Another year, another (probable) AFC East Division title for the New England Patriots. The only possible unknowns in the division are what order the other three teams will finish in.
There will be no occurrence of the ‘worst to first’ trend in the AFC East.
4. New York Jets
Perhaps you’ve heard about the utter mess that is currently the Jets’ defensive backfield. After failing to address the situation in free agency and declining to entertain re-signing Darrelle Revis – even though he was interested in a reunion – the Jets entered training camp already thin at the position. It only grew worse from there as they lost rookie third round pick and expected starter Dexter McDougle to a season ending ACL injury and second year starter Dee Millner for at least the first 3-4 weeks of the season with a high ankle sprain.
With converted safety Antonio Allen, perennial backup Darrin Walls, and Kyle Wilson (primarily only used in the slot) as their expected starters – and after releasing oft-injured Dmitri Patterson following a bizarre scene in which he failed to show up for their third preseason game – the Jets were forced to pick up career journeyman Phillip Adams and Leon McFadden (the most penalized defensive back during the preseason) off of waivers for some added depth.
Despite one of the most solid front lines in the league led by two of the best young defensive ends in the league in Sheldon Richardson and Muhammad Wilkerson, Rex Ryan’s defense could be in trouble – something he can’t be happy about.
Facing Aaron Rodgers, Jay Cutler, Matthew Stafford, Philip Rivers, and Peyton Manning all within the first six weeks of the season will only serve to highlight their deficiencies.
A lot will be made of the development of second year quarterback Geno Smith and whether we might see Michael Vick take over before the season ends but Smith may be the least of the Jets’ concerns.
Certainly, Smith has been afforded more weapons on offense than he had last year, but newly signed Eric Decker has not proved he can be a true number one receiver and his inability to gain separation from physical corners was exposed in last year’s Super Bowl.
Jeremy Kerley and David Nelson are marginal receivers at best so Smith might be best served relying on the versatility of Chris Ivory to serve as a Darren Sproles type back.
Chris Johnson’s best attribute was his speed which naturally declines with age and without an ability to run over defenders and break tackles he doesn’t bring nearly as much to the table as one would expect from a back that previously rushed for over 2,000 yards in a season.
Add it all up and, for the Jets at least, the quarterback might not be their biggest question….or downfall.
3. Buffalo Bills
The Bills most pressing matter is the progress and maturation (or lack thereof) of second year quarterback EJ Manuel.
After a less than stellar display by the offense in general and Manuel in particular during the preseason the Bills finally acquired a little insurance should Manuel continue to falter as the regular season starts by signing veteran quarterback Kyle Orton last week.
The Bills do have a strong backfield headed by Fred Jackson and CJ Spiller and will continue to be a run-first offense but in a passing league they can’t totally hide Manuel’s deficiencies, including a hesitancy to look downfield even with new (and costly) weapon Sammy Watkins in the fold.
Despite losing Pro Bowl safety Jarius Byrd to the New Orleans Saints in free agency and their best coverage linebacker in Kiko Alonso to a torn ACL during the offseason, the Bills’ defense will still be their strongest unit and could be among the top third in the league among defenses once again.
While they won’t be able to replace Byrd and Alonso’s level of production or athleticism the Bills have depth at both positions. They also employ one of the best defensive lines in the NFL anchored by Kyle and Mario Williams and Marcell Dareus – assuming they only lose Dareus for a couple of games due to his off the field issues.
But as seen last season a dominant defense is not enough to overcome inconsistency and ineffectiveness at the quarterback position. Unless Manuel shows more than he did in the preseason the Bills are headed for their tenth consecutive losing season.
2. Miami Dolphins
After last season’s Jonathan Martin/Richie Incognito bullying scandal and subsequent collapse of the team at the end of the season culminating in the team having lost their last two games in horrific fashion when they still had the chance to make the playoffs, head coach Joe Philbin is firmly on the coaching hot seat.
Philbin needs a winning season and likely a playoff berth to hold on to his job. While questions still remain about a suspect offensive line that needed to be completely overhauled after allowing quarterback Ryan Tannehill to be sacked a league-leading 58 times, new Dolphins GM Dennis Hickey did address the situation by signing Pro Bowl left tackle Branden Albert and underrated guard Shelley Smith in free agency as well as selecting tackle Ju’Wuan James with the 19th pick in the 2014 draft.
Now the onus is on Tannehill to prove that he is the franchise quarterback that many have projected him to be. The jury is still out on whether Tannehill, entering his third year in the league, can reach elite status but this season could be a make or break year for Tannehill and most think his performance will fall on the ‘make’ side of that equation.
Tannehill will be aided by the acquisition of Knowshon Moreno to bolster the Dolphins backfield.
While not having nearly a dire of situation as the Jets in the defensive backfield the Dolphins defensive strength is really in their front seven due to the pass rushing ability of Cameron Wake and Olivier Vernon who should be able to pressure opposing quarterbacks just enough to force them into bad decisions that mitigate the dynamic playmakers they are lacking in the backfield.
While the Dolphins don’t have enough to overtake the Patriots they should at least make the division a bit more interesting than it has been in recent years.
1.New England Patriots
The fact that the Patriots still employ Bill Belichick and Tom Brady should be enough reason to, once again, put them atop the AFC East. Brady, even at the age of 37, has not lost a step despite what his numbers from last season suggest.
Brady’s stats from last season were down after losing dynamic slot receiver and Brady security blanket Wes Welker to the Denver Broncos, Aaron Hernandez to murder charges, and Rob Gronkowski for half the season to an ACL tear and replacing them with an injury prone poor man’s Welker (Danny Amendola) and a host of inexperienced first year receivers – which, oh by the way, still produced a 12-4 record and a spot in the AFC Championship game.
With the continued development of Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins, the reliability of Julian Edelman and the (hopefully) healthy return of Gronkowski last year’s numbers will be an anomaly in Brady’s historical career.
With the return of Gronkowski alone, the Patriots will be much more efficient in the red zone as they converted just 43.5 percent of their forays into the red zone into touchdowns without Gronkowski last year but nearly 70 percent when he was on the field – an astronomical difference.
The largest shortcoming for the Patriots the past several years has been their defensive backfield (apparently a trend in this division) which had to irk Belichick who built his coaching career on his defensive innovations.
The secondary should be a concern no more with the signing (at a relative bargain of $12 million for the season) of Revis and former Seattle Seahawks corner Brandon Browner in free agency. Browner is the type of big and bruising corner that has become all the rage after the Seahawks built their entire defense around such a model and rode it to a Super Bowl championship.
While Browner will miss the first four games due to a suspension for violating the league’s substance abuse policy, Kyle Arrington is capable of covering for him over a span of games that doesn’t feature many big arm quarterbacks.
The Patriots domination of the AFC East should continue in 2014.