AFC East: DeAngelo Williams
ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- The Buffalo Bills came less than a minute away last Sunday from earning what would have been just their second win over the New England Patriots in the past 10 seasons.
No matter the optimism that resulted from the close loss, a sense of urgency has begun to creep in at One Bills Drive. The Bills join only the Colts and Bears -- who both won their openers -- as teams that open the season with back-to-back home games. Dropping to 0-2 at home would mean the Bills must play catch-up on the road, beginning in Week 3 against the Jets.
Outside of the schedule implication for the Bills, Sunday's game offers an intriguing quarterback matchup between Bills rookie EJ Manuel and the Panthers' Cam Newton, who is looking to lead Carolina to their first win after being edged out by the Seahawks in the home opener.
Here's what to watch for:
1. Will Panthers use Patriots' blueprint with Spiller? Offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett wasn't kidding last month when he said running back C.J. Spiller would be the focal point of the Bills' offense. The Bills force-fed Spiller the ball both as a runner and receiver early in Sunday's game, with Spiller getting eight touches in the first 13 plays of the game. Yet the results were sub-par; the Patriots made stopping Spiller a priority and he averaged less than 3 yards per touch in the game. Undoubtedly the Panthers will look at how the Patriots were able to contain Spiller, and if he's not able to overcome the defense's attention, Buffalo will have to find another way to move the ball on offense.
3. Run defense: Anomaly or same old problem? The Bills had the NFL's second-worst run defense last season, and fixing that is the top priority for new defensive coordinator Mike Pettine. Yet the Bills gave up the third-most rushing yards of any team in Week 1, and when the statistics are narrowed to just the Patriots' top two rushers -- Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley -- the Bills allowed more than six yards per carry. Carolina poses an even greater challenge with their ground game, which torched the Seahawks' defense last week for more than five yards per carry. If Pettine's unit can't figure out a way to slow down DeAngelo Williams, the Bills will be in for another long day.
4. Pesky penalties: In what is beginning to sound like a broken record, the Bills must find a way to avoid critical penalties. The Bills were penalized 13 times in Week (10 were accepted), second to only the Buccaneers, who were flagged 15 times. It's worth noting that the Bills have a young team and preach aggressiveness to their defense, but regardless, their inability to correct one of their biggest problems of the preseason is not a great reflection on head coach Doug Marrone. Being flagged twice in one game for having 12 men on the field gives the impression to the rest of the league that the coaching staff, while new, isn't on their A-game.
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.
A look at the free-agent priorities for each AFC East team:
1. Add new blood: For the most part, most of the Bills’ free-agents-to-be would not be big losses. Buffalo should have plenty of money to spend once free agency does finally open. Obviously, this has been a losing franchise for some time now, and transforming the roster and changing the culture of the organization should be a very good thing. The Bills did take a fine step in the right direction in the 2011 draft, taking several prospects from big-college programs with winning histories.
2. Keep Paul Posluszny: Although inside linebackers generally are not difficult to find, Posluszny is the type of guy Buffalo needs to keep within the organization. He is productive, tough and able to lead the defense on every down. Last season wasn’t his best, but Posluszny was fantastic in 2009, and I fully expect him to get back to that form, especially playing behind what should be a vastly improved young interior defensive line.
3. Eliminate needs: I list the Bills’ three greatest needs as left tackle, outside linebacker and tight end. Rome wasn’t built in a day, but if Buffalo could knock out one or two of these needs in free agency, it would go a very long way in its rebuilding process. Jared Gaither or Doug Free could potentially fill Buffalo’s left tackle position for years to come, while Matt Light could hold down the fort and provide leadership until Chris Hairston or a future draft pick is ready. An outside linebacker such as Manny Lawson, Matt Roth or Mathias Kiwanuka could also be money very well spent to pose an edge presence opposite Arthur Moats, whom I featured in my Soon to be Stars series. Zach Miller is really the only free-agent tight end who would qualify.
Top free agents: Posluszny, Donte Whitner, Drayton Florence
1. Add running back help: Miami used the 62nd overall pick in 2011 to select Daniel Thomas, a big, bruising runner with a lot of ability. But of course, Thomas is going to be a rookie this season, and fully counting on him to carry the load and learn the pass protections would be foolish. Miami needs a backup plan. Bringing back Ronnie Brown, or more likely, Ricky Williams, wouldn’t be a terrible situation. But just adding Brown or Williams wouldn’t be enough. Snatching up Ahmad Bradshaw or DeAngelo Williams would obviously be a huge addition and would push Thomas to backup status. Even bringing in a reliable back like Joseph Addai or Jason Snelling might do the trick as Thomas develops. Another option is to add a specialty player like Darren Sproles.
2. Find competition for Chad Henne: Personally, I am not ready to write off Henne. I believe in the approach that Miami has taken this offseason. The Dolphins have surrounded him with pieces to make his life much easier. But still, adding a veteran signal-caller seems like a must at this point. Suitable options include Marc Bulger, Donovan McNabb or even Vince Young, who is soon to be released by Tennessee. If quarterback remains a problem after this year, then Miami needs to sell the farm to draft its next franchise quarterback. But in the meantime, this would be my approach.
3. Make a splash on D: To me, the Dolphins’ three biggest needs are quarterback, running back and then free safety. Even if Miami didn’t add a defender of any sort in free agency, I would rank its 2011 defense among the best in the NFL. I am that high on this group. But what if the Dolphins could land a real talent at free safety? Imagine the possibilities. This is a deep free-agent class of safeties. I would love to see the Dolphins sign someone like Michael Huff or especially Eric Weddle. Even adding a solid player with upside like Brodney Pool would be helpful here.
Top free agents: Ronnie Brown, Ricky Williams, Tony McDaniel, Richie Incognito, Tyler Thigpen
New England Patriots
1. Lock up Logan Mankins: Because the Patriots designated Mankins their franchise player, I didn’t include him among their top free agents. But New England does have to get him locked up. Mankins might just be the best guard in all of football. With Matt Light potentially leaving town, the Patriots cannot afford additional unrest along their offensive line. Mankins would be the ideal player to line up next to Nate Solder to help the rookie’s transition to the NFL.
2. Find a pass-rusher: I see outside linebacker as New England’s greatest need, followed distantly by wide receiver and defensive end. Although I expect Jermaine Cunningham to develop quickly into a solid starter, adding one more edge player who can be disruptive on throwing downs is something that still needs to be addressed after the team curiously ignored it in the draft. The name I like best for the Patriots here is Mathias Kiwanuka, if his health checks out. He is smart, versatile and has some experience at linebacker. Two other players who fit the bill are Matt Roth and Manny Lawson.
3. Acquire a deep threat: I am not as sold as most that New England must add a wide receiver who can stretch the field. But this is a tremendous organization, and the Pats just don’t have many needs, so picking up such a luxury player could be the difference between a Super Bowl championship or another early exit in the postseason. My favorite fit for the Patriots is Braylon Edwards. Edwards is immensely talented, and if submersed in this environment with Tom Brady throwing him the ball, he could quickly rank among the top wideouts in all of football.
Top free agents: Matt Light, Gerard Warren
New York Jets
1. Make critical decisions on their own players: The Jets have a lot of free agents, and they are one of the teams in the league with the least amount of money to spend as it stands today. New York has come very close to its goal the past couple of seasons, but this free-agency period is absolutely critical to staying among the best teams in the NFL.
2. Address wide receiver: Considering who is up for free agency, wide receiver has to be the biggest worry for the Jets right now. I greatly respect Braylon Edwards’ abilities, but Santonio Holmes is just the better player right now. In fact, I see Holmes as a top-10 wide receiver. He is incredible in the clutch. Mark Sanchez needs quality options to throw to at this point of his young career. If the Jets brought back Holmes, increased TE Dustin Keller's role and also found a bargain at wide receiver late in free agency (maybe Randy Moss or Chad Ochocinco), then I think they would be OK.
3. Don’t forget about the trenches: The Jets are a physical team that is strong on both lines of scrimmage. Two of their starting offensive line spots are uncertain at this point. And although they drafted Muhammad Wilkerson and Kendrick Ellis, rookie defensive linemen rarely make a major impact -- especially in a 3-4. Shaun Ellis is probably going to be playing elsewhere, and New York doesn’t have a high-end outside linebacker. So there are concerns up front. The Jets will have to sign some cheaper veteran options -- probably to one-year contracts -- to shore things up.
Top free agents: Santonio Holmes, Braylon Edwards, Shaun Ellis, Antonio Cromartie, Brodney Pool, Brad Smith
Scouts Inc. watches games, breaks down film and studies football from all angles for ESPN.com. Follow Matt Williamson on Twitter @WilliamsonNFL.
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.