AFC East 2011 Predictions : The New York Jets' Last Chance at Greatness Is Now
Ever since defensive guru Rex Ryan took the New York Jets head coaching job in 2009, he has made it clear that winning a Super Bowl right away was his primary focus. He has seen two of his teams get a game within the title game in consecutive seasons.
Taking a little wrinkle out of the George Allen playbook—a Hall of Fame coach who also was known for his defensive expertise—Ryan built a defense with a bunch of veterans off other teams, even bringing a few from his previous job as defensive coordinator on the Baltimore Ravens.
The Jets made adjustments on their roster this year, but still grabbed a slew of veterans who he thinks will help his team compete with the New England Patriots for the AFC East title. While the Miami Dolphins are also expect to be in the mix, most spundits believe the Patriots and Jets are the best teams in the division.
New England added a few proven veterans of their own; though, also getting younger as they continue to build greatness via the draft. One big reason for their dominance the last decade is that seemingly no team has wheeled and dealed better, or more often than the Patriots.
While Miami has a defense few want to face, the offense continues to be the one area that needs to get better in order for them to return to the playoffs. The Buffalo Bills on the other hand, seem to have been rebuilding for the last decade, yet have no tangible results to take pride in yet.
It appears this division will come down to the Jets and Patriots. However, the AFC East winner probably will not symbolize the kiss of death for the runner-up, as they will probably be in the running for the Wild Card.
1. New York Jets
Nick Laham/Getty Images
When you make two straight AFC Championship Games and lose with a team full of veterans, it is smart to not continue getting old. The Jets got rid of quite a few veterans in their quest to get younger while staying a top-notch team.
Yet their biggest free agent signing was wide receiver Plaxico Burress when he got released from prison after serving two years in jail. The Jets plan to bookend the 34-year-old Burress with Santonio Holmes, while 37-year-old Derrick Mason will be used as the third receiver.
The offensive line is the strength of the team. Right tackle Damien Woody retired, so Wayne Hunter steps in. The rest of the unit remains intact, which is important for a team so reliant on the run.
Shonn Greene was supposed to start at halfback last year, but soon saw LaDainian Tomlinson getting more playing time because Tomlinson was more effective and is a better pass receiver. Greene needs to step up this year because the 32-year old future Hall of Famer has a ton of wear and tear on his body.
Fullback Tony Richardson, the winner of last season's Walter Payton Man of the Year Award and the Byron "Whizzer" White NFL Man of the Year Award for his charitable work, has retired. New York will miss the three-time Pro Bowler known for his crushing blocking ability. John Conner now takes over as the lead blocker out of the backfield.
Defense is the Jets' best strength, as it should be with defensive guru Rex Ryan as the head coach. This defense is so good, they could afford to trade a young and solid Dwight Lowery to the Jaguars because of their cornerback depth.
Furthermore, they added 2011 first-round pick Muhammad Wilkerson at defensive end to replace veteran Shaun Ellis. The rest of the starters return on a unit that ranked third best in yards allowed last season, as well as sixth best in points allowed.
Though the Jets linebackers are excellent, it is the secondary that is the star of the unit. Led by Pro Bowl cornerback Darrelle Revis—maybe the best cornerback in the game today—who anchors a smothering Jets secondary that defends the run almost as good as they do the pass.
With a defense and offensive line like this, it is pretty easy to see why the Jets were one win away from the Super Bowl in each of the past two years. Quarterback Mark Sanchez is still a work in progress, but he showed definite improvement in his second season by tossing seven less interceptions and five more touchdowns than he did in his 2009 rookie year.
Sanchez will enjoy having two experienced receivers blended in with the players he already knows well, and having a 6'5" receiver like Burress can help reduce mistakes with his size alone. The running game ranked fourth in yards gained last year, but the passing games ranked 22nd in yards gained.
If the passing game improves, as expected, the defense and rushing attack are good enough to get the Jets back to the Super Bowl for the first time since 1968.
2. New England Patriots
J. Meric/Getty Images
One thing is certain, the Patriots keep it interesting all year round. Whether it is watching head coach Bill Belichick work the draft like a maestro, delving into the free agent market, or making trades, New England is unpredictable but exceedingly interesting.
Chad Ochocinco, a six-time Pro Bowl wide receiver, was brought in for a couple of expendable late-round draft picks. Known for his blabbering mouth as much as his playing abilities, Ochocinco has kept his lip zipped so far in New England.
Albert Haynesworth was brought in for a fifth-round pick, a gigantic steal if the man ever plays up to the abilities that made him a two-time Pro Bowler just three years ago. The "$100 Million Slave" has taken a siesta since then, only rearing his head when complaining or going to court.
The karma is that "Fat Albert" has to continue playing in the 3-4 defense he abhors. Thus far, he has not quit on his teammates or complained to the media about the head coach, so the influence of "The Hoodie" appears to once again worked for the best.
The first player usually mentioned on the Patriots is future Hall of Fame quarterback Tom Brady. While New England has a pair of interesting young prospects behind him, the 34-year-old Brady once said he wanted to play until he was 40. The two-time NFL regular season and Super Bowl MVP is the leader of this team and is coming off yet another excellent season.
Besides the addition of Ochocinco, Brady loves to spread the ball around to all of his weapons. Wes Welker is typically Brady's first option, but there are a pair of young studs at tight end and running backs who are exceptional catching balls.
They brought back a player Brady loves in Deion Branch last year after he had failed with the Seattle Seahawks. All Branch did was grab 48 balls in 11 games as an extra receiver. New England also has three young receivers in reserve.
The blocking also got a huge boost, further cementing Belichick's brilliance. Brian Waters was released by the Kansas City Chiefs in a cost-cutting move despite coming off his fifth Pro Bowl year. Coincidentally, Waters was cut by Belichick disciple Scott Pioli.
Waters will be a reserve behind an already exceptional offensive line. Nate Solder, the Pats' top pick in 2011, will spend this year sitting and learning behind Matt Light at left tackle.
Yet the most interesting part of the New England offense might be at running back. BenJarvis Green-Ellis was never drafted in 2008, but he became a 1,000-yard back last year. Belichick already had the speedy Danny Woodhead behind Green-Ellis, but he drafted two more running backs who will probably contribute right away.
If Haynesworth or Mike Wright falters at defensive end, 11-year veteran Shaun Ellis is ready to go. Ellis is coming off a Pro Bowl year, so he should be a factor. The secondary looks so good that Belichick recently cut 2007 first-round pick Brandon Meriweather and 2009 second-round pick Darius Butler. Sergio Brown, an undrafted player who had 11 tackles in his 2010 rookie year, will now start at strong safety.
The rich literally do get richer when it comes to the Patriots. A team coming off a 14-2 season usually doesn't make a lot of roster moves, but New England will have seven new starters this year.
The end of the season should see this team in the running for a playoffs spot, and many fans think they will play in the Super Bowl as well. While there are several veterans on the roster who know how to win, there is a lot of youngsters that should keep this team near to top for many years ahead.
3. Miami Dolphins
Marc Serota/Getty Images
The best part of the Dolphins' 2010 season was the defense. It ranked sixth best in the NFL for total yards allowed, and was equally stout against both the run and pass. Minus the sudden retirement on linebacker Channing Crowder, every starter returns.
With the offense being the weak link last year, Miami used four of their first six draft picks to help that side of the ball. All four made the team, and three figure to be a big part of the offense right away.
Mike Pouncey is the twin of Maurkice Pouncey, a center who made the Pro Bowl in his 2010 rookie year. He was the Dolphins' first-round pick, after playing at nearby Florida University, and will start right away at center.
Charles Clay, another rookie, will start at fullback. Marc Colombo was signed as a free agent and will start at right tackle, moving incumbent Venon Carey in at guard. Reggie Bush, who was acquired in an offseason trade, will compete with rookie Donald Thomas for the bulk of carries at halfback.
To boot, Brian Daboli replaces Dan Henning as offensive coordinator. Henning, who brought back the single-wing offense to the NFL (dubbed "Wildcat), retired after being a part of professional football since 1964.
Daboli is from the Bill Belichick coaching tree. He earned three Super Bowl rings in various coaching positions before joining the Cleveland Browns in 2009 as an offensive coordinator. Both of his seasons there saw the Browns as one of the worst offensive teams in the NFL, so Miami is hoping he can get their offense to be better than the 30th rank they had in scoring during 2010.
Miami has the defense to carry this team to a division title. The offense worked on their passing game a lot in the 2011 preseason, and had some successes. If they get good production from there, the Dolphins could very well be in the mix for a playoff spot in the final week of the 2011 season.
4. Buffalo Bills
Michael Heiman/Getty Images
It seems the Bills have been stuck in rebuilding mode for awhile. Part of the reason is failed drafts. The Bills have had nine first-round picks since 2000 either fail or leave for other teams. The jury is still out on last year's top pick, but this years top pick, Marcell Dareus, has looked impressive thus far.
Buffalo ranked 28th in both points scored and points allowed last year. They cut their starting center and will have two new starters on the right side of the line. Second-year pro Donald Jones has earned a starting job at wide receiver, and journeyman Scott Chandler starts at tight end.
The defense lost their top three tacklers from 2010, and there will be five new starters this season. Nose tackle Kyle Williams is coming off a great 2010 season where he made the Pro Bowl.
The secondary ranked third in passing yards allowed in 2010. This unit is the strength of the team, with the only change being that George Wilson will now start at strong safety. Buffalo has three new linebackers starting this year, and they are hoping Shawne Merriman can be the force off the edge he was in 2007 until injuries derailed his career.
Buffalo has a good amount of youth on this roster, but there is 13 players 30-years or older. Head coach Chan Gailey will need several seasons turning over this roster, but Bills fans are tiring of this strategy that has kept the team out of the playoffs since 1999.