Part One: AFC East
This division, even with the departure of the Indianapolis Colts to the AFC South in 2002, remains one of the NFL's toughest. The division's head coaches this year feature a two-time champion (New England's Bill Belichick), a rookie (Buffalo's Mike Mularkey), a guy on the hot seat (Miami's Dave Wannstedt) and one whose seat is starting to simmer (New York's Herman Edwards). While the Pats remain the cream of the crop, the Dolphins are looking for the lifeboats with the pre-season retirement of Ricky "Love ‘dat Chronic" Williams and the season-ending injury to wideout David Boston. Meanwhile, if the Bills and the Jets can stay healthy, each team could find themselves in the playoff hunt come December.
1. New England Patriots (Projected Finish: 12-4)
If there's an NFL franchise capable in this modern era of the salary-cap and free-agency to cement themselves as a dynasty within the next five years, this is it. With Belichick and his coordinators Charlie Weis (Offense) and Romeo Crennel (Defense) there is no team in the league that does a better job of maximizing their team's strengths and minimizing their weaknesses.
Sorry Payton Manning fans, Tom Brady is the best AFC quarterback this side of Steve McNair and he is just now entering the prime of his career. He is smart, accurate, tough and clutch, with a 16-1 record in games decided by six points or less. Now that he has an elite level running back in Cory Dillon behind him, Brady might get even better. The offensive line, which didn't allow a sack through last year's playoff run, will remain strong despite the departure of free-agent guard Damien Woody to Detroit. Their receiving corps is unheralded but strong and Adam Vinatieri has established himself as one of the best kickers in NFL history.
The strength of this team is its defense. DE Richard Seymour is the best player in the league at his position, and he doesn't turn 25 until October 6th. The tough loss of massive nose tackle Ted Washington could prove troublesome. However, the Pats got a likely steal on draft day when the picked up Miami Hurricane DT Vince Wilfork at the 21st spot. New England's linebacking crew is one of the league's best, anchored by veteran starters Willie McGinest, Mike Vrabel, Teddy Bruschi and Roman Phifer. Ty Law and Rodney Harrison are playmakers extraordinaire in the secondary. If last year's big free-agent acquisition, linebacker Rosevelt Colvin, can recover from a major hip-injury this defense will simply be unfair to opposing offenses.
If there was a weakness on the Pats last season, it was at punter. That problem has been solved with the addition of Josh Miller, formerly of the Steelers. Miller had 27 punts downed inside the 20 last year.
The rich keep getting richer in New England.
2. Buffalo Bills (Projected Finish 10-6)
Mike Mularkey was masterful in running Bill Cowher's offenses in Pittsburgh. If Mularkey could make Tommy Maddox, and at times Kordell Stewart, productive with the Steelers what could he do with a guy as talented as Drew Bledsoe? Bledsoe had a terrible 2003, throwing only 11 TD's and for less than 3,000 yards for the first time since his rookie season (1993). The Bills offensive line gave up 51 sacks last year (49 of them tattooed on Bledsoe) and their rushing offense ranked 21st in the league, despite having one of the NFL's premiere backs in Travis Henry.
To help fix the offensive woes, Mularkey has brought in 7 new offensive coaches with 66 years combined experience, including veterans Sam Wyche to coach QB's and Jim McNally to revamp the offensive line. Look for Mularkey and new offensive coordinator Tom Clements to lessen the load on Bledsoe by applying heavy doses of Travis Henry and the fully recovered Willis McGahee, the team's 2003 1st round pick. The receiving corps will be solid. Eric Moulds should rebound after a tough, injury plagued 2003. In any normal draft, Lee Evans would have likely been the first receiver chosen, but with the best crop of WR prospects in the 2003 draft, Buffalo filled a massive need by getting Evans at the 13th spot after three WR's (Larry Fitzgerald, Roy Williams, Reggie Williams), and a TE (Kellen Winslow Jr.) were taken ahead of him. With the acquisition of Evans, Josh Reed should rebound from a rough sophomore season now that he will move back into the slot position as the third wideout.
Despite the Bills lack of offensive firepower, Buffalo's defense ranked 2nd overall in the NFL last season, finishing 8th against the run and 2nd against the pass. It starts up front with run-stuffing DT's Sam Adams and Pat Williams. RE Aaron Schobel had a career-high 11.5 sacks last season and the Bills starting linebacking trio of WLB Takeo Spikes MLB London Fletcher and SLB Jeff Posey is as good as it gets.
The loss of CB Antoine Winfield to the Vikings would be tough to swallow for most teams. However Bills' GM Tom Donahoe promptly went out and snagged multi-time Pro Bowler Troy Vincent, formerly of the Eagles. Vincent will play across from the up-and-coming 4th year player Nate Clemens, while the ageless Lawyer Milloy and the underrated Izell Reese will man the safety spots.
New Special Teams coach Bobby April comes in to shore-up the return units and try to improve the play of kicker Rian Lindell, who was only 3-9 from 40-yards and beyond in 2003.
Mike Mularkey and his staff have a very talented but underperforming group. Last season, the Bills finished 6-10. They have too many athletes on this roster to do that this season. Buffalo will be one of the league's surprises.
3. New York Jets (Projected Finish: 9-7)
Jets' quarterback Chad Pennington had a breakout season in 2002, throwing for 3,120 yards and 22 touchdowns, while completing 68.9% of his passes in leading the Jets to the divisional-round of the playoffs. As a result, the Jets had high hopes entering training camp last year; unfortunately Chad broke his wrist in a pre-season game and was out of the lineup until late-October. New York then had to turn to its quarterback duties over to Methuselah's uncle, Vinny Testaverde. The team went 2-4 with Vinny at the helm. Predictably, when a rusty Pennington struggled upon his return, the Jets' flight was delayed for the remainder of the season. Now, with Vinny punchin' doggies down in Dallas and Chad fully recovered, all of Queens is anticipating the Jets return to the post-season.
This year, Pennington will have three quality pass catchers in Santana Moss, Wayne Chrebet and newcomer Justin McCareins. McCareins had a 17.3 per-reception average with the Tennessee Titans last season. He will start opposite of Moss, which means that Chrebet will move into the slot in when New York goes three-wide. The running game will again likely rely on the good-ole' Curtis Martin. Martin has slowed over the last couple of seasons, but can still move the chains, catch passes and pass-protect with the best of them. In addition, Curtis has a shot to become only the second back in history (Barry Sanders was the first) to gain at least 1,000 yards in his first ten seasons. If Martin slows too much, look for Lamont Jordan to supply the bulk of the Jets ground game
If there will be a problem with the Gang Green Offense it will be along their offensive line, where Center Kevin Mawae stands as the only elite level player of the group. The line is undersized, with only one player (RT Keith McKenzie) weighing over 320 pounds. They make up for that however by being un-athletic. These guys will have to play better if the Jets are to improve their ground-game, which ranked 25th overall in 2003.
Head Coach Herman Edwards knows that the true success or failure of his team will center on how his defense rebounds from a year ago. Five veteran defenders were given their outright release this offseason, including former Pro Bowlers Marvin Jones and Mo Lewis. Bookend DE's Shaun Ellis and John Abraham must have good seasons if this defense is to succeed. They are both in contract years, so they should be motivated for that reason alone. Second year DT Dewayne Robertson, the fourth overall choice a year ago, will also be expected to produce after a stinko' rookie campaign were he netted only 1.5 sacks and 3 tackles for loss.
The linebacking corps will be faster and more athletic with Lewis and Jones gone. The starters are expected to be MLB Sam Cowart, WLB Eric Barton, formerly of Oakland, and second year SLB Victor Hobson. This April's first round pick (12th overall) Jonathan Vilma will see a lot of playing time as well. After the O-Line, the secondary is the biggest question mark. The group lacks speed, depth and playmaking ability, with CB Donnie Abraham and free agent and former Seahawk Reggie Tounge ranking as the best of this poor bunch.
The special teams, like the rest of the squad, must improve as a whole if the Jets are to remain flying come December. Santana Moss and Jonathan Carter are explosive return men, but the teams' coverage units were abysmal last season. Doug Brian is a solid kicker from inside the 45, but unreliable from long range. Former Cowboy Toby Gowin will be the team's fourth punter in as many seasons, so any jump in punt production will be a plus.
Herman Edwards has a younger, but more athletic squad this season. Most importantly, their franchise QB is healthy once again. If their offensive line produces and their overall defense improves, the Jets will make some noise. If not, the pressure will mount on Pennington and the team could struggle to reach the .500 mark.
4. Miami Dolphins (Projected Finish 6-10)
Dave Wannstedt is in trouble . . . real trouble. The pink slips were already in full bloom this spring in South Florida after two-straight non-playoff seasons. Then the season-ending injury to free agent WR David Boston and the training camp-eve retirement of RB Ricky Williams has created a shortage of headache medicine for all who inhabit the team's Davie, Florida training facilities.
It wasn't as if the Dolphins didn't already have enough problems with their QB controversy. As of this writing, it was still up in the air as to whether incumbent Jay Fielder or free agent A.J. Feeley, formerly of the Eagles, would get the opening day start. Most feel that it will be Feeley, due to his better accuracy downfield and stronger arm. However, as hard as they try (i.e. Brain Griese a year ago) Jay Fielder just won't go away. I have a Feeley (Sorry, it was just too easy) that Fielder might be under center once again when the Dolphins find out that they have acquired a case of "Scott Mitchell's Revenge" with the former Eagle third-stringer.
One of the QB's better step up because the ‘Fins new feature back is Travis Minor. While Minor is more than adequate as a backup, he is no Ricky Williams, who carried the ball an obscene 392 times last season. Minor will likely share HB duties with former Buffalo Bill Sammy Morris and third-year man Leonard Henry; while Rob Konrad enters his sixth season as Miami's fullback.
Boston, who was expected to team up with Chris Chambers to offer some hope for what is annually one of the NFL's worst receiving units, was lost for the season with a knee injury early in camp. With no quality free agent receivers left on the market, the team had no choice work the phones in hope of a trade. They found a taker in the Chicago Bears, who sent former Pro Bowler Marty Booker south in exchange for Pro Bowl DE Adewale Ogunleye, who had 15 sacks last season. There is no depth after Chambers and Booker to speak of, which probably explains why the creaky but lead-footed Antonio Freeman is currently listed as Chambers' backup on the depth chart.
To make matters worse, if that is possible, the offensive line has only one returning starter (LT Wade Smith), although this new group will be younger and more athletic. As of this writing, two free agents, Jeno James (Chargers) and John St. Clair (Rams) will get the opening day starts at LG and LT, respectively; while former backups Seth McKinney and Taylor Whitley will move into the lineup at C and RG. The ‘Fins prize rookie is former Miami Hurricane G/T Vernon Carey, who will likely move into the RT job as soon as his head stops swimming in the playbook. This group must gel quickly or the whole offense will collapse under its own misfortune.
As is the norm over the past few seasons, the Dolphin defense will be expected to pick up the slack for the offense's shortcomings. Jason Taylor remains one of the league's best defensive ends and should still be able to wreak havoc despite the departure of Ogunleye. David Bowens will step into Ogunleye's spot and recent pickup Chidi Ahanotu will spell relief. On the inside, veterans Tim Bowens, Larry Chester and Jeff Zgonina will carry the load at DT.
MLB Zach Thomas and WLB Junior Seau combined for 317 tackles last season and should continue at that clip together for at least another year; while Morlon Greenwood will return to his job on the strong side. The secondary remains strong, with Patrick Surtain and Sam Madison backed up by former Carolina Panther Reggie Howard and rookie Will Poole at the corners; while Sammy Knight returns at SS and former Packer Antuan Edwards replaces the underachieving Brock Marion at FS. This group as a whole could suffer a drop in performance as the NFL hierarchy promises to crackdown on illegal-contact. The rules of which have been enforced about as tightly as Major League Baseball's strike zone in recent years.
Speaking of baseball, the Dolphins special teams were "hit and run" last year. The coverage units were a "hit" and among the league's best, while the return units were "run" . . . in the other direction. The return units must improve to help give the offense a shorter field. Olindo Mare remains one the NFL's most underrated kickers, while 10-year vet Matt Turk can still get the job done as the team's punter.
Things are looking bleak in Dolphin Country. The offense has been devastated and the defense has no depth along their aging front seven. As the season wears on and this defense's on-the-field minutes pile up injuries will begin to take their toll. The Miami Dolphins are headed for a freefall and a good coach will likely lose his job at season's end because of it.