AFC East: Darren McFadden
Who is one potential breakout player for each AFC East team in 2013?
Buffalo Bills: Last year Buffalo running back C.J. Spiller was one of the breakout players in the entire NFL. This season, Buffalo's breakout star most likely will be on the other side of the football. Bills starting cornerback Stephon Gilmore showed a lot of tools in his rookie season when he recorded 61 tackles, forced three fumbles and nabbed an interception. The Bills had the NFL's 10th-ranked pass defense and Gilmore took on the challenge as a rookie to guard the opponent’s best receiver each week. He is a fearless player who is already solid in a lot of areas. But Gilmore needs to work on making more big plays for the Bills this season and beyond in order to take the next step.
Miami Dolphins: The tailback who led the Dolphins in yards per carry last season was not Reggie Bush. It was actually second-year running back Lamar Miller, who averaged 4.9 yards per carry in 2012. Miller shined in limited opportunities during his rookie season. He displayed good vision and explosiveness, and appears to be a natural fit for Miami's West Coast offense under head coach Joe Philbin. Miller is the reason Miami had no issues letting Bush walk in free agency. Bush signed with the Detroit Lions after getting little interest from the Dolphins. Miller will get a lot more carries this season and pair with backup Daniel Thomas in Miami's backfield. Miller's weakness is pass protection, but he looked great last year carrying the football.
New England Patriots: The Patriots didn't necessarily need to draft a linebacker last year, but Dont'a Hightower was too good to pass up at the end of the first round. Hightower was considered an NFL-ready prospect and made an immediate impact with the Patriots. He recorded 60 tackles and four sacks with New England. Another year of experience should make Hightower even better in Year 2. Health permitting, Hightower should be a physical force in New England for years to come.
New York Jets: The Jets made several low-cost signings this offseason due to a tight salary cap. However, the free-agent signing that stands out for the Jets is running back Mike Goodson. He spent his career backing up quality tailbacks such as DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and Darren McFadden with the Carolina Panthers and Oakland Raiders, respectively. Goodson averages 4.5 yards per carry in his career and is a projected starter for the first time in New York. Goodson has the quickness to fit in well with the Jets' change to a West Coast offense under Marty Mornhinweg. He'll need to keep up the same production with the increased workload.
- New York Jets receiver Derrick Mason is at peace with his release this summer from the Baltimore Ravens.
- The Miami Dolphins added former Houston Texans running back Steve Slaton off waivers.
- Here is another great story on the Buffalo Bills' resurgence.
- Will the New England Patriots play with more toughness on defense?
That also sets up some big matchups in Week 3. The Buffalo Bills (2-0) will host the New England Patriots (2-0) in a battle of undefeated teams. The New York Jets (2-0) will travel to play the Oakland Raiders (1-1), and the Miami Dolphins (0-2) will face the Cleveland Browns (1-1).
Here are some underrated, X factors who could make a big impact in Week 3:
X factor: WR Chad Ochocinco
Analysis: Now is the perfect time for Ochocinco to get more involved in New England's offense. Tight end Aaron Hernandez will miss Sunday's game against Buffalo with a knee injury. New England ran a lot of dual tight ends with Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski, which limited Ochocinco's reps. This week New England probably will have more three-receiver sets to get Ochocinco involved. He has just three catches for 59 yards in two games.
X factor: MLB Nick Barnett
Analysis: If the Bills want to pull the upset, someone has to make a big play on defense against the Patriots. The most consistent defender through two weeks has been Barnett. He registered 18 tackles and a forced fumble in two games. Chances are, the Bills-Patriots game will be a shootout. But the winner could be determined by which defense and/or defensive player makes a huge play to stop momentum.
X factor: WRs Davone Bess
Analysis: Look for Browns No. 1 corner Joe Haden to be matched up with Dolphins No. 1 receiver Brandon Marshall this week. But Cleveland's defense has a major drop-off after Haden at corner. This could open things up for Bess. Dolphins quarterback Chad Henne targets Marshall a lot. But he may find more success attacking Cleveland's second (Sheldon Brown) and third corners (Dimitri Patterson). Bess is quick in the slot and knows what to do with the football. He leads the Dolphins with 19.1 yards per reception.
X factor: DE Muhammad Wilkerson
Analysis: Wilkerson has been a force for the Jets since his arrival. The rookie earned a starting job in Week 1 on New York’s stout defense, which is impressive. Wilkerson recorded two tackles and a sack that resulted in a safety against Jacksonville. He's held his ground against the run in New York's 3-4 defense. That's key against the Raiders, who have the NFL's second-leading rusher in tailback Darren McFadden.
Aaron in Los Angeles "can't begin to tell you how much of a moron" I am and that I "shouldn't be covering football" for ranking Lambeau Field ninth on my ballot. He can understand how I have Gillette Stadium, Heinz Field and Lucas Oil Stadium all higher than Lambeau, but certainly not Arrowhead Stadium, Qwest Field, Soldier Field or Lincoln Financial Field.
That just goes to show how subjective taste can be. The examples Aaron gave for what is acceptable or unacceptable illustrate how people can emphasize different criteria when formulating an opinion. Based on the response from readers and writers the past couple of days, the most questionable stadiums I rated highly were the ones Aaron finds OK. ESPNBoston.com writer Mike Reiss asked New England Patriots fans about Gillette Stadium, and 69 percent of them disagreed it's a tough place to play. AFC South blogger Paul Kuharsky didn't list Lucas Oil Stadium on his ballot at all.
Meanwhile, former players Mark Schlereth and Marcellus Wiley said there was no doubt Arrowhead Stadium is the toughest place to play. Jacksonville Jaguars linebacker Kirk Morrison agreed with Arrowhead and also listed Oakland Coliseum, Heinz Field, Soldier Field and Qwest Field ahead of Green Bay in a piece on the AFC South blog. Indianapolis Colts linebacker Gary Brackett, entering his ninth NFL season, didn't mention Lambeau anywhere in his top 10.
Jon in Watertown, Wisc., wrote (in all caps) that I couldn't rank Lambeau ninth "with a straight face" because he's a Packers season-ticket holder who has been on the field, and he couldn't hear himself think down there. Jon also points out "Lambeau Field in December is like none other."
I know it's quite loud at Lambeau Field, but it's loud in a lot of stadiums. I would expect a season-ticket holder who loves the Packers to defend Lambeau Field as the best place on Earth. But let's not pretend Lambeau Field is the only place where noise is a factor and the only miserable NFL venue to visit in the winter.
NFC East blogger Dan Graziano had this to say about why he voted Ralph Wilson Stadium his toughest place to play:
"I personally did not factor in the home team in my choices because I think it's a variable. Right now, the toughest place is Gillette Stadium because the Patriots have been so great. But if the Pats stink for the next five years, no way that place makes the 2016 list. But that frigid old dump in Buffalo will still be a miserably unpleasant venue that players will hate to visit."
To which I reply, isn't weather a variable? If a stadium needs nasty weather to be considered a difficult place to play, then should there be a separate list for when conditions are moderate? I then would have to consider Sun Life Stadium in October or November to be a tough place to visit, too.
Steve in Minnesota and Brian in Fallbrook, Calif., took exception to my quote that appeared in the main Power Rankings story. In the article, I explained why I had trouble rating Lambeau higher than I did:
"I distinctly remember a mediocre Miami Dolphins squad traveling a long way to beat the Packers at Lambeau last season. The Packers have gotten lit up at home a few times the past three years despite having very good talent. I guess I couldn't get past that."
Steve pointed out the Packers were banged up in that Week 6 defeat to the Dolphins and that "was an easy call for a loss." So I guess Lambeau Field wasn't a tough enough place for a 7-9 team to escape with a victory. It must be about the teams on the field.
Brian combed through the records the past three years and couldn't find any games where the Packers have been "blown out at home" by more than 12 points. That's true. I didn't say the Packers were blown out. I said they were lit up. In 2009, Cincinnati scored 31 and Minnesota scored 38. In 2008, Carolina scored 35 and Dallas and Atlanta (with a rookie quarterback) scored 27.
Upon seeing where I listed Lambeau Field, readers obviously went back through my previous Power Rankings ballots because I received an unusual number of notes about polls we did months ago. Sergio in San Francisco was curious about why I ranked DeMarcus Ware ninth among linebackers. Chris in Merced, Calif., wanted to know why I had Darren McFadden 10th among running backs.
As I explained when we did the linebacker Power Rankings, I was in total disagreement with the concept. It's unfair to compare inside linebackers to 3-4 outside linebackers because in a 4-3 scheme, outside linebackers wouldn't be linebackers at all. They'd be hand-on-the-ground defensive ends. With that in mind, I gave considerable weight to players who would be linebackers regardless of the defense. That favored inside linebackers significantly. Besides, ESPN.com had previously rated the best pass-rushers. I rated Ware the best.
As for McFadden, I don't think 10th is out of line when you consider the players who were rated ahead of him. There are a lot of talented running backs. Four of our eight panelists didn't rate McFadden at all. I'm sure if he can put together another season like last year, then he'll be considered elite.
Readers demanded to know my criteria. My explanation seemed to chafe a few. I stated that my ballot simply reflected my personal taste about how they performed last season.
Stats are a part of equation. They must be to an extent. But if I wanted to go purely on stats, then I would post a link to ESPN.com's fantasy leaders.
I steer clear of metrics. You can pick and choose a specific mathematical equation and make it support any case -- even though you might be comparing a slot receiver catching passes from an elite quarterback to a No. 1 receiver who's constantly double covered on a run-oriented offense. Can't do it.
In the end, it comes down to subjective judgment. Feel free to disagree. An exchange of ideas is the whole point. I don't need to agree with you, and you don't need to accept my list as gospel. Agents won't use the AFC East blog in contract negotiations. The Pro Football Hall of Fame won't use my power rankings to determine induction.
In response to a question about underrated Buffalo Bills running back Cookie Gilchrist for the documentary "Full Color Football: The History of the American Football League," legendary runner Jim Brown summed up my sentiments.
"Who gets compared to me and all of that, I couldn't care less about," Brown said. "I don't compare a rose to a petunia. They both have their own kind of beauty. It all depends on what you prefer."
And for those who require statistical reasoning, I share with you a quote another Cleveland Browns Hall of Famer told me a couple months ago for a story about Andre Reed's induction hopes.
"Our game is beginning to resemble baseball in which everyone is looking at numbers," said Paul Warfield, a member of the undefeated 1972 Miami Dolphins team. "Numbers tell the story to a degree, but I like to look at one's full body of work. You're supposed to be able to do a lot of things.
"As a receiver, catching the ball is primary and important. But I don't think it takes very much skill or maneuverability to step a couple yards off the line of scrimmage and someone pops you with a pass several times."
So, as you peruse my ballots the next several Tuesdays, that's where I'm coming from.
This week's power rankings position is running back.
- Adrian Peterson, Minnesota Vikings
- Chris Johnson, Tennessee Titans
- Jamaal Charles, Kansas City Chiefs
- Arian Foster, Houston Texans
- Maurice Jones-Drew, Jacksonville Jaguars
- Ray Rice, Baltimore Ravens
- Michael Turner, Atlanta Falcons
- Rashard Mendenhall, Pittsburgh Steelers
- Peyton Hillis, Cleveland Browns
- Darren McFadden, Oakland Raiders
The most obvious omission was St. Louis Rams running back Steven Jackson. I thought long and hard about including him, but I couldn't talk myself into it. Jackson scored only six touchdowns and had little impact in the passing game. Of the 17 backs who rushed for 1,000 yards, his 3.8 yards per carry were better than only Cedric Benson's average.
Some might point out that defenses girded up to remove Jackson from the game, but there are other runners on that list who had worse quarterback situations than the Rams did. I think people still see Jackson as the all-around superstar from 2006.
Hillis was another tough call because of his fumbles. But he was Cleveland's entire offense. Opponents still couldn't stop him. He also added 61 receptions for another 477 yards and a couple touchdowns, numbers that get overlooked.
I'll come back later Tuesday with a ranking of AFC East backs.
I'll continue to present a short list of candidates for you to choose from.
Up until last week, I had given preference to players on winning teams who aren't regular stars. In other words, I was more likely to choose a BenJarvus Green-Ellis than a Tom Brady. In fact, I've refrained from choosing any quarterbacks so far.
As the season has unfolded, however, it has become increasingly difficult to find an overachiever or a slump buster. Bodies of work have emerged.
With that in mind and because I'm letting readers decide, I'm going to list the top candidates regardless of individual context. Your candidates for Week 12:
- Brady completed 21 of 27 attempts for 341 yards and four touchdowns with no interceptions in a 45-24 victory over the Detroit Lions. He became the first quarterback this year to have a perfect passer rating on more than five attempts.
- Miami Dolphins quarterback Chad Henne returned from a season-jeopardizing left knee injury and completed 17 of 30 throws for 307 yards and two touchdowns with one interception to guide the Dolphins to a 33-17 must-win over the Oakland Raiders in the Black Hole.
- I'm going a little outside the box on this one, nominating the Dolphins' run defense. The Raiders went into the game ranked second in rushing yards per game and fourth in average per carry. The Dolphins held the Raiders to 12 attempts for 16 yards. Darren McFadden had eight carries for 2 yards.
- New York Jets receiver and kick returner Brad Smith gained 200 all-purpose yards and scored two touchdowns in a 26-10 Thanksgiving victory over the Cincinnati Bengals. Smith scored on a 53-yard run and an 89-yard kickoff return on which he lost a cleat before making his best move of the scamper.
In its 10,000 computer simulations of the matchup, AccuScore considered Tyler Thigpen the Dolphins' starting quarterback. On average, Thigpen completed just 50 percent of his passes and had a 55 passer rating.
AccuScore also plugged in Chad Henne at quarterback to see how much difference he would make. Henne completed 55 percent of his throws and had a 68 passer rating. Not prolific by any means.
Still, the margin remained close. So narrow, in fact, that the Raiders won 50.3 percent of the simulations, but the Dolphins scored an average of 19.0 points compared to the Raiders' 18.8 points.
The key would appear to be Raiders running back Darren McFadden. If he can rush for at least 50 yards and average at least 4.5 yards a carry, then the Raiders become 68 percent favorites and win by a average of seven points.
|AP Photo/Winslow Townson|
|Ronnie Brown ran for four TDs and passed for another against the Patriots on Sunday.|
Bill Belichick's library is believed to contain the world's third-largest collection of football books behind only the Library of Congress and the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
His collection of more than 500 titles is housed at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., where Belichick's father coached 33 years.
While his New England Patriots use their bye week to regroup from Sunday's incredible 38-13 loss to the Miami Dolphins, this might be the perfect occasion for Belichick to get away and center himself.
On a shelf somewhere in Ricketts Hall he likely will find "Winning Single Wing Football: A Simplified Guide for the Football Coach," written by Dr. Ken Keuffel, who played for Princeton in the 1940s.
At the top of the book's cover is a testimonial:
The principles of single-wing football are enduring, and they're all covered by Ken Keuffel. Every coach in football can profit by reading this book. -- Bill Belichick
Had he reacquainted himself with Keuffel's book while preparing for the Dolphins, Belichick might've gleaned a tip or two on how to neutralize an unusual offense that gave the Patriots fits.
At least by NFL standards, there was nothing by-the-book about Miami's fascinating victory Sunday in Gillette Stadium.
Miami Dolphins quarterbacks coach David Lee is getting much of the credit for installing the gimmick offense they ran Sunday to flummox the New England Patriots.
Running back Ronnie Brown scored four rushing touchdowns in a 38-13 rout. Brown also threw a touchdown pass.
The Wildcat offense, as the Dolphins call it, put Brown in a shotgun formation, spread quarterback Chad Pennington wide and lined up Ricky Williams as a wingback who would counter. The Patriots were fooled out of their socks.
But Dolphins offensive coordinator Dan Henning ran a similar system before in the NFL -- and to a much higher degree.
- The Panthers had lost four straight games (the Dolphins had lost 20 of their past 21 games).
- The Panthers were coming off an embarrassing 37-3 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers (the Dolphins were coming off an embarrassing 31-10 loss to the Arizona Cardinals).
- Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme was injured, and backup Chris Weinke was too hurt to practice during the week and hadn't won in 17 career starts (Dolphins quarterback Chad Pennington had been ineffective through two games).
- The Panthers had two capable rushers in DeShaun Foster and DeAngelo Williams (the Dolphins have two capable backs in Brown and Ricky Williams).
Henning's solution was to snap directly to DeAngelo Williams and hand off to Foster.
Unlike the Dolphins, who picked their spots with the Wildcat, Henning went full-scale with his gimmick.
The Panthers ran 52 times that day and held the ball for nearly 42 minutes in a 10-7 victory. The Panthers tried seven passes, one of them going for the game's only touchdown.
The Bills have been comprehensively good. The Raiders will show up at Ralph Wilson Stadium at their sketchy best.
They were blown out by the Denver Broncos in Week 1, prompting heavy speculation head coach Lane Kiffin was as good as fired. The inevitable apparently was delayed by a Week 2 victory over the wretched Kansas City Chiefs.
Kiffin presumably will be on the sideline Sunday. Then again, on the charter flight the Raiders could hand him a parachute and order him to get out somewhere over Paducah, Ky.
|Getty Images, AP Photo|
|Donte Whitner has been impressed with Raiders QB JaMarcus Russell, left, and RB Darren McFadden.|
Despite Oakland's turmoil, Buffalo safety Donte Whitner is preparing for a live opponent.
"We have to guard against those thoughts because Oakland is a better football team than a lot of people think," Whitner told me Friday in the Bills' locker room. "They're 1-1, and they're better than they were last year."
Whitner is looking like a Raider himself these days. Five staples -- yes, staples -- are closing a gash in his left eyebrow after a helmet-less tackle in Sunday's victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars.
"If you look at the film, Oakland has a lot, a lot of speed in all phases of the game," Whitner said. "At any given time, one of those guys can blow past you, and you give up a touchdown. JaMarcus has a great, strong arm. He can get the ball out there.
"We want to keep building on what we have here. We have an opportunity to go 3-0 this weekend, and you better believe we're going to be out there, trying as hard as we can to get the win."
True that. Instead of losing by 25 points, the Dolphins will lose by half as many.
The Dolphins have shown virtually no running game or passing game, and they're about to go up against an elite front seven that includes the NFL's best defensive line. The Dolphins' pass defense has been immolated, and they're going to face Randy Moss and Wes Welker.
Other than that and special teams, the Dolphins have the edge.
The Bills haven't won their first three games since 1992, but that should happen Sunday. The atmosphere should be electric in Ralph Wilson Stadium, where legendary defensive end Bruce Smith will be inducted on the team's Wall of Fame at halftime.
The Raiders are reeling. Head coach Lane Kiffin might be asked to turn in his office key at the end of the game and fly home commercial. Running back Justin Fargas isn't expected to play.
This game might be closer than Bills fans would like. The Bills have had trouble against good running teams in the past, and Oakland still has blue-chip rookie Darren McFadden.
The Bills, however, have demonstrated an extraordinary three-phase attack in victories over the Seattle Seahawks and Jacksonville Jaguars. If the Bills don't win this one, it will be viewed as a colossal disappointment and expunge much of the enthusiasm that has engulfed Western New York.
There will be no shortage of talking points for this one.
The Chargers have had their fill of losing and would like nothing more than to unleash their frustrations on the Jets, who still are trying to find their offensive identity based on the criticism directed at head coach Eric Mangini and coordinator Brian Schottenheimer for their conservative play calls.
If the coaching staff has rabbit ears, then maybe Favre will have one of his classic Monday night performances and throw the ball all over the field -- even to tight end Dustn Keller and Laveranues Coles. Imagine that.
LaMont Jordan Sunday morning gave training camp observers their first demonstration at his first full-scale New England Patriots practice.
Boston Globe reporter Mike Reiss noted the 5-foot-10, 230-pound power runner already looked like a fit during red-zone drills.
Jordan, cut because the Oakland Raiders have Darren McFadden and Justin Fargas, provides a comfortable insurance policy behind starter Laurence Maroney. The Patriots also have Sammy Morris and third-down back Kevin Faulk.
"He's a big kid," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said after watching Jordan at Sunday morning's practice. "He can run inside, run outside and he can catch the ball. He is a good pass receiver in terms of route running. He's instinctive, and he's returned kicks.
"We will see how all that manifests itself here going forward."