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An Early Look At Next Year (AFC EAST)

By David J Cohen

Now that the year is officially over with the ending of the most meaningless game in professional sports, or the Pro Bowl, the focus of millions of NFL fans around the country shifts to next season. What changes need to be made? What can my team accomplish? How far can my team go? These are the questions of the fans as they follow their favorite teams into the journey that is the off-season.

Here’s a look of what the AFC East might look like in the 2006-2007 season.New England Patriots: They are right at the cap level going into the off-season and will have to make some interesting decisions regarding their unrestricted free agents. K Adam Vinatieri and WR David Givens head a good list of players that they will have to decide to re-sign or let go. WR Deion Branch is the only key WR not a free agent, as WRs Troy Brown and Andre Davis are both on the market. The wide receiver position is their most prevalent need going into the off-season. QB Tom Brady hasn’t had a great receiver to throw it to since he became the QB of the Patriots. Without a marquis guy, Brady threw for over 4000 yards this year, leading the league. At WR, Branch is explosive in stints but needs a compliment on the other side to truly be effective (like Raiders WR Jerry Porter). Givens will be expecting a solid sized contract, so the Pats will have to decide whether Givens has the talent to be a second #1 caliber receiver. The great depth and receiving talent at the TE position will continue to help Brady in the passing game, somewhat making up for the lack of a true #1 wide-out. TE Ben Watson leads the group and showed the potential to be a big-time target in this league. If TE Daniel Graham can get it together, the Pats have a dangerous TE duo that will give opposing defenses fits next year. The Pats also have issues at RB. RB Corey Dillon was hurt last season and looks to be on the decline and RB Kevin Faulk is not an every-down back. This will likely be addressed during the draft. The offensive line should also be a concern. The Pats need to determine if the unit at the end of the season is good enough or if a free agent should be brought in.

On defense, the Patriots should be among the best next year in regards to their front 3 and secondary. The front 3 of DEs Ty Warren and Richard Seymour and DT Vince Wilfork rank among the best in football. The secondary has young talent in CBs Asante Samuel and Ellis Hobbs and FS Eugene Wilson. This group will get even stronger as it is likely CB Ty Law will return to the Pats next year, adding the league leader in INTs (tied for 1st with 10) to an already formidable group. If NE can find someone to play SS, their secondary will be tough to beat. The LB core, however, is a much different story. They are aging at LB and need to find future replacements. LB Roosevelt Colvin finally looked like the guy they signed from Chicago, but there are questions at the other spots. LBs Willie McGinest, Mike Vrabel, and Tedy Bruschi can all still get it done, but they are getting up in age. Bruschi doesn’t have much time left, Vrabel is starting to get hampered by injuries, and McGinest was on the Pats team that went to the Super Bowl under Bill Parcells. This will be a key issue of concern for the Pats as they need to draft well and often at LB. A young talented free agent wouldn’t hurt either.

Looking at a roster that has Tom Brady at quarterback and a great defense, not to mention Head Coach Bill Belicheck going into next year, they should be a 12 win team and division winner come playoff time if they can stay healthy.

Miami Dolphins: The Dolphins are slightly over the projected cap at -$5 million going into next year, and should be able to get back under with a couple of moves. Last year’s overachievement of a 9-7 record leaves fans with high expectations going into next season, which puts a lot of pressure on Head Coach Nick Saban and the front office to win now. The Dolphins can attempt to bring in high priced free agents for a quick run or continue to build for a solid string of years to come. Something in Miami’s favor is that only 2 starters are free agents: S Lance Schulters and G Alonzo Ephraim. One of the needs fans would like to see addressed is the QB position, where QB Gus Frerotte leads the charge as of now. QB Sage Rosenfels is on the market, and what they decide to do with him may tell the story of what they plan to do at QB. He struggled last year but showed some flashes of success, and a re-signing of him might mean he is their starter. Another thing to watch is QB Cleo Lemon, who was acquired from the Chargers in the trade for QB A.J. Feeley. Many teams in the NFL had their eye on Lemon and he is likely the future of the Dolphins franchise at QB. The Dolphins could choose to go after a marquis QB like Dante Culpepper if he is available, but I don’t see it happening. It would put too much of a stress on the cap. The RB position seems to be a sure lock going into next year with both Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams producing nicely together this season. However, Williams is sure to be traded, so look for RB Travis Minor to be the 2nd guy (if they resign him). Also, Brown must overcome the sophomore jinx that seems to plague successful rookies in their second year in the league. RBs Julius Jones and Kevin Jones both had much different seasons from their promising rookie campaigns this year. If Brown struggles, the Dolphins playoff hopes go down with him. At WR they have Chris Chambers, who has the potential to be a star but must develop consistency next year to make the next step. Alongside him right now is WR Marty Booker, who can still be productive. Also, TE Randy McMichael needs to deliver each game in order to become one of the top receiving TEs in the league. He has the talent. Still, expect the Dolphins to make a serious run at a big WR free agent (T.O. if they can work it out). Expect them to also address this during day 2 of the draft. The offensive line has some bright spots at the tackle positions but some disappointments elsewhere. They will need to beef up during free agency and should draft an early round guard or center.

Miami’s defense has been tough for years now, but they must address age if that is to continue. They have one of the oldest front 4s in the NFL. DEs Kevin Carter and Jason Taylor, and DTs Keith Traylor and Vonnie Holliday have a combined 43 years of NFL experience. They need to draft well up front as injuries and age are beginning to take their toll. The LB core is still led by Zach Thomas, who continues to be one of the best in the league year after year. He was 3rd in the league in tackles this year. He is in the same predicament as the front 4, but MIA has assembled two young, talented outside LBs in Channing Crowder (a future all-pro) and Donnie Spragan. MLB Jason Glenn has also proved to be effective and should see an increased role next season. The Dolphins secondary should be among the league’s best if they can resign Schulters and if CB Sam Madison can produce another solid season. They might shore up the secondary with a couple of CBs in the latter stages of the draft.

This team overachieved this year record-wise and might have a worse record next season despite being a better team. Expect an 8-8 to 9-7 season.

Buffalo Bills: They are $10 million over the cap going into the off-season and should create additional cap room by getting a pay-cut from G Mike Williams, who is officially an NFL bust. They are also one of the tougher teams to forecast going into next year. At QB, J.P. Losman looked confused and uncertain in the pocket for most of the year and was constantly in and out of the lineup. He wasn’t really given a chance to figure things out as he was benched for QB Kelly Holcomb, then brought back, and then benched again. His play will determine the fate of the Bills. If he figures things out, this team has the potential to be a sleeper in the AFC wildcard race and could very well be next year’s Miami Dolphins. If Losman struggles, it’s another year in the 5 win range. The RB position is set with Willis McGahee. He just needs to stay healthy. The WR position is an interesting one for BUF. WR Lee Evans is the best wide-out on this team and he started to show promise of a true #1 late in the season. He must continue to improve as he will likely be the go-to guy next year. WR Eric Moulds will likely be retired or playing elsewhere next year. It doesn’t seem that WR Josh Reed will live up to his potential in the NFL. He has turned into another Peerless Price. The Bills need another top receiver to go along with Evans to help Evans succeed and to help Losman. If they don’t get a top free agent, they make take a WR in the opening round of the draft if they feel a solid one surfaces. They could also use a TE in the passing game. The offensive line broke down last year and must be completely re-tooled. They need to break the current unit up and build from scratch.

On defense the Bills have the potential to be a top 5 team next year. The front 4 is anchored by DT Sam Adams (always a good decision) and DE Aaron Schobel. Schobel was 5th in the league in sacks this year. The other two players are young players that must continue to progress. The Bills may sign a free-agent at either DE or DT to shore up things. At LB the Bills have one of the league’s best units. Takeo Spikes should return next year and have a great year. London Fletcher is a seasoned vet who is still among the league’s elite. This season he was 4th in the league in tackles. Angelo Crowell is a future star in the NFL who did a very good Spikes impersonation last year and should evolve into one of the key playmakers next year if they can resign him. He is by far their biggest free agent issue this off-season and resigning him will come at a heavy price. Jeff Posey rounds out the unit and is also a great player. At CB, the Bills are great next year if they can resign the other key free agent, CB Nate Clements. Terrence McGee, an up and coming corner who produced plenty last year on defense and special teams, is the #2 corner. The Bills will have to address their age at safety with FS Troy Vincent and SS Lawyer Milloy. Both can produce again this year, but the Bills need to draft future replacements. Expect a high round FS to cover Vincent incase of injury. The Bills should be great on defense and special teams in 06.

What production they get out of the offense determines how far they will go. Odds are the Bills need another year to get things straightened out but don’t be surprised if they get 8 wins.

New York Jets: Three words: What a mess. This team is in complete disarray and has put itself in a position to restore itself as one of the laughing stocks of the league. They are $29 million over the salary cap going into the off-season, which means that they will have to cut several quality players to make up the room. They’ve already cleaned house on the coaches, letting Head Coach Herm Edwards go to the Chiefs in one of the most embarrassing negotiations in recent sports memory. Donnie Henderson, one of the league’s best defensive minds, was also let go. This just leaves the coaching staff in a cloud of uncertainty. The roster should follow suit. At QB there are a bunch of questions. Is it time to give up on Pennington or build around his suspect arm? Should the Jets draft QB Matt Leinart? Are we stuck with QB Brooks Bollinger? All that is certain at QB is that it won’t be Vinny Testaverde. Pennington rushed back and re-aggravated his shoulder injury. He is an accurate passer when he’s on the field but his arm strength has been repeatedly questioned. Personally I think he still can be a very successful QB in this league and for the Jets if he can stay healthy and get protection. The Jets will likely seek a pay-cut from him and will have to commit to him as the man for right now. The Jets are also in trouble at RB. Curtis Martin is nearing retirement and the Jets have no one talented enough to take over. Cedric Houston is not an every down back and Derrick Blaylock hasn’t worked out thus far. The Jets need to find a cheap, young RB in free agency or steal a good one in the 4th round of the draft. At WR the Jets have Laveranues Coles, an emerging possession WR in Jerricho Cotchery and not much else. WR Justin McCareins has not played up to par and should be traded elsewhere. The offensive line is also a wreck. There is some solid talent; it just never got off the plane. Injuries decimated this line. C Kevin Mawae was the only sure thing, so after he went down the line was shuffled around. The result was the end of the Jets season in a 7 minute span, losing both Pennington and QB Jay Fiedler. If G Pete Kendall and T Adrian Jones can play like their talent, the Jets may be able to protect the pocket and create some running lanes next year. At TE the Jets had Chris Baker (he is a free agent and should end up elsewhere) and overrated TE Doug Jolley. This should be another weakness for the Jets next season.

Defensively, the Jets are in trouble as a unit. The front 4 was led by DE John Abraham, who has received the franchise tag again. Expect him to be moved before the year starts. The other DE, Shaun Ellis, seems to be hitting a wall. There are questions at DT as Dewayne Robertson has not lived up to the production of a 4th overall pick. The LB core, however, is the lone bright spot on the Jets going into next year, and is one of the most promising units in all of the NFL. The group is directed by LB Jonathan Vilma, who led the league in tackles in just his 2nd season. The other starting LBs are Mark Brown and Victor Hobson, two promising young players. The secondary will struggle as a whole next year without CB Ty Law leading the way. The bright spots in the remaining secondary include SS Kerry Rhodes, who is in the mold of a Rodney Harrison. FS Eric Coleman also had a great year and should continue his success. However, the Jets will be burned next year because of their corners if they do not make changes. CBs Justin Miller and David Barrett will be victimized every game next year as they adjust to being the primary defenders in a defense that won’t play as well next year without the direction of Donnie Henderson.

Overall this Jets team is in shambles and will have to do something taboo in New York: rebuild. They will be in the gutter for a while. They’ll be back near the top of the draft next year.

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SOURCES

www.nfl.com
-depth charts
www.foxsports.com
-stats and season ranks
www.theredzone.org
-team’s free agents
www.askthecommish.com
-team’s salary cap situation

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