Today we kick things off by discussing the AFC East with the topics of breakout players, top rookies, and playoff predictions on the table. Let’s see which of our team has maintained (or found) their sanity over the course of the long off-season.
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Who is the one player from this division you see having a breakout year?
Sam: Kyle Williams. I know if you’ve been reading PFF for any length of time you’ll see this as crazy, because we all know that Kyle Williams is a monster and has been for a few seasons; when he’s healthy that is. This season, though, he doesn’t have to do it all on his own, and with Mario Williams and Marcel Dareus keeping double teams away from him, he’s going to get the sacks that will make the average fan and media member sit up and spit out their coffee. I think Williams could put together a double-digit sack season in the middle of that defense which would certainly fit into the breakout category, even if he’s long since done that in PFF’s eyes.
Khaled: In a division not short on talented linebackers, 2012 will be the year where Kelvin Sheppard builds on an impressive first season and solidifies his position as the long term starter for the Bills at MLB. Obviously he didn’t have to deal with nickel defense duties last year and will need to improve on some shaky work in coverage. But I like the way he plays the run, I like the way he tackles, and I like the amount of talent around him that should push him on.
Neil: My mind immediately went to Stevan Ridley, the man talking over from Benjarvus Green-Ellis at halfback in New England but, after some thought, I think while he will get yards this may be more a function of how teams play the Patriots than any particular excellence on his part. Therefore, I’ve decided to plumb for Kelvin Sheppard, the middle linebacker in Buffalo. He’s only a two-down player but when you do as good a job as he does stopping the run, that’s not the end of the world. Now that Buffalo seems to have their defense sorted out, I expect he’ll get significantly more than the 441 snaps he played last year and his impact will rise accordingly.
Ben: Largely speaking, this is a division full of established players but one relative newcomer that I’m excited to see develop in his second season is Muhammad Wilkerson of the New York Jets. After some inconsistent performances at the start of his rookie year, Wilkerson became a more consistent presence for the Jets and appears ready to be a steadying force at the heart of their defense. While he doesn’t offer a great deal of dynamism he is the kind of defensive lineman that helps a stifling defense keep on ticking by limiting an opposing offense’s gains on every snap he is on the field. If he maintains his form from the second half of last season he’ll be on course to be one of the better 3-4 defensive ends in the league–not in the elite bracket, but in the ‘very good’ bracket just behind them.
The over/under lines for season win totals in the division have been set at: New England 12; New York 8.5; Miami 7.5; Buffalo 7. On which team would you put your theoretical $100?
Sam: I really shouldn’t be suckered in again, because I’m still far from sold on Ryan Fitzpatrick as the long-term answer at QB, but the Bills now have enough talent to be pushing .500 and challenging late into the season, something they haven’t in recent years. I think the odds makers are struggling with this choice as much as I am and I wouldn’t be confident with any bet on the over/under in this division. I wouldn’t touch Miami or the Jets, and my next best move would be taking the under on the Patriots, because 12 seems a little too good for them, even if I expect them to take the division comfortably still.
Khaled: So the Bills go out, spend a lot of money on Mario Williams and Mark Anderson, then get Kyle Williams back to go with a young, developing team and they only get one more victory? Not buying it. That defense could be something special, and the offense is good enough to propel them to the playoffs. I’ll take the over on that happily.
Neil: My moneys currently all on the Dolphins winning less than 7.5. Now if David Garrard comes back quickly, all that could change but if things stay as they are, I think I’m home and hosed.
Ben: My theoretical $100 would absolutely be on the Dolphins to rack up fewer than 7.5 wins. Their passing game is simply non-existent, Ryan Tannehill is a young raw quarterback with no go-to receiver to take the pressure off of him. The running game and offensive line aren’t good enough to carry the offense and the defense isn’t good enough to carry the team. This feels a little like stealing money if I’m honest, I’d have considered taking the Dolphins at under 5.5 wins.
Which rookie are you most looking forward to seeing in action?
Sam: I’m looking forward to checking out a pair of Patriots rookies for vastly differing reasons. Firstly Chandler Jones. Jones is the brother of current UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones, and also of current Baltimore Raven Arthur Jones. That is some serious athletic bloodlines running through those siblings. Jon is an absolute athletic freak in the UFC, to the point I’m not sure I can see a viable challenger after Dan Henderson in that division. If Chandler Jones can show even a glimpse of that relative talent in the NFL, we’re in for fireworks. I’m also curious to see DB Tavon Wilson. Any time someone is drafted that gets more people than not asking ‘who??’ you’ve got to be intrigued. Al Davis pulled the same trick with Michael Mitchell a few seasons back and I’d say that’s been a swing and a miss. Can Belichick do better?
Khaled: I got to watch Chandler Jones in action against the Saints and I left thinking this guy could be defensive rookie of the year. Capable of having an impact on every down, I think he’s a player that could fundamentally change how that Patriots defense is viewed.
Neil: I’m intrigued by how Buffalo’s new left tackle, Cordy Glenn, holds up when the real bullets start to fly. He looked like a veteran in preseason games against the Redskins (Brian Orakpo) and Vikings (Jared Allen) so I’m interested to see how that translates into the regular season.
Ben: The Jets aren’t just a carnival freak show this season. Having just tagged Muhammad Wilkerson as my breakout player for the AFC East the rookie that I am most looking forward to seeing play is his defensive line colleague, Quinton Coples. Here is a player tagged with similar physical abilities to the likes of Julius Peppers and Mario Williams (a production line seemingly emerging from the Carolinas) but dogged by an apparently dreadful final season at a program in turmoil. I’m fascinated to see who the real Quinton Coples is. Is he the ultra-talented defensive line force who will help the Jets defense up to that elite level or is he the player that many draft analysts saw in his final season at Chapel Hill?
Who is going to make the playoffs and who is going to win it all?
Sam: The Patriots make the postseason, they always do, and they will be contenders, they always are. Brady and that offense is too good and they’re adding pieces slowly to the D–if it’s even marginally better than it was last year they’ve got a shot at a ring. I think the other three teams might all be fighting for a wild card spot which any of them could realistically claim, but I’m not sure I can see any of them contending deep into the playoffs.
Khaled: The Patriots got to the Super Bowl last year and their team has now managed to get stronger. They’re my favorites to win it all, taking the frustration of 2011 and using it to push them on to win the big one. I thought Buffalo was moving in the right direction before losing Fred Jackson. They get him back and have significantly improved their defensive line. Yep they could be a team to watch.
Neil: Last year in this feature I told you the Patriots would get to the Super Bowl and I’m at it again. They have a much better defense this year with the rookie additions and, while the offensive line will regress, I think Brady, with his entire arsenal, should be able to cope. As for the rest, the Bills could make it but Ryan Fitzpatrick is too flakey for me and if he’s ‘out there’ just guess how I feel about things in Jets land.
Ben: No surprises here I don’t think, there are three teams that can think about the playoffs and one of those can think about bye weeks and making a run at winning it all. The Patriots got to the Super Bowl last season with one of the worst defenses the NFL has seen in the last few years. If Bill Belichick got timely plays out of those guys, then what will he get from a supposedly re-tooled and more talented unit? Buffalo started fast so they’ll be looking to sustain a run towards the playoffs with their new signings and terrific defensive line. Meanwhile, the Jets… you can’t really project what they’ll do, they could as easily implode as they could find their blueprint that took them to successive AFC Championship games in 2009 and 2010.