AFC East: Jonathan Stewart

Eight in the Box: Breakout player

April, 12, 2013
4/12/13
12:00
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NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Who is one potential breakout player for each AFC East team in 2013?

Buffalo Bills: Last year Buffalo running back C.J. Spiller was one of the breakout players in the entire NFL. This season, Buffalo's breakout star most likely will be on the other side of the football. Bills starting cornerback Stephon Gilmore showed a lot of tools in his rookie season when he recorded 61 tackles, forced three fumbles and nabbed an interception. The Bills had the NFL's 10th-ranked pass defense and Gilmore took on the challenge as a rookie to guard the opponent’s best receiver each week. He is a fearless player who is already solid in a lot of areas. But Gilmore needs to work on making more big plays for the Bills this season and beyond in order to take the next step.

Miami Dolphins: The tailback who led the Dolphins in yards per carry last season was not Reggie Bush. It was actually second-year running back Lamar Miller, who averaged 4.9 yards per carry in 2012. Miller shined in limited opportunities during his rookie season. He displayed good vision and explosiveness, and appears to be a natural fit for Miami's West Coast offense under head coach Joe Philbin. Miller is the reason Miami had no issues letting Bush walk in free agency. Bush signed with the Detroit Lions after getting little interest from the Dolphins. Miller will get a lot more carries this season and pair with backup Daniel Thomas in Miami's backfield. Miller's weakness is pass protection, but he looked great last year carrying the football.

New England Patriots: The Patriots didn't necessarily need to draft a linebacker last year, but Dont'a Hightower was too good to pass up at the end of the first round. Hightower was considered an NFL-ready prospect and made an immediate impact with the Patriots. He recorded 60 tackles and four sacks with New England. Another year of experience should make Hightower even better in Year 2. Health permitting, Hightower should be a physical force in New England for years to come.

New York Jets: The Jets made several low-cost signings this offseason due to a tight salary cap. However, the free-agent signing that stands out for the Jets is running back Mike Goodson. He spent his career backing up quality tailbacks such as DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and Darren McFadden with the Carolina Panthers and Oakland Raiders, respectively. Goodson averages 4.5 yards per carry in his career and is a projected starter for the first time in New York. Goodson has the quickness to fit in well with the Jets' change to a West Coast offense under Marty Mornhinweg. He'll need to keep up the same production with the increased workload.

Ranking the AFC East's backfield trios

July, 22, 2010
7/22/10
8:49
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An interesting cyberdebate unfolded beneath an item I wrote Wednesday about Buffalo Bills coach Chan Gailey's ground-game tendencies.

The piece was inspired by a column written by ESPN fantasy analyst Matthew Berry, who noted Gailey has an undeniable history of designating one workhorse running back during his stops as a head coach and offensive coordinator over the past 22 years.

Some writers scoffed, insisting Gailey's trend wouldn't apply in Buffalo because they have three capable backs in Marshawn Lynch, Fred Jackson and rookie C.J. Spiller.

In the process, reader migarvin21 boldly declared the Bills have the NFL's best trio of backfield mates.

As is the hallmark of a spirited debate, some immediately shot down migarvin21's opinion, while others offered support.

When I expressed skepticism, readers Bills451 and Jpicc8049 dared me to name a team with three better backs.

As I responded in the comments section, I would take the Baltimore Ravens' (Ray Rice, Willis McGahee, Le'Ron McClain) and the Dallas Cowboys' (Marion Barber, Felix Jones, Tashard Choice) trios over the Bills. Other readers mentioned the Washington Redskins (Clinton Portis, Larry Johnson, Willie Parker).

But it's tough to compare trio for trio because most good teams don't rely on a third running back.

I'd also take the one-two punches of the Carolina Panthers (DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart) and New York Giants (Ahmad Bradshaw, Brandon Jacobs) over the Bills' threesome. Some fans would prefer Chris Johnson or Adrian Peterson by himself to sprinkling touches among Jackson, Lynch and Spiller.

Motivated by the discussion, I put together my AFC East preseason backfield rankings for 2010. The order is determined not by the offensive lines or the coordinator's playbook. This is purely on the talent of the top three backs for the upcoming season.

1. Miami Dolphins: Yes, Ronnie Brown always seems to be hurt, and Ricky Williams is 33 years old. But they are the best tandem in the division. Brown's versatility and explosiveness is what turned the Wildcat into a fad. In a recent Sporting News column, an NFL scout rated Brown the fourth-best back and said if it weren't for injuries he'd be the league's most complete. The Dolphins also have a true fullback in Lousaka Polite, who is automatic in short-yardage situations.

2. Buffalo Bills: The Bills are too unproven to be in the conversation for best NFL trio -- for now. We can justify the argument if we base it on how well they could be. But neither Jackson nor Lynch has established himself as a go-to back. Jackson topped 100 yards two times last year. Aside from trampling the Indianapolis Colts' junior varsity in the season finale, Jackson rushed for more than 70 yards twice against a team with a winning record. Lynch looked like a monster his first two seasons then plummeted out of favor last year. Spiller doesn't have an NFL touch.

3. New York Jets: They boasted the NFL's best attack last year, averaging 172.2 yards a game. But leading rusher Thomas Jones is gone. Sophomore Shonn Greene looked like the real deal in the playoffs but needs to show he can be the workhorse for a full season. LaDainian Tomlinson is a surefire Hall of Famer, but he's 31 and looked ragged last year with the San Diego Chargers. Fullback Tony Richardson will be 39 by the end of the season.

4. New England Patriots: They're a grab bag. They have the perpetually uninspiring Laurence Maroney and three veterans -- Kevin Faulk, Fred Taylor and Sammy Morris -- who are 33 or older. They're good enough to get by, as evidenced by the fact the Patriots finished 12th in rushing last year, but none of the backs is good enough to be dominant. Maroney was the leading rusher with 194 carries for 757 yards, a 3.9-yard average. Faulk was next with 335 yards.

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