I really didn’t want to be thinking about football right now. I don’t want to get into all of the problems surrounding the New England Patriots (let’s just say that about a month ago I wrote that the Patriots’ signing of Tim Tebow had ruined my summer. Now he’s not even in the top ten biggest issues this offseason). I’ve done a really good job on concentrating on the Red Sox. I’m already scouting college basketball players for The Great NBA Tanking of 2014. I’m even considering buying a Loui Errikson jersey.
And yet I’ve been asked to assemble the preseason All-AFC East Team for the 2013-2014 season. As much as I’d like to submit the entire Jets roster just to heap more bad karma on them, that wouldn’t be very professional. So it’s time for me to shave off my comically long beard, sell my hermit’s cabin in Vermont, and come out of football retirement to write this article. LEGGO!
Quarterback: Tom Brady, New England Patriots
And it’s not even close. Though to be fair, the QB situation in the AFC East is a little nebulous. I don’t trust any of the happy practice photos coming from the Jets camp, Geno Smith and Mark Sanchez are not fine with the situation they’re in. Until one leaves, the QB controversy stink will hang over this entire season. If there’s an EJ Manuel Train, I’m not on it, and I didn’t even realize Kevin Kolb was with the Bills. Ryan Tannehill has a ton of potential (though this past game against the Cowboys didn’t exactly boost the hopes of Dolphins fans), but this season it’s still all about Tom Terrific. Somewhat because of the massive chip on his shoulder after last year’s failures and rampant speculation that he can’t lead this new offense, but mostly because he’s one of the top five quarterbacks of all time. So, you know.…Moving on.
Running back: CJ Spiller, Buffalo Bills
CJ Spiller is a scary, scary man. 1,244 yards, 6.0 yards per carry, 6 rushing TDs, and super productive as a receiver. And that’s in only 207 attempts, because he has Fred Jackson poaching runs from him! He’s a fantasy demon, and in Doug Marrone’s faster, more run-heavy system (and as Fred Jackson gets one year older) Spiller should absolutely shine. I would have loved to put Stevan Ridley here, but he’s a little less established, and now that he doesn’t have Wes Welker, Aaron Hernandez, Danny Woodhead, and most likely Rob Gronkowski to distract defenses, he may have some initial troubles. Also look out for Lamar Miller, who’s majorly fast and could be a potential breakout candidate.
Wide receiver: Mike Wallace, Miami Dolphins, Stevie Johnson, Buffalo Bills, Danny Amendola, New England Patriots
Not a terrible group, though certainly not on par with other divisions. Mike Wallace should be a fun acquisition for the Dolphins, and we should see an immediate bump in Tannehill’s stats; his undeniable physical skills are a huge asset.
Was the price the Dolphins paid for him worth it? Not really, especially with Brian Hartline having a similar set of talents for a lot less money. But he’s certainly one of the top three in the AFC East.
Stevie Johnson, while an occasional idiot (see: Patriots tweet), still had a great 2012 season (1,046 yards, 6 TDs) and should be fine under Doug Marrone.
Danny Amendola’s not exactly a sure thing, but he’s not the walking injury threat that some have said he is. He has Wes Welker’s slot skills, but also the ability to move to the outside. Amendola put up 666 yards and 3 TD in 11 games with Sam Bradford throwing to him. Imagine what Brady can do with him…
Just missing the cut: Santonio Holmes (Jets) is a great wideout but he had a shortened season due to injury, and the QB situation certainly muddles things a bit. The aforementioned Brian Hartline had an awesome 2012, but Mike Wallace’s presence will hit his stats hard. And I would have been laughed at/fired if I had put Kenbrell Thompkins anywhere near the top three, but I’d like to mention him here for a future “I told you so”.
Tight end: Dustin Keller, Miami Dolphins*
I’d like to be very VERY clear. Rob Gronkowski is far, far away the best tight end, not only in the AFC East, but in the NFL. He’s pretty much revolutionized the position, is a monster at any part of the field, has the single most cathartic TD celebration in the NFL next to Arian Foster’s bow, and is maybe one year away from making a Gronkowski-Brothers-do-Jackass deal with MTV2, which the entire New England region would watch in a mixture of jubilation and constant fear that one water-skiing prank gone wrong and he would explode like Belloq opening the Ark.
But to be fair this team should be able to play in Week 1. So Keller is the less exciting replacement. He should do fine freed of the karmic mess in New York and stretch the field nicely for Ryan Tannehill. Or maybe Michael Egnew steps up and takes his plays. Or Kellen Winslow rejuvenates, or Scott Chandler….you know what I’m a little too depressed about this position. Onward!
*(Update 8/20: As noted by my editor and by Rooster and Ken Mac in the comments section, I was definitely looking at outdated rosters for both the Dolphins and the Bills. This mistake is pretty inexcusable. But in my defense, I wrote this section during Thursday night’s Pats-Bucs game, and may have blacked out during all of Tebow’s series. So there’s that.
Instead of the out-for-the-season Keller, throw in the Bills’ Scott Chandler. He’s…fine. Also accidentally put in Andy Levitre, but more on him below. Moving forward…)
Offensive tackles: D’Brickashaw Ferguson, New York Jets, Nate Solder, New England Patriots
The first Jet on the team! Exciting! Optimism! Maybe Fireman Ed will come back!
D’Brickashaw Ferguson is hands down one of the best left tackles in the NFL, a steady Pro-Bowl attendee who restructured his contract to help the Jets, is by all accounts a great guy, and wins any and every awesome name contest ever. If I told you I was making a movie about a guy named D’Brickashaw Ferguson you’d immediately picture Terry Crews wrestling six bad guys to the ground at once before screaming triumphantly to the heavens right? Just me? Whatever, Ferguson belongs on this list.
As does Nate Solder, who is one of the rising offensive lineman in the NFL. At 6-foot-8, 319 pounds, he’s a true mountain of a man. He’s improving as a pass-protector and has nowhere to go but up. Alongside Logan Mankins on the blind side, the offensive line shouldn’t be a concern for the Pats this year. Just missing are Sebastian Vollmer (who should bounce back from injury handily) and Cordy Glenn (who we should see make the leap in his second year).
Offensive guards: Andy Levitre*, Buffalo Bills, Logan Mankins, New England Patriots
Andy Levitre is one of the few sure things on the Bills offensive line, and is an amazing pass blocker, which will be huge as the Buffalo will either put rookie EJ Manuel or human tackling dummy Kevin Kolb under center. I had Logan Mankins and New York Jets’ guard Brandon Moore in a toss-up. So I went with Mankins. Why? Because it’s my column and my team. Na-na-na-boo-boo.
*(So as mentioned above, I accidentally put Andy Levitre here after consulting an outdated roster due to Tebow Trauma. Levitre signed a 6yr/46.8mil contract with Tennessee, which frankly, if his knee improves, may be a steal. Also this definitely rocks the Bills a bit. Without Levitre, I have a whole lot less confidence in CJ Spiller, am greatly worried about EJ Manuel and Kevin Kolb’s safety, and take back my enthusiasm for Cordy Glenn’s improvement. Huge loss.
I’m also told by commenter nate that Brandon Moore has retired as well. My point is that the offensive line on this AFC East Team is a goddamn mess. So I don’t know….Kraig Urbik? I hate to start anyone whose name is Kraig with a K, but it’s obviously slim pickings, especially since Dan Connolly is ineligible due to the Gronk Rule. I don’t know. I’m having trouble here, guys. )
Center: Mike Pouncey, Miami Dolphins
Absolute beast. Holds his ground in the pass block and adept at recognizing blitzes. Can move in the run, and will make Lamar Miller/Donald Thomas look great this year. This is weirdly a strong position for the AFC East, as Nick Mangold, Ryan Wendell, and Eric Wood are all really solid centers.
Nose tackle: Vince Wilfork, New England Patriots
1) He’s coming off an injury on his heel, which for a defensive tackle is kind of a big deal 2) As far as I can tell, Mike Pettine’s defensive system can best be described as “I don’t know.” And I refuse to bet on I don’t know.
On a pure talent level, you could argue for the younger Williams. But for now, this is still Vince’s spot. Easily the most lovable man on the New England Patriots, who eats up running backs for breakfast, lunch, dinner, AND DESSERT, who is co-captain next to Tom Freakin’ Brady, who moves faster than any man in his size should ever move, and who was on the Pro-Bowl team in 2007, 2009, 2010, 2011, and 2012. As the Patriots defense gets younger and faster, Belichick will rely on Wilfork to be the heart of the D-Line for as long as Wilfork is able and willing, and after that, he’ll slide right into a role within the Patriots organization.
Defensive ends: Muhammad Wilkerson, New York Jets, Cameron Wake, Miami Dolphins
I know this doesn’t exactly work since New York works out of the 3-4 and Miami out of the 4-3, but whatever. Wilkerson is absolutely frightening, and at the age of 24, still has an immense amount of unlocked potential. Plus DC Dennis Thurman has said that, with a new diet and fitness program, he’s in the best shape of his life. (Insert Rex Ryan joke here) He scares me more than any other defensive lineman in the AFC East.
That is, except for Cameron Wake, who is a monstrous pass-rusher, and can use his quickness to slip by blockers or back into running plays, and strong enough to rip right through them. I don’t care that I somehow made this AFC East defense a 3-4, I’m still putting him in there, out of sheer talent and the gigantic chip on his shoulder after years in the Canadian Football League. And yes, I feel like I’ve let down New England for not putting Chandler Jones here. I’m sorry.
Outside linebackers: Jerod Mayo, New England Patriots, Don’t’a Hightower, New England Patriots
Yeah, yeah, this reeks of homerism. If Vince Wilfork is the heart of the New England Patriots defense, then Jerod Mayo is their head.
A ridiculously sure tackler and with exceptional vision, Mayo makes plays all over the field at will. He’s smart in coverage and is strong enough to go through blockers if called upon to rush the passers, even if his true calling is stopping the run.
On the other side of things, we have Hightower, who had an underrated rookie season in New England. Like Mayo, he was a consistent tackler who hit hard. He looked good against the run, and downright great against the pass. He’s also versatile, able to go down on the D-Line, and put pressure on the QB. With the addition of Jamie Collins through the draft, the Patriots should be set at linebacker for a long time.
(Though that doesn’t mean the Pats defense is going to be fantastic. As my fellow beleaguered Pats fan, French, points out, “This is the same exact group who were barely league-average last year. Just because the offense is suddenly a mess doesn’t make the D the model of consistency. Why are we supposed to be excited again?” Woof. It’s a great time to be a Pats fan.)
Middle linebackers: Danell Ellerbe, Miami Dolphins, Brandon Spikes, New England Patriots
I had a bit of trouble here. It all came down to three inside-linebackers: Spikes, new Miami pickup Ellerbe, and New York Jet David Harris.
As intriguing as Ellerbe is, how much of his success was because of the defense around him? Was he worth the contract Miami signed him to? (Answers: I’d say a lot and absolutely no). However, he’s a serious threat to rush the passer and is an explosive athlete.
David Harris is coming off a down season, and doesn’t have the speed to keep up with receivers. Of course, neither does Spikes, but no one lays down the hammer in the AFC East like the Patriots’ middle linebacker. Alongside Vince Wilfork, no one runs down the middle against the Pats, it just doesn’t happen. Put him next to Ellerbe and you’ve got a solid linebacking core.
Cornerbacks: Antonio Cromartie, New York Jets, Stephon Gilmore, Buffalo Bills
Cromartie had a remarkably successful season for the Jets, even without playing with Revis Island. He looked good in coverage, still using his elite athleticism and height to go up against receivers much stronger than him. He also played surprisingly well against the run and missed a lot fewer tackles than in previous seasons. Gilmore, meanwhile, is quickly becoming one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL. He played decently in coverage for a rookie, his speed helping more than his instincts, but he really shone as a tackler, showing off some truly nasty hits on receivers.
Safeties: Jairus Byrd, Buffalo Bills, Reshad Jones, Miami Dolphins
Surprise, surprise, no Patriots in the secondary. Jairus Byrd is the best coverage safety in the NFL, allowing a passer rating of just 56.9 last year and five interceptions. He’s also tremendous in run support and is a great tackler.
Alongside him we have Reshad Jones. I’ll be honest, I had no idea who Reshad Jones was until he got signed on August 5th to a 4yr/$30mil contract extension. He had four interceptions and 94 tackles last season, which is certainly great, but I’m not exactly sure if he’s as good as he’s being paid to be (though that’s probably because Jeff Ireland is spending millions like they’re Brewster’s). Though now that George Wilson has fled Buffalo for Tennessee, and since it’s too early to declare Duron Harmon the next great safety (I can barely contain myself), he doesn’t have a ton of competition.
Bill Belichick, New England Patriots
Don’t be silly.
So there you have it, a weird year for the AFC East. For fun, let’s break down team representatives.
New England Patriots: (8) Brady, Amendola, Solder, Mankins, Wilfork, Mayo, Hightower, Spikes.
Buffalo Bills: (6) Spiller, Johnson, Chandler, Urbik, Gilmore, Byrd
Miami Dolphins: (5) Wallace, Pouncey, Wake, Ellerbe, Jones
New York Jets: (3) Ferguson, Wilkerson, Cromartie
And here’s a photo of Bill Belichick in high school.
And finally my AFC East Predictions
Have a different pick? Think someone I didn’t mention is ready for a breakout year? Are you the one Jets fan with hope left in his/her soul? Leave a comment below and we’ll discuss it in the traditional internet fashion: angrily and with emoticons.