Miami has the talent assembled to overtake New England. Can head coach Joe Philbin lead them?
By: Elias McMillan
New England Patriots – After the offseason that the defending Super Bowl champion Patriots just went through, the target on the entire organization’s back has never been larger. On top of that, they are also coming off an offseason that saw them lose some key talent especially on the defensive side of the ball. Despite that, everyone in the NFL knows by now that Bill Belichick strives on getting the most out of his football team and that might be the case once again in 2015. The biggest storyline is of course, Tom Brady and his suspension. It will most definitely hurt the Patriots offense to not have its leader for the first 4 weeks of the season. Can backup QB Jimmy Garoppolo do enough to keep the passing game afloat? I’m not sure but I think Belichick will have a plan in place where Garoppolo wont have to go beyond his means to win football games. Will that plan involve the running game? New England weren’t particularly great at running the ball last season. They lost two of their main contributors in the backfield in the offseason but replacement them shouldn’t be a big chore. RB LaGarrette Blount will be back though he will miss Week One. Behind him, New England has plenty of depth with Jonas Gray and Travaris Cadet just a name a few. The running back depth chart isn’t filled with names that will “wow” anyone but the Patriots have always figured out how to get enough production from who ever is lined up at the position. And you can say the same about the WR position. I think WR Julian Edelman has solidified himself as a legit threat with every touch and WR Danny Amendola has proven to be serviceable but outside of those two, this receiving core is pretty average. Which again has been proven to be good enough for Brady and the offense. The rock star of the passing game, figuratively and literally, is TE Rob Gronkowski and he will be ready for an injury-free campaign in 2015. I think when Tom Brady returns, the league will be in big trouble. After all he has gone through in the offseason, I think Brady will be looking to make a statement in 2015. I’m worried about the Patriots defense this year after losing Darrelle Revis, Vince Wilfork, and Brandon Browner. At defensive end, Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones return and I really liked the signing of Jabaal Sheard who showed some potential in his time in Cleveland. Inside at defensive tackle will be a question mark though. New England might have gotten a steal in the 1st round of the draft last April in DT Malcolm Brown and he may have to pay dividends early in his career. New England does return a solid group at LB lead by Don’t’a Hightower. But the secondary might be a weak link his season with safety Devin McCourty as its lone standout. New England didn’t really have a great defense last season and that didn’t stop them from winning it all. I expect the Pats to be contenders again this season unless they falter under the pressure of trying to answer their critics every week. As long as they follow the Belichick mantra of “Do Your Job” week in and week out, the Patriots will give the critics something to really hate on in 2015. Prediction: 11-5 (AFC East Champs)
Miami Dolphins – Miami kind of surprised me last season and they’ll definitely have something to build upon going into this season. And with the moves they’ve made in the offseason, the hot seat just got a bit hotter in Miami for head coach Joe Philbin. On offense, they’ll be lead by QB Ryan Tannehill who is coming off his best season yet. Tannehill has improved each season and Miami is counting on that trend to continue in 2015. Tannehill will have a young and talented receiving core in 2015. WR Greg Jennings will serve more as a mentor and he will mean a great deal to Jarvis Landry, Kenny Stills, and rookie DeVante Parker. I believe Miami also upgraded the TE position with the signing of Jordan Cameron. Cameron had a disastrous final season in Cleveland but he could rebound nicely with the talent he now has around him. At RB, Lamar Miller quietly had a nice season in 2014. He will hope to build upon that going into this season but also look out for rookie Jay Ajayi who was a great value pick for Miami in Round 5. On defense, everyone will be raving about this defensive line. Miami landed the big fish in free agency this offseason in DT Ndamukong Suh. Suh along with defensive ends, Cameron Wake and Olivier Vernon, should form a monstrous force that will give opposing QB’s fits and stuff the run. Miami’s LB core is young is underrated. Jelani Jenkins led the team in tackles last season and Koa Misi is an active playmaker when healthy. Miami’s secondary was decent last season and they should be even better this season with the improvements made on the defensive line. Safeties Louis Delmas and Reshad Jones are one of the better safety combos in the league. CB Brent Grimes is a leader and a difference maker who will help bring along the younger corners on the team. I think Miami looks impressive on paper but something about them just screams “under achiever”. I’m not very confident that Philbin is the right coach to get this team over the hump and to over take New England for the division. The pressure will be on the coaches because they’ll have the talent on the field. I still expect Miami to at least contend to make the playoffs for the first time since 2008. Prediction: 9-7
Buffalo Bills – The Bills might already be my favorite team in the AFC this season. With Rex Ryan leading the way and the talent already on the defensive side of the ball, optimism is abounding in upstate NY. Rex Ryan has a rep of bringing intensity on defense and he won’t really have to build that up from scratch in his second head-coaching gig. Buffalo had a top five defensive unit in 2014 and they could be even better under Ryan. The defensive line they have in Buffalo is amazing. Mario Williams and Jerry Hughes are a top pass rushing duo and they are able to stuff the run with defensive tackles Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams. Not having LB Kiko Alonso might hurt but in his absence last season, LB Preston Brown led the team in tackles and he’ll probably continue to be a huge contributor this season. Buffalo also had one of the best secondarys in the league last season led by corners Stephon Gilmore and Leodis McKelvin. Buffalo’s defense is stacked which means, much like in New York, a Rex Ryan led team will need the offense to pick up the slack. Ryan loves to run the football and new offensive coordinator Greg Roman follows a similar philosophy. Buffalo made the deal of the offseason when they traded for star RB LeSean McCoy. It’s hard to think of McCoy as a veteran but he is one with plenty of football left in the tank. I think McCoy will be a great match with this offense and he’ll make Buffalo look like bank robbers by the end of the season with the totals he’ll put up. With the QB situation shaky, the Bills will probably run the ball a lot of offense this season which wont be problem as there’s plenty of depth behind McCoy with Fred Jackson, Bryce Brown, and impressive rookie Karlos Williams. Buffalo has decent talent at the WR position with Sammy Watkins as the obvious stand out. WR Robert Woods has shown some ability and veteran Percy Harvin will be looking to prove that he can still be a difference maker in this league. But again, the question marks at QB could single handily derail Rex Ryan’s first season in Buffalo. Here’s my theory on Buffalo’s QB situation: Matt Cassel stinks and I’m not sure why he keeps getting chances in this league. Greg Roman’s offense really excelled in San Francisco with Colin Kaepernick, who is a mobile QB. Cassel certainly isn’t mobile so that leaves EJ Manuel and Tyrod Taylor. Manuel isnt really getting votes of confidence so far in training camp and Taylor has yet to really get a shot at being a starter in this league. I think Taylor will end up winning the competition but how good he can be will still be a question mark until the season starts. If Taylor can ride the running game, the great defense, and do enough to get Sammy Watkins involved, Buffalo could be in better shape than Miami to challenge New England for the division crown. Buffalo would be a bold playoff pick right now but I need to see how the QB competition shapes out first. This team will definitely be fun to watch in 2015. Prediction: 8-8
New York Jets – I believe the dog days will be back for this franchise in 2015. The biggest problem on this team is that they just don’t have the enough talent yet. That’s pretty much the same story from last year. I really like new head Todd Bowles and he knows how to get the most out of players but he’s going to have a rough go of it in his first season. Bowles coached a pretty good, over achieving defense in Arizona last season and he should have another good defensive squad already in New York. On the defensive line, the standouts are Sheldon Richardson and Muhammad Wilkerson. Richardson will be suspended for the first four games of the season and they will affect the defense. But luckily, defensive star Leonard Williams was able to drop to NY in the draft last April. Williams will be able to help this team as a rookie and will provide depth once Richardson returns. The Jets did a decent job at sacking the QB last season but they still need more production from their outside linebackers, Calvin Pace and Quinton Coples. I do like the depth they have behind Pace and Coples with Jason Babin and rookie Lorenzo Mauldin. LB David Harris returns for another season as the Jets leading tackler and run stopper. Jets fans should be excited for the return of Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie but in reality, they should only be excited for the return of Revis. Revis proved last season in New England that he can still be one of the top corners in the league. Cromartie proved last season to an opportunist who doesn’t give full effort when plays break down. The Jets secondary will still be improved regardless. At safety, Calvin Pryor must bounce back from a tough rookie season. On offense, the Jets still have a good offensive line and they acquired WR Brandon Marshall. That’s about the only good things I can come up with on that side of the ball. But seriously, Marshall should greatly improve the Jets receiving core that is rounded out nicely but vets Eric Decker and Jeremy Kerley. Also keep an eye out for rookie Devin Smith who might develop into a great pro. The Jets running game is in great need of a home run hitter and I don’t think that guy in currently on their roster. Chris Ivory is a decent back and they also traded for Zac Stacy in the offseason. But I just don’t see this running game carrying this offense far. Now with a broken jaw, can this be the season where QB Geno Smith can turn it around and show that he has improved? Ryan Fitzpatrick’s best days maybe behind him but can he thrive under Chad Gailey’s offense? The defense in New York might be good enough to keep them in some games this season but I think the QB position will hold this team back again this season. Like I said earlier, I like Todd Bowles but this team is a few pieces away from competing in this division. The defense should provide a good foundation for Bowles to build upon though. Prediction: 4-12