TSN football analyst Chris Schultz breaks down all the teams and each division in the NFL leading up to the regular season. First, the Buffalo Bills, Miami Dolphins, New England Patriots, and New York Jets in the AFC East.
The most immediate question for the Buffalo Bills is how do you go from a 6-10 record to 10-6 and how do you become a playoff team? For 14 years the Bills have not been a playoff team, and that's significant because no other team in the NFL has had an absence longer than the Bills. The most obvious statement is the most relevant in that the quickest success will depend on how quickly E.J. Manuel improves as a quarterback. Right now he is good but he has to become great as soon as possible. The organization has taken risks, understanding that the time is now for Manuel by obtaining Sammy Watkins at a high price and dismissing Stevie Johnson at a low price for locker room harmony. Every indication from everyone is that Watkins is the "real deal" in every way which more than any other aspect of football enhances the hope of continued fast track development of Manuel.
Defensively another experiment to watch is the switch from Mike Pettine to Jim Schwartz at coordinator means a change from 3/4 to 4/3. I don't think this will be a long stretch to master over time because in many ways the Bills presently have more in the way of quality defensive linemen than quality and quantity of exceptional linebackers.
In another statement of true reality you can't overstate that the injury to Kiko Alonso is devastating. Alonso was on his way and may be back on his way in 2015 but without him as a middle linebacker a void is evident. Alonso to me was the next London Fletcher for Washington or back a few more years, Zach Thomas for Miami.
Will the Bills make the playoffs? I don't think so but head coach Doug Marrone quietly did a very good job in the AFC East and last year lost two games by three points or less and we all remember the Chiefs game, 23-13, with the points separation coming on an interception for a touchdown. I have the Buffalo Bills to finish second in the AFC East.
Last year may have been the most difficult year in the history of the Miami Dolphins. The eight-win and eight-loss season with two disastrous losses at Buffalo and home to the Jets to end the season made a possible 10-6 campaign only 8-8. From realistic playoff hopes to average was disappointing but nothing compared to the team's internal breakdown of class and dignity. How the team reacts this year will be interesting to see but you have to think it will be positive. Players will be more comfortable in the high testosterone world of an NFL locker room and by being comfortable will be able to concentrate at a higher level. What happened in Miami was an embarrassment to football and especially football players. Many looked at NFL players as walking neanderthals of limited intelligence thanks to the actions of a very few. It won't be an issue this year as the rules are crystal clear and those who don't abide don't get paid.
On the field Ryan Tannehill has to have his best season as a pro. Problem is it's a new high-tempo offence with Bill Lazor as coordinator taking over from Mike Sherman who I imagine Tannehill was very comfortable with. Miami's running game has not been dominant in many years but with the addition of Knowshon Moreno that may change. What has to change is Mike Wallace and his role. What was hoped for was for Wallace to be a smaller version of Randy Moss and that may still come to fruition. Last year for whatever the reason you can't say Mike Wallace changed games.
I think Miami has very good line of scrimmage players. The offensive line will have four new starters with only Mike Pouncy returning at centre and the defensive front-seven is good. The key is Dion Jordan out of Oregon. A first-round pick in 2013, he needs to take that giant step forward and become the next Jason Taylor. The physical skills are similar but Jordan has to commit to football on and off the field. If Dion Jordan and Cameron Wake play their best, the Dolphins' third-down pass rush could be exceptional.
This is a big year for Joe Philbin as a head coach. Some were complimentary about how he handled all the issues the Dolphins had to handle. He handled things after they happened, but they still should never have happened. Miami football is improving but I don't see a giant move forward. Opening day on Sept. 7 will say a lot. New England at Miami is a 1pm game so heat will be a Dolphin advantage. Can they make the most of it? I've got Miami to finish third in the AFC East.
New England Patriots
The New England Patriots are a pretty amazing football organization. Have they made some mistakes? Absolutely. Incorrectly evaluating Aaron Hernandez and not being able to draft successful defensive backs come to mind but you can make the argument they're very resilient and adaptable.
In what is an amazing football fact, the Patriots had 10 games last year that were decided in the final 40 seconds of play, eight of which were decided in the final 16 seconds. This is a battle tested team.
And a heathier team. The two best players on New England's defence were Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo. Mayo missed the final 12 games and Wilfork the final 14. Those were major losses in leadership and ability.
Still, it did create significant playing time for Jamie Collins as a rookie. He is one of the stars of the future; athletically there are few if any his superior at linebacker. With Darrelle Revis and eventually Brandon Browner at cornerback, and Tommy Kelly at defensive tackle, as long as a health catastrophe does not happen, New England could have the best defensive football team they've had in many years.
And speaking of health, Rob Gronkowski has had his share of adversity. A back injury, an arm twice, and a knee; his body is his greatest combatant. When it comes to playing the game, it flows easy for him and he makes it look easy. If he stays healthy, everything changes for Tom Brady to the positive.
Another point of optimism is the three young receivers from last year: Josh Boyce, Aaron Dobson, and Kembrell Thompkins. All three being in their second year as pro football players makes a world of difference in playbook mastery and performing over a 16-game schedule. I would not be surprised at all if what was a weakness last year is a strength this year, particularly in terms of depth.
This is an amazing pro football success story in New England; it is all business all the time with high pressure. And if you can't thrive in that atmosphere, then you can't play for the Patriots.
At quarterback, Brady will be 37 when they play the Dolphins on September 7th: older, wiser, and maybe even better. They did draft Jimmy Garoppolo in the second round out of Eastern Illinois but the best up and coming quarterback on the roster is Ryan Mallett: 6'6 and 245 pounds with a Joe Flacco arm. What happens with Ryan Mallett as he edges to free agency will be interesting. Patriots win the AFC East…again.
New York Jets
I don't know why but I don't believe in the Jets. Maybe it's Rex Ryan's excessively optimistic outlook or the inability to create a starter in Mark Sanchez last year, but I don't believe in the Jets.
The bottom line is Geno Smith will have to have a year in which rather than throwing 12 touchdowns and 21 interceptions he throws 21 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. Logic says that's not going to happen and I like logic.
The strengths of the Jets will be depth at running back and a very good defensive live. Their weakness is easy to identify. Their pass offence was 31st last year and their pass defense was 22nd. I don't know of many playoff teams that don't have a pass offence ranked 15th or higher, and to improve 17 levels would be amazing in one year.
The signing of Chris Johnson is interesting. He is a "home run" hitter at 29-years-old that has carried the ball 1,742 times in his career. He is good but need to be great. His personal explosiveness in combination with the power of Chris Ivory does make an interesting backfield battle for playing time.
Another challenge that has nothing to do with players is the schedule. After they play the Raiders at home they playAaron Rodgers and the Packers in Green Bay, Jay Cutler and the Bears on Monday night, Mathew Stafford and the Lions, at San Diego against Philip Rivers and the Chargers, then Peyton Manning and the Broncos followed four days later by Tom Brady and the Patriots in New England. From Manning on a Sunday to Brady on a Thursday; Calvin Pryor and Dee Milliner will be tested at safety and cornerback. After that set of six games against arguably six of the best quarterbacks, if the Jets have a winning record I will be surprised.
I think for the Jets to win they have to go back to their 2009 and 2010 teams which were run first, everything else second. It did provide them with 2 AFC Championship experiences and oh so close to a Super Bowl experience. Not sure if offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg agrees.
The division is getting tougher too. Buffalo is in the second year with EJ Manuel at the helm, while Miami eliminated their internal immaturity. And then of course there's New England. I now know why I don't believe in the Jets. Fourth in the AFC East.