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

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Did the Cardinals error in not pursuing Dansby harder?

The Cardinals knew what they had to do in order to retain linebacker Karlos Dansby at the start of free agency. Whichever team came hardest with the most cash was the one that would acquire Dansby’s services for the next however many seasons.

Yet when it came time to pony up, the Cards couldn’t (or wouldn’t?) match the five-year, $43 million contract that the Dolphins were offering. Thus the reason Dansby will be playing in South Beach next year with the Dolphins.

With Dansby gone, Arizona had to fill the void that was created at linebacker. So they recently signed aging loudmouth Joey Porter to a three-year, $17.5 million contract, with a max value of $24.5 million. If he reaches the max value of the contract, Porter will make just over $8 million a year from the Cardinals. Considering they could have had Dansby (a younger, more versatile and more productive linebacker) for $8.6 million a year, it’s a little bothersome that Arizona didn’t make a harder pitch to the 28-year-old.

Of course, Dansby will get $22 million in guaranteed money and the only way Porter gets $24.5 million is through incentives. That’s a big difference between the two contracts. Arizona could cut Porter in a year and save money on the back end, while Miami is stuck paying $22 million regardless of whether or not Dansby turns out to be a bust.

Still, I wouldn’t be surprised if Cardinals fans are a little peeved that their team just overpaid for Porter and couldn’t convince Dansby to stay. I realize Dansby may have had his hopes set on leaving Arizona no matter what, but money appeared to be the root of his motivation to sign and even though the Cardinals knew that, they still couldn’t (or wouldn’t?) pony up.

Photo from fOTOGLIF

Dansby gives Dolphins the defensive playmaker they’ve needed

There are few inside linebackers in the NFL that are as good in coverage as they are against the run. But Karlos Dansby certainly fits the bill, which is why he was the most sought after linebacker on the free agent market this offseason.

On Friday, Dansby signed a five-year, $43 million contract with the Dolphins, which includes $22 million in guarantees. It’s the richest deal ever for a linebacker that isn’t primarily a pass-rusher, which proves how valuable he was to Miami.

If there were one thing the Dolphins have sorely needed the past two years, it would be a playmaker that can immediately step in and make an impact on the defensive side of the ball. Dansby will fill that need for Miami playing next to Channing Crowder as the team’s new “Ted” linebacker in their defense. He’s solid in run defense and skilled in coverage, which is a rarity for inside linebackers. He’s also good for causing a couple of turnovers a year and will certainly be missed by the Cardinals.

Next up for the Dolphins is finding someone that can rush the passer, which is the one thing they won’t get from the Dansby signing. As expected, the Fins terminated the contract of Joey Porter today, whose only contribution to the team was getting after the quarterback. Miami also released fellow linebacker Akin Ayodele and safety Gibril Wilson, who turned out to be a free agent bust after signing a five-year, $27.5 million contract in February of 2009. It was the second time in two years that Wilson was released by a team just one year after he signed a multi-year contract. (The Raiders cut him after the 2008 season after he signed a lucrative contract that previous spring.)

Photo from fOTOGLIF

Cardinals to franchise Karlos Dansby

According to NFL.com’s Adam Schefter, the Cardinals are expected to place the franchise tag on free agent linebacker Karlos Dansby on Wednesday.

Karlos DansbyArizona is expected to make Dansby its franchise player by Wednesday, meaning QB Kurt Warner will not receive the tag and can test the free-agent market if he doesn’t re-sign with the team before then.

But the Cardinals likely feel good about their chances of retaining Warner. Otherwise, they wouldn’t make the move with Dansby and their lone franchise tag.

Ordinarily, the franchise tag entitles a player to earn the average of the five highest-paid players at his position or 20 percent more than last year’s salary — whichever is greater. The 20 percent rule for Dansby is greater, meaning his franchise tag with Arizona will be worth a cool $9.6 million. But it also will limit Dansby from signing with another team.

This is a no-brainer for the Cards, especially considering the franchise tag for a quarterback this year is over $16 million. They have a better shot of Warner returning on his own, so not allowing Dansby to walk on his own omission is smart.

If for some reason Arizona doesn’t follow through with the tag, Dansby will be one of the most sought after linebackers on the free agent market.

Cards could face major changes next season

The Arizona Cardinals aren’t even a week removed from losing Super Bowl XLIII and already they need to fill both coordinator positions, convince starting quarterback Kurt Warner to return next season and deal with wide receiver Anquan Boldin’s continued unhappiness. Oh yeah, and linebacker Karlos Dansby is also set to become a free agent.

On Friday, the Chiefs hired Todd Haley – the mastermind behind the Cardinals’ dynamic offense in 2008 – to become their next head coach. Not 24 hours later, Arizona fired coordinator Clancy Pendergast, despite his success coming up with defensive schemes to thwart top NFC runners Michael Turner, DeAngelo Williams, Brian Westbrook and Willie Parker in the playoffs.

The loss of Haley is significant because he developed all the game plans and called the plays for the Cards’ biggest strength: their offense. It’s unsure at this point why the team fired Pendergast, but the franchise must have someone waiting in the wings because you don’t make a dramatic move like that without having a game plan in place.

If Arizona can’t re-sign Warner and Dansby, then has to part with Boldin because they can’t appease his contract demands, then we could be looking at a very different Cardinals team than the one that took the field last Sunday in the Super Bowl. By all accounts, the team shouldn’t have much of a problem convincing Warner to return, but Dansby will be a highly sought-after free agent who is only 27 and in the prime of his career.

Boldin’s situation is a different animal. He requested that the team trade him last preseason due to a lack of contract respect, and then threw a tantrum on the sidelines during the NFC Championship Game because Haley replaced him during a pivotal offensive series. Just recently, Boldin said that his relationship with the Cardinals was irreparable. At the end of the day, the team might not have a choice but to cut ties with the underrated receiver and trade him so his situation doesn’t continue to be a distraction.

In order for the Cards not take a major step back, the two coordinators that the team chooses will need to be sound hires. It would be wise for Arizona to then make re-signing Warner and Dansby their next priority, and then deal with Boldin since he’s already under contract and can’t bolt on his own accord. Nevertheless, this will be an interesting offseason in Arizona.

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