Thursday, August 30, 2012

2012 NFL Predictions - AFC East

 1) New England Patriots

Key Gets – Brandon Lloyd (WR, Rams), Chandler Jones (DE, Syracuse), Dont’a Hightower (LB, Alabama), Bobby Carpenter (LB, Lions)

Key Gones – BenJarvus Green-Ellis (RB, Bengals), Andre Carter (DE, FA), Mark Anderson (DE, Bills)

Key Games – wk3 @ Ravens, wk4 @ Bills, wk5 v. Broncos, wk7 v. Jets, wk 8 @ Rams, wk10 v. Bills, wk 12 @ Jets, wk 14 v. Texans, wk 15 v. 49ers

If only Wes Welker had made just one more catch.  It was 2nd and 11 with just over 4 minutes to go in Super Bowl XLVI when Welker got free behind the Giant secondary and dropped a pass he’d hauled in countless times before at New York’s 20.  Unable to convert, the Patriots punted the ball away and for the second time in five years fell victim to an Eli Manning Super Bowl comeback victory.  So the question I have is this – Do the Patriots get off the canvas and back to the top of the conference, or is it someone else’s time.  HoustonPittsburgh

Despite the presence of arguably the game’s best tight end, Rob Gronkowski, and fellow phenom Aaron Hernandez, Tom Brady suffered (if you can say a 13-3 team suffered) from the lack of a vertical threat.  Enter Brandon Lloyd.  The veteran receiver follows former coach Josh McDaniels to the Patriots and gives the Patriots the most legit receiver they’ve had opposite Welker since before Moss quit trying.  The sky is the limit for Lloyd in this offense, but I think the star of the show is going to be Hernandez.  I look for the third year tight end to be nearly uncoverable.  Speaking of Welker, one has to wonder if watching both of the tight ends land big extensions will have any effect on his play.  Welker is 31, and if Lloyd makes the impact I expect he will, the Patriots might watch Welker walk next March.  Second year back Stevan Ridley figures to take over the bulk of the backfield work with BenJarvus Green-Ellis moving on to Cincinnati.  Assisting Brady and the run game is quite possibly the league’s deepest offensive line.  Nate Solder slides in at left tackle for the retired Matt Light, but the rest of the unit returns intact.  I fully expect Brady to have another MVP caliber season, and the play of his offensive line should be a key factor in him doing so. 

The defense got a much needed boost on April 26 when Chandler Jones and Dont’a Hightower became Patriots.  Jones is the guy I mocked going to the Jaguars at #7 overall as someone with a huge upside and ability to contribute right away.  Bill Belichick is counting on him doing just that as Jones steps into the starting spot vacated by Andre Carter.  I see him finishing in the top five in Defensive ROY voting at the end of the season.  Hightower looks to contribute right away as well.  He’ll bring his versatility and physicality to a group that already consists of standout Jerod Mayo and another intense linebacker in Brandon Spikes.  You can’t not mention Vince Wilfork, the big man in the middle still demanding double teams.  Things aren’t as rosy in the secondary.  Devin McCourty fell off in a big way in his sophomore season, and Ras-I Dowling couldn’t shake a hip injury and end up missing almost all season.  Kyle Arrington and his NFL leading 8 INTs are certainly a bright spot, and if Alfonzo Dennard can behave and get over a training camp hamstring problem he could be a draft day steal.  At safety, Patrick Chung hasn’t yet reached the level I expected he would by now.  He’s likely to be flanked at free safety by free agent signee Steve Gregory; a versatile veteran who projects well in this scheme. 

Last year they went 13-3 with a subpar secondary and a pass rush led by two guys who are no longer on the team (Andre Carter and Mark Anderson).  I think they’re better at RB with Vereen, obviously better at receiver with Lloyd over the pedestrian Deion Branch and Chad Johnson, and rejuvenated up front defensively with Jones and Hightower.  It would be a disappointment if they didn’t again reach the conference title game.  

Team MVP – Tom Brady
Breakout Player – Chandler Jones
Disappointment – Wes Welker

2) Buffalo Bills

Key Gets – Mario Williams (LB, Texans), Stephon Gilmore (CB, South Carolina), Cordy Glenn (OL, Georgia), Mark Anderson (DE, Patriots), Nigel Bradham (LB, FSU), Zebrie Sanders (T, FSU)

Key Gones – Demetrius Bell (T, Eagles)

Kay Games – wk1 @ Jets, wk4 v. Patriots, wk5 @ 49ers, wk9 @ Texans, wk10 @ Patriots, wk14 v. Rams, wk17 v. Jets

Buffalo started 5-2 last year, including victories over New England and Philadelphia, but it was all downhill from there.  The Bills went 1-8 the rest of the way, losing 7 in a row for most of that stretch and finished in last place.  In a completely related event, Ryan Fitzpatrick struggled through the second half for the second year in a row and led the league in INTs with 23.  For some perspective, the offensive line led the league in sacks allowed with, yes, 23.  That tells me Fitzpatrick is simply making poor decisions with the football.  The defense was a sieve, allowing the most yards per game in team history.  They were also among the league’s worst at getting after the passer.  Will things be different in 2012?

Fred Jackson returns from a broken leg and teams with CJ Spiller to give the Bills a solid rushing combo.  Spiller more than held his own in Jackson’s absence, showing the rushing and receiving skills the Bills thought they were getting when taking him 9th overall in 2010.  Stevie Johnson returns as the #1 receiver with Donald Jones and David Nelson vying for the other starting spot.  Johnson topped 1,000 yards for the second straight season but didn’t take his game to the next level as hoped.  After signing a big extension in March, will he be content with where his is as a player, or will he take that next step?  Up front, they’re really large at tackle with rookie LT Cordy Glenn and RT Erik Pears.  This is an underrated unit that should be even better with the acquisition of Glenn and the return to health of center Eric Wood.  The success of this offense will hinge upon the decision making of Fitzpatrick. 

One way to address defensive deficiencies is to replace the coordinator.  They did that by hiring veteran coach Dave Wannstedt.  Another way to get better is to get yourself a game changing force.  They did that by signing Mario Williams in free agency.  The former Texan heads north and will be the marquee player on this squad.  In Buffalo Williams returns to a 4-3 scheme more suiting his skills and will be lining up next to promising tackle Marcell Dareus.  In the secondary, 2012 draftee Stephon Gilmore steps in as a starter across 2011 draftee Aaron Williams giving the Bills two potential long term fixtures at corner.  If those two can handle themselves on the boundaries Mario Williams will reap the benefits.  The key to this defense though may be MLB Kelvin Sheppard, the second year player from LSU.  The Bills are really excited the fast and physical backer. 

If all goes according to plan, the Bills will lean heavily on Jackson and Spiller in the ground game.  I believe Fitzpatrick can lead this team to the playoffs, but he’s got to significantly cut down on the turnovers, especially if the defense doesn’t make strides.  If the defense does stiffen, the Bills should be in line for a shot at their first playoff appearance since 1999.  

Team MVP – Fred Jackson
Breakout Player – Kelvin Sheppard
Disappointment – Leodis McKelvin

3) New York Jets

Key Gets – Tim Tebow (QB, Broncos), LaRon Landry (S, Redskins), Yeremiah Bell (S, Dolphins), Quinton Coples (DE, UNC), Stephen Hill (WR, Georgia Tech), Demario Davis (LB, Arkansas St)

Key Gones – LaDainian Tomlinson (RB, FA), Plaxico Burress (WR, FA), Jim Leonhard (S, Broncos)

Key Games – wk1 v. Bills, wk2 @ Steelers, wk4 v. 49ers, wk5 v. Texans, wk7 @ Patriots, wk11 @ Rams, wk16 v. Chargers, wk17 @ Bills

Last year saw the Jets finish 8-8, the team’s worst record since 2007, and miss the conference championship game for the first time in the last three seasons.  They suffered through two separate three game losing streaks and were a meager 2-6 away from home. 

Offensively, Mark Sanchez threw 9 more TDs than the previous season but also tossed 5 more INTs as well.  I’m still not a fan, and I don’t see how he’s going to get any better with the Teblow sideshow coming to town.  Shonn Greene achieved 1K for the first time in his career, but he’s a limited runner who might have already shown his potential.  Gone are veterans Plaxico Burress and LaDainian Tomlinson, and the lone proven wide receiver, Santonio Holmes is sidelined this preseason with a rib injury.  Will Stephen Hill be a reliable weapon in his first season?  Dustin Keller has increased his seen his production go up over the last three seasons, but are the Jets getting any better with him as the center of the passing game?  Up front, Nick Mangold and D’Brickashaw Ferguson are still among the game’s elite at their positions, but the rest of the unit makes you cringe.  Matt Slauson was basically handed his old job because Vladimir Ducasse has been too big of a bust to replace him, and RT Wayne Hunter is arguably the game’s worst starting tackle. 

The defense doesn’t appear to be sprinting in the right direction either.  Darrelle Revis remains one of the game’s best, but there were rumblings of a holdout this offseason due to unhappiness about a contract to which there remains two years.  I see things getting worse rather than better in this situation.  David Harris remains the stabilizing force of the defense, but he doesn’t appear to be taking his game to the next level.  The situation at safety was atrocious, so they brought in LaRon Landry and Yeremiah Bell.  The former still isn’t completely back from his Achilles injury.  On the positive side, Sione Pouha and Muhammad Wilkerson are two strong forces up front, and Quinton Coples has earned positive reviews so far.  In the pass rushing department, Calvin Pace should do better now that he appears to be healthy, and Aaron Maybin was a pleasant surprise.  The latter could be even more dangerous with a full training camp under his belt.

The QB situation wreaks of controversy, and I don’t believe Greene is a back this team is going to be able to lean on to get them back to the top of the AFC.  Will the offensive line’s play improve?  Will the Revis situation become an in-season distraction?  I think there’s too much going against this team to get them back to contention this season.  Hey they’ll sell jerseys though. 

Team MVP – Darrelle Revis
Breakout Player – Muhammad Wilkerson
Disappointment – Shonn Greene


4) Miami Dolphins

Key Gets – Ryan Tennehill (QB, Texas A&M), David Garrard (QB, Jaguars), Richard Marshall (CB, Cardinals), Jonathan Martin (T, Stanford), Michael Egnew (TE, Missouri), Lamar Miller (RB, Miami)

Key Gones – Yeremiah Bell (S, Jets), Chad Henne (QB, Jaguars)

Key Games – wk1 @ Houston, wk3 v. Jets, wk5 @ Bengals, wk6 v. Rams, wk 8 @ Jets, wk11 @ Bills, wk13 v. Patriots, wk14 @ 49ers, wk16 v. Bills, wk17 @ Patriots

The Tony Sparano era is over.  After an 11-5 record and playoff berth in his first season as head coach in 2008, the Dolphins went 18-27 the rest of his tenure with three straight losing seasons making that five sub .500 seasons in the last six years.  What can Joe Philbin bring to the table? 

When analyzing any team’s offense one has to first look at the QB position, and even the most optimistic fan would struggle to find a lot of good things to say about their starter.  David Garrard was the #1 in camp, but he went down with a knee injury.  Matt Moore was outplayed by a guy who was out of the league last year, and he’ll likely start week one and every week after until Philbin is ready to hand things over to Ryan Tennehill.  Reggie Bush rushed for over 1,000 yards for the first time in his career that he’s rejuvenated in Miami.  He’s the lead rusher ahead of the disappointing Daniel Thomas and promising prospect Lamar Miller.  They may have rid themselves of Brandon Marshall and his problems, but that doesn’t make them any better on the field.  Chad Johnson was signed to ease the on-field loss, but he got dropped after headbutting his wife.  Davone Bess has been a reliable receiver, but he’s not a big playmaker.  Brian Hartline and Legedu Naanee would struggle to shine with Aaron Rodgers getting them the football.  Now throw a rookie under center.  Speaking of centers, the Dolphins are strong there with Mike Pouncey and even stronger with a now healthy Jake Long at left tackle.  In the draft they grabbed Jonathan Martin to upgrade right tackle.  Talented guard John Jerry is getting his ass kicked on Hard Knocks.  Philbin is implementing a zone blocking scheme, so even if everyone’s healthy, they’ll still be learning a new scheme.

Speaking of new schemes, the Dolphins have switched to a 4-3 defense, and I believe it’s going to have its own give and take.  I think the transition will be a success in the pass rushing department.  Cameron Wake was a solid outside linebacker, and he should be even more disruptive playing end, a position he played successfully in the CFL.  
It’s the run defense that concerns me.  They were good against the run in the old scheme, but will that carry over seamlessly in the new defense?  Are Paul Soliai and Randy Starks better off  as 4-3 tackles?  Karlos Dansby will be a stud wherever you line him up, but Koa Misi and Kevin Burnett are uninspiring on the outside.  At corner, Sean Smith has settled in nicely in one spot, but Vontae Davis was deep in the doghouse and eventually dealt to Indianapolis.  The capable Richard Marshall will take his spot.  Will Yeremiah Bell’s loss be felt on the back end?

In my opinion the Dolphins are clearly the fourth best in their division.  They’re implementing new offenses and defenses and have too many questions in key positions. It’s going to be another long year on South Beach

Team MVP – Reggie Bush
Breakout Player – Jared Odrick
Disappointment – Their Entire Passing Game

Division MVP – Tom Brady
Division Breakout Player – Chandler Jones
Division Disappointment – Shonn Greene

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