Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Premature Evaluations 2010 – AFC East

With not much time left until the season, and the Bar Exam having eaten my summer alive, we'll be going through Premature Evaluations division by division, explaining why each team is more interesting than you may think, and even picking the team we think will come out on top of each division. Today, we continue with the AFC East, where everybody is one key move away from checkmate except for the one team that made the biggest move of the division (hint: We're big on C.J. Spiller).

Buffalo Bills

I contemplated writing “train wreck” here and moving on, but that’s not entirely fair. There are, upon some review, at least two things worth getting excited about on an otherwise outmatched team. For starters, the pass defense was great. LB Paul Posluszny developed into the versatile weapon between the hash marks the Bills were hoping he’d become, notching 110 tackles and 3 interceptions. He could become even scarier in a 3-4, with the size to thrive and the athleticism to be used in multiple ways. Meanwhile, there weren’t many corner’s better than CB Jairus Byrd last year, who put up a league leading 9 interceptions and had a streak of 5 games with at least 1 interception. Combined with an improving Donte Whitner and a surprisingly effective George Wilson at safety, the Bills pass defense was 2nd overall in the league, which, even considering that opponents led for much of the game, is still worth noting and gives the team at least one unit around which they can build.

Second, there was a lot to get excited about in the Bills’ last draft. The defensive front, more effective that some would believe last year (16th in the league) was bolstered with a strong DT and DE with the 2nd and 3rd picks in the draft, potentially turning a strong but unbalanced defense into a very scary overall unit. Meanwhile, the receiving corps has quietly compiled an interesting, if not particularly well understood combination of talents. Lee Evans and Roscoe Parrish are a heartbreaking combination of speed and underachievement, James Hardy has vanished into thin air (undoubtedly difficult when you stand 6’7”) but still has gifts that few receivers in the league have, and rookie Marcus Easley, standing 6’3” and with solid downfield speed, could be the steal of the draft at WR in the 4th round. Then, of course, there’s C.J. Spiller, who can play as a receiver or running back, and becomes the most electrifying element of a backfield that, when healthy and playing up to potential, is as talented as any in the league (reports of Marshawn Lynch’s death have been greatly exaggerated). Is Spiller is involved as a receiver in the rumored spread offense the Bills want to run, putting two out of three backs on the field at any given time, this team could wind up shocking some of their divisional opponents with a stunning turnaround on offense.

The problem, of course, is that there is really nobody to get the ball to all of these intriguing pieces, and no offensive line to give them time to work. None of the three veteran quarterbacks on the roster have proven to be anything other than disappointing. If Levi Brown, an athlete with accuracy issues, can be trusted to simply not get in the way, this team could prove a decent sleeper matchup on any given week, but seeing as he’s having difficulty even making it out of camp, it’s looking like another long year for a Bills team that has no foundation, just a whole lot of pretty windows.

Miami Dolphins

Where did the Dolphins get this rep for being a hard nosed team? 22nd in total defense, the Dolphins below average against both the run (18th in the league) and pass (24th in the league). Small wonder, then, that they were so excited to overpay or LB Karlos Dansby. Bringing him into the center of a 3-4 scheme that already boasts solid athleticism at the position (Channing Crowder is a brute in the middle, and Cameron Wake is on “breakout year” two on the edge) is the kind of high priced gamble that changes a defense, though, and should make the team stronger in the middle and on the pass rush, allowing their underrated secondary to get the credit they deserve (Side note: The competition between CBs Vontae Davis and Sean Smith for interceptions is almost as fun as the one to see whose earrings are sweeter).

Equally exciting is the trade of a second rounder to acquire disgruntled WR Brandon Marshall (Another side note: What the hell, GMs? This is one of the best receivers in the league, and a proven commodity who had a stellar year with Kyle Orton throwing passes, and nobody wanted to put up more than a 2nd rounder? I’d be more angry about this, but nobody is willing to put up a 1st and 3rd for Vincent Jackson either, so I got used to this stupidity before. I’m going to be looking right at you, AFC North, when your champ gets trounced in the postseaspon because you can’t threaten to go over the top of any playoff defense.) Think that one offensive skill player can’t change the identity of a team? The leading receiver on the Dolphins in 2009 was Davone Bess, who had 758 yards and 2 TD (Brian Hartline led receivers in scoring with 3 TD). Brandon Marshall had 1120 yards receiving and more than three times as many TD (10) as any receiver on the Dolphins. Whatever you think of Chad Henne, it’s impossible to think that he won’t look a whole lot better throwing to a 6’5” monster who runs routes better than any other receiver with his physical stature, and he gives the Dolphins the alpha dog passing target they’ve lacked for almost a decade.

There are a lot of things to love about this team. Jake Long is on the verge of becoming a top three left tackle, Ricky Williams is one of the best individual stories in football (not to mention the perfect synthesis of on and off-field style), and the receivers who aren’t named Brandon Marshall are equal parts underrated and perfectly suited to their unique roles. Still, does anybody else think that this team is facing another year where it’s a piece away from being legitimate? Until Chad Henne stops overthrowing every single pass of more than 5 yards (a classic sign of the insecurity of a former Pennington backup…keep proving the haters wrong, Handsome Chad…) he remains a pipe dream with good PR man (FREE TYLER THIGPEN). Ronnie Brown is another year older and another injury weaker. Eschewing Ted Ginn in the same offseason they picked up the alpha dog WR he was never meant to be (or, perhaps even worse, the possession beast every top flight speedster needs to get free) is the telltale sign of a front office that believes the system is completely incapable of failing the talent, and is quick to demonize the talent that doesn’t reach its potential within the dogma of the system. We’re big on unmet potential signifying that a player is a building block rather than a failure; Parcells, on the other hand, is once again showing his belief that a player is what he is within the first three years of his career. I know which argument I believe, but this Dolphins team could go a long way toward deciding the debate.

New England Patriots

We already discussed these guys earlier in the summer, so let me just say this: If you don’t think these guys will be one of the last two standing in the divisional race, you’re crazy. Brady and Moss aren’t old enough to be done yet, Wes Welker is only going to improve as the season goes along, and this defense is hitting that sweet spot the Bengals found last year, where frightening talent is matched with enough veteran wisdom to overcome maturity problems.

New York Jets

We'll be less stat heavy here because, as we all know, I get emotional over this damn team. Case in point: I am legitimately stunned at the impasse that has been reached by Darrelle Revis and the Jets front office. First, let me start by saying that I totally understand the concept of working to maximize value and chemistry on a team. I also understand the importance of not over-valuing past performance when negotiating contracts for future performance, as doing so is an easy way to trap your team in mediocrity. An injury this season, and a monster contract for Revis leaves the Jets with no flexibility for years to come.

But isn’t the goal to win a championship? Exceptional players are so titled because they are just that: Exceptions to the normal operating procedures. Last year, Rex Ryan’s aggressive defense gets picked apart all year (much like it did in the AFC Championship) without Revis completely removing one receiver from the game. There is no argument to be made that Revis wasn’t the engine behind the team’s success last year. After an offseason in which the front office made move after move to stockpile talent and set the stage for a Super Bowl run, does it really make sense to say that drafting CB Kyle Wilson, who was supposed to make a great pass defense unbeatable, makes Revis any less important? It’s completely against everything the Jets have done all summer; added talent doesn’t reduce the greatness of the talent already available, but rather makes that talent even more potent. With Revis, the Jets have the makings of a great team that should consider the Super Bowl a realistic goal; without him, they’re a playoff caliber team with an average to long shot at winning a championship. Like I said before: Isn’t the whole goal, ESPECIALLY for a team so famously far-removed from a Super Bowl, to win a championship?

This team has all of the pieces to do it, too. A great pass defense obviously got much better with the addition of rookie Kyle Wilson, but people have written off DE Jason Taylor as washed up without noting that this defense is tailor made for a versatile, veteran outside rusher like Taylor (who will no longer be asked to be the biggest threat up front). Brodney Pool steps in as a perfect replacement for Kerry Rhodes (who was never willing to do the dirty work needed from the FS position by this defense). Offensively, this team is locked and loaded as well. WR Santonio Holmes, after a four game suspension, will step in as the number two target, finally giving Braylon Edwards the second speedy target to create single coverage mismatches. TE Dustin Keller, who improved significantly as the season progressed, enters the infamous third year for physically gifted pass catchers. RB Shonn Greene is a known commodity, but don’t be surprised when LaDainian Tomlinson shows what he can do with a great offensive line and another between-the-tackles back available to pick up tough yardage (also, Joe McKnight is going to be a special speed back). Oh, and anybody who thinks Mark Sanchez isn’t going to be much better in his second year after the playoff run he put together is either crazy or drank the Chad Henne Kool-Aid. El Guapo had one proven pass catcher last season, and got much better when the pressure was on (I wrote a whole thing on this at the end of last season, but it still makes me angry that I have to argue that a first round rookie who quarterbacked a team to the AFC Championship isn’t JaMarcus Russell).

All of this is to say that the Jets front office needs to decide how badly they want to end the championship drought. One player makes this team either a team that should win, or a team that could win, and the fact that it’s even a hard decision could sit very poorly with fans come January.

Prediction: Jets win the division, followed by the Patriots, Dolphins, and Bills. I have to believe that they realize how important Revis Island is to the team. (Otherwise, Pats, then Dolphins, followed by the Jets, then the Bills)

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