AFC East: 2012 AFC One big question

Patriots: One big question

May, 4, 2012
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How much has New England's defense improved?

It can't get much worse. The New England Patriots were 31st in total defense and 31st against the pass in 2011.

New England selected all defensive players until the seventh round of last week's NFL draft. It was a wise move to draft for defense, particularly in the first round, where the Patriots selected pass-rusher Chandler Jones and physical linebacker Dont'a Hightower.

Not everyone agrees with all of New England's selections. Second-round defensive back Tavon Wilson was a controversial pick. Wilson was not invited to the combine and certainly wasn't projected as a second-round pick. But you can't disagree with the Patriots adding six new defensive players to the roster.

The Patriots appear to be focused on their pass rush. Jones, Hightower and third-round defensive end Jake Bequette displayed the ability and athleticism to pressure the quarterback in college. Improvement in that area this season would be huge for the Patriots.

New England's offense already is elite. Quarterback Tom Brady and the offense carried a struggling defense all season during their Super Bowl run. The defense doesn't need to be top 10 in 2012. But if it can make immediate strides and get into the top 15 or top 20, that could be enough to make New England a strong title contender once again.

Bills: One big question

May, 4, 2012
5/04/12
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Did the Buffalo Bills fix holes on offense?

The Buffalo Bills, who finished 6-10 and last in the AFC East, get a solid "A" for their offseason acquisitions in free agency and their selections in the draft. General manager Buddy Nix made very aggressive moves to get the team in position to make a run in 2012.

But did the Bills, my sleeper pick for 2012, do enough to plug their holes on offense? Buffalo invested a majority of its free-agent dollars on defensive ends Mario Williams and Mark Anderson. The team also used its first-round pick on cornerback Stephon Gilmore. But the Bills didn't start to address the offense until the second round.

Buffalo's biggest offseason holes on offense were at left tackle and wide receiver. The Bills used their second-round pick on offensive tackle Cordy Glenn and their third-round pick on receiver T.J. Graham. Buffalo hopes both rookies can fill these important positions in Week 1.

Glenn is a solid prospect, but there are questions whether he can handle playing left tackle in the NFL. He split time at guard and tackle at Georgia. That helps in terms of versatility, but the Bills hope Glenn can fill the open left tackle spot full time.

Graham has a chance to compete for the No. 2 receiver position opposite Steve Johnson. Graham does not have prototypical NFL size (5-foot-11), but he does have very good speed to blow the top off the defense. A deep threat is something Buffalo's offense lacks. Graham will have a chance to compete with David Nelson and Donald Jones to be the No. 2 receiver. Nelson is more suited to the slot, and Jones has durability questions. Can Graham, a third-round pick, beat out a pair of veterans?

Jets: One big question

May, 4, 2012
5/04/12
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Will starting quarterback Mark Sanchez rise to the occasion?

It's now or never for fourth-year quarterback Mark Sanchez. For the first time in his career, the New York Jets' former first-round pick is in danger of being benched if he doesn't perform up to expectations. This is a pressure-packed situation Sanchez must handle.

As much as the Jets try to dodge and deny the situation, the reality is Tim Tebow is the huge cloud hanging over Sanchez's head. Tebow is not Mark Brunell, who was Sanchez's harmless former backup the past two years. Tebow is capable of taking Sanchez's job and leading the Jets' offense if needed. Tebow helped lead the Denver Broncos to the divisional round of the playoffs and even holds a head-to-head victory over Sanchez and the Jets last season.

"We're just excited to be able to add another good football player to our team; that's what this is all about," Jets offensive coordinator Tony Sparano said of Tebow in a conference call this week. "At the end of this whole thing, it's about trying to find good football players. Mark Sanchez is one [good] player. I am so excited about the opportunity to coach with him, and Tim Tebow is a good football player, too."

The Jets have done a lot of good things for Sanchez this offseason. For starters, Sanchez received a three-year contract extension that showed confidence from the organization that he can be the long-term solution. Many were surprised by the move. Also, the Jets drafted a legitimate big-play receiver in Stephen Hill to complement weapons Santonio Holmes and tight end Dustin Keller. Even Tebow in the No. 2 role can help Sanchez if New York's Wildcat package is a success and can keep the chains moving.

There are no more excuses for Sanchez. Franchise quarterbacks rise to the occasion when pushed to be their best. The 2012 season is Sanchez's time to live up to "The Sanchise" nickname the Jets handed him prematurely.

Dolphins: One big question

May, 4, 2012
5/04/12
12:00
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Who will step up at wide receiver?

The Miami Dolphins have put themselves in a tough spot. They want to run an up-tempo West Coast offense this year, but wide receiver is probably the Dolphins' weakest position.

Dolphins rookie head coach Joe Philbin said several times that he doesn't believe in having a dominant No. 1 receiver. That was one of the primary reasons the Dolphins traded Pro Bowl receiver Brandon Marshall. But that doesn't mean Philbin can get by without quality players at the position.

Philbin had talented receivers during his five years as offensive coordinator with the Green Bay Packers. Greg Jennings doesn't get as much press as others at his position, but he's very good. Jordy Nelson and Donald Driver are solid, productive veterans, and Jermichael Finley is one of the league's top receiving tight ends.

There is nothing to resemble that level of talent in Miami. Dolphins top receiver Brian Hartline is no Jennings. Davone Bess and Legedu Naanee do not fit Philbin's West Coast scheme like Nelson and Driver. Miami tight end Anthony Fasano cannot stretch the field like Finley.

Miami surprisingly ignored the receiver position until the sixth and seventh rounds of the draft last weekend. That's probably not going to fix this problem for QBs Matt Moore, David Garrard and rookie Ryan Tannehill.

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