By: Mike Wagenman
New England Patriots
The Patriots are the epitome of a what an NFL franchise should be: great coaching, great ownership and management, excellence on the field, and smart and successful draft picks. The Patriots are among the Super Bowl favorites every year, and this year is no different thanks in part to their all-world quarterback Tom Brady, genius head coach Bill Belichick, and successful offseason. The Patriots are bringing back a more explosive offensive unit than the one that went 14-2 last season. They are looking to go farther in the playoffs than a divisional round exit to the Jets. The Pats bring back BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Kevin Faulk, Sammy Morris, and Danny Woodhead as far as running backs go, and drafted two more in California's Shane Vereen and LSU's Stevan Ridley. Both rookies have been impressive thus far in camp. New England also returns Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski, two second-year pass catching tight ends, and they drafted Marshall's Lee Smith to serve as a blocking tight end. Their receiving core is extremely deep as well. Wes Welker, Deion Branch, Julian Edelman, and Brandon Tate all return and will welcome in a true number one wideout in Chad Ochocinco. Six running backs, three tight ends, and five wide receivers, all as viable threats. Tom Brady also gets Logan Mankins back on the offensive line along with rookies Nate Solder from Colorado and Marcus Cannon from TCU. The one glaring hole for the Patriots last season was their defense, which, according to Jets linebacker Bart Scott, couldn't “stop a nose bleed.” I hate to say it, but Mr. “Can't Wait” had a point. The Patriots were ranked in the bottom five of most defensive categories, but they hope that rookie Ras-I Dowling from Virginia can sure up the secondary along with Pro Bowler Devin McCourty. New England brought in former Defensive Player of the Year Albert Haynesworth along with veteran Andre Carter to help Vince Wilfork penetrate the line up front. Jerod Mayo led the league in tackles last season, and if just one of the other young linebackers, preferably Jermaine Cunningham, can step up, the defense will drastically improve. The tough schedule (including the Jets twice, Chargers, Steelers, Eagles, and Colts) includes potent offenses that may be a bit tough to handle for the Pats defense. However, Tom Brady will get it done to bring home another AFC East title.
Season Prediction: 13-3, 1st Place AFC East.
Leading Passer: Tom Brady
Leading Rusher: BenJarvus Green-Ellis
Leading Receiver: Wes Welker
Defensive Standout: Jerod Mayo (LB)
Other/Surprise Standout: Stevan Ridley (RB)
New York Jets
Not far behind the Patriots are the New York Jets. Gang Green always stands a legitimate chance to take down their opponents because they play an aggressive and impressive defensive game, led by head coach and defensive mastermind Rex Ryan. Although Ryan's antics may seem overdone and somewhat irritating, they do the trick to fire up the Jets. Quarterback Mark Sanchez has not proven himself as an elite quarterback yet, although he has won four road playoff games in two seasons. His regular season inconsistency (three more interceptions than touchdowns in his career) must change for the Jets to really consider themselves Super Bowl favorites. The Jets bring back much of the same squad from last season, especially on the defensive side of the ball which is key. Their defense is guaranteed to be a top 5, and their opponents' top receiver is sure to be stuck on Revis Island for most of the game. The Jets failed to address their one defensive problem from a year ago, however, and that was their pass rush. Most of their tackles in the backfield and their sacks were influenced by the secondary, whether it be from great coverage or from them blitzing. Ryan has faith that rookie lineman Muhammad Wilkerson from Temple can be a true force. He has to be, so he can replace Shaun Ellis and Kris Jenkins. The Jets offense was a bit lacking at times last season, thanks to a sub-par year from Shonn Greene. This season, LaDainian Tomlinson may show some age and may not be able to carry the load, so Greene must step up. Also, the offense relied mostly on quick slants and screens last season thanks to Sanchez's inaccuracy down the field. With the addition of 6'5” Plaxico Burress and slot reciever Derrick Mason, Sanchez has weapons to hit a few home runs. All in all, the Jets will be a good team and will snag a wild card spot. The loss of Brad Smith will hurt more than many people think, and the effortless attitude of Plaxico Burress may not sit well with Rex Ryan, but he usually finds a way to win, despite a somewhat difficult schedule.
Season Prediction: 11-5, 2nd Place AFC East.
Leading Passer: Mark Sanchez
Leading Rusher: Shonn Greene
Leading Receiver: Santonio Holmes
Defensive Standout: David Harris (LB)
Other/Surprise Standout: Jeremy Kerley (WR/KR)
Yes, Buffalo is somewhere other than last place. The Bills haven't been very good for quite a while. Jim Kelly, where are you? Anyway, the Bills will actually improve and are relying on the Harvard graduate Ryan Fitzpatrick again this season, but he does not have many places to throw the football. Stevie Johnson had a monster breakout season in 2010, but now Lee Evans is gone. So, with Johnson as a true number one receiver whom defenses are aware of, a lot of double coverages will be thrown his way. Roscoe Parrish will probably be assuming the duties of number two wideout, although he is much more effective in the slot or returning punts. Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller will have to carry the load in the backfield, which, quite frankly, isn't all that bad. It's actually very workable. The addition of Brad Smith sparks some hope for Bills fans because he can do absolutely everything, and he did do absolutely everything against the Bills while a member of the rival Jets. He can throw, run, catch passes as a wide receiver, return kicks, and run the offense through the wildcat, not to mention he is very adept at all of those tasks. The Bills offensive line must improve, and that is the big x-factor. They have ample talent in Johnson, Parrish, Spiller, Jackson, and Smith, but those guys need room to operate and need time to get the football in their hands. Tackle Ed Wang is a real key. The Bills defense also must step up, so Buffalo used this offseason to acquire some man power to do so. Aside from rookie Marcell Dareus from Alabama, the Bills have a very makeshift defensive line. Their linebackers are very formidable however, especially now that they got rid of that disaster Aaron Maybin. Chris Kelsay is solid, although aging, and the same holds true for free agent signing Nick Barnett (former Packer). If those two can stay healthy, their veteran leadership can go a long way to helping the Bills win some games. Shawne Merriman has a lot to prove coming off countless injuries,but has shown glimpses of his Pro Bowl form from a few years ago with the Chargers. Linebacker Arthur Moats has emerged as the tackling machine, and a leader on the defense. Buffalo's secondary is actually very good. Jarius Byrd is a ballhawking free safety who intercepts a lot of deep balls, and they have four legitimate cornerbacks to help him. Leodis McKelvin, Terrence McGee, Drayton Florence, and rookie Aaron Williams have the ability to make big plays and lock down on some good receiving cores. The key for the defense is that they have to play together. They have a lot of pieces, but they must play together as a unit. Some age, some holes, and some lack of offense leave some question marks in Buffalo coming into the season, and make a playoff chance a bit of a long shot. A tough schedule also factors against the Bills, because I would love to put them at 7-9, but I just don't see them upsetting enough teams with a sub-par passing game. They will finish third in the AFC East.
Season Prediction: 6-10, 3rd Place AFC East
Leading Passer: Ryan Fitzpatrick
Leading Rusher: C.J. Spiller
Leading Receiver: Stevie Johnson
Defensive Standout: Marcell Darius (DL)
Other/Surprise Standout: Shawne Merriman (LB)
The Dolphins have been underachieving recently, much thanks to their quarterback Chad Henne. He seemingly has lost all confidence in himself and looks like a deer in headlights in the pocket. In 2011, that must change from the outset if the Dolphins want any chance at a winning season. Miami drafted Mike Pouncey from Florida and signed former Cowboy Marc Columbo to help All-Pro Jake Long protect Henne. They also drafted explosive Kansas State running back Daniel Thomas in the second round and acquired former Heisman Trophy winner and New Orleans Saints running back Reggie Bush to replace the departed Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams in the backfield. Thomas will be the feature back, and the sky is the limit for him, but with Bush's NFL struggles, Thomas will not have that veteran presence to teach him the tricks of the trade. The wide open and wildcat style of Tony Sparano, however will allow Bush to create his own lanes, but nothing compared to what he did at USC. Henne has Pro Bowler Brandon Marshall, Davonne Bess, and Brian Hartline as wide receivers and Anthony Fasano as his tight end, four very nice targets, but the problem is that he is almost incapable of delivering the ball to them. The Miami defense, like New England's is suspect. Linebacker Cameron Wake emerged as a dominant pass rusher and run stuffer, and the resigning of Jason Taylor (yes, again) will only help Wake improve. Too bad Taylor is nothing like the animal he used to be. The defensive line is lacking and the secondary is average at best, two spots that will really demoralize the Dolphins this year. Having to play the Patriots and Jets twice each, as well as San Diego, Philadelphia, Kansas City, Dallas, and even the Giants, plus the fact that they went a baffling 1-7 at home last season, will prove to be too much to handle for the Fish. They will miss out on the playoffs for another year, which will end Chad Henne's reign under center in South Beach.
Season Prediction: 4-12, 4th Place AFC East
Leading Passer: Chad Henne
Leading Rusher: Daniel Thomas
Leading Receiver: Brandon Marshall
Defensive Standout: Cameron Wake (LB)
Other/Surprise Standout: Davonne Bess (WR)