Picking the brains of our analysis team can be a frightening prospect.
Opening the hood to peek inside reveals a molten flow of football goodness, overwhelming in its depth, but kept somehow coherent. Presenting them the simplest question can spur an hour’s worth of discussion – and 20 more questions. Always interesting and sometimes – rarely, but sometimes – dangerous, it’s worth the risk and we’re doing it again.
Today we begin cutting a swath through the divisions with an eye on the 2011 season by asking a few pointed questions. First in line is the AFC East, so takes your seats, here we go …
1. Who do you see as the AFC East’s breakout player for 2011?
Khaled: I don’t know if breakout is the right word given just how well he played in 2009, but if the cameras are on Buffalo safety George Wilson long enough, I think he has it in him to be one of the best safeties in the league. Losing Donte Whitner and getting Wilson into the lineup full time will make this defense better. And, for some self plugging, you can find out in more detail why I think Wilson is awesome in this piece.
Nathan: There is plenty to talk about with the Dolphins at linebacker. With Cameron Wake starting to get some of the attention he deserves, Karlos Dansby entering his second year with the team, and the arrival of Kevin Burnett and Jason Taylor. Lost in all that is Koa Misi who is building off of a very strong rookie year. He had a little bit of a slow start, but ended up with a +8.6 run defense rating over the last seven games. With the pressure off Misi and on everyone else, he’ll have a chance to shine.
Neil: Because I’m good like that I’ll give you one from each team. Buffalo – David Nelson will see an awful lot of time in the slot and will catch a significant number of balls. Miami – The Dolphins will stopping messing around with Sean Smith, let him play just LCB and he’ll deliver. New England – Maybe he’s already broken through, but Rob Gronkowski is a real player. Aaron Hernandez may even catch more balls this year but Gronkowski can really block and could be the best all-around tight end since Jason Witten. N.Y. Jets – Khaled picked him in 2010 but I think this could be Shonn Greene’s time.
Ben: I was burned in going for a lineman last season in this column, Dan Connolly, but that isn’t going to stop me looking down that avenue again this time. Eric Wood has taken over from Geoff Hangartner as the Bills’ starting center and after showing some signs of promise late last year, he appears ready to flourish into one of the league’s better options at the position. He has served his time at guard and he can use that experience to help him cope with the bigger-bodied nose tackles that he will face in this division. He was inconsistent towards the end of last season but he’s now got the chance to make the center spot his own.
The over/under lines for season win totals in the division are: Buffalo 5.5; Miami 7.5; New England 11.5; New York Jets 10. On which team would you put your imaginary $100?
Khaled: The Pats are a better team than they were last year. They’ve added some pressure off the edge and that drubbing they took in the preseason will focus their minds from the get-go. Simply put, the offense has too many players you can’t hope to cover and as a result they’ll pick up at least 12 wins.
Nathan: I know its smart money to take a team and guess they will be closer to .500, but I’m going to be gutsy here and take the Jets to win over 10 games. They bring back a very good safety in Jim Leonard, and I believe Mark Sanchez improves in his third year in the league. There are teams in the AFC West and NFC East I’m not confident in, so I think New York can take advantage of the schedule to make an 11- or 12-win season happen.
Neil: I upset Buffalo fans last year by picking the under on five wins; the distress was even greater when I actually made some money. As they are going to be a much better team than that this year and I’m only being quoted 5.5 I’m picking them again – this time you’ll be glad to hear, it’s the over.
Ben: In terms of competing in this division it’s going to have to be baby steps for the Bills but they’ve improved sufficiently this offseason that I think 5.5 wins is an easy take on the over. There will still be struggles but they did a great job last season of making the most of the talent level on their roster. If they can continue to do that with the improvements they’ve made, they should be pushing an 8-8 record.
What do you see as the positional strength of the division?
Khaled: I’d feel more comfortable saying this if Buffalo had some standouts, but have you looked at the top cornerbacks on each team? Revis, McCourty, Davis and … ugh, Florence. Even the number two guys (Bodden, Smith, Cromartie … ugh, McGee) are pretty good.
Nathan: I’ll say it’s the interior defensive linemen. In Buffalo you have the best in the business with Kyle Williams who had more stops than anyone. In Miami at nose tackle is Paul Solali, who ended up with the fifth-best run defense rating for interior linemen, improved as the season went on, and his second year as a starter should be even better. The Jets’ Sione Pouha ranked right ahead of Solali in run D ratings. Finally, I think the combination of Albert Haynesworth and Vince Wilfork will be deadly. Some of these players aren’t household names, but they should be.
Neil: I actually like the linebackers this year. Miami is good at all four positions, Bart Scott is as good as it gets inside for the Jets and, in New England, I think Jerod Mayo is starting to live up to the initial hype while Brandon Spikes (if he can stay healthy) will be a star. But what about the Bills? Well I applaud what they’ve done – ignore Chris Kelsey, he’s an end by any other name but Nick Barnett, Andra Davis and Shawn Merriman (at least on what we’ve seen so far this preseason) can all play.
Ben: With one of his best seasons as a pro last year for Dan Koppen and picking Eric Wood to break out, the centers in this division are worth keeping an eye on. A fully healthy Nick Mangold almost makes this a division-wide strength on his own; he’s that good. However, it really is tough to see past the linebackers that this division boasts. Bart Scott is the destructive center piece but with Buffalo adding Nick Barnett in the offseason, Miami seeing fine returns on their investment in Karlos Dansby last season and New England seeing an immediate impact from Brandon Spikes the quality is high and well spread across the division.
Which team(s) will make the playoffs and do they have a shot to win it all?
Khaled: I’m making the safe pick after the fiasco that was selecting Miami last year. The Patriots won’t just win the East, they’ll win the whole AFC. Why? Because I’d bank on them getting to the playoffs, and they won’t let it be three years of one-and-done-ness. The Jets may take a step back unless Sanchez can take a leap forward and Miami … well in Chad Henne I cannot trust, especially behind a line that is getting worse and worse. The Bills are certainly one for the future and will be a lot more competitive, but this may be a year too soon for them.
Nathan: Like everyone else, I would like to say something other than the Patriots and Jets but I have no reason to believe they both won’t be in the playoffs. They’ve done it before, and the schedule works to help them – unlike the AFC South and West. As I stated before, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if this is the year the Jets can take the next step forward and make the Super Bowl.
Neil: This is where I stop being nice to Buffalo and tell you I don’t like Miami much. Sorry, but I’m going with the obvious two, saying both the Jets and Patriots will make the playoffs but this time Bill and Tom figure out Rex’s D and make it all the way.
Ben: It’d be good to go for a choice out of left field on this one but it really does look like it’s down to a head-to-head battle between the Jets and Patriots again. Both teams should make the playoffs but in spite of again re-tooling their receiving corps I find it hard to look past the Patriots and their unerring consistency. Quite what they decide to do with their defense remains to be seen but it should still be strong enough to see them to a division title in combination with Brady and that offense.