2013 NFL Preview: AFC East
With training camps about to begin, we take a division-by-division look at where each team stands heading into the 2013 season.
The AFC East door is open. That’s the rallying cry for the Bills, Dolphins and Jets after watching the Patriots stumble through a tumultuous offseason.
New England has won nine of the last 10 division titles outright and tied for first that other season. It will be favored to claim yet another AFC East championship in 2013, but is the Tom Brady-Bill Belichick dynasty past its peak?
That’s the main topic of conversation as we dive deeper into this division …
Signed QB Kevin Kolb, G Doug Legursky, DT Alan Branch; traded for OLB Jerry Hughes; drafted QB E.J. Manuel, WR Robert Woods, LB Kiko Alonso, WR Marquise Goodwin, S Duke Williams; hired head coach Doug Marrone, O.C. Nathaniel Hackett, D.C. Mike Pettine
QB Ryan Fitzpatrick, QB Tarvaris Jackson, WR Donald Jones, G Andy Levitre, DE Chris Kelsay, DE Shawne Merriman, DE Kyle Moore, LB Kelvin Sheppard, OLB Nick Barnett, S George Wilson
Where they got better: Wide receiver. Ideally for the Bills, this answer will prove to be quarterback. Until we get a glimpse of either Kevin Kolb or E.J. Manuel in Doug Marrone’s new offense, however, it’s hard to issue that verdict. But the Bills are better at the receiver spot, if only because the underrated Robert Woods provides an upgrade over Donald Jones. Buffalo squeezed 41 catches out of Jones last season, but Woods is capable of more. The third-round pick of world-class speedster Marquise Goodwin makes the Bills’ offense all the more dangerous.
Where they got worse: Guard. Buffalo has a couple of interchangeable pieces in Colin Brown and ex-Steeler Doug Legursky. Neither can match the impact Andy Levitre delivered over the past four seasons. Levitre’s decision to head to Tennessee as a free agent definitely weakened Buffalo’s front — which, by the way, was pretty solid last season, helping to deliver a top-10 run game and allowing only 30 sacks. The switch from Levitre to a Brown-Legursky combo may not unhinge the Bills’ offense, but it certainly makes the line less imposing.
Breakout player: Da’Norris Searcy, S. Buffalo was not too broken up about losing veteran safety George Wilson in free agency, and Searcy’s presence is why. A 2011 fourth-round pick, the physical Searcy will bump into the starting lineup this season and could be a high-impact player there.
Where they stand: The 2012 season was particularly disappointing for the Bills, who thought they were built to contend. Instead, they finished 6-10 for the third time in four years, extending their streak of seasons without a .500 finish to eight. There’s enough talent here now to stop that skid. A coaching change plus ongoing uncertainty at quarterback make it hard to raise the expectations much beyond that. The Bills are closer to being a factor in the AFC East than they have been for a long time, but they’re not quite there yet.
Signed WR Brandon Gibson, WR Mike Wallace, TE Dustin Keller, OT Tyson Clabo, G Lance Louis, DT Vaughn Martin, LB Dannell Ellerbe, OLB Phillip Wheeler, CB Brent Grimes; drafted DE Dion Jordan, CB Jamar Taylor, G Dallas Thomas, CB Will Davis, TE Dion Sims, RB Mike Gillislee
RB Reggie Bush, WR Davone Bess, TE Anthony Fasano, OT Jake Long, LB Karlos Dansby, OLB Kevin Burnett, CB Sean Smith
Where they got better: The offensive line. Though Mike Wallace was the big-ticket addition here, the Dolphins had to improve in the trenches. Mission accomplished, it would appear. The Dolphins scored longtime Falcons RT Tyson Clabo, after he was released in a salary-cap move, as well as ex-Bears guard Lance Louis. They also drafted Tennessee’s Dallas Thomas, who can play multiple spots. The key to all this will be whether or not Jonathan Martin can replace Jake Long at left tackle. Everything else looks better than it did.
Where they got worse: Running back. Let’s just pump the brakes on the Lamar Miller hype train for a moment. Miller gives the Dolphins an exciting, young option as a probable starter, but he’s being asked to replace the dynamic Reggie Bush. Bush totaled nearly 1,300 yards last season and almost 1,400 the year prior; Miller has 50 career carries. The Dolphins should be thrilled about the potential in Miller and rookie Mike Gillislee. They still will miss Bush, at least in the early going.
Breakout player: Armon Binns, WR. The Dolphins’ coaching staff is very high on Binns, even if newly-signed WR Brandon Gibson is blocking Binns’ path to playing time. That won’t last long, if Binns continues to excel the way he did in offseason workouts.
Where they stand: Is this the biggest threat to New England’s AFC East stranglehold? Sure looks like it, following a summer of spending and a draft that brought multiple contributors to the roster. The Dolphins will live and die with QB Ryan Tannehill, in his second season as starter. Defensively, Miami upgraded a unit that finished seventh in points allowed last season. So, if the offense can fire on all cylinders, the postseason will be within reach.
New England Patriots
Signed RB Leon Washington, WR Danny Amendola, WR Michael Jenkins, OT Will Svitek, DT Tommy Kelly, S Adrian Wilson; drafted OLB Jamie Collins, WR Aaron Dobson, CB Logan Ryan
RB Danny Woodhead, WR Brandon Lloyd, WR Wes Welker, TE Aaron Hernandez, G Donald Thomas, DT Kyle Love, DE Trevor Scott, S Patrick Chung
Where they got better: Safety. Adrian Wilson is on the downside of his career at 33 years old, coming off a disappointing season in Arizona. But he’s also just two years removed from his fourth consecutive Pro Bowl berth. A move from the downtrodden Cardinals to a Super Bowl contender might do him some good, and he gives the Patriots a substantial bump in experience over the now-departed Patrick Chung. There were few positions where the Patriots really improved by adding pieces from outside the organization. This is one.
Where they got worse: Wide receiver. Because picking tight end is too easy. The shocking loss of Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski’s extended recovery from offseason surgery might be felt less in New England, too, if the Patriots had a more impressive receiving corps with which to fill those voids. This position is a major question mark of its own, with Danny Amendola expected to replace Wes Welker, followed by a host of uncertainties such as Michael Jenkins, ex-Bill Donald Jones, Julian Edelman and rookies Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce. Dobson’s one to watch and could thrive with Tom Brady throwing to him. But, overall, there’s cause for concern.
Breakout player: Shane Vereen, RB. Fantasy football players are abuzz already with news that the Patriots motioned Vereen out of the backfield to create mismatches during offseason workouts. New England did some of that with Vereen last season, too, and his dual-threat abilities as a runner and receiver should come in handy for a team down some valuable threats.
Where they stand: The gap between Tom Brady and the second-best QB in this division — Ryan Tannehill? Kevin Kolb? Mark Sanchez? E.J. Manuel? Matt Moore? — is bigger than in any other division in the NFL. That alone makes it hard to pick against New England, even if this was a particularly rough offseason. The defense and run game may have to carry the load more than usual without Welker and the Hernandez-Gronkowski pairing. Still, betting against Brady or Bill Belichick is a questionable practice.
Signed RB Mike Goodson, TE Kellen Winslow G/T Willie Colon, G Stephen Peterman, OLB Antwan Barnes, S Dawan Landry; traded for RB Chris Ivory; drafted CB Dee Milliner, DT Sheldon Richardson, QB Geno Smith, G Brian Winters
QB Tim Tebow, RB Shonn Greene, WR Chaz Schilens, TE Dustin Keller, OT Jason Smith, G Brandon Moore, G Matt Slauson, DE Mike DeVito, NT Sione Pouha, LB Bart Scott, CB Darrelle Revis, S Yeremiah Bell, S LaRon Landry, S Eric Smith
Where they got better: Quarterback. Mark Sanchez may enter the season as the starter again, but the Jets absolutely improved their stock under center by drafting Geno Smith (and sending Tim Tebow packing). At the very least, Rex Ryan now has a viable backup option — not to mention, a player around which to focus this rebuilding project. Smith easily could have been the first QB off the board in April and no one would have batted an eyelash. He’s reason enough for Jets fans to feel a little hope heading into 2013.
Where they got worse: The secondary. Would you rather have Darrelle Revis or Dee Milliner? Yeremiah Bell or Josh Bush? LaRon Landry or Dawan Landry? If you took the latter player in all three comparisons, then you’re on board with the Jets’ plan for 2013. There are pretty strong cases to be made for player No. 1 all three times, though. The Jets basically played last season without Revis and still finished with the second-best pass defense in football, so adding Milliner to the mix won’t hurt. Safety has to be a concern, however, given that LaRon Landry was a Pro Bowler last season.
Breakout player: Jeff Cumberland, TE. Someone has to catch Mark Sanchez’s passes, right? (Insert Sanchez interception joke here.) Cumberland led the Jets’ tight ends with 29 receptions last season, is in a contract year and should see even more targets now that Dustin Keller is a Dolphin.
Where they stand: How are the Jets going to score points? Their trade for RB Chris Ivory may go down as one of the franchise’s smarter transactions in recent memory, but he’s never been a full-time starter. The QB situation remains unsettled and there is little to be excited about at wide receiver. The defense should keep the Jets in some ball games, as it did last season. Finding a way to win enough of those games to be in the hunt is another matter.