Here we are, one night away from what should be a great opening weekend of football, and for once we here at NFL Amateurs have accomplished something: completing our preseason predictions. Kudos all around to me…. and Andy I guess…
At any rate, here’s a very interesting division that we’ll conclude with: the AFC East. This is a division perennially dominated by the New England Patriots, and with good reason. With perhaps the most cerebral coach in the NFL and a Hall of Fame quarterback at the helm, it’s clearly been tough to unseat this team. The division has not laid quietly, each team acting to find an answer to the Patriots. The most successful thus far has been the New York Jets who have done everything from hiring a disciple in Eric Mangini, swinging for a Hall of Fame quarterback in Brett Favre, and most recently brought in the bold and brash, defensive-minded coach Rex Ryan. The Buffalo Bills have often looked befuddled and confused as to how best attack their rivals, finally settling on Chan Gailey’s modified air attack. Ryan Fitzpatrick has operated his offense more effectively than most of their stop gap solutions, finally bringing continuity to the position. Meanwhile, Miami brought the Wildcat out of NFL retirement and for a moment looked like they had the Patriots number. Unfortunately the league caught up to the Dolphins. Now they look for the answer in big, tall receiver Brandon Marshall but still lack a consistent signal caller. The next few years will be interesting to see if the Patriots can maintain their dominance as Brady nears retirement. The Jets are considered the rising team, while the Bills and Dolphins still look to be gathering the weapons needed to take the top. We’ll see it begin to play out this year.
Now only if he could control his hair more often...
New England Patriots
Andy: Along with the Indianapolis Colts, the most consistent team in the NFL. They have won the AFC East every season except one since 2003, and even in the season that they did not win it (2008) they went 11-5. It’s pretty easy to understand why this team is always a contender, and it starts with the head coach and quarterback. For all his crankiness and cheating (yes, cheating), Bill Belichick is a brilliant coach who creates the best schemes to get the most out of his players. Tom Brady is able to work in both a short passing game and a vertical threat, as seen when they did and did not have Randy Moss. The team won and was productive in both cases, neither affected their ability to win. That being said, the Patriots have not won a playoff game since their almost-perfect season, and it might not be much longer before we start seeing serious turnaround on this team, especially on offense.
Besides the future Hall-of-Fame QB, the Patriots finally have a decent running game with “the Law Firm”, BenJarvus Green-Ellis. He won’t wow anybody with speed or size or power, but does everything well enough to be an effective back and important complement to Tom Brady. The WR position is a question-mark. Wes Welker is easily the team’s most important receiver and plays best out of the slot, seemingly always able to find the holes in a defense. Deion Branch knows how to get by defenders despite losing some speed and has special chemistry with Brady. Chad Ochocinco is not a great signing in my opinion and will only do more harm to this offense than good. Their TEs, Rob Grownkowski and Aaron Hernandez are a huge part of this offense, and both look set up for good seasons. The offensive line is consistent and good in pass protection. Age might become a factor on the left side of the line (hence the drafting of Nate Solder), but not this year.
The defense still remains questionable and is certainly the weak point of this team. Vince Wilfork is a great NT, but Albert Haynesworth and Shaun Ellis are both gambles by Belichick that he can turn the careers of these veteran D-Linemen around. If not, you can expect a lot of runs against the Pats and not a lot of pressure on QBs. Jerod Mayo is a fantastic LB and Brandon Spikes a reasonably good MLB, but many of the other LBs (Rob Ninkovich, Tracy White) don’t inspire a lot of confidence. Leigh Bodden is the veteran of the CB position, and a solid one. Devin McCourty has also become a solid CB, and rookie Ras-I-Dowling hopes to give New England a desperately needed 3rd CB. I do not like either of the Pats’ safeties, but Patrick Chung has proven himself to be a reasonably good player.
I just don’t see this team losing that often, and once again returning to the playoffs. Winning in the playoffs against top teams, however, is a different question.
Cole: Starting with the best of the division. The Patriots will offense maintain its dominance. Tom Brady returns and has looked MVP caliber during the regular season. Unfortunately the team’s struggles in the post season start at quarterback, where Rex Ryan has shown an ability to rattle Brady if he gets hit enough. In light of that, the Patriots have begun looking for ways to be more physical and dynamic on offense. They drafted two running backs in Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen to pair with surprising stars Danny Woodhead and Benjarvus Green-Ellis. Add in their two young tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez and we should see strong sets from the Patriots this year. Still their bread and butter comes from a high octane offense that attacks via the pass. Hernandez is a mismatch as a receiving tight end, while slot receiver Wes Welker is the best in the business. The Patriots still lack a number one target. Chad Ochocinco and Deion Branch will attempt to fill that role this year, but in the long term neither is really viable. The line has been overhauled the last few years, but remains exceptional against the pass, maybe the best in the league. Nate Solder will be groomed behind the veterans before stepping in, likely for Matt Light at right tackle.
Defensively this unit continues to struggle to find pieces for the pass. Their pass rush has not been significantly improved. Jermaine Cunningham returns but has not proven to be a consistent pass rush threat. They added Albert Haynesworth and Andre Carter to try to improve their pass rush, but in order for them to really bolster the sacks the Patriots will likely run more 4-3 schemes to best utilize Haynesworth and Carter’s abilities. The secondary is another work in progress. They recently gave up on high pick Darius Butler. They have spent a number of picks in the secondary the last few years. Devin McCourty, Ras-I Dowling, Patrick Chung, and Josh Barrett have all been in the league 3 years or less and feature to play heavily this year. Two of them are starters. This unit will be the Achilles heel of the Patriots. If the pass rush and pass defense improves, this offense will give them enough points. Otherwise they will need to win games in shootout fashion.
New York Jets
Andy: Rex ‘Eat a God Damn Snack’ Ryan talks…a lot…but he has backed it up with two consecutive AFC Championship appearances. The question is if this offense can improve enough to complement outstanding defensive play. This is the year Mark Sanchez has to step up. He improved last year over 2009, but a 6.49 yards per attempt average and a 75.3 QB rating just isn’t good enough in this league. A good QB is needed to win the Super Bowl. Shonn Greene also needs to step up. The end of last year only went to show LT cannot carry a team anymore, and Joe McKnight was also disappointing. If Greene cannot come through, this team could be in trouble. Santonio Holmes has developed a connection with Sanchez and should be a reliable deep receiver for the Jets, but there is a ton of turnover behind him. Plaxico is a huge target with great hands, but we won’t know how good he is after coming out of jail until the regular season starts. Derrick Mason is one of the best route runners in the game and has great hands, but is getting slower and more injury prone and caught so many balls because Flacco relied on him, whereas Sanchez may not. The offensive line is very solid and will help give Sanchez more time and Greene more holes to run through. The only big question mark is Wayne Hunter at RT.
The defense is a monster not because of its players, but also because of the scheme. On the line, out is Shaun Ellis and Kris Jenkins, in comes Kenrick Ellis and Muhammed Wilkerson. Ellis provides some much-needed strength at NT, and Wilkerson should be a beast at DE in Ryan’s scheme. The LB corps is comprised of veteran players, led by the great MLB duo of Bart Scott and David Harris. No one is truly great, but each knows his role very well and their play compliments each other. CB Darrelle Revis is obviously one of the two best at his position (along with Asomugha), and Cromartie is no slouch. 3rd CB Kyle Wilson really does need to improve his man coverage, however, otherwise he could be out sooner rather than later. Jim Leonhard is a consistently underrated SS who has instincts for the ball, and FS Eric Smith is solid in zone defense, but may not be a long-term solution at SS for the Jets.
I do like the Jets to make the playoffs again, but I am not sold on them being a Super Bowl contender. There are a ton of questions at the offensive skill positions, and they’re going to need an effective passing game to beat the likes of Pittsburgh, Baltimore or San Diego. Nevertheless, this is a dangerous team whose defense always keeps them in the game.
Cole: The Jets have made an effort to find premiere targets for Mark Sanchez. Rex Ryan may want to be a power rushing team, but also realizes that to win the Superbowl he has to be able to attack down field. Teams like the Steelers and Ravens stand between him and his goal and therefore he spent money this off-season resigning Santonio Holmes and signing Derrick Mason and Plaxico Burress. While it remains to be seen what Mason and Burress will be able to bring to the table, the Sanchez-Holmes connection worked quite well the last few games of last season. Make no mistake though, this is a run first team that will carry the ball behind a very talented, bullying line. A line anchored by center Nick Mangold, D’Brickashaw Ferguson, and Brandon Moore. Even though Shonn Greene has struggled at being the work horse and LaDainian Tomlinson couldn’t carry the team 16 weeks, I doubt that this team will fail to run the ball. They’re sound up front, so there will be no excuses if they cannot get the job done out of the backfield.
Defensively, Ryan continues to add to his vaunted defense. Drafting Muhammad Wilkerson brings some youth and talent to a struggling front that lost Shaun Ellis (a departure that Ryan was not a fan of). The subtraction of Kris Jenkins might leave them a little weak at the nose tackle position, but Sione Pouha has been gaining experience and brings consistency that the oft injured Kris Jenkins couldn’t. At linebacker, Bart Scott and recently resigned David Harris to anchor the unit, keeping everyone in line, but Rex still hasn’t found a consistent pass rusher. They recently gave up on Vernon Gholston and added Calvin Pace with the hopes he still has something in the tank. Most likely they will struggle to get pressure without sending 5 or more. Have no fear though, Rex Ryan will dial up the blitzes at regular intervals using a dynamic scheme. The secondary is loaded, with Darrelle Revis, Antonio Cromartie, Jim Leonhard, and Eric Smith. Productive safety Kerry Rhodes had a dysfunctional relationship with the coaches and team, resulting in being traded to the Cardinals this off-season. Eric Smith has stepped in for Rhodes before, and is now seasoned in the system. If last years 1st round pick Kyle Wilson improves, it will be a tough task to pass on this unit, and while they were looking at Nnamdi as an upgrade to Cromartie, this unit will be fine with a little pass rush up front. No matter how talented your DBs are, they can only cover for so long.
The Jets are ready. They’re talented. They have experience in the post season. It all boils down to Sanchez’s play in the regular season, Shonn Greene’s ability to run the ball, and the defensive pass rush. If those three improve, this is a 13 win team, that can easily find it’s way in the playoffs without traveling anywhere.
It must be frustrating being a good player that is overlooked on a bad team...
Andy: Buffalo, along with Cincinnati, is most likely the other main competitor in the Andrew Luck sweepstakes. Letting go of Donte Whitner, Lee Evans, and Paul Posluszny makes no sense for a team trying to rebuild. The offensive line is still a disaster, and when your best lineman is C Eric Wood, you know you have issues. Fred Jackson should be a premier RB, but the Bills put too much into CJ Spiller to let it be so, and I’m not sure Spiller won’t be another Reggie Bush-like 1st round bust. I know the Bills are big on Donald Jones, but losing Lee Evans, a reliable deep threat, didn’t do the offense any favors, and Stevie Johnson could have used another year without being the focus of every defense. Ryan Fitzpatrick has performed admirably under the miserable circumstances of being a QB in Buffalo, but it’s clear he’s not going to be this team’s salvation.
On defense, there is some hope. NT Kyle Williams is very good at penetrating the line, but can get manhandled against the run. Dwan Edwards is okay as a DE, but is more fit to being a backup than a starter. Rookie Marcell Dareus is being counted on to bring some much-needed toughness to this line. If he does pan out, he could become a mirror image of Haloti Ngata. The whole LB corps is old and desperately needs some new blood (look for rookie 3rd round pick Kelvin Sheppard to get a lot of time this year or next). Newly-acquired MLB Nick Barnett should be a suitable replacement for Posluszny for a couple of years, and Andra Davis is ok as far as 2nd MLBs go. Both OLBs, Chris Kelsay and Shawne Merriman, have seen better days. Terrence McGee is an okay CB, but should be nobody’s #1. Leodis McKelvin has not panned out as a terribly good CB, and the Bills have two new CBs to break in in 2nd rounder Aaron Williams and 4th rounder Da’Norris Searcy. George Wilson is an ok SS (but not as good as Whitner), and FS Jairus Byrd shows some excellent instincts and is good in run support.
This team just does not have the talent to keep up. A poor offensive line, questionable WR corps, questionable QB, mediocre D-line, old LB corps, and mediocre secondary all adds up to one bad team. Well, at least they don’t play some games in Toronto…wait…
Cole: As I said before, Chan Gailey may have found the perfect quarterback for his “spread” offense aerial attack in Ryan Fitzpatrick. Fitzpatrick has a mentality of keep slinging the ball and we’ll score, which seems to line up with Gailey. Steve “The Joker” Johnson stepped into the lead receiver role, prompting the trade of Lee Evans, but leaving a void at the number two slot. Currently Donald Jones is set to take that role, but only time will tell if he can repeat Johnson’s work last year. The offensive line is solid on the inside, but very, very weak at tackle. They traded Jason Peters and never really replaced him. The frustrating part is that they haven’t really tried. Demetrius Bell, 7th round draft pick, and Erik Pears, and un-drafted tackle from Denver, are set to start. They have not really invested the picks into the position, instead wasting them on gaudy running backs like C.J. Spiller, when they have a perfectly good back in Fred Jackson. This draft philosophy has been the reason that the Bills have floundered in the basement of the AFC East.
Defensively, this unit is improved. Signing linebacker Nick Barnett, Dwan Edwards, Shawne Merriman, and Kirk Morrison should improve the overall play. They’re still running a 3-4 with a weak nose tackle in Kyle Williams, but being paired with rookie 1st round draft pick Marcell Dareus should help the front be stronger against teams like the Jets. The secondary has a lot of talent in Terrence McGee and oft injured Leodis McKelvin, but struggles to maintain for 16 weeks. Jarius Byrd had a breakout rookie year, but slumped his second. If he can return to form, than this team could be like the one that took the Patriots to the wire opening week 2 years ago.
A lot of teams have picked the Bills as a dark horse team, but there are still some significant holes in the roster. How much does Merriman have left? Where’s the ball going to go besides Steve Johnson? Is the back end set for several years, or do we need to upgrade at safety? These are questions that need answers this coming year in Buffalo.
Will Henne be sleeping with the fishes by the end of the season? Badump-ch!
Andy: Tony Sparano is betting a lot on Chad Henne. Henne was miserable last season, gaining only 6.7 yards per attempt, with 15 TDs and 19 picks. Unless he improves, his starting career and possibly Sparano’s time in Miami could be over. The Dolphins are starting over at RB, with rookie Daniel Thomas and newly acquired Reggie Bush. I like Thomas, but he has been having issues with dancing too much in the backfield instead of plowing forward, and Reggie Bush is not a premier back in my opinion. Brandon Marshall is still a great WR and should be given the ball a lot. Behind him, Brian Hartline looks like an alright receiver but does not stand out. Ditto for Davone Bess, who has flashes of brilliance followed by him going invisible. The offensive line continues to be reorganized for the ump-teenth season. Jake Long is the anchor, and Vernon Carey is a good RG. Rookie Mike Pouncey should be a strong center. Newly acquired Richie Incognito (great name) and Marc Colombo are obviously fill-ins until they find better.
The defensive line isn’t anything to write home to, but it’s solid. I especially like Randy Starks. Cameron Wake and Karlos Dansby make for an excellent right side of the 4-man LB corps, but the left side of Koa Misi and Kevin Burnett is nowhere near as good. Misi will continue to develop into a good LOLB, but Burnett needs to be replaced. Vontae Davis is a very good CB and Sean Smith a decent one, but probably should be playing nickelback. The problem is, there is nobody else whose any good behind them. SS Yeremiah Bell is good in run support and not a burden in coverage, and FS Chris Clemons is ok, but not a considerable threat to a good QB.
On paper, this team is not terrible, but they languish in mediocrity. Not one part of this team screams greatness or rising to the challenge of beating tougher teams. Much of this team needs a makeover if they’re going to be competitive, and it starts at QB.
Cole: Let’s start with the good. The Dolphins have a great offensive line. Jake Long, Mike Pouncey, Marc Columbo, Richie Incognito, and Vernon Carey should be good both against the run and the pass. This is a physical group that should win the battle in the trenches, particularly with the addition of Pouncey. They have an elite receiver in Brandon Marshall as well as a promising slot receiver in Davone Bess. Defensively they are sound with Cameron Wake, Karlos Dansby, Vontae Davis, and Sean Smith. The rest of the parts on defense are respectable, featuring hard workers and promising talents. There’s a lot to like about this team, but not where it counts.
At quarterback, Chad Henne has been given one more shot to win this job. The writing is on the wall if he struggles and if the team tanks spectacularly then Andrew Luck is on the way. At running back, Reggie Bush has won the starters job. This doesn’t speak well about Daniel Thomas, rookie draft pick, who was supposed to sweep that job up quickly. Reportedly he’s struggled with the playbook. At receiver, Brian Hartline is on the same leash as Henne. He’s shown flashes, but lacks real consistency, and not being a burner that won’t help if he’s dropping passes. The safety position could use an upgrade. Yeremiah Bell and Chris Clemons are unspectacular and not much help to their young corners. Koa Misi, rookie linebacker, will line up opposite Wake to try and form a pair like the Steelers group of Harrison and Woodley. The front 3 are decent, but again unspectacular. The combination of these concerns could lead to not a lot of points from the offense, and some big plays against the defense.
The outlook for Miami is bleak. It’s hard to succeed at quarterback without a coaching staff that trusts you. In the same way, its hard to succeed as coach without an ownership group that trusts you. Both those facts seem accurate to the Dolphins. They went after Kevin Kolb and Jim Harbaugh and failed to get both, leaving them shrugging and say “I guess that will have to do.” It’s the last shot for a lot of people here, and I expect an overhaul in the off-season.
New England Patriots
Cole – 12-4 / Andy 12-4
New York Jets
Cole – 11-5 / Andy 11-5
Cole – 5-11 / Andy 3-13
Cole – 5-11 / Andy 6-10