1. NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS
Offense: QB Tom Brady is without a doubt one of the best QBs in the game. With a running game almost non-existent in 2005, Brady was called up to carry the load, and he responded with a great year. Brady threw for 4,110 yards and 26 touchdowns with a 92.3 QB rating. The Pats selected RB Laurence Maroney as insurance for the elderly Dillon. The receiving body is suspect, except for former Super Bowl MVP Deion Branch. David Givens left for Tennessee, leaving the Pats without a solid # 2 WR. They recruited Chad Jackson to compete with Reche Caldwell. Look for more production from the TE position, where Ben Watson is poised for a breakout season. Daniel Graham is another viable option from the TE position. Brady distributes the ball very well and improves his teammates. As long as he’s healthy, the offense will keep producing.
Defense: This isn’t the same defense that led the Pats to three Super Bowl titles, but it’s also not the same unit that looked awful at times last season. This defense is aging and lacks the LB depth it once had. But Bill Belichick is a defensive guru who won’t let this unit slide too far, despite injuries. DE Richard Seymour leads a strong line d. Rosevelt Colvin is a quality replacement for the late Willie McGinest. Tedy Bruschi returned from a stroke to lead the body of LB. All seven forwards are solid, but the secondary needs to stay healthy in 2006. Rodney Harrison is back from injury and SS veterans Tebucky Jones and CB Eric Warfield are added. This defense will revert to elite status as long as the injury virus does not visit it again.
Special teams: Kicker Adam Vinatieri has left for Indianapolis and the Pats may regret letting him test the free-agent market. They signed former Bucs kicker Martin Gramatica, but you can expect to see other kickers vying for the spot. This will almost certainly come back to haunt them in close games.
Prediction: If Brady and the secondary stay healthy, New England will win the AFC East again. But they better look over their shoulders because Miami is closing the gap.
2. MIAMI DOLPHINS
Offense: The arrival of QB Daunte Culpepper has fueled optimism in Miami. Joey Harrington has also been hired in the event Culpepper isn’t ready for Week One. If Daunte can revert to his previous form, this offense will be a force to be reckoned with. Ricky Williams’ suspension paves the way for RB Ronnie Brown to carry the load. But can you carry that burden? He shared carries at Auburn with Cadillac Williams and shared carries here last season with Ricky Williams. WR Chris Chambers erupted for 82 receptions, 1,118 yards and 11 TDs in 2005. He should easily match those numbers this season. Culpepper threw a lot to TE in Minny, so hope Randy McMichael has a productive season too. Miami added LT LJ Shelton to bolster a promising offensive line.
Defense: Miami was second in the NFL last season and tied a franchise record with 49 sacks, led by 12 by Jason Taylor. This group is aging and lacks quality depth. Taylor wreaked havoc in 2005, moving all over the front line and, at times, falling into cover. LB Zach Thomas is great at reading plays and getting to the ball, but he’s 32 years old and missed a lot in 2005. Youngsters like LB Channing Crowder, DE Rodrique and Manuel Wright need to step up. The high school needs first-round pick Jason Allen to make an immediate impact. This defense still appears to be in a state of transition. Luckily for them, they have the offensively inept Bills and Jets in their division.
Special teams: Wes Welker is a pretty productive kickoff returner. Kicker Olindo Mare made 83.3% of his free throw attempts last season.
Prediction: Miami will definitely finish no worse than second in this division. If the defense plays well, the Dolphins could beat the Patriots and win the AFC East. Expect at least one wild card spot in the playoffs for Miami.
3. BUFFALO TICKETS
Offense: Buffalo’s troubles start at QB. JP Losman was unstable at best in 2005 and needs more time to develop. Kelly Holcomb is only slightly better and I can’t see Craig Nall being more than a third stringer. Perhaps an even bigger problem is the lack of talent and depth along the offensive line. This unit was unable to protect the quarterback or open career lanes for Willis McGahee last season. It is a true testament to his ability that McGahee was able to rush for 1,247 yards without blocking and without help from the passing game. Lee Evans is the go-to WR with Eric Molds in Houston. Peerless Price again competes with Andre Davis for the No. 2 spot in WR. Without protection and without sufficient weapons, this group will fight in an important way.
Defense: The Bills defense couldn’t stop the run or pass last season. His yards allowed per carry went from 3.6 in 2004 to 4.5 last season. Why? Well, I would say that DT Pat Williams going to Minnesota had a lot to do with it. While the Bills allowed almost a full yard per carry more without him, the Vikings cut their yards allowed per carry from 4.6 to 4.0 with Williams pinning the middle. Coincidence? I do not believe it. LB Takeo Spikes returns from an Achilles tendon injury. Buffalo needs you to get back to your game-making style. London Fletcher is also a talent in LB. They still have solid CBs Nate Clements and Terrence McGee in the secondary and draft picks Donte Whitner and Ko Simpson should help this unit improve its performance in 2005. They will need some of their rookies to make an immediate impact if this defense hopes to even come close. to its 2004 productivity.
Special teams: Terrence McGee led the NFL in 2005 with an average kickoff return average of 30.2 yards. Kicker Rian Lindell made 29 of his 35 free throw attempts.
Prediction: too many holes in too many places and too many question marks on both sides of the ball. Buffalo is destined to be chosen in the top ten in the 2007 draft.
4. NEW YORK JETS
Offense: Two shoulder surgeries have left everyone wondering whether or not Chad Pennington is the Jets man. They brought in Patrick Ramsey from the Redskins as insurance, but his ability is also questionable. They might be inclined to throw rookie Kellen Clemens into the fire. That would be a big mistake, in my opinion, behind this offensive line Swiss cheese. Curtis Martin’s streak of 1,000-yard seasons came to an end last season thanks to injuries. At age 33, Martin will see his role reduced to keep him healthy longer. Cedric Houston, Derrick Blaylock and rookie Leon Washington will see carries. WR Laveranues Coles and Justin McCareins are great players, but the QB situation prevents them from producing. Doug Jolley or Chris Baker will have to step up in TE. Recruiting D’Brickashaw Ferguson was a big step in repairing the o line. The 2006 o-line will have a completely new look, which means it will take some time to solidify.
Defense: The Jets are moving to a 3-4 defensive scheme. New coach Eric Mangini used 3-4 in New England and hopes to make it work here. However, changes like this usually take some time to produce positive results. I don’t think the Jets have the right pieces for this puzzle. They lack a massive nose tackle to devour blockers and free LBs to make plays. DT Dewayne Robertson is the closest thing they have, but he suffers from chronic knee ailments. Race D will fight once more. LB Jonathan Vilma is very talented, but 3-4 requires him to take blocks and is too small for that role. Ty Law was released and picked up by the Chiefs, leaving the high school with questions as well. Too many holes and too many changes equals another long season for the D Jets.
Special teams: Justin Miller led the NFL in kickoff return yards with 1,577. He also had a TD. Rookie kicker Mike Nugent made 22 of 28 free throw attempts, including 17 of his last 19 attempts.
Prediction: Like the Bills, the Jets appear to be heading for a top-ten pick in the 2007 draft.
FINAL THOUGHTS: This division is clearly divided in half. The Patriots and Dolphins will fight for the division crown, while the Bills and Jets will fight to stay out of the basement. The Dolphins could very well win the division this year. Both New England and Miami should see action in the playoffs.