AFC East: Marshawn Lynch

Tom Brady was on injured reserve with a knee injury the last time his New England Patriots visited the Seattle Seahawks.

The year was 2008.

The Seahawks had a 2-10 record. Seneca Wallace was their starting quarterback. Mike Holmgren was their coach. Pete Carroll was at USC.

Now, for the really different part: The Seahawks' defense, currently ranked No. 1 in yards allowed, ranked 30th back then. It had allowed six total rushing and passing touchdowns in its previous two games, one more than the 2012 team has allowed in five games this season.

Brady is back and leading the NFL's top-ranked offense against Seattle's top-ranked defense in Week 6. The teams kick off Sunday afternoon at CenturyLink Field, Brady's first road start against the Seahawks. The matchup has us talking already.

Mike Sando, NFC West blog: The last time an NFC West team drew New England, Arizona pulled off one of the more shocking upsets of the season, holding Brady to 18 points and leaving Gillette Stadium with a 20-18 victory. New England lost Aaron Hernandez to injury in that game. The Patriots have regrouped. They've scored 113 points in three subsequent games. Was that Arizona game an aberration, or should the Seahawks' defense expect similar results?

James Walker, AFC East: It feels like two different offenses since New England’s loss to the Cardinals, Mike. New England looked shell-shocked after losing Hernandez in that game. He's usually such a big part of the Patriots’ game plan that they had trouble adjusting on the fly. But New England made the proper changes. Tight ends no longer are the first option; now receiver Wes Welker is the top target. New England is no longer passing the ball 60 or 70 percent of the time; its run-to-pass ratio was 54-31 this past week against the Denver Broncos. The Patriots also used a no-huddle offense in all four quarters for the first time in that game. Can New England keep up that kind of pace, especially on the road? The Patriots are concerned about crowd noise in Seattle. Will the 12th man affect this game?

Sando: Yeah, the crowd will be a factor because the defense is good enough to make it one. Aaron Rodgers and Tony Romo combined for 19 points in Seattle. Brady and the Patriots are playing better offensively than Green Bay or Dallas, though. One key will be whether Brady can get the ball out to Welker quickly enough to avoid Seattle's pass-rushers. Bruce Irvin, Chris Clemons and Jason Jones could have big games against the Patriots' offensive front if Brady holds the ball. But Welker should have a big advantage against nickel corner Marcus Trufant. Welker leads the NFL with 24 receptions from the slot over the past three games. Seattle's opponents haven't gone after Trufant all that much, but St. Louis slot receiver Danny Amendola did give him some problems. Welker is a tough matchup for everyone and should be a tough one for the Seahawks.

Walker: Seattle’s pass rush is the biggest concern for New England. Brady’s sack totals have gone up each of the past three seasons, and he already has been sacked 12 times in five games. Brady is not a young pup anymore and only has so many hits left in his 35-year-old body. New England’s pass protection hasn’t been the same after losing left tackle Matt Light and Pro Bowl guard Brian Waters in the offseason. Right tackle Sebastian Vollmer and guard Logan Mankins also have played hurt this year. The Patriots have done things schematically to counter their shaky pass protection. New England is running the ball more, and the no-huddle has slowed down opponents. But you wonder whether the inconsistent pass protection eventually will catch up to New England this season, especially this weekend against a good Seattle defense.

Sando: Seattle's defense was good last season, and it's better in 2012. This is a legitimate top-five defense with big, pressing cornerbacks and the potential for a strong pass rush, particularly at home. The Seahawks are allowing 3.2 yards per carry overall and 3.0 when we remove quarterback scrambles (Brady isn't exactly a running threat). There's speed at every level of the defense. Holding the Patriots' offense to a reasonable level -- say, somewhere in the 20-point range -- should be realistic as long as Seattle fares OK against Welker. The bigger question is whether Seattle's offense can score enough points to win the game. Russell Wilson is coming off his best game, but the offense isn't putting up enough points.

Walker: New England’s defense has improved in a lot of areas. The front seven is more physical and the pass rush is better, specifically with the addition of first-round pick Chandler Jones. However, New England is still 30th against the pass and continues to give up chunks of yards through the air. The safety play has been horrific at times. I think Seattle’s best chance to win is using play-action over the top. Patriots coach Bill Belichick usually tries to take one thing away, and I assume the focus this week will be Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch. There will be plenty of opportunities in the passing game if Wilson can take advantage. Speaking of taking advantage, your NFC West division has crushed the AFC East at nearly every turn. What is going on here? Is this a special year for the NFC West, and will Seattle repeat what the Cardinals did by knocking off the top dog in the AFC East?

Sando: I've gone into several of these nondivision games a little skeptical about whether the NFC West team would score enough to win. The offenses in Arizona, Seattle and St. Louis lag in the rankings. But the defenses and special teams have more than made up the difference. I think Seattle has a winning formula and a good shot at pulling it off, but I still think Brady is more likely than Wilson to reach 20-plus points.

I've had similar thoughts before and been wrong. I really thought some of these top opposing quarterbacks would enjoy greater success against the NFC West. Brady, Jay Cutler, Rodgers, Michael Vick, Robert Griffin III, Romo, Cam Newton and Matthew Stafford are a combined 2-8 against the division, and both victories were against St. Louis. Those quarterbacks have seven touchdown passes and nine picks against the division. Outside the division, NFC West teams have gone 10-0 at home and 11-3 regardless of venue.

I'll probably wind up picking the Patriots, but Seattle's defense gives the Seahawks a good chance.

Walker: It looks as if the AFC East is having a second consecutive down year, and the arrow is certainly pointing up for the NFC West. But the Patriots are a legit team. Barring significant injuries, I expect New England to carry the banner for the division all season. I’m 15-2 predicting AFC East games this year, so I feel pretty confident in my picks. I think New England will pull this one out. The Patriots’ offense is very balanced, and their tempo puts a lot of pressure on teams. If they score points early, it could put too much pressure on Wilson to answer. Wilson has beaten Rodgers, Romo and Newton this year. But I don’t think Wilson will add Brady to that list.

Morning take: Ryan on Peyton Manning

February, 16, 2012
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Here are the most interesting stories Thursday morning in the AFC East: Morning take: The Jets have been avoiding the Manning topic. They won't say they will pursue Manning, but they won't say they won't. Either way, I doubt the Jets would have a great chance.
Morning take: Kiper has the Patriots choosing Marshall outside linebacker Vinny Curry and defensive tackle Kendall Reyes of Connecticut. I would prefer New England to address the secondary at least once in the first round.
Morning take: This pick improved from a sixth-rounder based on Lynch's production. Every bit in the draft helps.
Morning take: Miami doesn't really need help at running back, but depth at this position is always needed. Messam will join a talented group that includes Reggie Bush and Daniel Thomas.

Previewing the Buffalo Bills

September, 1, 2011
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All five panelists asked to pick the AFC East have the Bills finishing fourth. Here's my intelligence report on Buffalo:

Five things you need to know about the Bills:

1. Optimism on D: With Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams, the Bills have an exceptional foundation for their defense. Many thought this would be a 3-4 defense, and Buffalo is sure to employ that scheme plenty this year. But with Dareus, the No. 3 pick in the 2011 draft, and Williams, who is among the very best interior defensive linemen in all of football, Buffalo finds itself in the extremely enviable position of having two exceptional players at defensive tackle for the 4-3. As described in this blog post, Dareus is an extremely versatile defensive lineman who is capable of impacting a game in many different ways. But as high as I was on Dareus a few weeks back, the preseason made me even more of a believer. He is a great addition to this team.

2. Spiller on the spot: The Bills used the ninth overall pick in the 2010 draft to select C.J. Spiller. Spiller was the third first-round running back Buffalo has selected since 2003, when it picked Willis McGahee, with Marshawn Lynch being the other in 2007. First off, that is just bad business. Running back is the easiest position to find in this league. And simply put, if you are using first-round picks to acquire them, then you are neglecting other positions -- and the Bills have done plenty of neglecting over that time frame. But back to Spiller. He did little during his rookie season. The Bills need him to break out. A potentially dynamic playmaker who can excel on the perimeter or as a receiver, he could become a matchup nightmare for defenses and a huge big-play threat. That needs to happen ASAP. Although he still offers little between the tackles, Spiller has looked quite dynamic this preseason.

3. O-line offensive: Buffalo is weak at both tackle positions. The strength of its front five was the interior three. Now the Bills are shuffling bodies on the inside in what looks like an attempt to get bigger. But in the process, they are putting lesser players on the field. Overall, I see Buffalo's offensive line as one of the worst few in the league. Ryan Fitzpatrick came back to earth as the 2010 season progressed. For this offense to be successful with Fitzpatrick behind center, the line will have to be quite strong. I just don't see that being the case in 2011. And the Bills' quarterback of the future is not currently on the roster.

4. Questions at receiver: Steve Johnson was tremendous last season and is clearly the Bills' No. 1 option in the passing game. Although I personally expect Johnson to fall back to earth once he is the focus of every defensive scheme, I cannot discredit what he is capable of. As noted above, Spiller can pick up some of the slack in the receiving department, but the Bills really don't have tight ends who frighten the opponent. There are a few wide receivers here, though, who are intriguing -- and dealing Lee Evans will enable young players such as Roscoe Parrish, Donald Jones, Marcus Easley or David Nelson to get much more live game activity and potentially develop into starting-caliber weapons. Buffalo needs one or two of the aforementioned players to make that next step.

5. A lot rides on Merriman: What version of Shawne Merriman are we going to see for the Bills in 2011? The answer to that question is absolutely crucial for this team, as the Bills are deprived of frightening edge pass-rushers. The past few seasons, Merriman has been a shell of what he was early in his career, but he flashed his former impact ability during the preseason. And he now has a lot to prove. Arthur Moats is another outside linebacker I am quite fond of, but it is Merriman who is the key here.

Camp Confidential: Buffalo Bills

August, 15, 2011
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PITTSFORD, N.Y. -- Buffalo Bills inside linebacker Nick Barnett knew bad news was coming this summer, and he still couldn’t fully accept it. Despite his eight seasons with Green Bay, the speculation was that the Packers had to trade or release him this offseason. Barnett had been placed on injured reserve in both the 2008 and 2010 seasons, and his heir apparent, Desmond Bishop, already was in place. It was a no-brainer move to most observers, even though Barnett was still thinking about the possibility of helping the Packers repeat as Super Bowl champions. “If you read my tweets,” he said, “that’s all I kept talking about.”

These days Barnett is talking about something different -- how he can help the Bills transform one of the league’s worst defenses into a sturdy, reliable unit. No team in the NFL was worse against the run in 2010 (Buffalo allowed 169.6 yards per game), and that was one key reason the team signed Barnett so quickly after the Packers released him in late July. At 30, he still has the quickness and playmaking ability that allowed him to amass 787 tackles, 15.5 sacks and nine interceptions during his Green Bay career. He’s also aware that his energy and leadership will be invaluable to a team that lost its top tackler, Paul Posluszny, in free agency.

Bills assistant head coach and linebackers coach Dave Wannstedt said Barnett already is the team’s best linebacker. Head coach Chan Gailey has raved about his new player’s approach. “He brings experience and speed to this defense,” Gailey said. “He’s a guy who always plays fast.” Added Barnett: “I’m just trying to be myself. I haven’t played since Week 4 [a dislocated wrist ended his season] so I’m still finding my way. But the biggest thing I wanted to bring to this team was an attitude. I want to help the younger guys relax and have fun out there because that’s what I do.”

Though Barnett needed some time to accept his release from the Packers -- “I’ve never been fired from anything before,” he said -- he quickly sensed that Buffalo was the right place for him. He liked the team atmosphere, the family environment and the die-hard fans who are the city’s trademark. In many ways, Barnett felt like he was going to a place quite similar to Green Bay. “The talent level is there,” Barnett said. “But like everything, it’s going to come down to communication and attitude. If we do those things, we’ll be productive.”

THREE HOT ISSUES

1. Will Ryan Fitzpatrick be better? Yes. Fitzpatrick was a decent quarterback in 2010 -- 3,000 yards, 23 touchdowns, 15 interceptions -- especially considering that he was basically thrown into the job after the Bills gave up on former starter Trent Edwards. Fitzpatrick also has far more advantages coming into this season, despite not having an entire offseason to work with coaches. The major areas that he needs to improve? Accuracy and consistency. What he doesn’t have to worry about any longer? Proving to his teammates that he can lead this team and knowing whether the job is his alone. “Last season was interesting, but my whole career has been about being ready to show what you can do when the opportunity comes,” said Fitzpatrick, who spent his first five NFL seasons as a backup before getting his shot as a full-time starter three games into 2010. “One of the good things we have as an offense is that we have a lot of guys who’ve spent an entire season playing together and getting familiar with each other. When you look at the offenses in New England and Indianapolis, that continuity is what makes them so successful, and now we’re one step closer to that.”

[+] EnlargeShawne Merriman
Richard Mackson/US PresswireBuffalo defense is relying on Shawne Merriman to return to Pro-Bowl form.
2. Can Shawne Merriman return to an elite level? As long as he’s healthy. Right now the three-time Pro Bowl outside linebacker thinks that the strained Achilles that limited him to only three games last season won’t be an issue. The bigger challenge for him is finding a comfort level after registering only four sacks over the past three seasons. The Bills are banking on his getting up to speed in a hurry. For a team that tied for 27th in the NFL in sacks last season (with 27), having a rejuvenated Merriman harassing opposing quarterbacks would be a much-needed blessing. “I don’t feel like I need to respond to people who’ve been counting me out over the last couple years because all you have to do is watch me practice,” said Merriman, who had 43.5 sacks in his first 60 career games. “It’s definitely been hard [not playing] but I also feel like I’ve done everything I’ve needed to do to get back. I can see good things happening this season.”

3. What role will C.J. Spiller play in the offense? One of the more disappointing aspects of the Bills' offense in 2010 was the lack of productivity from Spiller. Drafted ninth overall in last year’s draft, he was supposed to bring breathtaking speed and elusiveness to the Bills. Instead, Spiller wound up with only 283 rushing yards and 24 receptions in his rookie season. Those numbers should increase now that Buffalo has a less crowded backfield (the team traded Marshawn Lynch to Seattle midway through last season) and a greater sense of urgency about involving Spiller. “We need to get him more touches,” Gailey said. “We need to find more ways to get him in space so he can use that speed. He’s already grown as a runner because he’s better at running inside, and he’s shown more patience. The one thing I’d really like to see him improve on now is ball security. He had some problems with fumbles last year [Spiller had five fumbles and lost three], and we can’t have that.”

WELCOME SIGHT

Roscoe Parrish: The Bills' offensive players know that Parrish has developed into a valuable receiver after being used mainly as a returner early in his career. They realize it even more now that he’s healthy. After missing the last eight games of 2010 with a broken wrist, Parrish has been impressing teammates with his trademark speed and quickness. The explosiveness he brings to the offense after sitting out half a year also hasn’t gone unnoticed. “Now that he’s back, you remember how much he means to this offense,” Fitzpatrick said. “He really adds another dimension.”

PLAYER TO WATCH

Brad Smith: Don’t be surprised if Smith becomes a more dangerous playmaker in the Bills’ offense. He made his name as a kick returner/wide receiver/Wildcat quarterback with the New York Jets, and rule changes should allow him to increase his playing time in Buffalo. The NFL agreed to abolish the rule requiring teams to determine a third quarterback on game-day rosters -- that player could participate only in emergency situations, and his presence would prevent the team from using any other quarterback during a game. Now a player like Smith can be used far more often in Wildcat situations. Even if Smith appears as a quarterback in three or four plays a game, his involvement won’t limit his coaches’ options. “We were going to use him in a similar role anyway, but that rule really helps,” said Gailey, who has gained a reputation for finding creative roles for versatile players. “Now you don’t have to wonder about whether he needs to be listed as a third quarterback who can only play in emergency situations or if he can be used as a Wildcat quarterback whenever we like. It’s going to make a big difference.”

OBSERVATION DECK

  • [+] EnlargeMarcell Dareus
    Rick Stewart/Getty ImagesFirst round draft pick Marcell Dareus has impressed his coaches in training camp.
    Rookie defensive end Marcell Dareus hasn’t needed much time to make a strong impression on his coaches. Wannstedt called him a “special kid with the right approach to the game,” and Gailey thinks it shouldn’t take long for Dareus to prove why he was worthy of the third overall pick in this year’s draft. “He’s a big, physical guy and he’s got an edge to him,” Gailey said of Dareus, who's 6-3 and weighs 323. “You have to like that about him.”

  • Even though the Bills lost their second-best tackler from last season -- strong safety Donte Whitner -- the loss may not be as troubling as it looks. Though he was a strong presence in run support, the team thinks strong safety George Wilson can help the Bills more in the playmaking department. When Whitner was injured two years ago, the tandem of Wilson and Jairus Byrd gave the secondary a bigger boost with their pass defense skills.

  • The emphasis on stopping the run is going to put more pressure on the Bills cornerbacks this season. Gailey believes he has the personnel to handle the increased responsibility, and Terrence McGee is essential to this approach. He has spent more time covering slot receivers in training camp, which will allow Leodis McKelvin and Drayton Florence to handle outside receivers when the defense faces three-receiver looks.

  • Wide receiver Donald Jones is another player worth watching. When asked about teammates who have caught his eye early in training camp, Fitzpatrick said Jones had elevated his game in his second season. An undrafted rookie in 2010, Jones was a nice surprise in camp and finished with 18 receptions. This year he’s using his size and strength to make himself a tough receiver to handle at the line of scrimmage.

  • The Bills recognize that their biggest challenge this season will be learning how to change expectations. Gailey has talked about the difference between hoping to win and expecting to win, and his players believe they can make great strides. Fitzpatrick agreed that last season, too many players were worried about losing their jobs as the team transitioned into Gailey’s tenure. This year, there is far more comfort and a sense of purpose on a team that hasn’t made the playoffs since 1999. “We definitely need to take the approach that we deserve to win,” Fitzpatrick said. “And we have a chip on our shoulders. We hear all the people talking about how tough the AFC East is, and nobody mentions our name. That can be fuel for our fire, and we have to believe we can surprise people.”

AFC East's best: No. 17 Fred Jackson

June, 30, 2011
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The countdown of my top 25 AFC East players continues, one weekday at a time ...

Jackson
Jackson
About the choice: The Buffalo Bills didn't make Fred Jackson their feature back until they traded Marshawn Lynch in October and came to the realization rookie C.J. Spiller wasn't ready to be an every-down NFL player. Jackson didn't have double-digit carries until Week 5. From games nine through 16, Jackson ranked sixth among all running backs with 801 yards from scrimmage and was tied for sixth at 4.4 yards per carry over that span. New England Patriots running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis was the only AFC East player to rush for more than 1,000 yards and scored 13 touchdowns, but Jackson's numbers would've soared in that offense. Jackson is a threat in the passing game. In the second half of the season he caught 24 passes for 207 yards and two TDs.

Key fact: Jackson's jersey from 2009 is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame for becoming the first player in NFL history to rush for 1,000 yards and have 1,000 yards on kickoff returns in the same season.

Hint about No. 16: His production doesn't equal his paycheck, but he's still pretty darn good.

Previous picks:

Little love for AFC East running backs

May, 31, 2011
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The AFC East isn't a high-quality running back division.

That's not a new concept on this blog. When ESPN.com's Power Rankings panel voted on the NFL's best running backs in mid March, LaDainian Tomlinson was the lone AFC Easterner to get mentioned on a ballot -- at 10th, no less. Almost two months ago, we shared Scouts Inc. analyst Matt Williamson's evaluations of AFC East backfields, where he apologized for putting the Buffalo Bills on top.

NFL.com senior analyst Pat Kirwan took his turn at rating the best backs, breaking down the best 45 in five-man sets and giving them an up, down or even marker for 2011.

Kirwan couldn't name an AFC East player until Group D, listing New England Patriots battering ram BenJarvus Green-Ellis there and holding steady.

Buffalo running back Fred Jackson was in Group E and trending even. Kirwan ranked Jackson one group behind former mate Marshawn Lynch, now of the Seattle Seahawks. Tomlinson also was in Group E, but trending down.

Group F had Jets running back Shonn Greene, the only AFC East back to make the list and trend upward.

In Group G we find Miami Dolphins running back Ronnie Brown, declining. Kirwan stated Brown is best suited for a team looking for a backup who can provide 10 carries a game.

And that was it. No C.J. Spiller. No Danny Woodhead. No Ricky Williams.

But the likes of Tim Hightower, Mike Tolbert and rookie Ryan Williams made the cut. The Saints had four running backs on the list, including rookie Mark Ingram.

What do you think?

Don't go changing: Bills show faith in O

May, 18, 2011
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At some point, the unlikely collection of NFL teammates struck somebody as unusual, and they began to sort out who the highest draft pick was.

Together last month for a mini passing camp near quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick's home in Arizona, eight Buffalo Bills players laughed about their long-shot backgrounds.

Sophomore receiver Marcus Easley was the closest thing to a bonus baby, and he was a fourth-round draft choice with zero NFL games. So who was next in line? Backup quarterback Levi Brown was the answer, a seventh-round pick last year, 209th overall, and unable to make the roster out of training camp.

Bills practice
Courtesy of David NelsonBills players (L to R) Naaman Roosevelt, Levi Brown, Steve Johnson, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Fred Jackson, David Nelson, Donald Jones and Marcus Easley pose for a picture following a workout last month.
Wide receiver Steve Johnson went 224th, Fitzpatrick 250th. Running back Fred Jackson and receivers David Nelson, Donald Jones and Naaman Roosevelt weren't drafted at all.

"This is testament of who we are as a group," Nelson said Tuesday night from his home in Dallas. "We all believe in each other. We all push each other. We all compete with each other. We know we're against the odds. We're a bunch of guys nobody gave a chance to."

The Bills have a couple of first-rounders in their offense who didn't attend the workouts. Running back C.J. Spiller and receiver Lee Evans are important components, but it's impressive to consider such a big contingent of overlooked players making up a team's offensive core.

Nelson and the rest of that gang can speak with a little more conviction about their futures in Buffalo now. When they gathered for some casual workouts, there was plenty of doubt about the direction of the offense.

The draft hadn't taken place yet, and the Bills owned the third and 34th selections. There was considerable talk about a quarterback being a serious option. If Auburn star Cam Newton still were on the board, could the Bills pass him up? Missouri quarterback Blaine Gabbert might have been a possibility, and it was anybody's guess who would still be on the board in the second round.

"I'm sure Fitz was bracing for something," Jackson said Tuesday of the pre-draft mood. "Everybody had to be."

One thing was for sure among the Bills' players: They were rooting for the front office to stand pat at quarterback.

"We've been talking about it as a receiver group for a while," Nelson said. "We were hoping that they would stay away from quarterbacks in the draft because we have all the confidence in the world in Fitz and what he can do. We like the direction we're headed in with him."

The Bills gave their offensive players a major vote of confidence last month. Of their nine draft choices, only two play offense. They drafted Clemson tackle Chris Hairston in the fourth round and North Carolina running back Johnny White in the fifth round.

The Bills will acquire more offensive players whenever free agency dawns. General manager Buddy Nix has said they will sign another quarterback, but the club sent a strong message about Fitzpatrick's standing when they didn't draft one.

"They showed they have a lot of faith in Fitz," Jackson said. "Me and my teammates all have a lot of faith in him, too. We're excited about that. I'm looking forward to working with him and trying to build on what we did last year and making that playoff push."

Fitzpatrick and Jackson will enter the 2011 season with substantially more juice than they had last summer. Both of them were considered backups.

"You have to say that it had some kind of affect on us," Jackson said. "We weren't on the same page when we got in the lineup, but that's part of the game, and we have to adjust.

"It does hurt to not get the reps, but as long as you mentally prepare like you are the No. 1 guy, you can hit the ground running. Hopefully, now we can get those reps and go into this season as the No. 1 guys and put this team on our shoulders and make some plays."

[+] EnlargeRyan Fitzpatrick
Nick Laham/Getty ImagesThe Bills are confident in Ryan Fitzpatrick's ability to lead the team.
Fitzpatrick won over the Bills' locker room and much of their fan base last year. Trent Edwards' presence had worn thin everywhere. The man known as "Captain Checkdown" was uninspiring at best. He was frequently injured and rarely showed a hint of nerve.

New coach Chan Gailey backed him in the beginning. Edwards took most of the offseason reps and was named the No. 1 quarterback when training camp opened. Edwards started all four preseason games.

Fitzpatrick, Brown and Brian Brohm fought over the scraps. Fitzpatrick attempted 23 passes before the season.

Asked at the NFL scouting combine in February whether he regretted those decisions, Gailey replied, "Shoot, yeah. If I knew then what I know now, I wouldn't have done that."

At 0-2, the Bills made an abrupt change. They waived Edwards.

Fitzpatrick was a jolt to the huddle, to the Ralph Wilson Stadium crowd, to the community. He grew a bird's-nest beard and called himself the "Amish Rifle." He wore his wedding ring during games. He actually threw the ball downfield.

He made the games entertaining again, even the defeats. Fans forgave him for occasional reckless interceptions.

Jackson was in a similar situation despite rushing for more than 1,000 yards the previous season.

He was in a crowded backfield with Marshawn Lynch and hotshot rookie Spiller and didn't start the first four games, carrying the ball 20 times for 87 yards through the first quarter of the season.

When the Bills traded Lynch for a 2011 fourth-round draft choice and a conditional 2012 sixth-round pick, the door opened for Jackson again.

"Right now, I feel like I'm the No. 1 guy and C.J. will come in and get a lot of plays," Jackson said. "I feel like I'm going to be the guy that's carrying the load and has got to make that running game go.

"I'm sure C.J.'s working hard and will [have] the opportunities as well, but I just got to shoulder the load and take the pressure off Fitz and make us a balanced offense. I want to be that guy."

Spiller generated preseason buzz for rookie of the year honors, but he had a disappointing campaign (283 rushing yards and no touchdowns, 157 receiving yards and one touchdown) and still has much to prove.

Jackson rushed for 614 yards in the second half of the season, tying with Ray Rice for sixth in the NFL in that span. The running backs ahead of them were Arian Foster, Jamaal Charles, Maurice Jones-Drew, Chris Johnson and BenJarvus Green-Ellis. Nice company.

The Bills ranked 25th in total offense, 18th in run offense and 24th in pass offense. Not too swift compared to the rest of the NFL.

But all of their best offensive superlatives in 15 categories (points, first downs, yards, etc.) happened Oct. 24 or later. The same can be said about individual player superlatives, aside from Fitzpatrick's 71.4 completion percentage in Week 3 against the New England Patriots.

The Bills obviously found enough there to make a commitment, and the players aren't crying for help. They're thrilled the group will stay together.

"We did some good things on offense last year," Jackson said. "We feel like if we could get back on the field healthy and get another crack at this thing, we'll continue to have some success."

Marcell Dareus makes colossal impression

April, 29, 2011
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ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- Marcell Dareus didn't stand at the lectern at One Bills Drive as much as he loomed.

Dareus probably had to pay the tailor overtime for the suit he wore Friday afternoon. He's 6-foot-3 and 319 pounds, but seemed bigger than that.

He made a colossal impression when he was introduced to local reporters.

Dareus, the third overall draft choice Thursday night, was more prominent with his words than he was with his stature.

When explaining his approach to football and life, Alabama's star defensive lineman shared an anecdote about his mother. Michelle Luckey spent much of her life confined to a wheelchair because of congestive heart failure. She raised six sons and a daughter.

"Her whole drive was to never give up," Dareus said. "When she was on her death bed -- she was on her death bed a couple of times -- but one time I asked 'Mom, why are you still fighting?' I was in middle school. It was just a crazy question. 'Why are you still fighting?'

"She looked at me and said, 'I have seven kids. Do you want me to be gone now, or do you want me to just keep fighting?' I said, 'I want you to keep fighting.' She said, 'All right then. You go over there and sit down.' She rolled over and went back to sleep."

Draft followers may already know Dareus' tribulations. ESPN.com senior writer Jeffri Chadiha told the tale last week with a feature story.

Dareus' mother died last May, the latest in a series of heartaches. His father, a Haitian immigrant, died when Dareus was 6. The grandmother who helped raise Dareus died when he was 13. His high school coach died in a car crash right after Dareus signed with the Crimson Tide.

"I can't give up," Dareus said Friday. "When you can go to sleep in pain, you don't know what pain is. That's my whole thing. I got a little hurt elbow, a hamstring, an ankle, that's not going to keep me from playing.

[+] EnlargeMarcell Dareus
AP Photo/David DupreyMarcell Dareus, center, said all the right things when he was introduced to reporters on Friday.
"As long as she could go to sleep, wake up, put food on the table and be in pain 24 hours a day, the little things I go through is nothing."

Bills fans can't help but get excited about that type of gravitas from a potential star.

The Bills haven't been to the playoffs in 11 years. They've experienced more embarrassment than glory, especially when it comes to their first-round draft choices. Fans have endured busts and insulting malcontents such as Erik Flowers, Mike Williams, Willis McGahee, Marshawn Lynch and John McCargo.

Nobody can say for sure whether Dareus will be the real deal, but he has gotten off to a great start.

We need to keep in mind Dareus is fresh off the interview circuit from the NFL scouting combine, his pro day and a series of private meetings with this coach or that general manager from the West Coast to the Eastern Seaboard. Draft prospects are trained to answer interview questions. Dareus probably wasn't going to face a pitch he couldn't crush out of the park at Friday afternoon's news conference.

Dareus said all the right things. So have a parade of phonies throughout the years in the NFL.

"We're very pleased to have a man of not only his ability, but the man that he is," Buffalo head coach Chan Gailey said. "He's a great person in his own right, and he's going to represent our organization extremely well on the field and off the field for many years to come."

Gailey's testimony means something. He values high-character players maybe more than others in his profession. You get the sense Gailey would rather lead a mediocre player he respects than an elite athlete he doesn't.

Dareus conveyed himself as a grinder, the embodiment of Western New York's working spirit and the antithesis of Buffalo's first-round pick from two years ago.

Outside linebacker Aaron Maybin, the 11th pick in 2009, has been all flash and no substance. Before Maybin signed his NFL contract, he had a rap song that mentioned Maybach luxury cars, pinky rings, Circoc vodka, Nike endorsement deals and all the heads he was going to knock off.

Maybin has as many NFL sacks as Dareus does.

Dareus is about to strike it rich, too. But he said he's not going to keep his showmanship limited to Sundays.

"I want to be a pro on and off the field," Dareus said. "I want to handle myself in the community, back home with my brothers and sister, and when I do have kids I want to be a pro around them, let them know and set an example.

"Sometimes you have it. And even if you worked for it, that doesn't mean you have to flaunt it and blow it all away."

Dareus recalled after he visited One Bills Drive last month, he called one of his brothers and said "Buffalo might be my city." He said it reminded him of Tuscaloosa, a city with everything you need but a smaller feel and rabid fans who support the team.

If Dareus proves sincere about his feelings and can back up the Bills' scouting department's faith in him, then fans will have a new hero in their midst.

"I just want to go out there and give everything I have," Dareus said.

Bills draft record not as bad as you think

April, 21, 2011
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Kyle Williams and Steve JohnsonUS PresswirePro Bowler Kyle Williams (left) and receiver Steve Johnson were both drafted in the later rounds.
ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- Buffalo Bills fans have pondered some persistent questions over the years.

How would life have changed if Scott Norwood made that kick?

What will happen to the team when Ralph Wilson passes away?

Was the Music City Miracle really a forward lateral?

How on earth does Tom Modrak still have a job?

Modrak is Buffalo's vice president of college scouting. Modrak, formerly a Pittsburgh Steelers scout during their Steel Curtain years and director of football operations with the Philadelphia Eagles, has held the Bills' top scouting job since May 2001 and worked his first draft for them in 2002.

In that time, the Bills' streak of seasons without a playoff appearance has extended to 11 and counting. Despite holding prime draft-order slots, they have repeatedly squandered them with maddening first-round decisions.

The list is enough to make the most optimistic Bills fan groan: pass-rusher Aaron Maybin (zero sacks) 11th overall instead of Brian Orakpo (19.5 sacks) two years ago; small-school cornerback Leodis McKelvin 11th overall instead of Pro Bowl left tackle Ryan Clady in 2008; safety Donte Whitner with the eighth pick in 2006 and then trading up for defensive tackle John McCargo; trading up for quarterback J.P. Losman in 2004; useless tackle Mike Williams fifth in 2002.

"Certainly we've had our misses up at the top," Modrak said Tuesday at a news conference to preview next week's draft. "We've done pretty well in the middle and at the end, the non-glamour kind of picks. But we've missed some. That is regrettable."

There are additional selections one can criticize: wide receiver James Hardy in the second round; running back C.J. Spiller ninth overall even though the Bills had a pair of 1,000-yard rushers already ...

[+] EnlargeTom Modrak
George Gojkovich/Getty ImagesDespite some high-profile misses, Tom Modrak's draftees have performed well on the whole.
OK. I'll stop now. That's enough to illustrate why there's frustration over Modrak and his scouting department's evaluation skills.

The fact Modrak joined the Bills to serve under former president Tom Donahoe -- an executive Wilson and Bills fans came to despise -- only adds to fascination of Modrak's continued employment.

Now that I've set the table, let's yank the tablecloth out from underneath the plasticware.

Data suggest the Bills haven't drafted much worse than the average NFL team since 2002.

ESPN researcher John Fisher -- he claims no relation to St. John Fisher, the namesake of the college where the Bills hold their training camp -- shuffled some spreadsheets and came up with some information that's not particularly damning when compared to the rest of the NFL.

  • The Bills have drafted five Pro Bowlers with Modrak in charge of scouting. That's tied for 14th in the league. One of those Pro Bowlers was Willis McGahee for the Baltimore Ravens, but Modrak was the chief scout who drafted him. What the Bills did with McGahee afterward that isn't his fault. Same goes for Marshawn Lynch.
  • Although a game started for the Bills isn't as impressive as a game started for the New England Patriots the past nine years, Bills draftees from the first through third rounds have started 804 games, 15th in the league.
  • Bills draftees from the fourth round or later have started 417 games, eighth in the league.
  • When it comes to individual statistics accumulated with the teams that drafted them, Bills taken from 2002 onward have ranked third in 1,000-yard rushing seasons, tied for seventh in 1,000-yard receiving seasons, 20th in total sacks and 19th in total interceptions.

While the Bills have missed badly on several of their prominent selections, they have done quite well in the latter part of the draft with gems such as cornerback and Pro Bowl kick returner Terrence McGee (fourth round in 2003), Pro Bowl defensive lineman Kyle Williams (fifth round in 2006), receiver Steve Johnson (seventh round in 2008) and left tackle Demetrius Bell (seventh round in 2008).

Top running back Fred Jackson and perennial Pro Bowl left tackle Jason Peters -- traded to Philly two years ago -- weren't drafted at all.

"If you look at other teams, they do it. They miss at the top," Modrak said. "When you don't win, it's magnified. It looks bad.

"But I think from a strictly homer point-of-view [late-round success] is the work and the labor that goes into it and the detail that's paid to those kinds of things. That does not say that other teams don't do the same thing, but we have a good group, and we fortunately have done that."

The Bills have had some obvious blind spots in the draft.

A refusal to pick a tackle earlier than the fifth round since 2002 has hurt them. Peters' success as a converted tight end is a factor in that trend, but the Bills were having contract problems with him while he still was on the roster. Foresight would've been helpful. But that's an organizational philosophy more than Modrak's domain.

The Bills' track record at tight end is miserable, too. They've drafted five: Tim Euhus, Kevin Everett, Derek Schouman, Derek Fine and Shawn Nelson. Everett was the lone selection sooner than the fourth round. A broken neck while covering a kickoff on opening day in 2007 ended his career.

That tight end quintet has combined to score five NFL touchdowns. Of the 143 tight ends drafted since Modrak joined the Bills, 43 of them have scored more than five touchdowns individually.

Some might also say finding a quarterback has been a failure. Starting quarterbacks, however, aren't easy for any team to locate.

Forty-seven quarterbacks have been drafted within the first three rounds since 2002. The only three teams not included in this pursuit have been the Indianapolis Colts, New Orleans Saints and Dallas Cowboys. The Bills took two within the first three rounds, Losman 22nd overall in 2004 and Trent Edwards 92nd in 2007.

That league-wide group yielded nine Pro Bowlers, but just two of them -- 24th overall pick Aaron Rodgers and third-rounder Matt Schaub -- weren't selected in the top 11. Rodgers and Schaub served as backups for three seasons before they became starters.

Bills general manager Buddy Nix explained that scouting is only one of three critical phases that determine whether a draft pick explodes or fizzles.

"You've got to pick the right guy," Nix said Tuesday. "He's got to have enough athletic ability and enough intelligence, production to do the job, which is what you spend the year doing. We're scouts and personnel guys.

"The second phase, now -- and don't make light of it because it's just as important -- is coaching, strength coaches, trainers. That's the second phase, and both of those things have to be in place. If not, the development of the guy is retarded.

"I'm not going to name teams, but you can name teams every year that get top guys and they don't get any better. They actually may go the other way, and it's the developmental part."

Chan Gailey is Buffalo's fourth head coach -- fifth if you count interim coach Perry Fewell -- since Modrak came aboard. Coordinators have passed through a revolving door. The Bills also have overhauled their strength and conditioning program a couple times.

Nix then stressed that even if the precisely correct draft choice is made and the proper infrastructure is in place, a third phase still can torpedo development. The player can ruin his future if he's "not willing to be a professional and do everything it takes."

"You can go back and look at the so-called busts, and it's one of these three phases," Nix said. "You've got to have it all for them to be really good.

"So even though we put it all on one thing -- 'That was a terrible draft. That was a bust. Those idiots don't know.' -- that's just about a third of it."

Another element that must be considered when discussing Buffalo drafts is the question of who makes the final pick.

Nix and Gailey have been clear Nix makes the final call, although Wilson still can exercise his ownership privilege.

Before Nix became GM last year, trying to decipher who was to credit or blame for a Bills draft choice was like a "Three Stooges" scene. The irate boss hears a commotion, storms into the room and asks "Say! What's the wise idea? Who did this?" Moe pointed at Larry. Curly pointed at Moe. Larry pointed at Curly.

Modrak has been a constant since 2002, but there have been many voices in the Bills' draft room in that period, from Donahoe to GM Marv Levy to chief operating officer Russ Brandon to the various opinionated head coaches who lobbied for prospects they hotly desired.

The Bills' scouting department clearly needs to step its game up to help turn around the franchise. They'll never be the kind of team that lures top free agents because of their market conditions. Buffalo simply isn't as sexy as Miami or San Diego or New York and doesn't offer a perennial chance to win like New England or Pittsburgh does.

But, believe it or not, the Bills' drafts could have been substantially worse since Modrak arrived.

AFC East running back power rankings

March, 15, 2011
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Every Tuesday, when ESPN.com reveals its positional power rankings for the week, I will post my breakdown of the AFC East's best players.

Running backs were in the spotlight this week. No AFC East running back made the list, and that was appropriate. None of them had a superstar season. But that doesn't mean they weren't influential within the division.
  1. Fred Jackson, Buffalo Bills: Best all-around runner in the AFC East, although the Bills didn't use him as a receiver as much as they could've.
  2. LaDainian Tomlinson, New York Jets: Faded after a hot start, but can't argue with 52 receptions and 1,282 yards from scrimmage.
  3. BenJarvus Green-Ellis, New England Patriots: Led division with 1,008 rushing yards, but non-factor as a receiver.
  4. Danny Woodhead, New England Patriots: Few were more exciting. He had 926 yards from scrimmage and six touchdowns in 14 games.
  5. Ronnie Brown, Miami Dolphins: Down season with 976 yards from scrimmage and five touchdowns, but still a weapon.
  6. Shonn Greene, New York Jets: Almost ranked him fifth, but too limited in the passing game.
  7. Ricky Williams, Miami Dolphins: Balanced but uninspiring season with three offensive touchdowns.
  8. C.J. Spiller, Buffalo Bills: After a hyped-up preseason, fell flat with one offensive touchdown.

The first three players were easy to slot, as was the last player. The four running backs in between were tough.

I suspect Woodhead's rating will generate the most discussion. After all, the Jets didn't think he was among the top three running backs on their depth chart when they dumped him and decided to keep rookie Joe McKnight instead.

But Woodhead became one of the NFL's great stories after the Patriots snatched him up. He was a sensational dual threat for a team that went 14-2. He gained 40 more yards from scrimmage than Greene on 70 fewer touches. Woodhead had just 50 fewer yards than Brown on 102 fewer touches.

As for Jackson, his 2010 numbers didn't reflect his capabilities. The Bills hardly used him for the first month, while they tried to figure out what to do with Marshawn Lynch and tinkered with how to incorporate Spiller into the offense. Jackson didn't have double-digit carries until Week 5 and didn't catch more than two passes until Week 8.

Jackson's pace over the final 12 games, multiplied over the course of a season, would give him 1,220 yards rushing and 296 more receiving.

Mark Ingram a fit for Dolphins or Patriots

February, 25, 2011
2/25/11
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INDIANAPOLIS -- What is the best running back in the draft worth these days?

Last season, the NFL's leading rusher, Arian Foster, wasn't drafted. The New England Patriots' backfield featured undrafted runners BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead.

The Buffalo Bills drafted Clemson running back C.J. Spiller ninth overall last April. He gained 440 yards from scrimmage. Undrafted veteran Fred Jackson was the featured back after the Bills traded another recent first-round pick, Marshawn Lynch.

[+] EnlargeMark Ingram
Kevin Liles/US PresswireMark Ingram is projected to be the first running back selected in April's draft.
Running backs appear more interchangeable than ever before. That might not bode well for Alabama star Mark Ingram, but it could help out the Miami Dolphins or New England Patriots.

Teams might be hesitant to use a first-round pick on a running back, causing Ingram to slide.

"I just want to go out and show what I have," Ingram said Friday at the NFL scouting combine. "If somebody wants to pull the trigger and likes what I do, likes the way I present myself and likes the way I compete ... I'm just going to go out there and do what I know how to do."

Ingram is a popular mock-draft prediction for the Dolphins with the 15th pick. The Dolphins are in need of backfield help. Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams are about to become free agents.

In the past 30 years -- not counting a baseball-driven Bo Jackson -- Rashaan Salaam in 1994 was the only Heisman Trophy running back to be drafted later than 14th.

Dolphins general manager Jeff Ireland described what he wants from a running back.

"We're looking for versatility, for sure," Ireland said Thursday at Lucas Oil Stadium. "We're looking for guys that can run, catch, block, all those things. We're looking for the guys that can do it all."

Ingram considers himself the total package.

"I'm a complete, all-around back," Ingram said. "I can be in the game first down, second down, third down, goal line, short-yardage, pick up pass protections, go out of the backfield and catch the ball.

"I'm a complete back."

The Patriots draft 17th and 28th. Green-Ellis and Woodhead gave them impressive combo production, but each had his limitations.

In the Patriots' playoff loss, New York Jets head coach Rex Ryan found ways to force them into throwing when Green-Ellis (not a good receiver) was on the field and running when Woodhead (an inferior runner to Green-Ellis) was out there.

Ingram played for Nick Saban at Alabama. Saban is a close friend of Patriots head coach Bill Belichick. Ingram's father was a wide receiver for the New York Giants when Belichick was defensive coordinator.

Ingram's dad also spent two seasons with the Dolphins.

Did Bills get all they could in Lynch trade?

January, 10, 2011
1/10/11
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The Buffalo Bills were wary of the possibility Marshawn Lynch could make them look bad for trading him away.

While Lynch still was on the Bills' roster, an NFL source told me fears Lynch would play well in another team's uniform were a reason why he hadn't been dealt yet. He's only 24 years old.

In October, the Bills traded Lynch, the 12th pick of the 2007 draft, to the Seattle Seahawks for a 2011 fourth-round choice and a conditional sixth-round pick in 2012.

Lynch had a quiet season with the Seahawks, but Saturday's highlight-reel run to beat the New Orleans Saints was the kind of play the Bills dreaded.

Lynch, one of the NFL's hardest runners, looked like Tecmo Bowl Bo Jackson, breaking about 36 tackles on a 67-yard rumble that some observers are calling perhaps the greatest run in NFL postseason history. That play alone probably was worth a fourth-round draft choice. It made sure the underdog Seahawks advanced to the next round, and it will be shown on highlight reels forever.

Then came the kicker via Fox Sports insider Jay Glazer. He reported the Saints wanted Lynch and would have offered a third-round draft choice had the Bills shopped him around.

Most Bills fans couldn't stand Lynch by the time he departed. He wore out his stay with off-field transgressions, suspension and unwillingness to participate fully in the offseason program. The Bills also had Fred Jackson and prized rookie C.J. Spiller on the roster.

Even so, what we saw and learned over the weekend opens the door for second guessing on how the Bills played their hand.

Bills regular-season wrap-up

January, 5, 2011
1/05/11
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NFC Wrap-ups: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Arrow indicates direction team is trending.

Final Power Ranking: 30
Preseason Power Ranking: 31

[+] EnlargeChan Gailey
Crystal LoGiudice/US PresswireChan Gailey's Bills will have to address a number of needs during the offseason.
Biggest surprise: The Bills opened the season 0-8, which would be considered a mild surprise. They weren't supposed to win. Most shocking was first-year head coach Chan Gailey's ability to keep his overmatched talent committed enough to pull out of the nosedive. In one six-game stretch, the Bills won four games and lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers in overtime. The Bills were a team of overachievers led by quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick (seventh-round draft choice and career backup), running back Fred Jackson (undrafted), receiver Steve Johnson (seventh-round pick) and defensive tackle Kyle Williams (fifth-round pick).

Biggest disappointment: The Bills closed out the season with losses to the New England Patriots and New York Jets by a combined score of 72-10. But even more disgusting than their finish was the lack of production the Bills received from recent first-round draft choices. Rookie running back C.J. Spiller (ninth overall) didn't live up to the promise he demonstrated in the preseason. Outside linebacker Aaron Maybin (11th pick in 2009) started one game and still doesn't have a sack. The Bills dumped running back Marshawn Lynch (12th pick in 2007) for a fourth-round pick. Safety Donte Whitner (eighth pick in 2006) was uninspiring again. Defensive lineman John McCargo (26th pick in 2006) was a healthy scratch for 15 games. Receiver Lee Evans (13th pick in 2004) posted mediocre numbers before landing on injured reserve in December.

Biggest need: The Bills own the third selection in April's draft. There are few positions they could settle upon and have it not be a helpful decision. The Bills remain in a rebuilding phase and need help in a great number of places and should find an elite player -- unless their first-round track record fails them yet again. The Bills can't go wrong with a quarterback, pass-rusher, run-stopping defensive lineman, offensive tackle or inside linebacker.

Team MVP: Kyle Williams, defensive tackle. He played for the NFL's worst run defense, but he was the only player opposing offensive coordinators needed to neutralize. Williams recorded 5.5 sacks.

Why didn't they realize that sooner? The Bills could have changed the course of their season had the brain trust not misidentified their offensive centerpieces. Gailey gave quarterback Trent Edwards all the meaningful training camp and preseason snaps, leaving Fitzpatrick with slapdash preparation time. Gailey gave Fitzpatrick the job in Week 3, and the Bills cut Edwards shortly thereafter. How much further along would the offense have been had Fitzpatrick been groomed for the job properly? Lynch started three out of his four games before the Bills traded him, rendering Jackson a bit player. Jackson got more than 12 carries for the first time in Week 7 and still almost rushed for 1,000 yards.

Green-Ellis outruns an entire division

January, 3, 2011
1/03/11
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Before the season, if I'd have given you eight guesses to predict the AFC East's only 1,000-yard rusher, chances are you wouldn't have gotten the right answer.

Of all the players to choose from -- Ricky Williams, Ronnie Brown, LaDainian Tomlinson, Shonn Greene, Fred Jackson, Marshawn Lynch, C.J. Spiller, Fred Taylor, Laurence Maroney -- somebody buried on his team's depth chart topped them all.

BenJarvus Green-Ellis
Elsa/Getty ImagesBenJarvus Green-Ellis finished the season with 1,008 rushing yards and 13 TDs.
Ladies and gentlemen, BenJarvus Green-Ellis was the AFC East's only 1,000-yard rusher.

Seventeen players rushed for at least 1,000 yards, but Green-Ellis was alone in the division. He finished with 1,008 yards. His 13 touchdowns ranked second in the league.

It was one of a few surprising stats for AFC East breakout performers this year.

But a few notables fell short of milestones.

Miami Dolphins outside linebacker Cameron Wake went into the final weekend with the NFL sacks lead, but he was surpassed by Dallas Cowboys outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware and Kansas City Chiefs outside linebacker Tamba Hali. Wake finished third with 14 sacks.

Patriots running back Danny Woodhead needed 93 yards to reach 1,000 from scrimmage, but he left Sunday's game against the Dolphins with a head injury after gaining just 19 yards. Woodhead did break the club record for rushing average at 5.68 yards, edging Don Calhoun.

Buffalo Bills receiver Steve Johnson, a 2008 seventh-round draft choice, needed another touchdown catch to tie the franchise record of 11 held by Billy Brooks, but the Bills' offense was blanked. Johnson eclipsed 1,000 receiving yards earlier.

Established stars attained some milestones.

As expected, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady won the passing crown with a 111.0 rating. He threw an NFL-high 36 touchdowns and an NFL-low (among qualifying passers) four interceptions.

Brady also extended his streak of attempts without an interception to 335. He'll pick that back up in September.

Because of Brady's efficiency, the Patriots broke the record for fewest turnovers. The finished with 10, three fewer than the Dolphins and New York Giants from 2008 and two fewer than the Chiefs in the strike-shortened 1982 season.

Dolphins receiver Brandon Marshall had his streak of 100 reception seasons snapped at three (as did the deactivated Wes Welker), but Marshall did gain over 1,000 yards a fourth straight time.

Patriots linebacker Jerod Mayo finished as the unofficial tackles leader with 175.

And for the rookies:

New England's Rob Gronkowski had 10 touchdown catches to tie Antonio Gates and Marcedes Lewis for the most among all tight ends.

Patriots cornerback Devin McCourty had seven interceptions, one behind Baltimore Ravens safety Ed Reed for the league lead.

Bill Belichick loves him some Fred Jackson

December, 21, 2010
12/21/10
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Buffalo Bills running back Fred Jackson rushed for 8 yards against the New England Patriots in Week 3.

Patriots head coach Bill Belichick still harbors great respect for Jackson, calling him one of the best in the business.

"I have as much respect for him as really anybody we've played," Belichick said Tuesday on a conference call to preview Sunday's game at Ralph Wilson Stadium. "He's a complete guy, does it all and shows really good toughness and can get the tough yards."

Belichick loves overachievers like Jackson, who would fit right in with the Patriots' collection. Tom Brady's supporting cast includes Wes Welker, BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead -- three undrafted players who were waived at least once in their careers.

Jackson didn't start for his high school team and went undrafted from Division III Coe College. Jackson meandered through the arena bush leagues, NFL Europa and the Bills practice squad before getting his shot.

He was a 1,000-yard rusher last year and is 189 yards away from doing it again.

He's also one of the NFL's great bargains. Jackson was in a tough spot when his contract was up last year because of his career path. He was 28 years old, but without enough accrued seasons of experience, still was considered a restricted free agent.

The Bills signed Jackson to a four-year extension that can't make him too thrilled these days. He proved to be better than 2007 first-round draft choice Marshawn Lynch, since traded. Ninth overall pick C.J. Spiller didn't make a rookie impact as hoped.

Belichick didn't sound surprised that Jackson has outlasted them.

"He's outstanding, good at everything, good on blitz pickup, a good outside runner, good inside runner," Belichick said. "They use him in the passing game as a receiver, split out and empty and those kinds of things. He's a very good screen back. ...

"He's got big-time speed as well as power, but he's very tough in the tackle-to-tackle area. It seems like he can always find some space and get a few yards and squeeze through there or power through there."

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