Archive for August, 2014

pmanningWhen Peyton Manning (pictured) signed with Denver in 2012, few knew what to expect out of the then 36-year old quarterback. Coming off serious neck surgery, the former Indianapolis Colt was the greatest wild card in football history. Two years and zero-championships later, few will doubt whether or not Manning belongs in the conversation of “greatest quarterback of all time.” Still, coming off one of the most embarrassing Super Bowl performances in history, this multiple MVP has plenty left to prove.

For Manning and the Denver Broncos, 2013 seemed just too easy. An offense that put up historic numbers week-in-and-week-out could not be tamed regardless of the scheme developed to defend them. That is, until they met Pete Carroll and the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLVIII. On that fateful night, everything came crashing down. Manning was inefficient. The offensive line was leaky; and the defense was as hapless as a liberal in Alaska.

Vowing not to have another storybook season come crashing down in a heap of disappointment, executive John Elway set out to improve the dilapidated Denver defense by any means necessary. Just a week into the free agent frenzy, that message was made crystal clear. Veterans DeMarcus Ware, T.J. Ward, and Aqib Talib all joined Denver in succession, turning a significant weakness into a marketable strength. Those three will join with young Danny Trevathan and burly Terrance Knighton to give the Broncos a handful of playmakers on defense. Add in Von Miller, who continues to wreak havoc on opposing QBs when he’s not suspended; and the Broncos likely have improved more defensively than any other team in football.

On offense, Manning will no longer have the security blanket that was WR Eric Decker, who signed with New York in the spring. Replacing him will be Emmanuel Sanders, who left Pittsburgh for the Rocky Mountains. Sanders brings more speed to his game than Decker. Though, the former Steeler is nowhere near as consistent. If Sanders falters, the depth at receiver is more than sufficient. The team brought back veteran Andre Caldwell and supplemented their corps by drafting former Indiana University star Cody Latimer. At 6-2, 215, Latimer resembles Decker in the slot. He’s a fantasy darkhorse who should begin to pay dividends for Manning and fantasy owners alike come the second half of the season. Denver also returns Julius Thomas, who broke out to the tune of 12 touchdowns in 2013. Montee Ball returns in 2014, this time as the #1 back behind Manning. With no more Knowshon Moreno, Ball should easily record over 1,000 yards rushing for the first time in his career.

Denver is undoubtedly the best team in this division, and many would argue the most complete unit in the conference. Whether or not that means a second Super Bowl title for Manning remains to be seen. After all, most believed that Denver would walk out of MetLife Stadium with their franchise’s third ring. Instead, they crawled out with whiplash. You’ll see Manning and Co. in January. But, their fate from then on will rely on the ability of their veteran defense to improve on the performance of 2013.

The Kansas City Chiefs shocked the world a year ago. After hiring former Philadelphia Eagles’ coach Andy Reid to rebuild their once proud franchise, the Chiefs emerged as one of the best teams in football during the first half of the season. A second half swoon once they started playing better competition left K.C. at 11-5. Their fall from grace was culminated with a massive collapse during the second half of their Wild Card Round loss to the Indianapolis Colts.

While Reid, QB Alex Smith, RB Jamaal Charles, and the bulk of their top-five defense return in 2014, the Chiefs are a popular pick to return to their expected mediocrity. The reason for that is clear. Kansas City will no longer be playing a last placed schedule. They also lost a majority of their offensive line to free agency. The added competition and skepticism is no stranger to Reid, who overcame mixed expectations to become Philadelphia’s winning-est coach during his tenure in the City of Brotherly Love. Still, asking this team to replicate their offensive performance from 2013 might be impossible.

tambahaliInstead of addressing their patchwork offense during the NFL Draft, Reid and the Chiefs pulled a very Reid’esque move by drafting pass rushing DE Dee Ford in round one. Ford has plenty of upside. But, this move reminds this writer way too much of Reid’s decisions to draft such luminaries as Brandon Graham and Jerome McDougle whilst in Philadelphia. A pass rush is great. But, when your team already has two dynamite edge rushers (Tamba Hali (pictured) and Justin Houston), is it really necessary to add another despite the weaknesses on the offensive line and in the secondary? Veteran CB Brandon Flowers was released in June. His replacement is expected to be Marcus Cooper, a 7th round pick in 2013. That, along with the notable subtractions on their offensive line, will keep Kansas City from returning to the playoffs this winter.

For head coach Mike McCoy, who enjoyed a fruitful first season with the San Diego Chargers, 2014 is an opportunity to build on his already stellar accomplishments. The former offensive coordinator in Denver; McCoy is an offensive genius. His fast-paced, no-huddle mentality helped QB Philip Rivers return to the Pro Bowl. Granted, the emergence of rookie WR kallenKeenan Allen (pictured) helped, as well. Allen’s 71 receptions for 1,056 yards were tops among rookie targets. Rivers will hope that a sophomore slump is avoided in 2014.

There wasn’t much turnover at the receiver position, as Allen returns alongside Vincent Brown, Malcom Floyd, and Eddie Royal to give Rivers a solid group of vets. Behind the 10-year signal caller remains Ryan Mathews, who can do a little of everything when he has the ball in his hands. He’s joined by pass-catching specialist Danny Woodhead and new addition Donald Brown, who comes west from the Indianapolis Colts. A first round pick in 2009, Brown is every bit as good a receiver as Woodhead, while also offering the ability to go between-the-tackles.

On defense, a woefully underrated unit only got better. The growth of youngsters like Donald Butler, Manti Te’o, and Corey Liuget should prove critical to the success of San Diego’s front-seven. Meanwhile, the leadership of S Eric Weddle should help tutor youngsters like Shareece Wright and Jason Verrett (the team’s first round pick) to become future stars in the secondary. The Chargers also retained veteran CB Richard Marshall, who is expected to start opposite Wright on the outside.

Anyone who doubts San Diego’s ability to return to contention in 2014 is going to be disappointed. With Rivers surrounded by a solid cast of characters, this remains the only team in the West that can compete with Denver not only on Sunday; but, also in the division race.

Finally, we have the Oakland Raiders. The ugly stepchild of the NFL, Oakland hasn’t made the postseason since they were obliterated in Super Bowl XXXVII by Tampa Bay following the 2002 season. Gone are the days of “just win baby.” Now, the mantra should be, “just don’t get blown out, baby.” It’s a make-or-break season for third year coach Dennis Allen, who’s combined to go 8-24 in two seasons on the Golden Coast. If the Raiders don’t show significant improvement in 2014, Allen will be patrolling the unemployment line come the new year.

In order to avoid another dismal campaign, Raiders’ GM Kareem McKenzie spent the offseason making it rain left-and-right on free agent targets. On offense, Oakland added veterans in QB Matt Schaub, RB Maurice Jones-Drew, WR James Jones, djhaydenand LT Donald Penn. While Schaub has not looked good during preseason, he should certainly prove to be more steady than the duo of Terrelle Pryor and Matt McGloin were last season. Jones-Drew, meanwhile, should provide veteran leadership and a change of pace contribution behind starting RB Darren McFadden. The latter’s health will prove critical, as the 2008 first round pick has somehow stuck with Oakland despite being unable to stay on the field for 16-games.

The offseason overhaul was not limited solely to the offensive side of the ball. On defense, veteran acquisitions LaMaar Woodley, Justin Tuck, and Carlos Rogers should limit the seven touchdown single game performances that Oakland allows in 2014. First round pick Khalil Mack, considered one of the most talented players in the 2014 draft, is expected to start at strongside linebacker. Last year’s first rounder, CB DJ Hayden (pictured), should also show marked improvement during his second season as a starter. The team also brought in veteran Tarell Brown, who takes his talents across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco. This infusion of depth across the defense should allow Oakland to improve on their 4-12 finish of a year ago. Though, it’s doubtful that their veteran spending spree will result in their first winning season in 12 years.

Many will argue that this is a division with one contender and three pretenders. This blog would disagree. While the Broncos are far and away the most talented franchise in the West, the Chargers and, to a lesser extent, the Chiefs are contenders in their own right. While Denver may be the pick of the litter in 2014, a future without Manning lends some serious questions to be answered. For now, though, this division belongs to the Broncos. Whether or not the same can be said for the Lombardi Trophy will be answered in six months.


There’s little doubt that the AFC South comes into 2014 as one of the weakest divisions on paper. Outside of the defending division champion Colts, there’s not a whole lot of faith that the AFC representative in Super Bowl XLIX will come out of this quartet. Still, there’s plenty of potential loading the rosters of the three also-rans. As we’ve seen plenty of times before, the NFL is a league fueled by parity. So, it should come as no shock to the pundits if any of the Titans, Jaguars, or Texans emerge as playoff contenders behind their young, hungry rosters.

andrewluckThe one true constant for the better part of the last 15-years (with the exception of 2011) is that the Indianapolis Colts will sit near the top of the South standings come January. QB Andrew Luck (pictured) has certainly lived up to the hype that saw him become the #1 overall pick in 2012 out of Stanford. The former Cardinal gunslinger improved in nearly every facet of his game during his sophomore campaign with Indy, cutting his interceptions in half (from 18 to 9) and increasing his completion percentage considerably (from 54% to 60%).

Indianapolis made an effort to improve the weapons that Luck has to utilize this season, signing free agent WR Hakeem Nicks away from the Giants to join T.Y. Hilton and Coby Fleener as Luck’s go-to-guys. Nicks, injury plagued during his final few seasons in The Big Apple, showed up to camp in great shape and has really impressed during the preseason. His addition, along with a full season of RB Trent Richardson, should easily give Indy the best offense in the division.

Defensively, the Colts desperately wanted to improve their run defense. After resigning CB Vontae Davis, they achieved that goal by signing free agent LB D’Qwell Jackson away from Cleveland. Jackson was a captain and leader for nearly a decade by the coast of Lake Erie, and should give Indianapolis the muscle in the middle that they’ve lacked ever since Mike Peterson departed. Indianapolis may not have had a first round pick (Richardson deal). But, they certainly made the most of the offseason by landing impact talents at bargain basement prices. They should once again patrol the top of the mountain once the postseason begins in just over four months.

One team that has teetered between mediocrity and misery over the last five years is the Tennessee Titans. Under new coach Ken Whisenhunt (formerly of the Arizona Cardinals), Tennessee will look to build around their homegrown talent, with their sights set on 2015 as the year where they’ll truly contend for a division title. QB Jake Locker (pictured) was selected in the first round of the 2011 draft. Expectations have yet to be met, as Locker has spent more time on the infirmary report than he has under center. There’s no doubting his athleticism and talent. But, the former Washington Huskies’ last chance is upon him. If Locker can’t stay on the field in 2014, Whisenhunt will have no choice but to address the position next offseason.

jakelockerTwo of the longest tenured Titans, RB Chris Johnson and CB Alterraun Verner, packed their bags in the offseason. Johnson made his way to the Jets, while Verner signed a large free agent deal in Tampa. Tennessee is likely to feel the impact of Verner’s departure harder, as the team drafted rookie Bishop Sankey and signed former Chiefs’ speedster Dexter McCluster to cushion the impact of Johnson’s departure. Both of those players should combine to give Tennessee a talented duo behind Locker.

However, the loss of Verner could cause some problems in an uber-passing league like the NFL. Jason McCourty remains on one end. But, the team is going to be forced to rely on second year project Blidi Wreh-Wilson to start opposite him. The Malden, MA native was a 3rd round pick in 2013, so the team has faith in his talent. Still, cornerback is one position where youth is not ideal, and the Titans could have a big issue on their hands against the better aerial teams (see, Indianapolis).

While Tennessee does have a bright future ahead, there’s still too many questions to consider them anything more than the second best team in a weak division. If Locker can stay healthy, 8 or 9 wins is possible. Anything more than that is a pipe dream during Whisenhunt’s first season on the job.

For the Jacksonville Jaguars, success has been a long time coming. Now 15-years separated from the days of Mark Brunell and two AFC Championship appearances during the franchise’s first five years, Jacksonville continued their rebuilding process under coach Gus Bradley this spring. First round pick QB Blake Bortles (pictured) showed definite flashes of brilliance during the team’s preseason. But, the Jaguars aren’t expected to rush Bortles under center like they did with his predecessor Blaine Gabbert. Instead, Jacksonville is content with letting QB Chad Henne handle the lion’s share of the snaps in 2014. Bradley and Co. know that Bortles is much more raw than most first round signal-callers. Despite his unrivaled athletic prowess, Bortles still needs to learn how to be a quarterback in the NFL, so throwing him to the wolves with an offense devoid of firepower would likely do more to hurt the former UCF star than anything.

The most notable loss for the Jags this offseason was the departure of longtime workhorse Maurice Jones-Drew. Once blakebortlesconsidered a top-five back in football, injuries and age have brought Jones-Drew’s career to a standstill. He hitched his wagon and headed west for Oakland this spring. Replacing him will be former Minnesota backup Toby Gerhart, who mired behind Adrian Peterson for five years before finally getting his shot in The Sunshine State this fall. Gerhart is a bruising back, and should help take the load off of Henne early on while the young offensive line continues to gel. May draft picks Marqise Lee and Allen Robinson should provide depth at receiver, though exactly what type of impact the rookie WR’s have this season remains a mystery.

On defense, Jacksonville saw plenty of turnover. Their additions on the front-four of DE Chris Clemons and DT Ziggy Hood should provide depth for Bradley, who was considered one of the best defensive tutors in the game during his time in Seattle. MLB Paul Posluszny returns to anchor the heart of the D’. Second year safety Jonathan Cyprien continues to mature into one of the better young secondary players in the league. If Jacksonville’s defense continues to progress under Bradley’s leadership, it wouldn’t be a shock to see Jacksonville emerge as the second best team in this division.

Finally, we have the Houston Texans. My, how swiftly Gary Kubiak’s reign in The Lonestar State went up in smoke. Hired prior to the 2006 season as the second coach in franchise history, Kubiak led the Texans to their first two postseason berths in 2011 & 2012 (both division titles). Unfortunately, that success was short-lived, as the precipitous decline of QB Matt Schaub (who set a record for the most consecutive games with a pick-six in 2013) and the alarming lack of depth across the roster left an injury plagued Houston franchise at the depths of the NFL’s despair. Following back-to-back wins to begin their campaign, Houston lost 14 in-a-row to finish it off, leaving them with the worst record and first overall pick in May’s draft.

Despite clamoring to the contrary, Houston ignored their need under center and grabbed perceived generational talent Jadeveon Clowney with that #1 overall selection. The former South Carolina superstar has shown exactly why Houston made that decision. The defensive end’s ability to change the game with his talent was far too impressive to overlook, and new coach Bill O’Brien knew this when he grabbed him this spring. Speaking of O’Brien, the former New England Patriots offensive coordinator takes over for Kubiak after a two-year stint in Happy Valley as head coach at Penn State. Considering the rubble with which the program was left following the Jerry Sandusky scandal of 2011, the football world was gaga over O’Brien’s ability to turn that disaster into success with the wave of his figurative magic wand. He will be one of the bigger stories of the season, as he tries to turn the Houston sink hole into a success story overnight.

arianfosterOn offense, O’Brien brought in former Buffalo and Tennessee gunslinger Ryan Fitzpatrick to be his veteran leader in the short term. The Harvard graduate is one of the brightest players in the league. While he won’t wow anyone with his physical tools, Fitzpatrick has enough experience and talent to be a successful stopgap in the short-term while Houston finds their QB of the future. It’s possible that mid-round draft choice Tom Savage of Pitt is that guy. But, that remains to be seen. Surrounding these signal callers will be a still electrifying offense. Future Hall-of-Fame WR Andre Johnson returns to the only team he’s ever known despite rumbles to the contrary this offseason. He’s joined on offense by second year phenom DeAndre Hopkins and workhorse RB Arian Foster (pictured). The latter is expected to enjoy a rebound campaign after an injury riddled 2013 saw backup RB Ben Tate outgain the former. Tate is now in Cleveland, so Foster is the unquestioned #1 runner on a team likely to pound the rock more than anyone else in the division.

On defense, Houston was a mess a year ago. Their acquisition of Ed Reed backfired tremendously, as the future Hall-of-Fame safety was released before the end of November. Still, plenty of talent remains from the defense that ranked near the top of football in 2012. J.J. Watt returns as one of, if not the best 3-4 defensive end in the game. With Clowney and the return of Brian Cushing from injury, one could reasonably expect Houston to finish the season with a top-10 defensive unit. The secondary, which features Jonathan Joseph and Kareem Jackson at corner, is suspect, and easily should be considered the weak point of the unit.

All in all, Houston should be considered a dark horse contender in 2014. While they don’t have a championship caliber QB at this time, Fitzpatrick has never enjoyed the amount of talent that he’ll have around him on the Texans once the regular season commences in two weeks. Contending with Indianapolis at the top might be a reach. But, expecting anything less than 2nd place out of these Texans is underrating them, especially considering their peers.

Clearly, this is a division on the rise. The Colts are still young, and are already a Super Bowl contender behind Luck. Meanwhile, the other three franchises that continue to chase them are hungry and exploding with talent. Come 2016, it shouldn’t be a shock to see the AFC South returning to the glory it experienced when it was still the AFC Central and teams like Jacksonville and Tennessee ruled the landscape with an iron fist.

Known far and wide as one of the toughest divisions in football, the AFC North once again figures to be a three-horse race in 2014. For the better part of the last five-years, it’s been a battle between the Baltimore Ravens, the Pittsburgh Steelers, and the Cincinnati Bengals for division supremacy. While Johnny Manziel and the Cleveland Browns may one day evolve into contenders, that time hasn’t arrived yet.

daltonIn 2013, the Cincinnati Bengals captured their second consecutive division crown. Behind third year phenom QB Andy Dalton (pictured) and his cast of weapons, Cincinnati has trumped the odds, becoming contenders after nearly two decades of incompetence. Marvin Lewis is the second longest tenured coach in football (trailing only Bill Belichick) despite having never won a playoff game (0-5). Last season, the Bengals found themselves once again on the short end of the stick come January, losing to the 6th seeded San Diego Chargers, 27-10. In that game, Dalton was picked twice and fumbled once, as Cincinnati’s postseason misery continued. The Bengals haven’t won a playoff game since 1990.

Still, optimism is high in The Queen City. Dalton returns with a fresh, new $100 million contract stretching his wallet to George Costanza’esque proportions. He’s joined by a solid supporting cast, including AJ Green, Marvin Jones, Gio Bernard, and 2nd round pick RB Jeremy Hill. On defense, the 3rd ranked unit in the NFL a year ago should only improve after drafting CB Darqueze Dennard in the first round. The former Michigan State Spartan was considered by many to be the top corner in the draft before a poor combine performance lowered his draft stock. The Bengals should feel confident once again that they’ll be near the top of the North when January rolls around. Whether or not they’ll have enough to finally break their postseason winless drought is a tale for another day.

This time a year ago, the Baltimore Ravens were coming off their second Super Bowl title and Joe Flacco was a recently ngatarich man. Fast forward a season, and the Ravens are suddenly a forgotten bunch in the uber-competitive North division. Gone are the days when Ray Lewis and Ed Reed patrolled the Baltimore secondary. Their loss was certainly felt last year, when the Ravens tanked their final two regular season affairs to miss the postseason for the first time since 2007. The selection of LB CJ Mosley in round one should help aid the likes of Terrell Suggs and Haloti Ngata on defense.

But, what about the Ravens’ offense? Flacco suffered through the worst season of his career in 2013, throwing 22 interceptions (his previous career high was 12). The addition of WR Steve Smith should help. As should the health of TE Dennis Pitta and the return of Ray Rice following his early season suspension. Those weapons, coupled with role players like Bernard Pierce, Torrey Smith, and Jacoby Jones, should be enough to get Baltimore right back into the playoff hunt in 2014.

Gone are the days when Mike Tomlin and the Pittsburgh Steelers ruled this division with an iron fist. Since their overtime playoff loss to Tim Tebow and the Denver Broncos following the 2011 season, the Steelers have gone an unsatisfying 16-16. That may be enough to keep seats cool in Jacksonville. But, in Pittsburgh, where the trophy case is adorned with the most Lombardi Trophies in history, mediocrity is unacceptable.

lbellTo remedy this, Pittsburgh will have to rely on their youth movement to get them over the hump. The loss of Emmanuel Sanders (Denver) will allow young receiver Markus Wheaton to step into the starting lineup. The 2013 draft pick has wheels to burn, and should be an adequate replacement for Sanders. The recent arrests of Le’Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount notwithstanding, the Steelers’ offense should be improved enough to the point where their defense won’t have to carry the load in 2014.

Finally, you have the Cleveland Browns, who made a lot of noise this offseason by hiring former Buffalo defensive coordinator Mike Pettine as coach after their flirtation with San Francisco’s Jim Harbaugh fell short. Pettine would then break the odometer by drafting Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel 22nd overall in May’s draft. Manziel won’t begin the season as the Browns’ starter. But, Brian Hoyer’s inexperience will likely lead to a midseason promotion for the former Aggies gunslinger.

When Manziel isn’t flipping off opposing sidelines or doing imaginary lines of cocaine in public bathrooms, he has the potential to be a franchise quarterback in this league. Still, his raw mechanics and haywire off-the-field mentality is what likely cost him the starting job to begin the year; and could plague him during his tenure in Cleveland. Let’s not forget that “Johnny Football” was selected in the same draft slot as recent Cleveland busts Brandon Weeden and Brady Quinn. The pending suspension to WR Josh Gordon will have a huge impact on the Browns’ usatsi_7921970_221200_lowresoffensive success this season. Currently, Gordon is suspended for the entire season due to multiple failures of the league’s substance abuse policy. But, it’s likely that Gordon will succeed in his appeal to get that suspension lowered. More on that to come.

On defense, Cleveland is among the up-and-comers in the AFC. CB Joe Haden is joined by first round pick Justin Gilbert on the outside. Joining them in Ohio will be veteran Karlos Dansby, who joins the team from Arizona. Nose tackle Phil Taylor is among the best in football at his position, and he’s joined by Desmond Bryant and Atyba Rubin to complete a nasty (and thick) 3-4 defensive front.

Any of these four teams could finish .500 or above if things break right for them. In August, the Bengals have to be considered the favorite based on last year’s success alone. Cincinnati got better as the season went on, and their defensive improvements over the offseason should only make them more dangerous in 2014. Despite this, it’s impossible to count out Baltimore or Pittsburgh, who both have playoff proven performers under center and improvements at the skill positions, as well. Always known as “the black and blue division,” the AFC North promises to give us yet another electric season of blood, bruises, and battles.

One of the few constants in the NFL over the course of the last 15-years has been the success of the New England Patriots. In 2013, that imperialistic dominance over the AFC East continued; as the Patriots conquered their division for the 11th time in 13 years. Also-rans Miami, New York, and Buffalo will set their sights on a rebellion of sorts. Their rise from the depths of the division will be predicated on the maturity and growth of their young quarterbacks. Regardless, it might not matter come January.

Like it or not, the AFC East still belongs to New England. Under the tutelage of Bill Belichick and the leadership of Tom Brady, New England has established a hegemony over their division for the better part of this century. How long can this dominance last? No one knows the answer to that question. One thing is almost certain; the Patriots will once again conquer the East in 2014.

Bill-Belichick-Tom-BradyWhen New England walked off the turf at Sports Authority Field in Denver last January, their mission was clear; improve the defense at all costs. After the Patriots’ porous secondary allowed Payton Manning and the Broncos free reign over the thin Denver airspace, Belichick knew that the only way to wash away the bitter taste of defeat was with the acquisition of game changers in the secondary. Enter Darrelle Revis, who was released by Tampa following one forgettable season in the Sunshine State.

Revis might not be the player that he was 5-years ago. But, New England doesn’t need him to be. By reputation alone, the former Pitt Panther will stiffen a formerly limp pass defense. The addition of Brandon Browner from Seattle should also prove critical; as the former Seahawks’ starter will be picked quite a bit playing opposite of Revis. These pickups allowed former starters Kyle Arrington and Logan Ryan to assimilate to roles they’ll be more comfortable with as nickle and dime defensive backs.

The biggest question in New England this season may be the health of Rob Gronkowski, who has been seen more in dance clubs recently than on the field (as long as he’s not murdering someone afterwards like his former teammate, Aaron Hernandez, I think Belichick is okay with it). If “Gronk” can remain on the field for at least 13 games this season, there should be nothing standing between the Pats and a home playoff game or two at Gillette Stadium in January.

tnnehillMore people will remember the Miami Dolphins’ 2013 season for the Richie Incognito fiasco rather than their rather meteoric collapse down the stretch. With two weeks remaining in the regular season, the Dolphins were 8-6, needing just one win (or help from other teams) to clinch their first playoff berth since 2008. Instead, the team’s much maligned offensive line caved like Incognito at a buffet line. The Dolphins scored just one touchdown in their final two games against New York and Buffalo, being outscored 39-7 as their playoff hopes eroded.

In 2014, the Dolphins feature an improved secondary (with the signing of Cortland Finnegan and Louis Delmas) and a hopefully rebuilt offensive line. Their first round selection of JaWuan James coupled with the free agent signing of Branden Albert from Kansas City should serve them well after they allowed the most sacks in football a year ago. Still, the Dolphins’ biggest question might remain under center, where Ryan Tannehill has firmly established himself as the starter.

The 26-year old gunslinger improved in nearly every facet of the game in 2013, throwing 24 touchdowns to just 17 interceptions. However, his propensity to hang onto the ball too long has led to 93 sacks over his first two seasons, the highest amount in football over that time frame. He’ll need to learn to throw the ball away if the Dolphins are going to keep him under center for 16 more games this season.

For the New York Jets, winning has never been more important. In fact, there hasn’t been a more critical season for a Ryan since Rex’s father Buddy failed to win a playoff game in 1991 for the Philadelphia Eagles, leading to his unceremonious departure. After years of bloviating, the Jets’ coach may have finally learned to shut up and coach, as you’ll hear no guarantees about New York’s success in 2014.

If Ryan is going to keep his job, he’ll need to win at least 9 games. To do that, the Jets will need to see marked improvement from sophomore signal caller Geno Smith. The former WVU Mountaineer is certainly going to have to show that the turnover problems of 2013 were merely rookie growing pains, and not a sign of things to come. If Smith struggles early, expect the vociferous New York fan base to begin calling for Michael Vick, who was signed from Philadelphia over the spring. Take it from someone who’s watched him over the last four years, the last thing anyone should want is Michael Vick under center. Besides, it’s not as though he’ll finally be able to stay healthy for 16-games. Eagles fans were telling themselves that “this is the year,” during his entire tenure with the franchise. Smith/Vick is joined by Chris Johnson (formerly CJ2K, now just another washed up tailback) and Eric Decker; both of whom were signed away from fellow AFC rivals.

deemillThe Jets’ defense is as good as ever, with 2nd-year CB Dee Milliner expected to continue his growth into one of the better cover corners in the game. If the Jets’ offseason spending spree on offense pays off, they should find themselves once again in contention come December. If Smith struggles and/or Vick can’t stay healthy, expect the pink slips to be permeating throughout the Meadowlands come Christmas.

Finally, we have the ultimate cellar dweller, the once proud Buffalo Bills. It was a tough offseason for the Bills’ faithful. Not only did they lose their owner, as the death of Ralph Wilson put an ominous dark cloud over the future of the franchise in northern New York. But, they also saw their front office commit a large gamble to rookie WR Sammy Watkins, trading a 2015 first round pick for the draft pick to acquire him.

Now, Watkins could turn out to be the next Randy Moss. But, odds are that his rookie production levels will be more in line with the norm. That’s all well and good, especially if he eventually develops into a Julio Jones type talent. But, for a team with so Bills-Sammy-Watkins-Bill-Wippertmany question marks, was it really such a good idea to deal away a future first for the chance to select a receiver? Who knows? Perhaps the addition of Watkins will propel 2013 first rounder EJ Manuel to the Pro Bowl. He’d have to stay healthy first, as Manuel’s fast paced, scrambling style doesn’t exactly lay credence to that hope. Still, Buffalo’s offense under Doug Marrone is in the rebuilding phase. With CJ Spiller and Fred Jackson still in the backfield, they should be good enough to keep pace with anyone short of Denver in the AFC.

On defense, the Bills spent big to improve what was a calamitous unit in 2013. The loss of Kiko Alonso for the season due to injury will prove damaging. But, the additions of Brandon Spikes (New England), Corey Graham (Baltimore), and Keith Rivers (New York Giants) should provide the Bills with enough depth to get by. It should be noted that Spikes was rated the best inside linebacker against the run by Pro Football Focus in 2013, and that stopping the run was the Bills’ weak point last season.

All in all, the 2014 AFC East race looks to once again be a battle for second place. But, in a conference with so much competitiveness in the other three divisions, second place in the East might just be enough to take a wild card spot in the AFC.


ruben-amaro.p1Ruben Amaro Jr. has wasted his final trade deadline as General Manager of the Philadelphia Phillies. There’s no ifs, ands, or buts about it.

By now, the writing is more than on the wall. It’s splattered and strewn across the canvas like a Monet masterpiece. By failing to deal a single overpaid and under-performing asset at last month’s deadline, Amaro cemented his status as the most hated man in the City of Brotherly Love. He also likely set his fate in stone. By this time next year, the Phillies will have a new GM, and red pinstripe wearing fans everywhere will rejoice the demise of a once celebrated figure in this franchise’s often tumultuous history.

How did it come to this? Where did he go wrong? For all the vitriol targeted at Amaro, he has had his moments during his 6-year tenure as the team’s GM. Trading for Roy Halladay was one of them, as the move for Doc put the Phillies firmly in the center of Major League Baseball’s spotlight. Amaro’s re-signing of Cliff Lee was also considered, at the time, to be one of the most shrewd and unexpectedly brilliant transactions in team history. The contract he levied to Cole Hamels in 2012 is also considered a solid deal considering what hurlers like Max Scherzer and Jon Lester are expected to get this offseason.

Not all of Amaro’s moves were pitiful. But, it’s the failure of the Phillies’ executive to capitalize on opportunities that will ultimately lead to his demise. When the team originally traded Lee in December, 2009, their rationale was that they needed to replenish the team’s dwindling farm system following their acquisition of Halladay. In exchange for the Cy Young winner, Amaro landed the baseball equivalent of a pocket full of syphilis coated thumbtacks; Tyson Gillies (released), J.C. Ramirez (released), and Phillippe Aumont (most Phillies fans wish he would be released). A haul like that isn’t exactly replenishing anything; unless you’re referring to replenishing the unemployment line.

Two-and-a-half years later, Amaro’s ill-fated sale of Hunter Pence to San Francisco produced Tommy Joseph, Seth Rosin, and Nate Schierholtz; none of whom have produced anything at the major league level in Philadelphia. The move was made even worse by the fact that Amaro dealt future franchise cornerstones in Jonathan Singleton, Jarred Cosart, and Domingo Santana to land Pence just one year prior. Since he was shipped to the Golden Coast, Pence boasts a line of .275-49-193 in 334 games. Oh, and he’s got that 2012 World Series ring to serve as a reminder of what Amaro has yet to, and likely never will deliver, to Philadelphia.

It’s moves like these that scared Amaro away from making a deal last month; and it’s moves like these that will spell the end of his tenure as GM of the team. Did Amaro fail miserably as the team’s figurehead? No, he didn’t. But, only so many bad contracts can be charitably donated to player’s with bad knees or ruptured achilles before the fanbase’s patience is stretched beyond its limits. Like the knee ligaments of Chase Utley (another aging player awarded a massive contract), Amaro’s support has all but eroded and dissolved.

No one knows what direction team ownership will go in to find a replacement for Amaro. They’ve had a penchant for staying in-house with their executives over the years. Whether it be Amaro or Ed Wade, David Montgomery and co. haven’t been too keen on reaching beyond Citizens’ Bank Way to find decision makers. The one time they did scour the countryside for a GM was in 2005, when the team replaced Wade with Pat Gillick. Three years and many brilliant, under the radar moves later, the Phillies were world f’n champions.

Surely, they can do it again with the right puppeteer pulling the strings. Whether or not ownership is wise enough to realize this is a tale for another day.