The AFC East is one of the more intriguing divisions going into the 2012 season. So many questions surround the teams in New England, New York, Miami, and Buffalo.
Are the Patriots going to run away with another division title? Are the Bills improved enough to challenge for a playoff spot (or something more)?
Who is going to quarterback the Dolphins, and when will Ryan Tannehill be the answer to that question this year? Where are the enigmatic Jets going to fall?
Here’s an early look at who is going to take care of business on the Atlantic in 2012.
MVP: QB Tom Brady, New England
Brady’s continued dominance has been nothing short of amazing.
By throwing for 5,235 yards at age 34 and making his record-tying fifth Super Bowl start, Brady has solidified his standing as one of the greatest quarterbacks ever to play the game.
He turns 35 this week, but he still has two or three good years left in his arm before signs of age should start to show. While the loss of BenJarvus Green-Ellis will hurt the running game, the continued excellence of his receiving corps, including standout free agent acquisition Brandon Lloyd, should mitigate the damage that a new running game will cause.
Most observers expect Brady to lead the team to another deep playoff run, and there is little reason to suspect otherwise.
Runner-Up: RB Fred Jackson, Buffalo
Sleeper: RB Reggie Bush, Miami
Offensive POY: QB Tom Brady, New England / RB Fred Jackson, Buffalo (tie)
Brady’s dominance should continue in the statistical arena as well as in wins. With all of the weapons he has (Welker, Gronkowski, Hernandez, Lloyd, Branch, Woodhead, etc.), 4,500 yards and 35 touchdowns are more than approachable numbers, especially considering their schedule.
More surprising would be the emergence of Jackson for a full season. When the Bills went on their 5-2 run to start 2011, the versatility of Jackson was the key to their offense. He was leading the entire NFL in rushing through Week 10, and had 39 receptions for 442 yards to boot. The Bills employed the screen pass to great effectiveness until Jackson went down for the year in their first match-up with the Dolphins, and if Jackson can manage to stay healthy there is no reason to expect they won’t do it again.
Runner-Up: WR Wes Welker, New England
Sleeper: RB Shonn Greene, New York
Defensive POY: DT Marcell Dareus, Buffalo
Everybody is expecting that the catalyst for change on the Bills’ defense, which was anemic in 2011, will be prized free agent pickup Mario Williams. Williams will be a very big factor in how well the Bills play in 2012, and will get most of the attention regarding the team, but there are three other very good defensive linemen on the team, and Dareus might be the cream of the crop.
As a rookie, he was one of the best defensive tackles in the entire NFL, and he led the team with 5.5 sacks playing out of his comfort zone, either as a 3-4 end or a nose tackle. With Dave Wannstedt putting him back in his wheelhouse, and with the new talent surrounding him (including Mark Anderson and Kyle Williams returning from injury), Dareus will be the best defensive tackle in the NFL in 2012.
Runner-Up: CB Darrelle Revis, New York
Not Really Sleeper: DE Mario Williams, Buffalo
Offensive ROY: WR Stephen Hill, New York
Hill was passed up by many teams largely due to his lack of a body of work, catching only 49 passes in his entire college career and only 28 in 2011. What he did with those receptions, however, was enough to get him picked in the early part of the second round. He averaged 25.5 yards-per-catch for his career, and led the nation with 29.3 yards-per-catch last season.
Early reports out of camp are mixed-to-good, and he is lacking any major competition for the best rookie in the division with Ryan Tannehill likely seeing little action, if any, in 2012.
Runner-Up: OT Cordy Glenn, Buffalo
Sleeper: RB Lamar Miller, Miami
Defensive ROY: CB Stephon Gilmore, Buffalo
Gilmore, who has reportedly already locked up a spot as the top corner for the Bills, has drawn rave reviews for basically every aspect of his game. He could challenge for the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year award if everything falls his way.
He isn’t a home-run hitter with his ball skills, but he has the cover skills and tackling ability to match up with just about any receiver he’ll face this season. His major competition should come from New England’s first-rounders, linebacker Dont’a Hightower and defensive end Chandler Jones, but neither of them has shown what Gilmore has shown so far in their NFL careers.
Runner-Up: LB Dont’a Hightower, New England
Sleeper: DE Chandler Jones, New England
Situation to Watch: Quarterback Battles
Every team has one in one form or another. New England’s Brian Hoyer and Ryan Mallett are vying for the backup job to Brady and a future in the NFL. Buffalo’s Tyler Thigpen and Vince Young are going for the backup job to Ryan Fitzpatrick, one that could progress into a starting spot if Fitzpatrick struggles again.
Miami has a competition between Matt Moore and David Garrard, with Tannehill waiting to eventually claim the spot as early as late this season. Finally, New York has an established starter in Sanchez, but Tim Tebow is waiting for his shot to quarterback while Rex Ryan fits him into various roles on the team.
Runner-Up: Joe Philbin’s first year in Miami
Most Redeeming Season: DE/LB Aaron Maybin, New York
After washing out spectacularly in Buffalo and setting the franchise back two years, Maybin tortured his old team and fans even more by becoming a rather solid player for the Jets. He led the team with six sacks in 2011 as a reserve, and could reach double-digits if he starts all 16 games in 2012. He was one of 15 players to force four or more fumbles last season, and the only one to start fewer than 15 games (he started none). Last season could have been an anomaly, or it could be a sign of things to come.
Runner-Up: RB C.J. Spiller, Buffalo
Most Underrated Player: QB Matt Moore, Miami
Everybody watching the Dolphins in 2011 was ready to completely write them off when Chad Henne went down and Moore, who had started 13 games for the Panthers over the previous three seasons, was forced to step in. The team did start off poorly under his tenure, but after falling in the final frame to the eventual Super Bowl champion Giants, both the team and Moore turned things around.
After starting 0-7, the Dolphins went 6-3 over their final nine games. Moore didn’t electrify the team, and his yardage totals left plenty to be desired, but he had a 15-to-5 touchdown-to-interception ratio and posted a quarterback rating over 120 three times. The Dolphins were under great pressure to find a franchise quarterback in the Draft, but it’s entirely possible they already had one on the roster.
Runner-Up: RB Daniel Thomas, Miami
Most Overrated Player: DE Mario Williams, Buffalo
Williams is a very good player, one who can be a difference-maker for a team looking to get to the next level (such as the Bills). However, he is not a franchise-savior, and he is not worth $100 million. In five mostly-full seasons, he only topped 10 sacks twice (with a career-high of 14 in 2007), and he has missed 14 starts over the past two seasons due to injury (including 11 last season).
His legacy as a No. 1 overall pick has yet to be determined, and he could still very easily justify everything he’s earned with some quality production with the Bills. At this point, however, he is being overhyped and overpaid rather heavily.
Runner-Up: TE Aaron Hernandez, New England
King of the Division: New England
The Patriots won the division by five games in 2011, and they didn’t take a significant step backwards this offseason. The running game could suffer with the loss of Green-Ellis, but aside from that they should have an improved defense with Hightower and Jones, Nate Solder should be ready to become a full season left tackle, and Brandon Lloyd should provide that extra option that Chad Johnson did not provide them last season.
Barring the unexpected, the Patriots should take the division again in 2012, albeit by a smaller margin (no more than three games).
Wild-Card Playoff Team: Buffalo