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Saturday, 25 August 2012

NFL 2012: AFC East Preview


AFC East | AFC North | AFC South | AFC West | NFC East | NFC North | NFC South | NFC West

It's that sweet, sweet time of year again. The majority of training camp and pre-season schedule is behind us and the beautiful expanse of the NFL season lies before us. And so here's the first of our divisional previews.

We begin with the AFC East. Home of last season's runners-up the New England Patriots. Home of some of the most intriguing, and most talked about off-season moves of any division in the league.

So before you settle in for the season, before you dash down to the bookies to place that bet on Miami to win the Super Bowl have a little read of what we have to say.....

New England Patriots:- 2011: 13-3, #1 AFC seed, Superbowl runner-up

2011’s team was characterised by near-unstoppable offense and extremely beatable defense. They might have been to yet another Superbowl but most agree it was something of a surprise that the Patriots were there given the dire state of the defense. 

Well after all that the Patriots went out and did something completely out of character, they moved up in the 1st round TWICE to take stud defensive talents in Chandler Jones and Dont’a Hightower. Josh McDaniels is back in town to take up Offensive Co-Ordinator duties again and has bought Brandon Lloyd with him to perhaps fix the lack of a deep threat that showed up in 2011. With what looks to be a soft schedule (NFC West & AFC South) and the continued presence of Brady, Welker, Gronkowski and others the Patriots look very much set to make another run into the playoffs and maybe make it back to the Big Game.

Question Marks:
The great Patriots Prankster has called it a day.
For the first time in a long time the Patriots offensive line is a potential weakness for the team. With Matt Light announcing his retirement, Brian Waters absent from training camp and presumed retired and Logan Mankins recovering from ACL surgery there are a lot of questions along the line. 

The starting unit of (left to right) Nate Solder, Donald Thomas, Dan Koppen, Dan Connolly and Marcus Cannon looked rather shaky in the pre-season opener against New Orleans. Solder looked a little slow when rushed outside and gave up a couple of holding flags. After an impressive rookie season flipping between right and left tackle the Patriots will hope that this was simply knocking the rust off and that he will improve come September. After all, his first NFL game last year he buried and dominated Cameron Wake, one of the best pass rushers in the league. Thomas really lacked Mankins’ mobility and power, while Cannon has lacked the sort of mobility needed from a tackle. The hope must be that Seb Vollmer will be fit for week 1 because I can’t see Brady and the offense clicking if they give up the same amount of pressure as they did against Tampa Bay. 

As a classic “pocket passer”, Tom Brady really relies on his offensive line to keep the pocket clear and secure. If they do then he and the offense can be at their amazing best, but if not the Patriots could struggle somewhat. The guaranteed return of Mankins would be an instant improvement, and Waters strolling in through the doors would make the Pats unit a formidable force. But if not, opposing defenses could get an easier time then they expect.

Key Additions:
Chandler Jones looks like an amazing talent, his long arms and ability to stay low allowed him to really dominant Jermon Bushrod, who is in the top half on NFL left tackles out there, during the first preseason game. He was bullrushing, bringing speed off the edge and generally making a menace of himself against the Saints 1st team offense. His play could be the real difference maker for a defense that has lacked a serious edge rush for a long time now. His performances against the Eagles and Tampa have really solidified my opinion of him. He might not quite produce the Von Miller/Aldon Smith level of sacks as a rookie, but he has all the talent to be a truly elite pass rusher in a few years. Which is something the Patriots have sorely lacked.
With last seasons edge players of Andre Carter and Mark Anderson elsewhere Jones figures to get a lot of playing time with the Patriots, and with Vince Wilfork inside making a menace of himself as usual he could see a few friendlier blocking schemes than he might have done otherwise.

Key Loss:
I’ve already discussed the loss of Matt Light, but following him out the door was effective running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis. Everyone knows the stat about Green-Ellis never fumbling the football, but his value goes beyond that. His 431 touches in the last 2 years lead the team, and while he offered very little threat as a pass catcher out of the backfield he was an extremely reliable runner. He would always hit the holes hard and get you just what the offensive line had blocked. He was a fantastic replacement for the dancing, tentative Lawrence Maroney and was a great goal line back (24 TD’s since 2010). He signed a free agent contract with Cincinnati and left the Patriots with a running back committee of Danny Woodhead and 2nd year players Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen to share the load. What that trio is lacking is a serious between the tackles power back that Green-Ellis is. While they looked good in their roles around Green-Ellis last year, it will be very interesting to see if they can make up the 1,000 yards and 200+ touches that The Law Firm’s departure leaves.
Do the Patriots have it in them to make the Big Game again?
Expectations:
With a weak schedule, a Hall of Fame QB, a pair of near-undefendable tight ends and what looks, early on, like an improved defense it’s not out of the question that the Patriots find themselves in the Superbowl again come February. As we’ll see though, the improvement of one of their division rivals could make the AFC East a bit of a tighter race than they’re used to, but 12-14 wins would be the expected return for this group in 2012.

Buffalo Bills:- 2011: 6-10, 4th in AFC East

You might not see these again in Buffalo for a while.
2011 started well and then really tailed off for the Bills. They went 4-1 out of the gate, including a big time comeback win against the Patriots. It was fuelled by a turnover-happy defense and Fred Jackson going crazy (averaging 22 touches, 142 yards from scrimmage and a touchdown in those first 5 games). Things fell off at the end of the season however, Injuries to Jackson, Ryan Fitzpatrick and along the offensive line together with the drying up of those turnovers meant the Bills finished the season on a disappointing 1-8 streak.

But 2012 certainly has a good outlook to it. A big splash in free agency, coupled with a very strong draft has made Buffalo one of the teams with the potential to jump into the play-off discussion. Throw in all those that they get back from injury and suddenly you have a team that could surprise a few people.

Question Marks:
As ever, it’s the Quarterback position in Buffalo that has a lot of people questioning if they really can compete with New England. Ryan Fitzpatrick had an up and down 2011, but played through injury at the end of the season so we can partially forgive a poor 2nd half.

The issue is that with Chan Gailey’s no-huddle offense, Fizpatrick is really his own playcaller on the field. Can he consistently make the right decisions and adjustments week in week out to keep the Bills rolling? The ground game with Fred Jackson and CJ Spiller seems to be there if he’s willing to use it but with only Stevie Johnson as a viable outside target can Fitzpatrick, without the stewardship of an offensive co-ordinator in his ear, be relied upon to take that run when it’s there. Will his arm match-up to the throws he thinks he can make?
Last season the Bills locked Fitzpatrick down to a contract worth $59million over 6 years, but the numbers aren’t that kind for the Amish Rifle in 2011. He ranked just 26th with a -6.1% DVOA, suggesting he was below average. Fitzpatrick threw 24 TD’s and 23INT’s and will need to cut down on those turnovers if the Bills are to keep pace with and challenge the New England Patriots.

Key Additions:
Where to even start? The Bills handed Mario Williams $90+million to bring his reign of terror to the AFC East. They added Mark Anderson to play opposite him and drafted talented cornerback Stephon Gilmore and the enormous Cordy Glenn to protect the left side of their line.

An elite pass rusher can elevate the whole team
With limited depth at linebacker and a lot of youth in the secondary Buffalo have gone all out in the last 2 years to build a fearsome defensive line that can dominate the line of scrimmage. With last years 1st round pick Marcel Dareus lining up in the middle of their new 4-3 next to the beast that is Kyle Williams, the addition of 1 elite pass rusher in Mario Williams and 1 solid guy who can defeat one on one’s in Mark Anderson makes the starters potentially the best D-Line in all the land. There are no easy blocks there and both DT’s are capable of demanding double teams and we’ve all seen what Mario Williams can do to even the best left tackles in the game.

Expectations:
The Bills really ought to go over .500 at the least. One of the big issues they have however is a lack of depth at certain positions. Behind their monster starting 4 on the D-Line is very little, there’s not much to write home about at receiver behind Stevie Johnson and underrated TE Scott Chandler. A few injuries here and there could really chip away at Buffalo’s talent a lot more than on another, deeper, team. While the weaker schedule puts Buffalo in wildcard contention they lack the depth of a lot of the other playoff contenders. A 10-6 season wouldn’t surprise me, but nor would another 6-10 one.

New York Jets:- 2011: 8-8, 2nd in AFC East

I have Gang Green finishing 3rd, but I really wouldn’t be surprised if the Jets finished last quite frankly. While their defense is still very good and I’m pretty down the Miami Dolphins, I’d much rather have their situation than New York’s…

When The Inmates Run The Asylum:
Antonio Cromartie thinks he’d be the 2nd best WR on the team. Darrelle Revis wants yet another new contract, Mark Sanchez has been handed a ridiculous contract extension & then there’s the great punt protector himself. No situation in the NFL has the potential to blow up quite as much as the mess that is the New York Jets.
A happy Revis is a key part of any Jets plans.
Putting the QB issue aside for just a moment, the offensive line is still a bit of a mess, even though they’re returning all 5 of last year’s starters. They still have the ticking timebomb that is Santonio Holmes as their only threat at WR and Football Outsiders “DVOA” stat has Shonn Greene’s 2011 performance at just above that of an average running back.

Having Revis there, locking down the oppositions best WR, is still a huge game changer for the Jets, and allows Rex Ryan to be more adventurous with his blitz calls. And the Jets D have been in the top 4 of DVOA for the last 3 years. The addition of Quinton Coples adds a little more flexibility and straight, non-blitz pass rush. But as a unit they continue to get older and slower they could well start going backwards. Their offense has hardly done them any favours in recent times either, leaving them with short fields to defend and flat out giving up points themselves. The addition of LaRon Landry, who looks like he was built especially to defend Rob Gronkowski, could be a stroke of genius as long as his Achilles troubles don’t flare up again. 

Expectations:
It’s the defense that will keep the Jets heads above the water (and the dolphins) this year, provided they don’t allow the Punt Protector too many snaps on offense or let the fans pressure a QB change like they did in Denver. As bad as The Sanchize is, at least he can complete more than 50% of his passes (just). You can never count a good defense out of wildcard contention, but with the Patriots and now an improved Buffalo in their division, even hitting .500 is going to be a tough ask I feel.

Miami Dolphins:- 2011: 6-10, 3rd in AFC East

2011 started out as a disastrous one for the Dolphins. A Monday Night demolishing by New England at home to start the season, and not winning a game until November. But they closed out the season on a 6-3 run, pushed New England and Dallas very close in 2 of their losses and actually looked like a threatening team again. Reggie Bush was starting to prove some of his worth, with 200 yards on the ground in a single game. Matt Moore and Brandon Marshall were developing a nice relationship. 

But all that promise seems to have disappeared going into the 2012 season. A new head coach in Joe Philbin has come in and shaken things up in front of the viewing public.

Big Changes:
Ryan Tannehill has been a much publicised draft choice. And for as much as you can trust highly edited highlights of him on Hard Knocks, he’s looked pretty good in training camp. But not good enough to warrant the starters job which they’ve handed him. 
New Head Coach's and new QB's go hand in hand these days

Miami’s offensive line has looked shaky to say the least. Rookie right tackle Jonathan Martin needs time to adjust to a change of sides and the jump in competition before he can be considered a safe start, the interior hasn’t looked that great either. And you’re going to put a rookie QB, who was only average in the Big 12 last season, with only a handful of college starts back there? Good luck. The consensus view, which I whole-heartedly agree with, is to let Matt Moore start the season with the unit he performed well with last season, and all Tannehill time to grow and hone his skills. Throwing him to the wolves (or Texans in this case) in week 1, without a single wide receiver you’d consider as “good” is a huge task. The phrase “Baptism Of Fire” has hardly even been more appropriate. 

With Brandon Marshall and all his problems being packed off to Chicago, the Dolphins needed the Chad Johnson/Ocho-Cinco/Johnson experiment to work, but what was very clear from Hard Knocks is that Philbin never liked him. The Dolphins are super-thin at WR now, they’ll have to lean on Reggie Bush more as a receiver, and he can hardly be trusted to stay healthy all year.

Lauren Tannehill & Mrs. Jake Long. Why? Why not!!
On defense, the decision to invest in a new QB has really left some holes. They lack a pass rusher to go opposite Cameron Wake and the secondary, particularly at corner, has potential but looks thin, especially if Vontae Davis can’t pick his game up.

Expectations:
Like Buffalo and New England they could enjoy the fruits of their soft schedule, but I find that unlikely. Ryan Tannehill, for all his promise, is going to have his struggles, and a lot of them. Outside of Chris Hogan’s impressive showing in Hard Knocks, they seem to have anyone that you can trust to get open consistently. The offensive line is going to struggle against the improved front 7’s in Buffalo, who they doubled up last season, and New England. 4-6 wins wouldn’t not surprise me for this version of the Miami Dolphins, but nor would finishing 3rd above the Jets.

 - Toby Durant {@TDonSport)
 - Pulling Linemen

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