Four Downs: AFC East

Four Downs: AFC East

by Scott Kacsmar

Buffalo Bills

Biggest Hole: Offensive Tackle

For a team coming off a ninth-consecutive losing season, the Bills actually have a decent roster in place with no glaring holes. Key acquisitions on defense in the last few years have solidified that unit, which ranked No. 4 in DVOA at Football Outsiders. This leaves Buffalo in the familiar position of trying to replace Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly. Florida State's EJ Manuel was a first-round pick last year, but injuries really took away from his opportunity to impress as a rookie. Adding talent around the quarterback should be the top priority this offseason, but that does not have to be a big-name receiver. In the last two years the Bills have drafted Robert Woods, Marquise Goodwin and T.J. Graham in the first three rounds. With young receivers and a very good running back duo (C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson), the Bills are better served to improve the trenches.

Coach Doug Marrone has specialized in the offensive line, so he should have a good grasp on what went wrong in his rookie year. No one ran the ball more in 2013 than Buffalo with 546 runs, but the offense only ranked 14th in yards per carry (4.2) and 17th in DVOA. Run blocking was not a strength of the offensive line, especially to the outside, and right tackle Erik Pears in particular could be the player replaced in the draft by a top prospect like Greg Robinson (Auburn) or Jake Matthews (Texas A&M). Left tackle Cordy Glenn was a second-round pick in 2012 and his starting job should be safe, but he must play better. Buffalo had such little success when rushing outside last season that a league-high 71 percent of runs came up the middle or guard.

Not only does Manuel need some insulation from a consistent running game, but he could use better protection so he does not have to scramble as much and risk more injuries. Buffalo's offensive line ranked 28th in adjusted sack rate (8.5 percent). Only 28 of the 48 sacks surrendered came with Manuel taking the snap, but if he's going to stay on the field and get better, then the blocking must improve.

Miami Dolphins

Biggest Hole: Offensive Line

When left tackle Jake Long departed in free agency to St. Louis last year, there was a big hole to fill. Miami never fixed it, choosing instead to add a big-play wide receiver in Mike Wallace, and the blocking troubles got quarterback Ryan Tannehill sacked a staggering 58 times. The departure of Jonathan Martin and the associated suspension of Richie Incognito didn't help things, nor did a trade for Bryant McKinnie from Baltimore. When your offensive line cannot hold its blocks and your best receiver's strength is getting deep, that's a poor combination. It's no surprise Wallace failed to live up to the lofty expectations in year one given the lack of time Tannehill had in the pocket. Wallace ranked 77th in DYAR and 75th in DVOA among wide receivers.

Not only did the protection around Tannehill collapse, but the running game rarely got off the ground in 2013. Miami had four games with fewer than 25 rushing yards. Miami had seven such games in team history prior to the season. Still, Miami's offense came alive late in the year to put the team in position to make the playoffs, but the final two games were two of the biggest offensive duds in team history. The Dolphins scored just seven points and turned the ball over five times.

Tannehill's Total QBR fell from 50.4 as a rookie to 45.8 this year. He's a good athlete and does not often create his own sacks by holding onto the ball too long, so 58 sacks are very concerning for Tannehill's development. Aside from Pro Bowl center Mike Pouncey, the Dolphins do not have many sure pieces in place to protect their young quarterback. This hole will take more than one offseason to fix, but something must be done in free agency and the draft.

New England Patriots

Biggest Hole: Tight End

When healthy, Rob Gronkowski is the best tight end in the NFL. However, a variety of injuries and surgeries have cast some doubt on whether he will ever be the same elite player again, or how long he'll last until the next injury. With Gronkowski now recovering from ACL surgery, the Patriots need an insurance plan. Some will say the team needs wide receivers, but Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola did a very respectable job of replacing Wes Welker's role. Shane Vereen is a good receiving threat out of the backfield. The team has promising young outside wide receivers like Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins, who both battled their own health issues down the stretch.

[ad placeholder 3]

The pieces are there for Tom Brady, but this offense was built around two tight ends. After Gronkowski's injuries and the Aaron Hernandez nightmare, the Patriots had no backup plan in 2013. The offensive wrinkle was to ignore the position in the passing game. Brady completed just 14 passes to tight ends not named Gronkowski. In 2012, that number was 61, mostly thanks to Hernandez. Michael Hoomanawanui is better used as a blocker. With the 29th pick in the draft, the Patriots could target Texas Tech tight end Jace Amaro. He's not the all-around tight end that Gronkowski is, but he can play in the slot and give Brady another reliable option down the middle of the field. Pair him with Gronkowski and it could be like old times again in New England with the two-tight end look.

Every season is played with a win-now mentality as Brady turns 37 and Belichick turns 62 this year. The Patriots cannot afford to again lose a whole dimension of their offense should Gronkowski suffer another injury.

New York Jets

Biggest Hole: Eligible Receivers

Like the other two teams in the AFC East, the Jets are trying to build around a young quarterback to dethrone the Bill Belichick-Tom Brady machine in New England. Rookie quarterback Geno Smith had his struggles with turnovers (25 of them) and consistency, but adding better receivers would make his job easier. When Rex Ryan was reaching AFC Championship games with Mark Sanchez his inconsistent quarterback was throwing to talent like Santonio Holmes, Braylon Edwards, Jerricho Cotchery and Dustin Keller. Those are receivers who can catch inaccurate passes and produce yards after the catch. Smith's leading targets were Jeremy Kerley, a banged-up Holmes, Stephen Hill and David Nelson. Hill has yet to catch on in two years and Holmes may not even be back given his cap hit of over $10.7 million in 2014.

[ad placeholder 4]

It was as cumbersome a receiving corps as the Jets have had in years, and tight end Jeff Cumberland led the team with just four receiving touchdowns. A tight end like North Carolina's Eric Ebron could be a great addition with the 18th pick in the draft. Smith had success when throwing to similar big targets last year. He completed 64.4 percent of his passes to Kellen Winslow Jr., 64.0 percent to Nelson and 63.9 percent to Cumberland. However, Smith was just 47-of-114 passing (41.2 percent) when targeting Holmes and the still raw Hill. Those outside throws are tougher, which is why a player like Ebron would be a great security blanket over the middle for Smith.

Some believe the Jets are even a threat to go after a quarterback in this deep draft, but it might not be wise to go that route again until the offense actually has some toys to play with.

This article previously appeared on ESPN Insider.


42 comments, Last at 14 Feb 2014, 1:48pm

1 Re: Four Downs: AFC East

Buffalo had such little success when rushing outside last season that a league-high 71 percent of runs came up the middle or guard.

I realize it's difficult to reduce this stuff to a few paragraphs, but this is too much of a short-cut. Buffalo also ranked second (67%) in runs marked 'middle/guard' the previous year, when it had more success running outside. It seems likely that the Bills' playbook simply calls for a lot of runs between the tackles, and so this is what they practise and what they call on gameday. Jacksonville at the peak of MJD's career had similar splits for runs inside versus off/outside the tackles, yet it had consistently NFL-average or better success outside.

3 Re: Four Downs: AFC East

Buffalo in 2013 was from an ALY perspective historically crappy at running left end/right end. However, those runs the last few years account for about 20 percent of all runs, but only about 10 percent of Buffalo's runs, so they are not outside run believers (even when they have success like last year running right). Answering why that is (or why some teams commit to outside running and others don't) might be interesting, but could well be beyond the scope of a four downs summary.

4 Re: Four Downs: AFC East

I agree with most of this article, except that the Jets should draft another quarterback, probably not in the early rounds. Of course, if Bridgewater falls to them, they should take him. Not only are they not sure about Geno, the 57 sack monster in Buffalo swapped defensive coordinators, from a Rex Ryan disciple to the leader of the dirtiest team in the NFL. Ask the Packers and the Bears if you can expect your quarterback to stay healthy all year with Jim Schwartz in your division. Every team in the AFC East should draft a quarterback this year.

35 Re: Four Downs: AFC East

The Bears knocked more QBs out of games on direct hits over the past five years than the Schwartz Lions. Last season the Bucs, Seahawks, Texans, 49ers, and Rams all had more personal fouls than the Lions. Vontaze Burfict had 8 unnecessary roughness calls against him alone.
But that's OK -- why let facts get in the way of lazy media-driven meme?

5 Re: Four Downs: AFC East

"However, a variety of injuries and surgeries have cast some doubt on whether he will ever be the same elite player again, or how long he'll last until the next injury."

I'm curious - if a different player had taken a hit to the knee like Gronk did, would he also have received an ACL tear?

I ask because there seems to be a belief that ligament injuries like that indicate something about a player's propensity to be injured. I'll concede that Gronk has a history of back problems. But ACL injuries hit players randomly, and are more of a function of how a player is hit than of any inherent weakness (unless we're talking about women's basketball, where pretty much every ACL is a risk). It seems weird that the one position where the Patriots clearly have the best at his position in the entire league is a position that people think should be a focus.

Have you looked at their defense lately? If you wonder whether Gronk can recover from an ACL tear, what about Wilfork recovering from an Achilles tendon injury? Let's remember that Wilfork is a heavy guy (to say the least) and considerably older thank Gronkowski.

I don't fathom how people see the defense fail so often and continue to insist that it's the offense that has the "biggest hole". Getting depth at the TE position is far from the biggest need that the Patriots have.

10 Re: Four Downs: AFC East

"I don't fathom how people see the defense fail so often and continue to insist that it's the offense that has the "biggest hole". Getting depth at the TE position is far from the biggest need that the Patriots have."

Couldn't agree more. I keep hearing from my fellow Pats fans "Brady needs weapons". Well that didn't win Denver a SB this season, or the Pats in 2007.

I like some of the guys the Pats have drafted on defense over the last couple years, but watching the Seahawks in the SB made me realize how far away the Pats are from having a top notch defense.

13 Re: Four Downs: AFC East

You don't really need a Seahawks-level defense to win the Super Bowl (but you probably need one to dominate it). San Francisco's 13th-ranked defense would have been good enough in any other year, although they did punch above their weight in the playoffs.

Edit: I do wonder why San Francisco is only ranked 13th. Their schedule isn't that easy, and they're rated extremely highly in pretty much every stat other than red-zone defense and turnovers forced.

16 Re: Four Downs: AFC East

The early absence of Aldon Smith, and I suspect it's also influenced by their game-scripts from football perspective. Something like: As they were coasting to many of their comfortable wins, the 9ers left a soft middle in their defense that resulted in more successful runs and short passes but still few successful drives.

23 Re: Four Downs: AFC East

I had considered Smith as a possibility, but it wasn't that.

Smith missed weeks 4 through 8, and played sparingly against Carolina in week 10, but that was actually their best 6-game stretch of the season; much of their mediocre performance came in the final five games before the playoffs, including almost losing their final home game at Candlestick against the Falcons.

20 Re: Four Downs: AFC East

A couple things drive SF's rank that low. First, while their schedule wasn't that easy, the offenses they faced _were_ on the easy side (25th in strength). Second, they were very poor playing with a lead (30th when up by 8 or more.)

Overall, it felt that SF's defense played a little less than the sum of their parts.

27 Re: Four Downs: AFC East

I was referring to their defensive schedule. -2.1% isn't that bad.

Contrast them with Denver last year:

2013 SF

Defensive DVOA: -4.6% (13)

-2.1% average opponent offensive DVOA (25)
Yards per drive: 26.69 (6)
Points per drive: 1.45 (4)
Turnovers per drive: 0.134 (16)
DSR: 0.645 (6)
Punts per drive: 0.457 (4)
Points per red-zone drive: 4.63 (11)

2012 Denver

Defensive DVOA: -13.8% (5)

-3.2% average opponent offensive DVOA (26)
Yards per drive: 25.03 (1)
Points per drive: 1.48 (5)
Turnovers per drive: 0.124 (16)
DSR: 0.648 (4)
Punts per drive: 0.500 (1)
Points per red-zone drive: 5.12 (27)

Denver had an easier schedule and even worse turnover and red-zone numbers. They're a bit better at forcing punts and limiting yardage, and yet they have a significantly better defensive DVOA.

I wonder if it has anything to do with hardly getting any negative-yardage plays on defense (not counting turnovers). They were 4th-worst at adjusted sack rate, and 2nd-worst at stuffing runs, which means that they're probably worst in the league in that area.

30 Re: Four Downs: AFC East

Denver 2012 was disproportionately good at getting off the field on third downs, which drove their projection to regress this past season. I suspect that had something to do with it

11 Re: Four Downs: AFC East

To argue the point in general, if you're hit the way Dustin Keller was hit, chances are your knee will collapse. However, some players suffer ACL tears that don't appear to come from such strong hits. Impossible to tell for sure, really, but I don't believe these injuries are entirely random.

As for Gronk's in particular, I've no idea. I didn't even watch it. But even without it he's an injury risk.

The man with no sig

6 Re: Four Downs: AFC East

The Dolphins currently have 13 million in Soliai and Starks. They are unlikely to return both of them. You'd think Starks is the higher priority as Soliai seems to be worth the price more as a NT in a 3/4 than a DT in a 4/3. You also wonder if Miami can afford to trade one of its edge rushing undersized DE for OL help. How the new management team handles the OL/DL transition this year will likely determine what happens when their contracts come due in 2016.

7 Re: Four Downs: AFC East

Last year you wrote about the Patriots We could have gone with wide receiver here [as greatest need] given that projected starters Danny Amendola and Michael Jenkins are worse than the players they replaced.

Since then the situation has grown worse, as Amendola has been less than expected and Jenkins didn't even make the team. The rookies have been the near replacement level warm bodies that rookies are expected to be, showing willing and able to learn, but without any real signs of being anything out of the ordinary. Edelman, for all his "breakout" status, is still not a quality number one receiver, and probably never will be.

If Gronk can come back near full strength, or even if he can't, it's the WR position that looks thinnest. The Patriots have been successful with or without a Gronk-style TE, have sufficient TEs for a more conventional passing attack, and Brady has been able to put up reasonably good numbers receivers like these. But they could really use a true number one WR to put at least some pressure on opposing secondaries.

I would love either Dobson (more likely) or Thompkins to prove me wrong by turning into a top twenty receiver, a true threat as a number one. But I'm not holding my breath.

8 Re: Four Downs: AFC East

Yeah, it seems like the Patriot's needs should be the same as the Jets. They need a dynamic receiver whether that player is actually a TE or a WR seems sort of immaterial.

29 Re: Four Downs: AFC East

The Patriots need a tight end more than a receiver because of Brady's inaccuracy with the deep ball. Amaro or Ebron would help that offense a lot, catching short passes and breaking tackles to long gains. Sammy Watkins would be great catching screens or short passes, but you can't count on Brady hitting him on bombs.

The Jets could use a reliable deep threat as a receiver more, since Geno Smith actually ranked in the top ten in deep accuracy percentage last year. Amaro or Ebron would help, but not as much as a tall fast physical receiver, you know, like Stephen Hill if he could play.

9 Re: Four Downs: AFC East

They might lose Edelman as well. Someone will be willing to overpay for him, and I can't see Edelman settling for anything less than what Amendola got, given he outperformed him even when both were on the field.

Luckily for hte Pats there are a bunch of UFA WRs out there this year. Decker is probably out of their price range, but Emannuel Sanders could be a nice option (though I tink Denver would do well to go after him if and when Decker leaves).

12 Re: Four Downs: AFC East

Thank God Decker is out of their price range. Sherman put him on a milk carton. Not a number 1, but someone will pay him that way. Sanders is interesting possibility.

18 Re: Four Downs: AFC East

His numbers have been top half for number ones two years running even though he shares that role with Thomas. Yes, I know, Peyton, four strong receivers, blah, blah... But you don't put up numbers like that without being pretty damned good. Despite moving to a place where defenses could not focus on him, and with Manning having his great year, Welker didn't improve much statistically. Those effects matter, but there's a limit to how much.

Besides, if he's not a number one, why would Sherman be the guy assigned to him?

Decker would be the number one WR on most teams. Same goes for Thomas and Welker, so underestimating Decker is understandable.

19 Re: Four Downs: AFC East

In the 90's, the 49ers had Deion Sanders single-cover Alvin Harper so they could double-cover Irvin. The Seahawks may have employed a similar strategy. D Thomas is a more dangerous receiver than Decker. Decker is probably more a 1A than a true #1 WR. Decker would not be the number one WR on most teams. Here's a list of teams with a better WR: SF, Ariz, GB, Det, Chi, NO, Atl, TB, Car, Dal, NYG, Phi, Cle, Cin, Pit, SD, Den, Hou, Buf. Some of these teams even have two WRs better (e.g., GB, Chi, Atl). There are a few other teams like Miami, TN, Ind, and MN that are also debatable. Decker is a good #2 WR that may be a #1 WR on a team lacking a true #1.

21 Re: Four Downs: AFC East

So what you are saying is that in your opinion he would be around the twentieth to twenty-fifth best number one receiver. That would make him a true number one receiver in my book, just not a star. It looks like we're quibbling about Decker's skills vs. five to ten guys here, all of whom are skillful enough to be true number one receivers.

You may or may not be right about all those receivers being better than Decker. But we've established that his peer group is clear number one WRs, plus three other really good (1A) receivers.

40 Re: Four Downs: AFC East

Only if you think there are 32 true WR1s in the NFL. I think the term is generally used to mean a receiver who can do everything (short, long, red one, in traffic) and be productive even when the defense treats him as the primary threat. Lots of teams don't have a player like that, and Decker isn't one.

22 Re: Four Downs: AFC East

Sherman will almost always play his side. So that the Broncos lined Decker up across Sherm and forgot about him pretty much says where they think Decker is relative to the other duck wranglers.

28 Re: Four Downs: AFC East

As a Jets fan,I need you to show me this. I remember Revis covering Welker a couple times, but generally Revis stayed on the outside, as did Cromartie. If you could link to a play that would be great.

36 Re: Four Downs: AFC East

Alas, I don't have a catalogue of Jets vs Patriots plays at the ready. If you were really interested. You could google for some Rex Ryan interviews around Patriots games. He started out covering Moss 1 on 1, and then when it became obvious that was a mis-match (in Revis's favor), and it became obvious that Wilson or whomever was playing the slot couldn't cover Welker, Ryan stuck Revis on Welker. I believe that's the way the Jets played it during the Playoff upset a few years ago.

38 Re: Four Downs: AFC East

So I did look back at regular season Jets-Patriots games. Your memory is a false one. Or you're just making things up.

In Revis's rookie year, he didn't focus on either Moss or Welker, but seemed to cover whoever came his way. In 2008 he covered a mix of many receivers in one game and focused on Moss in the other. After that, he focused on Moss.

Play by play isn't everything. But if Revis was covering Welker the rest of the plays, he was doing a bad job of it. Welker was putting up damned good numbers.

39 Re: Four Downs: AFC East

That was the top return of a one-second google search. I don't imagine things, nor make things up, although confusion as to dates is certainly possible.

15 Re: Four Downs: AFC East

Edelman is a free agent, so they have the same chance of landing him as Nicks or Decker. It's all the same market. So you can't consider them to "have" Edelman.

I disagree with the sentiment on Dobson--I think he has the potential to be a solid #1 WR. Not Randy Moss, mind you, but probably Deion Branch in his prime. His routes are crisp and precise, he's hard to cover, he beats the jam, and he has decent speed. Now if he could just (1) run the route he's supposed to run, and (2) learn not to drop the ball when it hits him in the hands, he'd be there. Both those weaknesses are coachable.

I agree that Thompkins looks like a replacement level player that tries really hard and will be a decent role player, but nothing more.

I'm very disappointed in Amendola. Even when "healthy" I didn't see the ability I saw in Welker or Edelman, and the Pats didn't seem to use him in the same way. Mostly comeback routes and back-shoulder catches (which never seemed to work).

I do think they need to target some kind of "weapon" for Brady, but I think their biggest need is actually CB...given that Talib is a free agent and their defense falls apart when he's not there. DT is a close second.

17 Re: Four Downs: AFC East

I think "other than catching the ball, he's fantastic" is not a great endorsement of a wide receiver. Still, hasn't the Pats offense been terrific for the past eight years or so as long as Brady is playing? I would think the holes would be on the defensive side of the ball.

Comparing and contrasting Denver's performance in the conference championship and the Super Bowl is probably a little unfair, but at the same time it's just confirming DVOA's judgment that their defense is below par.

32 Re: Four Downs: AFC East

Amendola was healthy in precisely one game -- the season opener (and not even for the whole game) -- and he had a tremendous game.

I think his groin injury severely impacted his ability to make cuts and so am reserving judgement on him until I see how he does in the 2014 season.

26 Re: Four Downs: AFC East

"Tannehill's Total QBR fell from 50.4 as a rookie to 45.8 this year."
It went from 76.1 to 81.7
His DVOA went from -9.9 to -9.7
His DYAR went from 39 to 59.

I'm pretty sure the initial analysis was solid - we saw a consistently average QB with a bad oline throwing to a squared peg in a round hole.
If the defense's only worry is "cover that one receiver going deep" then you can be sure he won't catch many balls deep and the rest of the offense will struggle.