AFC East: Eight in the Box

NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

A first-year player who has turned heads in OTAs/minicamps.

Buffalo Bills: Rookie wide receiver Robert Woods was one of my favorite players in this draft, and he is already living up to his reputation of being an NFL-ready player. The second-round pick and former USC product is gaining the inside track for a starting job during organized team activities. Woods is putting his stamp on the position by running solid routes, making plays and displaying good hands. That is what the Bills are looking for opposite 1,000-yard receiver Steve Johnson. Buffalo has a trio of rookie receivers in Woods, Marquise Goodwin and Da'Rick Rogers who are all looking to make an impact.

Miami Dolphins: It's early, but Miami may have a steal in fifth-round draft pick Mike Gillislee. The former Florida running back is showing good burst and vision during OTAs. Gillislee is the type of downhill runner Miami wants in its West Coast offense. He is decisive, physical and had a reputation in college for usually falling forward after contact. Gillislee is definitely in the mix to share carries with starter Lamar Miller and backup Daniel Thomas. Several of Miami's rookies are injured and have not done much work in practice. First-round pick Dion Jordan is recovering from shoulder surgery in February and second-round pick Jamar Taylor has a sports-hernia injury. Third-round pick Dallas Thomas (shoulder) just got on the practice field for the first time this week. That leaves more of an opportunity for lower-round picks like Gillislee to stand out.

New England Patriots: It's been a mixed bag for Patriots rookie Aaron Dobson in OTAs, but he is showing enough early to offer hope at the wide receiver position. Dobson is making the tough transition from playing at small-school Marshall to arguably the most demanding and precise offense in the NFL. Dobson is making athletic plays in practice but also some rookie mistakes. The Nos. 2 and 3 receiver jobs are wide open in New England. Dobson is competing with fellow rookie Josh Boyce and veterans Michael Jenkins, Donald Jones and Lavelle Hawkins. Dobson has a higher ceiling than all of these receivers and is showing it with big plays. But Dobson, like most rookies, must work on consistency.

New York Jets: Head coach Rex Ryan loves his defense, and so far first-round pick Sheldon Richardson has impressed. The former Missouri defensive lineman has displayed strength and a quick first step off the ball in spring practices. He has the potential to be disruptive, and this is what made Richardson the No. 13 overall pick in April's draft. Due to a need at quarterback, the Jets reportedly considered drafting Geno Smith with the No. 13 pick but took the higher-rated player in Richardson. It was a wise choice, because New York landed Smith in the second round with the No. 39 overall pick and got a good defensive lineman prospect in the process. The Jets are a young, rebuilding team, and Richardson is projected to be in the starting lineup in Week 1 of the regular season.
NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

A look at a player entering a contract year from each AFC East team who must deliver in 2013:

Buffalo Bills: The Bills know that Eric Wood is a quality center. What they don’t know is whether Wood is durable enough to handle the trenches for all 16 games year in and year out. The 2009 first-round draft pick is playing out the final year of his rookie contract. Wood has had multiple knee and leg injuries during his career. He has never played more than 14 games in a season during his four-year career. Wood, 27, has some wear and tear, and that should factor in when the Bills go to the negotiating table. But talented centers are hard to find, so it’s possible that the Bills do not wait until next year. Buffalo has cap room, and Wood and Pro Bowl safety Jairus Byrd are two in-house players who could get contract extensions before September.

Miami Dolphins: The Dolphins took a calculated risk this offseason when they signed cornerback Brent Grimes. Miami signed Grimes to a one-year, "show-me" contract before he fully recovered from last season's Achilles injury. Two months later, Grimes is closer to 100 percent and making plays on the practice field. He made the Pro Bowl two years ago with the Atlanta Falcons, and the Dolphins are hoping Grimes can return close to that form. Miami was ranked 27th in pass defense last season and needs Grimes to take a leadership role and stay healthy for a full season. Veteran corners Richard Marshall and Dimitri Patterson are questionable starting options, and rookies Jamar Taylor and Will Davis still have a lot to learn.

New England Patriots: Cornerback Aqib Talib is in a similar situation as Grimes. After spending half a season with the Patriots in 2012, Talib signed a one-year extension to prove he can be the long-term solution at cornerback. Talib clearly was New England’s best cornerback last season. He has the size and athleticism to shut down opponents. However, previous off-the-field issues while with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers made the Patriots hesitate to offer him a long-term contract in March. If Talib performs well and stays out of trouble again this season, New England will have no choice but to give him a multiyear extension, or another team will.

New York Jets: The Jets simply do not have a lot of talent. So it’s hard to pinpoint a player in the final year of his contract who must perform in order to stick around. The best I can come up with is offensive lineman Vladimir Ducasse. He was taken in the second round in 2009 and is still trying to learn the NFL game. The Jets are hoping Ducasse can develop into a starting guard, but progress has been slow. If Ducasse doesn’t show anything this season, he likely won't come back to New York. The Jets already drafted guard Brian Winters this year in the third round. That’s a strong warning sign for Ducasse. The Jets have several high-priced players, like starting receiver Santonio Holmes and quarterback Mark Sanchez, who are signed beyond 2013 but could be released if they don’t perform. But as far as players in a contract year, Ducasse is one to keep an eye on.
NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

How does each AFC East team look at running back, and what still needs to be done?

Buffalo Bills: The Bills have one of the NFL’s strongest duos in C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson. They complement each other very well. Spiller is a dynamic home run hitter, while Jackson runs hard between the tackles. Both players are also versatile enough to catch out of the backfield. Former Bills head coach Chan Gailey could never figure out how to effectively use both players. Spiller was mostly underused on Gailey’s watch until the second half of last season. New head coach Doug Marrone is expected to learn from Gailey’s mistakes. Spiller as the primary ball-carrier, with Jackson as the backup, would make a dangerous combination.

Miami Dolphins: The Dolphins have an intriguing situation at running back. After 2012 starter Reggie Bush left Miami for the Detroit Lions in free agency, the Dolphins are left with three relative unknowns at tailback. Second-year player Lamar Miller is the projected starter. He showed tremendous flashes during his rookie season and led Miami backs with 4.9-yards-per-carry average. Miller fits Miami’s West Coast offense well but needs to do a better job in pass protection as an every-down back. Backup Daniel Thomas never lived up to his high draft status but isn’t bad as a second or third option. Thomas will compete with 2013 fifth-round pick Mike Gillislee, who many think is a nice sleeper pickup for the Dolphins. This is an unknown group that could end up better than advertised.

New England Patriots: The Patriots are well-stocked at running back. It starts with starter Stevan Ridley, who led the Patriots with a career-high 1,263 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns in 2012. Ridley fit in well with New England’s up-tempo, spread offense. Backup Shane Vereen is expected to fill the third-down role vacated by Danny Woodhead, who signed with the San Diego Chargers in free agency. New England also added burly tailback LeGarrette Blount, who can add toughness and help in short-yardage situations. Leon Washington is the fourth running back on the team but is primarily a kick returner. The running game could be even more important in 2013 now that New England had a major makeover at wide receiver and has injury concerns with tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.

New York Jets: The Jets are in a tough spot at running back. Free-agent signee Mike Goodson was arrested last week and faces drug and weapons charges. He was expected to compete for the starting job in New York, but now his future with the Jets is uncertain. First-year general manager John Idzik is trying to change the culture in New York and could make an example of Goodson for poor off-the-field behavior. That would leave New York with a not-so-impressive trio that includes projected starter Chris Ivory and backups Bilal Powell and Joe McKnight. This is not a trio who will scare an NFL defense. The Jets are in the middle of a long rebuild, and that includes not having many weapons on offense.

Eight in the Box: Under the radar

April, 5, 2013
NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

A look at the top under-the-radar move made by each AFC East team thus far this offseason:

Buffalo Bills: The Bills have been quiet in free agency, especially compared to last year. But the signing of defensive tackle Alan Branch should pay off. Branch, who started for the Seattle Seahawks the past two seasons, is a massive run-stopper added to Buffalo’s defensive line rotation, which already includes tackles Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus. Branch is versatile enough to play the nose and defensive tackle in Mike Pettine’s defense, which will have 3-4 and 4-3 looks. The Bills were 31st against the run last season but are now a lot tougher up the middle after signing Branch. He’s also durable, missing just one game the past four seasons.

Miami Dolphins: It has been a whirlwind free agency period for Miami. General manager Jeff Ireland was busy spending the Dolphins’ immense cap room this offseason, adding big names such as receiver Mike Wallace, linebacker Dannell Ellerbe and tight end Dustin Keller. But the Dolphins' latest signing, cornerback Brent Grimes, is an under-the-radar move that could pay off huge. Grimes was a Pro Bowl cornerback two seasons ago. He suffered a season-ending Achilles injury in 2012 and signed a one-year contract with Miami this season. The Dolphins are banking on Grimes' returning to his preinjury form. It’s a calculated risk. But if rehab goes well, Grimes easily will be Miami’s most talented cornerback.

New England Patriots: The Patriots made a few big-name moves this offseason, signing safety Adrian Wilson, receiver Danny Amendola and re-signing corner Aqib Talib and right tackle Sebastian Vollmer. But the signing of wide receiver Michael Jenkins could also pay dividends. Jenkins, 30, has been a consistent producer throughout his 10-year career. He has averaged 45 receptions a year over the past six seasons. That number could increase now that he's playing with future Hall of Fame quarterback Tom Brady. Jenkins will not have a major role in the offense considering New England has other players like Amendola and tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. But Jenkins has a track record of producing when his number is called.

New York Jets: The Jets did a lot of bargain-basement shopping in free agency. They were hamstrung by the salary cap this year and were not going to be major players in free agency. However, the Jets made several smart signings. Perhaps their best value of the group was Mike Goodson, who is the favorite to be New York’s starting running back next season. Goodson signed a three-year, $6.9 million contract with the Jets. He finally gets a chance to start after backing up running backs like Darren McFadden in Oakland and Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams in Carolina. Goodson has averaged 4.5 yards per carry in his career and should get plenty of carries for the first time in New York.

Eight in the Box: WR status check

March, 29, 2013
NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

How does each team look at wide receiver, and what still needs to be done?

Buffalo Bills: The Bills are decent -- but not great -- at wide receiver. The biggest thing in Buffalo's favor is the team has a consistent threat in Steve Johnson. He is the only receiver currently in the AFC East with three consecutive 1,000-yard seasons. Johnson may not be a game-breaker, but he is productive. The biggest issue for the Bills is getting someone to successfully pair with Johnson. Buffalo let go of slot receiver David Nelson and former starter Donald Jones, who signed with the Patriots. The Bills still have high hopes for 2012 third-round pick T.J. Graham, who was inconsistent as a rookie. Buffalo still needs to find a more consistent starter via the draft or free agency.

Miami Dolphins: Entering the offseason, this was Miami's biggest weakness. Several weeks later, it's one of the team's deepest areas. Dolphins general manager Jeff Ireland did a solid job of landing wide receivers in free agency. First, Ireland re-signed 2012 leading receiver Brian Hartline. Then, Ireland went out and landed former Pittsburgh Steelers receiver Mike Wallace and former St. Louis Rams receiver Brandon Gibson. The Dolphins are now four deep at the position with Wallace, Hartline, Gibson and slot receiver Davone Bess. Add to the group new pass-catching tight end Dustin Keller, and you have a formidable cast of skill players around second-year quarterback Ryan Tannehill.

New England Patriots: The Patriots lost two starting receivers from last season. They cut Brandon Lloyd and allowed Wes Welker to leave to the Denver Broncos in free agency. New England signed Danny Amendola to replace Welker in the slot, but the outside positions remain open. As we mentioned earlier, the Patriots signed Jones from Buffalo. New England also added 10-year veteran Michael Jenkins this week. But is that enough? The additions of Jones and Jenkins most likely reduce the chances of Lloyd's return to New England. The only exception would be if Lloyd got very little interest elsewhere and would be willing to re-sign with the Patriots on a team-friendly contract. New England also could take a receiver high in the draft. Some of the possibilities include Keenan Allen of Cal, Baylor's Terrance Williams or Aaron Dobson of Marshall.

New York Jets: The Jets have questions at wide receiver, but the hope in New York is that answers are already on the roster. Former Super Bowl MVP Santonio Holmes is returning from a season-ending foot injury, and the Jets are counting on Holmes to still be a No. 1 receiver. Also, 2012 second-round pick Stephen Hill has size and speed but was inconsistent as a rookie. The Jets expect Hill to make the jump in his second season. If all goes well with these two players, New York should be decent at receiver. Jeremy Kerley proved last year that he's solid, but he's best in the slot. The Jets need a little luck and good health at the position to be competitive in 2013. Adding another receiver via the draft for depth purposes wouldn't be a bad idea.