A once formidable land of contenders, the AFC East has declined steadily over the last few years to the point that it is now nearly an auto seed producer for the New England Patriots playoff run. 2012 marked the fourth consecutive year, and ninth out of the last 12, that the Pats won the division. And while a sequel to this outcome is nearly certain, the dynamics of the division are changing quickly.
The Miami Dolphins rebooted their franchise with the selection of Ryan Tannehill last season, and now the New York Jets and Buffalo Bills will look to do the same with rookie signal callers this season. There will also be three running backs that are opening their first season as starting feature back this year in the further divisional turnover. Even the Patriots are changing the way they go about business, and will take the field with a brand new look on offense. But for the more things change, the more they could stay the same. It is a division that’s most compelling “race” could be to see if it produces a competitor for the Jadevon Clowney sweepstakes come April.
QB: Tom Brady, RB: CJ Spiller, Steven Ridley, WR: Mike Wallace, Danny Amendola, Stevie Johnson, TE: Rob Gronkowski, OT: D’Brickashaw Ferguson, Nate Solder, OG: Logan Mankins, Dan Connolly, C: Nick Mangold
DE: Cameron Wake, Chandler Jones, DT/NT: Vince Wilfork, Marcel Dareus, OLB: Mario Williams, Jerod Mayo, MLB: Brandon Spikes, David Harris, CB: Antonio Cromartie, Aqib Talib, FS: Jairus Byrd, SS: Dawan Landry
K: Stephen Gostkowski, P: Zoltan Mesko, KR: Brad Smith, PR: Leodis McKelvin
BUFFALO BILLS (6-10 in 2012)
The Good: New coach Doug Marrone is emphasizing the strength of the team, which is clearly CJ Spiller. The clear mission statement is to get the ball to Spiller as much as possible, and following his breakout season a year ago, is the best route to Buffalo breaking through. He only officially started 12 games last year, but still topped 1,700 all-purpose yards. With the increased emphasis, he should easily move past 2,000 total yards and be among the league-wide leaders.
The Bad: It is usually not a good sign when the plan at quarterback has not only been shaken up once, but twice before Week One even approaches. The plan coming in was for new acquisition Kevin Kolb to break camp as the top guy, while first-round pick EJ Manuel learned the ropes and transitioned in. However, Manuel showed such promise in his looks early in camp, that he was taking the spot. Yet injury struck him first, sidelining him with a knee injury, then followed in a much more severe level, with Kolb’s career being called into question with a concussion from a knee to the head.
X-Factor—Marquise Goodwin: The latest in a long line of Buffalo game breakers, Goodwin has a chance to be the best. Getting the ball into the hands of the rookie wide out as many ways as possible gives the Bills an instant impact from anywhere on the field. On any other team (namely one that doesn’t have Brad Smith and Leodis McKelvin returning the ball already) he has the burst to make a Devin Hester-like kick return impact, and his day for that will come.
Record: NE (L), CAR (L), @NYJ (L), BAL (L), @CLE (L), CIN (W), @MIA (L), @NO (L), KC (W), @PIT (L), NYJ (W), ATL (L), @TB (L), @JAX (L), MIA (W), @NE (L)
Projection: There are elements to be excited about, but this is a team that’s going to go through a lot of development, all at once. There’s a new coach, a rookie QB, a defense that is still coming together and a young offensive line. That’s a lot to handle at once, and while there are pieces coming together, this will be a grueling year. 4-12
MIAMI DOLPHINS (7-9 in 2012)
The Good: The offense is finally getting some explosiveness to it. Mike Wallace (64 catches, 864 yards in 2012) was the big money signing, that gives Ryan Tannehill a much needed field stretching target, but there far more new wiggle to the approach than just him. Lamar Miller is the tough runner between the tackles, as well as one of the fastest open field backs in the league. Brian Hartline should continue to be among the better possession options in the league as well.
The Bad: There’s been a lot of loss already here as well. All-Pro tackle Jake Long left town this winter, as did running back Reggie Bush. Newly acquired tight end Dustin Keller had he knee destroyed early in the preseason. In addition to these issues, the defense is still largely unaltered from the unit that gave up 248 yards in the air per game a year ago.
X-Factor—Jonathan Martin: He spent last year at right tackle, learning the ropes at his natural position on the line. But top picks are not spent acquiring guys to watch the front of quarterbacks; they’re job is to watch their backs. How well Martin can transition to doing this for Tannehill will be the most crucial part of the development of this offense and putting its new elements to full usage.
Record: @CLE (L), @IND (L), ATL (L), @NO (L), BAL (W), BUF (W), @NE (L), CIN (W), @TB (W), SD (L), CAR (L), @NYJ (W), @PIT (L), NE (W), @BUF (L), NYJ
Prediction: There is some promise with Miami. Tannehill has looked like he has progressed well from his first year on the job, and they club is continuing to build around him. While the defense has to be stouter against the pass, they do not play many of the league’s most potent passing attacks, so that should be manageable. All things considered, they could be this year’s party crasher for a final playoff spot, but are more likely a year away from solidly entering that picture. 7-9
NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS (12-4 in 2012)
The Good: The defense is rounding into an impressive collection of young talent. It has been the focus of the New England early round draft focus the previous two seasons, and it has begun to pay off. In Dont’a Hightower, Chandler Jones, Devin McCourty and Alfonzo Dennard, they have not missed on finding starters to fill out the defense. The risk on taking Aqib Talib paid out immediately as well, and a once rapidly deteriorating unit has now become the understated strength of the team.
The Bad: How successfully can the team reorganize its offense is a very up in the air issue. Tom Brady has proven repeatedly he doesn’t need a big name cast of options at receiver, but between the departures of Wes Welker, Aaron Hernandez and Brandon Lloyd, as well as the injury to Rob Gronkowski, the top returning receiver is Julian Edelman, who had only 235 yards a year ago. This is a lot to adjust to for any team, and while Brady is a big plus, he may have to carry more load than he’s ever had before.
X-Factor—Danny Amendola: He was signed a day after Welker left for Denver, and it was definitely not a coincidence. Welker was one of the most consistent and a productive targets in the NFL during his run in New England, averaging 112 catches a year. Amendola will be expected to fill into a similar volume role, but to do so he will have to be healthier than he ever has before (missed 20 games in last two seasons).
Record: @BUF (W), NYJ (W), TB (W), @ATL (L), @CIN (L), NO (W), @NYJ (L), MIA (W), PIT (W), @CAR (W), DEN (W), @HOU (W), CLE (W), @MIA (L), @BAL (L), BUF
Prediction: For all that’s changed with the Pats, they still have the two most important things concerning them unaltered: Bill Belichick calling the shots, and Brady executing them. They have been the most interchangeable team in football over the past 12 years, and odds are in their favor to continue along their same successful line in light of the differences in the 2012 and 2013 clubs. The will benefit from a pretty significant talent gap in the AFC East, and take home their fifth consecutive division title. 11-5
NEW YORK JETS (6-10 in 2012)
The Good: While it is not what it once was, Rex Ryan’s defense has some potential to re-enter the picture as one of the most hectic blitzes in the game. Mo Wilkerson, Quentin Couples, Calvin Pace and Sheldon Richardson will be able to get after any QB. Their opposites on the Jets O-Line are the strength of the team as well, with D’Brickashaw Ferguson and Nick Mangold checking in among the best in the game at tackle and center, respectively.
The Bad: There is a chance that this could be the worst offense in the NFL by a decent margin. The battle at quarterback between Mark Sanchez and Geno Smith has more name than play value, and there is not a target in the receiving corps that has much upside to lift the QB play up. The hope is that Chris Ivory, who showed some flashes of brilliance in the New Orleans backfield timeshare, can come over and give them their first regularly effective runner since Thomas Jones.
X-Factor—Dee Milliner: The first of the Jets two round one picks, he’ll be charged with no less of a role than replacing the best cornerback in the NFL in the departed Darrelle Revis. With Revis, the Jets surrendered the second fewest passing yards per game (189.8), but that is likely to change some now. Playing opposite of Antonio Cromartie, Milliner will be targeted frequently, and how quickly he adjusts will speak to if the team can maintain one of its few strengths.
Record: TB (L), @NE (L), BUF (W), @TEN (L), @ATL (L), PIT (L), NE (W), @CIN (L), NO (W), @BUF (L), @BAL (L), MIA (L), OAK (W), @CAR (L), CLE (W), @MIA (L)
Projection: There’s not much to like about the Jets this year. Whether it is the end of the Sanchez era or if it is just the next chapter, they are not likely to be much of a treat on offense. While the defense has some intriguing pieces, it will be asked to do far beyond what it is capable of doing to create the success of this team, and they are likely to have their worst effort to date in the Ryan/Sanchez era’s last season. 5-11
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