Two years ago, the AFC East was one of the most competitive divisions in the National Football League. The Patriots won 14 games en route to a third championship while the New York Jets went 10-6 and the Buffalo Bills were 9-7, just missing becoming the third team in the division to reach the playoffs.
Things changed quite a bit last year as New England won the division crown with a relatively underwhelming 10-6 record and got into the playoffs as the fourth seed. The AFC East went from a division of contenders to a one-horse race.
Fans can expect 2006 to be another season filled with surprises in the ever complicated AFC East. All four teams underwent significant roster changes and will be relying on new faces to be difference makers. Here is a list of impact players in the AFC East and how they'll be affecting this year's divisional race.
Harrison isn't exactly a new face, but he is the definition of impact player. Perhaps nothing underscored his impact on the field more than his absence from it for most of last season with three torn ligaments in his knee. The Patriots' pass defense ranked 31st in the league, yielding 231.4 yards per game. Their third down defense was just as poor, allowing a 42 percent conversion rate (29th in the NFL). And perhaps the most telling statistic was the lack of turnovers forced - just 18 in all and only 10 interceptions. Harrison simply makes everyone around him better. His return to full health this season would be huge for a Patriots defense that already lost one leader in the middle - Willie McGinest - to free agency. Whether Harrison can regain his speed and effectiveness after such a serious injury is a question which won't be answered until he starts playing in games that count.
McGinest's departure leaves a void at middle linebacker, assuming Mike Vrabel moves back to the outside full time. Last season, Beisel filled in for Tedy Bruschi in the middle with underwhelming results. But with a year's experience under his belt and a higher playing weight, Beisel could put an end to the speculation about who will fill out the linebacker unit. Beisel improved his game as the season wore on last year and became an apt run-stopper in the middle.
Miami's once dominant secondary completed its overhaul this offseason with the departures of Sam Madison and Reggie Howard. The Dolphins were mediocre at best on defense last season. Defensive end Jason Taylor and linebacker Zach Thomas are still top tier players, but overall the unit could be vulnerable because of the turnover in personnel. Offenses are likely going to test Miami's revamped secondary downfield. Allen just signed a four-year deal and will be challenged often if quarterbacks are given enough time to throw the ball. The good news is Miami was second in the NFL with 49 sacks last season.
Kimo Von Oelhoffen, DL, New York Jets:
The fact that the 35-year-old Von Oelhoffen looks to be the replacement for John Abraham, who was traded to Atlanta, speaks volumes about the state of the Jets defense. First year head coach Eric Mangini will be in for a long season if New York's defensive ends can't occupy offensive linemen and create a decent pass rush. The Jets lost not only Abraham but also cornerback Ty Law, who picked off 10 passes last season. Von Oelhoffen's signing is less an impact move as it is indicative of how ineffectual the Jets' were at addressing their defensive needs in the offseason.
Buffalo's selection of Whitner with the eighth overall pick had most draft critics scratching their heads. Whitner, a safety, probably would have been around when the Bills' selected again in the second round (a pick they eventually traded). With Buffalo reaching so early to get their guy, they better hope that Whitner makes an immediate impact in the wake of the departure of Lawyer Milloy. Whitner lacks ideal size for his position, but he should be more effective than the aging Milloy was at pursuing the run. Buffalo was 31st in the league against the rush, giving up 137.8 yards per game last season.
The Bills gambled yet again and traded back into the first round to get McCargo. Along with Whitner, defensive tackle McCargo's selection in the first round of the draft exemplified that the Bills knew which players they liked the most and were willing to reach to get them. Buffalo presumably expects immediate returns on their first round investments. If the Bills can cultivate the speedy McCargo's skills as a pass rusher, he will be an instant contributor alongside Aaron Schobel, who matched his career high with 12 sacks last season. But McCargo's smaller size could hinder his development and make Buffalo look awfully silly for taking him so early.
Part 1 of this two-part series can be found here: Offense
Dave Fletcher is a longtime contributor to Patriots Insider. An accomplished writer and sports analyst, you can find more of his articles by searching for "Dave Fletcher" in the archives on PatriotsInsider.com
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