AFC East: Kevin Burnett

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ALAMEDA, Calif. -- Oakland Raiders coach Dennis Allen saw something a little familiar in the game of Buffalo linebacker Khalil Mack when he flipped on the tape.

After he fell in love, that is.

A skill set similar to that of Denver Broncos linebacker Von Miller.

Sure, Allen only had Miller for one season, his rookie campaign, but what a year it was. Miller was the NFL's defensive rookie of the year after racking up 11.5 sacks and forcing four fumbles with Allen as his defensive coordinator.

"Absolutely, I saw a lot of similarities between him and Von Miller," Allen said of Mack after the Raiders selected him with the No. 5 overall pick Thursday night.

[+] EnlargeKhalil Mack
Kirk Irwin/Getty ImagesKhalil Mack had 10.5 sacks and 19 tackles for loss while with the University of Buffalo last season.
"And the thing that really was attractive about Khalil Mack was the fact that he understands how to rush the passer. And he understands how to rush the passer with power."

Mack, recruited by only two colleges out of high school, was the MAC's defensive player of the year last season after recording 10.5 sacks with 19 tackles for a loss. In fact, his 75 career tackles for a loss are the most in FBS since the statistic was tracked nationally in 2000.

Still, the furthest West he ever played in college was in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl in Boise, Idaho, to end his college career. Before that, it was at Baylor.

"The conversation was crazy," Mack said of the call he received when the Raiders tabbed him. "I started on the phone with an assistant or a scout, and then I got on the phone with Reggie McKenzie, and then Dennis Allen told me how he wants to use me. It's a blessing to have this opportunity. I'm going to make the most of it."

Mack was not aware yet of the Miller comparison, but he was excited to join the likes of new Raiders defensive end Justin Tuck.

"Justin Tuck, man, how about that?" Mack said. "Playing with him is a blessing. Knowing how good he is and what he's done, it'll be good to learn from him. I can't tell you how excited I am."

Mack would appear to be a natural fit at weakside linebacker in the Raiders' 4-3 base defense, potentially making veteran Kevin Burnett expendable. But while Allen would not comment on a specific role for the rookie yet, McKenzie said Mack would have an immediate impact. Especially with the Raiders having an NFL-low 12 sacks with four or fewer pass-rushers last season, per data from ESPN Stats & Information.

"The guy has the size," McKenzie said. "He has the length. He's got speed. He's a playmaker. We'll find a way to put him on the field and get some production out of him."

Added Allen: "He'll have his hand on the ground some, too. I envision his role being very similar to what we did with Von Miller."

The Raiders are banking on similar results.
Dannell EllerbeRic Tapia/Icon SMILinebacker Dannell Ellerbe is excited about his chance to be a leader on Miami's defense.
DAVIE, Fla. -- Dannell Ellerbe had to travel more than 1,100 miles south to escape Ray Lewis' large and overwhelming shadow.

Coming off a Super Bowl victory, Ellerbe had a tough decision to make in free agency: He could either be heir apparent to Lewis -- the legendary Baltimore Ravens middle linebacker who retired in February -- or aim to build his own legacy at middle linebacker with the Miami Dolphins.

Ellerbe opted not to spend the rest of his NFL career trying to fill Lewis' shoes in Baltimore. Instead, he signed a five-year, $35 million contract with up-and-coming Miami, where he believes he can make a bigger impact on the field and in the locker room.

“I wanted to come to a team where I can be a leader, where they needed me, and I can be a voice on the team,” Ellerbe told ESPN.com’s AFC East blog this week. “Basically, [the Dolphins] showed me that they really wanted me. ... They want me to be a leader of this defense.”

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Which Dolphins' free-agent signing will have the biggest impact?

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Ellerbe, 27, is entering the prime of his career and brings much-needed championship experience to the Dolphins. Although he chose not to replace Lewis in Baltimore, Ellerbe learned a lot from the future Hall of Famer and plans to bring that knowledge and leadership to Miami.

He is already making a good first impression with the Dolphins' coaching staff during the start of organized team activities.

“I like a lot of things that I see. He’s a bright guy,” Dolphins head coach Joe Philbin said. “He’s very business-like in the building. He comes in, gets his work done and very, very attentive. You’ve got to be strong down the middle, offensively and defensively, and he’s a guy that we’re looking for to help coordinate that front seven. We like what we’ve seen thus far.”

The Dolphins had a near-complete makeover at linebacker this offseason. Miami spent a combined $61 million on Ellerbe and former Oakland Raiders linebacker Philip Wheeler, 28. They will replace aging veterans Karlos Dansby and Kevin Burnett, who were released. Miami’s 2010 second-round pick Koa Misi, 26, is the other starting linebacker. He's playing out the final year of his rookie contract.

The Dolphins had the NFL’s 27th-rated pass defense in 2012 and struggled defending tight ends and slot receivers over the middle. Linebackers Ellerbe, Wheeler and Misi are much more athletic and have the potential to grow together.

According to ESPN.com NFL analyst Matt Williamson, the Dolphins certainly got “younger and faster” in the middle by replacing Dansby with Ellerbe.

“He can play 4-3 middle linebacker or 3-4 inside linebacker with [rookie first-round pick] Dion Jordan on board,” Williamson explained. “Ellerbe is best coming downhill. He’s a good blitzer and runs well in a straight line.”

Ellerbe is part of a strong free-agent class for the Dolphins that also includes Wheeler, former Pro Bowl cornerback Brent Grimes, tight end Dustin Keller, and receivers Brandon Gibson and Mike Wallace, who was a former rival of Ellerbe.

Wallace and Ellerbe had some heated battles the past four years as members of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Ravens. Pittsburgh-Baltimore is one of the league's most intense rivalries. Wallace joked during his introductory news conference that he doesn’t like too many Ravens but must get along with Ellerbe now that they are teammates.

“I’m with him every day and we speak every day -- it’s not anything personal,” Ellerbe said with a smile. “It’s a business. The only way it would be a problem is if we were still with the Ravens and Steelers. As long as he didn’t go to Georgia Tech, I don’t have any problems with him.” (Ellerbe starred at Georgia.)

This is an important year for the Dolphins, who haven’t made the playoffs or won the AFC East since the 2008 season. On paper, this is the strongest roster Miami has had in recent memory.

It is also a good year for the Dolphins to try to make a push in the AFC East. The New England Patriots are the perennial favorites but may have taken a step back, particularly on offense with the loss of 2012 starters Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd and injuries at tight end. The Buffalo Bills and New York Jets also have significant changes on their rosters and coaching staffs. It could take another year or two for the Bills and Jets to get their franchises back on track.

Ellerbe will be an important factor in the Dolphins' success this season. He never missed the playoffs in four years in Baltimore and does not want his streak to end in Miami.

“The sky is the limit,” Ellerbe said of Miami’s potential. “I haven’t been around here long enough to see exactly what’s going on. But from what I see in the film room and the statistics the coaches are putting up in the first week of OTAs, I feel like the sky is the limit for us. ... It’s a lot of good things we have to build on around here.”
Here are the most interesting stories Monday in the AFC East:
  • Can the Buffalo Bills afford to pass on West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith at No. 8 overall?
Morning take: I’ve said all offseason there isn’t a quarterback in this draft I would take in the top 10. However, desperate times call for desperate measures, and the Bills find themselves with only Tarvaris Jackson as the potential starter. If the top-rated quarterback is on the board, the Bills have to consider it based simply on need.
Morning take: This is an insurance move if Sebastian Vollmer doesn’t re-sign. Svitek has experience on the left and right side and offers flexibility.
Morning take: We haven’t had any Tim Tebow news in a while in the AFC East blog. So I thought I'd add this in there.
  • Former Miami Dolphins linebacker Kevin Burnett signs with the Oakland Raiders.
Morning take: This is not at all surprising. Burnett was released in Miami because former Raider Philip Wheeler signed with the Dolphins. This was simply a swap of player.
Miami Dolphins general manager Jeff Ireland wasn't kidding when he said he would get young quarterback Ryan Tannehill more weapons.

The Dolphins signed former St. Louis Rams receiver Brandon Gibson on Friday, the team announced. Gibson is the third offensive skill player Miami has added since free agency began. The Dolphins also signed speedy receiver Mike Wallace and tight end Dustin Keller this week.

Miami's new-look offense looks formidable. Tannehill proved he could make all the throws last season. He led the Dolphins to a 7-9 record despite not having many playmakers to work with. That will change this season.

Gibson is a quality third receiver to go with likely starters Wallace and Brian Hartline. In 2012, Gibson had 51 receptions for 691 yards and five touchdowns for the Rams.

"We are happy that Brandon is joining the team,” Ireland said in a statement Friday. “Coupled with the earlier addition today of Dustin Keller, we feel that we have added some very good pieces to our passing game."

The signing of Gibson leaves open one question: What is the future of slot receiver Davone Bess? He recorded 61 receptions for the Dolphins last season, but new additions may put his roster spot in jeopardy.

The Dolphins proved this week that they aren't afraid to cut in-house veterans after signing outside free agents. The team recently released veteran linebackers Karlos Dansby and Kevin Burnett after signing big-name free agents Dannell Ellerbe and Philip Wheeler.
The local and national media has written tons about the Miami Dolphins this offseason. Not once did anyone mention upgrading the linebacker position as a primary need.

Apparently, Dolphins linebacker Karlos Dansby also was as surprised as anyone. Dansby was cut just hours after Miami agreed to terms with former Baltimore Ravens linebacker Dannell Ellerbe to a five-year, $35 million contract.

WMEN radio in Miami caught up with Dansby, who said Wednesday that he didn’t have any inkling he could lose his job with the Dolphins this offseason.

“No, not one day and not one indication,” Dansby said. “Not a hint. Not even anything. It was all ‘Let’s get ready for the next season. What do we have to do to improve?’

“It was a shock to me like it was a shock to everybody else.”

Dansby had a solid year in Miami, where he recorded a team-high 134 tackles and one sack. Miami’s front seven and solid linebacker play were primary reasons the Dolphins won seven games last season.

The Dolphins wanted to get younger and more athletic at linebacker. Dansby and Kevin Burnett are 30 or older. Miami cut both after signing the younger Ellerbe and former Oakland Raiders linebacker Philip Wheeler.

What the Dolphins probably won’t admit publicly is Dansby was too high-maintenance at times. He always spoke his mind, even if it was against the Dolphins’ wishes.

For example, Dansby was vocal about Miami keeping Chad Johnson despite the receiver's off-the-field issues. In some ways, Dansby was not a Joe Philbin guy, and that carries a lot of weight with the Dolphins.
Who knew the Miami Dolphins disliked their linebackers so much?

Despite a solid 2012 by the front seven, Miami continues to be extremely aggressive making over its linebacker corps on the first day of free agency. ProFootballTalk.com reports that the Dolphins agreed to a five-year, $26 million contract with former Oakland Raiders linebacker Philip Wheeler. The 28-year-old recorded 109 tackles and three sacks for Oakland last season.

This move might also signal the end for Dolphins starting linebacker Kevin Burnett. Miami did a similar youth swap Tuesday evening in adding Dannell Ellerbe (27) and releasing Karlos Dansby (31). Burnett, 30, may not be far behind.

Miami has plenty of other issues to address in free agency such as cornerback, tight end and safety. Linebacker certainly was not at the top of the list. But Miami's front office has made it a priority anyway, signing Ellerbe and Wheeler for a combined total of $61 million on the first day of free agency.

(Update: Jim Trotter of Sports Illustrated reports that Burnett has been informed of his release late Tuesday night.)

Morning take: Bills' passing game

October, 19, 2012
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Here are the most interesting stories Friday in the AFC East:
  • Buffalo Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick admits he’s been inconsistent in the passing game this season.
Morning take: We examined Fitzpatrick’s inability to hit the deep ball this year. Until he does that, Buffalo’s passing game will be easy to defend.
Morning take: Tough question. I think the pressure is on the Patriots because they are heavy favorites and at home. But a loss doesn’t mean they won’t win the division. If the Jets lose, I doubt they have a chance to catch the Patriots and win the AFC East.
Morning take: Both players are banged up and haven’t practiced this week. It might be “Tebow Time” at tailback to spell starter Shonn Greene.
Morning take: Burnett is a veteran who provides leadership and solid play in Miami. He is one of the unsung heroes of the surprising Dolphins (3-3).

Poll: AFC East Player of the Week

September, 25, 2012
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It was a wild week in the AFC East. But there were also several good performances.

So who is our latest Player of the Week from the division?

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Who is the AFC East Player of the Week?

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Discuss (Total votes: 5,973)

Was it Wes Welker? The New England Patriots receiver bounced back from a slow start with eight receptions for 142 yards. Welker stepped up big and got more reps with the absence of injured tight end Aaron Hernandez.

Jets receiver Santonio Holmes also had a big day. He showed his playmaking ability in an overtime win over the Miami Dolphins. Holmes had a season high nine receptions for 147 yards. Did Holmes have the best performance this week?

Bills defensive end Mario Williams finally exploded. He had four tackles and 1.5 sacks in Buffalo’s win over the Cleveland Browns. The Bills will need Williams to do the same against the Patriots this week.

Finally, Dolphins linebacker Kevin Burnett played a solid game with nine tackles. He had a big stuff at the goal line against Jets running back Shonn Greene.

Using our SportsNation poll, vote on the AFC East Player of the Week. You can also share your thoughts in the comment section below.
What did the Brandon Marshall trade, cutting Chad Johnson, starting rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill and trading Vontae Davis all have in common?

It’s a clear indication the Miami Dolphins are sacrificing 2012 to build for the future.

The Dolphins are in full rebuild mode this season. That was further confirmed Sunday when Miami traded perhaps its most physically gifted corner -- Davis -- for a second-round pick and a conditional sixth-rounder in 2013 to the Indianapolis Colts.

The trade, like the other aforementioned moves, does nothing to make the Dolphins a better team right now. But it could help them improve next year and beyond.

Miami's coaching staff and front office have avoided using the "rebuild" word this year. But unless general manager Jeff Ireland has a big trick up his sleeve, the team's actions says the Dolphins are more concerned with winning later than right now.

There was a reason linebacker Karlos Dansby lashed out after Johnson was cut -- Miami released its most capable receiver and Dansby knew it. He practiced against Johnson every day. We now see the result, as Miami’s receivers are struggling mightily to make plays and catch the football.

We could see more poor play in the secondary, as well. Miami's pass defense already was shaky with Davis. The Dolphins were 25th against the pass last year and hasn’t looked much better in the preseason. Maybe a young corner like Nolan Carroll will step up, but Carroll doesn’t have the same level of starting experience and physical gifts as Davis.

Solid veterans like Dansby, Reggie Bush, Kevin Burnett and others in Miami's locker room know they only have so many good years in the NFL. Players want to win now, and every year they feel they have a chance to make the playoffs.

But it's the job of the front office also to be realistic with its roster and come to grips with the fact that Miami is a long way away from contending.

Hope and concern: Miami Dolphins

August, 21, 2012
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The regular season is less than three weeks away for the AFC East.

Here are reasons for hope and concern for the Miami Dolphins:

Reason for hope: Ryan Tannehill

Miami’s first-round pick was considered the least ready of the top quarterback prospects in this year’s draft. But despite starting just 19 college games, Tannehill is showing poise this preseason and was named Miami’s Week 1 starter. Tannehill has good command of the offense and is 25-of-44 for 267 yards and one touchdown this preseason. It’s clear he can make all the throws. But perhaps the thing I liked most from Tannehill in Miami’s loss to the Carolina Panthers is the rookie stood tall and didn’t get skittish in the pocket, despite being sacked three times. Starting Tannehill now will be good for the team's long-term future.

Reason for concern: Rest of the offense

Despite the flashes by Tannehill at quarterback, the rest of the first-team offense has been shaky. The pass protection has been inconsistent, there have been drops by the receivers and the running game has been nonexistent. Some things you cannot get a firm read on in the preseason, but execution and winning one-on-one battles are two things to watch. Miami’s starting offense just doesn’t have the talent to score a lot of points. No one is stepping forward as the No. 1 receiver, and the offensive line is struggling with both run and pass blocking. The defense is struggling, as well. But much of that is due to key injuries to starting linebackers Karlos Dansby, Kevin Burnett and defensive end Cameron Wake.

AFC East Preseason Stock Watch

August, 19, 2012
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Week 2 of the preseason is nearly in the books. The New England Patriots still have their game against the Philadelphia Eagles on Monday night.

But here is a look at whose stock is rising and falling this preseason in the AFC East:

Falling

1. New York Jets RT Wayne Hunter: One of the biggest offseason mysteries is why the Jets didn't do enough to find a replacement for Hunter. He struggled mightily last year. Yet, New York didn't draft a top right tackle or sign one in free agency. Hunter made his 2012 preseason debut and looked much like he did in 2011, allowing two easy sacks to New York Giants defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul. Hunter also allowed a third sack to Osi Umenyiora, but it was called back on a defensive penalty. Things became so bad that Hunter was trending on Twitter at one point last night. If the Jets continue to stick with Hunter, it could be bad news for the Jets' offense and starting quarterback Mark Sanchez.

2. First-quarter defenses: We won't overrate the preseason. But the first-string defenses from the Buffalo Bills and Miami Dolphins have been a bit concerning. The Dolphins have allowed 24 first-quarter points the past two preseason games. They can't get off the field. Granted, Miami linebackers Karlos Dansby and Kevin Burnett and defensive end Cameron Wake were out Friday, but Tampa Bay had success as well. This group says it wants to be a top-10 defense and needs to play much better. Buffalo has been healthy but the starters allowed 10 unanswered points in the first quarter; opponents have scored 17 first-quarter points in two preseason games. The Bills need to do a better job of setting the tone and can't assume they can turn it on Week 1 against the Jets.

3. Matt Moore, Dolphins quarterback: Moore was the favorite to win Miami's quarterback job when the offseason began. He was the incumbent who had the health advantage over David Garrard and experience advantage over rookie Ryan Tannehill. But once all three quarterbacks took the practice field, it was clear Moore was falling behind. Garrard got the nod in the opener and Tannehill earned a chance to start over the weekend against Carolina. Moore hasn't done well in practices or games. He was 5-for-15 for 57 yards against the Carolina Panthers. Overall, Moore is 12-of-27 for 136 yards and an interception.

[+] EnlargeVince Young
AP Photo/Genevieve RossSolid work against Minnesota boosted Vince Young's shot at landing the Bills' backup job.
Rising

1. Vince Young, Bills quarterback: Young came out as the big winner in Buffalo's 36-14 loss to Minnesota, taking a big step in his quest to win the No. 2 quarterback job by completing 8 of 14 passes for 123 yards. It also didn't hurt that his competition -- Tyler Thigpen -- threw his second interception of the preseason. Buffalo most likely will keep only one of these quarterbacks, and it appears Young has the inside track with two preseason games left.

2. LaRon Landry, Jets safety: The Jets brought in Landry this offseason to be an enforcer. He showed flashes of it Saturday night with some big plays against the Giants. Landry laid the lumber on Giants receiver Victor Cruz and also recorded his first interception of the preseason. It was a solid showing for Landry, who must stay healthy this year.

3. New England's return game: The Patriots didn't need more assistance scoring points. But they might have got it with the signing of former Florida running back and Olympic silver medalist Jeff Demps. New England beat out the New York Jets, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and others for the speedster. The Patriots appear fine at running back, but where Demps may be able to contribute the most right away is returning kicks. Better field position for quarterback Tom Brady and Co. could mean more points.

Observation deck: Dolphins-Panthers

August, 18, 2012
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The Miami Dolphins played their second preseason game Friday night against the Carolina Panthers. Carolina won the game, 23-17.

Here are some notes and observations:

What I liked: Miami rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill didn't light it up in his first NFL start. But Tannehill showed poise to overcome a slow start. He completed just three of his first 10 passes. But he did better in the second quarter and finished 11-of-23 for 100 yards and was sacked three times. Tannehill at one point completed 5-of-6 passes during a 71-yard touchdown drive, highlighted by a nice, 20-yard completion to receiver Jeff Fuller on third down. But overall it was a mixed bag from the rookie, who still has plenty of room to grow. So far this preseason, Tannehill is 25-of-44 passing for 267 yards and one touchdown. Not bad overall for the rookie who only had 19 college starts.

What I didn't like: Is it too early to worry about Miami's starting defense? I don't want to overrate the preseason, especially when the Dolphins were without injured linebackers Karlos Dansby and Kevin Burnett and defensive end Cameron Wake. But it is concerning that Miami's first-team defense offered little resistance against Carolina. Panthers quarterback Cam Newton marched Carolina down the field for 17 points on the first three drives. There were two big penalties involved that led to touchdowns. But Miami's red zone defense was horrendous. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' first-team offense also had a touchdown last week. Miami's first-team defense has allowed 24 points in the first quarter of two preseason games.

Moore is less: What has happened to Matt Moore? The veteran quarterback finished last season on a roll by winning six of his last nine games and having a 87.1 passer rating. But Moore has not looked the same thus far this summer. He had another subpar preseason outing Friday night, completing just 5-of-15 passes for 57 yards. Perhaps the most concerning this week is Moore played exclusively against Carolina’s backups. Granted, Moore had his own backups to throw to. But a veteran with starting experience should have more success. Moore also has struggled in practice, as well, which led to both David Garrard and Tannehill getting the first two preseason starts.

Safety Watch: Miami safety Chris Clemons has been banged up in training camp. But Clemons showed why the coaching staff has played him on the first team. Clemons led the Dolphins with six tackles and had the defensive play of the day with a hit and force fumble on burly Carolina running back Mike Tolbert. Clemson is competing with Jimmy Wilson for the starting safety job and had his best game.

What's next: The Dolphins will return home to Sun Life Stadium for their third and most important preseason game of the summer against the Atlanta Falcons. This is often regarded as the "dress rehearsal" game for the start of the regular season. The big decision will be who will start at quarterback next week, because that probably will be who starts in Week 1 of the regular season. We think Miami should continue to develop Tannehill and start the rookie again.

Morning take: Logan Mankins off PUP

August, 13, 2012
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Here are the most interesting stories Monday in the AFC East: Morning take: This is a great sign for Mankins and the Patriots. I had a lot of questions about Mankins making it back for Week 1, but it looks like there's a solid chance. Mankins surely is needed.
Morning take: The Jets are going vanilla in the preseason. Perhaps they prefer to wait until Week 1 to unveil Tim Tebow and Wildcat against the Buffalo Bills. But that would mean only running the formation in practice.
Morning take: This decision likely won't be made until the final preseason game. But Jones has some starting experience and the deep speed Buffalo needs.
Morning take: The Dolphins haven't been very forthcoming with injuries. Burnett's is another instance in which we are not sure how or when a player was injured. It's been a rough few days overall for Miami.
Here are the most interesting stories Thursday morning in the AFC East:
  • At the ESPYS Wednesday night, New York Jets quarterback Tim Tebow told Peyton Manning of the Denver Broncos to take care of his former team.
Morning take: Tebow has handled himself well since the big acquisition and subsequent trade. Tebow is a consummate professional with high character, and that counts for a lot.
Morning take: The Bills were one of 21 teams reportedly in attendance for Gordon's workout, so nothing is guaranteed. Gordon is getting a lot of interest, and that could propel his stock maybe to the third round.
  • How will Miami Dolphins linebacker Kevin Burnett fare this season?
Morning take: Burnett was a big free-agent signing in 2011 who got off to a slow start. But the second half of the season he showed why the Dolphins paid him big bucks to come to Miami. Burnett needs to carry that momentum into this season and play well for 16 games.
Morning take: Allen is a veteran who has some versatility, but he's probably a long shot. The Patriots have a lot more invested in draft picks and higher-priced free agents at defensive back.

Walker's Fab 40: Nos. 9-12

February, 16, 2012
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The AFC East blog continues its rankings of the top 40 players in the division.

Here are Nos. 9-12:

Mankins
No. 12: Logan Mankins, G

Team: New England Patriots

Stats: 15 starts

Analysis: Mankins, a perennial Pro Bowler, is a grinder. He is relentless in the running or passing game. His style can get under some opponent's skin. Members of the New York Giants defense called Mankins and New England's offensive line "dirty" and "cheap" leading up to the Super Bowl. Mankins responded that it was a compliment. I also like Mankins' toughness and durability. He missed one game this season, when other Patriots offensive linemen were dropping left and right. Mankins has missed just seven games in his seven-year career at guard.

Dansby
No. 11: Karlos Dansby, LB

Team: Miami Dolphins

Stats: 103 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 interception

Analysis: Dansby isn't the best linebacker in the NFL, as he proclaims, but he's still very good. Dansby and fellow linebacker Kevin Burnett (No. 39) set the physical tone for the Dolphins on a weekly basis. Teams struggled to run on Miami, because the team was stout up the middle. Dansby is a sure tackler and takes on blockers well. I think he's Miami's most consistent defensive player. Dansby has recorded 100 tackles or more in three of the past four seasons.

Jackson
No. 10: Fred Jackson, RB

Team: Buffalo Bills

Stats: 934 yards, 6 touchdowns, 39 receptions

Analysis: Jackson was probably the hardest player to rank in "Walker's Fab 40." Based on the eye test and players I saw in person, Jackson was without a doubt one of the top players in the AFC East. But he also turns 31 next week and is coming off a season-ending leg injury. How well will Jackson bounce back in 2012? Will he be the same player we saw for 10 games this past season? No one has the answers yet to these questions. But Jackson's skills are plentiful. He's a powerful runner who always falls forward and has surprisingly great hands for a player his size. Jackson also was one of the best bargains in the NFL in terms of salary. The Bills plan to give him a well-deserved raise.

Hernandez
No. 9: Aaron Hernandez, TE

Team: Patriots

Stats: 79 receptions, 910 yards, 7 touchdowns

Analysis: I'm not sure many know how talented Hernandez truly is, given that he plays in Rob Gronkowski's shadow. Hernandez, who is a better pure athlete than "Gronk," might be a top-five tight end if he wasn't playing second fiddle in New England. Hernandez is versatile. He is the team's best vertical threat and could also play a little running back if needed. Hernandez is elusive and difficult to tackle. The Patriots are very fortunate to have both tight ends playing together for the next couple of years. There's a very good chance that one of them -- probably Hernandez -- bolts in free agency when the time comes; the Patriots can't pay both Pro Bowl-type money. Gronkowski is a Pro Bowl player now, and Hernandez has that potential with more opportunities.

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