Sunday, September 1, 2013

2013 NFL Predictions - AFC East

1) New England Patriots

In what will likely be the league’s weakest division, I’ve got the Patriots on top for the 5th year in a row.  That speaks as much to the lack of competition within the division as it does the continued dominance by New England.  A lot has changed for the Patriots since last we saw them.  Are they still a team to fear?

Tom Brady remains of the game’s best, but is this the year we see a decline?  He didn’t exactly finish the season on a high note, getting overwhelmed and beaten at home by Baltimore.  Remember how slow and out of rhythm he looked in that game?  How will he deal with losing Wes Welker and Aaron Hernandez?  When will his other tight end be healthy?  Despite the adversity, I think we see vintage Tom Brady this year; an MVP caliber season.  What’s there to get excited about?  Danny Amendola was brought in to play the Welker role and should put up career numbers if he can stay on the field.  Undrafted free agent rookie Kenbrell Thompkins has been turning heads this preseason and has sewn up the other wideout spot.  He’s definitely a guy to watch.  Zach Sudfeld is expected to replace Gronk in the early going, and while there’s an obvious drop off in talent, the Patriots have loved what they’ve seen from him this preseason.  With the way Belichick utilizes tight ends, expect Sudfeld to remain part of the plan even when Gronk returns.  Stevan Ridley is an excellent fit in this offense as the early down back, and the play and potential of Shane Vereen made Danny Woodhead expendable.  Look for Vereen to be a big factor in the passing game and take a lot of the targets that would have gone to Hernandez. 

To me the Patriots maintained this offseason on the defensive side of the ball, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.  Vince Wilfork remains the face and stomach of the defense up front.  They didn’t bring in anyone to provide a huge boost in the pass rush department, but if second year lineman Chandler Jones can remain healthy, he should lead the team in sacks.  Fellow second year man Don’t’a Hightower looks like a keeper too.  Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes may not lead the team in jersey sales, but they’re one of the steadiest pair of inside backers in the game.  Aqib Talb returns as their #1 corner, but they may lose Alfonzo Dennard for a while after his DUI arrest.  Devin McCourty has been solid since moving to free safety, but anticipated strong safety Adrian Wilson was placed on IR after the last preseason game.  Steve Gregory seeing more snaps again isn’t necessarily a good thing.  If I’m to worry about anything it’s the secondary, but they’ve done better with less before. 

This year is going to tell us a ton about Brady and Belichick.  Will they get outplayed again when it counts, or will Brady and his new stable of targets make another championship run?  I’m a believer. 

MVP – Tom Brady
Breakout – Shane Vereen
Disappointment – Alfonzo Dennard

2) Miami Dolphins

I find Miami to be an intriguing team entering this season.  They didn’t exactly play the patient game this offseason, acquiring Mike Wallace, Dustin Keller, Brent Grimes, Dannell Ellerbe, Tyson Clabo, and spending to retain Brian Hartline, Matt Moore, and Randy Starks.  They were active in the draft too, trading up from #12 to #3 to select Dion Jordan and took two corners I really liked in Jamar Taylor and Will Davis. 

That offseason momentum is carrying over this preseason as all reports out of Miami regarding second year QB Ryan Tannehill have been of the positive variety.  The former Aggie struggled through a 7-9 season but in spurts showed that he’s a guy the Dolphins can build their team around.  He’s established great chemistry with Hartline and adding the deep speed of Wallace and a #3 in Brandon Gibson will only help in his development.  Losing Keller for the year before the season even started was a setback.  They’re counting heavily on second year back Lamar Miller to replace Reggie Bush, so the Miami native’s performance could be the make or break point for the 2013 Dolphins.  I don’t see how they’re any better with the limited Daniel Thomas as primary ball carrier, so expect Miller to get every opportunity to succeed.  Jake Long did the slow band aid pull leave from Miami, and even if Long is more name than performance at this point, there will be a noticeable drop from him to Jonathan Martin. 

When the Dolphins moved up from 12 to 3 in the draft they shocked most fans with the selection of Jordan.  Rather than drafting a solution to their left tackle problem, they took possibly the draft’s best pass rusher but a player who is more fitted for the 3-4 defense the Dolphins ditched last year.  I’m a bit pessimistic as to how the pieces fit this scheme.  Jared Odrick is a better fit in a 3-4 front, and I believe the newly acquired Ellerbe is as well.  Brent Grimes replaces Sean Smith as the team’s top corner, and I think he’ll be an upgrade in performance assuming his Achilles is healed.  Unfortunately, Taylor hasn’t been able to beat out the uninspiring Dimitri Patterson for the other starting spot.  Strong safety Reshad Jones broke out in a big way last year and is the most impactful player on the back end of the unit. 

Rarely does a team that spends a lot in free agency make a quick turnaround.  I get that feeling with this Dolphins team as well.  Will Tannehill make the necessary second year leap with an unproven running back situation, a huge question mark protecting his blind side, and new receiving targets with which to get acquainted?  Is Brent Grimes Brent Grimes?  Will the new defensive pieces gel?  I think second place and an outside shot at a wild card spot is a nice goal for this team. 

MVP – Ryan Tannehill
Breakout – Lamar Miller
Disappointment – Mike Wallace

3) Buffalo Bills

You have to go back to 2007 to find a year when the Bills weren’t bringing up the conference rear.  A big reason for that significant struggle stretch has been the ineptitude at the QB position.  They went all in on EJ Manuel, making him the first passer off the board in this year’s draft.  With Kevin Kolb experiencing a possibly career-ending concussion, the Bills are going to learn a lot about their new investment right away. 

Whoever starts at QB will have one of the game’s most dangerous weapons at his disposal.  Not that his 1,700+ yards from scrimmage wasn’t impressive enough, but I think CJ Spiller is on the verge of a special season.  He seized the opportunity when Fred Jackson again went down with an injury and is clearly Buffalo’s best chance at moving the chains.  Last year Spiller tied Adrian Peterson for most yards per attempt by all running backs and had more runs of 20+ yards than anyone but Peterson.  Where I think he’ll elevate his game is total touchdowns.  Last year he scored six times on the ground and twice through the air.  I think he doubles that total this season.  When Manuel drops back to pass he’ll key mostly on Stevie Johnson and second rounder Robert Woods.  Johnson has caught at least 76 passes three years in a row which is quite the accomplishment considering former Bill Ryan Fitzpatrick’s limited ability as a passer.  I see Woods as a mature rookie who will be a reliable weapon for Manuel underneath. 

Mario Williams was brought in to be the savior of the defense last season, and he struggled through a marginally impressive 10.5 sack season with a wrist injury.  Pass rushers like Williams make their money with their hands, so his lack of dominance is somewhat understandable.  New DC Mike Pettine runs a hybrid front and will surely take better advantage of Williams’ ability as an end.  Marcell Dareus hasn’t been a bust, but if this defense (and team for that matter) is going to take a big step forward this year, they need more big plays from their big pick.  The secondary is headlined by two top talents in Stephon Gilmore and Jairus Byrd.  The former was a real bright spot as a rookie, quickly becoming the man for opposing QBs to avoid, and the latter was the team’s franchise player.  Unfortunately, he broke his wrist in the preseason and is going to miss at least a third of the season.  Their linebackers leave a bit to be inspired, and I think that’s what keeps this defense from reaching higher heights.  That and Gilmore’s absence. 

If nothing else, the Bills offense should be fun to watch.  In addition to Manuel and Spiller, they’ll feature the veteran Johnson, rookie Woods, and speedster Marquise Goodwin.  Call me a homer, but since the Offensive ROY award historically goes to good QBs over better RBs, EJ is a legit candidate for that honor. 

MVP – CJ Spiller
Breakout – EJ Manuel
Disappointment – Manny Lawson

4) New York Jets

Those AFC championship games seem like a lifetime ago.  Thanksgiving night’s butt fumble epitomized the Jets pitiful 6-10 ‘13 season which has the boisterous Rex Ryan squarely on the New York hot seat. 

The Jets would love to move on from the Sanchise, but thanks to former GM Mike Tannenbaum’s genius, they would take a huge cap hit by releasing the disappointing QB.  Hell, David Garrard was poised to sit atop their depth chart until his knee finally gave out on him.  Geno Smith fell into their laps in the draft, but both he and Sanchez have been pitiful this preseason.  Since Sanchez got obliterated against the Giants in that controversial game, it looks like the rookie will get the honor of opening up as the starter. 
I think their brightest spot on offense is Chris Ivory, the former Saints backup acquired via trade this offseason.  Ivory is a power runner who fits in well with Ryan’s desire to be more of an attacking offense this season.  He’s more dynamic than last year’s top rusher, Shonn Greene, and has a chance to really shine assuming he can stay healthy.  There’s still nothing to get excited about at receiver.  Santonio Holmes has had three disappointing seasons in New York and is showing absolutely no motivation to get back on the field.  Stephen Hill disappeared after week one but heads into this year as a starter.  Jeremy Kerley and Clyde Gates are the alternatives.  Blech. 

How do you lose your best player and get better?  Darrelle Revis got his wish and got out of NY, leaving a huge hole in an already leaky defense.  Antonio Cromartie is still around and will be the #1 corner for a second year, but they will be asking a lot of first round pick Dee Milliner.  I’m taking the pessimistic side in this one, as I didn’t think Milliner was head and shoulders above the rest of the rookie corners (Xavier Rhodes will have a better career).  I actually think he’ll end up being a bust.  Fellow first rounder Sheldon Richardson will get a little more support working up front with NY’s two best defensive talents in Muhammad Wilkerson and Quinton Coples.  Wilkerson is their best player on this side of the ball and would get a lot more recognition with a decent supporting cast.  Coples is the guy whose individual performance could make the biggest impact on the entire unit. 

I’ve got to think that this is Rex’s last ride with the Jets, and with either a rookie or the butt fumbler under center throwing to this pathetic group of receivers, the odds are in my favor.  I gotta be honest.  I do take joy in watching this overly-covered, big market failure flounder. 

MVP – Muhammad Wilkerson
Breakout – Chris Ivory
Disappointment – Santonio Holmes

Division MVP – Tom Brady
Division Breakout – Shane Vereen
Division Disappointment – Mike Wallace

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