AFC East: James Ihedigbo

Catching up on the AFC East

June, 24, 2012
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MIAMI -- We are back at the AFC East blog headquarters after a brief hiatus. Let's catch up on a few story lines that developed while I was away.

Story No. 1: Reggie Bush wants to win rushing title

Analysis: The Miami Dolphins' starting tailback wants to win the rushing title after posting his first 1,000-yard season in 2011. I applaud Bush for having such a lofty goal, but I don't see this one happening. First, there's always a question of durability with Bush. To lead the NFL in rushing you usually must have a consistently strong performance over 16 games. Bush has only played a full season once in his career. Last season he played 15 but also battled injuries. Second, Miami's passing attack isn't good enough to keep defenses honest. Thirty-four year old Chad Ochocinco may be the team's most dynamic receiver. There's also a quarterback competition and a new West Coast offense being installed. There will be growing pains. Third, Bush will be pushed by young running backs Daniel Thomas and Lamar Miller. Both up-and-comers will share the load with Bush and take carries away from the starter. I would be surprised if Bush overcomes all these factors to lead the NFL in rushing.

Story No. 2: Plaxico Burress rips Sanchez, Tebow

Analysis: Last week former New York Jets receiver Burress failed to give an endorsement to quarterbacks Mark Sanchez and Tim Tebow. Sanchez was Burress' quarterback last year, so it can be taken as a potshot. Burress didn't play with Tebow in Denver or New York. You got the sense that Burress wasn't high on Sanchez when things imploded last season. Burress and Santonio Holmes got along well, and perhaps neither receiver was a big fan of their quarterback. But Burress won't return to the Jets this year. So it doesn't really matter to New York how Burress feels about Sanchez. The important thing is for Sanchez and Holmes to continue to repair their working relationship.

Story No. 3: Patriots sign James Ihedigbo

Analysis: New England continues to do what it can to patch up its 31st-ranked pass defense. Ihedigbo is another body to add to the competition and potentially to the rotation. Ihedigbo isn't the most physically-gifted safety, but Patriots coach Bill Belichick likes his smarts, and that is what got him on the field last year. Ihedigbo has a decent chance even though he has to compete with eight other safeties for a roster spot.

Story No. 4: Bills aim to be a top-10 offense

Analysis: Buffalo Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick and his teammates want to be a dangerous offense in 2012. The Bills are confident after their fast start last year, when they averaged 32.8 points per game and were off to a 4-1 record. The key will be Fitzpatrick. Whether Buffalo's offense thrives or tanks will depend on Fitzpatrick's play. He can be very streaky. He was an early MVP candidate last October, but then lost eight of the final nine starts and could not get out of his funk. Injuries to Fitzpatrick and the offense had something to do with it. But there are no excuses for that kind of inconsistency this season.

Video: Pats wary of Super Bowl opponents

January, 23, 2012
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Matt Slater, Julian Edelman and James Ihedigbo talk about facing the Giants in the Super Bowl.

Reaction to Sterling Moore's big play

January, 23, 2012
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- One of the biggest heroes in the New England Patriots' locker room following their 23-20 victory against the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC Championship Game was backup cornerback Sterling Moore.

[+] EnlargeSterling Moore
AP Photo/Winslow TownsonThe Ravens' Lee Evans is stripped of the ball by the Patriots' Sterling Moore during the final minute of Sunday's AFC Championship Game.
With time running out in regulation, Moore made the biggest defensive play of the game when he stripped the ball out of Baltimore receiver Lee Evans' hands at the last second to negate a potential game-winning touchdown. The Ravens subsequently missed a 32-yard field goal that could have forced overtime.

"It was just a split-second decision and I'm glad it worked out," Moore said. "We do that drill everyday in practice, but it was the first time I had to use it in a game, and I just took what I learned from practice into the game."

Here is some reaction to Moore's ... ahem ... "sterling" play:

Patriots LB Brandon Spikes: "You have to play through the whole play. His technique was [good]. I’m not in the secondary, but throughout the whole week the coaches put a big emphasis on playing all the way through. [Evans] had the ball, but [Moore] knocked it out. That was big."

Patriots safety James Ihedigbo: "That is why you have to play through the whistle. Like I said, Sterling made an amazing play. He didn’t see the ball coming and his back was turned. And as the receiver caught it, and before he could put two feet down, he slapped it out of his hand. That‘s just a split second. That is just great thinking, an amazing play there."

Patriots coach Bill Belichick: "[Moore] made some plays. Not perfect out there, but he competes hard and he’s a tough kid. He’s got good ball skills. He gets around the ball."

The Patriots and Ravens were the two best teams in the AFC all season. There was a very thin line that separated them in the AFC Championship Game. The Patriots executed better than the Ravens in the final minute.
Of all the roster moves the Patriots made over the last few days, the release of safety James Sanders was most surprising. He had been a lock on previous 53-man projections as a steady presence along with Brandon Meriweather and Patrick Chung.

So when looking at ESPN's fourth version of dueling roster projections, the safety position now has a new look. Meriweather, Chung and second-year man Sergio Brown top the depth chart, and now a fourth spot could be open for either Josh Barrett or James Ihedigbo.

Barrett was claimed on waivers from the Broncos last year but spent the season on injured reserve. He has a background with special teams coach Scott O'Brien when the two were both in Denver. Meanwhile, Ihedigbo played on the "Big 4" special teams units (kickoff coverage, kickoff return, punt coverage, punt return) on Saturday, a sign that he could become a core special teamer.

Tough call.

Jets back-to-work FYI

July, 25, 2011
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NFC: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South Unrestricted FAs

Readiness factor: The Jets' coaching staff and much of the roster will remain intact, which reduces the learning curve. But the Jets won't have training-camp bonding time at SUNY Cortland, an enhancement Rex Ryan and his players prized the past two seasons. They already pulled the plug on their upstate training camp and will convene at team headquarters in Florham Park, N.J.

Biggest challenge: All their free agents. The Jets have some biggies, most notably at wide receiver. They must keep young quarterback Mark Sanchez's support staff stocked with weapons, and receivers Santonio Holmes, Braylon Edwards and Brad Smith are about to hit the market. So are cornerback Antonio Cromartie and safeties Brodney Pool, Eric Smith and James Ihedigbo.

What a rush: The Jets quietly tied for eighth in the NFL in sacks last season but didn't have a fearsome presence in an overall defense designed to create mayhem. Of the 40 sacks they recorded last season, more than a quarter of them belonged to defensive backs and almost half were rung up by players who aren't under contract. The Jets released outside linebacker Jason Taylor (5 sacks). Defensive end Shaun Ellis (4.5 sacks) also has an expired contract.

Key players without contracts for 2011: In addition to the above, fullback Tony Richardson, cornerback Drew Coleman, top special-teams tackler Lance Laury, kicker Nick Folk, punter Steve Weatherford.

Prepare for a chaotic week

July, 24, 2011
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Random thoughts and observations as we head into the homestretch of the lockout:

If free agency starts next Saturday, the latest tentative starting date, it'll make for a bizarro training camp. For the first few days of camp, teams will have swiss-cheese depth charts as their free agents shop the open market.

Imagine what it'll be like for the Jets: They will have Jerricho Cotchery (if medically cleared) and Patrick Turner as their starting wide receivers, with Santonio Holmes, Braylon Edwards and Brad Smith potentially shopping for deals. At safety, you could see Jim Leonhard (if cleared) and Dwight Lowery, with Brodney Pool, Eric Smith and James Ihedigbo testing the market.

On, say, Day 3, they could have a new starting receiver show up, maybe Randy Moss. He'll sign his contract, receive a playbook and be sent out to the field to meet his new teammates. It's going to be chaos. It'll be a distraction for players and coaches, all of them wondering who's coming and who's going. It'll be taxing for the coaches, who will have to spend extra time teaching the system to new players. It'll be minicamp, OTAs and training camp all in one, with a revolving door of players. Fasten your seatbelt.
  • I'm all for player safety, but the elimination of two-a-days and the reduction of padded practices in the regular season (only 14) is a bit ridiculous. Come on, it's football, not lawn tennis. I agree with Bart Scott; it'll make player soft. The product on the field will suffer, especially the tackling. Old-school coaches believe players lose their edge when they're not practicing in pads.
  • The elimination of the No. 3 quarterback on the game-day roster, one of the proposed changes in the CBA, will increase the value of free agent-to-be Smith. A former college quarterback at Missouri, Smith can be the unofficial/emergency No. 3 while playing all his other roles. He'll save a roster spot or two, and that has value.
  • I don't know Robert Kraft, and I didn't know his late wife, Myra, but after reading all the tributes and seeing the number of players and former players that attended her funeral (including Curtis Martin), it's not hard to see why the Patriots are such a well-run organization.
  • You give Mike Tannenbaum six months to prepare for free agency, and you have to expect a big-splash move that catches people by surprise. He's not the wallflower type. If you're a Jets fan, though, you have to hope he doesn't outhink himself.
  • If I'm the Jets and I can get Nnamdi Asomugha for Darrelle Revis money (about $11.5 million per year), with a creative, backloaded deal, I'd do it. I'd rather spend a few million more for Asomugha instead of overpaying Antonio Cromartie. How often does a player of Asomugha's caliber hit the open market? I say go for it.
  • Question for owners: Was it really worth it?

Leonhard's health great news for Jets

June, 22, 2011
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Here's some news that will make New York Jets fans -- and anybody who roots for overachievers -- smile.

Jets safety Jim Leonhard, one of the NFL's great stories of perseverance, has recovered from the horrible leg injury that ended his season at Thanksgiving. Leonhard missed the Jets' final five regular-season games and the entire playoffs with a broken right shin bone.

He told Newark Star-Ledger reporter Jenny Vrentas he recently was cleared for full football workouts after three months of grueling rehabilitation.

"This week was a definitely a huge breakthrough," Leonhard told Vrentas. "I felt I could push as hard as I wanted to and not have setbacks. ... I'm getting excited. I want to play football and prove I'm back; prove I’ve done the work to get back."

Proving people wrong is how Leonhard made his career. He walked on at Wisconsin, wasn't drafted, latched on with the Buffalo Bills and eventually became a favorite of Rex Ryan with the Baltimore Ravens before joining the Jets.

Leonhard's health is pivotal for the Jets' secondary. As a veteran of Ryan's defenses, Leonhard made all the defensive backfield calls on the field. His return also is critical because three other Jets safeties -- Brodney Pool, Eric Smith, James Ihedigbo -- are free agents.

Look at free agency under proposed CBA

June, 21, 2011
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ESPN's reports from Chicago indicate the latest labor proposal would allow players to become unrestricted free agents after four seasons.

That would clarify the market whenever it opens. Rules for the uncapped 2010 campaign didn't allow for unfettered free agency unless a player had been in the league six seasons. Any player with an expired contract and fewer than six years of experience was a restricted free agent, allowing teams to place qualifying tenders on them and receive compensation if another club tried to sign them.

Now it looks like players will be up for grabs -- with former teams receiving no compensation -- after four seasons.

Here are the AFC East players who would've been restricted with the six-year threshold but unrestricted at four years:

Buffalo Bills
Miami Dolphins
New England Patriots
New York Jets

Mankins' situation remains uncertain because we don't know if franchise-tag rules will remain in place under the next CBA. They probably will, meaning Mankins should be back with the Patriots in 2011.

Inside view on getting Jets over hump

June, 15, 2011
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Antonio Cromartie, Santonio Holmes, Brodney PoolGetty ImagesAccording to one Jets insider, the team should bring back Antonio Cromartie, Santonio Holmes and Brodney Pool.
While yakking with a key starter from last year's New York Jets squad this week, I asked a question I posed on the AFC East blog last month and have addressed regularly in my weekly chat.

What team is the class of the division? The New England Patriots, coming off 14 victories and another title? Or the Jets, who knocked the Patriots out of the playoffs and reached their second straight AFC Championship Game?

"Until we dethrone them," he said, "the Patriots are the class of the AFC East. That's the bottom line. There's no other way to slice it. You've got to knock them off the pedestal. That's goal No. 1, winning the division. That's the easiest way to get to the ultimate goal of the Super Bowl."

That comment alone wasn't enough for the player to request anonymity, but the next part of our conversation made him feel it was necessary for the sake of diplomacy and because he wants to keep his job next season.

I wanted to know more. To extract his veteran insight on the state of the Jets, I asked what his game plan would be if I could appoint him general manager for the next couple months.

How would he get the Jets over the hump from runners-up to AFC East champs and into the Super Bowl? He must have pondered that very question over the past few months because, without much thought, he rattled off six key steps to propelling the Jets upward.

Here they are, in order of what he felt was most important, along with his reasoning:

1. Re-sign receiver Santonio Holmes.

"You have to do that," our embedded analyst said. The Jets have three prominent free-agent receivers, but Holmes must be the priority over Braylon Edwards and Brad Smith. Holmes missed four games while serving a suspension but made 52 catches for 746 yards and six touchdowns. He was a clutch performer and added a couple more touchdowns in the playoffs.

"If I had to choose between Santonio, Braylon or Brad Smith -- I don't think you can re-sign them all -- I'll take Santonio because of his body of work," the Jets insider said. "He's more established."

Smith averaged 28.6 yards on kickoff returns and scored two touchdowns, and was the club's third-leading rusher with 299 yards and a TD as a gadget quarterback. The Jets led the NFL in average start position after a kickoff (at the 31.5-yard line). But the insider said revamped kickoff rules would neutralize Smith's impact in 2011.

The possibility of signing Plaxico Burress is intriguing and could help the Jets cope with any inability to re-sign Edwards or Smith. As for whether Burress would be a problem for head coach Rex Ryan, the insider laughed.

"With everything we have in our organization, he'd be just one of the guys," he said. "He wouldn't stand out like a sore thumb.

"Guys just love playing for Rex. With Rex's personality and the way he runs the show, Plaxico would just fit right in. Rex doesn't have problems with guys who have so-called character issues or big personalities. Rex is a big personality himself. A guy like Plaxico would do well with the Jets."

[+] EnlargeDavid Harris
Alan Maglaque/US PresswireDavid Harris is slated to become a free agent after the 2011 season.
2. Get inside linebacker David Harris signed to a long-term contract.

Harris led the Jets with 119 tackles. He recorded three sacks, 14 quarterback hits, a forced fumble and a recovery.

He signed his franchise tender and is under contract for next season, but he'll be a free agent again next offseason unless the Jets broker another deal before then.

"I've got to lock up David Harris," the insider said. "He's one of the more underrated defenders in the league. I've got to get him signed long-term."

3. Re-sign cornerback Antonio Cromartie.

Another significant free agent, Cromartie helped limit opposing quarterbacks to a 50.7 completion percentage -- lowest in the league by far -- and a 77.1 passer rating. He notched 42 tackles, three interceptions and a team-high 18 passes defensed.

Besides, the Jets invested too much in him to let him stroll for nothing this summer.

"If I gave up a second-round pick for the guy, I don't want to see him walk out the door," the insider said. "That would be a high draft pick I'd wasted.

"Plus, with no offseason to monitor the young players, I don't know what I have with Kyle Wilson. The team hasn't had a chance to coach him up. He didn't do the things the team expected last year. So I need to get Antonio Cromartie back to make sure I shore up the secondary."

4. Find a pass-rusher or two.

One of the Jets' biggest perceived weaknesses heading into the offseason was their inability to generate a more formidable pass rush last season.

"This team has a defensive scheme that can be dangerous with a pass rush," the insider said. "We had a great group, but that'll make my defense even stronger."

Outside linebacker Jason Taylor's status is in question. The Jets cut him, but it's not unfathomable he could return. Last year's regular starters, Calvin Pace and Bryan Thomas, are under contract. Thomas recorded a team-high six sacks last season, while Pace had 5.5 sacks. Taylor added five more. Those aren't fearsome numbers.

Football Outsiders charted the Jets for 117.5 hurries (seventh in the NFL), but just 38 quarterback hits (tied for 23rd).

[+] EnlargeDamien Woody
Richard A. Brightly/Icon SMIDurability concerns could steer the Jets away from bringing back Damien Woody.
5. Sign a free-agent right tackle.

The Jets released Damien Woody after the season, but published reports before the lockout indicated the club was interested in bringing him back.

Woody can't provide many guarantees in what would be his 13th NFL season. Although he has been to the Pro Bowl, is one of few players on last year's roster who owns a Super Bowl ring and started 13 games last season, there are injury concerns. He battled knee problems before an Achilles' injury landed him on injured reserve in the playoffs.

There don't appear to be any solutions on the roster. Last year's second-round draft choice, Vladimir Ducasse, was a tackle at Boston College but was unable to win a job at guard. Woody's reliable backup, Wayne Hunter, is a free agent.

6. Identify a safety to solidify the secondary, looking first at Brodney Pool.

The Jets' best safety, Jim Leonhard, is coming off a broken shin that had him limited to a scooter during rehab. Pool, Eric Smith and James Ihedigbo all are free agents.

Pool started 12 games. He ranked fourth in tackles with 63. He registered a sack, an interception, nine passes defenses, a forced fumble and a recovery. Smith started six games and was fifth with 57 tackles. He also made an impact on special teams (19 tackles), as did Ihedigbo (27 tackles).

"I would try to get Brodney Pool or Eric Smith back," the Jets insider said. "Both played well down the stretch, but I think Brodney Pool was a guy who, as it got later in the season, really picked up the scheme and became a playmaker at the safety position."

I found the insider's opinions to be insightful. Nowhere among the list of issues to address were quarterback Mark Sanchez, left guard or kicker Nick Folk. The obviously aren't major concerns with this veteran player.

Once the lockout concludes, we'll see how much the anonymous player's wish list jibes with Mike Tannenbaum's.

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.

Draft Watch: AFC East

March, 10, 2011
3/10/11
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NFC Draft Watch: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Each Thursday leading up to the NFL draft (April 28-30), the ESPN.com NFL blog network will take a division-by-division look at key aspects of the draft. Today's topic: biggest team needs.

Buffalo Bills

Where would you like to start?

Offense? How about left tackle, right tackle, tight end and -- if there's a great one still on the draft board -- quarterback?

Defense? How about the line, outside linebacker, inside linebacker, cornerback and safety?

Special teams? OK, the Bills are fine there.

But kicker, punter and running back are about the only positions the Bills can draft third overall and not help themselves.

The most pressing needs, however, are tackle and outside linebacker. The Bills haven't drafted an offensive tackle earlier than the fifth round since taking Mike Williams in the first round in 2002, and their line play shows that. They have tried to coach up late draft picks (Demetrius Bell, Ed Wang) and rummaged through free agency (Cornell Green, Mansfield Wrotto, Jonathan Scott, Jamon Meredith) rather than acquire that prized blindside protector.

The Bills were so desperate at outside linebacker they plucked the injury-ravaged Shawne Merriman off waivers last year and then, even though he got hurt again minutes into his first workout, gave him a contract extension.

They can't bank on Merriman to anchor their pass rush. Yet even if he can contribute, they'll need more help. The Bills recorded 27 sacks last year. Only three teams had fewer.

Miami Dolphins

The Dolphins probably will need a running back. They could stand to upgrade at quarterback if they can.

But they definitely need interior offensive linemen.

They recently re-signed left guard Richie Incognito to an extension, but they still have problems at center and right guard. Although they have two solid book-end tackles in Pro perennial Bowl left tackle Jake Long and veteran Vernon Carey, they've been a mess in between for the past three years.

The Dolphins need to upgrade their power running game. Despite having a capable and healthy backfield tandem in Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams last season, the Dolphins ranked 21st in rushing yards, 29th in yards per carry and 29th in rushing touchdowns.

A stud running back certainly can help, and the Dolphins might have little choice but to take one with their 15th selection. Brown's and Williams' contracts are up. That's why so many draft analysts project the Dolphins will take Alabama running back Mark Ingram and then address the O-line later.

New England Patriots

Funny how things work for the Patriots when it comes to draft picks. The reigning AFC East champs might have the fewest needs but have the most draft picks at their disposal.

The Patriots went 14-2 last season and own two draft choices in each of the first three rounds. So the Patriots have the flexibility to go any number of directions.

The most obvious need is outside linebacker. The Patriots' entire outside linebacking corps mustered 13.5 sacks last year. Dolphins outside linebacker Cameron Wake generated 14 sacks all by himself.

Offensive line is another concern because there are so many question marks. Right guard Stephen Neal retired. Left guard Logan Mankins is upset. Left tackle Matt Light isn't signed. Nick Kaczur is coming off serious back surgery. The timing is right to bring in some fresh O-line blood.

The Patriots had one of the NFL's most entertaining backfields last year, with BenJarvus Green-Ellis rushing for over 1,000 yards and Danny Woodhead making the Jets look foolish for cutting him. But each running back has his limitations, and the Patriots could be on the lookout for an all-purpose back adept at catching a pass and converting a third-and-short.

New York Jets

The Jets are in a weird spot. They finished the season as a team with talent at virtually every position.

But they have a crowded group of free agents and couldn't bring themselves to sign any (aside from giving inside linebacker David Harris the franchise tag) until a new collective bargaining agreement was in place. The Jets want to know what the new salary cap is before moving forward.

That leaves a lot of loose ends for the Jets heading into the draft. Will they need a receiver to replace Santonio Holmes or Braylon Edwards? A cornerback to replace Antonio Cromartie?

The needs we can bank on are outside linebacker and safety.

The Jets must generate a better pass rush and still need to recover from the Vernon Gholston pick that set them back. Outside linebacker Bryan Thomas is competent, but no star. He led the Jets with just six sacks. Calvin Pace had 5.5 sacks. The recently released Jason Taylor added five.

Safety is an area of emphasis because they could have stood to upgrade even before Brodney Pool, Eric Smith and James Ihedigbo became free agents. Jim Leonhard is a Rex Ryan favorite but recovering from a broken shin.

You can't argue with Mel Kiper; Or can you?

March, 10, 2011
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ESPN draft monger Mel Kiper has released his first post-combine mock draft.

Along with his projections for the AFC East's five first-round picks, I've added my opinions.

No. 3 Buffalo Bills

Kiper's pick: Marcell Dareus, Alabama defensive tackle

My thoughts: Kiper has the Carolina Panthers taking Missouri quarterback Blaine Gabbert and the Bills passing on Auburn quarterback Cam Newton. No one can argue the Bills need better D-line play, and Dareus is highly versatile. He could play five-technique defensive end. But a couple things Bills general manager Buddy Nix said at the combine stick out to me. Nix was asked specifically about having two defensive tackles in Pro Bowler Kyle Williams and Torell Troup and flatly replied, "I don't think that's an area of need. I don't." Nix added that Troup, last year's second-round draft pick, would rate "probably first or second" on this year's draft board at nose tackle. But maybe the Bills are comfortable Dareus can play the end and go with him here.

No. 15 Miami Dolphins

Kiper's pick: Mark Ingram, Alabama running back

My thoughts: Ingram to the Dolphins in this spot is the most common projection among all the mocks out there because it makes so much sense. In all three of Kiper's mocks, he has stuck with Ingram at No. 15. Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams aren't under contract. Ingram is considered the best running back in this year's draft, and analysts believe he'll be available when the Dolphins hand their card to the commissioner. The 2009 Heisman Trophy winner is explosive. The biggest knock is that he ran his combine 40-yard dash in a disappointing 4.62 seconds. But he came in at 4.55 seconds at his pro day.

No. 17 New England Patriots (from Oakland Raiders)

Kiper's pick: Ryan Kerrigan, Purdue outside linebacker

My thoughts: Kiper has slotted a different player in this spot for each of his mocks. He originally pegged Wisconsin defensive end J.J. Watt, who's now projected 11th to the Houston Texans. Then Kiper had California defensive end Cameron Jordan ticketed to New England here. But the Ouija board is spelling Kerrigan this time. Coach Bill Belichick certainly could use a nasty pass-rusher. The Patriots were close to average with their 36 sacks, but their outside linebackers combined for only 13.5 sacks. Four individual outside linebackers had that many elsewhere in the league.

No. 28 New England Patriots

Kiper's pick: Leonard Hankerson, Miami receiver

My thoughts: I don't see receiver as a first-round need for the Patriots. Kiper acknowledges the Patriots make for tricky speculation because they own two picks in each of the first three rounds and aren't bashful about trading. But he has liked an offensive skill player at No. 28 all along -- just not the same prospect. His first mock named Illinois running back Mikel Leshoure. The second mock had Maryland receiver Torrey Smith. But Hankerson's stock is rising, as evidenced by his debut on Kiper's radar. Hankerson is thin at 6-foot-1 and 209 pounds, but he has a knack for making difficult catches look easy.

No. 30 New York Jets

Kiper's pick: Rahim Moore, UCLA safety

My thoughts: Kiper leaves the 30th slot unchanged from his last mock. Coach Rex Ryan must get a safety. Brodney Pool, Eric Smith and James Ihedigbo all are without contracts. Jim Leonhard is rehabbing from a broken shin. Kiper admits the Jets need defensive linemen in a bad way, but justifies his prediction by noting this year's D-line class is deep. Moore is considered by many to be the best safety amid a pedestrian group. In other words, if the Jets don't get a safety here, then they might regret not plucking the best one off the board. Moore is ball hawk who intercepted 10 passes two seasons ago. He had only one interception last year, but his tackle total soared in more of a strong safety role.

Whatever they're worth: Jets tender nine

March, 1, 2011
3/01/11
10:07
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The New York Jets have placed restricted free-agent tenders on nine of their free agents.

Now we need to find out if those tenders are worth anything.

First, here's the rundown, with the draft compensation or considerations they'll receive if signed by another team:
ESPNNewYork.com's Rich Cimini points out these tenders might not mean one iota under the new collective bargaining agreement.

Many of these players -- Holmes and Cromartie included -- could be unrestricted free agents under the new CBA. That means the club can't use tenders, and those players would be bound for the open market.

The Jets already used their franchise tag on linebacker David Harris.

AFC East draft season: Who needs what?

February, 9, 2011
2/09/11
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Gabbert, Ingram & Ayers US PresswireBlaine Gabbert (Bills), Mark Ingram (Miami), and Akeem Ayers (Patriots) could all fit in the AFC East.
Nobody can say for sure when the 2011 NFL season will begin or what the free-agency period will resemble.

But we do know there will be a draft in April.

Rather than depress everybody with labor musings, let's focus on the only player personnel activities we can count on.

To set the stage for draft season and the NFL scouting combine in two weeks, I canvassed four evaluators I respect to compile a list of positional needs for the AFC East.

I asked National Football Post scouting guru Wes Bunting, Scouts Inc. draft analyst Steve Muench, Pro Football Weekly senior editor Nolan Nawrocki, and CBSSports.com senior analyst Rob Rang to share their rundown of shortcomings for each club.

I merged their insights to come up with a consensus. From there, I targeted some candidates who fit the profile of need combined with draft position.

The new collective bargaining agreement can impact these projections significantly. If a CBA can be hammered out before the draft, then perhaps teams will be able to address some needs via free agency. Otherwise, front offices will have more roster uncertainties than usual when they're on the clock in Radio City Music Hall.

Buffalo Bills

Pick: Third.

Consensus needs: Offensive line, quarterback, defensive tackle, outside linebacker.

Analysis: An asterisk should be affixed to any Bills forecast. Few experts would have rated running back as a target area last year, but they selected C.J. Spiller ninth overall out of Clemson. So who knows what they're thinking?

All four analysts rated offensive line either first or second among the Bills' most needful areas. Nawrocki and Muench were specific about tackles -- a position the Bills haven't drafted earlier than the fifth round since 2002. Nawrocki called tackle the No. 1 priority.

Muench and Bunting rated quarterback as the most important position.

The good news for the Bills is that they likely will be able to take the first quarterback or tackle off the board if they choose.

But none of the analysts projected the Bills to take an offensive lineman third overall. The best prospects simply aren't considered worth that high of a slot.

"Ryan Fitzpatrick is an excellent backup and stopgap, but he's an adequate at best starter," Muench said. "If the Bills can get Missouri quarterback Blaine Gabbert at No. 3, then I think they pull the trigger."

Rang labeled defensive line Buffalo's biggest concern, noting opponents averaged a gaudy 169.6 rushing yards last season, and this year's draft class is deep along the defensive front.

Who could be there: Alabama defensive tackle Marcell Dareus and Clemson defensive end Da'Quan Bowers are top candidates. Gabbert should be on the board when the Bills pick. Auburn quarterback Cam Newton almost certainly will be available. The two teams drafting ahead of the Bills, the Carolina Panthers and Denver Broncos, aren't expected to take a quarterback.

Miami Dolphins

Pick: 15th.

Consensus needs: Running back, interior offensive line, quarterback.

Analysis: Of the four AFC East teams, the Dolphins presented the most straightforward consensus among the panel. Three of four rated running back as the chief concern. Three of four listed guard second.

Two experts listed quarterback, with Bunting deeming it the greatest deficiency. Even so, Bunting added Alabama running back Mark Ingram is an attractive possibility in the first round.

Free agency mysteries could put the Dolphins in a backfield bind. Contracts for Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams are about to expire.

"Running back is an obvious concern," Rang said. "Lex Hilliard could surprise if given a real opportunity, but many believe the Dolphins will be tempted by Ingram in the first round."

Muench found quarterback to be an interesting position for Miami in the draft.

"The argument could be made that quarterback is the Dolphins' top need," Muench said, "but not from a draft perspective. Miami won't find a better quarterback than Chad Henne at pick 15, and trading up will prove difficult.

"If the Dolphins have decided to move on from Henne, then signing a free agent or trading for a quarterback makes the most sense. Regardless, they should take a chance on a developmental prospect in the middle rounds."

Who could be there: The Bills' slot is the only one in the AFC East that comes with some clarity. The middle of the first round is dicey to predict. Will Ingram still be on the board? The Dolphins also could be tempted to grab Newton if he's still waiting by his phone or Arkansas quarterback Ryan Mallett, although multiple reports suggest Mallett's stock is plummeting. As for interior linemen, the 15th slot seems way too soon for anybody in this year's class. The top candidate is Florida guard Mike Pouncey, younger brother of Pittsburgh Steelers rookie Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey.

New England Patriots

Pick: 17th and 28th.

Consensus needs: Outside linebacker, offensive line, running back, defensive end.

Analysis: The Patriots have a pair of first-round choices to address their needs. They also have two picks each in the second and third rounds. With so much inventory to wheel and deal, it's hard to speculate what Bill Belichick will do or where he will end up picking within the first couple rounds.

None of the four analysts prioritized the same top position for New England, but all of them ranked outside linebacker among their top three needs.

Nawrocki was specific in stating the Patriots need a five-technique defensive end, although veteran Ty Warren is returning from a hip injury that sidelined him for 2010.

Bunting's emphasis was on a do-it-all running back. BenJarvus Green-Ellis had a nice campaign as the AFC East's lone 1,000-yard rusher, but he's not a threat in the passing game. Danny Woodhead is a top-notch complementary player, but he doesn't have the size to be a workhorse.

[+] EnlargeLogan Mankins
AP Photo/Stephan SavoiaThe contract status of guard Logan Mankins could impact New England's draft needs this year.
Three of the four analysts viewed New England's offensive line as an issue dependent upon the ability to re-sign Pro Bowl guard Logan Mankins and ambiguity over the futures of veteran left tackle Matt Light and right guard Stephen Neal.

"Light has been a solid bookend for the past 10 years, but he turns 33 this offseason, and explosive edge rushers gave him problems last year," Muench said. "It's also worth pointing out that New England wants its young tight ends making plays downfield and not helping in pass protection."

Who could be there: Pass-rushers always are a hot commodity, and this year is no different. Defensive ends and outside linebackers can be difficult to sort because teams will project them into different roles. UCLA outside linebacker Akeem Ayers and Missouri outside linebacker Aldon Smith are strong possibilities. It's foreseeable New England will be considering the fifth or sixth best defensive end on its board at No. 17 -- if you believe the Patriots will keep that pick, of course. Purdue's Ryan Kerrigan and Wisconsin's J.J. Watt project in that range. Illinois running back Mikel Leshoure is considered second in this year's class behind Ingram.

New York Jets

Pick: 30th.

Consensus needs: Outside linebacker, wide receiver, defensive line, safety.

Analysis: Analysts were fragmented on the Jets, and a major reason for that is their volume of free agents and the degree of difficulty general manager Mike Tannenbaum will have in re-signing the most important ones.

"Collectively, their roster is one of the strongest in the league, but they do have some questions to answer," Nawrocki said.

For instance, receiver either could be a huge offseason weakness or a major strength. Santonio Holmes, Braylon Edwards and Brad Smith are free agents, but Tannenbaum stated he intends to re-sign them all. The likelihood of that happening is dubious, as illustrated by three of the four panelists rating wide receiver either second or third for the Jets.

Nawrocki and Rang each listed outside linebacker first.

"The Jets must account for the failure of Vernon Gholston, who likely will be released soon, and get younger at outside linebacker," Nawrocki said.

Gholston was the sixth overall selection in the 2008 draft and has failed to record an NFL sack. Jason Taylor had five sacks last season, but he'll turn 37 at the start of next season and might not be back.

"The Jets need a pass-rusher to take the next step," Rang said. "If there is a 3-4 outside linebacker prospect they like on the board at No. 30, he's the favorite."

Muench rated free safety as the Jets' biggest need. Not only could the Jets stand to upgrade that position, but also Brodney Pool and Eric Smith are free agents.

"As good as this defense is," Muench said, "imagine if Rex Ryan had a safety that can match up with receivers and play a center-field role like he had with Ed Reed in Baltimore."

Who could be there: Draft boards are highly unreliable by the end of the first round. Prospects you thought would go in the top 15 drop into the 20s. A player expected to be available early in the second round is long gone. Nawrocki's mock draft has Ayers slipping to the Jets. Bunting and Rang each have Baylor defensive tackle Phil Taylor slotted 30th.

Your 2010 All-AFC East team revealed

January, 26, 2011
1/26/11
1:27
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Vince Wilfork and Kyle WilliamsGetty Images, US PresswireThere was enough room on the All-AFC East team for nose tackles Vince Wilfork and Kyle Williams.
Reader input didn't make compiling the 2010 All-AFC East team a simple process.

Despite your tremendous response to help me assemble the quintessential roster, I had to make an executive decision, break a deadlock, defend one of my no-brainer selections and throw out some ballots because of shenanigans.

In the end, we have an All-AFC East squad everybody should be satisfied with.

We began the process a week ago, when I chose 10 players I believed were automatic. The other 17 positions were for you to vote upon. You didn't disappoint.

There were some great races, most notably at left tackle and nose tackle.

As with any voting process on the AFC East blog, I always can be convinced to move from a stance. My instructions were to vote for one nose tackle for a 3-4 scheme with emphasis that New England Patriots keystone Vince Wilfork and Buffalo Bills standout Kyle Williams must be considered nose tackles because that's how each team identifies him.

But enough readers made the case that Wilfork and Williams played elsewhere along the line so frequently that they should be eligible for some quasi position. I do appreciate the point.

The Patriots' official game-by-game player participation record says Wilfork started eight games at defensive end. Williams started every game at nose tackle (12) or defensive tackle (four).

I decided to add Wilfork and Williams as "defensive tackles" on a defensive front with New York Jets defensive end Shaun Ellis, who received an avalanche of votes. But I didn't want to slight the No. 2 defensive end, Kendall Langford of the Miami Dolphins. Langford received a healthy number of votes. Too many to dismiss.

That left me with a dilemma: How can I honor four defensive linemen and still maintain a 3-4 alignment? I took the easy way out. I added a 12th defender. I'm not thrilled with my final decision, but it's an appropriate way to give proper credit where it's due.

On the other side of scrimmage, Dolphins left tackle Jake Long and Jets left tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson finished in a tie, forcing me to make the call. Each was selected to be a Pro Bowl starter. Long was voted All-Pro.

I chose Long. He played hurt for much of the season. He slipped on plays here or there, but he mostly remained dominant.

A few readers took me to task for my coronation of Dolphins punter Brandon Fields without allowing a vote because Jets punter Steve Weatherford had a great season. Weatherford tied an NFL record with 42 punts inside the 20-yard line. He was impressive.

But I found Fields more remarkable this year. He ranked fourth with a 46.2-yard average (3.6 yards longer than Weatherford). Fields' net average of 37.8 yards was only 0.3 yards shorter than Weatherford's, but the Dolphins were atrocious on special-teams protection and coverage. They fired their special-teams coordinator after Week 4. Fields had two punts blocked and one returned for a touchdown.

The Jets have venerable special-teams coach Mike Westhoff and sensational coverage men, as illustrated by four Jets receiving at least two votes for the special-teams position on the All-AFC East team.

And it's not often a punter is MVP of a game, but Fields certainly was against the Jets in Week 14.

There were some surprises in the balloting.

Bills receiver Steve Johnson ran away with one of the two available spots, but I didn't expect Santonio Holmes to take the other one so handily over teammate Braylon Edwards or Patriots star Wes Welker.

I assumed Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski would win, but in a close race, especially with the possibility of splitting votes with teammate Aaron Hernandez. Gronkowski crushed everyone else. He had four times as many votes as his closest competition, Dustin Keller of the Jets.

Bills linebacker Arthur Moats finished a distant second to Calvin Pace. But I found it amusing that almost every time a vote came in for him, the reader stipulated it was because Moats injured Brett Favre.

Patriots rookie Devin McCourty had six times as many votes as Dolphins cornerback Vontae Davis for the position opposite Jets star Darrelle Revis. Antonio Cromartie wasn't remotely in the race.

The most balanced voting happened at the safety positions. Patriots strong safety Brandon Meriweather edged out Jim Leonhard of the Jets, with Donte Whitner of the Bills closely behind in third.

Bills free safety Jairus Byrd, a Pro Bowler as a rookie in 2009, accumulated just 14 more votes than Patrick Chung of the Patriots.

The special-teams race was fun to track. Thirteen players received at least one vote, with Jets hitter Eric Smith barely beating teammate James Ihedigbo and Bills fullback Corey McIntyre.

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