This should be a more interesting division than in years past. The Pats are still the class of the division...but Miami is surging upwards. It should just be a two horse race..as the Bills and Jets are way back in the rear view mirror and are breaking in new coaches.
1-NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS
COACH'S STATE: Is there a coach in the NFL with more job security than Bill Belichick?? He's won 3 of the last 5 Super Bowls and if not for a tough call and a bad turnover...they'd been hosting the Steelers in the AFC title game last year. They aren't going anywhere.
BIGGEST ADDITION: They didn't add too much...but they did bring in another running back, Laurence Maroney. Maroney won't start off the bat...but his presence will be a welcome one. After Corey Dillon shut up and played in the Pats' Super Bowl season two years ago....he moped and whined and sat last year. Ya know, doing his normal un-Patriot-like thing. Well, if he keeps it up [and his poor rushing numbers], in goes Maroney.
BIGGEST SUBTRACTION: A lot of big names left. David Givens. Willie McGinest. But the biggest is Adam Vinatieri. All Vinatieri did was kick the game winning FG against Oakland in the tundra in 2002. He also ended Super Bowl XXXVI and XXXVIII with game winning FGs...and Super Bowl XXXIX was decided by his FG. Vinatieri was as clutch a kicker as you could have even in the harshest of circumstances. In replacing him, the Pats are going with fallen-off-the-Earth Martin Gramatica or rookie Steve Gostkowski. Neither can hold a candle to Vinatieri...and both will be under enormous pressure. And how many times will Belichick punt instead of going for the long FG just because of his new kicker?
PLAYER THAT NEEDS TO SHOW UP: The key to the entire defense will be how S Rodney Harrison performs coming off major knee surgery. He was a feared a safety in the league and meant so much to the defense as a whole. When he was knocked out last year, the secondary had a really hard time holding people down. They uncharacteristically gave up big plays and made some big mistakes.
OFFENSE: They lost Charlie Weis as their offensive coordinator and then had no running game to speak of. Still, Tom Brady led the NFL is passing yards. The good thing that did was show the Pats that they can have a more spread open offense. Brady is smart enough to pick apart defenses that way. Still, they must establish a running game for balance and not rely on Brady.
DEFENSE: It all depends on that secondary. It was so beat up and embarrassed last year that the defense seemed to lack confidence as a whole. Add to the fact that the linebackers have some questions [save Tedy Bruschi, who came back from a stroke, and Mike Vrabel]. The soul of that group, McGinest, is gone and the guys they have with Bruschi and Vrabel just haven't shown much yet. The line is fine...but will be depended a lot on getting in the backfield as quickly as they can.
SCHEDULE: They could end up with a first round bye if they play their cards right. The schedule isn't difficult at all. They get the Jets and Bills twice...plus face the NFC North [which is probably the worst division in football]. They also get the AFC North, which means the Titans and Texans are on their plate. Not too shabby. Their sked features only 5 games against teams that went to the playoffs last year....and those teams went a combined 0-5 in the playoffs.
OUTLOOK: With the turnover, the defensive issues and the running woes...it would be easy to think that the Patriots are ready for a step back. But they had all this last year, only worse, and were nearly in the AFC title game. They can do that again...especially with a relatively cake schedule.
COACH'S STATE: Nick Saban is trying to take his mean college approach to the NFL. Did it work? Well, the Dolphins won their last 6 games on the season...finishing 9-7. Ah, but most those games were against also rans and one was the final Sunday against a Patriots team that rested everyone [why else would Belichick allow Doug Flutie to do a "drop-kick"?]. Saban is a darn good coach and it may seem that his ways are making an impact.
BIGGEST ADDITION: The Dolphins did some work filling a ton of holes. And foremost they nabbed QB Daunte Culpepper. Culpepper is the first big name QB in Miami since Dan Marino left. All it cost Miami was a 2nd rounder. The key will be how he comes back from injury. To back him up, the Dolphins signed fellow NFC North castaway Joey Harrington. Sure, Culpepper had a bad season before he was hurt...but also didn't have any big time targets to pass it to. In Miami, he will.
BIGGEST SUBTRACTION: The secondary. Tebucky Jones, Sam Madison, Reggie Howard and Lance Schulters....all starters last year...were let go by Saban. Saban signed some new guys to take the spot and drafted S Jason Allen.
PLAYER THAT NEEDS TO SHOW UP: The SLB Donnie Sprague needs to improve or the Dolphins will continue to be unbalanced defensively. With Jason Taylor on the other side [the slide guy in the 3-4], Sprague must be able to hold his ground on the other side or Taylor's abilities will be diminished.
OFFENSE: The offense now has something to be scared of. Already, the Dolphins boasted Randy McMichael and Chris Chambers at excellent receivers. But now they got a guy that can get the ball to them in Culpepper. Also, Ronnie Brown will take on a bigger part of the load with Ricky Williams in Canada serving a drug suspension. The line is solid with not a great deal of depth.
DEFENSE: The entire secondary has been replaced. The line is quick, but small. The linebackers are still the heart of the defense. Hopefully, the secondary holds up this year so Saban doesn't have to rush the QB constantly and risk being run over by the running game.
SCHEDULE: Just like the Pats, the Dolphins have a pretty tame schedule. Except, Miami gets the 2nd place schedule...so they don't get Cincy or Denver, but they do get Pittsburgh and Kansas City. Aside from roadies at Pitt and New England early, they have a very easy first 7 weeks heading into their bye week. Their furthest road game is in Chicago.
OUTLOOK: The Dolphins have a lot in their favor. An easy schedule and some momentum from last year. Of course, it is a new year and they are combining a ton of new parts together. The big thing will be their QB production. Their new guys were let go by their old teams for a reason. Still, with the easy skeddie...they will right in the hunt for a wildcard spot.
COACH'S STATE: Even with a new coach, the Bills situation is rather murky. Mike Mularkey semi-abruptly resigned. Former coach Marv Levy becomes GM, despite really having no experience. And though there were rumors that Levy would become the new Bills coach [ala Joe Gibbs return to the Skins], he instead brought Dick Jauron...who ended last year as the Lions' interim head coach after Steve Mariucci was fired.
BIGGEST ADDITION: Despite finishing 5-11 last year, the Bills really didn't make any big splashes in acquisitions. Their biggest catch is probably Donte Whitner, a safety who the Bills selected with the #8 pick in the draft. The Bills were sort of ancient at the safety spot, and Whitner is good stuffing the run and has speed to cover slot receivers.
BIGGEST SUBTRACTION: Instead, the Bills waved good-bye to several veterans. Sam Adams is gone...as is Lawyer Milloy. But the biggest departure could be WR Eric Moulds. Moulds fell on hard times of late, mainly because of the Bills inability to commit to a quarterback. With Moulds gone, the Bills have four speedy receivers in Lee Evans,Peerless Price, Andre Davis and Roscoe Parrish...and a decent possession guy in Josh Reed. But none are really proven [except for Price, who was a complete bust since he left Buffalo several years ago].
PLAYER THAT NEEDS TO SHOW UP: It all comes down to QB JP Losman. Losman was the guy that forced the Bills to kick Drew Bledsoe to the curb...and it hasn't worked out [they were 1-7 last year with him....4-4 without]. It's gotten so bad that former Browns platooner Kelly Holcomb has just as good of a shot to start as Losman.
OFFENSE: With those speedy receivers, look for the Bills to have a more vertical passing attack. With that threat, RB Willis McGahee should be able to move the chains a bit better. Of course, that threat needs whomever the QB will be to perform at least admirably.
DEFENSE: There is some changes here. The line is smaller and quicker by design, hence the reasoning for letting Sam Adams walk. The secondary is going under some transition, as Buffalo used 3 of their top 4 draft picks on defensive backs. Still, Nate Clemens and Troy Vincent are back there and they are very experienced. The value is at linebacker...where Takeo Spikes returns from injury to a very good unit. London Fletcher, Jeff Posey and Angelo Crowell all played well without Spikes, so his return just bolsters that level.
SCHEDULE: Gentlemen, start your engines. The Bills begin the season at New England and at Miami...the two teams who are favored to win this division. There are some land mines of course [at Chicago, at Indy, San Diego]...but they are littered with games against the Jets, Vikings, Lions, Packers, Texans and Titans. The Bills are good enough to beat those teams. Also, they get warm weathered teams Jacksonville, San Diego, Miami and Tennessee at home after Thanksgiving.
OUTLOOK: The offense has many questions starting with the QB, the new look offensive line and the loss of Moulds. The defense will be good...but not as good as in past years as they are making a transition. The Bills are in the bottom half of the league....but are good enough to beat the bottom dwellers. The schedule favors them down the stretch, as they are loaded with more home games and against warm weathered teams. They could be one of those surprise 7-9 or 8-8 teams.
4-NEW YORK JETS
COACH'S STATE: The Jets watched Herm Edwards walk away from them for greener pastures [well, reddish pastures] in Kansas City. The Jets looked north again and brought in Bill Belichick protege Eric Mangini. Mangini will bring discipline and a gameplan to New York that they've been missing since, well, Belichick was there as Bill Parcells' coordinator.
BIGGEST ADDITION: Even though the Jets have needs at various skill positions....they anchored their line for years to come with OT D'Brickshaw Ferguson. Anyone who reads my blog knows that I felt he should have been the Texans' top pick. Instead, the Jets bring him in to protect a QB that can't stay healthy and a RB who's over the hill. And this was a huge need as well [the Jets also drafted C Nick Mangold in the first round] and Ferguson should be around for quite some time.
BIGGEST SUBTRACTION: The Jets lost their top pass rusher when they dealt troublesome John Abraham to Atlanta. Sure, the headaches leave with Abraham, but so does their only true pass rusher and, possibly, their best defensive player [okay, Vilma is].
PLAYER THAT NEEDS TO SHOW UP: Pretty much everything on the offensive side of the ball. But, I will pick Curtis Martin. In fact, of all the players on that side of the ball...I have more confidence in Martin. That's why he's so important. Sure, he won't be the Martin he was a few years ago....but he can still be a 1,000 yd rusher. With no real frontrunner at QB and a receiving corps that reeks....it will be Martin's ability and leadership that should light the way a bit. If he can't do anything....the Jets should be preparing at looking for the #1 pick in the 2007 draft.
OFFENSE: It's not good. Not at all. The offensive coordinator is Brian Schottenheimer, who has never called offensive plays before. His specialty is quarterbacks...and he has a doozy of a job. Chad Pennington is the incumbent and a winner when he plays....but he spends more time off the field than on it. He will try to fight off former Redskin Patrick Ramsey...who has experience but hasn't done much with it. And with a bad offensive line, it doesn't seem Ramsey's luck will change much. The Jets also have Kellen Clemens and Brooks Bollinger who could factor in this as well. Their running back is 33 year old Curtis Martin who is in his downturn. They really don't have anything behind him. As for the WRs, well...it is a collection of possession guys and no true top dog. The line is improving...but must get time to mold. This could be a tough year to find points.
DEFENSE: With Abraham gone, the defensive line has questions. They did bring in Kimo von Oelhoffen...but they have no depth whatsoever and no guy that forces a team to double. Because of the lack of depth [and Mangini's schemes], the Jets will go to a 3-4. That means Jonathan Vilma will be exposed to bigger blockers...and Vilma isn't big enough to shed those guys. Still, the linebacking corps has solid guys and good depth to keep guys fresh. The secondary has no playmakers...but they aren't going to give up many big plays either.
SCHEDULE: Well, it looks like most of the rest of the division. The Jets could steal a few games, as Buffalo, Detroit, Houston and Oakland come to town. However, they also get three defending division champions visiting New York [Pats, Colts, Bears].
OUTLOOK: This could be a messy season...but that shouldn't reflect the direction of the franchise. Everything is new....but the players. They have a coach and an offensive coordinator who are entering new realms....and take over an already bad team that has many of the same questions it had last year. This could be a 16-week training camp with Mangini deciding what he has to work with. This could mean that all four QBs could see time running the team to try to decide who's their guy. Or, they could just get those green Brady Quinn jerseys ready.