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13 May 2009

Four Downs: AFC East

by Sean McCormick

Buffalo Bills

The two goals of the offseason were to add pass rush to a defense that sacked the quarterback on only 4.7 percent of opposing pass plays, and to strengthen an offensive line that failed to convert too many times in short-yardage situations. The Bills dedicated the first day of their draft to that end, using first-round picks on Penn State defensive end Aaron Maybin and Louisville center/guard Eric Wood, and then trading into the second round to select Oregon State's Andy Levitre. Problems solved? Not necessarily. There were mixed reviews on Maybin, who played at 240 pounds in college and who struggled to move with the extra weight when he bulked up for the combine. Detractors pointed to his lack of technique, to his light frame and to his inability to hold up against the run. Supporters pointed to the fact that Maybin has the best first step in the draft and argued that you can teach technique, but you can't teach speed. This was the same draft slot where Indianapolis took Dwight Freeney, and Maybin is a similar type of prospect, if a less productive one. He won't be a starter this year, but he has a chance to make an immediate impact as an edge rusher on third downs.

Wood is a big, tough player with good technique, and he should immediately boost Buffalo's yardage on inside runs, where the team only averaged 3.89 yards per carry in 2008. Wood played center for Louisville, but the Bills addressed center in free agency when they signed Geoff Hartgardner away from Carolina, so Wood will start his career in Buffalo at right guard. The biggest problem with the pick is not with the player but with the diminution of value, because Wood was taken with the pick Buffalo received from Philadelphia for left tackle Jason Peters. Even if Peters was a somewhat overrated player who had no business going anywhere near the Pro Bowl this season, you could count on one hand the number of teams that would trade a talented left tackle for a center and still have four fingers left over. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that the Bills don't have any clear replacement for Peters on the roster, and they did not address the tackle position in the draft. For now the plan is to swing Langston Walker to the left side and to muddle through an open competition for the right tackle spot. Head coach Dick Jauron and offensive coordinator Turk Schonert insist that they like what they have on the roster, but in truth they have no other option but to talk up the in-house options while they wait for a few veterans to become available after the June 1st cuts. While Terrell Owens will get most of the attention this coming season, Trent Edwards won't be finding T.O. very often if he's constantly hitting the deck.

Unrestricted Free Agents

USC defensive end Gerald Washington is a project player, a reserve player at USC who began his college career as a tight end before converting to defensive end for his junior season. At 6-foot-6, Washington has attractive size and wingspan, and there is certainly a chance that a backup at USC has more talent than a starter somewhere else. The Bills are looking for linebacker depth, so Joe Mortensen of Kansas and Solomon Elimimian of Hawaii, the WAC Defensive Player of the Year, will get a long look. Clemson's Cullen Harper was considered a decent prospect after his junior season, but his play was so spotty this season that he spent some time on the bench. There is definitely room on the roster for a talented developmental quarterback, so Harper has a chance to stick.

Miami Dolphins

Bill Parcells and general manager Jeff Ireland formed their draft plan sometime during Miami's 48-28 loss to New England, when Matt Cassel played catch with Randy Moss, Wes Welker, and company to the tune of 415 yards and three touchdowns while Dolphins defenders watched helplessly. The front office knew that they needed to upgrade the secondary if Miami was to compete with New England for a second straight AFC East title. Parcells has always been a speed/size drafter, and he stayed true to form, selecting 6-foot cornerback Vontae Davis out of Illinois in the first round and Utah's 6-foot-3 corner Sean Smith in the second round. Both players are significant risks. Davis was one of the most controversial prospects in the draft, with some teams falling in love with his elite speed and athleticism while other teams downgraded him for his inconsistent play and questionable work ethic. Davis' older brother Vernon was another tremendous physical specimen, but his career to date with the 49ers has been a disappointment. Smith doesn't have character concerns, but he may not have the kind of quickness to stay with receivers when they come out of their breaks, and many teams feel that his future at the NFL level is at safety, not cornerback. Still, Parcells has had good success with big press corners like Otis Smith and Anthony Henry, and there is no doubt that Smith has the size to cause problems for the big receivers in the division. The rookies will pair with free agent signings Eric Green and Gibril Wilson to solidify the secondary.

Chad Pennington is still very much the quarterback of the present and Chad Henne is the quarterback of the future, so Pat White will have to break into the lineup as the triggerman in the Wildcat. White ran for more than 4,400 yards while at West Virginia, and he showed more than enough arm strength during the draft process to force teams to respect his passing. The Dolphins may also try some spread-option plays with White, although it's not clear that they have enough receivers to keep the defense honest.

Unrestricted Free Agents

After not addressing the need for a pass rushing outside linebacker to pair with Joey Porter, the Dolphins signed Virginia Tech defensive end Orion Martin, who projects to an edge rusher in Miami's 3-4 defense. Martin, who walked on at Virginia Tech, registered 7.5 sacks last season. Purdue's Ryan Baker has the build to play the five technique and could stick as quality depth. Tight end Jared Bronson played Division II ball at Central Washington, and he might hang around as a developmental prospect considering the lack of depth Miami has at the position.

New England Patriots

You might need a scorecard to keep pace with all of the Patriots' offseason wheeling and dealing, but the most important development is that Tom Brady is on schedule to be fully recovered from his knee injury and ready to participate in all team activities. To make sure that Brady is well stocked with weapons, the team went heavily after veteran acquisitions, trading for Philadelphia's Greg Lewis and Tampa Bay's Alex Smith and signing Joey Galloway, Chris Baker, and Fred Taylor. None of those moves are likely to produce a starting player, but they will help the team weather any injuries they might suffer. Baker and Smith will both see the field, because according to our numbers, Ben Watson was one of the least effective tight ends in football last year. Baker is a solid in-line blocker and has reliable hands, while Alex Smith is better when he's moved around to generate mismatches.

Ellis Hobbs followed Asante Samuel to Philadelphia, but he won't be missed provided Shawn Springs and Leigh Bodden still have something left in the tank and second-round steal Darius Butler develops on schedule. Depth was addressed in the second round of the draft where, in addition to Butler, the Patriots added Boston College run-stuffer Ron Brace and Oregon safety Patrick Chung. Chung is there to replace Rodney Harrison as an in-the-box safety option, while Brace provides quality depth and insurance should the team be unwilling or unable to meet Vince Wilfork's contract demands. With the secondary addressed, the only serious question mark on the defense is the pass rush. Mike Vrabel went to Kansas City as part of the Matt Cassel package, and while he is a shell of his former self, he will be missed. Adalius Thomas, Pierre Woods, and Shawn Crable will be counted on to apply pressure, along with the returning Tully Banta-Cain, who busted after signing a free agent deal with the 49ers.

Unrestricted Free Agents

Roster spots are hard to come by in New England, but a few players have a chance to stick. Brian Hoyer possesses an NFL skill set, but he mostly played in the shotgun at Michigan State, and he was inconsistent in his delivery and his decision making. With Matt Cassel calling Arrowhead Stadium home these days, it makes sense that the team would want to add another developmental prospect behind Kevin O'Connell. Al Groh coached up Virginia linebacker Antonio Appleby, and Virginia linebackers have performed well in the pros. Appleby is strictly an inside guy in a 3-4 scheme who needs to be protected because he doesn't move well laterally, but he is a good fit for what the Patriots do. Appleby's chances of making the roster went up tremendously when Tyron Mackenzie hurt his knee in mini-camp.

New York Jets

Rex Ryan was one of Joe Flacco's biggest advocates when he was in Baltimore, and he's clearly comfortable with the prospect of playing Mark Sanchez right away. Sanchez has a good play-action fake and is accurate while on the move, so he is probably the quarterback best equipped to take advantage of the Jets' fifth-ranked rushing game. The NFL generally isn't kind to rookies with 16 college starts under their belt, but those rookies don't generally start behind quality offensive lines or have a backfield of Thomas Jones, Leon Washington, and now Shonn Greene, either. The Jets may break a league record for carries in a season if they can't find someone beyond Jerricho Cotchery to step up. Laveranues Coles is gone, and for now there is a motley group of slot receivers and practice squad types to replace him. Look for the Jets to be prominently associated with Plaxico Burress, Anquan Boldin, Braylon Edwards and any other big-name wide receiver to be dangled as trade bait this summer.

No Baltimore coordinator has successfully created an elite defense in his new digs (Marvin Lewis had a good year in Washington but as a coordinator, not as head coach), but Ryan inherited a lot of quality players, and he went out and added some more by signing Bart Scott, Marques Douglas and Jim Leonard, as well as trading for disgruntled cornerback Lito Sheppard. He could use some pass rush, but that's where second-year man Vernon Gholston is supposed to step in. Depth could be an issue, particularly after the team had to trade away safety Abram Elam and defensive end Kenyon Coleman to get Sanchez, and the team will probably look long and hard at some undrafted free agents to augment the bottom of the roster.

Unrestricted Free Agents

As usual, Mike Tannenbaum signed a passel of free agents, and with the team only having three draft choices this year, there's a good chance for some of these guys to make the final roster. Local product Jamaal Westerman has turned heads in mini-camp, looking more fluid in a hybrid linebacker/end role than last year's first-round pick Vernon Gholston. There is only one tight end on the roster at the moment, so even unconventional prospects like Arkansas' Andrew Davie, who is a converted defensive lineman, and J'Nathan Bullock, who was a basketball player at Cleveland State, have a chance to stick. The team has liked looking at Nebraska prospects since ex-Husker coach Bill Callahan joined the staff, so defensive end Zach Potter will get a look.

Posted by: Sean McCormick on 13 May 2009

35 comments, Last at 21 May 2009, 2:52pm by seamus

Comments

1
by starzero :: Wed, 05/13/2009 - 10:58am

I want to see Miami go completely bonkers this year, run crazy stuff pulled from college gamebooks and sandlot fantasies. I don't care so much whether it works, I just want someone to shake up the system and show a little flash. Be bold, be daring, be exciting. That's what the NFL needs.

2
by Temo :: Wed, 05/13/2009 - 11:15am

Perhaps even *gasp* go for it on 4th down from midfield!

3
by Temo :: Wed, 05/13/2009 - 11:25am

I think New England had one of the more interesting off seasons of any NFL team this year. It's almost like Belichick is being forced into the draft for defensive help, and he figured he'd just throw a bunch of 2nd round picks at the board and see what sticks.

4
by Chowder (not verified) :: Wed, 05/13/2009 - 11:43am

Yeah, Temo, it seems like he didn't even bother to evaluate the top sixty picks at all. He's just going to see what sticks.

Really?

7
by John Walt :: Wed, 05/13/2009 - 12:52pm

Chowder(head), did you miss the word "almost" above?

There is no need for a personal attack here.

Temo, I agree with you. Even with evaluations, 2nd round picks aren't a guarantee and this allows the Pats to find someone that doesn't cost a bunch of money.

9
by Dean :: Wed, 05/13/2009 - 1:56pm

"Chowder(head)"

"There is no need for a personal attack here."

Pot, meet kettle.

10
by Karma Coma :: Wed, 05/13/2009 - 2:07pm

Did you miss the word "seems" above? I think the point made was more along the lines of "Why attempt an analytical comment that's not insightful, and why attempt a humorous comment that's not funny?"

I agree that 2nd round (or 1st round or 7th round compensatory) picks are not guarantees, but i don't think any team in the league uses them, even if they have a pocketful - on fliers just to "see what sticks."

11
by Temo :: Wed, 05/13/2009 - 2:38pm

I agree that 2nd round (or 1st round or 7th round compensatory) picks are not guarantees, but i don't think any team in the league uses them, even if they have a pocketful - on fliers just to "see what sticks."

To a certain extent, I believe that is exactly what the draft is all about. You want proven nfl-quantities, you sign free agents (if talent is available). You want to take cheap gambles on young talent, you head for the draft... especially once you get past the first 10-15 picks in the draft.

I think you'll find that sucess rates past that range vary considerably. Several studies of various sports (NFL, NBA, MLB) show that the marginal value of talent drops considerably once you get past the first few picks of the draft. For instance, in the MLB it's been shown very convincingly that there is almost ZERO difference in talent between a 2nd round and 3rd round selection. I don't think it's as severe in the NFL, but the effect exists (though less convincingly proven, due to Football being a much less quantitative sport in general).

Anyone who thinks the draft is a reliable source of talent, especially in the short-term, is to an extent deluded.

17
by John (not verified) :: Wed, 05/13/2009 - 7:49pm

Anyone who thinks the draft is a reliable source of talent, especially in the short-term, is to an extent deluded.

Colts fans, at least since the Bill Polian era began, would beg to differ.

18
by Temo :: Wed, 05/13/2009 - 9:26pm

They would be the exception, yes. Obviously successful teams have to succeed where others would not, otherwise they would not be successful. Polian has been telling people in particular that they are able to pick people who fit their schemes that others do not draft, for what it's worth.

There's also an argument to be made that it's their player development at work moreso than their drafting aptitude. In general, I think player development supercedes drafting acumen in most cases.

28
by rk (not verified) :: Fri, 05/15/2009 - 1:33am

Even the Colts screw up:
Tim Jennings in the 2nd
Sweet Pea Burns, Ben Hartsock, Gilbert Gardner, and Joseph Jefferson in the 3rd
Plus however talented Quinn Pitcock may have been, they whiffed on any kind of love-of-the-game/emotional analysis.

12
by Temo :: Wed, 05/13/2009 - 2:43pm

Ok, fine Chowder allow me to clarify:

Instead of taking just one or two players in the draft, Belichick noted the inherent uncertainty of the draft and chose to stockpile several 2nd and 3rd round talents to increase his chances at landing talent, because his defense needed the infusion. (Especially since 2nd round picks are shown to yield the most value per dollar spent on average of the whole draft.)

Or, you know, you could not take everything so literally. Besides, just because you scout players doesn't mean you know for sure that any of them will be good. You just think they have a better shot than others available.

14
by CaffeineMan :: Wed, 05/13/2009 - 3:41pm

Temo, FWIW I agree. I think that's exactly what Belichick is doing. He's made comments in the past on the uncertainty of evaluating college talent. They didn't see any prospects that were worth the 1st round money risk, so they traded back and took a shot at three guys for whom they don't have to pay a ton. For the position the team is currently in, I think that's the right approach.

5
by Soulless Merchant of Fear (not verified) :: Wed, 05/13/2009 - 12:31pm

The Bills had so many dang holes that I can't get too hyperactive about their failure to draft a new LT. They also needed a pass-rushing DE, a new center, two new guards, a TE who could actually get open and catch stuff, and a passel of defensive backs. They addressed all of that, except for the LT. (How well did they address the needs? Ahem.) That they tried to plug as many holes as they could was heartening.

They'll probably continue to stink, and I'm not sold on Maybin, but it could turn out to be one of those "quiet drafts" that gives the team a mess of good starters for the next five or eight years. That'd be just fine. There was a span of crappy drafting in the recent past that left them with a lot of needs.

In theory, the new line will be more evenly skilled. Losing Peters hurts, but they couldn't keep him. The new guys should shore up the middle of the line, a huge weakness, and, the Avenging Spirit of Vince Lombardi willing, the offense will work better overall.

Let us pray. "Oh Mighty Vince, we offer up to thee these cleats, shoulder pads, and six-pack of Miller. Please, offer down your blessings, and let the Bills not suck quite so much this season. Amen."

6
by Mike B. In Va :: Wed, 05/13/2009 - 12:36pm

I'm willing to give the Bills the benefit of the doubt on their LT moves. After all, Jonas Jennings went from project to a big free-agent deal with SF, Mike Williams busted horribly, and Jason Peters was a project, too. I don't blame the Bills for not using a first round pick on a tackle, as they have somewhat of a history of developing them.

8
by Rich Arpin (not verified) :: Wed, 05/13/2009 - 12:57pm

I'm interested to see how Crable plays if the Patriots don't sign Taylor. I used to never watch preseason as I thought it was a waste of time, but now I see preseason as a way to do scouting for rookies in fantasy and production in general. Mayo was great in preseason and Crable looked good too. One thing that stuck out in my mind was Desean Jackson of Philly running all over the Patriots. I drafted him late as a flyer and he definitely was one of my decent recievers, nothing spectacular but decent.

With a year understanding Belichicks system it will be interesting to see what he does.

That being said, Belichick always drafts some defenders from the senior bowl (crable) and I was underwhelmed with the stats of chung at the senior bowl, though his body of work at oregon is definitely something to grade him out from.

13
by Arson55 :: Wed, 05/13/2009 - 3:03pm

Okay, something that has been bugging me for awhile now about the whole Pat White/wildcat talk: I thought one of the major advantages of the wildcat was there was nothing in the personnel on the field that gave it away and it was more or less a surprise that you were going to run it that particular play until you lined up on the line of scrimmage; hence Chad Pennington lining up at receiver. Don't you negate a good deal of the benefits of the wildcat if you make wildcat packages with White? "Oh look, White's on the field. Get ready for wildcat." In order for White to do any good at all, won't he have to stick as a receiver or something so he has a legitimate reason to be on the field in other situations? I mean if they wanted to just telegraph wildcat when they want to run it, they would never leave Pennington out where he's at risk, right?

15
by JD (not verified) :: Wed, 05/13/2009 - 4:29pm

Right. But if White can stick as a slot receiver or even a "slash" guy like 1995 Kordell Stewart, and can run several non-Wildcat plays, having him be the trigger in the Wildcat and throw it 5 times a game will threaten the defense even more than the run-run plays Ronnie Brown used.

16
by Jimmy :: Wed, 05/13/2009 - 5:25pm

I think the point of White is that he probably could learn to run a limited offense using a lot of play action, waggles whilst also running the wildcat as a part time package. That would stop teams simply bringing up both safeties to crowd the box to stop the wildcat that you lose if Pennington is lined up as a WR. Maybe something to help kill game clock.

20
by johonny (not verified) :: Thu, 05/14/2009 - 11:10am

I agree. It's unclear what Pat Whites role on the team will be this year. He might not even be active for games as the 3rd QB on the roster or He might take a wr spot on game day.

21
by John Walt :: Thu, 05/14/2009 - 12:47pm

Something that has been bothering me since the draft. Why can't Pat White be a quarterback in this league? All the pundits said he is too short. Isn't he a more athletic Drew Brees? I thought all the scouts said he threw well at the combine? I watched a little bit of the Senior Bowl, and from what I saw, Pat White looked like a man amongst boys. If you are going to bring up the 12 pound difference, I would think that the average player gains almost that much in muscle mass over 5 or 6 years. Pennington can't have that much more time in the league and (as a Michigan fan) Chad Henne could be the second coming of Johnny Navarre in the pros.... nothing.

WHY ISN'T THERE MORE TALK OF PAT WHITE AT QUARTERBACK!?!?!?

This is pulled directly from Nfl.com:

Pat White - QB
Height: 6-0 Weight: 197

Drew Brees - QB
Height: 6-0 Weight: 209

22
by Arson55 :: Thu, 05/14/2009 - 1:26pm

There isn't more talk about White at quarterback because there is no talk about White in any role except in the Wildcat. Before the Combine I heard talk of him moving to receiver. Then he threw well at the combine, and then I heard maybe one mention of his staying at quarterback. And then all I remember hearing since is Pat White/Wildcat.

But if he's going to be involved in the Wildcat, he'll need to be a receiver so he has reason to be active on game days. I think his role this season is a big question given how it will affect his long term position and development.

24
by are-tee :: Thu, 05/14/2009 - 2:26pm

Brad Smith set all kinds of QB passing/rushing records at Missouri, but his only contribution at QB in the NFL has been on wildcat-type plays. I don't see White turning out any differently.

25
by Sophandros :: Thu, 05/14/2009 - 2:42pm

Dude, Sparano came out and said that White will ONLY play QB: http://www.miamiherald.com/sports/football/miami-dolphins/story/1028429....

-------------
Sports talk radio and sports message boards are the killing fields of intellectual discourse.

27
by Arson55 :: Fri, 05/15/2009 - 12:14am

Thanks for that information. I hadn't seen that in anything I'd read. Now I have that question settled in my mind.

I really don't think we'll see a lot of White wildcat then unless White does really well in training camp and earns the second string quarterback spot (and even then I'm iffy on it). Interesting. I'll find it highly amusing if the White/Wildcat talk turns out to be just a huge amount of BS.

29
by rk (not verified) :: Fri, 05/15/2009 - 1:37am

Not to say that it isn't true, but coaches lie all the time.

30
by Arson55 :: Fri, 05/15/2009 - 3:53am

Oh, true enough. But I'll still take it at face value until I see something that suggests otherwise.

26
by Tom Gower :: Thu, 05/14/2009 - 5:36pm

Well, as Sophandros posted, the Fins have said White will be a QB in the NFL. As to why people were talking about White not being an NFL QB despite being a similar size to Drew Brees, who's been a successful NFL QB, that just might have something to do with Brees being a phenomenally good collegiate passer who I strongly doubt had the athletic ability to play a different position whereas White was a mediocre collegiate passer and a terrific runner at QB who probably has the athletic ability to play wideout?

31
by Noah of Arkadia :: Fri, 05/15/2009 - 1:03pm

Jaws gushed about White as a QB. I believe he'll play QB AND all sorts of trick packages, including, but not limited to, the Wildcat. There's been some talk about the spread offense. All I know is Miami was very high on White, and they have big plans for him.

19
by Well-hung pot head (not verified) :: Thu, 05/14/2009 - 8:30am

Seems to me Kellen Clemens isn't getting much of a shot. they'll probably trade him awaY and he will win a championship for some other team !

23
by are-tee :: Thu, 05/14/2009 - 2:23pm

If Clemens significantly outplays Sanchez in camp/pre-season, he will be the starter this year unless and until the Jets no longer have a realistic shot at the post-season. I don't see Ryan giving up the chance to win right off the bat just top develop Sanchez.

32
by witless chum :: Fri, 05/15/2009 - 1:49pm

"Brian Hoyer possesses an NFL skill set, but he mostly played in the shotgun at Michigan State, and he was inconsistent in his delivery and his decision making."

Hoyer played almost no shotgun at MSU. My Spartans ran a pro-style offense for 26 of Hoyer's 27 career starts. He did spend three years in John L. Smith's spread offense, redshirting and then backing up Drew Stanton, but they switched to a power running first attack when Mark Dantonio replaced Smith.

The rest is pretty spot on, although his numbers were lower than they probably should have been in 2008, due to a lot of wide reciever mistakes. He actually looked better in 2008 than 2007, but his stats were worse. I'm not a big believer in him having an NFL career, but I hope he does to spite the people who were irrationally anti-Hoyer while he was going 16-11 as a starter.

33
by sozopol :: Mon, 05/18/2009 - 12:56pm

Jets fan here. #23 is right about Sanchez/Clemens, but I'd further say it's highly unlikely that Clemens significantly outplays Sanchez in preseason, and I think we can expect Sanchez to start. I also think the Jets' WR situation is not quite as desperate as generally protrayed-- watch for Chansi Stuckey to win the #2 spot, and they have Clowney, Brad Smith and of course Keller. Depth is a problem for sure, but I don't see them going after one of those high-end WRs. The defense will be nasty, though if Gholston can't show up that's a major disappointment. A major problem is lack of a second TE to run-block and add flexibility to formations. Depth is a problem across pretty much all positions.

34
by Rich Conley (not verified) :: Tue, 05/19/2009 - 3:53pm

"I'd further say it's highly unlikely that Clemens significantly outplays Sanchez in preseason, and I think we can expect Sanchez to start."

Why? Sanchez played a year of college football. I'd think, ceilings aside, its an almost certainty that hes more raw then Clemens.

35
by seamus (not verified) :: Thu, 05/21/2009 - 2:52pm

One Dolphins FA signing for edge pass rush (before they even signed Jason Taylor) is Cameron Wake. He was the best pass rusher in the CFL (for whatever that's worth), and sufficiently in demand that several teams bid for his services.