AFC East: Four little questions

May, 7, 2012
5/07/12
5:00
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Last week ESPN.com's blog team examined big questions around the NFL. I had four in the AFC East that need to be answered that you can check out here.

This week we want to look at four smaller questions about the AFC East. Credit goes to NFC East blogger Dan Graziano for the idea.

Will the Jets improve safety play?

Opponents found the weakness in the New York Jets' defense in the second half of last season. The Jets were exploited time after time over the middle of the field, particularly by opposing tight ends. It was part of the reason the Jets lost their final three games.

Will New York improved its safety play in 2012? The Jets are banking on LaRon Landry to be an upgrade over Jim Leonhard. Landry is a bigger hitter but his coverage skills are questionable. Landry also has injury concerns. Eric Smith struggled last season but will get another year in the starting lineup. Neither safety is known for coverage.

The corners -- Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie -- will do their job. But the Jets could have the same issues over the middle if Smith and Landry don't step up.

Will Shawne Merriman contribute?

Where does Merriman fit with the 2012 Buffalo Bills? It depends mostly on Merriman's health. The outside linebacker is trying to return from back-to-back season-ending Achilles injuries.

Buffalo could use a rejuvenated "Lights Out" coming off the edge this year. The Bills have made it a point to improve their pass rush by investing most of their free-agent dollars on starting defensive ends Mario Williams and Mark Anderson. Merriman has lacked the burst he had earlier in his career. But if he can add several sacks to the pile for the Bills, that would be a huge bonus.

Can the Miami Dolphins find a second pass-rusher?

Speaking of pass-rushers, the Dolphins have one in Cameron Wake, who just received a $49 million extension. But who will take the pressure and double-teams off Wake, which was a major issue last season?

Miami's defense is strong in many areas. The team is expected to use more 4-3 looks under first-year defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle. Wake will be a threat on one edge, but someone needs to step up on the opposite side.

Miami's second-leading player in sacks last year was Jason Taylor, who is retired. Maybe defensive lineman Jared Odrick has the potential to fill the void. The Dolphins also drafted Olivier Vernon in the third round to bolster the pass rush.

Will Patriots' running game produce?

The reigning AFC champion New England Patriots improved their defense. They upgraded their wide receivers and signed several offensive linemen.

But what about New England's running game? The Patriots did little at tailback. They lost leading rusher BenJarvus Green-Ellis and signed Joseph Addai, which is a downgrade. Addai averaged just 3.7 yards per carry last season.

The key will be the development of second-year running backs Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen. New England hopes one or both players make a big jump in Year 2. The Patriots will be a pass-heavy team. There's no denying that. But the running backs have to make the most of their opportunities when quarterback Tom Brady isn't throwing the ball.

James Walker | email

ESPN Miami Dolphins reporter

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