- James Walker, ESPN Staff Writer
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Other than the quarterback, which player could each AFC East team least afford to lose to injury? Here's a look:
Buffalo Bills: S Jairus Byrd. The Bills have talent in several areas. But the most important player is in their last line of defense: Pro Bowl safety Byrd. Buffalo proved this point by designating him its franchise player. As a result, he is currently in a contract dispute with the Bills and wants long-term security. This is a situation that could spill over into training camp. Despite big names like defensive end Mario Williams, tailback C.J. Spiller and receiver Steve Johnson, Byrd is probably the most difficult player on the roster to replace.
Miami Dolphins: DE Cameron Wake. The play of quarterback Ryan Tannehill kept Miami competitive. But their best player last year was Wake, a Pro Bowl defensive end.. Miami’s best pass-rusher led the Dolphins with a career-high 15 sacks. What’s more impressive is Wake was the Dolphins' only real threat to get to the quarterback and faced plenty of double teams. This offseason, Miami has done a lot to help Wake. The Dolphins drafted rookie defensive end Dion Jordan No. 3 overall. Miami also got faster at linebacker with Dannell Ellerbe and Philip Wheeler. But Wake’s ability to get to the quarterback is a large part of Miami’s foundation on defense.
New England Patriots: TE Rob Gronkowski. The Patriots have already lost tight end Aaron Hernandez. Pro Bowl receiver Wes Welker signed with the Denver Broncos in free agency, and New England released starting receiver Brandon Lloyd for financial reasons. The only productive pass-catcher returning from New England’s top-rated offense in 2012 is Gronkowski, who is now more important than ever. The past few years, New England was able to absorb Gronkowski’s absence because Hernandez was there to pick up the slack. But that cushion is now gone with Hernandez’s release, after he was charged with murder this week. Gronkowski is coming off multiple arm and back surgeries and must stay healthy this year for New England to thrive.
New York Jets: C Nick Mangold. This was a tough choice. The Jets lack the overall talent to be a playoff team this season. However, they do have a handful of key players. Cornerback Antonio Cromartie is a Pro Bowler. But the Jets have talented young backups like Kyle Wilson and Dee Milliner, who are both former first-round draft picks. Defensive lineman Muhammad Wilkerson and linebacker David Harris are talented. But Jets head coach Rex Ryan has always had a good scheme to get production out of his defense. So former Pro Bowl center Mangold is the choice. The Jets' offense desperately needs Mangold's leadership and consistency in the middle. Mangold is one of the toughest players in the NFL and has played through injuries in the past. He has been their one reliable player on offense the past couple years.