Since Tom Brady’s inheritance of the starting quarterback job in the second game of the 2001 season, the New England Patriots have only gone twice without claiming the AFC East crown. Although the likelihood of a 10th division title seems imminent for the three-time Super Bowl champions, a team from the state of New York (not who you think) plans to emerge from its previous position as a cellar dweller.
Here’s a peek into the league’s most imbalanced division over the last decade or so, the AFC East:
BUFFALO BILLS (6-10 in 2011)
Key Losses: Drayton Florence (Corner Back); Demetress Bell (Left Tackle); Shawne Merriman (Linebacker); Roscoe Parrish (Wide Receiver)
New Faces: Stephon Gilmore (Corner Back); Mario Williams and Mark Anderson (Defensive Ends); Tarvaris Jackson (Quarterback)
As unorthodox as this sounds, the Buffalo Bills will be the team out of New York to get headlines for the right reasons. Why? First, the addition of Mario Williams upgrades the 26th ranked defense of 2011 significantly.Placing him into a front seven that already has Kyle Williams and Nick Barnett should make that unit hazardous to opposing offenses.
Offensively, the Bills will be led by quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, who ranked 11th in passing yards a season ago. An improvement in Fitzpatrick’s touchdown to interception ratio (24 TDs, 23 INTs), along with reliability from outside targets Steve Johnson and Donald Jones, and a healthy return from running back Fred Jackson, should make for a fun offense to watch. An X-factor in Buffalo’s offensive success will come in the form of tight end Scott Chandler. The 6’7″ target out of Iowa showed potential as a rising star in the tight end department with 38 receptions, 389 yards and 6 touchdowns. Can he emerge as the next big thing at the tight end position?
MIAMI DOLPHINS (6-10 in 2011)
Key Losses: Vontae Davis and Will Allen (Corner Backs); Kendall Langford and Phillip Merling (Defensive Ends); Jason Taylor (Linebacker/Defensive End); Chad Henne (Quarterback); Marc Colombo (Offensive Tackle); Yeremiah Bell (Safety); Brandon Marshall (Wide Receiver)
New Faces: Richard Marshall (Corner Back); Gary Guyton and Jamaal Westerman (Linebackers); David Garrard and Ryan Tannehill (Quarterbacks); Artis Hicks (Offensive Tackle); Legedu Naanee (Wide Receiver)
If Romeo Montague (of Romeo & Juliet) could witness the 2011 Miami Dolphins’ rush defense, he would say, “What’s in a name. That which we call a defender would hit just as hard.” In other words, the Dolphins defense didn’t carry many household names outside of Karlos Dansby and Cameron Wake, but collectively, only two other defenses were better at stopping the run. My expectation is for this unit to maintain its ability to stifle the run.
The other dimension of Miami’s defense proved to be this unit’s Achilles’ heel. Its pass defense allowed 250 yards a game. With Richard Marshall and Sean Smith as the cornerbacks and Reshad Jones and Chris Clemons as safeties, Miami aspires for this assembly of defenders to be formidable in defending the pass.
As far as passing offense is concerned, Miami has given the reigns to rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill. Can the offensive line buy him the time he needs to find his receivers, which no longer includes Brandon Marshall? It contributed to Miami’s 11th ranked rushing attack, and helped Reggie Bush become something many critics felt he couldn’t do…become an inside runner. Can this momentum continue into the 2012 season? And now that Marshall has left for greener, yet cooler pastures, who will emerge as Tannehills’ lead target between Legedu Naanee and Davone Bess?
NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS (13-3 in 2011, AFC East Division Champions)
Key Losses: Matt Light (Offensive Tackle); BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Kevin Faulk (Running Backs)
New Faces: Marquice Cole (Corner Back); Chandler Jones (Defensive End); Dont’a Hightower (Linebacker); Steve Gregory (Safety); Daniel Fells (Tight End); Brandon Lloyd (Wide Receiver)
As if having Aaron Hernandez, Rod Gronkowski and Wes Welker are not enough, Tom Brady receives yet another prime target in Brandon Lloyd. With New England being a team that approaches the running back position with the “A Dime A Dozen” mentality, one would think opposing defenses could key in on what appears to be a one-dimensional offense. Outside of the New York Giants, it seems like no other team can even make the Patriots stumble, let alone stifle them.
With the knowledge that its defense was a middle of the pack kind of unit, New England spent six of its seven 2012 draft picks on defensive players, including first round standouts, defensive end Chandler Jones out of Syracuse and Alabama linebacker Dont’a Hightower. If New England’s revamped defense can complement its offensive brethren and find itself in the upper brass of the league, brace yourselves for another lengthy postseason run.
NEW YORK JETS (8-8 in 2011)
Key Losses: LaDainian Tomlinson (Running Back); Wayne Hunter (Right Tackle); Brodney Pool and Jim Leonhard (Safeties); Plaxico Burress (Wide Receiver); Offensive Coordinator Brian Schottenheimer
New Faces: Quinton Coples (Defensive End); Tim Tebow (Quarterback); Jason Smith (Right Tackle); LaRon Landry and Yeremiah Bell (Safeties); Chaz Schilens and Stephen Hill (Wide Receivers); Offensive Coordinator Tony Sparano
When it takes a team four preseason games to score its first offensive touchdown, which was engineered by its third string quarterback, that could be a sign of things to come for an upcoming regular season. Conventional wisdom suggests the preseason is meaningless. To a degree, that is true. While teams should approach the preseason with their cards close to their chest, they should at least display a command of what they’re doing. In no way does a preseason point average 7.8 per game suggests any kind of command.
The quarterback stable consist of a starter in Mark Sanchez where you can’t help but wonder which Sanchez will show up, a backup in Tim Tebow who has a will to win, but is still fundamentally and mechanically a project and a third stringer in Greg McElroy who has limited NFL game experience. As far as the ground game is concerned, Shonn Greene has yet to professionally meet the standards he set as an Iowa Hawkeye. Unless a miraculous, unforeseen turnaround takes place throughout the course of the season, Gang Green’s offense could be in for a troublesome 2012 campaign.
If the Jets manage to somehow stay afloat, it will be largely due to its defense. Last year’s 5th rank defense was a force to be reckoned with. The addition of the hard hitting, former Redskin safety LaRon Landry only adds to their physicality. With Landry comes the lingering question of his health throughout an entire season.
Coming up next, the AFC North!
By Antoine Hoffman