Four Downs: AFC East
by Sean McCormick
One effect of the lockout is that teams don’t have as good a feel for their roster as they would in normal years. No one has conducted OTAs, and rookies haven’t had a chance to study the playbooks or meet with position coaches. And because free agency was pushed back until after the lockout, many teams don’t know what their rosters will look like even as they begin training camp. So without further ado, let’s look at the four teams of the AFC East to see which positions they should be considering strengthening:
Buffalo Bills: Right Tackle
There was simply no way the Bills were going to be able to adequately address all their holes in the space of a single offseason, and to their credit, they haven’t thrown lots of money around trying to. Ryan Fitzpatrick isn’t a long-term solution at quarterback -- he may not even be a short-term solution -- but there were no surefire prospects worth burning a top five draft pick on, and the free agent pickings were slim, particularly if you didn’t want to give away the farm for Kevin Kolb. Instead of getting cute at the top of the draft, the Bills took Marcell Dareus, a massive, scheme-versatile defensive tackle who should immediately upgrade a defensive line that was 32nd in Adjusted Line Yards. Dareus is no Nick Fairley, but he does bring some pass rush, and his ability to tie up blockers will allow linebackers and defensive backs to come free on blitzes. Paul Posluszny briefly left a hole when he signed with Jacksonville, but free agent Nick Barnett quickly filled it.
The right tackle spot, however, is not a hole but a canyon, and it doesn’t look like Buffalo has done enough to address it. The Bills were 30th in Adjusted Line Yards at runs off right tackle, but that doesn’t begin to tell the tale. Buffalo ended up playing four different players at right tackle, beginning with Cornell Green, then Cordaro Howard, Mansfield Wrotto, and finally Erik Pears. Things got so bad that Chan Gailey started rotating players from series to series in the vain hope that someone would do some blocking. Green is gone and Howard has moved inside, but that hasn’t made the situation much clearer. As camp opens, there is a battle between Wrotto, Pears, Ed Wang, and rookie Chris Hairston, a fourth-round pick out of Clemson. It would have been nice to land a top performer like Tyson Clabo in free agency, but even spending modest money for a second go-round with Langston Walker might be preferable to handing the job to any of the four current contestants.
Miami Dolphins: Quarterback
If you were to simply look at the statistics, quarterback would not necessarily be the biggest hole on the Dolphins. Chris Clemons struggled badly getting to the sidelines to provide help over the top, and offenses frequently targeted him in isolation in the deep middle of the field. The interior line could use some more help even after inserting Mike Pouncey into the starting lineup. And of course, the special teams were consistently horrific from beginning to end. In contrast, Chad Henne’s 621 DYAR (Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement) were 17th in the league, which is to say just a bit below average. Henne’s season was crippled by the 19 interceptions he threw, but a closer look suggests that he was the victim of some terrible luck. Almost every mistake throw Henne made ended up on the stat sheet, as Henne only threw one dropped interception all year. With even average luck, Henne’s interceptions will decrease next year, and he could return to being a middle-of-the-pack quarterback with some potential for growth.
Of course, there are lots of things that statistics don’t cover, and it’s those things that turned Henne’s season from disappointing to catastrophic. Brandon Marshall publicly allied with backup Tyler Thigpen, and took his grievances with Henne to the airwaves, complaining about Henne’s refusal to throw him the ball with sufficient frequency. Henne was benched during the season, reclaimed his starting job only because of injuries, and then was injured himself. In the offseason, owner Stephen Ross was adamant that the Dophins bring in competition, and the team tried to do just that, fumbling around with Denver over Kyle Orton before deciding that Orton’s contract demands were too high. Instead, they signed Matt Moore, he of the -270 DYAR and -37.5% DVOA, who lost his job last year to Jimmy Clausen of all people. Now the Dolphins will have a quarterback controversy on their hands in training camp, and there will be pressure to give Moore a legitimate shot at the starting gig, which means fewer reps for Henne as offensive coordinator Brian Daboll installs a new offense.
This can go one of two ways and still work out. If Henne comes out of the gates fast and grabs a stranglehold on the starting job, Miami can go back to developing their young and talented quarterback with no harm done. Alternately, Miami can pony up for Orton, who is the only guy out there who represents a legitimate upgrade over Henne. Right now, though, it looks like neither of those things are happening.
New England Patriots: Defensive End/Outside Linebacker
The hot story out of Providence is that Bill Belichick seems to be abandoning his traditional 3-4 defense in favor of a 4-3, and that the Patriots have primarily been working with 4-3 Under and Over fronts in the first days of training camp. The release of Ty Warren and the trade for Albert Haynesworth could be viewed as additional evidence of a shift, as Warren is a prototypical five-technique while Haynesworth has done his best work in a 4-3 set. The whole thing is something of a Macguffin -- the Patriots have run a wide variety of fronts for some time now, and the gap principles will remain the same. The real issue is finding someone who can rush off the edge, whether standing up or from a three-point stance. New England’s DVOA against the pass on third downs in 2010 was an abysmal 24.0%, and right now the starting defensive ends would be Jermaine Cunningham and Eric Moore, who combined for a grand total of three sacks last season.
Cunningham was a down lineman at Florida, so there is reason to believe he’ll develop faster if he returns to playing with his hand on the ground. Moore has been a non-entity for most of his career, though a stint in the UFL seems to have invigorated him; he registered 14 tackles, two sacks and two forced fumbles in just four games after returning to the NFL last year. If the Patriots want to add competition, they could look to Andre Carter, who flopped as a 3-4 outside linebacker but is a credible 4-3 end, or Matt Roth, who fits the mold of a traditional Belichick edge rusher and who has plentiful experience in the system, having played for both Nick Saban and Eric Mangini. If the Patriots really wanted to make some noise, they could jump into the trade market for Osi Umenyiora. Umenyiora is looking for a big contract, and he would have no position when the Patriots wanted to use three down linemen, but he would certainly look good lined up alongside Haynesworth or Vince Wilfork.
New York Jets: Wide Receiver
Aside from his foray into the Nnamdi Asomugha sweepstakes, general manager Mike Tannenbaum has largely been content to re-sign his players or to extend the contracts of younger stars. The big name was obviously Santonio Holmes, but Tannenbaum also locked up Antonio Cromartie and Eric Smith, extended David Harris for another four years, and returned Donald Strickland, who had played for the team in 2009, to replace the departed Drew Coleman. While maintaining continuity isn’t always a good thing--Carolina’s decision to spend vast sums to return the young core of their 2-14 team comes immediately to mind--the Jets fielded one of the most talented teams in the league, and the talent was fairly evenly distributed on both offense and defense. If the Jets are going to take a step forward, they don’t necessarily need to sign a bunch of free agents. What they do need is for Mark Sanchez to take another step forward in his development, and preferably a big step. So how best to ensure that your young quarterback has all the weapons he needs? How about signing a 34-year-old receiver who has been in jail for the last two years?
In fairness, the Jets were going to have a very hard time re-signing both Holmes and Braylon Edwards, and there is no question that they made the right decision by prioritizing Holmes. And Burress at first blush provides a good approximation of Edwards’ skill set, so it stands to reason that he could step into the offense fairly seamlessly. The problems are twofold. The first is that there simply is no history to suggest that Burress is going to be able to recapture his 2008 form after his extended time away from the game. Michael Vick was sluggish in his return to the NFL, and the rust didn’t come off until the following season. And the second problem is that the 2008 version of Plaxico Burress was already showing signs of slowing down, averaging only 13 yards per reception, his lowest total since his rookie season, and ranking 37th in both DYAR and DVOA. If Burress struggles as the number two receiver, it will allow defenses to consistently roll coverage towards Holmes, thus making Sanchez’s life difficult.
(This article previously appeared at ESPN Insider.)