AFC East: Donovan McNabb

The Miami Dolphins are 0-4 and their starting quarterback -- Chad Henne -- is done for the year with a shoulder injury.

Enter Andrew Luck in 2012? It's very possible.

But if you look deeper, Miami's biggest competition may not be competition at all. Miami is one of four winless teams. The other three have some level of stability at quarterback.

Count the St Louis Rams (0-4) out of the "Luck Sweepstakes." The Rams just drafted franchise quarterback Sam Bradford with the No. 1 overall pick in 2010. St. Louis signed Bradford to a contract worth a maximum of $86 million and is sticking with him, regardless if it lands the top pick.

The Indianapolis Colts (0-4) are in the race because of the neck injury to Peyton Manning. But the Colts expect Manning to return. Otherwise, they would not have reached a five-year extension reportedly worth up to $90 million. Yes, Indianapolis could draft Luck No. 1 overall. But it wouldn't be a wise use of resources. Luck could rot on the bench behind Manning for the next 3-4 years once Manning is healthy.

The Minnesota Vikings (0-4) are the trickiest of the group. Minnesota signed struggling veteran Donovan McNabb in the offseason. He probably won't be on the team next year. But the Vikings also are high on 2011 first-round pick Christian Ponder. Many felt Minnesota reached on Ponder by taking him No. 12 overall. The Vikings disagree. But that theory could be tested if they're eligible to draft Luck, who is viewed as one of the top quarterback prospects in years. Would Minnesota draft first-round quarterbacks in back-to-back years? Or would they stick with Ponder over Luck?

This all opens the door for the Dolphins. Other one-win teams like Seattle (1-3), Denver (1-3) and Kansas City (1-3) are competition, as well. But Miami has the inside track. The Dolphins are playing the rest of the year with a backup quarterback (Matt Moore) and a coach (Tony Sparano) on the hot seat.
» NFC: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South » Unrestricted FAs

A look at the free-agent priorities for each AFC East team:

Buffalo Bills

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

Miami Dolphins

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.

Stop to consider Vince Young on your team

May, 18, 2011
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As we await the lockout's merciful conclusion, a commonly discussed topic is what Team X will do at quarterback.

Several clubs, including the Miami Dolphins and Buffalo Bills, went into the draft with perceived quarterback needs and didn't pick up any significant help.

The most frequently discussed answers are Carson Palmer, Kyle Orton, Donovan McNabb, Matt Hasselbeck and Kevin Kolb. Often overlooked in the conversation is a lightning rod with talent.

Jonathan Comey of ColdHardFootballFacts.com presents a strong case that former Tennessee Titans quarterback Vince Young deserves more consideration -- maybe the most of all the veteran options.

Comey's bullet points on Young:
  • Former No. 3 overall pick after brilliant college career.
  • Career .638 winning percentage as an NFL starter.
  • Coming off seasons in which he went 12-6 as a starter; the other guys who started for Tennessee went 2-12.
  • Competitive, above-average passer rating of 84.9 from 2008-10.
  • NFL's second-best running quarterback, and still in his athletic prime.
  • Two-time Pro Bowler.
  • Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2006.

The Titans already have publicly stated they'll unload Young. That's a buyer's proposition. As such, Comey contends Young would be a "dream commodity," a low-risk, high-reward player.

Comey uses data and sound reasoning to make a compelling statement about Young's value.

Young still has upside, should feel like he has something to prove and can be had in a trade for a discount. If the Titans can't trade Young and are forced to release him, then he wouldn't be in position to demand a big salary.

NFL's 'The Top 100' a nice distraction

May, 16, 2011
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The NFL Network is filling some of the lockout downtime with a countdown of the top 100 players, revealing 10 at a time every Sunday night.

The first AFC East players were mentioned in the most recent group, Nos. 71 through 80, as voted on by their league peers.

New York Jets left tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson came in at No. 79. Jets receiver Santonio Holmes was No. 76.

Sunday night's recap show featured analysis from former New England Patriots outside linebacker Willie McGinest and reporter Jay Glazer. During the show, host Lindsay Soto mentioned 12 quarterbacks are among the top 100 and asked the experts to give their rankings.

McGinest's list:
  1. Tom Brady, Patriots
  2. Peyton Manning, Colts
  3. Drew Brees, Saints
  4. Aaron Rodgers, Packers
  5. Philip Rivers, Chargers
  6. Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers
  7. Michael Vick, Eagles
  8. Eli Manning, Giants
  9. Matt Schaub, Texans
  10. Matt Ryan, Falcons
  11. Tony Romo, Cowboys
  12. Donovan McNabb, Redskins

Glazer's list (with a tie for 12th):
  1. Tom Brady, Patriots
  2. Peyton Manning, Colts
  3. Drew Brees, Saints
  4. Aaron Rodgers, Packers
  5. Philip Rivers, Chargers
  6. Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers
  7. Michael Vick, Eagles
  8. Matt Ryan, Falcons
  9. Eli Manning, Giants
  10. Tony Romo, Cowboys
  11. Josh Freeman, Buccaneers
  12. Matt Schaub, Texans, and Sam Bradford, Rams

What do you think?

Video: Best veteran QBs on the market

May, 13, 2011
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Miami Dolphins general manager Jeff Ireland and Buffalo Bills general manager Buddy Nix have stated on the record their teams need to add quarterbacks to their roster. ESPN analyst Tim Hasselbeck breaks down the best five options in this video clip.

Report: Dolphins keen on Carson Palmer

March, 21, 2011
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The last time he was interviewed, Miami Dolphins general manager Jeff Ireland repeatedly added a caveat when speaking about quarterback Chad Henne's status:

"Right now, our starter is Chad Henne."

"Right now, he's the guy on our football team that we have to be committed to because he's the only one we have right now."

Right now, the Dolphins are considering all options when the NFL's work stoppage concludes and we get back to signing free agents and making trades.

A prominent name is Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer.

Miami Herald columnist Armando Salguero wrote "Palmer is the one veteran quarterback in whose availability the Dolphins would almost definitely show interest."

Others considered to be on the market are Philadelphia Eagles backup Kevin Kolb, Washington Redskins veteran Donovan McNabb, Denver Broncos veteran Kyle Orton and San Francisco 49ers bust Alex Smith. Free agent Vince Young is out there, too.

Palmer is under contract, but he wants out of Cincinnati after seven seasons and two Pro Bowls but just two playoff games -- both losses.

The Bengals have stated they want Palmer back, but Sports Illustrated writer Peter King wrote sources tell him Bengals coach Marvin Lewis has been telling people within the football community Palmer won't return.

King listed his "leaders in the clubhouse" to trade for Palmer, but didn't mention the Dolphins.

But the two reports together look intriguing.

Quarterback Wonderlic scores are out

March, 17, 2011
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The Buffalo Bills and Miami Dolphins are inspecting quarterbacks.

They're looking at game tape, attending pro days, hosting the top prospects for private workouts.

They'll study arm strength, command of the huddle and 40-yard dash times.

What about brain power?

ESPN's Chris Mortensen reported the Wonderlic intelligence scores from many of the notable quarterbacks who took the test lat month at the NFL scouting combine.
Some teams weigh Wonderlic scores more than others.

The generally accepted score that keeps teams comfortable is 20. Anything lower creates concern.

But it's not a definitive measurement either. Among widely reported scores, Hall of Famers Jim Kelly and Terry Bradshaw posted 15s, Donovan McNabb scored a 14 and Ryan Leaf posted a 27. Dan Marino's score is reported as a 16 or a 15, depending on the source.

Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick took the test in a record nine minutes and scored a 48.

"It is interesting that you will find guys that are really, really bright that just don't test well and just the opposite," New England Patriots personnel executive Floyd Reese said in a USA Today story a few years ago, while working for the Tennessee Titans. "A guy will score a 40 and can't get across the street."

AFC East labor impact

March, 11, 2011
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» NFC labor impact: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

A team-by-team look at how a continued labor impasse and extended NFL freeze on transactions would affect the division:

Buffalo Bills: The Bills are a young team that built momentum toward the end of last season. They went 4-4 in the second half. Over a six-game stretch in October and November, they went 2-4, and each loss was by three points to an eventual playoff team. Three of those losses were in overtime.

A prolonged work stoppage would stunt Buffalo's development. Coach Chan Gailey is entering his second year but his first offseason with Ryan Fitzpatrick as starting quarterback. The Bills also could draft a quarterback next month but they wouldn't be able to sign him or work with him until there's a new collective bargaining agreement.

Inexperienced players with one or two years dot the roster: running back C.J. Spiller, guards Eric Wood and Andy Levitre, nose tackle Torell Troup, outside linebackers Aaron Maybin and Arthur Moats and safety Jairus Byrd. They would benefit from as much prep time as they can get.

Miami Dolphins: The Dolphins' offense will have serious difficulty taking shape if there's a long work stoppage. Incumbent quarterback Chad Henne wouldn't be on the securest footing if we were heading into a normal offseason. The Dolphins were frustrated enough to remove him as their starter twice last year. Now he's working with a new offensive coordinator, Brian Daboll, and new quarterbacks coach, Karl Dorrell, who never has been a quarterbacks coach before.

Henne got a head start on his offseason by meeting with Daboll and Dorrell to try to absorb as much of the playbook as he could. Henne intends to communicate Daboll's philosophies to his teammates with informal workouts in South Florida.

That's where the Dolphins can have an advantage if they remain diligent. A large percentage of their players maintain homes in South Florida, making it easy for them to assemble for group sessions.

All of Henne's work could be rendered moot if the Dolphins want to acquire another quarterback, but then they'll have another problem. Until there's a new CBA, teams cannot sign free agents or make player trades. That means the Dolphins are in limbo if they want to make a play for an intriguing group of candidates that includes Kevin Kolb, Kyle Orton, Carson Palmer, Donovan McNabb and Vince Young.

New England Patriots: If any team can withstand a protracted work stoppage, it's the reigning AFC East champions. The Patriots have a solid roster filled with veterans, particularly on offense. Their coaching staff remained mostly intact. They're flush with draft picks.

The biggest impact probably would be felt on defense, where the Patriots sometimes started four rookies: end Brandon Deaderick, outside linebacker Jermaine Cunningham, inside linebacker Brandon Spikes and cornerback Devin McCourty.

Although a couple of veteran defenders returning from injuries (defensive end Ty Warren and cornerback Leigh Bodden) should help stabilize them, the Patriots will have difficulty coaching up their youngsters and improving their terrible third-down defense in a compacted offseason.

Another issue could be the way the Patriots flip through interchangeable parts. The Patriots are adept at discovering undrafted free agents and reclaiming other teams' castoffs, while constantly overturning the bottom of their roster. With no CBA, those roster moves cannot happen.

New York Jets: Free agency will be the Jets' biggest issue if a work stoppage drags out. They have the most free agents in the AFC East and declined to re-sign any of them, aside from placing the franchise tag on inside linebacker David Harris. The Jets didn't want to make any decisions until they knew what the next CBA looked like. That created several questions up and down the roster.

Receiver is the biggest question mark. Santonio Holmes and Braylon Edwards are without contracts, and quarterback Mark Sanchez needs a strong supporting cast. On defense, safety is a concern with Brodney Pool, Eric Smith and James Ihedigbo about to be free agents, too.

No CBA means the Jets won't be able to sign incoming free agents either. Polls have shown players around the league would love to play for Rex Ryan more than any other coach. But the Jets can't use that to their advantage until there's a new deal.

What veteran QB would suit Dolphins?

February, 25, 2011
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So many teams could stand a quarterback upgrade, and not all of them will be able to draft one who can make an impact. Some clubs might not be willing to commit the time required to developing one.

That's why draft monger Mel Kiper has put together an ESPN Insider column that ranks the best quarterbacks who should be available via trade or in free agency Insider.

The Miami Dolphins, with the 15th overall pick, probably won't be able to draft an immediate difference-maker at quarterback and would be open to exploring trade options.

In Kiper's mind, Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer is at the top of the list followed by Philadelphia Eagles backup Kevin Kolb, Denver Broncos alleged starter Kyle Orton, Green Bay Packers backup Matt Flynn, Washington Redskins yo-yo Donovan McNabb and free agent Vince Young.

The Buffalo Bills are interested in drafting a quarterback, but they're comfortable enough with Ryan Fitzpatrick a trade is doubtful.

In another ESPN Insider piece, Chris Sprow examined whether there's an immediate starter in this year's draft class. Insider Sprow doesn't come away impressed.

"Even your top two guys on the board are facing a serious learning curve," an unnamed general manager told Sprow. "These aren't NFL offenses, and these aren't seniors in the case of [Blaine] Gabbert and [Cam] Newton."

Sprow cites an amazing stat to illustrate how harrowing it is for a team to trust a rookie quarterback: Teams are a combined 372-700 over the past 18 years in seasons when they have a rookie QB throw at least 50 passes. Those teams averaged 10.5 losses.

AFC East chat leaves no team behind

January, 15, 2011
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Sunday's playoff showdown between the New York Jets and New England Patriots has commanded the AFC East spotlight, and rightly so.

The Miami Dolphins and Buffalo Bills wish they still could be relevant on the field, but that hasn't stopped them from moving forward off it.

With plenty to catch up on, it was the perfect time to hold a non-denominational, quad-partisan AFC East chat.

We were heavy on Dolphins and Bills talk. Some of the topics we explored:
  • Whether the Bills have surpassed the Dolphins in the division pecking order.
  • How the Dolphins' offensive coordinator might impact Chad Henne.
  • What kind of addition Dave Wannstedt would be for the Buffalo coaching staff.
  • Thoughts on Brad Childress and Donovan McNabb coming to the Dolphins.
  • My philosophy on predicting who your favorite team will draft in three months.

And, of course, we talked about the Jets and Patriots.

Report: Miami to interview Brad Childress

January, 13, 2011
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The Miami Dolphins are casting a wide net in their search for an offensive coordinator, speaking to coaches from all corners.

Some are younger. Some are older. Some are assistants on the rise. And, in the case of the latest name, a fired head coach.

Brad Childress told Minneapolis Star Tribune columnist Sid Hartman he would interview with the Dolphins on Saturday. The Dolphins have openings after offensive coordinator Dan Henning retired and quarterbacks coach David Lee left for Ole Miss.

The Dolphins already have spoken to San Diego Chargers tight ends coach Rob Chudzinski, Dallas Cowboys tight ends coach John Garrett, Hartford Colonials head coach Chris Palmer and former Cleveland Browns offensive coordinator Brian Daboll.

Childress is the biggest -- and most controversial -- name to surface so far.

He had a tumultuous turn as Minnesota Vikings head coach. His job there will forever be remembered for his handling of Brett Favre the past two seasons. Childress seemed to surrender power in his attempts to appease the legendary quarterback. A series of missteps made Childress look like a bumbler until he was fired during the season.

Childress as offensive coordinator is curious because he hasn't been a successful playcaller in the NFL. He initially became a commodity as the Philadelphia Eagles' quarterbacks coach, working with Donovan McNabb.

But when Childress was the Eagles' offensive coordinator, head coach Andy Reid called the plays. Shortly after Childress left for the Vikings, Reid gave the duties to Childress' successor, Marty Mornhinweg.

Childress, who favors a power-running version of the West Coast offense, was Minnesota's playcaller for one season before he had Darrell Bevell do it.

Perhaps the Dolphins will bring Childress aboard to mentor young, struggling quarterback Chad Henne and break up the offensive coordinator role. Dolphins head coach Tony Sparano is familiar with delegated play calling. Sparano served as the Cowboys' run-game coordinator (2005-06) and called plays (2006).

Double Coverage: Pats vs. Colts in 2015

November, 18, 2010
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Colts and PatriotsESPN.com IllustrationPeyton Manning and Tom Brady have been at the center of arguably the best rivalry of the past decade. Who will carry it on when they step away from the game?
The annual AFC showdown is upon us, and with it come the recurring storylines.

That's right, the Indianapolis Colts will meet the New England Patriots on Sunday for an eighth straight season. The NFL's greatest ongoing interdivisional rivalry showcases two of the great organizations of this generation and renews the discussion about Peyton Manning's stats versus Tom Brady's championships.

We've decided to rekindle the debate, but before you throw your head back and groan in anticipation of the clichés, hold your horseshoes.

The purpose of this debate is to eliminate Manning and Brady and look into the future.

Which team has the better long-range outlook once Manning and Brady move on?

For the purpose of this discussion, we've set the target for 2015 -- one year beyond the length of Brady's latest contract extension -- to examine which team has the better infrastructure to cope with life minus its iconic quarterback.

Tim Graham: Time to get after it, Paul. But no weapons this time, please. I've just recently completed the physical therapy from our last debate.

Paul Kuharsky: Well, this back-and-forth will be less physically taxing, and since there is so much forecasting, you may actually be able to put your Jedi training to use.

Graham: Get this debate started we shall, hmmm?

Kuharsky: So what do the Colts and Patriots have now that's going to be a big factor for them in five years?

Jerry Hughes
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesWill 2010 first-round pick Jerry Hughes develop into a cornerstone on the Colts' defense?
I count eight guys who are in their first, second or third year with the franchise who I expect will still be prime contributors in 2015. But only three of the eight fit into the framework of the four most important positions on the field -- quarterback, left tackle, defensive end and cornerback. Those players would be corners Jerraud Powers and Jacob Lacey and defensive end Jerry Hughes.

Hughes is still unproven, but it's early and Colts president Bill Polian saw the potential for him to ultimately replace a Dwight Freeney or a Robert Mathis.

Others who may still be staples when Manning is gone: receiver Austin Collie, linebacker Pat Angerer, tight end Jacob Tamme, tight end Brody Eldridge and punter Pat McAfee. Can that group be the core of a team that continues to win? I wish I could offer a solid yes or no instead of a tepid maybe.

Beyond that, we've got five drafts to consider, right? And Polian regularly finds undrafted gems. I don't doubt the Colts will have talent. But they'll need new Freeney-, Dallas Clark- and Reggie Wayne-caliber stars, plus the replacement quarterback.

Graham: Patriots overlord Bill Belichick has drawn deserved criticism for his draft failures. He has swung and missed at his share of Terrence Wheatleys and Kevin O'Connells and Chad Jacksons in the early rounds.

But when you accumulate as many picks as the Patriots have and have elite football minds evaluating the talent, those bad decisions are going to even out eventually. The Patriots appear to be warming up when it comes to successful drafting.

[+] EnlargeAaron Hernandez
AP Photo/Paul Spinelli Rookie tight end Aaron Hernandez ranks second on the Patriots in catches and receiving yards.
The Patriots went into Heinz Field and manhandled the Pittsburgh Steelers with four rookies in their starting defensive lineup (defensive end Brandon Deaderick, outside linebacker Jermaine Cunningham, inside linebacker Brandon Spikes and left cornerback Devin McCourty) and a rookie tight end (Rob Gronkowski), who caught three touchdowns. Another rookie tight end (Aaron Hernandez) ranks second on the team in catches and receiving yards. Their punter is a rookie.

They don't have as many second- and third-year contributors, but inside linebacker Jerod Mayo was defensive rookie of the year in 2008. Among the sophomores are starting right tackle Sebastian Vollmer and receivers Brandon Tate and Julian Edelman, who also handle return duties.

Without question, there will be a drop-off at quarterback when Brady retires, but the Patriots are loaded with core youth.

Kuharsky: The Colts may draft better, but they also draft less. Polian's not the draft pick wheeler-and-dealer Belichick is. Are those the guys who will be lining up the Manning and Brady successors?

It's a quarterback-driven league, and teams minus Manning and Brady will have major voids. We've got to talk about the replacements for the iconic quarterbacks, but it's hard to offer much conjecture on what kind of guy that will be without talking about who will be finding him.

Polian is 67 years old, and the last time I asked him about any sort of plan for retirement he gave me a head tilt and an uncomfortable expression.

Graham: I've noticed a lot of people do that around you.

Kuharsky: If things are neat and tidy, the suspicion is he and Manning -- the guy he hit the jackpot with when he picked him over Ryan Leaf -- will exit together. The next generation is waiting in the wings. Chris Polian is Indianapolis' vice president and general manager.

Chris Polian
AP PhotoCurrent Colts VP Chris Polian is likely play a key role in finding Peyton Manning's successor.
I'd expect Bill Polian will have a strong hand in selecting the Colts' quarterback of the future. But it will ultimately be Chris Polian who's connected to that signal-caller the way Bill Polian is connected to Manning. The younger Polian has a good reputation and good football genes, but it's hard to know how much of his father's personnel judgment he's inherited and how much he's learned. And having to replace a guy many will argue is the greatest quarterback of all time will be an awfully difficult assignment.

Graham: I don't know how long Belichick plans to coach, but even if he were to get tired of the week-to-week grind of getting his boys ready to play, it's fathomable he'll stick around to run the operation, handpicking his successor and overseeing football operations.

It would be silly to give Belichick more than a smidgen of credit for drafting Brady in the sixth round a decade ago. If Belichick truly knew what Brady was capable of, the Patriots wouldn't have passed on him until the 199th pick. So it's not like Belichick will simply wait until Brady's on the verge of retirement and automatically snag a replacement.

Kuharsky: True. But they knew more than everybody else when they finally did take him.

Graham: Belichick trusted his scout, and they unearthed a gem.

I believe Belichick's support staff is stronger than Polian's. Senior adviser Floyd Reese oversaw the Houston Oilers and Tennessee Titans' drafts when they picked Steve McNair and Vince Young. Player personnel director Nick Caserio, like a lot of Belichick's sidekicks over the years, will develop the tools to run his own show someday.

Kuharsky: I don't know that Belichick's got better support. It's just more well known and visible support.

Graham: And a high-profile owner who is willing to trust his front office, will spend money and doesn't dare meddle. That's another key component to New England's success over the past decade.

Kuharsky: Moving onto the replacement quarterback himself, Curtis Painter is Manning's current backup. But based on his work in a couple of regular-season games the team didn't care about winning at the end of last season and some preseason work, most people aren't forecasting anything special from him. And that would amount to quite a lengthy apprenticeship anyway.

Graham: You wouldn't think the Patriots have Brady's successor on the roster either. Brian Hoyer is an undrafted sophomore with virtually no experience so far. But you never can tell how these guys will develop while working alongside Brady for a few years. This is the team that identified Matt Cassel, a seventh-round draft choice who hadn't started a game since high school, as its top backup for 2008. He ended up going 11-5 when Brady blew out his knee.

Kuharsky: The Colts will need a guy for a super-tough replacement job. It would be awfully difficult for them to land in a Aaron Rodgers for Brett Favre or Michael Vick for Donovan McNabb replacement situation.

After hitting a grand slam with the No. 1 pick in 1998, odds would suggest that it will be tough for them to line up with the right guy at the right pick at the right time. The way they build, odds are Manning's heir will be a guy who plays a full college career. So he's a college freshman or a high-school senior right now, depending on their plan for easing him in.

Graham: The Colts and Patriots finish too high in the standings every year and don't get to pick until the 20s. That will make it nearly impossible to snag some golden-armed top prospect in their assigned draft positions. But the Patriots frequently go into drafts with other teams' picks -- and an abundance of them. They often have copious draft assets to move up if they want to. Or maybe the Patriots will obtain that big-ticket pick waaaaay in advance. A year ago, Belichick traded Richard Seymour to the Oakland Raiders for their 2011 first-round selection. That's the kind of creative investing that could pay off with a high-quality quarterback prospect down the road.

Kuharsky: It will definitely be more difficult for the Colts to get to the top of a draft to get a premier guy. And there may need to be a post-Manning down-cycle for the team to get up there and find the guy. Scribes in Indianapolis often wonder aloud what happens to the Colts' crazed support if they turn into a 5-11 rebuilding project. The rest of the AFC South certainly hopes that's how it works, and that the division is a lot more wide open once Manning's not in it.

And while we're forecasting five years out, I have two questions: Will Manning still be a deadpanning TV commercial superstar? And will Brady have had a haircut?

Graham: There's one unwavering prediction I can make about hair, Paul, but it's not about Brady's.

Video: Dolphins defense 'exposed'?

October, 2, 2010
10/02/10
1:10
PM ET

After ESPN analysts Mark Schlereth and Herm Edwards field a few questions about Donovan McNabb's return to Philadelphia, they talk about Monday night's matchup between the New England Patriots and Miami Dolphins in Sun Life Stadium.

The Patriots are 2-7 on the road since the start of last season, but Edwards contends the Dolphins' defense "got a little bit exposed" against the New York Jets last week.

Has Bill Belichick's genius license expired?

September, 20, 2010
9/20/10
6:31
PM ET
New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick has the reputation of being a defensive mastermind.

Cold, Hard Football Facts overlord Kerry J. Byrne scoffs at that.

New York Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez had the best game of his career Sunday, clobbering the New England Patriots at the Meadowlands.

To Byrne, that was just one more instance of Belichick's defensive genius being a myth.

"The Belichick Defense is no longer great," Byrne writes. "But it's worse than that: The Belichick Defense doesn't even show up half the time, and allows even average quarterbacks to have their way with it."

Byrne adds the Patriots' defense is "a nameless, faceless unit that's been virtually incapable of making a big play, or even a small play, since its three picks against Donovan McNabb in Super Bowl XXXIX -- six seasons ago."

Byrne claims the Patriots' defense has suffered from Belichick's inability to draft capable defensive backs. To a point, I might disagree with that assessment in terms of safeties. Brandon Meriweather and Patrick Chung could form a nasty duo, although Meriweather didn't start Sunday because, as he explained, he didn't practice well enough.

But the Patriots have cycled through a lot of draft picks dedicated to finding satisfactory cornerbacks. Last year's second-round pick, Darius Butler, was benched late in the game because Braylon Edwards was abusing him. Terrence Wheatley, a second-round pick in 2008, was deactivated before the game.

The list of quarterbacks to "torch" Belichick's defense include A.J. Feeley (twice), Chad Pennington, Kyle Orton, Philip Rivers, Peyton Manning, Eli Manning and Drew Brees.

Some middling quarterbacks in there. Some great quarterbacks, too, but is a mastermind supposed to be able to defuse them more often than the Patriots do?

By the way, as much as fans of opposing teams love to poke fun at him, Sanchez is 2-1 against the Patriots.

Is AFC East really the toughest division?

September, 1, 2010
9/01/10
1:30
PM ET
Is the AFC East the league's most competitive division?

New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft thinks so.

In talking about his optimism for the Patriots' chances, Kraft noted the journey will be difficult.

"I'm really excited about this season," Kraft told reporters Tuesday at his team's Kickoff Gala. "Watching the practices and seeing the players play in the preseason, with the good Lord's help and we don't have too many injuries, I think we have an excellent football team that will compete.

"Unfortunately, our division is probably the toughest division in the NFL this year. But you have to win all the games anyhow if you want to go to the playoffs. Our objective is to win our division."

I disagree with Kraft that the AFC East is the most rugged division. The New York Jets, Miami Dolphins and Patriots are bunched together. Any of them could win the division and would be dangerous in the postseason. Perhaps all three will make the playoffs.

But in ranking a division, you have to consider all four teams, and the Buffalo Bills hurt Kraft's case. The Bills are 2-10 against the AFC East over the past two years.

On my ranking of divisions heading into 2010, the NFC East gets the nod because its worst team -- the Washington Redskins -- improved dramatically by hiring Mike Shanahan and trading for Donovan McNabb.

1. NFC East

2. AFC North

3. AFC East

4. AFC South

5. NFC South

6. NFC North

7. AFC West

8. NFC West

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