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05 Jun 2014

Four Downs: AFC East

By Cian Fahey

Buffalo Bills

Biggest post-draft hole: Offensive line

Losing Mike Pettine may prove to be a massive problem for the Buffalo Bills next year. Pettine's arrival saw the Bills go from the 27th-ranked defense in DVOA during 2012 to the fourth-ranked defense in DVOA during the 2013 season. (DVOA is Football Outsiders' defense-adjusted value over average metric, explained here.) The unit also lost safety Jairus Byrd, but he only started nine games last year when they had the second-ranked pass defense in DVOA.

It's the other side of the ball where the Bills really have a problem.

Adding Sammy Watkins and Mike Williams to the wide receiver depth chart should help improve the passing attack, but little was done to improve the running game. Bryce Brown is a talented running back, but talent at the running back position can only take you so far when the interior of your offensive line is incapable of consistently creating running lanes.

Second-round pick Cyrus Kouandjo should start at right tackle, but he will improve the pass protection more than the running game. Fifth-round pick Cyril Richardson and seventh-round pick Seantrel Henderson, who was an offensive tackle in college, will compete with veterans Kraig Urbik, Chris Williams and Doug Legursky for starting spots inside.

A fully healthy C.J. Spiller, a hungry Brown and a very versatile Watkins should help the Bills revitalize their running game, but they need to get better performances from their interior offensive linemen too.

Notable Undrafted Free Agents

Ohio State quarterback Kenny Guiton was the name that stood out from the Bills' class of undrafted free agents, but he failed to earn a contract after working out for the team after the draft. Instead, the standout undrafted free agent addition is safety Kenny Ladler (Vanderbilt). The Bills added a number of safeties after the draft and Ladler appears to be the most talented. He lacks the long speed to play free safety, but he can be an impact player as an in-the-box safety as well as a contributor on special teams.

Miami Dolphins

Biggest post-draft hole: Linebacker

The Dolphins will likely be starting two rookies (Ja'Wuan James and Billy Turner) and two free agents (Branden Albert and Shelley Smith) on their offensive line this season. A lack of continuity on the offensive line is a major concern, but the Dolphins desperately needed to improve their talent at that spot and they clearly have. If the group is established as the starting line at the start of training camp and stays together throughout the preseason, that chemistry can be created.

If that does happen, then the biggest hole on the Dolphins roster is on the defensive side of the ball.

While the Dolphins have some new faces who are projected to play roles in their secondary, that wasn't the main problem for the unit last season. The Dolphins ranked 12th against the pass last year and were the 29th-worst run defense in DVOA. Jamar Taylor, Will Davis, Walt Aikens, Cortland Finnegan and Louis Delmas could improve the secondary, but the defense will still be dragged down by a problematic trio of starting linebackers.

Unless multiple backups surprise in training camp, Koa Misi, Dannell Ellerbe and Philip Wheeler will start for the Dolphins again this season. Misi is a converted defensive end who has never lived up to his potential on the field no matter where he lines up. Ellerbe and Wheeler were both given big contracts by Jeff Ireland last year, but both proved to be undisciplined and technically deficient as starters.

Regardless of the revamped secondary and the hope that Cameron Wake will be fully healthy this year, the Dolphins simply can't feel good about their projected starters at the linebacker position.

Notable Undrafted Free Agents

The Dolphins should feel satisfied with their efforts in undrafted free agency. They may not have unearthed any stars, but they brought in a number of players who could quickly develop into contributors. Like the draft itself, the undrafted free agent class is highlighted by two offensive linemen: center Tyler Larsen (Utah State) and offensive guard/tackle Evan Finkenburg (Arizona State). Larsen has the talent to develop into a reliable backup behind Mike Pouncey, while Finkenburg is an impressive athlete who played both right guard and left tackle in college.

New England Patriots

Biggest post-draft hole: Depth? Medical staff?

The New England Patriots have a peculiar roster because they don't have one obvious hole. Instead, they have a number of positions with notable question marks. At tight end and defensive tackle, there are major concerns over the durability and expected effectiveness of the most important players. On the interior of the offensive line, there are major concerns over who will be effective next season.

Rob Gronkowski was obviously a major loss when he tore his ACL during last year's regular season. Gronkowski had already entered last year with health problems. He originally fell in the draft because of health question marks. There is a recurring trend with Tom Brady's most important offensive weapon that can't simply be brushed aside. Without Gronkowski, the Patriots' depth chart at the tight end position is underwhelming.

On the interior of the defensive line, each of Tommy Kelly, Vince Wilfork and Dominique Easley are returning from major injuries. Kelly is a 33-year-old who is returning from a torn ACL. Wilfork is a 32-year-old who tore his Achilles tendon last season. Easley has youth on his side at 22, but he hasn't yet played a snap in the NFL and has already torn the ACL in each of his knees.

The offensive line issues are more about performance, not health. Left guard Logan Mankins isn't the player he once was, but it's unlikely that he will be replaced ahead of this season. The same cannot be said for Ryan Wendell and Dan Connolly. Both veterans remain on the roster, but neither is guaranteed anything after underwhelming 2013 seasons and the additions of multiple rookie offensive linemen. Cameron Fleming, Bryan Stork and Jon Halapio were taken in the later rounds of the draft, but without former offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia, New England's ability to easily plug lower-drafted players into its offensive line may not be what it once was.

Notable Undrafted Free Agents

Although there is some competition for places with more proven players and a player who was actually selected in the 2014 draft, it's hard to look past Stephen Houston (Indiana) as the standout undrafted free agent for the Patriots. Houston is a running back who offers the Patriots some of the same properties that they are losing from LeGarrette Blount's departure in free agency. Blount played a vital role for the Patriots during the second half of the season and starred in their two most convincing victories over the Ravens and the Colts.

New York Jets

Biggest post-draft hole: Outside linebacker

Adding Eric Decker, Jace Amaro and Chris Johnson to the New York Jets offense won't turn the unit into one of the most potent in the NFL, but it should give Geno Smith or Michael Vick a viable supporting cast to be effective in 2014. The Jets could still use a piece or two on the offensive side of the ball, but their biggest hole now resides on Rex Ryan's defense. More specifically, in the front seven.

Calvin Pace is coming off a very strong ten-sack season, but he's 33 and in ten previous seasons he never once managed double-digit sacks. It's unlikely that he will repeat that feat. Pace took the quarterback down 11 times last year—he had two half-sacks—and he didn't beat a block on seven of those plays. On those plays, he was either given a free route to the quarterback or the quarterback left the pocket and Pace brought him down behind the line of scrimmage. On the other sacks, Pace beat one fullback, one tight end (Jimmy Graham), and two offensive tackles (Donald Penn and Tony Pashos).

Perhaps a more remarkable statistic is that our game charting counted Pace with only six hurries. Every other player with at least eight sacks last season also had at least 14 hurries.

So since Pace doesn't get consistent pressure coming off the edge, it's hard to give him the benefit of the doubt moving forward in terms of expected production. Backup Antwan Barnes is a proven pass rusher, but he is coming off a torn ACL and doesn't offer an all-around skill set. Garrett McIntyre and Jermaine Cunningham are retread veterans who offer little more than serviceable depth.

The Jets have an outstanding defensive line, but with many young pieces moving into bigger roles in the secondary, Pace's presence in the starting lineup becomes a major concern.

Notable Undrafted Free Agents

Terrence Miller, a tight end/wide receiver who didn't produce a huge amount at the University of Arizona, doesn't come across as the most exciting of undrafted free agent additions. However, Miller has good athleticism and excellent size standing at 6-foot-4 and 234 pounds. He needs to learn how to run routes and be more reliable catching the football, but he's definitely an intriguing developmental prospect for an offense that needs to continue creating depth on the offensive side of the ball.

Portions of this article previously appeared on ESPN Insider.

Posted by: Cian Fahey on 05 Jun 2014

30 comments, Last at 11 Jun 2014, 7:40am by FireSnake

Comments

1
by mehllageman56 :: Thu, 06/05/2014 - 1:56pm

The Pat's hole is tight end. The double tight end scheme fit with Brady's strengths; the personel they were forced to go to last year doesn't quite fit him. He has never been super accurate on bombs, and that's where Dobson and Thompkins get open. If the Pats traded one of them for Jace Amaro, both teams would be better off. Geno is actually accurate deep (6th best according to PFF), but has problems with quicker routes. Never gonna happen, but it's funny how it worked out.

While a Pats fan could be worried about the offensive line, they did address it in the draft, as well as defensive line with Easley. Also, having Revis will allow them to use 8 man boxes anyway.

5
by dryheat :: Thu, 06/05/2014 - 4:17pm

I would argue that the double tight end fit Brady's strengths because they were both exceptional tight ends. I would argue that when Moss, Welker, and either Stallworth or Branch were in the lineup, the three-wide personnel fit Brady's strengths. Put the best players on the field, and the quarterback will be just fine throwing to the guys who can get open and catch, regardless of their roster position.

I personally think Amaro is backup material whose value got inflated, along with every other rookie tight end, due to a shockingly bad draft class at the position. I think Dobson is very good but will probably never have a 16-game season in him. I'm not super-high on the Pats passing game this year, but improved protection, improved WR/TE health from Gronk, Dobson, and Amendola (and last year was Edelman's first staying healthy), and the emergence of Lafell into a reliable red zone target would go a long way. I just can't imagine all three of those things happening.

6
by theslothook :: Thu, 06/05/2014 - 4:26pm

I agree with you, fit seems to be tied to what your strengths as a team are. I think people go overboard with brady sometimes, highlighting his short throwing as prohibitive for throwing anything else. I don't think he's ever been a great sideline thrower, but his middle of the field medium and deep accuracy shouldn't be questioned as much as they are.

I would say, though, the pats, like the saints, really benefit from a scat back role, the kind of back who can really run effective delayed screens, dump offs, and short breaking routes against slot corners and linebackers. Faulk played that role for years, but it was really good with woodhead and vareen. I'd say, not having that role is something brady would miss a lot.

7
by Perfundle :: Thu, 06/05/2014 - 5:52pm

One thing that's puzzled me is why more QBs don't attempt deep passes like Wilson does, which is to throw it with a high arc and let his receiver run under it. It requires less accuracy than a bullet pass needs, and works extremely well if the QB has seen the receiver gain clear separation, which they did on those two passes Brady missed in the AFC Championship game. Its biggest weakness is that the receiver usually has to slow down a bit to catch it, which prevents them from going for TDs unless the ball is caught near or in the end zone, but that's a small price to pay for a much higher completion percentage. I believe Rodgers is noticeably more accurate in throwing to a specific spot on the field, but Wilson's mechanics evens up their completion percentage on deep passes.

9
by Karl Cuba :: Thu, 06/05/2014 - 7:25pm

Are you trying to set a record by talking about the dratted Seahawks on each and every Four Downs thread?

10
by Perfundle :: Thu, 06/05/2014 - 7:43pm

I wasn't the one to bring them up in the NFC South thread, and talking about them in their own thread is fine, so that only leaves this thread.

16
by Jimmy :: Fri, 06/06/2014 - 11:05am

And the NFC North thread?

This isn't Seahawks Central, there are probably quite a few websites devoted to Seahawks appreciation, thread jacking every other thread with Seattle comments is fairly annoying.

23
by Perfundle :: Fri, 06/06/2014 - 3:45pm

Sorry, I meant NFC North instead of NFC South; please look at how that thread actually started. Which again, means that this is the only thread the comment can pertain to.

15
by dryheat :: Fri, 06/06/2014 - 10:57am

I find it doubly curious, because every quarterback in the NFL throws the deep pass the same way, assuming the target is or will get behind the defender. Some are better than others, but "lofting the ball and let the WR run under it" is hardly unique to Wilson.

18
by mehllageman56 :: Fri, 06/06/2014 - 11:28am

I don't think every quarterback throws the deep pass in the same way. Luck's bombs are lasers, and pretty accurate. Geno Smith didn't really loft the ball and let the WR run under it last year, which was a good thing because the receiver in question would probably just hand it off to the closest available defensive back.

22
by dryheat :: Fri, 06/06/2014 - 1:35pm

If you have the arm strength of Luck...or Cutler, or Stafford, etc, sure, you can laser a bomb if needs be. But I'm sure Luck has the deep touch pass in his repertoire also (it's essentially a fade), because there are times when it's needed. I know the Patriots quarterbacks (which is fitting since it was Brady's deep ball that started this discussion) practice this all the time, setting up trash cans in the end zone and trying to loft the ball in. I'm sure other teams do the same or similar drills. Brady has never thrown a consistently accurate deep ball -- and Peyton doesn't these days either -- but it's not because he's not using the right technique. If he doesn't know the right technique to lofting a deep ball, every coach who has ever worked with him, including Belichick, needs to be fired immediately. Wilson and Manziel, on the other hand, do throw consistently accurate deep balls. It's a talent, like anything else.

24
by Perfundle :: Fri, 06/06/2014 - 3:47pm

This isn't remotely true. Kaepernick is the polar opposite of Wilson, throwing as fast and with a flat a trajectory as he possibly can. Pretty much everyone has commented what high arc Wilson's passes have, sometimes in a negative light.

13
by Noah of Arkadia :: Fri, 06/06/2014 - 10:01am

"...and you let them run under it"

Sure, but unless you threw with good accuracy, the WR will run under it and then have to wait for the ball, giving the DB a chance at breaking up the pass or worse.

------
Who, me?

30
by FireSnake :: Wed, 06/11/2014 - 7:40am

I think Brady simply needs receivers with long arms. Whether that comes in form of a tight end like Gronk or ********* or a wide receiver is not that important.

8
by otros :: Thu, 06/05/2014 - 6:15pm

Until anyone can tell me who's starting at safety alongside McCourty, that's the biggest hole in the lineup. I've zero confidence in Harmon or Ryan (if he even converts there).

20
by Anon Ymous :: Fri, 06/06/2014 - 1:00pm

Harmon is actually a pretty intriguing prospect. Yes, he has the "reach" cloud hanging over him, and that certainly didn't work out well for Tavon Wilson, but I was much more impressed by Harmon's college tape. Harmon also progressed normally for a rookie, in that he gained snap count as the year went on, whereas Wilson saw a lot early and then was pretty much benched over the latter half of the year.

If Revis is *REVIS* then that takes pressure off whomever takes that spot. Ultimately, though, there are a lot of good defenses that trot out starters as unknown or even worse than Duron Harmon.

21
by Anon Ymous :: Fri, 06/06/2014 - 1:33pm

Yeah, if we assume NE is going to run 2 and 3 TE sets as often as they did in 2011 and 2012, then TE is an big issue even if Gronk plays most of the year.

It appears as if NE has planning to go with more 3-4 WR sets, though, unless someone wants to make the case that LaFell will be used more as a move TE. At the moment, NE has 6 WRs who all look to have a good chance of making the team (Amendola, Edelman, Dobson, Boyce, Thompkins and LaFell) plus they got a guy in the 7th round who I think has NFL potential.

IMO, it wasn't an accident that NE didn't address that area, it is either a change in philosophy or a decision based on a lack of options available.

2
by Led :: Thu, 06/05/2014 - 2:00pm

If the Jets' biggest hole really is Calvin Pace (and I don't think it is), they're in pretty good shape. He's not much of a pass rusher but that's not his role (plethora of clean up sacks last year nothwithstanding). He's there to set the edge and play solid run defense. The team expects Coples to have a breakout year, and his pass rush efficiency toward the end of the year after he recovered from the ankle injury provides some support for that belief. Time will tell. I do think depth at edge rusher is a fair concern, however, because Barnes' health is always a question. They have a lot of people, including two later round draft picks, plus McIntyre and Cunningham in the mix. Hopefully somebody will emerge, but whoever it is probably won't play many snaps anyway unless there are injuries.

I'd say OG is the Jets biggest hole. Colon is a serious injury risk, Winters was terrible as a rookie, and everybody else is at best a project with upside. And of course there's the perennial QB question...

19
by mehllageman56 :: Fri, 06/06/2014 - 11:31am

As a Jets fan, I'm more concerned about the offensive line than the defense right now. It wouldn't suprise me though if the defense takes a step back, due to the inexperience in the secondary and the lack of a speed rusher, but going into training camp guard is the position most Jets fans are worried about.

3
by theslothook :: Thu, 06/05/2014 - 2:55pm

The Jets are the only team I can remember with gaping holes at outside pass rush extending over long periods of time and consistently choosing to do nothing about it. Very curious.

4
by Guest789 :: Thu, 06/05/2014 - 3:10pm

Rex is very confident in his ability to generate pressure through scheme rather than talent (and the fact that Jets regularly have a lot of unblocked sacks seems to lend credibility to this), and seems to prefer spending resources in the secondary.

-----

“Treat a man as he is, and he will remain as he is. Treat a man as he could be, and he will become what he should be.”

11
by Dr. Bill :: Thu, 06/05/2014 - 8:21pm

Great article Cian. Slightly confused by this though: "Calvin Pace is coming off a very strong ten-sack season, but he's 33 and in ten previous seasons he never once managed double-digit sacks."

Isn't 10 double digits?

12
by Vincent Verhei :: Thu, 06/05/2014 - 8:41pm

"Previous." As in, before last year.

17
by Jimmy :: Fri, 06/06/2014 - 11:07am

You and your 'words' with their 'meanings'.

14
by Noah of Arkadia :: Fri, 06/06/2014 - 10:14am

How optimistic that LB is the Dolphins biggest problem. We're counting on two rookies who may or may not prove to be NFL caliber, and Shelley Smith, who is pretty much in the same category in my book. And god forbid an injury to Pouncey or Albert. More likely than not, OL will still be the team's biggest problem, even if the unit is better than last year.

Not that LB isn't a problem. Misi is actually strong against the run, but the other two... there is reason for optimism in that both Wheeler and Ellerbe have played better in the past, but how far can that take you. Only hope behind them are mid-round picks. Sure, OLB will suit Ellerbe better, but MLB will suit Misi worse. Like the OL, I can see them being better overall than last year while remaining a weakness.

------
Who, me?

25
by theslothook :: Sat, 06/07/2014 - 2:51am

Does anyone have any comments on the Tom Brady no longer a top 5 qb article that has attracted even the mighty skip bayless to the rescue?

Having read it, the primary points seem to be : He's declined in his accuracy at all levels, reacts worse to pressure than he use to, and holds the ball much longer than he use to (all things supposedly isolated from qb play).

Personally, this where I understand how qbr and pff grades are accurate reflections of present performance, but not predictive.

Ultimately, it comes down to how much you believe these qb isolation parameters really are isolated from the talent around you. Manning has lost significant arm strength, but he's still among the best in the league. As much as I've rooted against Brady, I still feel like most of it is still the talent around him and lack of familiarity. Having charted his bengal game, I thought he was horrible there. But then I saw his performance against Pittsburgh and I saw the old Brady. Maybe he has declined, but most of it to me was from his surroundings. But we'll see.

26
by dmstorm22 :: Sat, 06/07/2014 - 3:26pm

It all comes back to how do you separate a player from his teammates. It is obvious part of Brady's struggles were do to not having top receivers around him, losing so many targets from the previous season. Some is also having maybe the worst pass protection he's had in years and years. But some of it, from what I saw, was on Brady too.

Brady seemed less accurate than ever, and this is not by just noting his low completion percentage, but just missing throws he would hit in his sleep two or three years ago. Some of it could be miscommunication, but it didn't look right. Also, new teammates have never hurt Brady this much in the past. The most brought up example is 2006, when he threw to many different receivers, and his top two receivers come the playoffs, Jabar Gaffney and Reche Caldwell, were not even used at the start of the season. Well, what do you know, last season was Brady's worst since 2006. Problem is QB play around the league is a lot better (in terms of average stats) now than in 2006. His 87.9 passer rating is a lot better in 2006 than a 87.3 last year.

Also, my counterpoint I went to during the season last year when people were overly praising Brady for 'getting the Patriots to the AFC Championship Game' (as if his 13-25 for 182 yards against the Colts is the reason they won), was look at Philip Rivers. He too lost his top two receivers from 2012 by Week 2 (Danarrio Alexander in preseason, Malcolm Floyd in Week 2), his top receiver was a 3rd-round rookie (who was very good) and Eddie Royal. He didn't have the ebst o-line and a worse running game. He was by basically every measure the 2nd best QB in the NFL last year.

27
by MJK :: Sat, 06/07/2014 - 4:24pm

Cian Fahey ran a good article on Brady here on FO last year: http://www.footballoutsiders.com/film-room/2013/film-room-tom-brady

I basically agreed with his conclusion that Brady has suffered a small but non-zero dropoff in every facet of his game. That jives with what my eyes tell me... He no longer looks for outlet receivers and takes the "easy 5 yards the defense gives him" as well as he used to, his accuracy on the medium range passes is *just* a little bit off, especially to the left side, and his deep ball (never a strength) has gotten worse. He also seems to hold the ball longer, and doesn't respond as well to hard pressure. He admitted himself this offseason that his "left" ball accuracy has dropped.

That said, you have to take it in context. Not just the turnover of receivers last year, but also RB and OL. We all know about WR and TE. On the O-line, Vollmer only played have the season, and Wendell was a clear downgrade at center, especially in certain games (e.g. Cincy). At RB, he lost Vareen early on (which could explain the outlet receiver thing), for most of the season. All in all, the Pats offense last year should have been terrible, but instead they were decent.

I think Brady is still a top 10 QB, but I think you could make the case that he's slipped within the top 5--I think Manning, Brees, and Rodgers are clearly ahead of him now, and you could make a case that he's on par with some of the other "good" QB's in the league (Ryan, Roethlisberger, Newton...obviously a very different player than those guys, but still).

What I'm worried about is that, while he's still elite, he is slipping noticeably, and QBs in their late 30s usually don't get better, or if they do, only for a year before crashing. I think he has 2 good years left in him, and maybe one more of being decent. Drafting Garappolo was wise, although I would have preferred to see them grab Bridgewater instead of Easley...

28
by mehllageman56 :: Mon, 06/09/2014 - 8:01pm

As a Jets fan, I'm pretty happy that Bridgewater went to the NFC. The next couple of years may be rough though, with Brady playing with a chip on his shoulder and Revis Island in Foxboro. I really think a lot of Brady's issues were with players not designed for his strengths (reading defenses, short to mid-range accuracy). He's never been that accurate on the deep passes; even when Moss was there, Brady would just loft it up and Moss would outjump guys for it. Hitting a moving target 40-50 yards downfield was never his strength. If they could just get guys open early on their routes, with potential for YAC, they'll challenge for the Super Bowl again. Amendola staying healthy would be huge for them.

29
by Sixknots :: Mon, 06/09/2014 - 10:41pm

"If they could just get guys open early on their routes, with potential for YAC"

Yeah, as in Welker in his prime.