Last year the AFC East was the most lopsided division in football with a 16-0 team and a 1-15 team book-ending two teams that combined for 11 wins. After this following off-season we could see those records even out a little bit and not have the division decided by week 10. The Pats took some hits in the secondary while the Jets were big free agent spenders and added a Hall of Fame QB. The Bills also made some additions to their team that was in playoff contention all the way until they dropped their last three games. Bill Parcells, meanwhile, has completely overhauled the roster and coaching staff and they are, at best, 3 years away from contending.
Overall, this division could see the biggest improvement record wise and possibly, though unlikely, put two or three teams (even more unlikely) in the playoffs. Besides the off-season additions the schedule has the AFC East matching up with the NFC and AFC Wests–two very weak divisions. Here is a quick look at the teams. (I already covered the Pats and the Jets)
If not for the Baltimore Ravens the Miami Dolphins would have set a record in the NFL for futility as they finished 1-15. Injuries to the secondary and a lack of an offense, aided by the depature of Chris Chambers in mid-season, made the Dolphins the joke of the league. The Dolphins did get some upgrades in the offseason. Jake Long was brought in to anchor the offensive line while Chad Pennington has taken over at QB after being pushed out of NY with the trade of Brett Favre. Ernest Wilford was brought in from Jacksonville to give the Fins another WR option after Ginn.
Miami was the other winner when Brett Favre went to the Jets and Chad Pennington became available. The injury concerns about Pennington will never fade, but he does give the Fins a veteran QB with a winning track record. Miami needs him to be the veteran presence in the huddle. Behind Pennington is second year man John Beck (who is being shopped around), who struggled last year, Chad Henne and Josh McCown. McCown has never succeeded as a starter in the NFL. If Pennington goes down it would appear Chad Henne would step in as he was the only other QB to see time in the Dolphins' most recent preseason game.
The running game was decimated by injuries with Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams going down during the season. Brown rushed for 1,000 yards in 2006 but is struggling with a thumb injury thus far in training camp and questions about his durability are popping up. He needs to show he can stay healthy and bounce back from a torn ACL that limited him to 7 games if the Fins are to establish the run. Ricky Williams is a mystery as we saw with his sudden retirement, interest in holistic healing and subsequent return to the Dolphins, all of which transpired over the past few years. In lieu of this, he could also be key by taking some of the burden off of Brown and reducing the number of touches he will see. Williams is a talented runner, by he is 31 and his motivation has been questionable to say the least. Behind them is North Texas product Patrick Cobbs who rushed 15 times in 2007.
Like most positions on the roster, the receiver position has been hurt by poor drafts....I am still scratching my head over Ted Ginn Jr. In his first NFL season Ginn had a modest 34 catches and only 2 TD. While an explosive athlete he is an average wide receiver who has been criticized for running the wrong routes on too many occasions and failing to create separation at the snap. Though he has a new QB and has looked good thus far in the preseason, Ginn will have to step up as the play-maker on this unit to give the Fins a deep threat and silence the critics....though one wonders how much of a deep game Miami will have with Pennington at QB. Ernest Wilford was brought in from the Jaguars with the hopes the 6-4 WR could be a possession receiver. Despite being the most experienced receiver in camp with 141 career catches, reports out of Florida are that Wilford has struggled in training camp with dropped passes and an inability to be the playmaker the Dolphins had wished. The Dolphins need Ginn and Wilford to step up as they have little talent after that with Greg Camarillo, Derek Hagan and Davone Bass rounding out the receivers.
Anthony Fasano was brought in from the Cowboys and will be a solid back up to David Martin. The TE position should benefit from having Chad Pennington at QB as TE such as Anthony Becht and Chris Baker had solid seasons with Pennington in New York and Martin should see a slight bump in his 2007 stats of 34 catches and 2 TD.
This unit struggled last season, allowing 42 sacks and not helping the running game that sputtered to a ranking of 23rd in the league. Jake Long, the number one overall pick, was brought in to protect the QB as the starting LT. The rest of the line looks as follows; Vernon Carey at the other tackle spot, John Smiley and Donald Thomas as the guards, and Samson Satele at center with Shawn Murphy and Trey Darilek vying for playing time. The unit has looked much better in preseason, and Parcells and company are eager to get a unit to gel, but how they will hold up against number one defenses over the course of 60 minutes remains to be seen. With a fragile QB and questionable running game the offensive line will need to dominate the physical battles up front.
The loss of Jason Taylor was huge as he had just over a third of the team's sacks meaning this unit will have to generate a pass rush from somewhere. DT Vonnie Holliday is the verteran presence on this unit and will play a key role in the rush defense. Joining Holliday on the line will be DT Jason Ferguson, DE Randy Starks and Matt Roth along with rookies Phillip Merling and Kendall Langford. No one has shown to be able to replace Jason Taylor's production and there are reports the defense could employ both a 3-4 and 4-3 look....though a 3-4 seems somewhat unlikely to be employed that often as the Dolphins lack a block eating tackle to play over center and dominate the interior. Second year man Paul Soliai could be that player, weighing in at 344 pounds, and has shown some promise in training camp, but he has limited experience. However, with the picks of Langford and Merling, both with good size and strength at the end position, the Dolphins appear to be moving towards a 3-4 base. With the new faces in camp this transition could take some time but the Dolphins do have some of the right personnel to head in that direction.
Joey Porter was brought in to give the Dolphins a compliment pass rusher to Jason Taylor but had a so-so season with just 5.5 sacks. He will need to step up and get to the QB more often. Having played in such a system in Pittsburgh, Porter would benefit from increased time as the OLB in a 3-4 alignment. Next to him is 4th year man Channing Crowder who led the team in tackles from his ILB spotafter taking over for veteran Zach Thomas. Reggie Torbor who came over from the Giants in the off season after playing in 62 of 64 games in 4 years where he played at the OLB spot. Reports are he has been working at the ILB spot next to Crowder. Akin Ayodele is also figuring into the ILB spot for the Dolphins while Charlie Anderson is getting a look at the other OLB spot.
This unit was banged up all last season as Andre Goodman, Travis Daniels, Renaldo Hill and Yeremiah Bell all missed time due to injury. Miami ranked 4th in pass defense, but that was more of a result of teams deciding to rush against one of the worst runs defenses in the league with leads in the second half. If the Dolphins's offense can put some more points on the board teams would be less apt to pound the ball on the ground, meaning the secondary could get exposed. Will Allen figures to start at one CB spot, but has just 7 picks in 7 years. At the other spot will coem down to Travis Daniels, Andre Goodman and Michael Lehan. Lehan is reported to have the inside track for the position as Daniels has bounced from CB to S in his career and Goodman is coming back from injury. If Goodman is healthy he could very well start over Lehan. Also if healthy, Bell would probably start along side Jason Allen at the safety spot. Hill will also factor into the mix at safety as will FA Keith Davis and Chris Crocker.
The Dolphins are in for a rough next few years as Bill Parcells attempts to overhaul a franchise that has not seen the playoffs since 2001. Pennington is an upgrade at QB but the rest of the offense is in flux (Pennington's late arrival in camp does not help). The running back situation is a mystery and the wideouts have little talent. If Ginn cannot prove to be worthy of a top pick, and Wilford continues to struggle, the offense will continue to go nowhere and add presure to an already questionable defense. Not helping things is the fact the Dolphins have yet another head coach and offensive coordinator coupled with a bevy of new faces on the staff. The defense is also in a state of flux and lost two vets (Thomas and Taylor) who were the faces of that unit. If the defense can stay healthy they should play much better than they did in 2007, but expecting this unit to finish in the top half of the league is a stretch The fact the Fins are looking to employ a 3-4 will compound the problems as they have to install a new system and bring in new personnel.
However, given their weak schedule the Dolphins could win 4-5 games this year. That would be considered an accomplishment given that the Bills and Jets have improved and the Pats should be a Super Bowl contender again, the Fins are destined for another basement finish.
After week 14 the Bills stood at 7-6 and had a shot at the playoffs, but they dropped their last three games and finished well out of the playoff picture. The Bills were also stung by two early season 1 point losses to the Broncos and Cowboys, meaning this team is a legitimate playoff contender if they can turn around one of the worst defenses in the league--31st in total defense. Trent Edwards supplants JP Losman as the starting QB for an offense that returns virtually everyone at the skill positions. On defense the Bills added DT Marcus Stroud and LB Kawika Mitchel in hopes of turning around the weakest link on the team. The health of the secondary will also be key as S Donte Whittner saw new faces around him on what seemed like a weekly basis last year.
First round bust JP Losman is out, and little known Stanford product Trent Edwards is in. Edwards had a decent season for a rookie thrown into the mix after Losman was injured. He is a good game manager who will not force throws, thus keeping the ball out of the opponents' hand and keeping the defense off of the field. However, Edwards is a relative unknown and what he will give you over a 16 game season is hard to predict. The Bills played it conservatively with Edwards in there, and his progress will determine how much Buffalo can and will open up the offense. Losman, for now, is the back up but has been asking for a trade, which seems is unlikely given that IU product Gibran Hamden is listed as the number 3 QB.
Marshawn Lynch had a solid rookie season piling up 1,115 yards despite missing time with an ankle injury. If he can show to be an asset in the passing game he will see even more playing time and an increase in production. Lynch will be vital to the offense while Edwards progresses as an NFL QB. Behind Lynch is Fred Jackson who rushed for 300 yards in 8 games last season. Like most teams in the NFL the Bills will look to get some production out of their number 2 runner for insurance purposes. Lynch did get dinged up last year and is a between the tackles runner who will take a pounding; injuries are a concern. The Bills also drafted division II stud Xavier Omon who had over 7,000 yards rushing. Though he played at a lower level than most NFL players played at in college, 7,000 yards is a career at any level. However, while he has impressed the coaches rumors are that he will land on the practice squad in favor of Dwayne Wright for the 3 spot.
The Bills have their entire receiver core returning led by Lee Evans, Roscoe Parrish and Josh Reed. Evans is a burner who can stretch defenses but how much he will be used in that role depends on the progress of Edwards. Parrish is also a speedy wideout who can get behind defenses but his value is more as a special teamer. Josh Reed does not have the physical tools Evans and Parrish have, but he is a superb route runner allowing him to find seams in the defense. Jame Hardy was signed in hopes of being the number two behind Evans. At 6'5" plus he has the height to be effective in the red zone.
Robert Royal will be crucial to the development of Edwards as the safety valve. The 7th year man should improve upon his 25 catches and 248 yards playing with a QB who will take what the defense gives him (QBs of that ilk usually depend on their TE more often). Courtney Anderson was signed to add depth behind Royal. Anderson did not play in 2007 after being released by the Oakland Raiders and bounced around the league. Derek Fine and Tim Massaquoi round out the TE position.
The Bills O-line played fairly well last year allowing just 26 sacks (though the Bills ran more than they passed 448-445) and had a solid ground game. However, Pro-Bowl LT Jason Peters has yet to report to camp over a contract dispute. Part of this due to the big contracts linemen Derrick Dockery and Langston Walker received. Interestingly, these two pickups, especially the play of Walker at LT, have minimized the absence of Peters. Joining Walker and Dockery will be C Melvin Fowler, G Brad Butler, and RT Kirk Chambers.
The line got a huge boost when they picked up Pro-Bowler Marcus Stroud from the Jaguars. Stroud and the return of LB Paul Posluszny will be vital to the Bills improving a rush defense that ranked 25th in the league. John McCargo and free agent Spencer Johnson are competiting for the DT spot next to Stroud. Another area that the Bills' D must address is a pass rush that managed only 26 sacks (29th in the league). Aaron Schobel, who had 26 sacks in 2005 and 2006, mustered just 6.5 sacks as injuries to the rest of the defense allowed teams to double team Schobel. Opposite Schobel will be Chris Kelsay who has just 15 sacks in 78 career games. Rookie Chris Ellis was drafted out of Va Tech but has some question marks. While he was an impressive pass rusher in Blacksburg he struggles against the rush and his durability is questionable. He could work into the DL rotation and play on passing situations and hopefully give the Bills the pass rush Kelsay cannot.
As mentioned, Paul Posluszny's return will be huge in helping to improve against the rush. He is always near the ball and should rack up a ton of tackles. Kawika Mitchell was signed from the Giants and was a menace in the playoffs as a blitzer. Opposite from him is Angelo Crowell, who has appeared in 59 games over the past 4 years. While neither are pass rushing specialists, they are solid LB who should fit in nicely with Posluszny. The addition of Stroud will be felt throughout the defense, and the linebackers should have more space to operate with Stroud occupying blockers.
This unit took a beating and struggled against the pass--29th in the league. Donte Whitner is a solid S who has silenced the critics who thought he was a reach pick a few years ago. At the other safety spot will be Ko Simpson who had a solid rookie year in 2006 playing next to Whitner, but injuries in 2007 derailed his season. George Wilson could also figure into the mix as he saw a lot of playing time last year with Simpson injured. The CB spot also suffered a slew of injuries. To address this the Bills used the 11th pick to select Troy product Leodis McKelvin. McKelvin has looked solid in training camp and could push either Terrence McGee or Jabari Greer for their starting spots. Will James and rookie Reggie Corner could also see playing time. If healthy, this unit could be a bright spot on the defense, but could also struggle a bit without a pass rush from up front.
The Bills have a promising young club that could find their way into the playoffs. However, given their youth at key spots together with questions about durability, the Bills could also regress from last season. The offense hinges on the Edwards and his progress not just in terms of his production but also with what the offense will do. If they open the playbook up then they can utilize Evans and the other playmakers. If not then the D will have to step up to mask the offense if it does not improve on the 15.8 points the Bills averaged. Lynch will take some pressure off of Edwards and the passing game, and with the offensive line looking solid, the passing game may not need to grow leaps and bounds immediately. Stroud and the others should help the defense, but with some new faces the unit could take time to gel. A pass rush will be crucial for the Bills to be successful in 2008 as will the health of the secondary. Like the Dolphins, the defense should be improved based on health alone, and while they do have more talent that their AFC East foes, they are not a top 10 or even 15 defense right now.
PREDICTIONS FOR THE AFC EAST:
Patriots 13-3....great offense but the defense will take some time to find its identity
Bills 8-8....D is improved but their are question marks. The offense
will have to continue to progress.
Jets 7-9....Favre is a great pick up, but the defense is in as much flux
as any unit in the league.
Dolphins 3-13...they should and will improve, but they have a long, long way to go.