Four Downs: AFC East
by Aaron Schatz
Biggest Hole: Linebacker
The Bills had a lot of hope invested in their defense going into the 2012 season, and to say it didn't work out is a bit of an understatement. Buffalo ranked 22nd in yards allowed, 26th in points allowed, and 27th in defensive efficiency according to the Football Outsiders DVOA ratings.
Surely the Bills would like to throw some money at the problem, except that they threw lots of money at the problem last year by signing Mario Williams to the biggest defensive free-agent contract ever, then signing Mark Anderson with whatever money was left. With those guys at the ends and Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus in the middle, there isn't much the Bills can do with the line except build depth and hope everyone plays better.
It's hard to see big changes in the secondary either, since that's where the Bills have used a lot of draft value. Their starting cornerbacks are a 2012 first-rounder (Stephon Gilmore) and a 2011 second-rounder (Aaron Williams), and 2012 fourth-rounder Da'Norris Searcy probably moves into the strong safety spot. The free-safety spot is only a hole if they let Pro Bowler Jairus Byrd leave in free agency, and they probably won't.
No, the place to make changes is at linebacker. Veteran Nick Barnett has already been cut. 32-year-old safety-turned-linebacker Bryan Scott is a free agent and probably gone. A lot depends on what kind of linebackers new defensive coordinator Mike Pettine wants for what he says will be a hybrid defense. If they run 3-4, Mario Williams probably plays one outside linebacker spot, but Anderson can't really play the other. Does Pettine feel Nigel Bradham and Kelvin Sheppard have the potential to become strong players in his system? Neither wowed in 2012, but both are still young. Arthur Moats is nothing special, and the Bills don't want to be left with him starting. Shawne Merriman really doesn't have much left, and was a big part of why the Bills were so horrible against the run this year.
There are two very likely moves here. The first is to bring in someone who knows Pettine's defense from the Jets. Many people think that just as Bart Scott went from the Ravens to the Jets with Rex Ryan, so too will he go from the Jets to the Bills with Pettine. The other likely move is to use one of the Bills' top draft picks on a linebacker who can join Dareus, Gilmore, and various Williamses in a strong long-term defensive nucleus. The top of the draft is packed with great 3-4 outside linebacker prospects like Ezekiel Ansah and Barkevious Mingo; inside guys to challenge Bradham and Sheppard are more likely to come in the second or third round.
Biggest Hole: No. 1 Wide Receiver
Ryan Tannehill showed a lot of promise in 2012, or at least what would have looked like promise in a year that didn't have Andrew Luck, Russell Wilson, and Robert Griffin going to the playoffs. Now the Dolphins need to find some weapons for him to use in the passing game.
Right now the only weapon sure to return is receiver Davone Bess. After a couple of pretty good years for otherwise unimpressive offenses, Bess has seen his play fall off a bit. In fact, Bess' catch rate has dropped every single year that he's been in the NFL, down to 58 percent in 2012. That's not good for a guy whose strength is the short pass, but Bess might be better if he could move into a pure slot role that better fits his strengths.
The Dolphins need to figure out if they want to bring back their other starting wideout, Brian Hartline. Despite one huge game when he had 253 yards in Week 4, Hartline finished the season with just an average DVOA rating after being nicely above-average in his first three seasons. Hartline is a good player to re-sign if he isn't asking for too much money, but the fact is he's not a player who leads you to a championship. Instead, he's a very good option to fill the holes around the types of players who lead you to a championship.
The good news for Miami is that they can get a championship-level receiver this offseason. Greg Jennings, Mike Wallace, and Dwayne Bowe would each give Tannehill a top-notch target, and each one is young enough that he won't grow out of his prime before Tannehill has fully matured. The Dolphins have roughly $45 million in cap space, so one of these guys can be theirs -- as long as Jeff Ireland can make a much better sales pitch than the ones he was making last offseason. The other alternative would be to snag Cordarrelle Patterson or Keenan Allen with the 12th overall selection in the draft.
New England Patriots
Biggest Hole: Cornerback
Cornerback: Also known as the biggest hole for the Patriots in the 2012 offseason, and the 2011 offseason, and the 2010 offseason. You can't say they haven't tried to fix the problem, but almost every year they have failed, because their ability to identify cornerback talent in the draft has been absolutely horrendous. Here's the sad parade of failure from the last few drafts, starting with the departure of Asante Samuel after the near-perfection of 2007:
[ad placeholder 3]
2008 Round 2: Terrence Wheatley -- Played a total of 11 games in two years, with very few defensive snaps because of numerous injuries. Cut in 2010, and has been on three different NFL rosters since then.
2008 Round 4: Jonathan Wilhite -- Played most of three seasons for the Patriots, with 13 games started, then was a backup for Denver in 2011. Cut by the Bears before the 2012 season.
2009 Round 2: Darius Butler -- Supposedly the best cover corner in the 2009 draft, the Patriots kept giving Butler a shot in the starting lineup and then benching him over and over again. They gave up after two seasons. He played poorly for Carolina in 2011 but then surprisingly well for Indianapolis in 2012, finishing in the top 20 for both of the Football Outsiders game charting coverage stats (yards per pass and success rate).
2010 Round 1: Devin McCourty -- After a great rookie season which ended in a Pro Bowl selection, McCourty had a colossal sophomore slump. Now it looks like he'll be moved to safety full-time, and while he may develop into one of the league's top safeties, that's still not usually what you are hoping to get when you take a cornerback in the first round.
2011 Round 2: Ras-I Dowling -- Injury-prone college cornerback chosen with top pick in the second round has proven to be injury prone, with only nine games played in two years.
2011 Round 7: Malcolm Williams -- Practice squad fodder.
2012 Round 7: Alfonzo Dennard -- The Patriots finally get a steal by gambling on a player with extensive off-field legal problems. He started nine games last season, including both playoff games.
Dennard was part of the reason the Patriots finally filled the hole this year. The other part of that was trading for Aqib Talib at midseason. With Dennard and Talib starting, the Pats could move Kyle Arrington to the slot, where he fits much better, and use McCourty strictly at safety. With that lineup, the Pats went from the 31st best pass defense in the league by DVOA to the 15th best pass defense. When Talib got hurt in the AFC Championship, Arrington had to move back outside, Marquice Cole had to come on the field, and the Ravens took a big step closer to the Lombardi Trophy.
So what do the Pats do now? Talib is a free agent, which would leave them with Arrington back on the outside except for the fact that he's a free agent too. The Pats need a starting corner to pair with Dennard, and then they need a slot corner. They could re-sign Arrington to be the latter, but certainly not the former. And they better get some depth so they're in a better position if something happens in the 2013 playoffs.
Normally, the smart move is to build with the draft rather than free agency. But the Patriots' draft record on cornerbacks is horrible, so perhaps it is time to throw money at the problem. The free-agent pool is going to be full of interesting cornerbacks. They could bring Talib back. They could sign Sean Smith, who has never lived up to his potential but is generally above-average. They could go after Brent Grimes, who would seem to fit their style (off-man principles that require a lot of adjustment based on the receivers) as long as they feel he is fully recovered from last year's ACL tear. Or they could go after Chris Gamble if the Panthers make him a cap casualty; he's had an inconsistent career but it peaked when he was one of the league's top corners in 2011.
Unfortunately, the ability to sign a veteran cornerback will be complicated by the need to pay a number of important offensive players, starting with receiver Wes Welker and right tackle Sebastian Vollmer.
New York Jets
Biggest Hole: All the "Skill Positions"
OK, listing "all the skill positions" is sort of cheating. That's not one big hole, that's several. But it's also a proper description of the current state of the New York Jets offense. Yes, linemen like Nick Mangold and Brandon Moore are still playing at a reasonable level, but that leaves the Jets like a medieval city where the wall is still standing but all the buildings inside have been reduced to rubble.
[ad placeholder 4]
The most obvious issue, of course, is quarterback Mark Sanchez. After four years, it's fairly safe to say that Sanchez will never fulfill the potential the Jets saw in him when they traded up to take him fifth overall in the 2009 draft. Sanchez's 23.4 Total QBR was the lowest in the league for a starting quarterback, and he had career lows in both Total QBR and Football Outsiders' DVOA metric. The Jets say there will be competition for the starting job, but it's hard to imagine the Jets fitting a second starting quarterback contract under their cap after the ridiculous extension they gave Sanchez before last season. The best bet here may be to use a mid-round pick on a quarterback like E.J. Manuel or Tyler Wilson and hope to strike a Russell Wilson-like goldmine.
At running back, starter Shonn Greene is a free agent and is likely to sign elsewhere. He's not a great player, but has always been a little bit underrated by Jets fans because he doesn't have flash and pizzazz. He's very consistently average and gets the job done in proper fungible running back style. Last year he had a 52 percent Success Rate (defined here), ninth in the NFL among backs with at least 100 carries. All four years, Greene was somewhere between 11th and 25th in Football Outsiders' DVOA ratings. Bilal Powell was tenth in rushing DVOA last year and makes a good part of a running back committee, but the departure of Greene will leave a hole to fill.
Then the Jets need to figure out what to do at wide receiver. All six receivers who had at least 25 targets for the Jets had negative DVOA ratings, and the Jets were the only team in the league where only one wideout had at least 50 targets in 2012. That was Jeremy Kerley, who on a proper roster would be the slot receiver instead of the No. 1 target. The previous No. 1 receiver, Santonio Holmes, is coming off surgery for a Lisfranc fracture and he's owed $7.5 million guaranteed. It's hard to imagine the Jets could cut him, but they may not get any value out of him. Stephen Hill showed some promise in his rookie year and should improve in 2013, but there's a lot of work to be done around him and Kerley.
The problem is compounded by the question of what to do with Dustin Keller, who will be a free agent. Keller is Sanchez's security blanket and is coming off his best season (third among tight ends in DVOA), but that stat comes with limited sample size. He was never that good in the past, and it's hard to find someone who really considers him one of the top ten tight ends in the league. But the Jets may have to pay him like one to keep him, even if it is just for one year with the franchise tag.
(This article originally appeared on ESPN Insider.)