1. NY Jets: 12-4
Have they talked themselves out of a title?
2. New England Patriots: 10-6
Can Belichick bring back a championship defense?
3. Miami Dolphins: 8-8
Is Brandon Marshall enough to get Miami over the .500 hurdle?
4. Buffalo Bills: 4-12
A new coach, a new system. Any hope in Buffalo?
Bill Belichick – Patriots
He never shows a sign of panic. Always seems to be cool, calm and collected in the big game. However, last year was probably the first time in which he was lost. Lost in a sense that he was too confident in his and his teams abilities. Going for it on 4th and 2 at Indianapolis in New England’s own territory was a big mistake not just last year, but for the next couple years. He questioned his defense’s abilities and a lot of his former players criticized him, rightfully so. He has to reconcile that by building the defense back up and continue to let Tom Brady regulate the still high powered offense if they want to get past the Jets.
Rex Ryan – Jets
Never afraid to speak his mind he has immediately turned the Jets into a powerhouse after their near Super Bowl appearance last year. Thirty more minutes of perfect football would’ve granted the Jets only their 2nd Super Bowl appearance in franchise history. Rex has the right people on his staff to oversee the offense, which is fine because his specialty is the defense. He has a few new toys in the secondary (Antonio Cromartie and rookie Kyle Wilson). Plus a healthy NT Kris Jenkins will help tremendously. However, with the holdout of CB Darrelle Revis, it could be a struggle to stop premier passing attacks without the best corner in the game.
Tony Sparano – Dolphins
This is his third season in Miami. After the 10 game turnaround in ’08 that resulted in a division title, the Dolphins dropped off to only 7 wins in ’09. The “Wildcat” lost its luster a bit, but it’s still a big part of their offense. It will be used a little less no with the emergence of QB Chad Henne. Sparano has a legitimate passing threat with Brandon Marshall and will focus most of his attention to a defense that ranked 22nd in the league last year. There is a lot of depth at key positions for Miami, but not a lot of experience to go against the Jets and Patriots.
Chan Gailey – Bills
Buffalo missed on all the big names. They haven’t had a postseason berth in 10 years. Gailey is now their fifth head coach this decade. Gailey’s previous head coaching experience in the NFL was with the Dallas Cowboys (1998-99). Combined 18-14 with Dallas and in both seasons had made the playoffs. Owner Ralph Wilson, Jr. is hoping for that success to reappear in Buffalo. Unfortunately for both parties, there are three better teams ahead of them in their division. The first problem starts with an unsettled QB position and changing to a 3-4 defense usually takes a long time to develop. Gailey will be given a long leash, but until their is an answer at QB, it will get shorter in a hurry.
Best Acquisition: WR Brandon Marshall – Miami Dolphins
Three straight years of 100 catches and at least 1,100 yards receiving are no fluke. Jay Cutler was his QB for two of the three, but what solidified him as one of the elite receivers was doing it again with an average QB Kyle Orton last year in Denver. He wore out his welcome there, but Miami hasn’t had a legitimate number one receiver since Chris Chambers. Chad Henne will continue to develop into an elite passer thanks to the front office opening their wallets.
Quarterback – Grade
Patriots – A
Jets – B
Dolphins – B
Bills – D
Tom Brady is still the class of the division. His successful return from knee surgery last year has solidified his place in the game today. Yes with the weapons he has, anyone can throw for 4,000 yards and 30+ TD, but he still put up those numbers without Moss, Welker and Edelman.
Sanchez was not impressive, but was consistent. His performance in the playoffs overshadowed his season statistics. Adding WR Santonio Holmes to the passing game and LaDainian Tomlinson to the running game will help prevent a sophomore slump in New York.
Miami has Chad Pennington as the backup to Chad Henne, but make no mistake this is Henne’s team. Towards the end of the season, Henne looked more calm and comfortable in the pocket and that should continue with Marshall in the mix.
It’s a three headed monster at QB with Trent Edwards, Ryan Fitzpatrick and Brian Brohm all competing for the job. Buffalo passed on Tim Tebow, Jimmy Clausen and Colt McCoy. Anyone of them probably would be a better option than the three they have.
Running Back – Grade
Jets – B
Dolphins – B
Bills – B
Patriots – C
Shonn Greene came on late in the regular season and postseason for the Jets. That was more than enough for them to cut ties with the third leading rusher in the NFL Thomas Jones (Chiefs). LaDainian Tomlinson was brought in as the change of pace back for Greene and a perfect check down option for Sanchez. The grade would be lower had the Jets not brought in a proper back up.
Miami has the best 1-2 punch in the AFC East. Ronnie Brown is healthy and in a contract year. Expect him to continue where he left off last year. Ricky Williams took off when Brown went down and will look to continue to be the workhorse in short-yardage and wildcat formations.
Buffalo does have strength in the backfield. Passing on a quarterback, they drafted C.J. Spiller out of Clemson with their first round pick. Spiller can not only fly down the field, but also catch out of the backfield. Jackson was the workhorse due to Marshawn Lynch’s suspension. Jackson will continue to do so, but Lynch will get his carries as the short-yardage and goal line runner.
New England has abandoned the running game the last few years, but they have enough depth to get it back in motion. Laurence Maroney, Fred Taylor and Kevin Faulk will be the primary runners. Faulk is the third-down specialist. Maroney needs to show why New England used their first round pick on him in 2006.
Wide Receiver – Grade
Patriots – B
Jets – B
Dolphins – C
Bills – D
The Patriots have the best combo in the division in Randy Moss and Wes Welker. Welker is coming off knee surgery so it will probably be a while before he’s at full strength. Julian Edelman is Welker Jr. for the Pats. Very sneaky he always finds an opening. Oh and Torry Holt is part of the mix too.
The Jets have Santonio Holmes and Laveranues Coles to go with Jerricho Cotchery and Braylon Edwards. Sanchez shouldn’t have a bad day with this kind of depth. Holmes will be suspended the first four games, but it won’t effect them at all. Tight End Dustin Keller is turning into one of the best tight ends in the game. He is Sanchez’s favorite target.
Even with Marshall, Miami’s passing attack is still average. Davone Bess was their primary target. He will now be relegated to the slot position which is better suited to his game. Brian Hartline developed good chemistry with Henne down the stretch and will given the first shot to play opposite Marshall. Anthony Fasano is a great blocker for the running game and an underrated receiving tight end. His production is consistent, but he would be the blocking tight end for most teams.
Buffalo, like their quarterback situation, is bleak at receiver too. Lee Evans is the lone bright spot and will be hard pressed again to salvage the passing game. Without a legitimate threat opposite Evans, the Bills will again rank near the bottom in passing (30th last year).
Defense – Grade
Jets – B
Patriots – C
Dolphins – C
Bills – C
The attacking style that Rex Ryan was famous for in Baltimore has appeared in New York as well. Thanks to Bart Scott who was signed from Baltimore last year, the Jets have the perfect defense to compete with most high scoring offenses. The number one ranked defense remains the same. NT Kris Jenkins is healthy. CB Antonio Cromartie brings his ball-hawking skills in a trade from San Diego. The only thing keeping the Jets from getting an A is the holdout of Darrelle Revis.
New England has a lot of room for improvement this year. One area they desperately need to improve on is sacks. They ranked 23rd in that category and will need a decent pass rush to take pressure off their young, but talented secondary. LB Tully Banta-Cain led them in sacks (10), but look for LB Pierre Woods to help in that department. Their secondary is their strength where if an injury or two should arise, they have plenty of pieces to fill in. First round pick CB Devin McCourty will help immediately with starters Leigh Bodden and Darius Butler. Their safeties Brandon Meriweather and James Sanders are the back bone of the defense.
Miami like every defense in the division, runs a 3-4. Their strength was getting to the quarterback. Miami’s 44 sacks was tied for third in the league. That will probably drop due to linebackers Joey Porter (Arizona) and Jason Taylor (Jets) leaving as free agents. Their main weakness was against the pass. Their corner backs are young, but Vontae Davis and Sean Smith are very quick learners. LB Karlos Dansby was the big acquisition on defense. He will take charge of the run defense that was in the middle of the pack last year. Nothing wows you about Miami, but they do have plenty of upside.
The Bills have avoided switching to a 3-4 for so long, but they have to find some way to stop the run. They ranked 30th against the run. They also need to find a way to get more pressure on the quarterback. A lot of their players will need to adjust to new roles, but most should flourish. LB Aaron Maybin (2009 1st Rd pick) will be put in the pass rushing position of the 3-4. This will be his make or break year with the Bills. LB Paul Posluszny should do well in this system. A tackling machine, he will get plenty of support from the lineman who are adept at plugging the gaps for the linebackers. Hard to believe that Buffalo is the 2nd best pass defense in the league, but when you have Terrence McGee, Leodis McKelvin as your starting corners. Donte Whitner and Jairus Byrd as your safeties, it comes as no surprise. As long as Buffalo can stop the passing attack, they will stay competitive on the defensive side.