Four Questions: AFC East
As we do at this time each season, we’ve cornered a group of our analysts and handed them a set of questions designed to pick their brains about what they expect for the upcoming year.
Giving you a glimpse into what they’re thinking as we head into the 2014 season, Ben Stockwell, Sam Monson, Steve Palazzolo and Gordon McGuinness have been good enough to share their answers.
Four analysts, four questions, division by division, and first up…
Who wins the division and why?
Sam – Patriots. As with most years in the AFC East, I think they have the best quarterback, and the best roster top to bottom, but the gap is closing. Tom Brady may not be what he once was, but he’s still damn good, and if Gronk is healthy all year he has one of the most dominant weapons in football to play with. What makes it interesting is if that offensive line begins to creak with key departures both in terms of playing personnel and coaching, then we might start to see the New England lustre start to tarnish.
Ben – Every year we ask if this is the year the Patriots’ crown slips and the dynasty ends, well not for me this year. This is just a terrifically well-rounded team in every sense and the additions of the likes of Darrelle Revis should see the Patriots as a threat in the postseason as well. The chase continues for the Dolphins, Bills and Jets.
Steve – To no one’s surprise, I’m sure everyone here is picking the Patriots, and until they show some sign of decline, they’ll continue as the favorites in the East. While Tom Brady and the offense have carried the team since 2007 or so, we may see a throwback of sorts as they look primed to field their best defense since the mid-2000s.
Gordon – Patriots. I wanted to pick Miami, and I almost did. But with the return of Rob Gronkowski on offense, and the addition of Darrelle Revis on defense means I just can’t sway from New England. One win away from the Super Bowl a year ago, they went out and made the big move that they needed to put themselves in position to get back to there, even if I think they’ll fall just short again.
Which position unit most intrigues you in the division?
Sam – The Jets’ D-line is just monstrous. Rex Ryan’s defense allows those guys to dominate offensive linemen one-on-one and they do exactly that. Damon Harrison was on another level against the run last year, and he has been working to improve his pass-rushing. If Sheldon Richardson can do likewise, that unit can be devastating.
Ben – The biggest question in the Jets’ backfield this offseason might have been the quarterback position but the running backs look like one of the roster’s strong points. A thunder and lightning combination of Chris Johnson and Chris Ivory should keep the offense on track and you won’t find many better running backs at No. 3 on the depth chart around the league than Bilal Powell.
Steve – The Bills should feature one of the league’s best defensive lines, led by defensive tackles Kyle Williams and Marcel Dareus, two of the better all-around interior linemen in the league. On the edge, Mario Williams is still a solid every-down player while Jerry Hughes continues to make strides as a pass rusher. Buffalo’s defensive line has a chance to keep them in a lot of games.
Gordon – New England’s tight ends. 2013 wasn’t a good year for this group, but there’s a lot to like about them in 2014. If Gronkowski is back to his best, he’s one of the toughest matchups for opposing defenders in the league. Add in Tim Wright who seems like an ideal fit as a tight end who can line up in the slot and suddenly Brady has two targets capable of going over the middle of the field that he didn’t have for much of last year.
Who is your pick for breakout player?
Sam – Ryan Tannehill. He’s always been a better player than most like to give him credit for, but the new offense in Miami could really help him maximise his skills and minimise his weaknesses. It might also go some way toward hiding the problems on the Miami O-line, which can only be a good thing for Tannehill.
Ben – A disappointing rookie season has been backed up by a four-game suspension but preseason would suggest that the Dolphins have finally decided how to get the best from Dion Jordan, play him at defensive end. 105 of Jordan’s 126 preseason snaps came at right defensive end and nine pressures (four hits, five hurries) reflected a productive run and offered optimism for greater impact in 2014.
Steve – The second half of last season started Patriots linebacker Jamie Collins’ breakout and I think he’ll carry it into 2014. His playoff game against the Indianapolis Colts was one of the better complete performances you’ll see from a linebacker as Collins affected the running game while also making plays as a pass rusher and in coverage. He’ll provide a versatile threat in all three phases for the Patriots’ defense.
Gordon – Robert Woods. I really liked some of what we saw from Woods in his rookie year, but he just didn’t deliver it consistently enough. With an extra year under his belt I think we’ll see more big plays and impressive performances like we saw in the win over Baltimore in Week 4 last year.
Which rookie has the biggest impact, for good or bad?
Sam – Calvin Pryor has had a stellar preseason, and the Jets’ secondary needs him to carry it into the regular season. Rookies typically don’t dominate at the safety position, so he will be bucking a trend if he manages it, but I love the tape he’s put down so far, ending the preseason as PFF’s top-graded safety despite not playing as much as many of the guys below him.
Ben – The Miami Dolphins’ offensive line didn’t do a very good job of keeping their quarterback upright last season. The addition of Branden Albert is a known quantity at left tackle but at right tackle first-round pick Ja’Wuan James will have a pivotal role to play on Ryan Tannehill’s right side. No pressures surrendered on 75 preseason plays offer hope of big strides in pass protection this season for the Dolphins.
Steve – You won’t find many seventh-round picks selected in this category, but Bills OT Seantrel Henderson has a chance to make a major impact. If he can stay out of trouble and live up to his potential, he could emerge as one of the draft’s biggest steals while solidifying the right tackle spot on Buffalo’s offensive line.
Gordon – Jarvis Landry. I really liked what I saw in Landry coming out of LSU last year and, despite the fact that I think he’ll have to earn his way onto the field early in the year, I can see him being the type of player who does that and winds up playing a big role in any potential playoff push late in the year. He didn’t get a lot of opportunities in preseason, with just seven catchable passes thrown his way, but he caught everyone of them.
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