The AFC East have enjoyed a nice ride these past eleven years with the Patriots running rampant in the NFL, and the New York Jets enjoying a ride of their own nearly to the top under Rex Ryan from 2008-2010 however in 2011 the division collapsed with only the Patriots able to carry on its once formidable reputation.
The Dolphins imploded without consistent quarterbacking and injuries at running back, the Bills folded after they lost Fred Jackson to injury and Ryan Fitzpatrick signed his new deal.
In typical fashion, financial security was oddly linked to miserably unimpressive performances from the Harvard grad as the streaking Bills completely collapsed in late October and never recovered. The Jets finally felt the full consequences of a lackluster season long performance from its defense, both Mark Sanchez, and Shonn Greene underlining why New Yorkers everywhere lacked faith in them. Not surprisingly, the Patriots were able to take full advantage of these developments stomping the division to the tune of a 5-1 divisional record, and 8-2 out of division performance. They road their offensive renaissance all the way to Super Bowl where for a second time in five years, New England hearts were broken as the vaunted offense was scuttled by an impressive effort from the New York Giants. After an offseason which featured some outstanding, and some interesting drafts, and free agent moves, what does the AFC East hold in store for the fans from New England, Buffalo, Miami, and of the Jets?
1. New England:
The Patriots have a 14-2 ceiling to me, and a floor of about 11-5. I’m going with a prediction of 12-4 because it’s the most reliable and predictable scenario. Traditionally the patriots drop a game they shouldn’t, and shed a few wins in close contests against elite teams. This year should be no different as the Patriots look improved after an excellent draft, and solid free agency performance but still have some holes here and there.
The offense is loaded for bear, the patriots will return the most impressive duo of tight ends ever featured in NFL History, and have added a deep threat to their corps of solid chain moving wide receivers in Brandon Lloyd. Their only major issues revolves around an adequate, but no longer elite offensive line, and a running game that was sub-par with Ben Jarvus Green-Ellis and now must make do with a second year duo of Steven Ridley, and Shane Vereen. Ridley has shown some potential, and could potentially become a legit bell cow back, time will tell, but Vereen is nothing more than a third down pass catching specialist, and they already have a talented option capable of playing that role in Danny Woodhead. The Patriots have shown that much like the 1981 49ers they are quite capable of replacing a running game with Tom Brady’s deadly accurate short passing repertoire and with the addition of their TE focused intermediate passing game, their offense has been absolutely lethal over the past two years. Their reign of terror should continue well into the future.
The positive for Patriots fans isn’t in the offense, which has been outstanding for a decade running, but rather in the additions that have been made to a defense that was allowed to wilt throughout the past several years. The Patriots endured a series of awful drafts following their last super bowl victory, and it was mainly the defense which has taken the hit from the paucity of drafted contributors. This past spring the Patriots were able to add key play makers to their front seven in Donta Hightower, and Chandler Jones, and both players should be able to provide an injection of athleticism, and a pass rushing threat respectively to give their main defensive liaibility, a weak secondary, a break. The drafting of Tavon Wilson also could potentially help their secondary as he’s an excellent option against the run and solid against the pass and a very talented special teams player.
New England’s ’12 season will rise or fall based upon their offense, to be sure, but their defense will no longer be the massive liability it has been in recent years and that should be a huge help to their cause in making a repeat trip to the super bowl.
Few will be riding the Buffalo train in 2012 due to their catastrophic 2nd half in ‘11, a 1-8 finish is liable to leave a lot of doubters. However after having a quality draft in 2011, they made a splash in free agency landing perhaps the best pass rushing free agent since the Packers landed Reggie White nineteen years ago in Mario Williams and had one of the best drafts in 2012. When I look at the Bills schedule, and their roster, I have a real difficult time imagining that the Jets can hold them off for second place in the coming season. They landed two starting caliber lineman in RT Cordy Glenn, and Zebrie Sanders, a starting caliber corner in Stephen Gilmore, and an interesting athlete at LB in Nigel Bradham. When you add in the adjustments they’ve made to address their DL in drafting #1 rated Marcel Dareus in 2011, and landing Mario Williams and Mark Anderson, two outstanding pass rushers to surround him with in 2012, and the infusion of talent with draftees like Gilmore, and Bradham it’s hard to envision the Bills stumbling as they did in 2011. I love their DL, like their linebackers, and think they should be improved in the secondary. Their defense can only get better in 2012, and I expect big things from it as the season moves forward.
As for the offense, they improved the offensive line via the draft, will get Fred Jackson back, and with CJ Spiller showing so well late in ‘11, they can go into 2012 with the comfort of knowing they have a ground game that can get the job done. Ryan Fitzpatrick will look to bounce back from a post-contract signing swoon in the second half of ’11, and his improvement is essential if the Bills are to get much of anything out of their aerial attack. The Bills have improved their wide receiver position over the past few years with the acquisitions of Stevie Johnson and David Nelson, and they have nice depth at the position with former Dolphins starter Derek Hagen, and Donald Jones likely to fight for a starting job opposite Johnson while Nelson works the slot. They have adequate weapons at TE, if not explosive ones, and with the rest of a solid unit in place, should be more than capable of attacking opponents effectively in 2012 if Ryan Fitzpatrick can rediscover his early 2011 form. I believe a reasonable expectation for the Bills this year would be an 8-9 win season. Bills fans should take heart, if they can build on their ’12 offseason, they should be contenders for a playoff spot this season, and serious players for a role in the playoffs by 2013.
3. New York Jets
I feel a little bit sorry for the Jets and their fans. Always stepchild to the Giants, much like the Mets with the Yankees, they seemingly built a legit contender a few years ago, and came within a whisker of making a super bowl or two before falling just short. Unfortunately for this long suffering fan base, I believe success is further away than it’s ever been in recent years and will recede into the background as the season moves forward this fall. The main issues that have crippled the Jets were attested to by former Alabama quarterback Greg McElroy who described the team as full of more ME FIRST guys than any locker room he’d ever seen or heard of. The team lacks chemistry, and unity and while that might not have been a huge problem when they were playing dominant defense and quality football a few years ago, it has become a massive issue as the defense has aged, and the offense has grown ragged due to the lack of genuinely talented playmakers throughout the lineup. Mark Sanchez isn’t a franchise quarterback and never will be one, he’s merely an adequate game manager with a nice record that’s a product of playing with quality teams, rather than his quality play, and now that their running game is stalled with slug bell cow Shonn Greene doing his Ron Dayne impression, Santonio Holmes throwing gasoline on the fire with every interview, and no second banana’s worth a damn forcing them to reach for a workout warrior speedster in Stephen Hill on draft day, not surprisingly Sanchez has looked pedestrian. Indeed the only playmaker on offense whom didn’t stink it up in ’11 was TE Dustin Keller who had a breakout season, finally, after years of disappointing a fan base all too familiar with the Jets wasting top draft picks decade after decade on Tight Ends.
What can Jets fans look forward to in 2012? Not much. The offense remains a wreck along the shoulder of the New Jersey Turnpike, ugly to look at and yet, a tantalizing site for rubberneckers. It won’t be any better in ’12. Sanchez is a below league average starter and is incapable of growing beyond league average, and with that knowledge in tow, the Jets absolutely had to surround him with outstanding talent to camouflage his issues. Instead, they’ve surrounded him with subpar talent, scrubs, and team cancers. The Offensive line is solid, but at WR they have a cancer on one side, a rookie in Stephen Hill who is unproven at best on the other, and place holders. The Running game is a total joke with Greene somehow still holding the gig despite McKnight, ’11 draftee Bilal Powell, and ’12 draftee Ganaway on the roster. If I were Ryan I’d end the Green experiment and give serious looks to McKnight, Powel and Ganaway in the preseason in order to find a new option to jumpstart the anemic rushing attack. At tight end, they’ll return Dustin Keller, who is a legit starting TE in this league with top 12-15 talent at the position which should help Sanchez, particularly on passing downs. The Jets offense won’t frighten anyone in 2012 and will be a tremendous liability for a team that sees itself as a contender but in reality is anything but.
The unfortunate thing for the Jets is that these problems have existed, to some degree or other, throughout their rise to power from ’08–’11, so their presence wouldn’t necessarily imply a collapse in 2012 if it weren’t for the fact that the defense it is only getting older, and definitely not better, as it ages with each passing year. To be fair, I am one of the rare fans, out there, of their 2012 1st round draftee. Yes they took a risk in going after a defensive end that wasn’t a perfect fit and had motor issues in Quinton Coples, but Coples was a top 5 projected pick in the summer of ’11, and I’m a big fan of stealing talent on draft day. Coples issues in college were running hot and cold and playing with an inconsistent motor from game to game and play to play. With the Jets it’s hard to imagine Coples will suffer from the same problem. If there is one thing Head Coach Rex Ryan can do, it’s maximize talent on defense, and motivate defensive players. Coples should play up to his potential as a Jet unless he’s a far bigger headache than any scout has ever suggested, and if he does so, than Ryan and company have landed one of the best pass rushers in the ’12 draft, and a guy with the potential to be one of the best pass rushers in the AFC given time. The problem for the Jets is that they didn’t do much beyond drafting Coples and signing oft-injured dolt LaRon Landry in the offseason to help an aging unit that badly needed infusions of young talent. I suspect the Jets will hang their hopes on great performances from their secondary (they do have some talent there), and cross their fingers with their blue haired front seven, praying Coples can have an impact in rejuvenating the group.
The Jets did not improve nearly enough with the offseason to stem the growing tide of bad news and bad developments afflicting the franchise. I believe their floor this year could be as low as four or five wins, and suspect they aren’t capable of winning more than six or seven games in 2012, leaving them in 11th or 12th place overall in the AFC at seasons end.
Projected Record 3-13
The Dolphins are unlikely to have much to look back on fondly once the ’12 season is completed. I have the Dolphins as a legit contender to finish with the #1 overall draft pick by seasons end. The Dolphins traded away the only legit playmaking pass catcher they had before the draft, feature no bell cow running backs, and don’t have anything special at Tight End. Indeed their only assets on offense worth mentioning are bookend tackles for the offensive line in Jake Long, and 2012 Stanford Product Jonathan Martin, a steal of a pick who was rated as a top 10 prospect as recently as January, but was available to them in the second round. The defense is equally uninspiring, without legit playmakers or differencemakers to be found although Vontae Davis flashed outstanding ability late in the season. So what can fans expect from the 2012 season?
Very Little. The offense is interesting in some ways for long suffering Dolphins fans, as there are tantalizing possibilities in place at running back and quarterback. Oft-injured second year running back Daniel Thomas and Lamar Miller will likely spend the season auditioning for a starting job at tailback in 2013. Devoted fans should place a keen eye on the competition as somebody, anybody, needs to lay claim to that role, a position that has not been effectively filled by the Dolphins since the days of Mercury Morris and Larry Csonka forty years ago.
At wide receiver the less said about the situation the better. I could attempt to be kind about their weapons at wide receiver, but there is no point, the dolphins have the worst collection of wide receivers in the NFL, and that’s by a wide, wide margin, likely having the worst #1, and #2 options league wide. Indeed if it weren’t for the presence of Davone Bess playing in the slot, and past it former star Chad Johnson who hopes to recapture his old bengals magic after a disastrous season in New England, the wide receiver position would probably be the worst situation I’ve ever seen on a non-expansion team ever. Even fantasy devotees will find a hard time unearthing interest in the position, Brian Hartline? A body, never fulfilled his promise, and is simply filler at this point in time. Legedu Naanane, the oddly named former Chargers draftee, now picked up off the scrap heap of the Panthers is unlikely to impress anyone either. At Quarterback they have decent stop gap vets in David Garrard and Matt Moore to protect Ryan Tannehill from blinding himself w/the awfulness of the assets around him, but neither quarterback is likely to remind you of Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers. Both are, at their best, league average starters that don’t make a lot of mistakes, and with no playmakers to work with, it’s hard to imagine either of them playing at their best.
The Dolphins defense is largely a failed brand at this point. They’ve invested draft picks, and plenty of money trying to rebuild the unit over the years, and have gotten consistently solid performances for the most part, but at this point in time it’s difficult to look at the starting XI and see much that impresses. Former top draft pick Vontae Davis looks like he might be turning into a quality corner, but beyond him is there anything worth mentioning? Not really. Karlos Dansby should continue to rue the day he decided to wrap up his career at another place where NFL Careers go to die (seriously, is there anything crueler than to spend your entire career with Arizona and Miami?), and the rest of the defense will remain the largely anonymous bunch that has been solid, but unspectacular for decades. Miami is headed toward a day of reckoning in late December when they will find out just where their draft pick will slot, and how big a mountain Ryan Tannehill and friends will need to climb to lift this team out of irrelevance in 2013 and beyond. At press time, it is very difficult to imagine Miami winning more than four games in 2012, and they could win as few as two.