(Before I begin, a few things to note. You'll read some information in these previews that was blatantly stolen from the Pro Football Prospectus book, an extremely enjoyable publication released by the brains behind Football Outsiders. I want to give my props to Aaron Schatz and all his experts for their hard work. While I don't yet comprehend everything in the book, there are some great points both about teams and individual players. It's all helped me increase my understanding of football, and the Prospectus will be an annual purchase for me as long as it's in publication.)
We now continue our series of NFL previews with a look at the AFC East. Last year, New England never seemed to be threatened on their way to the division title. Can they run away with the division again, or will the ManGenius' Jets be ready to pose a serious challenge?
1. New England Patriots
Last year: 12-4 (4-2 vs. AFC North)
Playoffs: Beat N.Y. Jets in AFC Wild Card; Beat San Diego in AFC Divisional Playoff; Lost to Indianapolis in AFC Championship
A quick gander at the 2006 Patriots, and you wonder exactly how Tom Brady was able to cobble together a presentable passing game with these scrubs. The leading receiver, Reche Caldwell, is no longer on the team. Second-leading receiver Troy Brown starts the 2007 season on the PUP (Physically Unable to Perform) list, as does last year's fourth guy, Chad Jackson. Yet the Patriots project to have one of the top passing offenses in football this season, and it's almost all thanks to the new faces brought in this offseason.
1. How will Brady mesh with his new receivers? I can't imagine this will be terribly difficult. Sure, Donte Stallworth, Randy Moss, Jabar Gaffney, Wes Welker, and Kelley Washington are going to bring different personalities to the plate. But Brady is a master at keeping everyone happy. He's also the ultimate leader in the huddle, and it stands to reason that he won't accept anyone lolly-gagging on routes or blocking assignments. The five have combined to be on zero championship teams, while Brady has three rings already in his career. Not only that, but Brady hasn't exactly been a "Trent Dilfer-type" on any of these championship teams. He's been one of the best players in the league for a while now. Even with a guy like Moss, who has always marched to the beat of his own drummer, Brady's track record has to elicit a great deal of respect.
2. Who will step up and be the star on defense? Joining Brown on the PUP list is star DE Richard Seymour, meaning he can't practice with his teammates until Week Seven. Not only that, but veteran safety Rodney Harrison will miss the first four games after being suspended. Harrison admitted to authorities that he took HGH (human growth hormone), making him the first player known to be suspended for taking HGH, a drug that lacks a reliable test. The Patriots still have some solid players on defense. Ty Warren, Vince Wilfork, and Jarvis Green will help solidify the line, and they still have LBs Tedy Bruschi, Mike Vrabel, Junior Seau, and Roosevelt Colvin running around. Oh, and they signed Adalius Thomas away from Baltimore. He might be a good addition. Despite the return from holdout of Asante Samuel, the secondary is a concern. The need still exists for a reliable #2 cornerback alongside Samuel. The better Samuel plays, the tougher it's going to be to slow down those second receivers, because no one will want to test Samuel.
3. Can Laurence Maroney carry the load at running back? No more Corey Dillon, which puts the onus on Maroney to be the feature guy. From a "Can he hold up physically?" standpoint, this isn't a problem. However, I am concerned about Maroney being able to stay fresh for all 16 games. Even in college at Minnesota, he always had a 1,000-yard rusher working with him. As good as Maroney was, he was never asked to carry the load. I don't see him physically wearing down, but I do think this is worth watching throughout the season. Bill Belichick is a master of recognizing how far to push guys.
2. New York Jets
Last year: 10-6 (4-2 vs. AFC East)
Playoffs: Lost to New England in AFC Wild Card
The Jets surprised many last season by beating New England in Foxborough and riding that win to a ten-win campaign and a playoff spot. Of course, their reward for making the playoffs was getting spanked by the Patriots again, but the Jets have shown that they are the team best-equipped to challenge New England in the AFC East.
1. Can the Jets figure out how to stop the run? Not many playoff teams can boast about being last in the NFL against the run, as the Jets were a year ago. A second year in the 3-4 defense should prove better than the first, when it seemed the Jets were trying to fit square pegs into round holes on the line. While the Jets were active in the offseason, they still are in need of a stout nose tackle to anchor the three-man line. They're better this year than they were last year, but my best guess says the Jets will still finish near the bottom of the table at stopping the run.
2. How much improvement will the Jets show in their running game? Leon Washington led the way with just a shade over 650 total rushing yards last year, and that won't work. Washington is still best-suited as a complimentary back, and the Jets recognized that. They traded for Chicago starter Thomas Jones, who was sharing more and more carries with youngster Cedric Benson. While Washington and Cedric Houston still fit in the mix for the Jets, Jones becomes the feature back. Coming off a 1,200-yard season in Chicago, the Jets have every reason to believe Jones is a significant upgrade.
3. Just hit us with it: Are the Jets good enough to challenge New England? Probably not. There is reason to think the Jets will be better, but will the final record reflect that? New York was relatively useless defensively last year, and while it would be nice to think they'll show vast improvement, it's more likely that the team will end up with a worse record despite being improved. PFP points out that the Jets' Pythagorean record last year was 8.7-7.3, meaning the Jets were almost 1.5 wins better than what should have been expected. That probably won't happen again this year.
3. Buffalo Bills
Last year: 7-9 (3-3 vs. AFC East)
There was a bright side to 2007 for the Bills. Young QB J.P. Losman showed a lot of progress in his development, and Lee Evans has emerged as a star receiver. The Bills shook off a 2-5 start to go 5-2 over their next seven games. The defense did get better last year. However, the offseason was not good. The Bills lost leading rusher Willis McGahee, top LBs London Fletcher-Baker and Takeo Spikes, and star corner Nate Clements, and the replacements are, well, um...
1. So, yeah, who fills all those shoes? The Bills were smart to use a first-round pick on RB Marshawn Lynch. The kid is good, and while he might not step in and run for 1,500 yards this season, he gives the Bills a home-run threat in the backfield. Anthony Thomas returns as the primary backup, and he should see plenty of work as the Bills don't want to overwhelm Lynch early. Second-round pick Paul Posluszny has looked good inside, and he will start in Week One. Angelo Crowell and Keith Ellison fill the outside spots. At corner, newly-signed Jason Webster starts, as does the returning Terrence McGee. Look out here for second-year guy Ashton Youboty, who missed much of last season with injury and only dressed for three games.
(NOTE: After this particular preview was written, it was learned that Ellison is out indefinitely with a high ankle sprain. Coy Wire becomes the new starter.)
2. Is Losman-to-Evans going to get some help? Based on their offseason inactivity, the Bills clearly believe the guys they had last year are going to get better. Evans had a little help last year, but he was clearly the top dog. Peerless Price, Josh Reed, and Roscoe Parrish are all back. Red and Parrish are young enough to get better, and Price does know this offense well. It's hard, however, to say that the Bills will be improved throwing the ball. They really needed to address this position in the offseason, but in their defense, this was a dreadful year for upgrading at wide receiver without grossly overpaying for guys.
3. Will Losman get better protection? The Bills tried to address their line in free agency, but only came away overpaying for Darnell Dockery. He'll play alongside rising LT Jason Peters, a former tight end who could be the blind-side answer Buffalo has been looking for. The Bills still have some work to do on the right side, where Langston Walker will start at tackle. Any improvement here will help Losman, who still has to get better before the Bills can become a playoff contender.
4. Miami Dolphins
Last year: 6-10 (1-5 vs. AFC East)
While the Nick Saban drama really didn't help matters much last year, the Dolphins season was pretty-well screwed before Saban began flirting with Alabama. A four-game winning streak that followed a 1-6 start wasn't good enough to lift the Dolphins to playoff contention, and the Saban situation only exacerbated matters down the stretch. Now, this is Cam Cameron's team, and the aging Miami defense will be asked to work a miracle to keep this team afloat.
1. Trent Green? Really? Instead of drafting Brady Quinn, the Dolphins are going to roll the dice with Green, who was injured in the season opener last year, didn't return until after midseason, and looked awful most of the time when he did play. Granted, Green will probably be better than either Joey Harrington or the corpse of Daunte Culpepper were last year, but he's a Band-Aid on a six-inch stab wound. The Dolphins need more out of this position, and Green might be able to give it to them. At some point, however, they'll need to find out if either Cleo Lemon or John Beck can be the future starter.
2. Have the Dolphins surrounded Green with enough talent to be successful? Ronnie Brown is a keeper at RB, but there are issues at receiver. Chris Chambers is back, but has been underwhelming for most of his career. Marty Booker has had a nice career, but the depth is questionable. Wes Welker went to New England, and youngsters Derek Hagan and Ted Ginn might need more time to round into form. TE Randy McMichael went to St. Louis as a free agent, so the Dolphins brought in oft-injured David Martin from Green Bay.
3. Can the Dolphins win with a somewhat aging defense? Star LB Zach Thomas is 34, DE Jason Taylor is 33, free-agent signee Joey Porter is 30, DT Vonnie Holliday is 32. PFP points out that the Dolphins' front seven last year averaged 31.3 years of age, making it the oldest front seven in the league since 2001 (tying the 2005 Dolphins). Since 2001, they say the average front seven starter in the NFL was 27.6 years old. There is some youth in the person of LB Channing Crowder, DE Matt Roth, and all over the secondary.