AFC East Power Rankings

Originally, I was going to do roster grades for each NFL team. After filling seven paragraphs regarding the Buffalo Bills’ QB situation, I quickly realized I needed to condense. What better way than power rankings? It’s certainly chic in today’s pro football journalism, and considering all the research I put into each team’s current (90-man) training camp roster, it makes doing these a little more sensible. Better this than what you would have gotten otherwise. Nobody, beyond die-hard Bills fans, needs to read three paragraphs on the potential of Kevin Kolb. That being said, here are my power rankings for the AFC East.

1 – New England Patriots

For longer than this Dolphins fan cares to remember, the Patriots have been the toast of the AFC East. With the Hoodie at the helm and Tommy B. slinging passes, it seems they’re a safe bet for a deep playoff run each and every year. Winning the East is about the safest bet of all, and despite their off-season troubles, I don’t see them losing hold of the top spot in 2013.

Beyond the head coach and QB (future Hall of Fame inductees both), there are obvious difference makers that are often overlooked. On offense, a strong line featuring bookend tackles Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer has no perceivable weakness and should keep Brady on his feet most of the time. In the backfield, the loss of Danny Woodhead shouldn’t be that big of a deal, as the versatility of Shane Vereen was on full display at times last year. His ability to line up at seemingly any skill position and thrive will also help mask the loss of Aaron Hernandez to an extent. Fellow RB Stevan Ridley quietly put together a nice year in 2012, racking up over 1,200 and a 4.4 average with 12 TDs.

Defensively, Vince Wilfork is still a dominant force in the middle, and his consistent interior disruption helps fellow Pro Bowl talent Jerod Mayo untouched to make plays. The pass rush appears thin, but if Rob Ninkovich can maintain a number close to his team-leading 8 sacks while Chandler Jones and Dont’a Hightower take the next step, there’s potential for great things here. In the secondary, the transition of Devin McCourty from CB to SS showed signs of paying off, as he nabbed a team-leading 5 INTs last year. This move, along with bringing in Aqib Talib to blanket opposing team’s #1 wideout, seemed to solidify one of the Pats’ weaker positions in 2012, and should keep things stable going forward.

Causes for concern:
Aaron Hernandez is fast fading from memory, or at least that appears to be the goal of Patriots brass. Rob Gronkowski is iffy after recuperating from multiple surgeries, but I won’t be as quick as some others in thinking the skill position talent is crumbling in New England. Gronk should be good to go for week 1 and I expect him to produce as well as he ever did before, even without Hernandez to draw pressure away. The real problem is going to be the loss of Wes Welker, a subtraction that the team had no way of completely turning around regardless of who they brought in afterwards. Danny Amendola has ability, and is a similar athlete, but it remains to be seen if he can be a 16-game (not to mention postseason) performer. Belichick and Brady have overcome lesser talent to work with to be sure, but it remains to be seen if they can do it in 2013 with a whole new set of circumstances. Defensively, there are still glaring holes at certain positions. Secondary depth is a major concern. When Talib went down in the playoffs, the secondary seemed to unravel. No team in today’s NFL can maintain a consistent defensive effort without at least 6 average-or-better defensive backs, and I’m hard pressed to see more than half of this number on their current roster. The D-line also needs to play with more impact beyond Wilfork’s consistency. 32 sacks as a team isn’t a terrible number, but it’s far from great.

As a division winner, they’ll be in, but looking that far ahead, it’s difficult to see just how prepared they’ll be to make another run at the big game. Injuries seemed to derail them last year, at the worst possible time, and any momentum carried into the postseason dwindled down the stretch. There is still plenty enough to this team to make them safe picks as division winners at least.

2 – Miami Dolphins

10% proven, 90% potential. That’s how I’m looking at my Dolphins in 2013. In my 21 years as a fan, I can’t ever remember there being this much hype around the team. Perhaps not since Shula retired and Jimmy Johnson stepped in has the focus narrowed on Miami so strongly. Some big offseason moves, the 2nd year of a highly drafted QB, and more tools at the disposal of one of the NFL’s more highly touted offensive minds all seem to point to bigger and better things in southern Florida. Whether or not this is true depends solely on that 90%-10% ratio balancing itself out as the year progresses.

It’s hard to find any. At least, any that have been proven on the field as Miami Dolphins. Ryan Tannehill had a solid rookie season that was almost totally eclipsed by the highly unusual success of fellow rookies Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson. While Tannehill found himself making typical rookie mistakes, he also flashed ability to put his passes in tight windows, along with highly underrated mobile accuracy that was amongst the best in the league. His improvement is pivotal to any potential success in Miami. New weapons to throw to should help, but it remains to be seen if Mike Wallace can take the next step towards stardom that his natural abilities warrant. Not to mention whether or not Brian Hartline can produce another solid statistical season, and improve his consistency while he’s at it. Dustin Keller is a definite upgrade as a pass-catcher at the TE position over Anthony Fasano, and there is still a load of potential left untapped in 2nd-year Michael Egnew. Mike Pouncey is quickly proving to be every bit as talented a center as his twin brother in Pittsburgh, and was widely considered a snub in last year’s Pro Bowl. Ritchie Incognito made it to Hawaii, and might have another similar season left in the tank.

On the other side of the ball, Cameron Wake is the heart and soul of the Dolphins defense. His 15 sacks in 2012 were a team- and personal-high, and there’s no reason to think he’ll slow down in 2013. Dion Jordan comes with a 3rd-overall draft pick’s pedigree, and certainly appears to have the talent to create serious issues for opposing o-lines in deciding which pass-rush specialist to double up on. SS Reshad Jones had a breakout season last year, with 94 total tackles, 9 breakups, 4 INTs and 2 forced fumbles. His steady performance, along with newcomer Brent Grimes helping solidify the CB position, could make the Dolphins’ biggest defensive weakness into a strength.

Causes for concern:
It all reverts back to potential. With so many new parts, and significant losses (Reggie Bush, Jake Long, Sean Smith) that are being ignored in favor of the shiny newness of the roster, it’s hard to accurately gauge what this year’s Miami Dolphins will be capable of. A trendy offseason pick for a playoff spot, but in my mind there is no reason to rank this team any better than they were a year ago. On paper, they should challenge New England for the division, but in reality there’s no way of knowing if they can even best their 7-9 record of a year ago.

The backfield is a completely unknown entity as of now. Lamar Miller wasn’t given enough in the way of opportunities last year to even guess as to what he might do as the (presumed) starter. Daniel Thomas has been more or less a disappointment since being taken in the 2nd round in 2011. Without steady contributions in the running game, the ability of Ryan Tannehill to grow as a QB will be severely limited. Depth across the offensive line seems flimsy, and it remains to be seen if last year’s 2nd round pick, Johnathan Martin, can step in at left tackle for departed Pro Bowler Jake Long. Defensively, the front four look to rival the league’s best and have done so the past few seasons, but behind them is a mixed bag. Dannell Ellerbe is at least an improvement in youthful stamina and energy over Karlos Dansby (signed with Arizona), and Philip Wheeler brings similar speed and athleticism the linebacking corps…but it’s all potential at this point, and question marks abound. Behind them, there’s no way of knowing whether or not Brent Grimes can be the same player he was in Atlanta before tearing an achilles, and despite Sean Smith’s knack for being embarrassed as often as not, he was at least a capable nickelback and his loss will be felt unless Grimes and the handful of rookies and younger DBs step up quickly.

At this point, attempting to be as unbiased as I can, I can see Miami taking the last wild card in the AFC. It’s a long shot, but the potential is there, the coaching is there, and the skill is there. The chemistry isn’t there yet, and that is going to be the biggest hurdle for the team in 2013. All these new pieces must congeal into a force moving in the same direction if they have any chance at staying not just competitive, but threatening. The AFC is top-heavy but once you get past the Broncos, Patriots, Texans, Ravens and Bengals, I think you have a host of teams that Miami can compete with and overtake in the race. I really do. I also really hope so, too. It’s been too long since my Fins were relevant, and with all these additions, there will be very little room for excuses if they can’t improve from 7-9.

3 – Buffalo Bills

I’ve never had much sympathy for my fellow AFC East competition, but to be a Bills fan seems to me a punishment without end. Four straight Superbowls, four straight losses. No playoff appearances since Bill Clinton was in office. Their last Pro Bowl QB? Drew Bledsoe, who was throwing to Eric Moulds at the time. Two names that seem like ancient history in the face of what has been one of the most lost-at-sea franchises in the NFL for far too long. The good news? In 2013, the arrow at least appears to be pointing in the right direction. Despite the regime changing on a near-annual basis, the addition of Doug Marrone as head coach has far more potential to it than Chan Gailey ever did. Most Bills fans will tell you that the name Buddy Nix is synonymous with confusion and/or failing in Buffalo, and his stepping down was at least a cause for celebration. Change is typical in western New York, but rare is it seen as change for the better, even without solid evidence.

I’m not one to pour it on a guy when he’s down, but regardless of who starts at QB for the Bills, getting out from under the inconsistent play and ludicrous contract of Ryan Fitzpatrick is a benefit all-around. While he goes off to back-up Jake Locker in Tennessee, in comes E.J Manuel, a rather suspicious 1st round pick who has a great skill set, but limited mental experience against top competition. Marrone brings a unique offensive perspective to Buffalo, born from his time as an offensive coordinator in New Orleans and translated to success as head coach of Syracuse. He has expressed strong feelings in coupling his ideas with Manuel’s abilities, but the QB will have to adjust to the speed and tone of the pro game first. However this goes, you can expect the vast majority of Buffalo’s offense to go through budding superstar C.J Spiller. He’s already proven to be one of the most dynamic athletes in the NFL, and hopefully the new regime utilizes him to a greater extent than he was in the past. Fred Jackson remains one of the league’s best options as a reliever, despite persistent injuries.

The amount of money Mario Williams took to bring his skills north from Houston has yet to be earned, despite double-digit sacks in 2012. Around him, the likes of Marcel Darius and Kyle Williams make this defensive line, on paper, one of the most formidable in the NFL. That needs to translate, as underachieving is in no way excusable when you represent the majority of your roster’s finest players. Jairus Byrd is one of the best safeties in the NFL, but the drama surrounding his contract status is at least a slight cause for concern. Playing under the franchise tag may not be preferred, but there’s little reason to think his ability on the field will suffer for it.

Causes for concern:
First and foremost, Kevin Kolb. If E.J Manuel doesn’t show enough throughout the preseason to earn the starting job, there is no reason to trust in Kolb to lead this team any further than it went a year ago. That’s assuming he can even stay in the field for an entire season. The depth at WR beyond Stevie Johnson is troublesome, and TE is essentially the above-average Scott Chandler and little else. The inability to keep defenses from focusing on C.J Spiller as a rule could be disastrous. The offensive line has been depleted in recent offseasons, and there are definite questions, particularly along the interior.

The horrid defense of 2012 can only be partially blamed on the underachieving of the front four. This linebacking group could be ranked as one of the worst in the NFL, without any proven impact players amongst them. Stephen Gilmore took his lumps as a rookie, but the CB position has a brighter future with him in the mix. Beyond him, and the obvious talents of Byrd, there could be an issue with depth, but stopping the run is the primary concern for the Bills in 2013 and without the bigger names up front playing up to their capabilities, there’s little chance of it happening.

I just don’t see it. Unless E.J. Manuel makes significant strides early, or the defense finds its groove in a big way, it’s hard to imagine the Bills playing past week 17. Kevin Kolb is not the answer at QB, and without a passing game, the likelihood of postseason play drops drastically. They may still be a 6-10 team in 2013, but much of that depends on how quickly and effectively the new regime implements their overall plan. It’s a difficult argument to make in their favor, but there is just enough talent across the roster to not totally disregard the prospect. Still, I wouldn’t put money on it.

4 – New York Jets

Most power rankings I’ve come across seem to expect nothing but the worst out of the Jets this year. This makes me smile, I’m not afraid to admit, but I also can’t imagine them not being at least competitive and hungry out of the gate. No, it’ll take a handful of mind-boggling mistakes, blowouts and/or hard fought losses to drain the will out of this team. It happened last year, and there’s little doubt in my mind, with the current roster being considered, that it will happen again in 2013. These Jets will most likely be drafting in the top 5 in 2014.

Nick Mangold.

Yeah, that’s about it. He’s the only guy I look at and say “He’s one of the better players at his position in the league”. If your center is the only guy who inspires that confidence on your entire team, what does that say? There is some real potential for improvement, don’t get me wrong,  especially on the defensive side of the ball. Rex Ryan has yet to field a defense that wasn’t one of the best units in the league, and I expect that trend to continue in 2013. Young, up-and-coming pieces such as Muhammad Wilkerson and Quinton Coples bring intensity and disruptive capabilities to the defensive line, while the proven skills of Antonio Cromartie helped not only offset the loss to injury of Darrelle Revis, but helped an otherwise solid secondary post the league’s 2nd best passing yards per game average in 2012 with a paltry 189.8. Of course, this was due in large part to the ease in which opposing offenses ran the ball, but that’s another story altogether.

It may be a stretch to expect great things from either of them in 2013, but there is potential at least for the likes of Geno Smith and Dee Milliner to make solid contributions in their first year. Smith, especially so, has expectations heaped upon him to improve a position that is almost always the first to be blamed for the Jets’ recent woes. Milliner, at first glance, may seem to have bigger shoes to fill, but he is not so much expected to replace Revis as he is to step into Cromartie’s previous spot as the 2nd CB. If he can’t, Kyle Wilson proved at least adequate last year.

Causes for concern:
The offense, almost from top to bottom. As I mentioned just a second ago, the QB position is an unavoidable dilemma. Mark Sanchez has gone from a mostly efficient QB who helped lead his team to back-to-back AFC Championship games to a bit of a running joke amongst fans and foes alike. I won’t bother mentioning specifics, but the combination of horrible on-field play and the locker room back-biting inspires anything but confidence in Sanchez’s ability to improve his game. Just as iffy is the backfield situation, where the consistently underachieving Shonne Greene was shipped out after last season. In his place? Most likely Chris Ivory, who had his moments in a crowded New Orleans backfield over the past few seasons but never was able to show the ability to handle a full workload. At this point, the Jets look to field what might be one of the least effective offenses in the league. It would be a surprise to see anything to the contrary considering the lack of talent at most positions. Santonio Holmes is causing more and more concern for fans as he continues to nurse a back foot injury that has kept him out of action since week 4 of last year.

If you can find a Jets fan who is able to convince you of his or her team being playoff-caliber in 2013, with a straight face,  let them know that Hollywood could always use quality actors. It would take a series of events so unexpected and unbelievable to propel the Jets into the postseason that I almost didn’t want to write this section in at all. Frankly, the management’s penchant for signing aging players to high-money deals, coupled with undeserved confidence in Mark Sanchez, has led the team to the hole they’re in today. New management is attempting to dig their way out of it, and so far have done an admirable job. This year’s draft class has big promise, they’ve cut ties with a lot of financial dead weight, but the wiggle room was too small to turn the tables all in one year. Regardless of how I think 2013 will go for the team, Rex Ryan had better hope his amenable, player-first personality inspires an incredible effort out of his squad; if there was ever a poster child for a lame-duck head coach in the NFL, Rex Ryan in 2013 is it.

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