AFC East: Each Team’s Greatest Weakness
Seemingly every season there is an upstart member of the AFC East that is set to dethrone the New England Patriots as division champion. Yet, seemingly every season since Bill Belichick took over the role of head coach, that threat has quickly been pushed to the side as the Patriots march into the playoffs once again.
Last year the Buffalo Bills filled that role, but their weaknesses through their defense and at the quarterback position overshadowed any acquired areas of strength. This year, it appears that the Miami Dolphins are looking to jump back into contention. At the very least, the Dolphins are the last team to take the division away from the Patriots, during the 2008 season when Tom Brady tore his ACL.
The simple answer here is that the Bills need a quarterback, but the simple answer isn’t always the right answer. EJ Manuel will be competing with Kevin Kolb for the starting spot in Buffalo, but Kolb actually played quite well last season during his short time on the field with the Cardinals. At worst, the Bills will have Kolb playing in a better situation with a bulging arsenal of weapons around him. At best, Manuel will disprove his doubters and immediately see the field as a starter.
Instead, the Bills figure to have major issues on defense again this year. The defensive line should be better now that the core group has been together for a full season and a second off-season, while Manny Lawson and Kiko Alonso will immediately upgrade the linebacking group. Instead, it will be the secondary that costs the Bills a chance of competing in the AFC East again this year.
The Bills play in a division with two franchise quarterbacks, Tom Brady and Ryan Tannehill, and even though they have two very talented young starters in Jairus Byrd and Stephon Gilmore, the unit as a whole is lacking. Leodis McKelvin is an okay second choice cornerback, but barely played last year behind Aaron Williams and Justin Rogers. McKelvin is being pushed into contention for a starting role because Williams is moving to safety, where he is completely untested, and Justin Rogers is most likely going to stay in the slot.
Throw in safeties Duke Williams, fourth round, and Jonathan Meeks, fifth round, from the draft and it’s hard to see how this unit survives in today’s NFL. Unless of course, the defensive line reaches it’s full potential.
Jeff Ireland has set a forest on fire to roast a marshmallow this off-season. Are the Dolphins more talented than they were last year? Yes. Will they be better during the regular season? Probably. Will they make the playoffs? Probably not. The last team to come together so quickly in one off-season was the Philadelphia Eagles, a team with a much more experienced coaching staff that couldn’t create the continuity and consistency that is woven through the fabric of any successful team.
For Joe Philbin and his staff, that is the challenge.
The Dolphins don’t have an overwhelming amount of talent on their roster, but they do have enough to potentially make the playoffs. Mike Wallace was the marquee addition from the off-season. On paper Wallace is the perfect addition for the Dolphins’ offense. Ryan Tannehill had no deep threat to stretch the field last year, but now he has the best deep threat in the league. Wallace’s other most notable traits are his poor route-running, his notable drops and an attitude during his final season with the Steelers that saw him routinely give up on plays.
Depending on how Wallace reacts to his big pay-day, he could prove to either be a major positive or a player who pulls down the locker-room. Wallace is leaving a locker-room in Pittsburgh that was reportedly divided at times during last year. As the highest earner on a team that has just lost three of it’s main leaders from last year(Karlos Dansby, Jake Long and Reggie Bush), how the receiver carries himself could dramatically impact the other young players on the team.
If the leadership transitions from those departed to players such as Cameron Wake, Paul Soliai, Randy Starks, Richie Incognito, Mike Pouncey and Tannehill, then the Dolphins biggest issue will be at left tackle.
To replace the departed Jake Long, the Dolphins brought in Tyson Clabo. Clabo won’t directly replace Long, because he will slot into right tackle and Jonathan Martin will flip to the blind-side. Martin really struggled as a right tackle during his rookie season, so presumably he will need to develop quickly this off-season if he is to be a worthwhile defender for Tannehill. Tannehill will need more time in the pocket if he is to throw the ball down the field more this season.
With talent such as Wallace, Clabo, Brandon Gibson, Dustin Keller, Dion Jordan, Dannell Ellerbe, Philip Wheeler, Brent Grimes and Jamar Taylor joining the roster, the Dolphins have the potential to be a good team, but that potential is only a guarantee in video games. This team has a lot of growing and development to endure before the start of this coming season.
New England Patriots
A team that is so often projected as having no real weaknesses ahead of the season, this year the Patriots appear to have just the one real issue on their roster. Investment in the secondary and front seven has put the defense in a better position to succeed, while the offensive line was kept together for the most part with Will Svitek adding excellent depth at tackle. However, as small as Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd are in stature, their holes on the roster appear huge right now.
As much as Lloyd disappointed for Patriots fans last year, he and Michael Jenkins are in completely different stratospheres in terms of being effective NFL receivers. Jenkins has never proven himself as a reliable deep threat despite his physical talents, so there is no real reason to believe that he will be the second coming of Randy Moss. Along with Jenkins, the Patriots also have Donald Jones, previously a bit-part player for the Buffalo Bills, as well as rookies Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce.
Someone from that unit will need to replace Lloyd’s production from last year, although he could still be re-signed. That seems unlikely even though fans were hoping the team would upgrade on the recently released receiver this year. A field stretcher from the receiver position may be even more important this year if Rob Gronkowski’s off-season health issues carry over into the regular season.
Replacing Wes Welker isn’t a question of talent as much as it is a question of durability. The only knock on Danny Amendola’s ability to succeed in New England is his inability to stay healthy, while Julian Edelman has had similar health issues over his career so far. Welker’s durability was never truly appreciated considering the work-load he got through and the role he played on the team.
Even if Amendola is fully healthy, he could take some time to develop a relationship with Brady that Welker had down to a tee. Unless a radical procedure is about to change the face of it, the Patriots’ offense will rely on a lot of timing routes between it’s quarterback and possession receiver again this year. Amendola needs to prove that he can do that despite his obvious abilities on the field.
New York Jets
When the Jets passed on Geno Smith twice in the first round of the NFL draft, it was a sign that they weren’t 100 percent sold on the idea of him as their franchise leader at the quarterback position. However, once they took him at the top of the second round, they were presumably going to fully invest in their new young star quarterback. The inevitable release of Tim Tebow came soon after the draft, but since then the team has made it clear they won’t be trading Mark Sanchez.
At least, they won’t be trading him until he has an opportunity to compete with Smith for the starting job.
Even though it worked for the Seattle Seahawks last season when Russell Wilson shocked the world, Wilson had one clear issues to overcome and was a third round pick. By investing a high-second round pick in Smith, the Jets have made a statement much greater than the one the Seahawks made. But by then keeping Sanchez around hoping that he either ups his own game because of the rookie’s arrival or acts as a safety net if Smith struggles, the front office appears to be second guessing themselves.
Sanchez will be traded away if he fails to beat out Smith in training camp, but if the worry with Smith is that he needs to develop on the sidelines, then realistically it makes more sense that David Garrard fill in for his first season. This indecisiveness didn’t affect Russell Wilson for the Seahawks, but Wilson is special for a reason. Expecting every late round quarterback entering a similar to have the same results is as unrealistic as expecting every top pick to be as good as Andrew Luck or Peyton Manning.
The best case scenario for the Jets is Sanchez rebounds to stave off the new competition, because then at least they won’t have to swallow his massive cap hit in a trade. However, even in that scenario, Smith’s presence on the sideline will act as another disruptive force the way Tebow did and that high-second round pick spent on him will prove to be a mistake.
Safety is also a position of significant weakness in New York, but the quarterback position will forever take precedence over any other in this league.
You can follow Cian Fahey on twitter @Cianaf