2012 All-AFC East Team
In case you missed it by virtue of being in a coma, on a vision quest, or hiding out under the sea, Tim Tebow is now in the AFC East. So the daily drama of the Jets-Patriots rivalry will now have a new angle, one that is semi-competent and occasionally sexy. Be forewarned, lest you turn on ESPN only to be overcome by shirtless Tebow running in the rain. Or birthday party Tebow wearing a funny hat.
While the media’s primary focus will be squarely on Tom Brady’s rotation of hairstyles and Rex Ryan’s Cavalcade of Interpersonal Disasters and Wildcat-related media bans, there are in fact four divisional teams to consider. Although New England is still the team to beat and although the Dolphins are looking like a dog’s dinner at the moment, this quartet should manage to provide some highly competitive and entertaining football in 2012.
It’s unlikely that any other NFL division can compete with the AFC East for sheer drama. In recent memory alone we’ve had the Tuck Rule, Spygate, The Sanchize, Chad Ochocinco, an explicit lack of ring-kissing, Randy Moss, rumors of a move to Canada, Matt Moore’s mustache, Tebow, Santonio Holmes vs. the World, Plax Burress, Chad again (Johnson this time), the Helmet Catch, Rob Gronkowsi’s porn star harem, coaches tripping special teamers, and Parcells being Parcells. I’m sure this omits another dozen or so storylines of great importance, but you get the idea. Surely 2012 will be another year to remember. And these are the players who will indelibly imprint themselves on our football consciousness:
QB: Tom Brady– New England. Really, what were the options here? Ryan Tannehill? Ryan Fitzpatrick? The two-head monster of Sanchez and Tebow? If there was an easier selection to be made, I don’t know what it is.
RB 1: Fred Jackson– Buffalo.
RB 2: Reggie Bush– Miami.
Now here we have an actual debate. There are no elite standouts at the tailback position in the East; instead these teams rely on a stable of players and/or a more workmanlike approach. BenJarvus Green-Ellis, aka Law Firm, has departed for the Cincinnati Bengals, leaving the Pats with a group spearheaded by Stevan Ridley. Luckily Bill Belichick uses the pass to set up the run anyway. Reggie Bush is expected to get the bulk of the carries in Miami, backed up by Daniel Thomas and Steve Slaton. Shonn Greene is the clear-cut number one for the Jets, but doesn’t have F-Jax’s ceiling. The only concern for Jackson fans is C.J. Spiller. How much will the highly-touted speedster do this season, and what might his production mean for Jackson’s carries?
Bush gets the nod over Greene in the second spot for several reasons. A quick stat check shows that Bush slightly outperformed Greene last year (1086 rushing yards to 1054; 5.0 yards/carry to 4.2, 6 TDs each), and before you cite LaDanian Tomlinson’s presence as a limiting factor, remember that LDT had only 280 yards as a runner. Bush is more versatile than Greene, and Greene faces the prospect of Rex Ryan calling Tebow’s number in Wildcat or short-yardage situations. Both Bush and Greene should eclipse 1,000 yards if they stay healthy, but the edge goes to Reg.
FB: John Conner– New York. When not being hunted by Skynet, Conner is a good, solid option at fullback. In all likelihood you won’t hear his name much, but that just means he’s doing his job. He’ll attempt to pave the way for whomever is toting the rock out the Jet’s backfield, even though he’s significantly smaller than Tebow. Also keep an eye on Dolphins rookie Jorvorskie Lane, a large and intriguing individual. He’s slimmed down to about 260, and had some real upside at Texas A&M. He’s half-brothers with Jermichael Finley, so he’s got that going for him too!
WR 1: Wes Welker– New England.
WR 2: Stevie Johnson– Buffalo.
He’s hardly the prototypical receiver in today’s NFL, but the diminutive Welker is still an elite threat. With the variety of looks that New England uses, he should top 100 receptions yet again this year.
As for Johnson, Santonio Holmes might have more raw talent (or maybe his best days are behind him at this point) but the baggage drags him down. Johnson established himself as both a deep threat and a valuable hands guy with back-to-back 1,000 yard seasons in 2010 and 2011.
TE: Rob Gronkowski– New England. Gonk is slightly better than the second best tight end in the AFC East, his teammate Aaron Hernandez. Bill Belichick loves him some tight ends. A combination of absurd size and excellent pass-catching skills make Gronkowski a nightmare matchup.
OT 1: Jake Long– Miami.
OT 2: Nate Solder– New England.
Long is a former All-Pro who remains one of the best linemen in the game. He hasn’t had much to work with in recent years. Dolphins fans are hoping that changes with their first-rounder Ryan Tannehill.
The second spot goes to Solder, though New York’s D’Brickashaw Ferguson could return to form and possibly have a better season. Health issues for fellow Patriot Sebastian Vollmer prevent him from claiming his rightful spot here.
OG 1: Brian Waters– New England.
OG 2: Andy Levitre– Buffalo.
It’s tempting to go with the Pats’ Logan Mankins, whose outstanding career has resulted in All-Pro selections and numerous accolades. But recovering from a torn ACL is never easy. Even if Mankins is ready for week 1, as he hopes to be, he won’t be 100%. Mankins is tough as hell, but Waters is not to be overlooked. He quietly put together some excellent blocking efficiency numbers in 2011.
Levitre started slow but came on strong as the season progressed. His counterpart Chad Rinehart is solid as well, but Levitre has the chance to be recognized as an elite guard this season.
C: Nick Mangold– New York. Still among the league’s elite centers, Mangold has gotten an All-Pro nod in each of the last three seasons.
Defensively, the Jets boast the division’s best unit overall. Last season they were fifth in yards allowed and yards per play, although they ranked only 20th in points surrendered. New York coughed up 30 or more point in five different games, something that surely rankled Rex Ryan. Miami, meanwhile,was surprisingly stout in terms of scoring, ranking sixth in points allowed. But between the 20 yardlines the Dolphins were less successful, finishing 15th in total yards allowed. New England and Buffalo were revolving doors in the yardage department, ranking 31st and 26th respectively. Buffalo was also overly generous with points, yielding better than 27 per game. Still, both the Bills and Pats have made progress heading into this season. Perhaps they’ll be a bit stingier in 2012:
DE 1: Mario Williams– Buffalo.
DE 2: Cameron Wake– Miami.
Earlier this year, the Bills made a monster acquisition by signing Williams to a six-year deal. Now, in addition to a stalwart interior, their d-line boasts serious outside pressure. That won’t be good for any of the division rivals. Buffalo ranked 29th in 2011, mustering a total of 29 sacks. Williams should be able to help the team improve on that number.
Down south, Cameron Wake has emerged as one of the better down linemen in the league. Wake is a workout warrior who applies his physique on the field, combining strength with quickness to devastating effect. After finishing third in the league with 14 sacks in 2010, which was also a Pro Bowl year, Wake got a little more attention last year and saw his production dip. But that’s not a reflection on his skills.
DT 1: Kyle Williams– Buffalo.
DT 2: Marcel Dareus– Buffalo.
Don’t run inside on the Bills. Or if you’re going to, make sure to hit your blocks. Dareus had a successful rookie campaign last year, posting 5.5 sacks while getting the hang of the pro game. He should be even better this year.
Meanwhile, Buffalo’s other Williams (who is in a contract year by the way) will attempt to return to his 2010 Pro Bowl form after an achilles injury ruined his 2011 season. Perhaps it’s a stretch to think he’ll be fully recovered, but his progress has been good and Mario will be demanding most of the attention focused on the d-line.
OLB 1: Jerod Mayo– New England.
OLB 2: Nick Barnett– Buffalo.
The AFC East is not a division of elite linebackers. Call it the realm of the very good. After a hugely productive 2010 campaign (Pro-Bowl, 114 solo tackles) Mayo backslid a bit in 2011. At least on paper. In reality he’s been a very effective part of the much-maligned Patriots defense. While Tom Brady and company spend the year lighting up the opposition, New England’s stop unit was returning the favor, yielding yardage in chunks. And while a 13-3 result is hard to argue with, Mayo and his teammates will be out to prove that they’re no pushovers.
Barnett will play a key role in a Buffalo defense that, as is evident from this list, should be dramatically improved in 2012. Barnett is able to provide solid pass coverage, but can just as easily sneak into the backfield in a blitz package. In fact, he could make an excellent foil now that Mario Williams is in town. Barnett has good lateral speed and should help the Bills’ front seven control the short field.
ILB 1: Karlos Dansby– Miami.
ILB 2: David Harris– New York.
Both Dansby and Harris are reliable veterans who know how to patrol the middle of the defense. Dansby’s primary tool is size; at 6’4”, 250 pounds he knows how to leave memorable hits on ball carriers. After finishing second on the team with 77 solo tackles in 2010, he led the Dolphins with 89 last year.
Harris is more of a jack-of-all-trades, as his 2011 numbers suggest. Five sacks, four interceptions, a defensive TD, and 85 total tackles shows the range of damage he can inflict on opposing offenses. The Jets have a strong defensive unit, lessening the pressure on any one player and freeing up guys like Harris to do what they do best. Look for another strong season in 2012.
CB 1: Darrelle Revis– New York.
CB 2: Devin McCourty– New England.
Revis is widely regarded as the game’s best corner, even though he struggled a bit through the second half of last year. He saw his counterpart, Antonio Cromartie, become more productive as the year went on, but remember that Revis was suffering from a balky knee. When he’s 100%, Revis has unmatched potential. Most teams know enough to throw away from him, but the fact is he can’t be avoided all the time. A member of four consecutive Pro Bowls and three straight All-Pro teams, Revis is the king until someone dethrones him.
McCourty earned a Pro Bowl berth of his own in 2010, racking up seven picks and forcing defenses to seek alternatives last year. With emerging talent Kyle Arrington lined up on the opposite side, McCourty may enjoy more opportunities in 2012. Last season it was Arrington who snatched seven INTs, proving to opponents that they won’t succeed simply by avoiding McCourty.
FS: Jairus Byrd– Buffalo. One of the most exciting young defensive backs in football, Byrd was an All-Pro selection and Defensive Rookie of the year in 2009. Since then he’s been polishing his game while offenses tried to avoid him on the field. 2012 could be his most complete season yet, and the Bills are poised to have a scary defensive backfield.
SS: George Wilson– Buffalo. While New England’s Patrick Chung would have been good here, he’s transitioning to the role from free safety. He also missed a lot of time last year. Wilson has been ever bit as good of late, and could be in line for his best season yet in 2012. Wilson has all the tools a good strong safety needs, not to mention an endorsement from Bleacher Report. What else is there?
Finally, we come to the often overlook element of the game. The third unit, if you will. Special teams play a significant role in all games, but particularly when other factors like weather come into play. With three of the four AFC teams playing in a bad winter weather zone, kicking, punting, and coverage become even more critical.
Specialist: Matthew Slater– New England. Slater was a Pro Bowl selection last season because, simply put, he did everything the team needed him to do. And did it well. At the start of the year it looked like he might be a receiving threat, but when injuries started piling up in the defensive backfield, Slater stepped in as a stopgap safety. His greatest contributions came on special teams. As a team captain, he was a vocal leader, a part-time return man, and a tireless pursuit man on kick coverage.
Return Man: Joe McKnight– New York. McKnight finished 2011 as the AFC’s best return man, trailing only Minnesota’s Percy Harvin in yards per kick return (31.6). He accumulated more than 1,000 return yards, highlighted by a 107-yard TD run against the Ravens.
K: Dan Carpenter– Miami. Despite missing a pair of games, Carpenter attempted 34 field goals last year and missed only five. His 85.3 success rate ranked 12th in the NFL but was the best in the AFC East, considering the big picture. Buffalo’s Rian Lindell was slightly better at 86.7% but had only 15 attempts in eight games played. Carpenter’s level of effort was far more impressive. Factor in what he means to the Miami offense and he’s an easy choice here. New England’s Stephen Gostkowski was nearly as good as Carpenter, statistically, but the Pats could get along just fine without him given their offense. Carpenter’s points played (and will continue to play) a far greater role in his team’s fate.
P: Brandon Fields– Miami. It’s no surprise that Miami sweeps the kicking categories. With a lackluster 6-10 effort last year, kicking and punting may have been the highlight of the season. Fields was third in the NFL and best in the division with a 48.8 yards per punt average in 2011.