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2010 NFL Preview: AFC East Predictions

New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady calls a play against the New Orleans Saints in the first quarter of their NFL pre-season football game in Foxborough, Massachusetts August 12, 2010.  REUTERS/Brian Snyder  (UNITED STATES - Tags: SPORT FOOTBALL)

2010 NFL Division Previews & Predictions: AFC East | AFC North | AFC South | AFC West | NFC East | NFC North | NFC South | NFC West | 2010 Question Marks Series

The AFC East is arguably the most difficult division to predict because the Patriots, Jets and Dolphins all have enough talent to claim the top spot but all three also have huge question marks that could hold them back.

The Bills, on the other hand…not so hard to predict. (Sorry Buffalo fans.)

Here’s how I see things shaking out in the AFC East this season. Be sure to check out the link entitled “2010 Question Mark” under each team’s preview, which is a breakdown of one or two potential weaknesses that could derail that squad’s hopes in 2010.

1. Patriots

What to Like: Wes Welker is apparently healthy, which is a great sign for Tom Brady and the rest of the Pats’ offense. Although they failed to recapture the magic they had in 2007, the offense ranked third in the NFL in yards per game, sixth in total points and eighth in third down percentage. Along with Welker and Randy Moss, Brady will also have talented rookie tight end Aaron Hernandez to throw to in the passing game and Julian Edelman proved when filling in for Welker last season that he can be productive as well.
What Not to Like: It appears that the pass rush, or lack thereof, will be a massive concern all season. It was a concern heading into the offseason, it’s been a concern thus far in preseason and it’s going to remain a concern unless guys step up. Granted, Tully Banta-Cain is coming off a career year and rookie Jermaine Cunningham has potential, but Derrick Burgess needs to stay motivated and be productive. If he doesn’t and Banta-Cain can’t put up the numbers he did last year then Bill Belichick’s defense could suffer at every level. There’s also the very real concern that starting left guard Logan Mankins will skip the entire season because of a contract despite, meaning promising but inexperienced tackle Sebastian Vollmer will be inserted into the starting lineup.
Keep an Eye On: Darius Butler
In five starts last season, Butler had three inceptions and although he was inconsistent in coverage and needs to cut down on penalties, he could blossom into a star this season. He has already become a leader in the locker room.
The Final Word: Even though the offense stalled in the second half of some games last season, it will still be tough to stop this team a weekly basis. Plus, after struggling to a 2-6 record on the road last season, the Pats will face only two 2009 playoff teams away from Foxboro this year. In fact, six of the 2009 playoff teams they face this year will have to come to New England, which is obviously a major advantage. I think given the problems that the rest of the teams have in the division, the Pats will once again come out on top, although this is far from a Super Bowl team in my eyes.

New England Patriots 2010 Question Mark: Pass Rush

2. Dolphins

MIAMI - AUGUST 14: Wide Receiver Brandon Marshall  of the Miami Dolphins warms up prior to playing the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in a preseason game at Sun Life Stadium on August 14, 2010 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Marc Serota/Getty Images)

What to Like: After finishing 22nd in the league in total defense last season, the Fish completely revamped that side of the ball this offseason. I love the hire of new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan, who transformed the Broncos into a top 10 defense last year, as well as the signing of free agent Karlos Dansby, who is the most well rounded linebacker in the league. Assuming Vontae Davis can keep his head on straight, I also love the cornerback tandem of him and Sean Smith – Miami’s top two draft picks from a year ago. Of course, we can’t talk about Miami’s offseason without mentioning Brandon Marshall, who finally gives this team the offensive playmaker that they have coveted for years. As long as he stays out of trouble, he will make Chad Henne better and the running game (which will be the focal point of the offense once again) will benefit from his presence as well.
What Not to Like: The offensive line has looked rough this preseason and while it’s only preseason, their play is still a concern. This offense can’t survive without its running game and the interior of Miami’s O-line looks weak. Rookie John Jerry has a future in this league, but he better make strides if he wants to hold down the starting right guard spot. Richie Incognito and Joe Berger won’t be long for starting spots either if they can’t pick up their play. Outside of that, Marshall has been plagued by drops and I wonder if he’s starting to feel the pressure of living up to his new contract and the expectations that have been thrust upon him in Miami. Defensively, Chris Clemons has looked great this offseason but he’s inexperienced at the free safety position and there’s growing concern that the undisclosed injury that has kept linebacker Channing Crowder out could be more serious than originally believed.
Keep an Eye On: Karlos Dansby
Keep an eye on the Dolphins’ best defender? Wow, thanks. No, I mean really watch him. Dansby is one of the most underrated linebackers in the game; he can cover, he can be a force against the run and he can be an effective pass-rusher. You just don’t find all three of those traits in linebackers.
The Final Word: I think Miami’s problems will get ironed out early during the season, which is why I have them finishing second in the division. The offensive line should be fine once it gels and Marshall will shine once the season starts. The bigger concern is that the Dolphins will play eight straight games against teams that were .500 or better in 2009 after they travel to Buffalo in the opener. So while I like this team, I think they’ll miss the postseason by a game or two.

Miami Dolphins 2010 Question Mark: Offensive Line

3. Jets

EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - AUGUST 27: Rex Ryan, Head Coach of the New York Jets looks on during the preseason game against the Washington Redskins on August 27, 2010 at the New Meadowlands Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)

What to Like: Even without Darrelle Revis (contract holdout), the Jets’ defense could resemble an impenetrable force again this season. They led the NFL in total defense last year, gave up the fewest amount of points and for as good as the Cowboys were, no team came close to matching the Jets’ defensive effort in 2009. Rex Ryan puts together some of the best defensive game plans in the league and nobody outside of Bill Belichick makes adjustments on the fly better than he can. Players also love playing for him, which means more than you think. The Jets aren’t going to lay down in any game and that’s a testament to Ryan and his coaching staff’s ability to lead. The offseason acquisitions of Antonio Cromartie and Santonio Holmes also shore up potential weaknesses and now quarterback Mark Sanchez has plenty of weapons to throw to in the passing game. Running back Shonn Greene is also a budding star.
What Not to Like: To say that Revis played at an elite level last year wouldn’t be enough. He was so good that had he won the MVP award, it would have been hard to argue that he didn’t deserve it. With that in mind, what if he doesn’t play this season? What kind of an effect would his absence have on Ryan’s defense? We’re talking about stripping the most vital piece off the best defense in the league last year. Cromartie and first round pick Kyle Wilson have enough talent to hold down the starting cornerback positions, but quarterbacks aren’t going to be afraid to attack a rookie early and often. Offensively, I still have a ton of questions about Sanchez and his ability to win a game on his own. I know he has more weapons this year and Greene should be very good, but the Jets didn’t open things up at all last year with Sanchez under center. They basically asked him not to lose games and when he did have to step up and make a play or two (outside of the AFC title game), he was largely a disaster. He’s also going into his second year when a lot of quarterbacks tend to struggle because defensive coordinators have an entire library of film to pick apart their weaknesses. If he can’t adjust and make strides in his development, this team’s in trouble.
Keep an Eye On: Shonn Greene
As previously mentioned, Greene is a budding star and should become the focal point of the Jets’ offense in due time. LaDainian Tomlinson will eat into his carries a little, but Greene will still have plenty of opportunities to display his talents.
The Final Word: I think it’s poor practice to back a team that emerges as a chic pick in the offseason. That’s not a very analytical way of trying to predict a team’s success, I know, but chic picks rarely pan out (see the Chargers last season and even Ole’ Miss at the college level). And when you factor in the Revis holdout and the questions surrounding Sanchez, I see plenty of reason to think that the Jets will take a major step back in 2010. Let’s not forget that this team needed major luck (the Colts deciding to rest their starters; the Bengals laying down in the finale) down the stretch just to make the playoffs last year. Ryan even thought they were done after an ugly home loss to Atlanta late in the season. Granted, the Jets took those opportunities and ran with them all the way into the AFC title game, but I doubt they’ll catch those breaks two years in a row. This team obviously has more than enough talent to prove me wrong and hey, if Revis winds up playing then all the better. But something tells me the J.E.T.S. are in store for a major letdown.

New York Jets 2010 Question Mark: Quarterback

4. Bills

Aug. 06, 2010 - Pittsford, New York, United States of America - August 6, 2010: Buffalo Bills head coach CHAN GAILEY gives instructions during a training camp session at Saint John Fisher College in Pittsford, New York.

What to Like: There’s no doubt that the Bills are moving in the right direction now that Buddy Nix is their new general manager. Whether or not Chan Gailey was the best choice as the team’s new head coach remains to be seen, but at least he has experience and has won on some level (he went 44-32 as head coach of Georgia Tech from 2002-2007). The team also found a potential star in running back C.J. Spiller in the first round of April’s draft. The former Clemson Tiger is an explosive weapon and if he stays healthy, he will contribute both as a runner and a pass-catcher. Defensively, the Bills have a great tandem at safety in Donte Whitner and Jairus Byrd, as well as a solid Terrence McGee at corner and Paul Posluszny (when healthy) at inside linebacker.
What Not to Like: This team has major weaknesses on both sides of the ball, starting with quarterback and offensive line. Trent Edwards has the physical tools to be a starter in this league, but he hasn’t played with any confidence in over a year and a half. He looks to check down way too often in his progressions and is gun shy behind an inexperienced offensive line. The Bills have a deep stable of running backs, but they’re thin at receiver and Spiller has a history of injuries. Defensively, the secondary is the strength of the unit but pass-rush could be a major concern and there’s going to be an adjustment period under new defensive coordinator George Edwards, who is installing the 3-4.
Keep an Eye On: C.J. Spiller
When healthy, Spiller is a dynamic playmaker. Buffalo fans are going to enjoy watching him in the offense and he’s a threat to take it to the end zone every time he gets his hands on the ball.
The Final Word: Oh, boy. Although this team is heading in the right direction, it’s going to be a couple of years before they start competing. They just don’t have the talent to match up with opponents on a weekly basis and I highly doubt even the Buffalo contingent believes that Edwards is the answer at quarterback. Spiller will be exciting to watch, but unless the offensive line matures in a hurry, the offense will have a tough time moving the chains. It’s good to see that the Bills are fixing things from the top down, but again, it’s going to take some time.

Buffalo Bills 2010 Question Marks: Quarterback, Offensive Line

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