Thursday, August 15, 2013

Long and Suite Preview: The AFC East

Belichick and Brady have ruled the AFC East for a dozen years, but how much longer can the Pats dominate the division?
By Jeremy Conlin (@jeremy_conlin) and Joe Parello (@HerewegoJoe)

It's been a dozen years of dominance for New England in the AFC East. The Pats have won 10 of the 12 division titles since Tom Brady stepped in for the injured Drew Bledsoe back in 2001, not to mention appeared in five Super Bowls, winning three.

So basically, this has been the Brady/Belichick division for a generation now.

Will that change this season, with new offensive talent assembled in South Florida and a new era underway in Buffalo? Probably not, but for the first time in a while, the Patriots don't look unstoppable on offense, so perhaps this is the beginning of the end for New England's dominant run.

Storyline to Watch: New Blood at Quarterback

Tom Brady is a future Hall of Famer in New England, but the other three teams in the division are just hoping to develop young talent under center. Ryan Tannehill showed some promise as a rookie for the Dolphins in 2012, but still completed less than 60% of his passes and threw more interceptions than touchdowns.

If this was the early 90s, we would be hailing his nearly 3,300 passing yards and athleticism as reasons for great optimism in Miami, but last season saw three different rookie quarterbacks lead their teams to the playoffs, and not just as game managers. The early success of Robert Griffin III, Russell Wilson and Andrew Luck made Tannehill's above average rookie season seem like a disappointment, but Miami is hoping a new supporting cast will bring their second year quarterback along.

While the Dolphins do lose versatile running back Reggie Bush and stud left tackle Jake Long, they add speedster Mike Wallace at receiver and pass catching tight end Dustin Keller. Putting those two next two the returning Brian Hartline should give Tannehill enough weapons to take a major step in 2013.

Things aren't quite as rosy in New York, where the Jets are looking to replace one young quarterback with another. After the last two seasons, it appears the organization is looking for any excuse to end the Mark Sanchez era, and rookie Geno Smith will be given every chance to win the starting job.

But, unlike Tannehill, whomever wins this battle will not have much talent at the skill positions to work with. The situation at running back is bleak, and wide receiver isn't much better. Stephen Hill has some play making potential, but it's largely been unrealized, and defenses aren't exactly running scared from Jeremy Kerley and this version of Braylon Edwards.

While Jets fans might be aching for Sanchez to get the hook, they should remember that throwing a rookie into this mess could lead to the team having to replace Smith in a few years.

The Bills are officially hitting the reset button at the two most important spots on a football team: Quarterback and Head Coach.

The team decided to end the three-year Buffalo edition of the Chan Gailey retread tour, after Gaily failed to ever win more than six games in a season. This once proud franchise now owns the league's longest playoff drought, dating back to 1999, and only in tortured Buffalo could fans be excited for a coach from Syracuse and a quarterback that used to back up Christian Ponder.

Clearly, I'm not high on the hiring of Doug Marrone or the drafting of E.J. Manuel. And signing Kevin Kolb? Don't even get me started.

Still, Manuel is a big, strong armed quarterback with some athleticism, and the Bills are not totally devoid of talent. C.J. Spiller seems poised for a breakout season, and is one of the most explosive players in the league, while fellow running back Fred Jackson has proven to be as reliable a back as there is.

We know Stevie Johnson can play, and Brad Smith is a play maker in the open field, but can anybody develop into a solid No. 2 receiver for the Bills? Rookies Robert Woods and Marquise Goodwin seem like ideal candidates, and tight end Scott Chandler is solid. It won't be easy, but whoever wins the starting job in Buffalo will have some pieces to work with.


Player(s) to Watch: New England's Receivers

New England's 2012 Receiving Leaders:

1. Wes Welker (118 receptions, 1354 yards, 6 touchdowns)
2. Brandon Lloyd (74 receptions, 911 yards, 4 touchdowns)
3. Rob Gronkowski (55 receptions, 790 yards, 11 touchdowns)
4. Aaron Hernandez (51 receptions, 483 yards, 5 touchdowns)
5. Danny Woodhead (40 receptions, 446 yards, 3 touchdowns)

Where they are now:

1. Wes Welker - Denver Broncos
2. Brandon Lloyd - Currently a Free Agent
3. Rob Gronkowski - PUP List
4. Aaron Hernandez - In Prison
5. Danny Woodhead - San Diego Chargers

Last season, the Patriots receivers amassed 402 receptions for 4844 yards. The Patriots opening day active roster currently projects to return just 46 of those receptions for 640 yards. That number could tumble even lower if Julian Edelman is inactive.

The Patriots are relying on newcomers Danny Amendola (played 12 games in the last two seasons), Michael Jenkings (the 3rd-leading receiver on the 31st-ranked pass offense last season), Aaron Dobson (2nd-round draft pick), Kenbrell Thompkins (a 25-year old undrafted rookie) Kamar Aiken (has appeared in three games in two seasons, has never been targeted with an NFL pass), and Josh Boyce (a 4th-round draft pick). Their current depth chart at wide receivers lists Danny Aiken as a 2nd-stringer, which is a bit worrisome, considering Aiken is New England's long-snapper.

Brandon Lloyd, as mentioned above, was cut by the Patriots and is currently a free agent. However, the Patriots seem to have no desire to bring him back. In fact, Lloyd has seemingly been tied (in rumors) to every team in the league besides New England, including the Jets, Ravens, 49ers, Chargers, and Steelers.

Among current free agents, Lloyd is probably the top of the class, but others include Devery Henderson, Laurent Robinson, Mike Sims-Walker, and Early Doucet, none of whom have been tied to the Patriots in any form of rumor or fact. The Patriots inexplicably seem to be content with the current crop of receivers that they have on the roster, despite not one of them at any point in their career displaying an ability to win a one-on-one matchup at the top of a route.

Based on that, it would be reasonable to expect the Patriots to shift their offense more towards the power running game that produced 2184 yards last season and a league-best 25 rushing touchdowns. Starting running back Stevan Ridley had a strong season from start to finish (a season-ending concussion in the AFC Championship notwithstanding), and Shane Vareen came on strong at the end of the season, including a three touchdown performance in New England's divisional round win over Houston. But for the Patriots to maintain an offense as elite as they've been accustomed to, they'll need to find someone, anyone, to throw the ball to downfield.


Jeremy's Picks

Patriots: 11-5
Dolphins: 7-9
Jets: 5-11
Bills: 4-12

Joe's Picks

Patriots: 12-4
Dolphins: 9-7
Bills: 3-13
Jets: 3-13

1 comment :

Anonymous said...

Damn JP, you are wicked down on the Bills!