AFC East: NFC

Former head coach Jimmy Johnson is best known in the NFL for winning back-to-back Super Bowls with the Dallas Cowboys. Johnson took a 1-15 team in 1989 and turned it into a multiple Super Bowl winner by the time he left the Cowboys in 1993.

Johnson
Johnson
But Johnson also has very strong ties in Miami, where he had success both at the collegiate and NFL level. The total body of work earned Johnson the No. 13 spot on ESPN.com’s list of all-time great coaches.

Johnson’s rise to fame among the coaching ranks began during his five very successful years as head coach of the Miami Hurricanes from 1984-88. Johnson's fiery coaching style led the Hurricanes to a national championship in 1987 and a stellar 52-9 overall record at Miami.

After leaving Dallas in 1993, Johnson came out of retirement three years later to lead the Dolphins. Johnson’s goal was to get Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Marino a Super Bowl ring, but that never materialized.

Johnson had a 36-28 record in Miami and led the Dolphins to the playoffs in three of his four seasons. But Johnson was 2-3 in the postseason with the Dolphins and wasn't able to get over the hump. Johnson retired for the last time after 1999 season, which also happened to be the same time Marino retired. Both had a huge influence on the Miami football landscape in the 1980s and 1990s.
Jets general manager John Idzik said something Monday on WFAN radio that could make some New York fans nervous.

"I feel comfortable with Mark [Sanchez] being a Jet," Idzik said, according to ESPNNewYork.com.

But the new Jets boss properly hedged his bets with his next statement.

"I told him we're going to add competition and everyone should be up for it," Idzik added. "It's going to make Mark, and everybody else, better."

Idzik properly addressed New York's quarterback situation as it currently stands.

New York will search for the best quarterback possible to improve the position. But Idzik has a tight salary cap this offseason and it will be a challenge to find attractive options. If a suitable replacement cannot be found, Idzik says the Jets feel "comfortable" going with Sanchez for one more year because they would have no choice.

Money obviously plays a factor. The Jets owe Sanchez $8.25 million in guaranteed salary in 2013. Cutting Sanchez would be even more detrimental with more than twice the cap hit.

Seahawks backup Matt Flynn has been mentioned as a trade possibility due to Idzik's ties in Seattle. A top rookie draft pick also is a possibility to add competition. But it appears to be a sure thing that Sanchez remains on the Jets' roster next season. It is Sanchez's role as a starter or backup that is still to be determined.
The AFC East blog will be full go with NFL free agency once the regular season ends. However, there will be a few interesting stories that catch our eye that we will address before then.

SportsNation

Which pending free-agent WR is the best fit for the Dolphins?

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The latest interesting development came from Green Bay Packers receiver and pending free agent Greg Jennings. The two-time Pro Bowl receiver told Steve Wyche of NFL Network that he doesn't think the Packers will sign him to a long-term extension.

It's rare that a player admits that publicly, but it does make a lot of sense for Jennings to bolt Green Bay.

Jennings has been injured most of this year, playing in just six games, but he wants a huge payday. Jennings believes his play the past several years warrants a large contract extension, but he may have to get that from another team.

The Packers have a bevy of younger, less expensive receivers for Pro Bowl quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Green Bay won the NFC North mostly without Jennings' services this year.

Miami has a ton of cap room. And if the Dolphins bid high for Jennings, I don't think the Packers will compete. Miami most likely will compete with other teams. But the Dolphins have an advantage due to Jennings' familiarity with Miami's West Coast offense after playing under head coach Joe Philbin.

The good news for the Dolphins is the 2013 free-agent class is filled with talented wide receivers. If Miami can't land Jennings, other top receivers like Dwayne Bowe, Wes Welker and Mike Wallace could be available. Any of these receivers would be a sizable upgrade for the Dolphins, who need to acquire better pieces around rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill.

AFC East Playoff Machine

December, 10, 2012
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Can those zany New York Jets (6-7) get the final wild card for the AFC playoffs?

What must happen for the New England Patriots (9-3) to get the No. 1 or No. 2 seed and a first-round bye?

Do the Buffalo Bills (5-8) and Miami Dolphins (5-8) still have a mathematical chance?

Find out all these questions and more with ESPN.com's Playoff Machine. You pick the games and control the outcome. It’s an interactive way to determine the playoff field in the AFC and NFC.

Give it a try by clicking this link.

Notes from Patriots-Saints practice

August, 8, 2012
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – The New England Patriots completed their second joint practice against the New Orleans Saints on Wednesday. The AFC East blog was there to check out the action.

Here are a few observations:
  • Patriots quarterback Tom Brady was sharper in his second practice against the Saints. Brady missed several throws he usually makes on Tuesday but made up for it Wednesday. Brady began 7 on 7 drills by throwing back-to-back touchdown passes to tight end Rob Gronkowski and Wes Welker in the red zone. Brady didn't throw as much on Wednesday but looked better in limited reps.
  • The more I see Saints tight end Jimmy Graham, the more I like him. Graham made a couple of really nice catches against the Patriots’ first-team defense in team drills. One was a spectacular catch down the seam from Saints quarterback Drew Brees where Graham jumped over New England rookie linebacker Dont’a Hightower. Graham has gotten the best of Hightower in the joint practices this week. It's been a good learning experience for the rookie linebacker to face one of the top tight ends in the NFL.
  • Speaking of rookies, both Hightower and defensive end Chandler Jones continue to get reps with the first team this week. That probably will continue in Thursday’s preseason opener. Both rookies are flashing their athleticism and have a chance to carve out a solid role in New England’s defense early.
  • The impressive play of the day came from Patriots backup quarterback Brian Hoyer. In team drills Hoyer connected on a beautiful deep pass to a leaping backup receiver Jesse Holley in team drills. The play got one of the loudest cheers from the fans.
  • Overall, it was a much lighter practice Wednesday. Both teams got in some good team work before tomorrow’s preseason game. The Saints and Patriots had a joint agreement not to go too hard before their exhibition.
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Jimmy Graham or Rob Gronkowski? Take your pick.

One is a 6-foot-7 former basketball player who can go up and catch the highest of passes. The other is a 6-foot-6, 265-pound beast with very strong hands and a knack for running through defenders. Both are elite and it's hard to go wrong with either player.

The NFL's two best tight ends shared the practice field Tuesday, as the New England Patriots hosted the New Orleans Saints for a joint scrimmage. There has been a ton of debate this offseason over who is better. According to a recent player survey by the NFL Network, Graham edged Gronkowski in the voting.

[+] EnlargeNew England's Rob Gronkowski
Stew Milne/US PRESSWIRERob Gronkowski, above, is sharing the practice field with the Saints Jimmy Graham this week.
But both tight ends showed in Tuesday's practice why they can make a strong case for the No. 1 spot. Gronkowski caught two red zone touchdowns in 7-on-7 drills, and Graham also caught a touchdown in the same drill and did his trademark slam dunk between the goalposts.

Graham was asked the highly-debatable question after the joint practice, and, naturally, picked himself.

“Of course I would,” said a confident Graham, who caught 99 passes for 1,310 yards and 11 touchdowns last season. “I’m young and the thing about me is I’ve been playing three years and I know I’m getting better. I’m focused on getting better. I know my weaknesses and I know where I need to improve."

Gronkowski said he wasn’t thinking about a one-on-one competition with Graham this week. The Patriots will practice against the Saints twice before playing in Thursday's preseason game at Gillette Stadium.

“There’s really no competition [going on],” said Gronkowski, who caught 90 passes for 1,327 yards and 17 touchdowns in 2011. “He’s a great player, and that’s why every team has a position of tight end. He’s a great guy that you can put the film on and seeing what he’s doing to get open. He’s doing a great job at it and you can learn from other tight ends in the league.”

Gronkowski said he trained with Graham two years ago in Florida before the NFL combine. At the time, both players had major question marks that hurt their draft stock. Gronkowski had a back injury that dropped him to the second round to New England. Graham was a basketball player at the University of Miami with just one year of collegiate football experience. He dropped to the third round. Drafting these tight ends turned out to be the smartest moves each team has made in recent years.

Both tight ends are very close by comparison. The Graham supporters would say he's more athletic and can get vertical better than Gronkowski. The Gronkowski supporters would say he's a significantly better run-blocker than Graham and a more complete tight end. "Gronk" also catches more touchdowns.

Even watching both players practice up close together on Tuesday, it's a really difficult choice.

"It's two totally different animals. I hate to call them animals, but it is what it is,” Saints safety Roman Harper said laughing.

Harper continued to break down each player.

“I think Jimmy is just more of a strider, he's going to be faster than Gronk, but he's more of a strider and he comes out of the break and he's just like, 'Drew throw it up It's more of a rebound, I'm going to get it.' So he's going to be more athletic,” Harper said. “Then you've got Gronk, who is just a big guy and he's a big target, and he's going [to give] a little body action, and of course Tom [Brady] was putting it right on him. Gronk makes his money after the catch. If you look at him, that's where he makes all of his money.”

Don’t forget about the Patriots’ second tight end: Aaron Hernandez. He's also a top-five player at the position. Hernandez caught 79 receptions for 910 yards and seven touchdowns.

The offensive talent in Foxborough this week is immense, especially when you have three of the top five tight ends sharing the same practice field. Graham said he surely will pick up a few pointers from his tight-end peers before leaving Foxborough.

“I watch a lot of film on Hernandez and Gronkowski,” Graham said. “The way [Gronkowski] uses his body, and the way Hernandez is a technician in his routes. I try to take as much as I can from the both of them and apply it to my game.”
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – The first of two scrimmages between the New England Patriots and New Orleans Saints is in the books. It was a good opportunity for both teams to practice against someone else leading into Thursday's preseason game at Gillette Stadium.

Here are several observations:
  • It was a disappointing scrimmage for the Patriots' offense. Quarterback Tom Brady and Co. did not look sharp in team drills. Brady was off and missed at least four throws he usually makes. He was picked off twice by Saints linebacker Curtis Lofton and safety Malcolm Jenkins, respectively. Brady also overthrew receiver Brandon Lloyd on a pair of deep bombs that could have been big plays. Brady also missed Patriots Pro Bowl tight end Rob Gronkowski over the middle. You could tell in Brady’s body language that he wasn’t happy with Tuesday’s practice.
  • Meanwhile, the Saints’ offense had more success against New England’s defense. New Orleans’ quarterback Drew Brees was the sharper quarterback of the two and made nice connections to receiver Joseph Morgan, Lance Moore and Pro Bowl tight end Jimmy Graham. Brees’ only glaring mistake was an interception over the middle to Patriots safety Steve Gregory.
  • It was a tough day for cornerback Kyle Arrington. New England’s interception leader in 2011 was beat on a pair of big gains to Moore and Graham. Arrington is getting a lot of work in the slot but still needs to work on his technique playing the position.
  • Patriots rookie defensive end Chandler Jones flashed on Tuesday. He had a nice play against Brees where he provided good pressure and batted the ball down. Due to injuries and opportunities, Jones and Hightower are getting some important reps with the first team this week, which the Patriots hope will speed up their development.
  • Brian Hoyer probably had the best day of New England's quarterbacks. Hoyer wasn’t perfect, but he did make some very good and accurate passes in team drills, a couple of which thread the needle between defenders. Hoyer is battling with fellow backup Ryan Mallett for the No. 2 quarterback spot behind Brady.
SportsNation

Which NFL team has the best defensive line?

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The AFC East spent time with the Buffalo Bills in training camp this week. It was impressive watching Bills defensive linemen Mario Williams, Kyle Williams, Marcell Dareus and Mark Anderson work as a starting unit.

That prompted this "Poll Friday" question: Which team has the best defensive line in the NFL? The Bills have to be in the mix after spending more than $100 million on defensive ends in free agency.

Buffalo is in the mix with teams like the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants, the always stout Baltimore Ravens and Chicago Bears. If we missed a team with a better defensive line, click other.

Using our SportsNation poll, vote for the best defensive line in 2012. You can also share your thoughts in the comments second below.

Reviewing AP Power Rankings

August, 2, 2012
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According to the Associated Press, there is still some skepticism with the Buffalo Bills. That was perhaps the biggest thing I took from the AP’s first ever NFL Power Rankings.

The Bills, a sleeper pick of many to make the postseason, were ranked No. 19. They were two spots behind the New York Jets, who was ranked No. 17. There is a lot of debate whether the Bills or Jets should be projected as the No. 2 team in the AFC East. The AP picks the Jets.

The New England Patriots were the clear favorite in the AFC East and the No. 2 overall team behind the Green Bay Packers. The rebuilding Miami Dolphins were ranked No. 27 by the AP.

Here is a link for the full rankings.
Anytime a Green Bay Packers receiver is mentioned as potential trade bait, the first team that comes to mind is the Miami Dolphins and rookie head coach Joe Philbin.

First, Donald Driver's name came out of the rumor mill. The latest Packers receiver whose name is being thrown around is James Jones. Green Bay's backup has two years left on his contract and plays behind Greg Jennings, Driver and Jordy Nelson.

If the rumors are true, the Packers may be willing to move their backup receiver for the right price. Miami isn’t a team which likes to give up draft picks. But the Dolphins’ receivers haven’t impressed this offseason, which is a reason they jumped at the chance to sign 34-year-old Chad Ochocinco once he was released by the New England Patriots.

Jones, 28, is closer to his prime and played under Philbin last year when Philbin was the offensive coordinator in Green Bay. They know each other well, and it wouldn’t be much of a learning curve for Jones.

I don’t think Miami will make any trades for a wideout at this point. The Dolphins probably want to go into training camp with the group they have. But if Miami’s receivers continue to struggle, Jones could be a name to keep on the back burner.

Show and prove: Brian Hartline

June, 8, 2012
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We continue our series on players in the AFC East who have a lot to prove in 2012. Next we take a look at the Miami Dolphins' No. 1 receiver.

Brian Hartline, Dolphins

2011 stats: 35 receptions, 549 yards, one touchdown

What he must prove: Hartline, by default, must prove he is a legitimate No. 1 receiver. Miami traded Pro Bowl receiver Brandon Marshall to the Chicago Bears for two third-round picks this offseason. The Dolphins didn't take a receiver high in the draft or make any significant additions in free agency. That leaves Hartline trying to make the jump from a complementary receiver to a No. 1 threat. Hartline is sneaky athletic and is able to get behind a defense when he's not the primary focus. He played off Marshall well. But can Hartline be the guy when he's facing an opponent's No. 1 cornerback and possibly double teams week in and week out?

Walker's 2012 outlook: I'm not optimistic about this one. Hartline is a nice player and someone you want on your team. But asking him to be the first option in Miami's new West Coast offense is asking a lot. Dolphins rookie head coach Joe Philbin says you don't need star receivers to run his system. But the weapons Philbin had in Green Bay (Greg Jennings, Donald Driver, Jordy Nelson, tight end Jermichael Finley) are not slouches. Hartline caught 31, 43 and 35 passes his first three seasons. Maybe those numbers go up some. But I would be surprised if Hartline suddenly explodes for 80 receptions and 1,200 yards -- the type of production Miami lost with Marshall.

Morning take: Osi on the Jets

June, 6, 2012
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Here are the most interesting stories Wednesday morning in the AFC East:
  • New York Giants defensive end Osi Umenyiora hinted that a lack of distractions help keep them on top of the Jets.
Morning take: Distractions are hard to avoid in New York. But it does seem like the Jets are more in the headlines for things not pertaining to the field. Winning is what matters in the end, and the Giants do it more than the Jets.
Morning take: Sherman has a quarterback competition and questions at receiver. It's a tough job that probably won't all come together in one year.
Morning take: The Bills need Williams in September, not June. So it's wise for Buffalo to take its time with one of its best players.
  • Former New England Patriots running back Kevin Faulk hopes to return.
Morning take: Faulk may be on the shelf unless there is an injury. The reigning AFC champs are going younger at the position and will watch to see if those players produce.
One of my favorite AFC East readers, Hot Sauce Steve, asked an interesting question in the blog today.
He writes: "James, here is another good topic from another article. How bad does taking Jake Long over Matt Ryan look now? We were pilloried for it. Jake is about to extend, Ryan looks like he has maxed out at zero playoff wins and they might have to find another or build a team that can carry him."
SportsNation

Four years later, did Miami make the right call by drafting LT Jake Long No. 1 overall over QB Matt Ryan?

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James Walker: It's a tough question, Steve. The Miami Dolphins took Long No. 1 overall and also considered Ryan, who went third to the Atlanta Falcons. NFC South blogger Pat Yasinskas has an interesting piece on Ryan not fulfilling his potential in Atlanta. The case for Miami is that Long is arguably the best left tackle in football. If not, Long is in the top two or three at his position. The same cannot be said about Ryan, who is maybe a top-10 or top-12 quarterback. But Ryan certainly is not the best quarterback in the NFL. From that standpoint, Miami drafted the better prospect. However, the case against Miami is that the quarterback position is so important. Getting a top-10 quarterback makes a huge difference. The Dolphins took Chad Henne in the second round after passing over Ryan, and we saw how that worked out. Miami is still looking for a franchise quarterback (Ryan Tannehill?) four years later. Meanwhile, the Falcons have not had a losing season under Ryan and have been to the playoffs three of his four years. In contrast, Miami has had three losing seasons and been to the playoffs just once in the span, during Long's rookie year. Although Long is the better player relative to his position, I think drafting Ryan would have made a bigger impact for Miami's franchise. The Dolphins would have won more games and probably saved Tony Sparano's job by having a top-10 quarterback on the roster. Long has more than done his job at left tackle, but he cannot make that type of impact.

So that's my take. Now let's hear yours.

Feel free to cast your vote. You can also share your thoughts in the comments section below.
For the many upset Miami Dolphins fans who didn't like my six-win prediction for 2012, here's something to balance that out. Dolphins starting linebacker Karlos Dansby believes Miami is going to the Super Bowl this season.

"As a team, I'm expecting us to win the AFC, period. Point blank," Dansby told the Sun-Sentinel. "We've got the talent. We have the coaching. We've just got to put it all together. It's going to come down to us as players going out and excelling and making sure we do everything we possibly can to win every game.”

Whoa!

Dansby didn't go as far to say the Dolphins will win the Super Bowl. (Maybe he thinks an NFC team is better.) But Dansby does think Miami is the top team in the AFC, which is stacked with quality clubs like the New England Patriots, Houston Texans and Baltimore Ravens. That would be a huge jump for a Dolphins team that went 6-10 last season.

Dansby has been known to say zany things in the past. Last year, Dansby proclaimed he's the best linebacker in the NFL.

But is Dansby correct this time? According to the linebacker, Dolphins fans should plan a trip to see their team in New Orleans next February.

We have yet another example of Tebow-mania running wild in New York.

In Sports Illustrated's "Monday Morning Quarterback," Peter King counted the words at the five biggest newspapers in New York during last week's organized team activities. The two biggest stories last week were Tim Tebow's debut with the Jets and Giants No. 1 receiver Hakeem Nicks' foot injury in practice.

Nicks' injury is a big one that might cause the stud receiver to miss the beginning of the regular season for the defending Super Bowl champs. The amount dedicated to the story, according to King, was 2,104 words. In contract, Tebow's first practice had 6,971 words, more than three times the media coverage.

In my journalistic opinion, Nicks' injury is a bigger story. He's a top impact player for the reigning champs, and the injury will take months to recover. Tebow will have plenty of other practices, but he moves the needle and sells papers.

It's clear what the New York media is doing. But now it's your turn. How much coverage do you think Tebow should get in the AFC East blog?

On one hand, Tebow is a backup quarterback. Other the other hand, he's one of the most well-known athletes in sports. So I'm curious to hear what our community thinks of this polarizing topic.

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