Saturday, August 23, 2014

NFL 2014: The Sports Savant's AFC EAST Preview

Welcome back to The Sports Savant's Sports Blog!  Today, I'm writing the first of my NFL divisional previews in an eight part series covering the four divisions of the AFC and NFC with predictions on records and final standings of the teams in each division.  Up first is the AFC EAST...

The AFC EAST is a division that has been dominated by a single team for the better part of a decade, but this year, the division looks as wide open as it has looked in a long time.  The team that has dominated is, of course, the New England Patriots.  They've won the AFC EAST an astronomical 13 times in the last 15 seasons with exception to the 2002 New York Jets and 2008 Miami Dolphins, respectively.  It's been nothing short of a stranglehold by the Patriots, on the AFC EAST, usually winning the division by multiple games each year.  But in a year that sees the skills of the AFC EAST's leading QB, Tom Brady, diminishing and a cast of young, inexperienced skill players on offense, the division is looking winnable for other AFC EAST teams hungry for a long overdue division title.  Will the Patriots win the division again or will a new AFC EAST team taking the title?

New York Jets

In Rex Ryan's 6th season as the New York Jets' head coach, he has more to prove than ever before.  Coming off of last year's 8-8 season and a combined 22-26 record over the last three years, this is a make or break year for the coach.  Rex Ryan teams are usually lauded for their defense, but the 19th ranked defense from last year could not do enough to overcome the Jets' 29th ranked offense in 2013.

This year, the Jets added a couple of potentially key contributors to their offense, signing free agent WR Eric Decker from the Denver Broncos and the unceremoniously departed RB Chris Johnson from the Tennessee Titans.  For the Jets, both of these guys need to prove something to themselves and the league.  Decker has yet to prove he can be a #1 WR in a below average offense and show that he is not just good when he has Peyton Manning throwing him the ball with one of the league's most dangerous WR threats on the other side of him(Demaryius Thomas).  Chris Johnson is coming off of his worst season of his career and lowest yards per carry average in 2013 with the Titans, not far removed from his 2,006 rushing yard season of a few years ago.

The biggest question mark for this team will be at the QB position where embattled veteran, Michael Vick, who was signed as a free agent this off-season, will compete with second year QB, Geno Smith, for the starting position.  The thought is that Geno will be the starter since he showed some signs of being a quality NFL starter last year and he clearly would be the future of the Jets organization whereas Vick is in the twilight of his career but would serve as one of the most dynamic backup QB's in the league.  This could change by Week 1, but I don't see the team too differently despite who is starting at QB.

What worries me about this team most is that their very average defense last year only got worse with the departure of top-notch CB Antonio Cromartie and they didn't bring in any difference makers in free agency to help that 19th ranked D from last season.  So far, young CB, Dee Milliner, has not lived up to his highly touted talent coming into the league last year as a 1st round pick.  If this defense is going to be better next year, they are going to need Milliner to become the All-Pro NFL talent he is supposed to become very quickly.  I otherwise don't see a much better outcome for the Jets in 2014 on defense.

It's hard to have any faith that this team can make a big turnaround in 2014 with their roster as it is currently constructed.  I imagine they will continue to take their lumps while Geno learns on the job and that average defense will continue to be mediocre.  This very well may lead to the firing of Rex Ryan, which I see as a real possibility when this team finishes dead last in the AFC EAST.

Savant Record Prediction: (6-10, 4th place)

Buffalo Bills

Second year head coach, Doug Marrone and the Buffalo Bills come into the 2014 season from last year's 4th place finish in the AFC EAST last season.  A team that had didn't have high expectations last year, the Bills never did quite get off of the ground because of inconsistent play from rookie QB E.J. Manuel and a flurry of injuries between both of their pro-bowl level RB, C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson.  Though finishing last in their division last year, their were positives to take from the season, including the development of Manuel.

What Manuel lacked last season was a discernible threat at the WR position, but the Bills took care of that need in this year's draft with their 1st round pick, WR phenom Sammy Watkins from Clemson.  Watkins has already shown flashes of his brilliance at the position in training camp and preseason.  His addition should open things up a bit more for Manuel and the Bills offense.  If the Watkins effect works as planned and if even one of the two star RB, Spiller and Jackson, can stay healthy all season, this could be a pretty good offense.  Much better than the one we saw in 2013.

The defense took a critical hit in their secondary losing Pro-Bowl SS Jairus Byrd to a free agent deal with the New Orleans Saints and losing their 2013 leading tackler, LB Kiko Alonso, for the 2014 season after suffering an off-season knee injury.  Byrd and Alonso were the two most critical parts of their 10th ranked defense last season with their exceptional combined tackling and coverage skills keeping teams bottled up underneath.  These are two players that cannot be replaced easily and it will be a task filling those shoes for this defense.  They, of course, have the services arguably the best DE in the game in Mario Williams, but other than him this team is sparse on defensive talent.

Overall, I see this team making an improvement from last year's 6-10 mark but with Manuel still learning on the job, Watkins adjusting to playing in the NFL in his rookie season, the potential for injury to their running backs and the defense looking much worse on paper than it did last season, I'm only giving Buffalo one additional win over last season.  This team is too young on offense and doesn't have enough play-makers on defense to take a big step toward the playoffs.

Savant Record Prediction: (7-9, 3rd place)

Miami Dolphins

The Miami Dolphins are a team of close calls in the last few years.  Each year for the last several seasons they have been just a play or two away from winning a couple of additional games and then consequently end up just a game or two away from making the playoffs.  Since 2008, when the Dolphins last won the AFC EAST division in an 11 win season, they have combined to win 35 games to 45 losses never winning more than 8 games and never losing less than 7 games in the 5 year span.  The consistency with which this team finishes with 7 to 8 wins shows how long they've been on the verge of a playoff berth with most #6 seed AFC Wild Card Playoff teams finishing with 9 to10 win season. Will the Dolphins be able to get over the playoff hump?

The Dolphins come into the 2014 NFL season lead by second year head coach, Joe Philbin, and 3rd year starting QB Ryan Tannehill who's looking to make that leap from average NFL starter to consistent quality starting QB.  Tannehill showed flashes of being just that but a porous offensive line and limited overall skill at the WR and RB positions made it difficult for a QB of his young pedigree in 2013.  The O-line was typically not able to create enough pocket time for Tannehill to hit the Dolphin's new(and expensive) free agent WR pickup, the speedy Mike Wallace, and was not threatened in the run game by any discernibly fast or powerful RB leaving defenses free to constantly drop 7 defenders into coverage, a defensive scheme difficult to pass on with the extra defenders not rushing the passer or committing to the run.  One of Miami's biggest challenges this year will be creating more time to throw the ball vertical to their big play threat at WR and make defenses respect their run game to make defenses commit more players to the run.

What did the Dolphins do to improve these weaknesses?  They went out and signed one of the most prolific offensive tackles in the NFL right now in Branden Albert who was a former 15th overall pick of the Kansas City Chiefs in 2008.  He will be a welcome upgrade over the controversially departed Jonathan Martin and should do wonders to protect the all important "blind side" for the Dolphin's QB.  To help out the running game, they brought in veteran RB Knowshon Moreno from the Denver Broncos who rushed for over 1,000 yards and 10 rushing TD's in the Broncos pass-heavy offense.  The Dolphins didn't add any new splash player on defense, but expect them to come back this year with a similarly stout defense, returning most of the players that made them the 8th best defense in the NFL.

Between that solid defense and the improvement made on the offensive line, I see the Dolphins and Tannehill taking a step forward and improving on their 2013 campaign, but I don't see positive things for the running game featuring an underacheiving Lamar Miller and the aging Moreno who know longer get's to face defenses in fear of Peyton Manning's colossal 340 passing YPG average.  Add the fact that Moreno had a scope surgery on his one healthy knee and a repeat of his success from last year looks unlikely leaving the Dolphins exposed on the ground.  I see a potential playoff run for the Dolphins in 2014 but not a division title.  Look for them to potentially secure a 5 or 6 seed in the AFC this year.

Savant Record Prediction: (9-7, 2nd place)

New England Patriots

Coming off of his worst season since his rookie campaign, Tom Brady is looking to bounce back from what was a very average year by most QB standards.  Despite the down numbers for Brady, head coach Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots found a way to win the division once again for a 5th consecutive season.  No one knows how to make the most out of a roster lacking talent than the Patriots coaching staff.  Just when everyone thought the Patriots were vulnerable to losing the AFC EAST crown after a season-ending knee injury to their biggest offensive weapon, TE Rob Gronkowski, they pulled it together and rode the remaining roster to an overachieving 12-4 record.

Though not a team with any major strengths outside of having Tom Brady's veteran leadership, the potential for another big year from Gronk and a great head coach, they are also a team without any glaring weaknesses on defense.  The weakest point on this entire roster is their noticeable lack of depth at the WR position.  WR Danny Amendola has proven he can be a quality slot receiver in the NFL but his propencity for being out of the lineup long periods of time is alarming.  They like the prospects of 2nd year WR Kenbrell Thompkins and how he can mature into a quality WR but it's clear that Thompkins can never reach the explosive playmaking ability found amongst the NFL's elite wideouts.  It will be a challenge again this year for Brady to put many throws outside the numbers which shrinks the field and makes it harder to complete passes.

The running back attack remains a running-back-by-committee scenario with their two good backs, Shane Vereen and Brian Bolden, but the loss of their power back, LeGarrette Blount, will have an impact on the running game.  Vereen and Bolden excel running to the outside and in the passing game, but none of the Patriots backs are designed to churn out the tough yards near the goal line or on 3rd and short.  Their offense will take a step back this year as a result of an inability to pick up short yardage on the ground.

An upside for this team was the signing of defensive backs CB Darelle Revis and SS Brandon Browner.  Revis' was once touted as the best shutdown corner in the game but has not been the same since a torn ACL a couple of years back.  He is still a quality CB and will help the defense.  Browner is a hard hitting safety that brought his talents from the Seattle Seahawks this off-season. Both will give the defense a boost in defending the pass, which the Patriots struggled with at times in 2013.

Even with the signing of Browner and Revis to help the defense, I see the 2014 Patriots taking a step back this year from their 12-4 clip in 2013.  Though I believe they will be an inferior team to the 2013 version, it won't be enough for them to back out of the AFC EAST division title once again.  The Patriots may be down this year, but with the other teams in this division having young QB's still learning on the job and the Patriots having their Super Bowl winning captain leading the ship, they should be able to do enough to reach 10 wins and be your 2014 AFC EAST champions.

Savant Record Prediction: (10-6, 1st place)

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