Monday, September 3, 2012

2012 NFL Preview: AFC East

"When did we get moved to the AFC?" - Ryan Tannehill
"How did I lose my starting job to this guy?" - Matt Moore
With just a couple short weeks until the opening kickoff of the 2012 NFL season, it’s finally time to make my official predictions, knowing full well they will be shot to pieces faster than Carson Palmer can throw 10 INT’s. Still, gotta fill the time somehow, right?

In case you missed them, here are the divisions we’ve already previewed:

AFC West
NFC West
AFC South
NFC South
AFC North
NFC North

With just two divisions left in our previews, we head out East to tackle the defending AFC Champs and the rest of their division.

AFC East

Let me start by saying I’ll understand if you skip over the Jets preview entirely. Quite frankly, I’m considering doing the same – just a big blank spot where they’re supposed to be. You’ve heard the saying about beating the dead horse? Well, Skip Bayless and the rest of his ESPN cronies are not only beating that horse, they’re tearing at its flesh like the zombies from The Walking Dead. On the plus side, there are three other teams in the division…and no, Ryan Tannehill, none of them is the Kansas City Chiefs. 

Here are my predictions for 2012:

1. New England Patriots: 13-3

Biggest Addition(s):  Chandler Jones and Don’t’a Hightower – The league’s 30th ranked defense needed help in the worst way after being bludgeoned most of last year. Thanks to an uncharacteristically aggressive draft, the Patriots have finally begun to address those concerns. Hightower, the team’s second first round pick, is a major upgrade over Rob Ninkovich, but the real gem here could be Chandler Jones. Jones was initially thought to be too raw to be anything more than a situational pass rusher, but after a quick start to camp and some excellent showings early on, he may turn out to be much more NFL-ready than anyone thought. There are very few players with his size/athleticism combo…New England may have hit on something big.

Biggest Loss:  Andre Carter/Mark Anderson – The most frightening thing about New England’s putrid defense is that it happened despite one of the league’s best pass rushes. The Pats racked up 51 sacks last season, good for third in the NFL. Now, if the secondary couldn’t cover with that pass rush, imagine what could happen if the pass rush were to decline. Given that 20 of those sacks walked out the door, we just might find out. 

X-Factor:  Devin McCourty – McCourty was a revelation as a rookie, finishing with 7 INT’s and a Pro Bowl berth. As a ‘sophomore,’ not so much. Granted, the guy was playing with a shoulder injury, but giving up six scores and being repeatedly abused by receivers like Mama Bryant would by Dez is just not gonna work. He has star potential…the Pats know this because they’ve seen it. With so many other questions in the secondary, they need him back in lockdown mode for the defense to rise another level.

Biggest Question:  Can any of the other young players in the secondary step up? We just talked about McCourty being the key to the secondary, but there are several other intriguing prospects as well. Ras-I Dowling, last year’s second round pick, showed enough to earn a starting job as a rookie, but played in just 2 games before being placed on IR. Kyle Arrington flashed big play ability with his league leading 7 INT’s, but took far too many gambles and gave up far too many big plays. And then there’s Sterling Moore, the surprising hero of the AFC Championship game. The undrafted Moore played very well at the end of last season, and looks to be a promising player down the road. Somewhere in that group, there has to be two consistent, NFL starting caliber CB’s or the defense is once again in big trouble.

Forecast:  The Patriots were one of only three teams to have an offensive DVOA of over 30%. Not only is that group returning almost entirely intact, they’re also swapping out Chad Johnson for Brandon Lloyd. That’s like going to a car dealership in a Ford Escort and leaving in a Lexus. With Gronk, Hernandez, Welker, and Lloyd, Brady has all the targets he could ever want, and the offense should put up a ton of points again. Even if the defense is horrid, New England is going to win a lot of games. But if the defense improves, they may win the big game.

2. New York Jets: 7-9

Biggest Addition:  LaRon Landry – The Jets were brutally bad at safety last season. Eric Smith, in particular, was so bad that he probably couldn’t have even played for the Cowboys (not a good thing). For a team whose main strength is the defense, that’s totally unacceptable. Landry, of course, comes with his own set of question marks (health, coverage), but his particular skill set seems perfectly suited for what Rex Ryan will ask of him. This has played out in the early going, as Landry has looked rejuvenated and productive.

Biggest Loss:  Privacy…sanity…reality – The New York Jets are a travelling circus at this point, with Mark Sanchez playing the role of the guy who sticks his head in the tiger’s mouth. To assume he, and by extension the rest of the team, can continue to stick his head in their on a weekly basis and never get bit is just insane. All the cameras, all the talking, all the attention; eventually, it will break them.

X-Factor:  Stephen Hill – We all laughed when Antonio Cromartie claimed he was the second best receiver on the team – anybody laughing now? Based on what I’ve seen, he very well might be, and if that’s the case, then the Jets can expect their preseason swoon to continue into the real games. Their best hope of breaking out? Stephen Hill. The talented rookie had his moments, but just doesn’t appear ready for this level of football. Still, he’s by far their most physically gifted skill player, and we saw last year with Torrey Smith that even the rawest guy can make an impact if they’re gifted enough. Nobody’s expecting him to run all the routes and catch 100 balls, but it would be downright shocking if the coaching staff couldn’t find a way to get him in favorable one-on-one’s down the field. Even that impact, minimal as it may seem, would go a long ways towards opening up the offense.

Biggest Question:  Can they score any points? You know what; I don’t have anything to add to this. Just go look at their roster, read the question again, and nod your head slowly. 

Forecast:  Defensively, this is going to once again be one of the stronger units in the league. Mike Tannenbaum was aggressive in shoring up the safety spot and in infusing the front seven with young talent, and that’s going to pay off this season. But seriously, did you see the ‘Biggest Question?’ If I have to seriously wonder how a team is going to score ANY points, there’s no way they’re going anywhere. The QB situation is a wreck, the offensive line leaks like a sieve, they have exactly one NFL caliber receiver…it’s just a mess, and that’s not even taking into account the distractions and combustibility of the locker room. They’ll beat lesser teams on defense, but there’s no way this is a playoff team. NO WAY! 


(Clearly, I’ll never make it on ESPN…)

3. Buffalo Bills: 6-10

Biggest Addition:  Mario Williams – In what can only be described as the most effective tour of abandoned factories and dilapidated apartment buildings in history, the Buffalo Bills somehow convinced the summer’s most sought after free agent to leave the comforts of year round warm weather (and winning) for the angry winters of the Northeast (and losing). Of course, we all know the Bills didn’t actually drive him around Buffalo – that would have been a disaster – in reality, they gave him a “tour” of a giant briefcase full of money and told him not to worry about silly things like winning or having your house buried in ten feet of snow. Fortunately for them, Super Mario agreed, because even thought the signing was goofy, the impact is quite serious. With Mario joining Kyle Williams, Marcell Dareus, and fellow free agent acquisition Mark Anderson, the Bills suddenly have one of the strongest front fours in all of football. That’s a huge upgrade for a defense that ranked 24th in DVOA, and is a primary reason why so many think this team is ready to contend for a playoff spot.

Biggest Loss:  A home game because they insist on playing one game in stupid Toronto – Buffalo is just 1-3 at the Rogers Centre, and if you’ve watched any of those games and heard how deathly silent it is in there, you’d understand why the Bills gain absolutely no “home field” advantage. In the past, this wasn’t as big a deal because the Bills were so bad that wins and losses lost all relevance. But now, with playoff expectations thrust upon them, it’s a HUGE deal! How can you throw away one of your precious home games?! How is this even an option?!

X-Factor:  Aaron Williams- The second year CB has garnered significant hype this offseason thanks to a solid finish to 2011 and a standout performance in camp/preseason. Again, the Bills defense was their major weakness last year, so the emergence of Williams looms largely. With he and Stephen Gilmore pairing up at CB, Buffalo’s talent level increases exponentially, potentially allowing them to experience the same type of renaissance in the secondary that they’re experiencing in the front four. Suddenly, the Bills defense looks oddly…talented.

Biggest Question:  Is Ryan Fitzpatrick good enough to get them to the playoffs? We saw him play well and “earn” a contract…and then we saw him suck and make everyone realize he didn’t actually “earn” the contract in the first place. It’s probably safe to assume this will be his final chance to assert himself as “the man.” There’s talent offensively, talent defensively, and expectations Bills fans and members of the organization haven’t experienced in quite some time. If Buffalo gets the Ryan Fitzpatrick from the beginning of 2011, then the Bills will easily outdo my meager prediction and could realistically make the playoffs.  If they get the Ryan Fitzpatrick from the end of 2011…well, they’ll continue to be the Buffalo Bills, and that’s not a compliment. Go time for Fitzy, or else.

Forecast:  Buffalo is a chic pick to win 9 or 10 games and edge into the playoffs, mostly due to people’s weird love of Ryan Fitzpatrick. Why people assume Fitzy will suddenly perform is beyond me, because the facts are undeniable; Ryan Fitzpatrick has never been a starting caliber player. This is a guy with a career completion percentage of under 60%, and whose highest single season QB rating is just 81.8. Somehow, I doubt he “breaks out” at 30 years old. That leaves the Bills in a familiar place; smatterings of young talent, no QB to lead them, and 10 or more losses. Sorry, Bills supporters. I’m not buying what you’re selling. Show me a legit starting QB and then we’ll talk. 

4. Miami Dolphins: 3-13

Biggest Addition:  The high draft pick they’ll receive from losing so many games this year – Because this team needs young talent in the worst way.

Biggest Loss:  Brandon Marshall – Sure, I get the concerns over the offseason stuff. But really? Brandon Marshall for mid-round picks? That’s insane! Small picture, Marshall wasn’t going to “push them over the top” or anything. Long term, however, is problematic. Instead of giving Ryan Tannehill a legit weapon to assist in his development, they’re stuck throwing him to the wolves with absolutely no help whatsoever. Just a poor move on so many levels.  

X-Factor:  Jonathan Martin – The Dolphins were extremely fortunate to have Martin fall to them in the second round of the draft, despite being projected, at one point, as a potential top 10 pick. Right tackle was a major position of weakness last year, so it’s not surprising that Martin has already entrenched himself as the starter. If he can prove his doubters wrong and show why he was initially rated so highly, the Dolphins would suddenly find themselves with an embarrassment of riches at tackle. Perhaps even more importantly, they’d be able to keep a clean pocket for their rookie QB.

Biggest Question:  There are just a lot of questions with this team. Questions about Tannehill, questions about whether Reggie Bush can repeat his performance, questions about who will catch the ball…

Forecast:  It’s really a shame Stephen Ross couldn’t stay patient considering how Miami finished out last season. They had a lot of nice pieces in place and could potentially have contended for a playoff berth in the AFC. Now? Not a chance. Not with Tannehill, not with that group of receivers, not with that stripped down secondary. The roster has been gutted, rightly or wrongly, and the cost of that in losses will be steep. Literally the only thing worth watching here is how good (or bad) Ryan Tannehill turns out to be.  

No comments:

Post a Comment