AFC East: Gary Guyton

Miami Dolphins cut-down analysis

August, 31, 2012
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Click here for a complete list of Miami Dolphins' roster moves.

Most significant move: Dolphins general manager Jeff Ireland, head coach Joe Philbin and the rest of his coaching staff warned their wide receivers that they needed to step up. This is Miami's weakest area, and week after week, receivers dropped balls and failed to make plays. Still, it was surprising that Miami cut two receivers of significance: Clyde Gates and Roberto Wallace. Both were on the bubble, but at least one was expected to make the cut -- especially on a receiver-deprived team. The Dolphins also released fellow receivers Chris Hogan, B.J. Cunningham and Jeff Fuller. The Dolphins said in the spring that they liked their receivers group; clearly, those opinions changed after training camp and the preseason.

Onward and upward: Miami made two free-agent additions to help the team’s depth at linebacker this offseason: Jamaal Westerman and Gary Guyton. Both players had starting experience and had played in the AFC East. But neither fit well with Miami’s new 4-3 defense. The Dolphins decided to cut their losses and not take either on their 53-man roster. There’s a good chance other teams will be looking for veteran linebackers, and due to their experience, both have a chance to land elsewhere.

What's next: Miami should be one of the busiest teams in free agency and scanning waivers. The Dolphins are rebuilding and need a lot of upgrades and depth. Wide receiver and safety are two positions Miami certainly will have its eye on. The Dolphins have a long way to go to make their roster into a contender. Rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill needs some assistance in his first season. So expect more changes in Miami before its Week 1 game against the Houston Texans.
The Miami Dolphins signed former New England Patriots linebacker Gary Guyton this week. Guyton came to Miami for the chance to contribute to an already solid defense.

Guyton's role in New England decreased as last season went on. He went from a starter to a virtual non-factor by the time the playoffs rolled around.

But Guyton is happy to be a Dolphin and isn't concerned about what happened last year. He finished with 47 tackles and an interception in six starts. His final start was in Week 12.

"Whatever happened there, just happened, so I just moved on," Guyton said. "As the season came down things change every year so I had a possibility going into free agency and which I did now. Now, I'm a Dolphin."

Guyton, 26, said he learned a lot during his four years in New England. He played in 60 career games for the Patriots and recorded 229 career tackles.

"Really, just how to be professional and how to play the game, so I learned a lot when I was there," he said. "I had a good time there. Bill (Belichick) is a great coach. He did a good job bringing me up. So just being able to learn the game and learn everything I can do from the game of football."
Here are the most interesting stories Tuesday in the AFC East:
  • After taking criticism about his team from former New York Jets quarterback Joe Namath, head coach Rex Ryan offered a sly jab at Namath.
Morning take: Both guys like to talk. So maybe both should come to an agreement not to poke at each other in the media. Ryan has a football team to coach and Namath can move on to other things.
  • It is backup linebacker Gary Guyton's time with the New England Patriots in place of the injured Jerod Mayo (knee).
Morning take: Mayo will be missed. But New England's defense still has a lot of room to grow. It couldn't do much worse than the first few weeks.
Morning take: You have to wonder how much of this is financial. Ross just gave Sparano a contract extension in the offseason. Firing him after four games would not be a good return on that investment.
  • Buffalo Bills rookie left tackle Chris Hairston will make his first career start in place of the injured Demetrius Bell.
Morning take: Buffalo's offensive line played well above expectations during the first month of the season. But this unit lacks depth, and that will be tested Sunday against Philadelphia.

Vollmer lands on NFL All-Underrated team

June, 11, 2011
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ESPN.com's eight divisional bloggers were asked to name who we thought was the most underrated player on each team we cover. Our pieces ran Friday at noon, followed by senior writer John Clayton's league-wide All-Underrated squad.

None of the players I selected -- Buffalo Bills receiver Roscoe Parrish, Miami Dolphins defensive end Kendall Langford, New England Patriots linebacker Gary Guyton or New York Jets right guard Brandon Moore -- made Clayton's roster.

But Clayton did include one AFC East representative: Patriots right tackle Sebastian Vollmer.

I briefly considered Vollmer for my divisional piece, but I eliminated him because he was honored as a second-team All-Pro last year. In fact, I bypassed any player who had been selected All-Pro or for a Pro Bowl -- Bills defensive tackle Kyle Williams, for example.

While Vollmer and Williams still might be thought of as underrated, being recognized among a handful of players at their positions does indicate they're highly thought of.

Underrated players: AFC East

June, 10, 2011
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NFC Underrated Players: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

A team-by-team look at the most underrated players in the division.

Buffalo Bills

Roscoe Parrish, receiver/punt returner: For five years, Parrish practically begged to be thrown the ball. He made the most of his touches, becoming one of the most dangerous punt returners in the NFL and setting franchise records.

[+] EnlargeBuffalo's Roscoe Parrish
Luc Leclerc/US PRESSWIREBills receiver Roscoe Parrish caught 33 passes for 400 yards and two touchdowns last season.
But his listed position was wide receiver, and in the Bills' passing game under head coaches Mike Mularkey and Dick Jauron, the undersized Parrish always seemed to be an afterthought.

That changed last year under new coach Chan Gailey. He played just eight games because of a broken wrist, but Parrish caught 33 passes for 400 yards and two touchdowns. The yardage was the most of his career. His touchdowns tied a career high. Two more receptions would have matched a career high.

Miami Dolphins

Kendall Langford, defensive end: On a defense with sack master Cameron Wake, the NFL's highest-paid linebacker in Karlos Dansby, franchise-tagged nose tackle Paul Soliai and Pro Bowl defensive end Randy Starks, a guy like Langford can get overlooked.

Langford, a 2008 third-round pick out of Hampton, has been a starter since his rookie season. Last year, after he gained national fame for being the sap who lost a $50,000 earring on the Dolphins' practice field, Langford produced a quality season for one of the NFL's better defenses. He notched 47 tackles, three sacks, six tackles for losses, two forced fumbles and four passes defensed.

Langford is adept at controlling blockers and was a major reason the Dolphins ranked seventh in run defense (100.1 yards per game) and third in average allowed per carry (3.6 yards).

New England Patriots

Gary Guyton, linebacker: Guyton started only eight games at linebacker last season, and half of those were necessitated by Brandon Spikes' four-game suspension. Even so, Guyton made a mark on the Patriots' defense. The undrafted third-year pro from Georgia Tech recorded 63 tackles, three sacks, two interceptions (one returned for a touchdown), six passes defensed, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery (returned for another touchdown).

"Gary is someone that fits in our system very well no matter what that role is," Patriots linebackers coach Matt Patricia said during the playoffs. "He's a very [versatile] player for us. He does an excellent job in whatever avenue we ask him to prepare and play. I think he is a guy who is active and plays for us every Sunday, and whatever that role is, he's going to go out and do it to the best of his ability. It’s something that we have a lot of confidence in."

New York Jets

Brandon Moore, right guard: The Jets' offensive line has had remarkable star power over the past few seasons. Nick Mangold is an All-Pro center. Left tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson went to the Pro Bowl last season. Right tackle Damien Woody has been to the Pro Bowl and owns Super Bowl rings. Alan Faneca, the Jets' left guard in 2008 and 2009, went to nine straight Pro Bowls.

Then there was Moore, an undrafted and often-overlooked workhorse. "Meat," as he's affectionately known by his teammates, has started 105 straight regular-season games. He was a third alternate for the Pro Bowl last year but still hasn't made it to one. In the Jets' locker room, he's respected enough to be a union representative.

"It's a shame that Brandon doesn't get as much of a nod as he deserves," Jets offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer said last season. "You'd be hard-pressed to find a better guard than him in all of football."

Making millions in the AFC East

March, 4, 2011
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Mark SanchezRichard A. Brightly/Icon SMIMark Sanchez is set to earn $14.75 million in base salary next season, the most in the AFC East.
Sports labor squabbles often are described as billionaires arguing with millionaires over money.

While that's a catchy rhyme that sums up fan frustration, the phrase is not entirely true.

Inspired by a blog entry from the minister of all things AFC South, Paul Kuharsky, I looked at NFL Players Association files to count up the number of AFC East players scheduled for $1 million base salaries in 2011.

Granted, up-front bonuses and incentives can make base salaries misleading. But base salaries are the only figures that create a common ground, player for player.

You'll see a vast majority of NFL players make much less than $1 million a year. Although many will make seven figures before they walk away from the game, careers are short and treacherous. They'll never see that kind of cash again for the rest of their lives.

That's why they're fighting for every dollar now.

Of the 226 players under contract in the AFC East, only 62 of them (27.4 percent) will make base salaries of $1 million or more.

The NFLPA hasn't acknowledged any franchise tags that have been signed. Those players are marked with an asterisk and not factored into the totals.

Buffalo Bills
Base salaries of $1 million or more: 19

Players under contract: 54

Percentage of roster making $1 million or more: 35.2

Miami Dolphins
Base salaries of $1 million or more: 15

Players under contract: 55

Percentage of roster making $1 million or more: 27.3

New England Patriots
Base salaries of $1 million or more: 14

Players under contract: 60

Percentage of roster making $1 million or more: 23.3

New York Jets
Base salaries of $1 million or more: 14

Players under contract: 57

Percentage of roster making $1 million or more: 24.6

Undrafted rookies may be stuck on sidelines

January, 31, 2011
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In the event of a prolonged labor dispute, another potential problem that hadn't occurred to me would impact players like Wes Welker, Davone Bess and Danny Woodhead.

There will be an NFL draft in April, but there won't be free agency until a new collective bargaining agreement has been hammered out. NFL.com senior writer Steve Wyche points out that would prevent undrafted rookies from signing with teams.

Rosters are loaded with undrafted contributors, and that's plainly evident in the AFC East.

The Buffalo Bills and New England Patriots were led in rushing by undrafted backs Fred Jackson, BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Woodhead.

Rookie free agents are necessary to building a roster and maintaining a personnel budget. The Patriots have masterfully collected players nobody pegged worthy of a pick. In addition to the Patriots' top two running backs and wide receiver, right guard Stephen Neal, defensive end Mike Wright, linebacker Gary Guyton and cornerback Kyle Arrington fall in this category.

Even the New York Jets, who readily turn over their roster and pursue star veterans, have a few undrafted starters: right guard Brandon Moore, defensive lineman Mike DeVito, linebacker Bart Scott and safety Jim Leonhard.

Wyche astutely points out how important it is for these long-shot gems to get into a team's offseason conditioning program as quickly as possible, and that they generally make their way through special teams. With that in mind, Wyche writes, special-teams play "could actually be worse if those type of players can't get signed in time for a fairly lengthy offseason of work."

Final Word: Jets at Patriots

January, 14, 2011
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Divisional Final Word: Ravens-Steelers | Jets-Patriots | Packers-Falcons | Seahawks-Bears

Three nuggets of knowledge about Sunday's Jets at Patriots divisional playoff game:

The Jets simply cannot pull off a 43-point swing in six weeks. Essentially, the same Jets are going into the same Gillette Stadium to play the same Patriots that obliterated them 45-3 on Dec. 6. The Jets must do two things: 1) find a way to undercut the Patriots, who have scored at least 31 points eight straight games; 2) escalate production from an offense that has been known to disappear without relying too heavily on erratic quarterback Mark Sanchez. I don't see the Jets holding the Patriots to 16 points like they did the short-handed Colts. The Jets' best shot to close the gap will be with a domineering ground attack from LaDainian Tomlinson and Shonn Greene. The Jets have been running the ball effectively, and the Patriots appear most vulnerable on the defensive line. But rushing their way to four or five touchdowns doesn't sound plausible.

[+] EnlargeDanny Woodhead
John Munson/The Star-Ledger/US PresswireDanny Woodhead accounted for 926 yards from scrimmage and six touchdowns.
Unlike the Colts, the Patriots can beat the Jets running or throwing. The Jets won last week by making Colts quarterback Peyton Manning hand off. Manning counted seven Jets defensive backs simultaneously on the field at times and marveled at seeing reserve cornerback Marquice Cole line up at defense end. The Jets could get away with that when the Colts' best running back was Dominic Rhodes. He couldn't make the Bills' roster out of training camp in 2009, spent most of the year with the UFL's Florida Tuskers and signed with the Colts last month. The Patriots, on the other hand, have BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead out of the backfield with support from Fred Taylor and Sammy Morris. Green-Ellis was the AFC East's lone 1,000-yard rusher this season and ran for 13 touchdowns. Woodhead gained 926 yards from scrimmage and scored six TDs.

The Patriots have more potent defense and special teams, too. The Jets lost their reputation for being opportunistic. Brad Smith returned two kickoffs for touchdowns. Dwight Lowery had two defensive touchdown returns, and Cole had one. But the Patriots scored nine touchdowns on defense and special teams. Inside linebacker Gary Guyton, Kyle Arrington and kick returner Brandon Tate scored two touchdowns apiece. The Patriots also led the NFL with 25 interceptions and tied for seventh with 13 fumble recoveries. The Jets finished second with 18 fumble recoveries but collected only 12 interceptions.

How I See It: AFC East Stock Watch

December, 29, 2010
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NFC Stock Watch: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

FALLING

1. Ryan Fitzpatrick, Bills quarterback: Bills fans have been debating the merits of sticking with Fitzpatrick as their franchise quarterback or drafting a prospect. Sunday's meltdown against the Patriots would favor new blood. Fitzpatrick committed five turnovers -- three interceptions and two fumbles. The Patriots turned his first three giveaways into 21 points and romped.

2. Jets' run defense: It took a statistical review a few days after the fact to drop Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall below 100 yards rushing against the Jets two weeks ago. He would have been the first to hit the century mark against the Jets since Nov. 15, 2009. Their streak remained intact for that week only because Bears running back Matt Forte rushed for 113 yards (5.9 average) and one touchdown Sunday.

3. Davone Bess, Dolphins receiver: He's still one of the Dolphins' top players, but his second-half production hasn't measured up to his hot start or the lucrative contract extension he signed in October. That's the definition of a slumping stock. Bess caught his first touchdown pass since Week 7 on a tipped ball that should have been intercepted. He also fumbled a punt return the Lions converted into a field goal and fell down to allow Lions linebacker DeAndre Levy to intercept and score the winning touchdown in a late fourth-quarter collapse that might cost people their jobs.

RISING

[+] EnlargeShonn Greene
Mike DiNovo/US PresswireShonn Greene helped get the Jets' running game back on track Sunday.
1. Chances for another AFC East coaching change: We could be following an AFC East head coaching search for the eighth straight year. The Dolphins would appear primed for change after a dull and disappointing season that can be described as mediocre at best. The Dolphins began the year with Super Bowl aspirations and went 1-7 at Sun Life Stadium. They lost to the Browns, Bills and Lions in their final three home games. It's pretty easy to see Tony Sparano joining Dick Jauron, Eric Mangini, Cam Cameron, Nick Saban, Mike Mularkey, Herm Edwards, Dave Wannstedt and Gregg Williams as AFC East head coaches who either were fired or stepped down since the 2003 season.

2. Shonn Greene, Jets running back: The Jets couldn't find a better time to get their torpid rushing attack in gear. Greene ran 12 times for 70 yards and his first touchdown in 10 games Sunday against the Bears. Greene's 5.8-yard average was his highest of the season.

3. Gary Guyton, Patriots linebacker: He continues to shine while Brandon Spikes is suspended for violating the NFL's policy on performance-enhancing substances. Guyton had a strip-sack and two passes defensed in Sunday's victory over the Bills. Over the past seven weeks he has three sacks, an interception, five passes defensed and a fumble return for a touchdown.

How I See It: AFC East Stock Watch

December, 15, 2010
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NFC Stock Watch: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

FALLING

1. Rex Ryan, Jets head coach: Nothing seems to be going properly for Ryan. He's known as a master motivator, but he's not pushing the right buttons lately. He symbolically buried a game ball from the Week 13 debacle against the Patriots, and it looked like nothing more than a rah-rah antic after losing at home to the Dolphins. Ryan reportedly chafed his defensive players by criticizing them in his postgame speech. And then there's the Sal Alosi tripping scandal that might not go away as quickly as Ryan would like.

2. Jets offense: Mark Sanchez is playing poorly. LaDainian Tomlinson and Shonn Greene aren't finding room to run. Santonio Holmes and Jerricho Cotchery are dropping passes. Dustin Keller isn't involved. Right tackle Damien Woody is hurt. Other than that, there's nothing to worry about.

3. Dolphins offense: Chad Henne is playing poorly. Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams aren't as productive as you'd like. Right tackle Vernon Carey is done for the season. Top chunk-yardage receiver Brian Hartline is out. While Miami's defense seems to be getting itself together, the offense seems to get worse by the week.

[+] EnlargeNew England's Gary Guyton
AP Photo/Charles Rex ArbogastPatriots linebacker Gary Guyton returned a fumble 35 yards for a touchdown against the Bears.
RISING

1. Inside linebacker Gary Guyton and the Patriots defense: The Patriots have put together a pair of strong defensive efforts against division leaders, holding the Jets to three points and the Bears to seven points. With rookie starter Brandon Spikes suspended for four games, Guyton stepped up with an interception and returned a fumble 35 yards for a touchdown on snow-covered Soldier Field.

2. Brodney Pool, Jets safety: Defensive coordinator Mike Pettine called him out last week for being inconsistent, but Pool arguably was the Jets' best player against the Dolphins and would have been considered the star had the Jets won. Pool recorded a sack, forced a fumble that Jason Taylor recovered and picked up a Henne fumble.

3. David Nelson, Bills receiver: The undrafted rookie from Florida caught a touchdown pass in his second straight game. His 11-yard grab was the only touchdown scored in a 13-6 victory over the Browns in Ralph Wilson Stadium. He should get more opportunities over the final three games. The Bills placed veteran receiver Lee Evans on injured reserve Tuesday.

Vote for this week's High Energy player

December, 13, 2010
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Time to examine the candidates for this week's High Energy performer.

With players contributing to three AFC East victories, we have a bunch of players to choose from.

We could nominate Tom Brady, but I think there are more interesting contenders who deserve some love.

Here are the ones I think should be highlighted for going above and beyond:

New England Patriots linebacker Gary Guyton played more than he normally would with rookie Brandon Spikes receiving a four-game suspension Friday. Guyton returned a fumble 35 yards for a touchdown in the second quarter to give the Patriots a 21-0 lead over the Chicago Bears. He snagged an interception at the Patriots' 16-yard line in the third quarter.

Miami Dolphins punter Brandon Fields was majestic. He punted 10 times for a 56.4-yard average and might have been the difference-maker in a field-position game at the Meadowlands. The Dolphins won 10-6.

Buffalo Bills receiver David Nelson made a tough, diving catch for the only touchdown in a 13-6 victory over the Cleveland Browns. The 11-yard play was Nelson's only reception, but he has scored in two straight games.

Feel free to vote for Brady or Patriots receiver Deion Branch or Dolphins outside linebacker Cameron Wake or anybody else you wish.

But those guys get written about quite a bit, and I'd rather shine the light on a player who doesn't get to bask that often.

Rapid Reaction: Patriots 36, Bears 7

December, 12, 2010
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CHICAGO -- Rapid reaction from the Patriots’ stunning 36-7 blowout of the Bears at snowy, windy Soldier Field.

What it means: The Patriots improve to 11-2 and clinch a playoff spot, but this type of convincing effort figures to have analysts thinking about much more than just a playoff spot for this team. The Patriots, who had a 33-0 lead at halftime, look like a well-oiled machine capable of a Super Bowl run.

Impressive burst from Patriots over seven quarters: The Patriots have been on a tear since the fourth quarter of their Thanksgiving win over the Lions. From the fourth quarter of that game, through the second quarter of Sunday’s win over the Bears, the Patriots outscored opponents 99-3.

Brady’s interception streak intact: Quarterback Tom Brady continues his remarkable stretch of error-free football. He has now gone eight games without an interception, his last pick coming Oct. 17 on a Hail Mary at the end of regulation against the Ravens. Brady had a few passes tipped the Bears almost intercepted. His MVP candidacy only grew stronger after this effort.

Guyton steps into Spikes’ role and delivers: With rookie inside linebacker Brandon Spikes serving the first game of his four-game suspension, Gary Guyton stepped into a full-time role and came up with two big plays -- a 35-yard fumble return for a touchdown in the second quarter and an interception in the third quarter.

McCourty the big injury to watch: Rookie cornerback Devin McCourty, who has been impressive in locking down the left side and totaling six interceptions, left the game in the second quarter with a rib injury and did not return. The potential loss of McCourty would be a big blow to the Patriots, who have been dressing just three corners on game-day. In addition, defensive lineman Ron Brace (head) left the game in the third quarter and did not return.

Bears crash back to earth: Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher had said during the week that “We’re the best team, period.” They didn’t play like it on this day. The Bears were outclassed, with quarterback Jay Cutler turning into the “Cutler of old” with a mistake-filled performance while the defense was shredded by Brady and Co.

What’s next: The Patriots return home to face the Packers in a Sunday night game. Green Bay lost at Detroit and could be without quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who left the game against the Lions with a concussion. It is Rodgers’ second concussion of the season.

NFL suspends Pats rookie Brandon Spikes

December, 10, 2010
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The NFL has suspended New England Patriots rookie inside linebacker Brandon Spikes for violating the league's policy on performance-enhancing substances.

Spikes is not appealing the four-game suspension, allowing the punishment to begin with Sunday's game against the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field and wiping out the remainder of the regular season. He will be allowed to participate in the playoffs .

"I've been contacted by the NFL and informed that I will be suspended four games for the detection of an illegal substance in a drug test," Spikes said in a statement released by the Patriots. "The substance was a medication that I should have gotten clarification on before taking. It was not a performance enhancer or an illegal drug.

"The integrity of the game is very important to me. I understand the league's ruling and apologize to my teammates, the fans and the Patriots organization for this mistake."

Spikes is second to inside linebacker Jerod Mayo in tackles. Spikes has 71, according to the Patriots' game film. He snagged his first NFL interception Monday night, against the Jets' Mark Sanchez in the red zone.

Gary Guyton likely will replace Spikes in the lineup. Guyton has four starts this season. He has 43 tackles, two sacks, three quarterback hits and an interception that he returned 59 yards for a touchdown.

Overachievers prevailing in AFC East

December, 9, 2010
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Fred Jackson and Tom Brady and Davone BessGetty ImagesFred Jackson, Tom Brady and Davone Bess came into the league as unheralded long shots but have made the most of their chances.
It's no mystery why we love underdogs.

Respected football minds who get paid to assemble NFL teams dismissed them out of hand, scratched them from their draft lists, cut them in training camp.

Yet these players survive. They're too driven to give up. Not all of them become stars, but that's not necessary to become a precious asset on a team.

"As a coach, you love those stories," said former New York Jets and Kansas City Chiefs head coach Herm Edwards. "They don't let you down."

Said Buffalo Bills head coach Chan Gailey: "You have to have them. There's no way to play the game without them."

Overachievers have dominated the AFC East this year. Late-round draft picks, players who weren't drafted at all and castoffs from other teams have starred for every team, including the MVP favorite (Tom Brady), two leading rushers (BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Fred Jackson), three leading receivers (Wes Welker, Steve Johnson, Davone Bess) and three sack leaders (Cameron Wake, Mike Wright and Kyle Williams).

These thriving underdogs are a substantial reason why the AFC East has been so compelling this year.

"It's football," said Jim Jensen, the ultimate survivor with the Miami Dolphins. They drafted the Boston University quarterback in the 11th round in 1980, and he stuck around until 1992 as a receiver/wedge buster/long snapper/third-down fullback/holder/tell me where to go, Coach, and I'll hit them.

"I like to watch guys that are working hard and working for the team," Jensen said. "They're working for a goal. They're not selfish. Wes Welker is a great example. He just loves to win. He's unselfish. Davone Bess is another one who's an inspiration to watch."

There's a reason the conquering underdog is such a common theme in Hollywood.

"These guys have something to prove," said film producer Mark Ciardi. "There's enough of these stories where these guys just survive and climb over players teams have a lot of money invested in. It's just a different thing when you've got to prove people wrong. They know they've got to check way more boxes than other people to succeed."

Ciardi pitched for the Milwaukee Brewers despite being a 15th-round draft choice in 1983.

"I got no money to sign," Ciardi said. "I was the last guy on the pitching squad of 17 guys in rookie ball. I had no chance."

Four years later, Ciardi made it to the majors. He started three games and pitched another in relief. He defied the odds, which is why he finds stories about unlikely heroes so appealing.

Among his true-story films: "Invincible" (about Philadelphia Eagles walk-on Vince Papale), "Miracle" (about the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team), "The Rookie" (about 35-year-old rookie pitcher Jim Morris) and "Secretariat."

All of those motion pictures portrayed an undeniable will to win, a theme that has carried Ciardi throughout his career. He sees it in such players as Brady and Patriots running back Danny Woodhead.

"What I realized was you've got to work extra hard," Ciardi said. "Nothing will be given to you, but you have an opportunity. The only way you're going to succeed is to snatch it and force them to keep you. If they don't have money invested in you, chances are you're not going to get the same kind of shot."

But having overachievers on the roster means more than a compelling storyline and increased jersey sales.

They often become team leaders and examples for other players to emulate. Underdogs help manage the salary cap because they're cheaper (at least in the beginning). They make draft mistakes much more bearable. They help a front office sell the team to future free agents.

"They're so coachable," former Baltimore Ravens head coach Brian Billick said. "Once they get into it, they realize how tenuous it is to stay in the NFL. Nothing came easy for them. You love having guys like that on your team."

Inquiring about a coach's favorite player is like asking a parent to name his favorite child. But it's easy to guess what type they admire most: the relentless survivors.

"You know what they have done to get to where they are," Gailey said. "As a competitor, you appreciate that. Everybody doesn't end up with a bunch of God-given talent. Guys have to go fight for what they want in life. When those guys get it, it's very satisfying to see it for those guys to make it."

[+] EnlargeJim Leonhard
Chris Trotman/Getty ImagesJim Leonhard went from the NFL scrapheap to being a vital player on defense and special teams for the Jets.
Two players New York Jets head coach Rex Ryan identified as critical to his establishing his defense last year were inside linebacker Bart Scott and safety Jim Leonhard. Neither was drafted. Leonhard had been waived by the Bills, re-signed and then cast adrift in free agency because the Bills viewed him as no more than roster filler. When Leonhard suffered a season-ending shin injury last week, Jets fans got nervous because he was integral to the secondary and special teams.

The NFL-leading New England Patriots are loaded with examples of perseverance. Brady has been such a superstar in the league for so long, it's sometimes strange to think of him as an underdog. But as the 199th pick in the 2000 draft, Brady might be the game's greatest overachiever.

Wake, the Miami Dolphins outside linebacker, leads the league with 12 sacks. He wasn't drafted and went five years between his last down at Penn State and his first in the NFL. Pro Bowl safety Yeremiah Bell was a sixth-round pick who got waived as a rookie and placed on the practice squad.

Buffalo's offense features late-round picks or undrafted players at the three marquee spots. Quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick was a seventh-round draft choice and a career backup. Jackson didn't start a game for his high school team and came up through Division III and the arena leagues before emerging in NFL Europa. Top receiver Johnson was a seventh-round draft choice.

As inspirational as these players are, they also make slackers look that much worse. Those healthy first-, second- and third-round players who can't get on the field unfortunately aren't wired to battle that way.

"A lot of these guys think it's a right that they have to play," Gailey said. Overachievers "realize it's a privilege to play this game.

"When you got a guy who knows how to fight and understands the fight, understands competition, understands working through adversity and he becomes a good player on your team, then that helps set a tone."

Billick and Edwards emphasized the impact of undrafted players and late-round successes on a roster's overall well-being. Edwards, an undrafted player who started for the Eagles from the opening day of his rookie season, said unearthing overlooked gems are "like getting a free draft pick." Billick noted that they're instrumental to managing the salary cap.

"The residual effect is you don't have to spend those resources," Billick said, "whether they be draft choices or a procurement through free agency to go fill that spot.

"You pick Tom Brady up in the sixth round. Are you kidding me? What that does for your organization ... Even the difference between that and having to draft Matt Ryan third in the draft, the resources you have to spend is just a gift from above."

Heaven-sent is how Patriots fans must view a good chunk of their division-leading team. Dolfans can't be more thrilled with Wake or Bess. The Jets will depend on undrafted starters such as right guard Brandon Moore, defensive end Mike Devito and Scott down the home stretch while certainly missing Leonhard.

And about the only pleasure Bills fans have had this season is watching their unlikely stars because they're such gripping characters.

"An underlying factor to all these stories," Ciardi said, "is the will and the heart that makes them extraordinary on the field."

Video: Ravens at Patriots 'Field Pass'

October, 16, 2010
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11:29
AM ET


ESPN analysts Herm Edwards, Mark Schlereth and Matthew Berry preview Sunday's showdown between the Baltimore Ravens and New England Patriots in Gillette Stadium.

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