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NFL Division Preview: AFC East

The AFC East has long been a two-tiered division: The Patriots and everyone else. 2014 Looks to be no different.

Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

The 2014 AFC East is arguably the weakest division in the NFL. The Patriots of 2014 should still be good, but they are not the Patriots of years past - in many other divisions I would have the Patriots finishing second at best. There are a lot of question marks in the AFC East entering 2014:

Can Gronkowski stay healthy and can Brady and Belichick continue their dominance with another group of unimpressive receivers? Are the Dolphins actually contenders, or just a shiny pretender like they were in 2013? Can the Jets win with defense and Geno Smith?

Is EJ Manuel a true NFL quarterback and can the Bills make it through the season without revolting against their coach?

1) New England

2014 Prediction: 12-4

2013 Record: 12-4, 1st Place

Confidence in Pick: 75%

Key Losses:

  • Logan Mankins, G (Traded to TB)
  • LeGarrette Blount, RB (Pit)
  • Will Svitek, OT (Cin)
  • Brandon Spikes, ILB (Buf)
  • Aqib Talib, CB (Den)
  • Isaac Soopoaga, NT
  • Adrian Wilson, SS (Chi)

Key Additions:

  • Rob Gronkowski, TE (Back from injury)
  • Brandon LaFell, WR (formerly with Car)
  • Dominique Easley, DT (1st Rd, Fla)
  • Tim Wright, TE (Trade with TB)
  • Will Smith, DE (NO) - roster depth
  • James Anderson, LB (Chi) -should be on the field in passing situations
  • Darrelle Revis, CB (TB) - should start
  • Brandon Browner, CB (Sea) - should start. (Suspended first four games of the season)
  • Patrick Chung, SS (Phi) - roster depth

Suspensions/Injuries:

  • Brandon Browner, CB (Suspended first 4 games)

Coaching Changes:

  • None of note

Reasons for Optimism:

Tom Brady - He may not have had a "Tom Brady" type year, but he still had 4,300+ yards, 25 TDs and only 11 INTs - and that was without his best target (Gronkowski). This year his receivers are a little better and Gronkowski is back (presumably).

Prior to 2013, in his last five healthy seasons, Brady has averaged 37+TDs, 4,600+ yds and just 9 INTs. If that isn't enough, he has never thrown more than 14 INTS, he is a three-Time Super Bowl champion, has five Super Bowl appearances,  49,149 yards (seventh all-time), 359 TDs (fifth all-time), 95.7 passer rating (sixth all-time), 63.4% completion percentage (11th all-time), 31 fourth quarter comebacks (T-fourth all-time; three in the playoffs), 42 game winning drives (fifth all-time; six in the playoffs), and astonishing .775 career winning percentage (48-43), zero losing seasons, nine of 12 seasons of 11+ wins, 11 of 12 seasons with 10+ wins and nine Pro Bowls...and for most of his career, he has never had a true No. 1 WR.

Bill Belichick - Spy Gate or no Spy Gate, he is clearly the best coach of his time - arguably of all-time. He has a career winning percentage of .655 (.728 in NE), five Super Bowl appearances and three Super Bowl wins. With Brady and Belichick, the Patriots enter every game with the advantage.

Return of Gronkowski - Reports are that he is healthy. If true, that is good news for the Patriots and bad news for everyone else. In his last two healthy seasons (2011 and 2012), Gronk has averaged 1+ TD, 78+ yds and 5+ catches per game.

They Play in the AFC East - Record wise, only two divisions had more wins in 2013 than the AFC East (AFC and NFC West). But don't let that fool you. In a division that touts Tannehill, Smith and Manuel as the other signal callers, the Patriots should sweep the division every year. As has been the case for about the last 10-11 years, I don't see anyone even challenging the Patriots for the division in 2014.

Defense - For years, New England has been synonymous with offense. But recently, the defense has been strong as well. In 2013, prior to Wilfork's injury, the Patriots defense was pretty stout. Even without Wilfork, the Patriots finished 10th in PPG and now add Revis, Browner, Dominique Easley and hopefully a healthy Wilfork.

Improved WRs - By no means is this a dynamic group, but I like Edelman, I like the addition of LaFell, I like Amendola (if healthy, a huge IF) and I think Dobson and Thompkins can be productive. Not a lot of proven WRs, but better than 2013.

Reasons to be Cautious:

Proven Wide Receivers - Edelman is proven, but not a No. 1. Outside of that, this is a group with potential and not a lot of production. Amendola can't stay healthy and the rest of the WRs are unproven. While Brady makes his receivers, make no mistake about it, he is going to have some growing pains in 2013.

Loss of Mankins - Mankins is one of the best guards in football, is a great leader and a great locker room guy. While the Patriots believed they could part with him and make the team better, this is a loss that goes beyond the field.

Overall:

This is not a dominant Patriots team, but in this division, it doesn't have to be. The Patriots have an insurmountable divisional advantage at the two most important positions - QB and Coach. I think they win the East easily (again) and will be a legitimate Super Bowl contender.

2) Miami

2014 Prediction: 7-9

2013 Record: 8-8, 2nd Place

Confidence in Pick: 35%

Key Losses:

  • John Jerry, G (NYG)
  • Paul Soliai, NT (Atl)
  • Nolan Carroll, CB (Phi)
  • Chris Owens, CB (KC)
  • Chris Clemons, S (Hou)
  • Dmitri Patterson, CB (NYJ)
  • Anthony Gaitor, CB
  • Jonathan Martin, OT (SF)

Key Additions:

  • Juwaun James, OT (1st Rd, Ten)
  • Knowshon Moreno, RB (Den) - should start in timeshare with Lamar Miller
  • Branden Albert, OT (KC) - should start
  • Jarvis Landry, WR (2nd Rd, LSU)
  • Jason Fox, OT (Det) - should start
  • Shelley Smith, G (Stl) - should start
  • Earl Mitchell, DL (Hou) - should start
  • Cortland Finnegan, CB (Stl) - should start
  • Louis Delmas, S (Det) - should start

Suspensions/Injuries:

  • None of note

Coaching Changes:

  • Fired - Mike Sherman, OC
  • Hired - Bill Lazor, OC (QB Coach, Phi)

Reasons for Optimism:

Defensive Line - In 2013, the Dolphins were t-11th with 42 sacks and their starting DEs accounted for 20 between themselves. If Dion Jordan can start living up to his hype, this defensive line could put pressure on the QB with the best of ‘em.

Running Backs - Moreno with Manning = good. Moreno without Manning = less than average. While I am not sold on Moreno, I do like the combination and potential of a backfield that contains Lamar Miller, Knowshon Moreno and Daniel Thomas. With what should be an improved offensive line, these three should be a formidable bunch.

Offensive Line - While I don't think this will be a top 10 offensive line, they should be improved over the brutal line the Dolphins put on the field in 2013.

Reasons to be Cautious:

Ryan Tannehill - I didn't buy into Tannehill as a rookie, I didn't buy into him as a second year player and I am still not buying into him now. While he made a big jump in 2013 in terms to TDs (12 to 24), this is still a quarterback with a career completion percentage below 60 percent (59.4 percent) in a league that is more pass friendly than it has ever been. In 2013 Tannehill was in the bottom 10 quarterbacks for completion percentage (22nd), YPA (27th), interceptions (t-seventh worst) and Passer Rating (24th). In two years in the league, Tannehill has turned the ball over 42 times! To me, Tannehill is that QB that scouts tell themselves can be great because he has "all the physical tools" and "can make all the throws." At 6'4" 222 pounds with a good arm and good athleticism, it is easy to see why scouts like him. However, I see a guy that is trying to learn to play the position of quarterback while doing so in the NFL (was a WR). I didn't like this pick by the Dolphins and I believe the Dolphins will be looking for a new QB within the next three years.

Offensive Line - They should be better in 2014, but that isn't saying much. In 2013 the Dolphins gave up a whopping 58 sacks and they will start the season without their center and with a line that has little experience playing together. No matter how good Tannehill is or is not, one thing is for sure, it is very tough to make any throw from your back.

Lack of a True No.1 WR - Is there a more overrated and over paid WR than Mike Wallace? Five years into the league and he still averages less than 1,000 yards per season, hasn't had 1,000 yards in three years, have never had more than 73 catches and without Roethlisberger, doesn't score much either (5 TDS in 2013)...and he got $60 million? Wow. Brian Hartline is a solid number two, but without a No. 1 opposite of him, it makes him less effective.

Joe Philbin - I am not impressed with him as a coach or a leader...watch Hard Knocks 2012...or his handling of the Incognito/Martin issue and you will see why.

Lack of Dynamic Weapons - As I said, I like the running backs as a group, but none individually and Hartline and Wallace - two receivers that average less than 1,000 yards per season - are not what I consider "dynamic."

Management - In the 2013 offseason, the Dolphins spent wildly. It didn't work. Now the bills are going to start coming due and the team is still not good. When has big spending ever been the recipe for success in the NFL? Remember the Haynesworth Redskins team? Or Philadelphia's "Dream Team?"

The team that "wins" the offseason rarely carries that success over to the field. Ireland has gambled big time on this team and I believe gambled poorly. He structured all the deals for low 2013 cap hits which balloon in the following years - i.e. Wallace counted for just $3.25 million against the 2013 cap - that number is $17.25 million in 2014!

Think about this: in 2013, Wallace, Hartline, Moore, Ellerbe and Wheeler count just $12.725 million against the cap (about 10 percent) - in 2014, those five will count $43.275 million against their cap (more than 33 percent).

Overall:

Last year I said seven wins was the ceiling for this team. They got eight. I think they take a step back in 2014. I don't like the QB, don't like the O-Line, don't like the coach, don't like the management, don't like the vision of the management team and don't like the defense.

3) NY Jets

2014 Prediction: 6-10

2013 Record: 8-8, 3rd Place

Confidence in Pick: 35%

Key Losses:

  • Mark Sanchez, QB (Phi)
  • Mike Goodson, RB
  • Santonio Holmes, WR
  • Antonio Cromartie, CB (Ari)
  • Austin Howard, OT (Oak)
  • Vlad Ducasse, OL (Min)
  • Isaiah Trufant, CB (Cle)
  • Aaron Berry, CB (Cle)

Key Additions:

  • Michael Vick, QB (Phi) - Backup QB
  • Eric Decker, WR (Den) - should start
  • Chris Johnson, RB (Ten) - should start
  • Calvin Pryor, S (1st Rd, Louisville)
  • Daryl Richardson, RB (Stl) - will compete for change-of-pace back duties
  • Breno Giacomini, OT (Sea) - should start
  • Dmitri Patterson, CB (Mia) - roster depth

Suspensions/Injuries of Note:

  • Dee Milliner (high ankle sprain - may be ready for season)
  • Dimitri Patterson (AWOL - currently suspended by team)

Coaching Changes:

  • None of note

Reasons for Optimism:

Defense - While I have concerns about the secondary, the 2013 Jets defense was ranked 11th overall and held their opponents to 20 points or less in eight of the team's 16 games. One think Rex Ryan has always been able to do is coach defense.

Added Weapons - Chris Johnson, Eric Decker and Michael Vick. Johnson will turn 29 less than a month into the season and is clearly not the same CJ of 2009 when he had 2,006 yards and 14 TDs. But, he is still a solid back that has surpassed 1,000 yards rushing and 1,400 all-purpose yards in all six of his NFL seasons.

Eric Decker is not a No. 1 WR but he is better than anything the Jets had in 2013. And, while Vick won't start, he can win if Geno Smith goes down or continues to struggle.

Reasons to be Cautious:

Geno Smith - Smith is not a starting NFL quarterback. Period. His record as a rookie was an impressive 8-8 but that is solely because of his defense. Smith ranked 21st in yards (3,046), 25th in YPA (6.88), 28th in TDs (12), fourth worst in INTs (21), 37th (out of 37) in passer rating (66.5) and 35th (out of 37) in completion percentage (55.8 pecent) - beating out Case Keenum and Brandon Weeden. Eric Decker won't correct these numbers.

Lack of a No. 1 WR - Make no mistake, Decker went to NY for the money. He may be getting paid like a No. 1 receiver, but he is not a No. 1 receiver. Decker's 87 catches, 1,288 yards and 11 TDs with Peyton Manning throwing the ball and Welker, Demaryius Thomas and Julius Thomas taking away coverage will likely translate to about 60 catches for 700 yards and four TDs with Smith and the Jets.

This move reminds me of when TJ Houshmandzadeh thought he was a No. 1 and left the Bengals. He was excellent when he had someone else taking away coverages (Chad Johnson) but had troubles getting open when he was the No. 1. Houshmandzadeh never resurrected his career after that move and I see the same with Decker.

Rex Ryan - The fact that he got the 2013 Jets to 8-8 is borderline a miracle. He is entertaining and can coach a good defense, but his record over the last 3 seasons is 22-26. His offenses have always been poor and he has shown an inability to develop offensive talent. Since joining the Jets in 2009, I cannot think of a single offensive player that has developed under his leadership.

Overall:

This is a really bad team that has a pretty good front seven and nothing else. They have no leadership, no management, no ability to deal with adversity and they work in the biggest and most scrutinized market in the world. Good luck.

If it weren't for the AFC being so weak overall, I would struggle to give this team more than four wins. If Geno Smith does not show tremendous progress in 2014, I would not be surprised to see Rex and his Sanchez tattoo in a TV studio next year.

4) Buffalo Bills

2014 Prediction: 3-13

2013 Record: 6-10, 4th Place

Confidence in Pick: 75%

Key Losses:

  • Stevie Johnson, WR (Traded to SF)
  • Jairus Byrd, S (NO)
  • Kevin Kolb, QB
  • Alex Carrington, DT (Stl)
  • Arthur Moats, LB (Pit)
  • Kourtnei Brown, LB (Det)

Key Additions:

  • Sammy Watkins, WR (1st Rd, Clem)
  • Cyrus Kouandjio, OT (2nd Rd, Ala)
  • Brandon Spikes, MLB (NE) - should start
  • Keith Rivers, OLB (NYG) - will compete with Manny Lawson for starting job
  • Mike Williams, WR (TB) - should start.
  • Bryce Brown, RB (Phi) - roster depth
  • Anthony Dixon, RB (SF) - roster depth
  • Chris Williams, G (Stl) - should start
  • Jarius Wynn, DE (Dal) - roster depth

Suspensions/Injuries of Note:

  • Kiko Alonso, LB (IR)

Coaching Changes:

  • Resigned - Mike Pettine, DC (HC, Cle)
  • Hired - Jim Schwartz, DC (HC, Lions)

Reasons for Optimism:

Running Backs - One thing I like about the Bills is their running backs. If Spiller can stay healthy (a big IF), I think he is a top 5-10 running back. Regardless, Fred Jackson is also a solid back as is Bryce Brown. Together, these three combined represent one of the better backfields in the NFL and will likely be leaned on greatly.

Wide Receivers - They don't have much experience, but the trio of Sammy Watkins, Robert Woods and Mike Williams have the potential to be a good receiving corps. Watkins has the talent and speed to be a true No. 1, Woods has the ability to be a good No. 2 and Mike Williams is a big receiver (6'2", 212 lbs) that has two seasons where he averaged 980 yards and 10 TDs (2010 and 2012).

Reasons to be Cautious:

EJ Manuel - I did not like this draft pick, but, with only 10 games under his belt, I believe it is too early to fully judge Manuel, but as of now, I don't see him as a starting NFL quarterback. He has the size and potential, but as a rookie, only managed a 58.8% completion percentage (28th), 6.44 YPA (32nd), 11 TDs to 9 INTs, 197 YPG (33rd), a Passer Rating of 77.7 (29th) and a QBR of 42.3. Buffalo has given him enough weapons this year where we will be able to truly judge him, but I have yet to see it in this kid.

Loss of Alonso - The Bills had a top 10 defense in 2013 (10th) but the loss of Alonso is huge. Alonso led the team in tackles (159), INTs (4), TFL (11) and fumbles recovered (2). While this should still be a good unit, I don't see how they don't take a step back with the loss of Alonso and Byrd (NO).

Doug Marrone - I thought this was a stupid hire in 2013 and I stand by that. In 2014, the team didn't even get through two weeks of training camp before having players verbally jarring with the coach and physically sparring with each other.

Fights between players in camp can be expected and show passion. Fights between players and coaches, at any time, shows a lack of respect and that my friends, is a recipe for disaster.

Overall:

I love Spiller and the running backs. I love the potential of the receivers. I think they have a pretty good defense. But, I really don't like the QB and the coach. With the exception of their week 13 match up against Cleveland and their week 16 matchup against the Raiders, the Bills will be facing teams with better QBs and better coaches - and even in the games against the Raiders and Browns, it may be arguable if they'll win. I had a tough time finding three wins on the Bills 2014 schedule.