Sunday, March 06, 2011

AFC East 2011 Prospects

After the thumb screw-esque exercise that is the NFL Networks coverage of the combine, it's time to pick up where we left off by examining the potential future in 2011 for the teams of the NFL. And we've reached the AFC East. Buffalo Bills: The Bills eh? 2010 could have been worse. They could be picking number 1 overall in April. As it is they've been pushed into 3rd place after finishing 4-12. But the reality is that the Bills were probably one of the best teams to lose at least 10 games. That's kind of like coming first in a shit eating contest, but hey, first place is first place. A number of Bills players stepped up to the plate (are baseball analogy's allowed in a football post?), including QB Ryan Fitzpatrick who surprised many with his confidence and at times very good play. Is he the future of the Bills? That's maybe a more touchy question. Thankfully for the Bills though, most of those who contributed in 2010 will be back for sure in 2011. They're one of the teams to do quite well out of free agency this year. But it's not all sweetness and light. Akin Ayodele, Keith Ellison and Paul Posluszny will all potentially go walk abouts at Linebacker. The loss of Posluszny would be particularly hard to bear, as he really is a high quality linebacker playing on an otherwise crappy D. The loss of SS Donte Whitner might be a little easier to handle, but certainly the loss of CB Drayton Florence will have an impact. Florence is one of those players who you just know will never get the credit he deserves, which could potentially translate into a return to the Bills for 2011. So what about the draft? As mentioned earlier, the Bills pick at number 3 and it's time for them to make the big decision; How much do they like Ryan Fitzpatrick? Sitting at three they will probably get the first shot at a QB, unless the Panthers are feeling bold. There are plenty of choices out there. But picking up another QB that early wastes a pick that could otherwise be used to bring their defense up to par. While the offensive line and wide receiver positions do need an upgrade, I just think that the Bills would be better off going either defensive line (where they're woefully under manned) or for a corner. Chances are that both Patrick Peterson and Prince Amukamara will be there if they're willing to take the early shot on a skill position. All in all, the Bills might actually get their act together this year. I know I say this all the time about a lot of teams, but they're one good draft away from being reasonably competitive. A focus on defense in the off season combined with another good year from Ryan Fitzpatrick could see the Bills fighting for a wildcard spot. Jesus, did I really just say that? Miami Dolphins: What happened to the Dolphins? The addition of guys like Brandon Marshall and Karlos Dansby was supposed to elevate the Dolphins into prime position to challenge the Jets and Patriots for division glory. But instead the bottom fell out of the boat and although they finished 7-9, it was a struggle. It could get nasty in 2011. Kory Sheets and Lex Hilliard are both up for exclusive rights free agency (essentially sign or retire). FB Lousaka Polite will still be around, but that's 3 running backs, none of whom is considered a starter. All the others are off into the murky waters of unrestricted free agency. That's Ronnie Brown, Ricky Williams and the under rated, under appreciated, Patrick Cobbs. Losing those three will be big. As indeed might be the loss of Tyler Thigpen and Chad Pennington. With the struggles of Chad Henne smothering the back pages of the papers in Miami throughout the 2010 season, Thigpen and Pennington may be more valuable to the Dolphins than many realise. So where does that leave the Dolphins draft strategy? Picking at number 15 it might be a running back or guard, but my guess is the Dolphins will be looking for a D-linemen to supplement their high quality linebacking corps. Cameron Wake may have done the 'phins proud in 2010, but one player can't do it all alone. The Dolphins could really use some help up front to ease the pressure. As for their 2011 outlook? I think the Dolphins are one of those teams sitting on a knife edge. If their draft goes pretty well and maybe they do some work in free agency, they could challenge for the AFC East. But draft poorly and/or fail to find the right guys in the draft, and the Dolphins will drop like a lead balloon. Much rests on the shoulders of Chad Henne and new offensive coordinator Brian Daboll. New England Patriots: By virtue of "E" before "Y", we now head up north and a little more to the east to join the Patriots. God help us. I still have unresolved Patriots issues, like their blatant use of 'pick/rub' plays and the way that TV analysts then describe them as being 'legal pick/rub plays'. How can you have a legal pick/rub? A pick or rub is illegal by definition, otherwise it would just be a 'play'. But now I'm getting diverted. So after a stellar regular season that came crashing down around their ears in the playoffs, what do the Patriots have to look forward to in free agency? Well, guard Logan Mankins has had his butt franchised. That then leaves the small matter of RB Kevin Faulk, OT Matt Light, FB Sammy Morris and RB Fred Taylor as the major potential departures. Which in comparison to a lot of teams is quite light, (The Saints for example. Haha! Wankers). And as you can probably imagine, given that this is a Bill Belichick team, the overall roster is looking in pretty good shape heading into a draft in which Patriots will pick 18th. And 28th. And then twice again in the next round. And etc... Given the relative high quality of the Patriots team, don't be surprised to see them trade down, down, further down, and a little bit more down. I imagine there will be more than a few picks that are traded away into next year, as Bill Belichick continues to hoard draft picks like a survivalist hoards tins of canned beef. If Belichick does decide to cash in a first round pick, it'll probably be at either wide receiver, running back or offensive line. If a guy like Rodney Hudson is till kicking about, Belichick is smart enough to pull the trigger. As for 2011? Who knows with the Patriots. Like the Colts they seem to breeze through some games that looked like tough contests on paper, only to struggle against comparatively weaker foes (like the Browns). There really is no reason why this Patriots team can't make a run for the Super Bowl. At the very least I would expect them to make the playoffs. Again. New York Jets: Who didn't want to see the Jets fail in the AFC Championship game? Apart from Rex Ryan of course. And the Jets fans. And the Jets players. And the Jets ownership and back room staff. But other than those few people, who didn't want to see the Jets fail? Well they did. Despite all the hype about winning a Super Bowl, once again the Jets failed to do it. Now normally you would look at two consecutive appearances in a championship game and applaud the team in question, especially given that in the first year they had a rookie QB and in the second he still hadn't improved a huge deal. But that's where Rex Ryan and the Jets go astray. It would have been a great achievement, had they not all spent the entire season blowing their own trumpet about how they were the best team in football and were going to win the big one. Definitely in 2010. Oops, maybe not. Well, Rex is now saying that 2011 will be the season. Forgive me for being a little sceptical. Especially when I look at the list of free agents. Oh dear. Kellen Clemens may not be a star QB, but at least he served as a reasonable back up to "Shaky Sanchez" (trademark). That's one plan B that the Jets probably wont be falling back on. Then we have Drew Coleman and Antonio Cromartie on their way out, unless the Jets can stump up some serious cash. Given that they've basically hailed their receiving corps as the priority, it looks unlikely that Cromartie will return. Braylon Edwards, Santonio Holmes and Brad Smith (you know, the wildcat guy) are the three receivers headed to free agency. Holmes is apparently the priority, with Edwards - for some unknown bonkers reason - as the number two. That means bye, bye Smith, who would make a nice little addition for teams looking to mix up their offense a little. Defensive Ends Shaun Ellis and Trevor Pryce are also on the way out, accompanied by safety Brodney Pool and kicker Nick Folk to round up the list of names you might have heard of. That leaves the Jets in a so-so position headed into the draft. Not picking until number 30 overall, they could probably use a new running back, they need more receivers like I need more cash (i.e. badly), they basically have now one proper offensive tackle (yeah, one), and their safety and corner line up doesn't look great either. My guess is that the offensive line will take priority, given Rex's desire to "ground and pound". But honestly the Jets don't look in great shape, and picking at number 30 in each round is hardly the best way to attract valuable suitors for your picks. Will 2011 bring that allusive championship ring then? Don't bet on it. The Jets can still turn things around with some free agency magic and savvy drafting, but that's asking a lot. Honestly, I feel like the Jets under Rex Ryan might just have ridden the last of their luck and hype. Having soared as high as they have over the last two years, it's time I think for Jets fans to now brace themselves for the down cycle. It's only natural. That's how football rolls sometimes. It ebbs and flows. The key thing for the Jets is to keep their eyes firmly peeled on the future and not get carried away just because 2011 might be a difficult ride.

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