Bullseye-Sports.com's Dwayne Bryant gives his thoughts and predictions on the AFC East for the upcoming season. Teams are listed in their predicted order of finish.
1. NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS
Offense: QB Tom Brady is without a doubt one of the best QBs in the game. With a nearly non-existent running game in 2005, Brady was called on to carry the load - and he responded with a big year. Brady threw for 4,110 yards and 26 TDs with a 92.3 QB rating. The Pats drafted RB Laurence Maroney as insurance for the aging Dillon. The receiving corps is suspect except for former Super Bowl MVP Deion Branch. David Givens left for Tennessee, leaving the Pats without a solid #2 WR. They drafted Chad Jackson to compete with Reche Caldwell. Look for more production from the TE position, where Ben Watson is poised for a breakout season. Daniel Graham is another viable option from the TE position. Brady spreads the ball around very well and makes his teammates better. As long as he stays healthy, the offense will continue to produce.
Defense: This isn't the same defense that led the Pats to three Super Bowl titles, but it also isn't the same unit that looked awful at times last season. This defense is aging and lacks the depth at LB it once had. But Bill Belichick is a defensive guru who won't allow this unit to slip too far, injuries not withstanding. DE Richard Seymour leads a solid d-line. Rosevelt Colvin is a quality substitute for the departed Willie McGinest. Tedy Bruschi returned from a stroke to lead the LB corps. The front seven is sound, but the secondary needs to stay healthy in 2006. Rodney Harrison returns from injury and veterans SS Tebucky Jones and CB Eric Warbled were brought in. This defense will return to elite status as long as the injury bug doesn't pay another visit.
Special Teams: Kicker Adam Vinatieri left for Indianapolis and the Pats may regret letting him test the free-agent market. They signed former Bucs kicker Martin Grammatical, but you can expect to see other kickers competing for the job. This will almost certainly come back to haunt them in close games.
Prediction: If Brady and the secondary stay healthy, New England will once again win the AFC East. But they better look over their shoulders because Miami is closing the gap.
2. MIAMI DOLPHINS
Offense: The arrival of QB Daunt Culpepper has fueled optimism in Miami. Joey Harrington has also been brought in just in case Culpepper isn't ready for Week One. If Daunt can return to prior form, this offense will be a force to reckon with. Ricky Williams' suspension paves the way for RB Ronnie Brown to carry the load. But can he carry that load? He shared carries at Auburn with Cadillac Williams and shared carries here last season with Ricky Williams. WR Chris Chambers erupted for 82 catches, 1,118 yards and 11 TDs in 2005. He should easily match those numbers this season. Culpepper threw to the TE a lot in Minny, so expect Randy McMichael to have a productive season as well. Miami added LT L.J. Shelton to bolster an up-and-coming offensive line.
Defense: Miami was second in the NFL last season and tied a franchise record by tallying 49 sacks, led by 12 from Jason Taylor. This group is aging and lacks quality depth. Taylor wreaked havoc in 2005, moving all over the front line and sometimes dropping into coverage. LB Zach Thomas is great at reading plays and getting to the ball, but he's 32 and missed a ton of time in 2005. Youngsters such as LB Channing Crowder, DEs Rodrique and Manuel Wright must step up. The secondary needs first-round draft pick Jason Allen to make an immediate impact. This defense still appears to be in a state of transition. Lucky for them, they have the offensively inept Bills and Jets in their division.
Special Teams: Wes Welker is a fairly productive kickoff returner. Kicker Olindo Mare connected on 83.3% of his FG tries last season.
Prediction: Miami will definitely finish no worse than second in this division. If the defense plays well, the Dolphins could overtake the Patriots and win the AFC East. Expect at least a Wildcard playoff berth for Miami.
3. BUFFALO BILLS
Offense: Buffalo's problems start at QB. J.P. Losman was shaky at best in 2005 and needs more time to develop. Kelly Holcomb is only marginally better and I can't see Craig Nall being any more than a third-stringer. Maybe even more of a problem is the lack of talent and depth along the offensive line. This unit couldn't protect the QB or open running lanes for Willis McGahee last season. It's a real testament to his ability that McGahee was able to rush for 1,247 yards with no blocking and no help from the passing game. Lee Evans is the go-to WR with Eric Moulds in Houston. Peerless Price returns to compete with Andre Davis for the #2 WR spot. No protection and not enough weapons means this group will struggle in a major way.
Defense: The Bills defense couldn't stop the run or the pass last season. Their yards-allowed-per-carry went from 3.6 in 2004 to 4.5 last season. Why? Well, I'd say DT Pat Williams going to Minnesota had a lot to do with it. While the Bills allowed almost a full yard per carry more without him, the Vikings trimmed their yards-allowed-per-carry from 4.6 down to 4.0 with Williams anchoring the middle. Coincidence? I don't think so. LB Takeo Spikes returns from an Achilles injury. Buffalo needs him to return to his playmaking ways. London Fletcher is also a talent at LB. They still have solid CBs Nate Clements and Terrence McGee in the secondary and draft picks Donte Whitner and Ko Simpson should help this unit improve over its 2005 performance. They'll need a few of their rookies to make an immediate impact if this defense expects to even get close to its 2004 productivity.
Special Teams: Terrence McGee led the NFL in 2005 with a 30.2-yard kickoff-return average. Kicker Rian Lindell nailed 29 of his 35 FG tries.
Prediction: Too many holes in too many places and too many question marks on both sides of the ball. Buffalo is destined for a top-ten draft pick in 2007.
4. NEW YORK JETS
Offense: Two shoulder surgeries have left everyone wondering whether or not Chad Pennington is the man for the Jets. They brought in Patrick Ramsey from the Redskins as insurance, but his ability is questionable as well. They might be inclined to throw rookie Kellen Clemens into the fire. That'd be a huge mistake, in my opinion, behind this Swiss cheese of an offensive line. Curtis Martin's string of 1,000-yard seasons came to an end last season thanks to injuries. At age 33, Martin will see his role reduced in order to keep him healthy longer. Cedric Houston, Derrick Blaylock and rookie Leon Washington will all see carries. WRs Laveranues Coles and Justin McCareins are big-play guys, but the QB situation keeps them from producing. Either Doug Jolley or Chris Baker will have to step up at TE. Drafting D'Brickashaw Ferguson was a huge step in repairing the o-line. The o-line of 2006 will have a whole new look at that means it'll take some time to gel.
Defense: The Jets are transitioning into a 3-4 defensive scheme. New coach Eric Mangini used the 3-4 in New England and hopes to make it work here. However, switches such as this usually take some time to yield positive results. It doesn't appear to me that the Jets have the right pieces for this puzzle. They lack a mammoth nose tackle to gobble up blockers and free up the LBs to make plays. DT Dewayne Robertson is the closest thing they have, but he suffers from chronic knee ailments. The run D will struggle once again. LB Jonathan Vilma is very talented, but the 3-4 requires him to take on blocks and he's just too small for that role. Ty Law was released and picked up by the Chiefs, leaving the secondary with questions as well. Too many holes and too many changes equal another long season for the Jets D.
Special Teams: Justin Miller led the NFL in kickoff return yards with 1,577. He also had one TD. Rookie kicker Mike Nugent made 22 of 28 FG attempts, including 17 of his last 19 tries.
Prediction: Like the Bills, the Jets appear to be headed toward a top-ten pick in the 2007 draft.
FINAL THOUGHTS: This division is clearly split in half. The Patriots and Dolphins will battle for the division crown while the Bills and Jets fight to stay out of the basement. The Dolphins could very well win the division this year. Both New England and Miami should see playoff action.
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