As a Jets fan, I often found myself pondering reasons for optimism for the NY Jets this year and what they would need to win their division. Earlier this week I wrote part 1 which talks about the Jets additions that will immediately help reach that goal. Then I wrote part 2 which was more about the team’s remaining holes and weaknesses. It is time for the last and perhaps most important reason why the Jets have a shot at the division next year: an analysis on the competition.
Reason #5: The AFC East is a weak and winnable division this year
Let’s take this opportunity to look at all the teams in the AFC East as they stand now:
New York Jets
Strengths: Defensive Line, Cornerbacks, Offensive Line, Defensive Coaching, QB Coaching
Biggest Holes: Quarterback
Also Needs To Step Up: Safeties, Wide Receivers, Pass Rush
Let’s assume all before mentioned reasons in Part 1 and Part 2 of these articles happen as I predict they could. We’re looking at a Jets team with a reupholstered offensive line with the depth to finally be able to stay fresh throughout the season. We also have a new QB in Geno Smith, who on paper, looks like he should have somewhere between a Ryan Tannehill and Matt Ryan rookie season depending on the mentality he comes into camp with. We know one thing; he’ll have good offensive line support. That is probably the most quintincential thing a rookie QB needs for his first impression in the NFL. It will strongly benefit his mental growth and composure. Rex Ryan got it right this season and hired Marty Mornhingweg a coach who has been a head coach before and can take on 90% of the teams offensive coaching responsibilities while Rex focuses on his specialty, the defense. Now the Jets lost Revis, but gained Sheldon Richardson and Dee Milliner. While most don’t see Sheldon’s pick being relevant to the Jets needs, you have to remember Rex’s value as a defensive coach. If a player is a top 4 overall player on his board, that’s something worth trusting. Coples was drafted in 2012 for his athleticism and versatility so this season is where he has to show it, as Rex moves him into the 3-4 outside linebacker role. Coples will be supported by Calvin Pace and a new free agency addition, Antwan Barnes, one of San Diego’s top pass rushers in 2011. The linebackers aren’t the strongest point, but they also aren’t a problem area in the defense. The Jets will surround them with an outstanding defensive line and cornerback group. If Rex can just coach the safeties up, this is one of the best defenses in the conference. The biggest piece IF in this Jets fan pipe dream is can Geno start by week 1 and can he approach the game and play like a 1st round pick, the more he can do that, the less pressure off the other areas of need for the team. This season basically rides on Geno Smith this year for the Jets.
Strengths: Wide Receivers, Defensive Line, Linebackers
Biggest Holes: Cornerback, Offensive Line
Also Needs to Step Up: Quarterback
Miami is my favorite to win the AFC East as it stands now, not the Patriots. They gained Mike Wallace who has carried the Steeler offense on his back the last few years. It helps that he really seems to be clicking with sophomore QB, Ryan Tannehill in camp. Miami’s big hole is their CB situation. They traded away Vontae Davis last year and let Sean Smith go to the Chiefs this offseason. They drafted Boise State’s Jamar Taylor in the 2nd round who seems like a good prospect, but they’re going to need either him or 3rd round pick, Will Davis to be good enough to start to begin to close up the cornerback hole in their defense. They look to have a very strong defensive line with the addition of Dion Jordan and a good linebacking corps with the addition of Phil Wheeler and Dannell Ellerbe. Miami’s defense as of right now is about where the Jets defense is personnel wise (maybe a bit below with a big question mark at CB), but the Jets have one big thing the Dolphins don’t, and that’s an off season of Rex Ryan’s defensive development. The Dolphins season rides on the play of the CBs, Offensive line and Ryan Tannehill.
New England Patriots:
Strengths: Quarterback, Runningbacks, Head Coach
Biggest Holes: Wide Receivers, Safety
Also Needs To Step Up: Health of Tight Ends, Defense as a Unit
The Pats are always a solid team with Tom Brady at QB. It’s the hardest position to find a standout to play and they have a future hall of famer. The only problem? Just about every position other QB and RB on the Pats will be weak this year. They had maybe one of the worst off seasons I’ve seen since following football, losing both Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd. To accommodate for these losses the Patriots picked up injury prone Danny Amendola who wasn’t resigned to the Rams and drafted some off the radar wide receiver prospects in Aaron Dobson (Marshall, round 2) and Josh Boyce (TCU, round 4). These seem to be decent prospects but I have a hard time seeing either of them replacing Brandon Lloyd. The Pats, however have 2 tremendous tight end weapons in Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski for Tom Brady to throw to, but both had injury problems this past season. Each of Tom Brady’s proven targets this year were injured for 5 or more games last season. That’s only issue #1. The Patriots defense has been a struggling unit for years. They started fixing it by adding Chandler Jones and Donta Hightower but it seems like the Patriots sidestepped on that defensive rebuilding project this off season, letting safety Patrick Chung go to Philadelphia without finding an adequate replacement. Most of their draft picks are unfamiliar names to most and don’t seem to be likely immediate contributors to the Patriot defense which makes the unit as a whole look like its taken a step back from last season’s mediocrity. If the defense can’t step up, it can mean critical games losses against the Jets and Dolphins, especially if Ryan Tannehill and Geno Smith are having good days. Yes, I know you can never count out Tom Brady; but let’s just keep in mind that a far less talented Jets team took a far more talented Patriots team into overtime in Foxboro last year.
Strengths: Runningbacks, Defensive Backfield
Biggest Holes: Quarterback, Defensive Line, Offensive Line
Also Needs To Step Up: Linebackers
There’s not much to say here. The Bills seemed to be a good team on paper last year but did worse than the Jets. They lost their #2 and #3 receivers in free agency as well as a pair of guards. Their most note worthy pickup in free agency was Kevin Kolb. They did have a decent draft offensively getting Robert Woods, a very talented WR out of USC in the 2nd round. They should have a decent pair of outside receivers once they pair him with Stevie Johnson. They also drafted Marquise Goodwin in round 3, the quickest receiver in the draft. His big question is his lack of production and ability to beat defensive players in college. He’s a big question mark but can be a threat as a possible slot receiver or kick returner for the Bills. I’m not too high on EJ Manuel, he’s a much riskier prospect with an equal or lower ceiling than Geno Smith given his inferior production against weaker college competition. The Bills need for him to step up in an even bigger way than the Jets need Geno to just to be competitive at all this year. The Bills added a few linebackers both in free agency and in the draft, but it doesn’t look to be enough for them, unless their veterans can lead by stepping up this season.
One last BONUS reason: Good Timing with a strong NFC, weak AFC
Given all of the above info, the Jets can be in it, given the weakness of the AFC East this year. In fact, the whole AFC conference is pretty weak outside of the Broncos, Bengals and Texans. The NFC has a lot more teams that look good this season. Look at teams like the 49ers, Packers, Seahawks, Falcons, Saints, Giants, Bucs and Vikings. Even the lower tier NFC teams like the Rams, Lions and Panthers look like they’d be favorites against all but maybe 3 or 4 teams in the AFC. Having middle and upper level AFC teams like the Pats and Dolphins losing their NFC games will help level out the playing field and put more importance on the games where the Jets play them. The Jets can pull out this division if they can win against the Pats and Dolphins which could be doable in 2013 with work and focus.