It’s been an interesting year for the teams of the AFC East. We’ve seen the New England Patriots live up to expectations. We’ve seen the Buffalo Bills flash the kind of talent that makes you take them seriously. And we’ve seen the Miami Dolphins and New York Jets … one lost their Head Coach after a terrible start to the year, and the other talked more game than they were able to deliver on.
The season was characterized by some performances we just didn’t see coming; and that’s both a good and bad thing. So, in the first of eight divisional installments, we’re looking back at each team to highlight players whose performances stood out for three very different reasons: who made major strides from the season(s) before, who fell off most, and who’s most in need of more playing time.
So let’s get to it, Trending in the AFC East.
Demetrius Bell: From (2010) -13.0 to +6.8
When Bell first started for the Bills in 2009 he looked out of his depth. He wasn’t quite so bad in 2010, but he looked far from competent at the left tackle spot. He did just doing enough to make you think that he warranted another try if nothing else. Still, his performance in his 401 snaps this year was something of a surprise, with Bell giving up just a sack, hit, and pressure on his 252 pass blocks. It would have been nice to see more of him, but what we did see suggests the Bills may have been right to show patience.
Biggest Drop Off
Spencer Johnson: From +5.5 to -5.0
This isn’t all on Johnson, who found himself shunted out to defensive end as the Bills moved to more of a 4-3 front. Previously, this saw Johnson lined up at DT, but in 2011 the Bills saw fit to put Johnson at end and the results were less than impressive. The former undrafted free agent lacked the explosion to make a real impact at the spot, picking up more than one sack, hit, or hurry in a game on just four occasions (while picking up none on five).
Da’Norris Searcy: +2.7 on 231 snaps
It may be tough for Searcy to find more playing time with the combo of Jairus Byrd and George Wilson having been such a good one this season. The Bills’ fourth-round pick in 2011 showed he had something, most notably with a standout display against Miami in Week 11. A flash in the pan, or something more, only more playing time will tell.
Matt Moore: From -10.6 to +11.4
There may not be a player who surprised me more this year than the man who replaced Chad Henne. Matt Moore stunk things up big time in Carolina, but found his feet in Miami as he managed to keep his gunslinging instincts in check (for the most part) and get the Dolphins’ offense moving (and picking up wins). Moore has always done well against the blitz, but he managed to up his game considerably when teams dropped seven and eight men into coverage. That’s progress that should see teams looking at him as a possible starter.
Biggest Drop Off
Sean Smith: From +10.4 to -15.1
2011 was supposed to be the year where Smith cemented himself as one of the league’s top emerging young corners. Instead, Smith had a year to forget, giving up the 13th-highest yardage total among cornerbacks and ending the year with our second-lowest CB coverage grade. Did the shortened offseason play a part in it? Will Smith learn from his tough 2011 to cash in on his talent in 2012?
Charles Clay: +0.6 from 405 snaps
The grade should let you know that there weren’t many Dolphin candidates in this category, so Clay, one of the more intriguing players on Miami’s roster, gets the nod. Clay does cause some mismatches in the passing game and for the most part displayed good hands and an ability to get open. The Dolphins will be looking to target him more than the 24 times they managed in 2011.
New England Patriots
Andre Carter: From -11.6 to +22.6
It’s easy to say that Carter struggled because he was moved to a 3-4 with the Redskins. Well, fair enough, but after getting benched and limited to a situational pass rushing role at defensive end, he still couldn’t get much pressure. It led some to think that he had passed his “use by” date, but not the Patriots. They put him back at his favorite spot, and got maybe the most complete year of Carters’ career in return. Sure he generated a lot of pressure, but it was his work in the run game that was most impressive. A true bounce-back year before his injury.
Biggest Drop Off
Devin McCourty: From +9.4 to -2.3
McCourty saved his grade somewhat with some strong work in run defense, but his coverage dismayed many a Pats fan after having a rookie year that earned him our Rookie of the Year Award in 2010. The former first round pick gave up over 1,000 receiving yards and struggled in a new Patriots defense that didn’t bring the best out of him. What becomes of him next year, especially with a late-season move to safety in the Pats sub-packages, will be very interesting to watch.
Sterling Moore: +5.5 from 361 snaps
The undrafted rookie free agent may not be the biggest or the quickest, but he discovered a real knack for making plays. His performance against a first string Buffalo unit likely he earned him some postseason playing time, and his ability to prevent big plays was one of the few bright spots in an otherwise dreary New England secondary. You only need to look at Devin McCourty to know the second year isn’t necessarily as easy as the first, but Moore did show enough to get more playing time than the 361 snaps he managed this year.
New York Jets
John Conner: From -6.5 to +4.1
In Year 1, about the only thing Conner had going for him was a cool nickname. The Terminator’s performances didn’t quite live up to the expectations and he found himself limited to 138 snaps as he was outplayed by veteran Tony Richardson. A year later, and as the Jets’ top fullback, Conner turned around his performance to finish seventh overall in our FB rankings. It’s quite telling that a fullback was the most improved player on the Jets’ roster.
Biggest Drop Off
Santonio Holmes: From +4.7 to -11.0
The scary thing about that 2010 number is it doesn’t do justice to the year Holmes had, with picking up a +10.3 for his receiving, and only penalties, rushing and blocking. So good was his performance (as it has been for the prior two years to 2010), you understood why the former Steeler got the money he did. That entire combination just adds–along with the seeming attitude issues–to the disappointment in the year Santonio Holmes had. Mark Sanchez didn’t help, but Holmes just catching 52% of balls thrown his way isn’t all on his QB. We know how good he is, so a bounce back year is a strong possibility, but it’s worrying that after getting paid, he put forth a year like this.
Aaron Maybin: +4.6 from 239 snaps
Give some credit to Maybin this year who looked like a ton of wasted potential after the Bills opted to move on from him. He kept going, though, and caught on with the Jets and produced (as a pass rusher) when the opportunity presented himself. Maybin finished the year as the Jets top-graded pass rusher by some distance, so the Jets need to find a way to get him on the field for more than the 197 snaps they managed to with them. It’s rather telling that his 24 combined sacks, hits, and hurries were bettered only by Calvin Pace, who managed just 12 more on 185 extra pass rushes.