Last year, I was all panic about the 2013 NFL Season. Aaron Hernandez was on trial, the Patriots were about to force Tom Brady to throw to three rookie wide receivers, and Tim Tebow was still in a Patriots uniform. I was frantically watching every preseason game, and throwing every possible egg into the Zach Sudfeld basket (yeesh).
But now, I’m in a completely Zen mode.
The Patriots just grabbed the cornerback that terrorized them for years and revamped their secondary? Of course, that’s the way of the world.
The Miami Dolphins’ most important free agent signing was a man more renowned for an ungodly amount of tears than for his actual play? Just let it flow through you.
A young and talented Buffalo Bills are about to be bought and moved to Canada by a feather-haired 80s rock star? Repeat your mantra, breathe in, breathe out.
Alright I’m stressed out again. Here are the top players by position, forming the All-AFC East Team.
Quick confession: I paused before writing Tom Brady’s name. Let’s be real, fellow Pats fans, last year’s offense was shaky, shaky, shaky. There were times when Tom Terrific looked positively human. Is he really still the best QB in the AFC East, after all of these years?
Then I had two thoughts:
1. This has been beaten into the ground, but Tom Brady had it rough last year. Your revolutionary two tight end system that made your offense explosive? We’re going to take them away. A once rock-solid offensive line? Shockingly permeable, allowing Brady to be sacked a whopping 40 times. Wily veteran wide receivers? Nope, rookies on rookies on rookies. It was only when the running game found some consistency that Brady was able to find his rhythm, and then he turned into Ares The God of War again, and the Pats made another AFC Championship. Is he the same Brady as five years ago? No, of course not. But he’s still one of the very best.
2. I mean, have you seen the other QBs in this division. The best thing you could say is that they all have their best years of football in front of them. But that’s because the years of football behind them are kinda crappy. EJ Manuel could be a serviceable starter in time, but his knee injuries last year didn’t leave the team with much hope to go on. Geno Smith is the very definition of a work-in-progress, and his rookie season was mildly disastrous, though mostly for reasons out of his control. The QB out of these three that I have the most faith in is Ryan Tannehill. Put him on a team with a mildly acceptable offensive line, and his numbers and accuracy should improve. But that’s not going to happen this year in Miami.
So yeah, Tom Brady’s the best QB in the AFC East. Ho hum.
There are some bad positional groups in this division (just wait until we get to the Offensive Guard section. Yikes.), but one of the absolute weakest is Running Back.
Last year, I pinpointed CJ Spiller as the best running back in the division, because I thought that if he got the carries of an average NFL RB, he’d have a really great year. Of course he got hurt, and then still split time with Fred Jackson, so that didn’t happen. The Miami Dolphins are still hoping on Lamar Miller fulfilling his promise (bad news) while bringing in Knowshon Moreno as a veteran stabilizer (worse news), and sticking both behind a tattered offensive line (worst news). In some alternate universe, Chris Johnson and Chris Ivory would be a destructive combo, but in that alternate universe, Chris Johnson doesn’t treat the line of scrimmage like a dog wearing an electric collar warily eying the fence (sidenote: did you know that Chris Ivory was the brightest spot on an 8-8 team? Again, I repeat, 8-and-freaking-8. Rex Ryan is a sorcerer.) And, lastly, the Patriots semi-wisely let another team overpay for Winnebago Blount, but that puts all the pressure in the world on Stevan Ridley to prove himself as a reliable starter. Shane Vereen is too much of a specialist to count here, and James White (while all reports are up) isn’t exactly a dynamo. So Patriots fans will most likely be underwhelmed by the running game for another year, while licking their lips for the unbelievably stacked 2015 RB class.
So who do I choose? I’m gonna say Spiller again. Cuz I’m masochistic like that.
So let’s say this hypothetical All-AFC East team has a three WR set. I want three types: a long, tall red-zone threat; an uber-quick slot receiver with mitts of steel; and one wideout who is completely electric, a home-run threat every single time he has the ball in his hands.
The first two are easy to pick out. Aaron Dobson would’ve been a shaky-at-best insert, but the addition of Eric Decker to the Jets makes him an easy choice. Even though his stats will take a dive without Peyton throwing him the ball, the 6’3 27-year old will finally give Geno Smith a bonafide target in the red zone. The slot receiver is also an easy pick, as Julian Edelman exploded for a 105 catch-1056 yard season, becoming the safety blanket that Tom Brady needed so badly with Wes Welker in Denver, and Danny Amendola and Rob Gronkowski yo-yoing on and off the field with injury. Brian Hartline‘s another consideration here, as he’s one of the most underheralded receivers in the NFL, but Edelman has entered a whole new level.
That third receiver? The electric guy? That’s an interesting debate. You could argue that an on-top-of-his-game Mike Wallace fits that description to a T. He’s someone who can stretch the field, run like a demon with the ball in his hands, and be a perfect complement to Hartline. The problem is, Wallace was a complete disaster in his first year in Miami. Dropped passes, mistimed routes, a noticeable lack of effort; all made Wallace more of a hindrance than the first real weapon that Ryan Tannehill could play with.
And anyways, as a Patriots fan, I can tell you that Mike Wallace isn’t the scariest wideout in the AFC East. It’s Sammy Watkins. If reports out of training camp are true, then he’ll be giving opposing defenses fits, and finally add some dynamism to a thoroughly underwhelming Bills offense. Sure he’s a rookie. Sure EJ Manuel’s throwing to him. But he’s got the most raw talent in the division, and by a wide margin at that.
Last year I disqualified Rob Gronkowski from this list because he was injured heading into Week 1. With all reports saying he should be ready, he’s an easy pick as the top Tight End in the division. He’s just bigger, more athletic, more explosive, and more of a badass than the others. If he stays healthy (I’m currently knocking on all the possible wood), he’ll make the Pats offense terrifying again.
It doesn’t hurt that he has some pretty weak competition. All that talk about Jace Amaro being a project? True and then some, as he’s reportedly been a mess so far. Scott Chandler isn’t exactly frightening. Charles Clay is awesome (I would kill for him to be in New England in that move role), but it’ll be interesting to see if he can keep it up as defenses focus on him more in their gameplans. He’s a sleeper pick, but he doesn’t touch Gronk.
Finally, a crowded group. Nate Solder takes a spot, as he makes leaps and bounds towards the upper echelon of blind-side tackles. He has his few off-moments when pulling from the left side, but he’s a dynamite pass-blocker and is a remarkable athlete for his size, and has great footwork.
The other spot has heavy competition. Branden Albert was overpaid, but he’s still a solid, if not exciting, player. Tyson Clabo wasn’t the weakest link on that Dolphins line by any means, and Marcus Cannon was a fine sub for the Pats, and would start for many other teams.
It comes down to three players however: D’Brickashaw Ferguson, Sebastian Vollmer, and Cordy Glenn. And here’s the fundamental question: for 2014, do you bet on rebounding from a down year, recovering from an injury, or a young player finally taking the leap?
Since Ferguson’s success has always been more from extreme athleticism than refined technique, it could be easy to see last year’s struggle as a logical step in the wrong direction, as age begins to take hold. It may have been an aberration, but maybe not. The Vollmer-Glenn discussion is more interesting. Before his injury, Vollmer was again making a case for being the best right tackle in the NFL, and certainly the best pass-blocking one. But that injury was absolutely brutal (I’m still cringing after all these months). Glenn, on the other hand, made such huge improvements in his sophomore season, that the sky might be the limit. For someone who’s 6’5/345 he’s unbelievably athletic, and, with more seasoning, his technique will catch up to it, even though he’s advanced there as well.
I’ll go with Glenn, only because I want a point in the “Alex isn’t a homer” column before we get to the defense.
Ugh. What a mess. Last year I was so upset by this group that I put down one player who was no longer in the division (Andy Levitre) and one retired player (Brandon Moore) out of sheer desperation. And that was before Dan Connolly’s level of play fell of a cliff, and before Richie Incognito…well you know.
So I’ll keep this quick. Logan Mankins locks down one spot off of reputation alone. He had a down year, especially for him, last season, but was still a bull on the field and a locker room leader. The other spot…hell I don’t know. Willie Colon is…fine. Kraig Urbik is solid, despite spelling Kraig with a K, which should disqualify him right off the bat.
Screw it, I’m going with Billy Turner, the Miami rookie out of North Dakota State. Turner’s not even guaranteed a starting position yet (he sits behind Dallas Thomas), but he’s a monster of a lineman, his 6’5/315 frame begging to be filled out. If his technique ever catches up with his athleticism he’ll be a Pro-Bowler, no question.
A bit of a bummer, as Mike Pouncey would’ve been the clear winner of this position in the division, off-field issues aside. But a hip injury will have him out at least for the first half of the season, and most likely longer than that.
But, luckily, there’s a fine replacement in the New York Jets’ Nick Mangold. Mangold, entering his thirties, is starting to show signs of decline physically, but he’s still one of the smartest pass-protectors in the game, is a terrific teammate, and will be key to Geno Smith’s development as a quarterback. With Eric Wood and Ryan Wendell both coming off down years, Mangold is the easy pick here.
Now we’re talking. The AFC East has a glut of uber-talented defensive tackles. The Miami Dolphins have a solid duo or Randy Starks and Jared Odrick who formed a freakish trio with the now departed Paul Soliai to both stuff the run and get at the QB with ease. The New England Patriots brought back Vince Wilfork, who, at the very least, is still a dependable run-stopper, while also drafting the electric Dominique Easley. And the Jets have Damon “Big Snacks” Harrison. And trust me, I would’ve but him here just because of his nickname, even if he wasn’t also one of the better run-defenders in the NFL.
But the best DT duo, perhaps in the NFL, is made up of Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus in Buffalo. Even with Williams playing out of position in a 3-4 scheme last year, the two combined for 18 sacks and 88 tackles last season, with Williams as a sneaky interior rusher and Dareus gobbling up running backs with ease. With Jim Schwartz bringing a 4-3 base back to the Bills, Williams should shift back into the interior, where he and Dareus will be absolutely unstoppable.
The division’s DT class, however, has nothing on the defensive ends. I mean, I don’t even know where to begin.
In Buffalo, Mario Williams had a huge return to form, picking up 13 sacks, his most since 2007, and, at 29, isn’t exactly battling Father Time yet. His teammate, Jerry Hughes, in his first year in Buffalo after three disappointing ones in Indianapolis, racked up 10 sacks (though, obviously, having the linemates that he does might inflate that stat). In Miami, Cameron Wake is still absolutely terrifying coming off the edge, still picking up 8.5 sacks despite every offensive line focusing solely on him, and is even improving his run defense.In New England, Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich are a tremendous pair, hanging in there even when the interior defensive line completely fell apart and they were consistently double teamed. With a healthy Vince Wilfork, Tommy Kelly, and Dominique Easley, that opens up many more opportunities this year. And it’s absolutely unfair for one team to have both Muhammad Wilkerson and Sheldon Richardson on the same team, especially if that team is the Jets (this is horrifying to me). No one is running on the Jets. No one.
So who do you pick? Well I’ll take Jones/Nink off the board, if only to stack up more points in the “Alex is not a homer” board (wait for it), and Hughes isn’t quite there yet. Let’s say I had to pick one pass-rusher (Wake, Williams) and one run-stuffer (Richardson, Wilkerson), just for variety’s sake. I’ll go Wake, because of his consistency, and Richardson, because of the chance he takes the sophomore leap and becomes even better. But it’s close, damn close.
So here’s where I cash in all of my “I’m not a Homer” chips, and make one rash declarative statement: The New England Patriots have the best starting 4-3 linebacking trio in football.
Surprised? You shouldn’t be. The Patriots lost Brandon Spikes, the division’s best run-stopper, and they might be better for it. Spikes’ absence clears the way for Dont’a Hightower, who is just as skilled a run defender while offering more in coverage and rushing the passer, to parade the middle. It also means that Jamie Collins, in his second season, will be put back into a starting position, where he was dynamite in his rookie season, showing off his immense athleticism while also getting to the passer often.
And Jerod Mayo, back from his season-ending pectoral injury, will undoubtedly return to being one of the best all-around linebackers in the league, along with being the co-leader of the defense next to Vince Wilfork. Together, they’re a devastating group, while also being the top 3 linebackers in the division separately as well.
Of course, it doesn’t hurt their cause that Kiko Alonso is out for the season, and that Brandon Spikes is a huge liability in coverage. The Jets’ David Harris took a step back last season, and the Dolphins’ Dannell Ellerbe didn’t even sniff the expectations that his contract had raised. There are some promising up-and-comers (Buffalo’s Nigel Bradham and Miami’s Jordie Tripp, my 2014 Draft man-crush), but for now the Patriots’ trio reigns supreme.
I have never been this giddy about a Patriots’ free-agent signing in my lifetime. Asante Samuel, Ty Law, Maurice Hurst…none could touch Darrelle Revis in his prime, maybe not even the great Mike Haynes. He’s unparalleled in man-coverage, and he hasn’t lost a step in seven seasons. Losing Aqib Talib and then adding Darrelle Revis is absurd and unfair to the rest of the division. I’m pretty pumped, you guys.
As for the other spot, there’s an interesting discussion to be made. I think Brandon Browner is a really interesting player, and he’s in similarly great situation as he was in Seattle, as Revis and McCourty will allow him to go rogue every now and again. But he’s suspended for the early part of the season. Stephon Gilmore should end up being one of the best young cornerbacks in the league, but I’d rather see how he rebounds from his injury-plagued 2013 season.
But really, the final spot is a toss-up between Miami’s Brent Grimes and Buffalo’s Leodis McKelvin. There may not have been a better comeback story in 2013 than Brent Grimes, who, after being known as one of the best cornerbacks in the league as a 2011 Falcon, but was knocked out for the entire 2012 season. He rebounded to terrific form in Miami, showing just how much of a pest he is in man-coverage despite his small stature. McKelvin, on the other hand, was inching slowly towards being a full-on bust, after 5 seasons of being used mainly as a return specialist, but disappointing on the field, playing well below his No. 11 pick. But last year he put it all together: the same quickness that helps him in return allows him to stick onto wideouts in man-coverage with ease, and he has great hands as well.
If I had to pick between the two, I’d lean towards McKelvin, who offers a bit more in run defense, but it’s close.
Last year I somehow forgot to list Devin McCourty as one of the top safeties in the AFC East. I honestly don’t understand what I was thinking. I mean, putting down Jairus Byrd was understandable, but Reshad Jones?? RESHAD JONES?? I’m an imbecile.
Anyway, I get to fix it here. Devin McCourty is one of the top 5 safeties in the NFL, his coverage skills are only second to Earl Thomas III (who is a cyborg, so no fair), and he’s quickly matured into a clubhouse leader. He’s an easy pick.
As for the other safety spots, it’s a somewhat crowded field, if not an overly talented one. I’m not tearing down my bronze statue of Duron Harmon just yet, but it’ll be interesting to see how he does in a starting role for a full year. Calvin Pryor is already the most terrifying safety in the league, not because of his talent, but because I don’t think he cares about being fined at all, and is going to just bring the hammer all game (and if your team’s top receivers are a tight end with injury problems and two wideouts who are 5’11/190, that’s a nightmare). And Reshad Jones is fine, even if I can’t tell if he’s actually all that bad or if Jeff Ireland just ruins all players for me.
But I’m going to take Aaron Williams with the other selection. It’ll be tough for him now that Jairus Byrd has left the team, but he’s the best strong safety in the division. With very sound tackling skills, and a nose for zone coverage and getting after the running back, the 24-year old Texas grad is finally coming into his own.
It was a tossup between the New York Jets’ Nick Folk and the New England Patriots’ Stephen Gostkowski for the best kicker in the division, but I gave the edge to Ghost because of his absurd 158 points last season and…well his nickname is Ghost. And as much as I love Ryan Allen, the Dolphins’ Brandon Fields is on an entirely different level of punter-excellence.
Meanwhile, the division’s kick returners aren’t exactly an impressive bunch. Leodis McKelvin will most likely be used less there as he takes on a bigger role on defense, and the Josh Cribbs experiment in New York flamed out almost immediately. Picking between the four leading candidates (Patriots’ Josh Boyce, Dolphins’ Marcus Thigpen, Jets’ Jacoby Ford, Bills’ Marquise Goodwin), I’d go with Goodwin for his unreal speed, even though Ford could be a sleeper here.
So for a final tally:
And predicted standings:
But what do you think? Anyone I missed? Anyone who doesn’t belong on this list? Any angry Jets fans (scoreboard!)?
Give us your comments below, and find me on twitter @iSportsPeters
The Best Players in the NFL by Division