefeated season seems an impossibility from a chance standpoint. The Patriots still play one of the easiest schedules in the league, but this is a violent, physical game.

Everyone remembers the whooping the Pats put on teams, the perceived disrespect some people (yes, that includes me) believe they showed the league last season, and with injuries, plus just dumb luck, this look more like a 12-4 team, but certainly a playoff team and a contender to win a championship.

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