Monday, July 27, 2015

Joe & Daphne's Preview: The AFC East

Daphne: "Release me vile human!"
By Joe Parello (@HerewegoJoe) and Daphne Parello (@DaphnePup)

Welcome to our first NFL preview of the summer! My pup and I are happy to have you. Over the next several weeks we will be taking a look at every division in the league, along with making playoff and award predictions.

We begin today with the AFC East, a division owned by the New England Patriots, or, more specifically, quarterback Tom Brady, who has won the division in all but one of his healthy seasons since taking over as the Patriots' starter in mid-2001. That's 12 division titles in Brady's 13 seasons, if you're curious, with the Patriots winning the division 12 times overall in that 14 year span.

In that time, only one other quarterback has won the AFC East: The immortal Chad Pennington, who went 7-2 as a starter for the 2002 Jets, and led the Dolphins to a division crown during Brady's injury lost season of 2008.

Unfortunately, Chad Pennington ain't walking through that door for anybody in the division.

Still, the AFC East could be better and deeper than it has been in years, thanks to some suddenly salty defenses. But, will the division's traditional also-rans get enough out of their quarterbacks to capitalize on their stellar defensive fronts? Daphne and I examine.

The Favorites

New England Patriots

Brady's appeal of his DeflateGate suspension still looms, but the feeling I'm getting is that, if he even serves one game, it will be a surprise. The league has been getting crushed in court and arbitration in these suspension cases (Adrian Peterson, Greg Hardy, etc) and Brady seems to be in total "F-You" mode toward the commissioner and the whole process.

Oh yeah, and this was not even an offense deserving of suspension (or any of the other punishments that came down for New England from the league office), it was a minor equipment violation. Methinks we'll see the Golden Boy opening night against Pittsburgh.

All that said, the Patriots are once again the favorites, and likely will be as long as Brady is the quarterback and Bill Belichick is the coach. The offense still features one of the best tight ends in league history (when healthy) in Rob Gronkowski, and Julian Edelman proved that Brady can turn any undersized white receiver into a star.

Defensively, the Patriots should again be good (they were far better than people remember last year, finishing in the Top-10 in rushing D, scoring D and second in turnover differential), but the secondary lost a pair of outstanding corners in Darrelle Revis (maybe the best in the game) and Brandon Browner. New England's revamped secondary will likely lean on the AFC's top free safety Devin McCourty, and hope that Super Bowl hero Malcolm Butler can emerge as a starter at corner.

Up front, the Pats will have to replace perennial Pro Bowl tackle Vince Wilfork, but have a pair of recent first round draft picks up for the challenge in former Florida standout Dominique Easley and Texas star Malcolm Brown. If those two can just be decent, the end combination of Chandler Jones and "how is he actually good?" Rob Ninkovich should provide a pass rush, while rising star Jamie Collins leads an underrated linebacker group.

There are weaknesses (running back depth, cornerback, outside receiver), but Brady and Belichick are the ultimate Band-Aids, covering those holes up and patching New England together for another championship run.

The Question Mark

Quarterback Play

While New England's quarterback question revolves around when its future Hall of Famer will first see the field, the rest of the division is legitimately concerned about what their respective quarterbacks will do between the lines.

Miami seems to be in the best shape after Ryan Tannehill ended 2014 on a mini-hot streak, throwing for 1,001 yards and six touchdowns in his final three games, accumulating over 300 yards in a game for the only two times all season.

That's the good news, but the bad news is that Tannehill, whom the Dolphins just gave a 6-year, $96 million contract with $21.5 million guaranteed, hasn't proved to be any better than "average to below-average" in his brief NFL career.

The former Texas A&M star has shown flashes, most notably last December's 396 yard, four-touchdown performance against Minnesota, but is nowhere to be found in all relevant Top-10 lists of QB statistical performance (QB rating, QBR, Yard Per Attempt, Yards Per Game, Touchdowns, Least Interceptions, Passing Yards), yet he still finished in the Top-10 in pass attempts with 590 (8 more than Tom Brady), so clearly he's getting his chances.

It probably didn't help that Mike Wallace never turned into the star Miami hoped he would, and that the Richie Incognito-Jonathan Martin saga wrecked the Dolphins' offensive line (Tannehill was sacked 46 times in 2014, third-worst in the league), but it's definitely a show-me year for Tannehill. The Dolphins have rebuilt their receiving corps around last year's rookie sensation Jarvis Landry, signing Kenny Stills to stretch the field next to him, and Greg Jennings to (hopefully) provide some stability and veteran leadership. Add in first round pick DeVante Parker and tight end signing Jordan Cameron, and Miami could have an even better group of pass catchers than the Wallace, Brian Hartline and Charles Clay squad from a year ago.

Buffalo and New York are in similar situations. Unlike the Dolphins, who signed Ndamukong Suh to turn an average defense into a good one, the Bills and Jets were already fierce on that side of the ball, and instead spent the offseason trying to make life easier for their less than outstanding quarterbacks.

In New York, Geno Smith will look to fight off journeyman Ryan Fitzpatrick, and the addition of Brandon Marshall to a receiving corps that already featured Eric Decker and sneaky good Jeremy Kerley should open things up for whichever quarterback wins the job. Of course, New York's biggest additions came on defense, where their stout front will now be reinforced by a secondary that (again) features Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie.

Buffalo also has a talented defensive front, led by Marcell Dareus, Kyle Williams, Mario Williams and Jerry Hughes, but quarterback could hold this team back from reaching its potential. Much like Tannehill, it's put-up or shut-up time for former first round pick E.J. Manuel, who will fight to hold onto a starting job (that he lost last year to the now-retired Kyle Orton) against Matt Cassel. Any time Matt Cassel figures prominently into your quarterback race, and your name isn't Bill Belichick, you're probably in trouble, but Bills coach Rex Ryan did go to back-to-back AFC title games with Mark Sanchez at the helm, so don't lose hope yet.

Assuming Manuel is able to win the job, he'll have plenty of firepower around him. Do-it-all back LeSean McCoy comes over from Philly to provide an explosive backfield presence, while the newly added Percy Harvin will look to finally live up to his potential for a full season. This could be the best "space player" combination in the league, assuming Harvin gets his head on straight and they find ways to get these two the ball on the edge.

On the outside, Sammy Watkins should continue to improve and become one of the game's best young pass catchers, while Robert Woods keeps chugging along and new tight end Charles Clay gives the Bills a bit more speed from the position than they've grown accustomed to.

Throw stud fullback Jerome Felton and troubled, but talented, guard Richie Incognito into the mix, and there is a great offensive supporting cast to go with that dominant defense.

If only they could find a quarterback...

The Theme

Defense, Defense, Defense

As I mentioned above, this division is full of salty defenses. The Bills and Jets finished 4th and 6th in the league, respectively, in total defense a season ago, while Miami finished 12th and New England 13th.

Yeah, that's four top-half defenses in one division, and all but New England have reason to believe they can be EVEN BETTER this year. The Jets added Revis and Cromartie back into their secondary, while the Bills will rely on the improvement of a young linebacking corps, led by now-second year stud Preston Brown and now-fourth year man Nigel Bradham, to complement a dominant front-four and underrated secondary led by corner Leodis McKelvin.

Miami turned in a Top-15 defensive performance last year, despite a glaring weakness: The Dolphins could not stop the run. The Phins finished 24th in the league in rush defense (allowing 121 YPG) and tied for 20th in yards per rush attempt (4.3 YPA). So, what did Miami do? It signed arguably the best interior defensive lineman in the league, and one of the best overall defenders playing today, regardless of position, Ndamukong Suh.

Suh's presence alone should make Miami better up front, and his abilities as an interiors pass rusher should open things up outside for sack master Cameron Wake and the underrated Olivier Vernon. If somebody like recently signed corner Brice McCain can step up opposite Brent Grimes, then Miami can perhaps overcome some deficiencies in its linebacking corps to become a Top-10 defense.

Daphne's Superlatives, by Daphne Parello

Daphne's Underdog
Buffalo Bills

Call me old fashioned, but if there's one thing I love more than chicken, it's smash mouth football. The Bills will be a ground and pound team by design, but also out of necessity, and that may not be a bad thing.

Coach Rex Ryan (great dog name, by the way) has been at his best when he has a smothering defense, a great ground game, and a quarterback that makes just enough plays to win. That seems to be the formula in Western New York this year, as the Bills may have the league's best defense, just brought in one of the league's best running backs in Shady McCoy, and are essentially starting a potted plant at QB. Incidentally, if they were starting an actual potted plant, it would still be better than Geno Smith, so there's that.

Watch out for the Bills though, because the offensive line is going to be downright mean with Richie Incognito bullying opponents, and Sammy Watkins may just be able to jump high enough to catch some of E.J. Manuel's errant passes. I also have a feeling we'll be seeing Percy Harvin a ton running reverses, and possibly operating out of the Wild Dog.

New England is still the favorite, but if you're a betting dog (like me), you have to like Buffalo's current +425 line to win the division.

Daphne's Alpha Dog
Muhammad Wilkerson, DE, NY Jets

Not much will be expected of the Jets on the whole, with first-year head coach Todd Bowles and quarterback Geno Smith largely weighing down a great defense, but up front on that D Wilkerson is a dude.

The physical and versatile defensive lineman has been a 2nd-team All-Pro every year since he entered the league in 2012, but expect bigger things from a now fully-healthy and motivated Wilkerson. With running mate Sheldon Richardson suspended for the season's first four games due to PEDs, the Jets' defensive front will lean on Wilkerson to continue stacking up the run, and get back to his pass rushing ways of 2013.

While injuries held him back a bit last year ("only" 6.5 sacks in 13 games on the interior), Wilkerson has proved to be one of those rare 3-4 ends that can absorb double-teams, and get to the quarterback.

Expect a return to double-digit sack form, and finally some recognition for the do-it-all lineman.

In the Dog House

Ryan Tannehill, QB, Miami

Joe already mentioned Ryan Tannehill's struggles, but it should be repeated: This guy needs to take the next step in 2015. He and the Dolphins are stuck in an 8-8 rut, but Miami may have had its best offseason in a decade, so the time for excuses is over. He couldn't hit Mike Wallace because the dude ran too fast? Ok, we'll bring in a slightly slower deep threat in Kenny Stills.

He might need bigger targets? Ok, we'll draft a tall, athletic receiver in the first round, and sign Greg Jennings who still has some value as a possession guy. And heck, let's throw in Jordan Cameron, an upgrade at tight end, while improving our defense so he doesn't have to throw as much.

All the pieces are in place and Tannehill just got paid. If he breaks out, it will be all worth it, and Miami is set up to be a playoff team for the next half-decade. If he doesn't…

Well, then the Dolphins will have their cap eaten up by a below-average quarterback and very good defensive tackle. Not exactly a recipe for success in the modern NFL.


Joe: 1. New England, 2. Miami (Wild Card), 3. Buffalo, 4. NY Jets
Daphne: 1. New England, 2. Buffalo (Wild Card), 3. NY Jets, 4. Miami

1 comment :

Caity said...

I didn't know Daphne was such a strong writer!