Four Downs: AFC East
by Sean McCormick
Biggest Post-Draft Needs: Offensive Tackle, Wide Receiver
For the most part, the Bills did a superlative job of improving their team this offseason. The defensive line got the biggest overhaul with the signing of defensive ends Mario Williams and Mark Anderson, but general manager Buddy Nix also retained key offensive contributors like wide receiver Steve Johnson and unheralded-but-effective starting tight end Scott Chandler. The biggest holes heading into the draft were at left tackle and wide receiver, and the Bills addressed both spots on day two of the draft. There are still concerns, however. Buffalo spent a third-round pick on N.C. State’s T.J. Graham, a receiver that many, including the NFL Network’s Mike Mayock, graded as a seventh-round prospect. ESPN analyst Todd McShay liked the pick better, calling Graham one of the more underrated receivers in the draft, but even he expected the Wolfpack receiver to come off the board in the fifth or sixth round. Graham may yet prove his doubters wrong, but it would be premature to simply pencil him in opposite Johnson and assume he will produce right away. More likely, Graham will be spoon-fed the offense, and Chan Gailey will mostly use Graham’s blazing speed in spread packages to try and get more space for Johnson, Donald Jones and David Nelson to work with. Graham also figures to contribute right out of the gate as a punt returner.
The Bills never really acted as if they were interested in re-signing left tackle Demetress Bell, despite him anchoring a line that gave up only 23 sacks and led the league in Adjusted Sack Rate. Some of that indifference can be attributed to the belief that Chan Gailey’s scheme and quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick’s quick trigger were more responsible for the low sack numbers than anything Bell did. 2011 fourth-rounder Chris Hairston held up well in limited action, but it was obvious that the team would select some competition for Hairston. The Bills netted one of the big steals of the draft when they plucked Georgia’s Cordy Glenn off the board in the second round. Problem solved? Not necessarily. Glenn played all over the line in college, and there is real concern that he doesn’t have the foot speed to be an upper-tier blindside protector at the NFL level. Nix considers Glenn to be very similar to former Charger standout Marcus McNeill though, and obviously the team would be thrilled if that comparison holds up.
Important Undrafted Free Agents
Buffalo signed 10 undrafted free agents shortly after the draft ended. Headlining the group is hard-luck Richmond quarterback Aaron Corp. Corp was set to be the starter at USC after Mark Sanchez bolted for the NFL, only to break his leg before the start of the season. Enter Matt Barkley, and exit Corp, who transferred to Richmond only to lose yet another season to injury. You can’t be a projected starter for USC without some ability, and with the poor depth behind Fitzpatrick, Corp has a chance to stick. Buffalo added some more secondary players with Virginia Tech corner Chris Hill, Stanford safety Delano Howell, and Penn State safety Nick Sukay. The player with perhaps the best chance to make the team is Florida State punter Shawn Powell, who averaged 47 yards per punt last season for the Seminoles, and who was consistently able to pin teams deep with his directional punting.
Biggest Post-Draft Need: Wide Receiver
While there is something to be said for subtracting good players now and then for the sake of team chemistry, there is even more to be said for not putting your remaining talent in a position to fail. The Dolphins do have some decent pieces to work with. Brian Hartline wasn't good last season, but he was very efficient in 2010, boasting a 21.9% DVOA and providing a vertical dimension to the offense. Davone Bess is a natural slot receiver who, according to Football Outsiders similarity scores, compares favorably over the last three seasons to the early years of Ricky Proehl, Brian Blades, and Wayne Chrebet. When paired up with a legitimate number one receiver, both Hartline and Bess can be part of an efficient, if unspectacular, passing attack. But by trading away Brandon Marshall for pennies on the dollar and not reeling in a top receiver prospect in the draft, general manager Jeff Ireland and head coach Joe Philbin could well be invoking the Peter Principle, pushing both receivers into roles where they can't succeed. Maybe Clyde Gates will provide enough room with his speed to let Hartline and Bess operate, but that’s asking a lot from a guy who did very little as a rookie.
What makes all of this worse is that Miami just drafted Ryan Tannehill, and there will be pressure from both the owner and the fans to get their shiny new toy on the field as soon as possible. Tannehill is a raw prospect who would benefit greatly from the security of, say, a Brandon Marshall to throw to. Instead, Miami is setting itself up for a potential repeat of the Blaine Gabbert show that ran further up I-95 last year, throwing out an unprepared rookie and teaming him with overmatched skill position personnel.
Important Undrafted Free Agents
Jeff Ireland loaded up on free agents, signing 16 players to contracts. There was a particular concentration on unearthing potential gems from smaller schools. Temple guard Derek Dennis started 37 games and has the flexibility to line up at either guard or tackle. Considering the depth problems on the offensive line, Dennis has a chance to stick. Arkansas State safety Kelcie McCray made ESPN Scouts Inc’s top-10 undrafted players list, which described him as "a flexible, smooth athlete who shows good range in coverage." One of the big school prospects of note is Texas A&M receiver Jeff Fuller, who spent last season catching passes from Ryan Tannehill.
New England Patriots
Biggest Post Draft Need: Cornerback
Traditionally, Bill Belichick defenses have taken away what an offense does best, forcing quarterbacks and offensive coordinators out of their comfort zones and making role players have to step up. That all went out the window last year, as New England’s pass defense DVOA against No. 1 receivers was an eye-popping 43.9%, easily the worst mark in the league. In the first two weeks alone, Patriots corners surrendered 17 receptions for 311 yards and two touchdowns to the combination of Brandon Marshall and Vincent Jackson, and things never got much better. New England did not pursue any of the top-tier cornerbacks in free agency, opting instead to upgrade the nickel and dime packages by signing veteran Will Allen and Jets castoff Marquice Cole to one-year deals. When the draft rolled around, New England focused on improving the front seven, while waiting until the seventh round to add Nebraska’s Alfonzo Dennard. Dennard was a highly-touted player who plummeted in the draft due to the always-toxic combination of a bad Senior Bowl and a felony arrest for assaulting a police officer. He’s the same kind of low-risk, high-reward move that the Pats have been making for a long time. Those gambles produced Corey Dillon and Randy Moss ... but lately they've yielded Chad Ochocinco and Albert Haynesworth.
If there is to be improvement, it is going to have to come from within. Both Devin McCourty and Ras-I Dowling have the potential to be effective players in the Belichick system. McCourty was terrific as a rookie in 2010, but struggled mightily last year when asked to play more press coverage. By the end of the season he was playing free safety, but all indications are that McCourty will return to man one of the starting cornerback spots. Ideally, Dowling will be starting on the other side. That will require him to stay healthy, something that Dowling has been almost comically inept at. The former Virginia standout has suffered through knee injuries, ankle injuries, hamstring injuries and hip injuries in the last two years. Any blueprint that requires Dowling to be a major contributor needs a Plan B in place.
Important Undrafted Free Agents
The Patriots continued addressing the front seven after the draft, adding Rutgers defensive lineman Justin Francis. Francis notched 6.5 sacks and 60 tackles while playing both end and tackle for the Scarlet Knights, and he brings the kind of versatility Bill Belichick craves in a player. Much like Alfonzo Dennard, Francis was available in part due to off-the-field issues, as he missed the entire 2008 season due to an arrest. Belichick also continued tapping his college connections, signing Kirk Firentz product Markus Zusevics, a two-year starter on the offensive line for Iowa. The Pats are reportedly close to signing Ole Miss running back Brandon Bolden, who would follow in the footsteps of BenJarvus Green-Ellis, but the signing has not been confirmed yet.
New York Jets
Biggest Post Draft Needs: Offensive Tackle, Safety
One of the biggest individual winners over the draft weekend was Wayne Hunter, New York’s embattled right tackle, who watched seven rounds come and go without the Jets adding his successor. Hunter was among the worst starting linemen in football in 2011, surrendering 8.5 sacks and committing 11 penalties in his first year as a full-time replacement for the retired Damien Woody. Neither head coach Rex Ryan nor new offensive coordinator Tony Sparano has been any more than lukewarm in their endorsements, with Ryan suggesting that Hunter was the right tackle "for now," while Sparano has indicated there will be an open competition. Thanks to the team’s inaction during free agency and on draft day, there aren’t really any other viable choices. Ideally, former second-round pick Vladimir Ducasse would step up and take the job, but there is absolutely no reason to expect him to do so. Ducasse has been non-competitive in training camp for two years running, and has failed when pressed into service as a reserve. The fact that the Jets opted to guarantee Hunter’s base salary in 2012 rather than simply releasing him speaks volumes as to their lack of confidence in Ducasse. The only other options on the roster are Austin Howard and Dennis Landolt. Howard was signed off the Ravens’ practice squad. He started one game with the Eagles during his rookie season and played in three others. That’s more game experience than Landolt, who has done stints on the practice squad with four different teams but who has yet to be promoted to an active roster.
The other potential sore spot is at safety. Eric Smith was exposed in his first season as a starting player, while Jim Leonhard finished the season on IR for the second year in a row. The Jets did sign Leron Landry to a one-year, $3.5 million deal, but given both his injury history and his current condition -- several teams passed on Landry in free agency after checking out his Achilles tendon -- and you have a very iffy solution. Even if Landry hold up for all sixteen games, he’s more of a box player than a coverage guy, when what Rex Ryan needs more than anything is someone who can deal with Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez twice a year. Leonhard remains unsigned and might return, depending on how quickly he heals from his torn right patellar tendon and how much competition there is for his services. The Jets added a pair of safeties on day three of the draft, selecting Wake Forest’s Josh Bush and South Carolina’s Antonio Allen, either of whom could push for playing time with a strong performance in training camp.
Important Undrafted Free Agents
The Jets chased the backpages of the local tabloids for the umpteenth time by offering a tryout to Phil Simms’ son, Tennessee quarterback Matt Simms. Simms impressed enough during mini-camp to earn a contract, so he’ll get a crack at unseating Greg McElroy as the third string quarterback. Not willing to let their nepotistic impulses go there, Tannenbaum and Ryan also inked Penn State corner D’Antonn Lynn to a contract. Lynn, the son of current running backs coach Anthony Lynn, was an honorable All-Big Ten mention at cornerback who will have to make the transition to safety in the pros. The ignorance of the offensive line continued after the draft, as Utah tackle John Cullen was the only lineman to sign.