|New England has to be the early favorite, but could Buffalo or Miami supplant New York for No. 2 in the East? (Getty Images)|
By Ryan Wilson
Buffalo BillsThe season got off to such a promising start in Buffalo -- five wins in the first seven games … and then the Bills suffered seven consecutive losses to finish tied for last in the division with the Dolphins. A lot went right over the first six weeks of the season, but a ton went wrong over the final two and a half months. Some of that can be blamed on injuries, but every team can say that. Bigger issues ill-timed mistakes (like, say, Stevie Johnson drops), poor decisions (Ryan Fitzpatrick interceptions come to mind), and a porous defense all conspired to sink the season. But for the first time in a long time, the Bills have hope. And we don't mean the "Hey, maybe we'll win eight games!" type hope, either. We mean a team that could have the offensive firepower to keep up with anybody. More generally, Buffalo's fate will come down to two things: offensive consistency and a much-improved defense.
Free agents of note
Wide receiver Stevie Johnson signed a five-year deal Friday, but the team is expected to let WR Roscoe Parrish and running back Tashard Chocie hit free agency. The same holds for tight end Scott Chandler. Meanwhile, left tackle Demetrius Bell and linebacker Kirk Morrison have been negotiating with the team for a possible return in 2012.
Buffalo was 5-2 to start the season and then the wheels fell off. The offense dried up about the time that quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick signed that huge extension (we later found out that he was suffering from a rib injury for the second half of the season), and the defense -- the run defense in particular -- was abysmal. Now Fitzpatrick's healthy, the Bills re-signed Johnson, and Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller give the team two explosive backs.
Dave Wannstedt is the new defensive coordinator and he'll reinstitute the 4-3 after the 3-4 experiment didn't work. This will allow defensive tackles Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus to be on the field at the same time, which should immediately upgrade the run D. Buffalo lacks depth at most positions but especially at linebacker. Kelvin Sheppard will likely play in the middle and Nick Barnett will move to the weak side (the team doesn't expect defensive end Shawne Merriman to be anything more than a situational pass rusher), but expect this need to be addressed in free agency and the draft.
Former Falcons linebacker Curtis Lofton is headed for the open market and he makes sense. As CBSSports.com's Pete Prisco points out, Lofton is better against the run than the pass, and that was one of the Bills' biggest weaknesses a year ago. There's also a report that Buffalo could be interested in Vincent Jackson -- even after signing Johnson to a long-term contract.
Miami DolphinsWhen Tony Sparano arrived in Miami in 2008, the Dolphins surprised everyone by going 11-5 and winning the conference. Unfortunately, once the shine was off the Wildcat offense, Miami faded too. They went 7-9 in back-to-back seasons before an 0-7 start doomed Sparano in 2011. The Dolphins finished strong -- a 6-3 record with backup QB Matt Moore -- but the team will look completely different heading into training camp, starting with new head coach Joe Philbin.
Free agents of note
Chad Henne is gone. He was open to returning but the Dolphins had seen enough. In the right system, Henne could be successful, just not in Miami… Paul Soliai was our top-rated free-agent defensive tackle and the organization is content to let him test the waters… Tackle Vernon Carey struggled as a pass blocker and isn't likely to be re-signed, and the same holds for defensive lineman Kendall Langford… Running back Steve Slaton, the former Texans' third-round pick, also isn't expected back, and neither is right tackle Marc Colombo.
Quarterback is the glaring need. We've mentioned it before but we might as well reiterate it here for effect -- the starters since Dan Marino retired following the 1999 season: Jay Fiedler, Damon Huard, A.J. Feeley, Gus Frerotte, Sage Rosenfels, Brian Griese, Joey Harrington, Daunte Culpepper, Cleo Lemon, Trent Green, John Beck, Chad Pennington, Chad Henne, Tyler Thigpen and Matt Moore.
Which is why owner Stephen Ross was reportedly "infatuated" with Peyton Manning and why Philbin might end up with Matt Flynn, who he coached in Green Bay. Whatever happens, as long as the Dolphins don't have a legit quarterback, they'll always be playing for draft position. Miami also needs to upgrade the offensive line, specifically right tackle. Colombo was among the worst tackles in the league according to ProFootballFocus.com's numbers, and Football Outsiders ranked the entire unit 30th in their sacks-allowed metric.
Manning seems like a long shot because of lingering health issues, potential cap-busting contract demands and the possibility that Manning will want to run the offense. Flynn makes much more sense because he's familiar with Philbin and Philbin's offense, and in the right system he can be effective. The QB free-agency drop-off after Flynn is precipitous. Jason Campbell and Kyle Orton would be fine as one-year stopgaps until the next franchise quarterback arrives in South Beach, but using that logic it makes just as much sense to keep Henne around.
The free-agent market for tackles is even thinner. Jared Gaither might be the best mix of athleticism, upside and affordability, but the Chargers are reportedly interested in keeping him.
New England PatriotsThe Patriots returned to the Super Bowl in February for the first time since 2007 (which is also the last time they won a postseason game). But their loss to the Giants in Indianapolis means that New England's last Lombardi Trophy came following the 2005 season. There are worse fates, of course, and as long as Tom Brady is under center the Pats are a playoff team and likely favorites to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl. Still, Brady needs help. Given New England's cache of draft picks, we expect they'll address each of them in the coming weeks and months.
Free agents of note
Wide receiver Wes Welker was franchised Monday but the hope is that the two sides can come to an agreement on a long-term deal… Running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis carried much of the workload last season but the Pats used two high draft picks on RBs. If Green-Ellis leaves via free agency second-year player Stevan Ridley could be next in line… Left tackle Matt Light is rumored to be contemplating retirement and even if he comes back for another season New England might move on without him (they drafted tackle Nate Solder in the first round last April). The Patriots may also let free agent center Dan Koppen walk… Veterans WR Deion Branch and DE Andre Carter could be back in New England if they're willing to sign for cheap, while longtime Patriot Kevin Faulk has retired but hinted that he'd love to return to the sidelines as an assistant coach…
Defense and wide receiver top the offseason to-do list. As for the former, the Patriots desperately need depth in the secondary; the team cut former first-round pick safety Brandon Meriweather in preseason and then played much of 2011 with other teams' castoffs at cornerback. CB Devin McCourty regressed in Year 2 after a fantastic rookie campaign, but he could rebound with the right players around him. Second-rounder Ras-I Dowling missed his rookie season with injuries but will be available to begin 2012.
Concerning the latter: Chad Ochocinco was an unmitigated disaster. He had 15 catches in the regular season and a lone touchdown. He was supposed to provide Brady with a deep threat. Didn't happen. In fact, Ochocinco routinely found himself on the sidelines when the Pats went to the no-huddle offense because he was still learning the playbook. There's a chance he returns in 2012 but it will be at a reduced rate. With Welker back for at least another year and Branch also likely to return, New England has to find a legitimate down-the-field target to stretch defenses and open things up for tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. Which brings us to...
The Patriots have the 31st pick in April's draft. The Steelers chose not to franchise Mike Wallace Monday. New England should be working up a contract offer for Wallace right now because if they're able to prying him away from Pittsburgh it'll be worth much more than a low first-round selection. New England could also look to free agency to fill their needs in the secondary and along the defensive line.
New York JetsThe Jets' offseason began with a Rex Ryan press conference explaining why team captain Santonio Holmes quit on his teammates during an embarrassing Week 17 loss to the Dolphins with the playoffs on the line. Ryan promised to fix his locker room, proclaimed that Mark Sanchez was his quarterback, and indicated that despite the whole quitting thing, Holmes was staying put. On the other side of the ball, New York struggled to generate a pass rush and wasn't nearly as effective against the run. And that, almost as much as Sanchez' inconsistency, was responsible for the 8-8 season.
Free agents of note
We listed Sione Pouha as one of the best free-agent defensive tackles and while the Jets didn't franchise him, they'll reportedly sign him to a long-term deal before he hits the open market… Plaxico Burress' one-year stint with Gang Green is over; he along with Holmes didn't always see eye to eye with Sanchez and he said recently he'd love to play for the Eagles… Safety Jim Leonhard came to the Jets from Baltimore but he along with Brodney Pool could be allowed to test free agency… Another former Raven, linebacker Bart Scott, has been given permission to seek a trade… Running back LaDainian Tomlinson is expected to retire… The Jets saved former Bills first-rounder Aaron Maybin from the scrap heap and the team will reportedly tender him at the highest level.
Sanchez took a beating -- both mentally and physically -- last year. With Holmes set to return, the former probably won't change no matter what Ryan says. But the team can certainly do a better job of protecting their franchise quarterback, particularly if that quarterback ends up being Peyton Manning. (We think that's a longshot at this point but still not entirely outside the realm of possibility. Either way, the fact remains: if New York doesn't protect any of their quarterbacks, they can expect another long season in 2012.) Unfortunately, the Jets have committed to Wayne Hunter as their right tackle, the very same Wayne Hunter who was summarily beaten time after time in 2011. According to ESPNNewYork.com, Hunter was charged with 8.5 sacks and 11 penalties last season.
New York also needs to bolster the secondary, especially if neither Leonhard or Pool is expected to re-sign. It also didn't help that Eric Smith struggled is passing situations (not to mention losing contain on the Thursday Night get-together against the Broncos that led to Tebow's game-winning touchdown run.)
Ryan, like most coaches, favors his own guys. It explains why he brought Leonhard and Scott with him from Baltimore where he was previously the defensive coordinator. It also explains why he may pursue Ravens linebacker Jarret Johnson, who's headed for free agency. Also expect the Jets to address the position -- or safety -- early in April's draft.
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