NFL 2012 Season Preview: AFC East

We are under the one month window before the 2012 NFL season, which has all of our writers here at The Waiver Wire gearing up for another year of debates, poorly made bets and trash-talking. This year, we’ve decided to break down the season-to-be division by division. We will preview all eight divisions, pick our division winners and the likely wild card teams for both the AFC and NFC, and even which teams will be lining up for the Matt Barkley 2013 Draft Sweepstakes.

First up… Zak Lansing and Matt McCarthy tackle the AFC East (because somebody needs to learn how to wrap up in this division).

Matt McCarthy: The AFC East is always an interesting division in the NFL. Whether it is the New England Patriots’ domination through the Tom Brady Era, the New York Jets and Rex Ryan’s antics or the ever present question of when the Buffalo Bills or Miami Dolphins will contend again, the AFC East always provides us with something to talk about week in and week out. Last year was no different: the Patriots had another impressive season finishing 13-3, only to be beaten out in the Super Bowl by the New York Giants. The Jets had a collapse at the end of the season and found themselves on the outside looking into the playoffs after losing a must win game against the Eagles in Week 17. The Bills cooled off after their red-hot start only to finish at 6-10 and the Dolphins continued to disappoint, also finishing at 6-10.

Zak Lansing: Despite having a sub-par defense, the Patriots did what they do with the Belichick/Brady two-headed monster: win consistently. Even during the two year run of Rex Ryan’s Jets making the AFC title game, the Pats have run the East. However, last year proved that Brady, Rob Gronkowski and Wes Welker alone do not a champion make. The supposed best defense in the division, the Jets, hit the skids after reaching 8 wins and the team completely collapsed from within. The Bills seemingly killed their own hot streak by signing Ryan Fitzpatrick to a long-term deal, while the Dolphins started the season with an underpeforming signal-caller (Chad Henne) before ending the year with an enigma (Matt Moore) at the position.

New England Patriots (13-3 last year, Lost in Super Bowl to the New York Giants)

The Patriots no longer have to rely on Wes Welker and a tight end army to move the ball through the air. Will Brandon Lloyd make New England elite again?

Improvements/Losses

MM: I think the biggest addition to any team has got to be Brandon Lloyd to the Patriots. This move FINALLY gives Tom Brady a #1 receiver to throw the ball downfield to. This opens the field up in a big way and if Lloyd, Gronk, Hernandez and Brady are all on the same page, the Pats are running away with this one.

ZL: I tend to agree, especially when you consider that Brandon Lloyd is filling in for the shell of a receiver Chad Ochocinco/Johnson/Lozada ended up being last season. However, this isn’t necessarily the home run it appears to be on the outside. He’s a great talent and receiving threat, but the Patriots have done well enough with middle-of-the-road talent and system-specific receivers. Randy Moss improved this offense once upon a time, but this acquisition has the potential to negatively impact the TE-centric revolution the Patriots have been putting forth.

One key loss is the retirement of left tackle Matt Light, as well as his possible replacement, new signing Robert Gallery. Offensive line is proving to be a huge hole for this team, so really, any loss hurts deep.

Position Battles

MM: A question that always is on the table for the Pats heading into any season is who is going to carry the ball when Tom Brady isn’t chucking it around the field. This season is no different. The battle for starting running back will be an interesting one in Foxborough and will probably be the marquee position battle this offseason. Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley will contend for the starting running back job. Both showed they could play the part last year when the Law Firm (BenJarvus Green-Ellis) went down.

ZL: Joseph Addai had been brought in as an insurance policy, but was cut last week; the job will go to either Vereen or Ridley. Both have shown flashes of greatness in the past 12 months, making them fantasy football sleepers du jour, but their size and health histories and both rather concerning.

The offensive line doesn’t have position battles, so much as it has a glaring need to plug-and-play. The aforementioned Light and Gallery hole looms large, and that’s before you consider guard Logan Mankins and tackle Sebastian Vollmer potentially missing time to injury. Plus, guard Brian Waters is away from the team with no return in sight. That’s four positions on the line currently unaccounted for. Who’s going to protect Brady and his bankable hairdo? I’m sure Gisele is asking that same question; probably to a group of reporters.

Main Storylines

MM: The main storyline for the Patriots this year is how good can they actually be. It seems that all the experts have penciled the Pats in as a 12+ win team. The question is how many will they actually win, and whether or not they can carry regular season success into the playoffs in order to make another run at a championship.

ZL: A lot of concentration is going to fall solely on the shoulders of the Pats’ defense. The offense has only improved from being championship-quality last year, so if this team does not succeed, the defense will be the sole scapegoat. Six rounds-worth of draft picks were spent on the defense, but in what NFL does six rookies greatly improve your defense? Wear your hardhat if you’re a Pats fan this year, because this defense is certainly still under construction. Shootouts galore. But, that’s to be expected with the Patriots of late.

Most Valuable Player Candidate

MM: Tom Brady, no question.

ZL: Practically speaking, if this team is going to go the distance, a defensive player standing up would be the true MVP of the team, but this team is obviously much more likely to have a winner of Offensive MVP than Defensive. Tom Brady is the obvious choice, but I could also see Rob Gronkowski making a run at it with only a slightly better 2012 campaign than 2011.

Rookie Of The Year Candidate

MM: LB Dont’a Hightower. Hightower brings a new element to the Pats D that has been missing for the past few years. His career at Alabama certainly points to a successful NFL debut. He was the captain of the #1 ranked defense in the nation, leading the team in tackles, a consensus All-American all while playing in the most competitive conference in all of college football; the SEC.

ZL: I’ll go with the man drafted four picks ahead of Hightower, DE Chandler Jones. He’s in a position of high need with the team bolstering their weak defensive line and is quite the physical specimen. He’s probably too raw to truly reach his potential Year 1, but if he has a moment early where everything “clicks,” the AFC East is in trouble.

Projected Win/Loss Record

MM: 13-3 (Division winner)

ZL: 13-3 (Division winner). I’m tempted to go a loss or two more, because I think the league has gotten that much better,while the Patriots’ defense remains weak. However, it’s tough to say that many, if any teams on New England’s schedule will be able to outshoot the reigning sheriffs of the AFC.

New York Jets (8-8 last year, missed playoffs)

Come on… you know we had to.

Improvements/Losses

MM: A lot of defense being added by the Jets this year. They signed S LaRon Landry (former Redskin) and CB Yeremiah Bell. They also went out and drafted DE Quinton Coples from UNC. I think the Dolphins really lost out on someone special in Bell. The Jets gained a very productive strong safety and shored up what should be a top 10 defense this year.

ZL: The highest-profile addition the Jets made this offseason was to the personal protector position on special teams. The highest-profile loss for the Jets has been to their coach’s waistline.

Ah, how I missed the New York Football Media. But yes, an already good defense got even better.

Position Battles

MM: The biggest position battle is going to be the quarterback situation. Even though it is not so much a “battle,” it will be the biggest one just because it involves Tim Tebow. Although it seems like the Jets are confident in Mark Sanchez for now, if he struggles out of the gate, I suspect that people will be calling for Tebow-Time.

ZL: Who the hell is going to flank Santonio Holmes as the starting WR2 now that Plaxico Burress is gone? Whoever it is, they’re probably going to need to be great at blocking reverses (with Sanchez at QB) and QB rollouts (with “Who Else” at QB). I don’t know if Jets fans would be happy with Jeremy Kerley or not, but I know I wouldn’t be. Meanwhile, placing rookie WR Stephen Hill directly into the fire does not seem smart to me. Not with the offensive system currently in place. Sanchez needs to show the ability to make consistent throws, not only for his own state of mind, but also so he keeps up-and-coming receivers on the rise and out of the bad habits of ditching routes to chase junk balls.

Main Storylines

MM: Speaking of Tim Tebow, he fits here too. This is what he was brought in to be, a storyline. Whether he finds himself as a punt protector, a kickoff specialist, a wildcat quarterback, a red zone quarterback, or even under center as a starter, Tebow will make his way onto the field and the world will know about every step he takes.

ZL: Obviously New York and the entire NFL audience (if we’re to believe ESPN) is going to have their Tebowners engorged. What will truly be interesting to me, and to those paying attention, is whether Rex Ryan can reign the team back into his control and keep them focused on the task at hand. This team has high potential, but also has the possibility to put itself in the basement. Emotional investment has never mattered more to a team than Ryan’s Jets. When the Green Machine doesn’t have every player putting 100% into the game (minus Santonio, I think the only game I’ve ever seen him play at 100% resulted in him being Super Bowl MVP), it falls apart violently. But when it does, they become a steamroller.

MVP Candidate

MM: For the Jets’ sake, I hope it turns out to be Santonio Holmes. He needs to embody his role of a #1 receiver if this team is going to go anywhere this year. He needs to step up and produce, or this team will be a bottom-dweller.

ZL: I actually think this role belongs to RB Shonn Greene. He’s the guy that really paces this team. If he can keep the pressure off the Wildcats (come on, you know if Sanchez liked Tebow even one iota, he’d take on that nickname for the two of them) and the embarrassingly weak WR corps, this team can do what it does best: run the ball on offense and deflate the ball on defense.

ROY Candidate

MM: Stephen Hill will be the best Jets rookie out there. I think Coples needs time to mature in his role on the defense and this gives Hill the chance to shine as a rookie. The Jets need receivers not named Holmes to step up and Stephen Hill could easily become a solid #2 wideout that helps spread the field. At 6’4, 215 lbs., Hill is a big body that should be able to develop his skills and do his fair share of damage in the open field.

ZL: I think sixth round pick G Robert Griffin is likely to get more mistake votes for the title than any other Jets player will legitimately earn.

Projected W/L Record

MM: Offense just is not good enough: 9-7 (Missing Playoffs)

ZL: 10-6 (Wild Card). It’s so difficult projecting this team out, because you know they’re going to lose at least one or two games they have no business tanking. On that same note, they’re fairly likely to take out one or two opponents they have no business even thinking they can hang with (i.e., Patriots). I see another ride on the Sixth Seed Express for Rex and Co. Closing out the season in Buffalo (or at Toronto, who knows at this point) could be hell, though.

Miami Dolphins (6-10 last year, missed playoffs)

Mean mug all you want, Miami is still relying on Reggie Bush to come up with an injury-free season.

Improvements/Losses

MM: Quite possibly the biggest loss of any AFC East team goes to the Dolphins and their separation with Brandon Marshall. Marshall was really the only big-play receiver that the Dolphins had on the roster and he is gone for this year. There is a gaping hole in that receiving corps and it will be interesting to see who they throw out there to catch the passes of either Ryan Tannehill or David Garrard. Oh, and please do not tell me Ochocinco will turn their season around.

ZL: Thankfully, drafting Ryan Tannehill ensures that the Hard Knocks cameras won’t be the most noteworthy addition to the Dolphins this offseason. But it’s still close. A whole new coaching staff also can’t hurt at this point, although expectations obviously have to be tempered.

I consider changing the defense back to a 4-3 to be a loss, if only because for the second half of 2011, the Miami 3-4 defense might have been one of, if not the toughest defenses to tangle with. A lot of guys will have to reinvent their defensive styles to fit the mold of the club, which could very well limit the progression of a system that seemed to only be improving.

Position Battles

MM: The biggest position battle of the AFC East is in Miami. The question of whether or not Ryan Tannehill can be the quarterback the Dolphins thought he could be when they drafted him with the 8th pick in the 2012 draft. Currently on the roster the Dolphins have David Garrard, (brought in this year) Matt Moore, and Tannehill. Currently all signs point to Garrard starting for now but it will certainly be something to watch in the coming weeks, especially if they falter out of the gates.

ZL: That doesn’t even begin to answer the question of who in the ever-loving hell any of those men will throw to. Not one receiver position is locked up. Chad Johnson, Legedu Naanee, Brian Hartline, Davone Bess, Julius Pruitt and multiple others are jockeying for depth chart placement and not doing a very decisive job of it, thus far. Bess is probably the most likely to lock in a position at this point as the slot man, but Johnson and Naanee still have to prove their worth to the team. Miami owes them nothing (but money), while Hartline has paid dues in a fluid lineup for a few years. If not for a brand new coaching structure, he might have topped the depth chart Preseason Week 1 just to make a point.

Main Storylines

MM: The storylines coming out of Miami will coincide with the position battle discussed above. The Dolphins are really out in no-man’s land this year. Will they tank enough to be in the running for Barkley. If they do play as bad as it looks like they will, the storyline will become whether or not the Dolphins are confident in Tannehill to not go after Barkley next off season.

ZL: Somehow, the only team that said “yes” to Hard Knocks is the one team without a true storyline to talk about. The team’s rebuilding. What more can you say about it? “That Ochocinco guy sure loves Twitter, huh?”

MVP Candidate

MM: I’m going out on a limb with this one. Reggie Bush. Yeah, I said it. Reggie Bush. This is his season. No one expects the Dolphins to do anything this year and it is time Reggie Bush shows his talents. He is the only playmaker they have so he will have to be the one they turn to. I think he shows a bit of the talent he had at USC and has a comeback year.

ZL: I’m forced to agree. QB and WR is so up in the air. Defensively, I might be talked into Karlos Dansby or Cameron Wake, but the Dolphins are such a united front on D that I think Bush is more likely to grab an individual award. He won’t, but still. Plus, I don’t see Daniel Thomas or Steve Slaton challenging Bush much for a starting spot. Only Bush can hurt Bush (as we’ve seen most years).

ROY Candidate

MM: Ryan Tannehill, if he gets a shot to play, is really the only option here. He has some talent and if he gets his chance to shine, I can see him going places.

ZL: If Tannehill locks up the starting job earlier than Week 6, he takes the crown. I don’t see any other rookie stepping up to that level for this team.

Projected W/L Record

MM: 3-13 (Missing playoffs)

ZL: 5-11 (Missing playoffs). I think this is going to be a team that has potential to exceed expectations. I like the talent the team has on defense way too much. Despite having to rebuild the entire structure of both the offense and defense, I think there’s enough talent there to win some squeakers. Truly, all three QBs in the system are capable of winning that amount of games in a season, they just need to have the ability to focus and prepare as if they are the sole starter. Hopefully, that’ll be the case.

Buffalo Bills (6-10 last year, missed playoffs)

Despite being one of the elder members of his offensive squad (at 30), Fred Jackson will be running on fresh legs this fall… with a lot of weight on his shoulders.

Improvements/Losses

MM: The Bills became a much better team this year than they were last year. With the switching back to a 4-3 defense under Dave Wannstedt, it was imperative for them to add bookend pass rushers. The Bills highlighted their offseason with the acquisition of DE Mario Williams, the most highly coveted defensive player on the market. Getting the best player at a position is always a good sign you are doing the right thing as upper management.

ZL: I’ve never seen a team shore up its defensive line more in one fell swoop than the Bills grabbing defensive ends Mario Williams and Mark Anderson. Two things concern me with Williams: coming off the pectoral injury, and moving to a cold weather locale. Both are mini-red flags for me, but not enough to disagree with the huge power move that the Bills front office made. Keeping WR Stevie Johnson is essentially another addition, as I wasn’t really expecting him to want to stay with the team.

Position Battles

MM: The Bills are set at one wide receiver position with top wideout Stevie Johnson. The other outside role, however, is completely wide open. Donald Jones, Derek Hagan and Marcus Easley all are in the running to fill the void and the competition is up in the air heading into the preseason. Jones seems to be the man they are sticking with as of now but Hagan has shown glimpses of being good and Easley might actually be healthy enough this year to contend. Should be a good fight for the Bills.

ZL: No one really cared about the Fred Jackson vs. CJ Spiller debate over the past few years unless they were playing fantasy football and really needed a running back in the seventh-to-tenth round. However, Jackson was essentially 2011’s best running back until he hit the IR with a broken leg and Spiller finally found his confidence and reached much of his previously untapped potential. Now, with both healthy… who gets the lion’s share of the carries? Are there enough touches to go around to continue using Spiller as a passing/third down back/punt returner exclusively? I’d say no, but the job should be Jackson’s until he loses it for performance, not injury.

Main Storylines

MM: The main question that is going to surround this season’s Buffalo Bills is going to be whether or not they can live up to the hype. The Bills showed that they could hang with the best teams in the NFL early on last year. The offense was clicking and all looked good. Can this year be the year that they finally realize all their potential for a full season? I certainly hope so.

ZL: Chan Gailey has very few excuses left in the bag as for why this team can’t contend for the division. Management ponied up and bought some shiny new toys for the defense, while polishing up some of the offense’s favorite playthings and made them look good as new. If this team finishes under-.500, Gailey is going to have some ‘splainin to do, and despite it only being his third year at the helm, I have to imagine that the impatience surrounding the team will only grow to envelop everyone involved, sooner rather than later.

MVP Candidate

MM: Ryan Fitzpatrick. If he can keep his turnovers down like he did in the beginning of last year I can see him creeping into the conversation of a top 10 QB in the league.

ZL: If Spiller or Jackson can make it through at least 10 games with the role of featured back and no injuries, that man will probably be the most impressive player in all of the AFC.

ROY Candidate

MM: Cordy Glenn, the second-round pick out of Georgia will serve as an important piece of the puzzle for the Bills. He is expected to win the left tackle job, a very important but often forgotten role on the offense. He will be protecting Fitzpatrick’s blind side will hold the key to the offense’s success.

ZL: Stephon Gilmore, the Bills’ first round pick and tenth overall pick, definitely looks the part of an elite cornerback, but Glenn will definitely have more impact for the team in his first year.

Projected W/L Record

MM: 11-5 (One of two wild card teams)

ZL: 9-7 (Missing playoffs). It’s rough, because this team has the talent to be so much better than a nine-win season, but I just can’t trust them to pull it out when they’re going to need to be mentally strong and mature to persevere in some intense situations. And truthfully, I don’t trust Ryan Fitzpatrick enough to put together a full season worthy of a playoff run. He’s a capable quarterback, but not one I feel comfortable with.

Matt McCarthy and Zak Lansing are staff writers for WaiverWireBlog.com.