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» Scramble Over/Unders: the Norths

The league's northern divisions pose a number of meaty questions, such as: "Is the Bears' offense due for a repeat performance?" "Why do the Lions have such pronounced splits?" and "Has Johnny Manziel made the Cleveland brass even crazier?"

10 May 2010

Four Downs: AFC East

By Vince Verhei

Buffalo Bills

Biggest Post-Draft Need: Offensive line

The Bills went into the draft with holes up and down their roster. Among other needs, they could have used a quarterback, a wide receiver, a nose tackle, or a bevy of offensive linemen. A month ago in this space, we named the offensive line as the team’s biggest need, figuring that better blocking would not only help the team win more games in 2010, but would also keep any promising quarterback prospect alive and well for years to come.

The Bills apparently disagreed, taking Clemson running back C.J. Spiller with the Draft’s ninth pick, then focusing on defensive line (Central Florida’s Torrell Troup and Arkansas State’s Alex Carrington) and wide receiver (Connecticut’s Marcus Easley) in the next three rounds. Only in the fifth round, 140 picks into the draft, did they address their offensive line, selecting Virginia Tech tackle Ed Wang. They added Iowa tackle Kyle Calloway in the seventh round.

Barring injury, neither rookie is likely to start this year, which means the Bills will be starting a pair of promising guards (second-year players Eric Wood and Andy Levitre) alongside castoffs at right tackle (journeyman Cornell Green) and center (Geoff Hangartner, a starter in Buffalo after years on the bench in Carolina) and a left tackle with little experience or talent (Demetrius Bell, a seventh-round pick in 2008 with eight career NFL games). Not surprisingly, this unit was much better at run blocking than pass blocking last season, so you can expect to see plenty of Spiller highlights on television. On third-and-long, though, prospects seem dismal. Bills quarterbacks could spend a lot of time on the Ralph Wilson Stadium turf -- or on the disabled list.

Important Undrafted Free Agents

Naaman Roosevelt was the Jerry Rice of the University of Buffalo, setting school records for catches, yards, and touchdowns just a half-hour south of Orchard Park. He also returned punts for the Bulls, which may help him stick with the Bills -- Roscoe Parrish averaged only 5.5 yards per return last season. Senior Bowl invitee Joique Bell rushed for more than 6,700 yards for Wayne State and was 2009’s Division II Player of the Year. Bills scout Brian Fisher noted Bell’s ability to break tackles as well as his pass-blocking skills. Wide receiver David Nelson started only 14 games at Florida, but a 4.49-second 40-yard dash caught the Bills’ attention. Weber State offensive lineman Kyle Mutcher was a first-team FCS All-American despite playing most of the year with a foot injury that eventually required surgery. The Bills also added Georgia Tech guard Cordaro Howard, a 300-plus-pounder who was first-team All-ACC last year.

Miami Dolphins

Biggest Post-Draft Need: Free Safety

The Dolphins used all means of player acquisition this offseason, filling holes through free agency (inside linebacker Karlos Dansby, formerly of Arizona), trade (ex-Broncos wide receiver Brandon Marshall), and the draft (Penn State defensive lineman Jared Odrick and Utah linebacker Koa Misi). But through it all, their only change at safety was a subtraction, releasing Gibril Wilson. Last year’s starter at free safety, Yeremiah Bell, will slide over to strong safety, his more natural position, but that leaves the free position open.

The likely starter is Tyrone Culver, a sixth-round draft pick by Green Bay in 2006. Culver played sparingly in his rookie season, then was cut by the Packers after missing all of 2007 with a shoulder injury. The Dolphins signed him just before the 2008 season started, waived him a month later, and re-signed him a week after that. The only other real candidate is Georgia’s Reshad Jones, taken late in the fifth round of this year’s draft. Jones has size (6-1, 214 pounds) and speed (4.58-second 40-yard dash), but lacks agility. He was slowest among safeties at the Combine in both the three-cone and short-shuttle drills. One of these men will be the last line of defense on a team with serious playoff aspirations in 2010.

Important Undrafted Free Agents

The Dolphins still needed a deep threat after the draft, so it was good news that a pair of undrafted rookie receivers -- Marlon Moore and Roberto Wallace -- impressed observers with route-running, hands, and deep speed at the team’s rookie minicamp. Moore struggled with injuries throughout his career at Fresno State, but he did flash big-play ability, scoring a 92-yard touchdown against UC Davis in 2009 and a 63-yard punt return touchdown against UCLA the year before. Wallace wowed onlookers at San Diego State’s pro day, running a 4.41 40-yard dash that would have placed him second among receivers at the Combine -- and he weighs 223 pounds. Speaking of weight, 341-pound defensive tackle Travis Ivey out of Maryland has the size to be a nose tackle in Miami’s 3-4.

New England Patriots

Biggest Post-Draft Need: Outside linebacker

Technically, the Patriots didn’t ignore this position in the draft -- they spent one of their three second-round selections on Florida’s Jermaine Cunningham -- but this is still the weakest position on the roster. The star of the unit, Tully Banta-Cain, led the team with 10 sacks last year, but that was a one-year fluke. In his other six seasons, he has never had more than 5.5 sacks, and he has still never started more than 10 games in a season.

The other starter will likely be Pierre Woods, a career backup with eight fill-in starts in the past two seasons. After Banta-Cain and Woods, there five other outside linebackers with the Patriots, and none of them has ever started a game.

It seems like an ideal situation for Cunningham to play right away, but he’ll have to make an adjustment to outside linebacker in New England’s 3-4 after playing defensive end in Florida’s 4-3. The good news is that Florida used a lot of zone blitzes, so Cunningham has experience dropping into coverage.

The rest of the crew consists of castoffs from other teams (Rob Ninkovich, Marques Murrell, Bruce Davis) and Shawn Crable, a third-round pick in 2008 who has missed each of his first two seasons due to various injuries.

Important Undrafted Free Agents

Erik Scalavino covered the Patriots’ rookie minicamp for the team’s official Web site. He came away most impressed not by any of the team’s draftees, but by "the tryout receiver wearing number 13." Scalavino was impressed by 13’s hands, routes, and YAC ability, but wasn’t able to confirm his identity until rookie camp had ended. Turns out he was Buddy Farnham from that traditional football factory Brown University. Farnham didn’t even earn a contract until camp was over, but he’s on the roster now.

Offensive lineman John Wise was a wrestler, not a football player, at Illinois. (He did play nine games for Western Illinois in 2004 before transferring to Illinois to wrestle.) A three-time qualifier for the NCAA championships, Wise went 25-9 and was named an All-American his senior season. The Patriots have experience with wrestlers on their offensive line. Guard Stephen Neal didn’t play football in college either, but he was a two-time NCAA champion at Cal State-Bakersfield and a winner of the Danny Hodge trophy.

Wide receiver Bryan Anderson caught a pass in 54 consecutive games at Central Michigan, an NCAA record. He finished second in school history in receptions and first in yards and touchdowns. Montana State linebacker Dane Fletcher was defensive MVP of the Big Sky conference last season.

New York Jets

Biggest Post-Draft Need: Defensive end

Last month we said that the Jets’ biggest need going into the draft was depth in the front seven. The Jets, however, selected Boise State cornerback Kyle Wilson in the first round, then spent their final three picks on offensive players. While the addition of outside linebacker Jason Taylor from Miami will boost the team’s pass rush, the questionable status of Marques Douglas (still unsigned) makes defensive end the most worrisome spot on the roster.

Assuming Douglas doesn’t return, the contest for his position looks like a two-man race between Mike Devito and Rodrique Wright. DeVito has played in 38 games for the Jets in the past three seasons, with only one start. He has exactly half a sack in his career, which could lead to some interesting conversations. ("Did you ever get a sack in the NFL?" ... "Well, kinda.") Wright started nine games for Miami in 2007, but he missed all of the 2008 and 2009 regular seasons with a shoulder injury. (He did play in Miami’s playoff game against Baltimore after the 2008 season.)

Vernon Gholston, the former sixth overall draft pick in 2008 who looks up at DeVito’s half-a-sack with envy, is also competing for the spot. After Gholston failed to get to the quarterback in his first two seasons at linebacker, the Jets have moved him to defensive end in a last-ditch effort to get some sort of production out of him.

Important Undrafted Free Agents

The Jets didn’t draft any front-seven players, but they did bring in a bunch of undrafted free agents. Alabama linebacker Cory Reamer has experience in the 3-4 under Nick Saban, and Jets coach Rex Ryan said Reamer was "really standing out" in rookie camp. Another linebacker looking to earn a spot on the roster is Hawaii’s Brashton Satele, who missed all of 2009 with a shoulder injury. If the name sounds familiar, his brother Samson was a center for the Dolphins and now plays for the Raiders.

Pittsburgh defensive tackle Mick Williams had 17 tackles for loss in his senior season, but, at 280 pounds, is undersized for a 3-4 end. Defensive end Jason Lamb isn’t much bigger at 285 pounds, but he was a two-time honorable mention All-Big 12 player, and he also blocked two field goals at Baylor.

According to some reports, Nevada linebacker Kevin Basped neglected to inform his coaches that he was bypassing his senior season to enter the NFL Draft. Then he went undrafted. Oops.

North Dakota State guard Keith Buckman didn’t leave school for the NFL, but the All-Missouri Valley Conference first-teamer did make headlines when he skipped out on his brother’s wedding to attend the Jets’ rookie minicamp.

Texas guard Charlie Tanner was a two-time honorable mention All-Big 12 player.

(Portions of this article originally appeared on ESPN.com Insider.)

Posted by: Vince Verhei on 10 May 2010

32 comments, Last at 12 May 2010, 12:37pm by Dean

Comments

1
by Noah of Arkadia :: Mon, 05/10/2010 - 3:34pm

It seems Will Allen will likely move to FS for the Dolphins. Allen has been a very good CB for them, but they now have Vontae Davis and Sean Smith, and people figure that's why the team took a CB in the draft before they took a S.

3
by Israel P. (not verified) :: Mon, 05/10/2010 - 4:02pm

Mike Tomlin might have something to say about that.

4
by Shattenjager :: Mon, 05/10/2010 - 4:02pm

But that would create all sorts of problems. If both Will Allens (or is it Wills Allen? Wills Allens?) are playing safety, how will Wikipedia differentiate between them?

11
by John (not verified) :: Mon, 05/10/2010 - 9:18pm

And will either of them still have time to post here, especially regarding the Vikings?

26
by jebmak :: Tue, 05/11/2010 - 3:51pm

For some reason I was reminded of the heated political battle between Jack Johnson and his arch rival John Jackson.

27
by Eddo :: Tue, 05/11/2010 - 4:13pm

Nice.

2
by Israel P. (not verified) :: Mon, 05/10/2010 - 3:57pm

"On third-and-long, though, prospects seem dismal. Bills quarterbacks could spend a lot of time on the Ralph Wilson Stadium turf -- or on the disabled list."

The Bills have a disabled list? Have they changed sports?

9
by loneweasel (not verified) :: Mon, 05/10/2010 - 8:20pm

More importantly, the Bills have quarterbacks? Since when?

5
by Led :: Mon, 05/10/2010 - 4:42pm

Donovan Warren is probably the biggest name signed by the Jets as an undrafted rookie, so it's odd not to see him listed (especially since several marginal prospects were named). Warren is being converted to safety.

In terms of DE, DeVito played a ton of snaps and was part of the regular rotation. He played well last year and isn't really a downgrade from Douglas. The next guy on the depth chart isn't Wright, it's Ropati Pitoitua. Pati is a 6-8, 300+ pound project the team likes. He's only 25 and has shown some good things, but he's obviously unproven. I appreciate Vince's opinion, but the team has shown no signs that it thinks DE is a big need. Other than Ngata, who I think is a speacial case, Ryan's defenses in Baltimore did not have big names at DE.

6
by chemical burn :: Mon, 05/10/2010 - 6:21pm

I agree with you that DE isn't a huge position of need for the Jets (DeVito had his moments last year), but I think that it definitely has to rank as one of their bigger holes (if not the biggest.) They're in good shape at NT, LB, CB & S. They have a good offensive line, addressed WR, have a promising backfield (with veteran depth), have their QB of the future. It seems like TE and DE (maybe safety, I suppose) are their weakest positions or the ones with the most room for upgrade and/or depth...

10
by loneweasel (not verified) :: Mon, 05/10/2010 - 8:25pm

The weakest spot is definitely the safety. Keller is at TE. The DL backups performed well last year in Jenkins' absence. It's much more palatable to see Devito or Pouha on the line than a bunch of JAGs (including Lowery) opposite Leonhard.

19
by Led :: Tue, 05/11/2010 - 10:23am

Safety is definitely a question mark. I think Pool is pretty good but obviously a major injury risk. Smith can be effective in a limited role, but that role is not deep coverage. I happen to be a big fan of Lowery. He lacks top speed and quickness to cover in the slot but he is smart, tough, fundamentally sound and a very good tackler. He'd be an excellent Tampa 2 corner. He and Warren are actually similar. While both can be useful, neither is ideal for the Jets defense, either as a man corner or as a center field FS. The bright side is that Rhodes did not play very well at all last year, for whatever reason. He had a number of missed assignments at key moments -- the Jax game being the most obvious, but also the Ted Ginn TD that everyone attributes to Revis even though it was a zone coverage. And he didn't make many big plays to balance out all the bad plays. So I'm hopeful that the safety situation this year will end up not being any worse than last year even if the upside for the current players is lower than the upside Rhodes offered but never achieved. Status quo at the position wouldn't be too bad considering the Jets were the best pass defense in the league.

21
by chemical burn :: Tue, 05/11/2010 - 11:06am

Yeah, I like Lowery a lot, too - what's wrong with a Leonard/Lowery duo? I also agree that they had a top nothc pass d last year and nothing has changed for the worse - they've upgraded significantly at CB (depending on how the rookie and Cromartie work out.) Good CB's free up your safeties, especially one like Lowery that's better the less coverage he's required to do...

29
by loneweasel (not verified) :: Tue, 05/11/2010 - 4:42pm

What's wrong? How about the other side of the coin, what's good about Dwight Lowery? He's OK, but there isn't one thing he does that's significantly above average, can't do man coverage to save his life. A definition of just a guy, great depth but should not prevent you from finding his replacement in the starting lineup as soon as possible.

30
by chemical burn :: Tue, 05/11/2010 - 8:21pm

I really think you're under-rating Lowery slightly - compare him to the other starters in the division. In the AFC East, he's good enough to start or, at very least compete for a starting spot, for every other team. He's easily middle of the pack as far as NFL starters on the whole. He's a solid starter...

7
by phillyfinfan (not verified) :: Mon, 05/10/2010 - 7:38pm

well, you forgot about Chris Clemons, who got some time at safety as a rookie last year when it became painfully obvious that Gibril Wilson was a complete bust. Not that he's a stud or anything, but he stands as good (or better) a chance as Reshad Jones of being the guy.
Also, Bell has only played strong safety, officially. They move them around a bit and Gerbil (sic) was probably a more natural strong safety anyway, contributing to his poor production, but technically, Bell was the strong safety and Gerbil the free safety.

15
by Dean :: Tue, 05/11/2010 - 9:29am

It's going to be a much harder commute this year for Chris Clemons splitting time between DB in NY and DE in Seattle. But it's quite the demonstration of athleticism.

18
by Noah of Arkadia :: Tue, 05/11/2010 - 10:19am

DB in Miami. I'm not sure if you guys are joking or trying to be sarcastic in pointing out a mistake, but Will Allen and Chris Clemons are actual Miami Dolphins, even if there are other players named like them around the league.

23
by Dean :: Tue, 05/11/2010 - 12:03pm

Mine was written with tongue firmly planted in cheek. I'm fairly certain all the others (Will Allen, etc.) were, too.

31
by bravehoptoad :: Wed, 05/12/2010 - 11:23am

Mine was written with tongue firmly planted in cheek.

Man, that is HARD to do. Every time I try, no one gets a single word I'm saying.

32
by Dean :: Wed, 05/12/2010 - 12:37pm

Not to mention that I cut my tongue when I bit it.

8
by MJK :: Mon, 05/10/2010 - 8:16pm

The line about Vernon Gholston made me smile.

12
by Bobman :: Mon, 05/10/2010 - 11:08pm

I could only manage a wry grin and look up at yor smile with envy.

Was it just me, or does it seem that the Jets didn't spend much draft time focusing on offense? What was their strong unit again last year?

14
by Biebs (not verified) :: Tue, 05/11/2010 - 7:13am

Well. The Jets have a TE and RB. And picked up a #1 WR using a draft pick. No one would argue their OL was the problem last season and anyway they used a 2nd round pick to replace Faneca anyway (I don't like the move of dumping Faneca, but, what can you do).
The offensive issues reside mostly with Sanchez at this point. And I don't think that drafting a QB would really help him along.

22
by chemical burn :: Tue, 05/11/2010 - 11:09am

Well said, commentor who I can only assume is Justin Bieber. Seriously, though, offense was the Jets weakness last year (well, pass offense - their run offense was solid), but they've done all they can to address the situation aside from jettisoning Sanchez, which we can all agree would be premature.

24
by Bobman :: Tue, 05/11/2010 - 12:13pm

Thanks. I knew Leon Washington left (which would concern me if I were a fan), their OL is still qiute good, but the commentary above was D-focused with nary a word about the O. FTR, I thought Chez improved a lot as the season progressed.

25
by Led :: Tue, 05/11/2010 - 12:28pm

As a fan I'd love having a healthy Leon Washington this year because I think Tomlinson is on his last legs. The problem is that Washington may not be 100% this year, or least the first part of the year, and if he returns to form the team doesn't think it could sign him in the offseason. So they took something for him while they could. I'm not sold on McKnight so there's definitely a risk if Greene gets hurt and/or Tomlinson has nothing left in the tank. However, having gambled on Tomlinson and drafted McKnight, there's no place on the roster for another back.

13
by Anonymous2 (not verified) :: Tue, 05/11/2010 - 1:15am

If the Jets defensive ends aren't getting it down, Rex will just blitz another LB

16
by Dean :: Tue, 05/11/2010 - 9:47am

If they're not getting it down, maybe Rex should play some funkier music in the locker room?

17
by Goober King :: Tue, 05/11/2010 - 10:03am

UB is actually north of Orchard Park.

20
by Sean McCormick :: Tue, 05/11/2010 - 10:51am

Yep. Even South Campus.

28
by Vince Verhei :: Tue, 05/11/2010 - 4:40pm

Gah. Had the directions reversed in Google maps.