AFC East: Ronnie Brown

The New York Jets are expected to have an extensive Wildcat package this season. New York acquired former Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow, who has experience with the read-option offense in college and the pros.

New Jets offensive coordinator Tony Sparano unleashed the Wildcat on the NFL several years ago with the Miami Dolphins. Sparano used two running backs – Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams -- in Miami, and he talked about the differences this week with using Tebow, a quarterback, in New York.

"With Ricky (Williams) and Ronnie (Brown), the reason that we had to do it in Miami at that time was those were really our two best players at that point, and part of the philosophy was to get the two best players on the field at the same time. And in doing so, we created some matchup problems that way. I think the difference (with Williams and Brown) is there was very little element of pass involved in that, where obviously with Tim, that's a different element. So if we decide to go down that road, the element of being able to throw the football out of that brings a complete different dynamic into the picture here."

If effective, Tebow is expected to take some pressure off starting quarterback Mark Sanchez and add a unique element to the running game. Tebow averaged 5.4 yards per carry in 2011, and has the athleticism and toughness to move the chains.

Many feel there is a brewing quarterback controversy in New York. But Sparano thinks Sanchez will respond fine with fewer snaps. Tebow could get anywhere between 1-20 plays per game, depending on the game plan and opponent.

"I'm not concerned about that, no, I don't think so," Sparano said. "I think with all the work that we'll be doing between now and the time the season starts and all the steps, I think we have to remember that Mark, he's been under center here for a lot of games, for the three years that he's been here, and I think that between now and training camp and through training camp (with) all the snaps that Mark will get, I think we'll be in good shape."

Camp Confidential: Miami Dolphins

August, 19, 2011
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The one major question about the Miami Dolphins the entire offseason was never sufficiently answered.

So what is the deal at quarterback, anyway?

Chad Henne was the unequivocal choice of general manager Jeff Ireland and coach Tony Sparano at this time last year. There was boundless confidence that the team’s second-round pick in 2008 was ready to take the reins of an offense that was expected to be made more proficient by the addition of wide receiver Brandon Marshall.

The results were not pretty. On five occasions, all at home, Henne had the opportunity to win or tie a close game with a fourth-quarter scoring drive, and on all five he failed. Three of the subsequent losses were to also-rans Buffalo, Detroit and Cleveland, leaving Miami with a second straight 7-9 finish.

The failures almost cost Sparano his job, as owner Stephen Ross took a run at Jim Harbaugh, and for a time it seemed Henne might be replaced when Ireland engaged in negotiations for Denver’s Kyle Orton that ultimately came up empty. When the dust settled, former Carolina Panthers QB Matt Moore had been brought in as a backup, but nothing had really changed. Henne was still the one.

The team around him does appear to have gotten better. Coordinator Mike Nolan’s defense, sixth in the league a year ago, has remarkable depth on the defensive line and is better at linebacker with the additions of Kevin Burnett and Jason Taylor. Ireland addressed a deficiency in speed at the skill positions with the acquisitions of Reggie Bush and fourth-round wideout Clyde Gates. First-round pick Mike Pouncey, a center, has brought stability to the offensive line.

But in the 12 years since Dan Marino retired, it has always come back to the quarterback. This year is no different.

Even Marshall, who at one point late last season said he was “not sure” he and Henne could coexist, had good things to say about his beleaguered quarterback, who was actually booed at one preseason practice at Sun Life Stadium.

“Chad has been amazing this summer, getting the guys together,” Marshall said. “He’s been the face of leadership.”

Sparano was even more forthcoming.

“I’ve seen more people going to Chad for answers,” he said. “You would have to envision when you’re at Indianapolis or a place like that people are going to Peyton [Manning] for the answers. Well, more people are going to Chad for the answers now, and that’s a direct reflection of what this young man has done.”

Henne and Peyton Manning in the same sentence … now that’s a stretch for even the most loyal Dolphins fan.

Five days after Sparano made those comments, Henne started the first preseason game at Atlanta and was intercepted twice in five throws while Moore, playing with and against second-teamers, was solid.

It may or may not happen, but certainly all the pieces for a year of quarterback controversy are in place.

THREE HOT ISSUES

[+] EnlargeReggie Bush
Josh D. Weiss/US PresswireWill Reggie Bush be able to revitalize a stagnant running game?
1. Can Bush and rookie Daniel Thomas make people forget Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams? From 2005-10 either Brown or Williams led the Dolphins in rushing, and four of those six years they finished 1-2. Both are getting older -- Williams is 34, Brown 29 -- and the running game ranked 30th in yards per carry (3.7) and 21st in yards per game (102.7) last season. Ireland decided it was time to move on. Thomas, a second-round pick, led the Big 12 in rushing at Kansas State the past two seasons and at 6 feet and 230 pounds, he can pound the middle. Bush, who has missed 20 games to injury the past two seasons, expressed a desire to be the feature back upon his arrival but seems more likely to line up all over the field. “The lack of experience is definitely a concern,” admitted Sparano, whose stable of backs also includes unproven Kory Sheets and Lex Hilliard.

2. How will the season unfold for Marshall? The simple fact that Marshall was perceived to have a down year when he had 86 catches last season -- tied for second in franchise history behind O.J. McDuffie’s 90 in 1998 -- demonstrates how high the expectations are for the man known as “The Beast.” Marshall’s off-field problems, which included the arrest of his wife after Marshall was found stabbed at his home in April, culminated with him being diagnosed and treated for borderline personality disorder this offseason. In camp this summer, it seemed every time Marshall went out for a pass, Henne was the one throwing it. If Gates can be the home run threat Miami lacked after trading Ted Ginn Jr. last season, Marshall could benefit greatly.

3. Will new offensive coordinator Brian Daboll bring spice to a boring offense? Miami’s top two receivers last season, Marshall and Davone Bess, averaged 11.8 and 10.4 yards per catch, respectively. No wonder Henne came to be known as “Checkdown Chad.” But in the Dolphins’ first scrimmage this year, Daboll unveiled four-receiver sets and had Bush lined up everywhere from the backfield to wideout. Despite having Josh Cribbs, Daboll’s offense didn’t exactly light up the scoreboard in Cleveland, finishing 29th in total offense and 25th in yards per play. Sparano prefers the ground-and-pound, but Henne and Daboll must demonstrate they can keep up with prolific offensive units, such as New England, San Diego and Houston -- which happen to be Miami’s first three opponents.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

If a former first-round pick can qualify as a surprise, second-year defensive end Jared Odrick has earned that distinction. Odrick was lost early in the opener against Buffalo last season with a broken leg. His comeback was then stopped six weeks later by a broken ankle, ending his season. Worse, it turned out his first injury was eerily similar to one he suffered as a sophomore at Penn State, raising questions as to whether he could remain healthy enough to be counted upon. But in the early weeks of camp, Odrick was a force, as he and partner Tony McDaniel moved ahead of last season’s starters, Randy Starks and Kendall Langford, in team drills. That quartet, as well as Phillip Merling and Ryan Baker, give Miami inordinate depth at defensive end.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT

After losing Justin Smiley to chronic shoulder injuries, the Dolphins had a vacancy at right guard in 2010 and drafted John Jerry out of Mississippi in the third round. Jerry, the younger brother of Atlanta defensive tackle Peria Jerry, got 10 starts but struggled to beat out journeyman Pat McQuistan. When Miami selected Pouncey in the first round of this year's draft, Richie Incognito, who played both guard spots at times last season, was put on the left side and John Jerry was given the opportunity to win the right guard spot. After seeing unsatisfactory results in the first two weeks of camp, Sparano moved Vernon Carey over from right tackle and brought in free-agent Marc Colombo, who had been let go by Dallas.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • [+] EnlargeClyde Gates
    Scott Cunningham/Getty ImagesThe Dolphins hope that pick Clyde Gates will be able to stretch the field like Ted Ginn Jr. did.
    Two relatively obscure rookies provided two of the more intriguing storylines of training camp. Gates, of Abilene Christian, whose father was released from prison last fall after serving a lengthy sentence for first-degree murder, was one. Seventh-rounder Jimmy Wilson of Montana, who spent 26 months in jail before being acquitted of a first-degree murder charge, was the other. Gates, who ran the 40-yard dash in 4.37 at the combine despite nursing a sore groin, provides needed speed at wide receiver, and Wilson is a big hitter and ball hawk in the secondary.
  • While first-round pick Pouncey was drawing favorable comparisons to his Steelers All-Pro twin brother, Maurkice, for his blocking and intelligence, his struggles snapping the ball were an ongoing concern as camp progressed. Mike Pouncey, who moved to center as a senior at Florida after his brother left early, had some nightmarish games on shotgun snaps with the Gators and clearly doesn’t have the technique down yet.
  • Marshall isn’t known for being shy around a microphone, but he wasn’t in a talkative mood the first three weeks of camp. He spoke only once, to reveal his diagnosis for borderline personality disorder, and took only a handful of questions. Of course, Marshall was in the middle of the Henne soap opera last season, so there was speculation he didn’t want to stir up the water this year as he continues to undergo treatment for his disorder.
  • The only real battle for a starting job in camp has been at free safety. Third-year man Chris Clemons, last season's starter, was trying to hold off Reshad Jones, who made a favorable impression in limited opportunities as a rookie in 2010. Jones had a sack and an interception against Tennessee in one of his two starts and seems to be more of a playmaker.
  • The biggest mystery in camp surrounded the status of Pro Bowl tackle Jake Long, who was put on the physically unable to perform list early and did not work at all the first three weeks. Sparano said Long’s injury did not involve his knee, which along with his shoulder required surgery after last season.

Ronnie Brown, Eagles agree to deal

August, 2, 2011
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Former Miami Dolphins running back Ronnie Brown has agreed to a one-year deal with the Philadelphia Eagles, the team announced Tuesday.

Since being taken by Miami with the second pick in the 2005 draft, the 29-year-old Brown has had a hard time staying healthy, playing all 16 games just twice.

Brown missed the final nine games in 2007 with a right knee injury, and missed the final seven games in 2009.

For the full story, click here.
NFC: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South Unrestricted FAs

A look at the free-agent priorities for each AFC East team:

Buffalo Bills

1. Add new blood: For the most part, most of the Bills’ free-agents-to-be would not be big losses. Buffalo should have plenty of money to spend once free agency does finally open. Obviously, this has been a losing franchise for some time now, and transforming the roster and changing the culture of the organization should be a very good thing. The Bills did take a fine step in the right direction in the 2011 draft, taking several prospects from big-college programs with winning histories.

2. Keep Paul Posluszny: Although inside linebackers generally are not difficult to find, Posluszny is the type of guy Buffalo needs to keep within the organization. He is productive, tough and able to lead the defense on every down. Last season wasn’t his best, but Posluszny was fantastic in 2009, and I fully expect him to get back to that form, especially playing behind what should be a vastly improved young interior defensive line.

3. Eliminate needs: I list the Bills’ three greatest needs as left tackle, outside linebacker and tight end. Rome wasn’t built in a day, but if Buffalo could knock out one or two of these needs in free agency, it would go a very long way in its rebuilding process. Jared Gaither or Doug Free could potentially fill Buffalo’s left tackle position for years to come, while Matt Light could hold down the fort and provide leadership until Chris Hairston or a future draft pick is ready. An outside linebacker such as Manny Lawson, Matt Roth or Mathias Kiwanuka could also be money very well spent to pose an edge presence opposite Arthur Moats, whom I featured in my Soon to be Stars series. Zach Miller is really the only free-agent tight end who would qualify.

Top free agents: Posluszny, Donte Whitner, Drayton Florence

Miami Dolphins

1. Add running back help: Miami used the 62nd overall pick in 2011 to select Daniel Thomas, a big, bruising runner with a lot of ability. But of course, Thomas is going to be a rookie this season, and fully counting on him to carry the load and learn the pass protections would be foolish. Miami needs a backup plan. Bringing back Ronnie Brown, or more likely, Ricky Williams, wouldn’t be a terrible situation. But just adding Brown or Williams wouldn’t be enough. Snatching up Ahmad Bradshaw or DeAngelo Williams would obviously be a huge addition and would push Thomas to backup status. Even bringing in a reliable back like Joseph Addai or Jason Snelling might do the trick as Thomas develops. Another option is to add a specialty player like Darren Sproles.

2. Find competition for Chad Henne: Personally, I am not ready to write off Henne. I believe in the approach that Miami has taken this offseason. The Dolphins have surrounded him with pieces to make his life much easier. But still, adding a veteran signal-caller seems like a must at this point. Suitable options include Marc Bulger, Donovan McNabb or even Vince Young, who is soon to be released by Tennessee. If quarterback remains a problem after this year, then Miami needs to sell the farm to draft its next franchise quarterback. But in the meantime, this would be my approach.

3. Make a splash on D: To me, the Dolphins’ three biggest needs are quarterback, running back and then free safety. Even if Miami didn’t add a defender of any sort in free agency, I would rank its 2011 defense among the best in the NFL. I am that high on this group. But what if the Dolphins could land a real talent at free safety? Imagine the possibilities. This is a deep free-agent class of safeties. I would love to see the Dolphins sign someone like Michael Huff or especially Eric Weddle. Even adding a solid player with upside like Brodney Pool would be helpful here.

Top free agents: Ronnie Brown, Ricky Williams, Tony McDaniel, Richie Incognito, Tyler Thigpen

New England Patriots

1. Lock up Logan Mankins: Because the Patriots designated Mankins their franchise player, I didn’t include him among their top free agents. But New England does have to get him locked up. Mankins might just be the best guard in all of football. With Matt Light potentially leaving town, the Patriots cannot afford additional unrest along their offensive line. Mankins would be the ideal player to line up next to Nate Solder to help the rookie’s transition to the NFL.

2. Find a pass-rusher: I see outside linebacker as New England’s greatest need, followed distantly by wide receiver and defensive end. Although I expect Jermaine Cunningham to develop quickly into a solid starter, adding one more edge player who can be disruptive on throwing downs is something that still needs to be addressed after the team curiously ignored it in the draft. The name I like best for the Patriots here is Mathias Kiwanuka, if his health checks out. He is smart, versatile and has some experience at linebacker. Two other players who fit the bill are Matt Roth and Manny Lawson.

3. Acquire a deep threat: I am not as sold as most that New England must add a wide receiver who can stretch the field. But this is a tremendous organization, and the Pats just don’t have many needs, so picking up such a luxury player could be the difference between a Super Bowl championship or another early exit in the postseason. My favorite fit for the Patriots is Braylon Edwards. Edwards is immensely talented, and if submersed in this environment with Tom Brady throwing him the ball, he could quickly rank among the top wideouts in all of football.

Top free agents: Matt Light, Gerard Warren

New York Jets

1. Make critical decisions on their own players: The Jets have a lot of free agents, and they are one of the teams in the league with the least amount of money to spend as it stands today. New York has come very close to its goal the past couple of seasons, but this free-agency period is absolutely critical to staying among the best teams in the NFL.

2. Address wide receiver: Considering who is up for free agency, wide receiver has to be the biggest worry for the Jets right now. I greatly respect Braylon Edwards’ abilities, but Santonio Holmes is just the better player right now. In fact, I see Holmes as a top-10 wide receiver. He is incredible in the clutch. Mark Sanchez needs quality options to throw to at this point of his young career. If the Jets brought back Holmes, increased TE Dustin Keller's role and also found a bargain at wide receiver late in free agency (maybe Randy Moss or Chad Ochocinco), then I think they would be OK.

3. Don’t forget about the trenches: The Jets are a physical team that is strong on both lines of scrimmage. Two of their starting offensive line spots are uncertain at this point. And although they drafted Muhammad Wilkerson and Kendrick Ellis, rookie defensive linemen rarely make a major impact -- especially in a 3-4. Shaun Ellis is probably going to be playing elsewhere, and New York doesn’t have a high-end outside linebacker. So there are concerns up front. The Jets will have to sign some cheaper veteran options -- probably to one-year contracts -- to shore things up.

Top free agents: Santonio Holmes, Braylon Edwards, Shaun Ellis, Antonio Cromartie, Brodney Pool, Brad Smith

Scouts Inc. watches games, breaks down film and studies football from all angles for ESPN.com. Follow Matt Williamson on Twitter @WilliamsonNFL.

Dolphins back-to-work FYI

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

Readiness factor: The Dolphins might be the most prepared team in the NFL based on offseason workouts. Because so many players make South Florida their year-round homes, getting them together wasn't difficult. The Dolphins gathered early and frequently during the lockout.

Biggest challenge: Miami must overcome multiple institutional issues that have placed key people on the hot seat. Head coach Tony Sparano is back for a fourth season after owner Stephen Ross publicly flirted with Jim Harbaugh, and the team's hopes appear to be pinned on unproven quarterback Chad Henne, likely an unproven-but-still-unnamed running back and new offensive coordinator Brian Daboll, who was less than inspiring with Cleveland.

Defense in focus: While the offense is in doubt, defensive coordinator Mike Nolan's group is in solid shape. The whole crew essentially is back, a young group that now has another year of experience. The Dolphins ranked sixth in total defense, seventh in run defense and eighth in pass defense. If you're looking for an area that must improve, then turnovers would be the place. Ball hawking is a core Nolan belief, but the Dolphins notched only 11 interceptions and recovered eight fumbles last season.

Key players without contracts for 2011: Running backs Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams are the most prominent. Backup quarterback Tyler Thigpen also is on the list.

Dolphins, Pats possibilities for Tiki Barber?

June, 20, 2011
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In taking a look at landing spots for free-agent running back Tiki Barber, ESPN.com senior writer John Clayton includes a pair of AFC East teams among five possibilities.

Clayton considers the Miami Dolphins and New England Patriots to be legitimate options, rating them Nos. 3 and 5 because they could use a complementary back who does what Barber can.

On the Dolphins, Clayton writes: "Coach Tony Sparano has to decide if he can bring Ricky Williams and Ronnie Brown back to the roster. Neither back, though, fills the role of pass-catcher. The Dolphins plan to remain a running team, so it wouldn't hurt to have a veteran back with Barber's experience in big games."

On the Patriots, Clayton writes: "No coach in football appreciates older backs as much as Bill Belichick. Kevin Faulk and Fred Taylor are 35. Sammy Morris is 34. If Faulk retires or the Patriots don’t re-sign him, Faulk's role in the Patriots' backfield fits Barber’s skills."

Miami's backfield about diminishing returns

June, 10, 2011
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Ronnie Brown Mark Zerof/US PresswireRonnie Brown averaged 3.7 yards per carry last season, a career low.
Quite recently, the Miami Dolphins' running game was considered vibrant, cutting-edge and borderline dominant.

The Wildcat unleashed all sorts of possibilities for Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams in 2008. They were an envied backfield tandem. Brown went to the Pro Bowl.

In 2009, with Brown battling injuries, Williams rushed for over 1,100 yards. The Dolphins tied for the NFL lead with 22 rushing touchdowns. They ranked fourth in run offense and eighth in average yards per carry.

Perceptions swung 180 degrees last year. The Dolphins went from a model of rushing excellence to anemic. They ranked 11th in carries, but 21st in yards. Their average carry plummeted 0.7 yards to a measly 3.7. Only the Cincinnati Bengals were worse.

What in the world happened?

A combination of inconsistent offensive line play, creeping age and lack of an offensive identity were to blame. Now, the two running backs many Dolfans thought could run for 1,000 yards apiece in the same season are free agents who might not be wanted anymore.

Before the draft, Dolphins head coach Tony Sparano told reporters at the NFL owners' meeting in New Orleans he thought Brown and Williams were fine last year.

"I honestly thought both players played well for us," Sparano said. "I really did. I said it during the season, I didn't have a problem with how either guy played."

Even with All-Pro left tackle Jake Long in place and the reliable Vernon Carey at right tackle, Sparano cited the offensive line's inability to bust holes into the defense's second level as a serious problem.

[+] EnlargeRicky Williams
AP Photo/Hans DerykRicky Williams' carries and rushing yards in 2010 both shrank considerably from 2009.
ESPN Stats & Information came up with data to back that sentiment. The Dolphins ranked fifth in runs up the middle with 247 attempts, but their average tied for 27th at 3.5 yards. Of their runs up the middle, they scored a touchdown on only 2 percent (tied for 24th) and gained a first down on only 18.6 percent (26th).

No wonder they drafted Florida center Mike Pouncey with the 15th overall pick. The Dolphins also traded up to make Kansas State running back Daniel Thomas their second-round pick, adding him to a depth chart that also includes Lex Hilliard and Kory Sheets, who's coming off an Achilles injury.

But back to the offensive line for a moment. The Dolphins have been plagued by Sparano's seemingly uncontrollable tinkering on the interior. Pouncey should become the Dolphins' fourth starting center in as many seasons. At guard, they've shuffled through draft picks, waiver claims and street free agents. Sparano, an old offensive line coach himself, fired his first O-line assistant after just one season.

That's a significant reason why Brown went from hip to a blip. He's now an NFL afterthought at 29 years old.

NFL.com senior analyst and former New York Jets executive Pat Kirwan recently rated Brown no higher than 31st among all running backs and trending down from there. Kirwan wrote: "Teams seeking a backup for 10 carries and a Wildcat role should value Brown."

ESPN.com's fantasy football crew rated Brown the 45th-best running back.

Williams, 34, has a worse outlook. Kirwan didn't list him at all. In fact, three other Williamses did make the chart, and one of them was Arizona Cardinals rookie Ryan Williams. On the fantasy rankings, Ricky Williams was the 53rd running back.

At the end of last season, Williams took a couple of swipes at Sparano's penchant for micromanaging. But on Wednesday, Williams tweeted "I'd love nothing more than to finish my career winning a Super Bowl with the Dolphins, but that's gonna take some cooperation from others."

"Cooperation," in this case, almost certainly is synonymous with "lovely contract."

Maybe Williams' change of heart has to do with Brian Daboll replacing Dan Henning as offensive coordinator. Daboll oversaw an impressive Cleveland Browns run game that featured Peyton Hillis.

Sparano has said Miami still will emphasize the run under Daboll.

"We're going to continue to run the football because that's my nature," Sparano said. "That might not be popular with everybody, but that's what I like to do. So we're going to continue to run the football."

And they will -- with or without Brown and Williams, running backs who were trendy a year ago, but aren't considered to be much of anything anymore.

Fantasyland: Marshall 23rd-best WR

June, 2, 2011
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You know who aren't locked out? ESPN.com's fantasy football folks.

Undeterred by the fact we haven't had free agency or an official workout yet, our intrepid rotagonists have put together their initial top 200 player rankings for 2011.

AFC East fans will be disappointed to find one player among the top 47.

The first AFC East player on the list is New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady at No. 20. He's the fourth quarterback behind Aaron Rodgers, Michael Vick and Drew Brees.

Sticking with quarterbacks, you'll need to scroll down to No. 122 to find Mark Sanchez of the New York Jets, the 19th-best fantasy quarterback on the list. Buffalo Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick comes in at No. 173, which makes him the 25th quarterback. Miami Dolphins quarterback Chad Henne doesn't make the cut.

I'm not sure what's more surprising for the Dolphins: how many receivers are listed ahead of Brandon Marshall or how highly rated rookie running back Daniel Thomas is.

Marshall is the top Dolphins player at No. 60. That makes him the 23rd receiver on the chart. Thomas, without a single NFL snap to his credit, is just seven slots behind Marshall. Thomas is considered the 28th running back in the league from a fantasy standpoint.

Dolphins free-agent backs Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams are 119th and 165th overall, respectively. What a falloff.

The New York Jets are well-represented in terms of volume, but their highest-rated player is free agent Santonio Holmes at No. 49. He's the 18th receiver. Braylon Edwards is No. 85 overall and the 33rd wideout.

The Jets' backfield features Shonn Greene and LaDainian Tomlinson at Nos. 62 and 102. That makes them the 26th and 42nd fantasy running backs.

Wide receiver Steve Johnson is the highest-rated Buffalo player at No. 52. Running back Fred Jackson is only six slots behind him. Sophomore running back C.J. Spiller is No. 92. Receiver Lee Evans is No. 191.

For the Patriots, BenJarvus Green-Ellis is the highest non-Brady at No. 48, making him the 28th running back. Danny Woodhead is No. 141, or the 48th running back. Patriots receivers Wes Welker and Deion Branch are 55th and 112th. Tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez are 134th and 195th.

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?

Dolphins move up for running back

April, 29, 2011
4/29/11
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The Miami Dolphins traded into the second round to grab Kansas State running back Daniel Thomas with the 62nd selection Friday night.

Why the Dolphins took him: The Dolphins sent three picks (Nos. 79, 146 and 216) to the Washington Redskins to move up. Thomas is 6-feet, 230 pounds. He rushed for 2,850 yards and 30 touchdowns and caught 52 passes for 428 yards in two seasons. He might also be the next Wildcat pilot. He ran a similar offense in junior college and completed 7 of 12 passes for 155 yards and two touchdowns for Kansas State.

How it affects the roster: The Dolphins are close to a blank slate. Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams are on expired contracts. Thomas likely slotted ahead of Lex Hilliard on the depth chart.

Scouts Inc. says: Lacks great top-end speed. Does not show ideal burst to consistently turn the corner in the NFL. But he does have a bit of a second-gear when he reaches the second level and can bounce some runs to the outside. Most importantly, he has excellent lateral agility for a back his size. Displays short-area burst to get to and through the line of scrimmage. Slippery runner. Can slither through a tight crease as well as any big back in this draft. Nimble on feet and shows good lateral movement/change-of-direction skills to make defenders miss in confined areas.

First round is coming, but at what cost?

April, 26, 2011
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Long/GholstonDoug Murray/Icon SMIBoom (Jake Long) or bust (Vernon Gholston), teams have spent plenty on first-round picks since 2000.
Buffalo Bills general manager Buddy Nix recently said rare circumstances would be required to trade the club's third overall draft choice. He sounded fixed on making that pick, even though he has no idea how much it will cost him.

There's curiosity over what the New England Patriots will do with their abundance of draft assets. They have enough picks that they could trade up into the top 10. Yet they don't know how rich that territory will be.

We know the NFL draft will begin Thursday night. Unclear are the dollars it will take to sign those picks.

Rookie cost controls almost certainly will be part of the next collective bargaining agreement, but will that deal be hammered out before the 2011 season?

If not, then teams might operate under last year's rules. That would mean more outrageous guaranteed dollars to prospects who haven't snapped an NFL chinstrap. A league source calculated NFL teams have committed over $3.154 billion in guarantees to first-round draft choices since 2000.

The Associated Press reported the NFL's proposal for a rookie pay system -- made before the lockout -- included $300 million in diverted funds that instead would go to veteran contracts and player benefits and slow the rapid growth of guaranteed first-round money (up 233 percent since 2000).

The money would be saved by shrinking the already-in-place rookie salary pool system, where the league allocates a certain number of dollars to be spent based on the number of picks and their spots in the order.

Also in the reported proposal: first-round contracts would be capped at five years under the proposal. All other draft picks would be capped at four years. The player's maximum allowable salary would go down if he hadn't signed by training camp, a deterrent to holding out.

Buffalo News reporter Mark Gaughan recently estimated the Bills would save roughly $15 million on their No. 3 pick with rookie cost controls. That certainly would make another Aaron Maybinesque pick more digestible.

With all this in mind, let's examine how much guaranteed money AFC East clubs have spent on their first-round draft picks since 2000. Data provided from the aforementioned league source shows the Patriots have spent most efficiently, the New York Jets have spent the most total dollars and the Miami Dolphins have spent the most per player.

The Dolphins have drafted eight first-rounders since 2000 and spent an average of $12.043 million in guaranteed money. That figure ranks eighth among all NFL clubs, but those players averaged only 37 starts for Miami.

Only the Buffalo Bills averaged fewer starts from their first-rounders at 36.2, but the Bills rank 19th in average guaranteed dollars committed.

Left tackle Jake Long's mammoth contract inflates Miami's dollar figure. The top 2008 pick became the highest-paid offensive lineman in NFL history days before commissioner Roger Goodell said Long's name at Radio City Music Hall. Running back Ronnie Brown was rewarded with $19.5 million guaranteed as the second pick in 2005.

Those picks were successful, but the Dolphins also committed $13.865 million to receiver Ted Ginn, $9.016 million to cornerback Jason Allen and $7.133 million to defensive end Jared Odrick.

The Jets' massive guarantee total includes left tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson ($29.6 million), quarterback Mark Sanchez ($28 million), outside whatever Vernon Gholston ($21 million), cornerback Darrelle Revis ($14.7 million) and defensive tackle Dewayne Robertson ($14.7 million).

There are a couple royal busts in there, but the Jets still have spent relatively well. Despite picking in roughly the same average first-round slot as the Dolphins and Bills since 2000, the Jets have averaged nearly 61 starts per player.

The Bills' big-ticket items have been running back C.J. Spiller ($18.9 million), left tackle Mike Williams ($14.4 million) and Maybin ($10.9 million).

Buffalo's first-round picks ranked 19th in the NFL when it came to average guaranteed dollars.

The Patriots have committed eight figures in guaranteed money to only two of their 10 first-round selections since 2000 because of their penchant to trade back. Their average first-rounder is taken 20.7th overall.

Inside linebacker Jerod Mayo ($13.8 million) and defensive end Richard Seymour ($11 million) are the Patriots' lone top-10 picks under Bill Belichick and look like basement bargains compared to other names mentioned above.

Tracking starters in recent AFC East drafts

April, 22, 2011
4/22/11
2:53
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While working on a feature about Tom Modrak's draft record as Buffalo Bills vice president of college scouting, ESPN researcher John Fisher dug up some interesting data.

The Bills actually were the AFC East's most efficient club when it came to drafting starters since Modrak came aboard in 2002.

Several factors certainly play into that from team to team. Importance of the position, holes that allow for immediate contributions and reliance on free agents to fill out a roster all make a difference. So do the number of players drafted.

But, in general, I thought it was an interesting snapshot to share. Because the research was done to put Modrak's tenure in perspective, numbers are from 2002 through the present.

Buffalo Bills

First through third rounds: 28 players; 804 starts (15th)

Fourth through seventh rounds: 45 players; 417 starts (eighth)

Analysis: Among AFC East teams, only the New England Patriots generated more starts within the first three rounds. No other division opponent found more starts from the fourth round and beyond. The Bills have whiffed badly on some early picks, as noted in Thursday's story about Modrak. But they have done well in locating solid help in the later rounds, namely 1,000-yard receiver Steve Johnson (seventh round), Pro Bowl defensive lineman Kyle Williams (fifth round) and top cornerback and Pro Bowl kick returner Terrence McGee (fourth round).

Miami Dolphins

First through third rounds: 25 players; 599 starts (31st)

Fourth through seventh rounds: 43 players; 333 starts (16th)

Analysis: The Dolphins have done well with their recent first-round picks. Although receiver Ted Ginn with the ninth pick in 2007 was controversial, they found keepers with tackles Jake Long and Vernon Carey and running back Ronnie Brown. But the second and third rounds have been a wasteland: quarterbacks John Beck and Pat White, running back Lorenzo Booker, receivers Patrick Turner and Derek Hagan, linebacker Eddie Moore. Miami's best later-round pickups since 2002 have been franchise-tagged nose tackle Paul Soliai (fourth round), Pro Bowl safety Yeremiah Bell (sixth round) and tight end Randy McMichael (fourth round).

New England Patriots

First through third rounds: 31 players; 823 starts (12th)

Fourth through seventh rounds: 50 players; 379 starts (11th)

Analysis: The Patriots have found their share of gems in the later rounds, including four eventual Pro Bowlers. They picked up cornerback Asante Samuel and kicker Stephen Gostkowski in the fourth round, center Dan Koppen in the fifth and quarterback Matt Cassel in the seventh. They've also done incredibly well with their first-round selections. Five of their past six first-rounders have gone to the Pro Bowl. Where the Patriots have been shaky is in the second and third rounds. They've gotten receiver Deion Branch, tight end Rob Gronkowski, tackle Sebastian Vollmer and safety Patrick Chung there, for instance, but they've also misfired with quarterback Kevin O'Connell, receivers Chad Jackson and Bethel Johnson and cornerback Terrence Wheatley.

New York Jets

First through third rounds: 24 players; 766 starts (19th)

Fourth through seventh rounds: 32 players; 314 starts (18th)

Analysis: The Jets' start totals look worse because they haven't drafted as many players as the other AFC East teams. Their early round players average 32 starts, about 5 1/2 more than the Patriots. But the team that accumulated the most starts here -- the Jacksonville Jaguars with 1,172 -- averaged an extraordinary 43 per player. The Jets obviously failed with 2008 sixth overall pick Vernon Gholston and 2003 fourth overall pick Dewayne Robertson, but they've generally identified quality players inside the first three rounds, including All-Pros Nick Mangold and Darrelle Revis and franchise quarterback Mark Sanchez.

Buffalo tops AFC East in RB rankings

April, 11, 2011
4/11/11
11:49
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How would you rate the AFC East's running backs?

Scouts Inc. analyst Matt Williamson gave his take in his weekly Scouts Eye column Insider.

Williamson slots them in this order: Buffalo Bills, New England Patriots, New York Jets and Miami Dolphins.

He almost apologizes for ranking Fred Jackson the best back in the division, but so did I when ESPN.com put together its positional Power Rankings five weeks ago. Williamson also foresees C.J. Spiller being a weapon in Chan Gailey's offense next season. Maybe.

Williamson notes the Patriots' top-notch blocking and offensive scheme enhance what BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead can do, making them look better than they would be in other systems.

Shonn Greene's limited receiving skills hurt the Jets' backfield, and Williamson's not a big LaDainian Tomlinson fan anymore, writing: "If I had a Hall of Fame vote, Tomlinson would get my approval for that illustrious honor the minute he was eligible. But right now, I see a player who is a fraction of what he once was."

The Dolphins are one big asterisk with Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams both unsigned and the lockout preventing free agency from commencing.

Analysts spotlight Henne, Fins QB situation

April, 1, 2011
4/01/11
2:50
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Total coincidence that we reached the Miami Dolphins' turn in the AFC East reader mock draft the same day ESPN's "On the Clock" roundtable series takes a look at the aqua and orange.

Most of the panel's conversation deals with the Dolphins' quarterback situation. Draft expert Mel Kiper once again noted the Dolphins might have erred by taking left tackle Jake Long first overall in 2008 rather than a quarterback.

"The left tackle is not going to get you where you want to go," Kiper said. "The quarterback does. It's nice to have that great left tackle, but you've got to have the quarterback."

The Dolphins drafted Chad Henne with their second second-round pick that year.

"Chad Henne was wildly inconsistent at Michigan," Kiper said. "That's why I had some questions about him, coming out. We see that in Miami. There are games where he looks like he could be the guy and other games you scratch your head, saying 'Why did that throw go where it did?'

"The inaccuracy of Chad Henne and the inconsistency of Chad Henne is the reason right now they don't know where they're going at quarterback."

Henne completed 61.4 percent of his throws for 3,301 yards and 15 touchdowns with 19 interceptions. His 75.4 passer rating was 15th in the league.

Henne lost his starting job to Chad Pennington in Week 10 and might have remained on the sidelines had Pennington not suffered a season-ending shoulder injury.

ESPN analyst Trent Dilfer still believes Henne can be salvageable as a starter.

"When I study him on tape, there is improvement," Dilfer said. "You see improvement in his ability to change speeds on the ball, make some throws he hasn't been able to make earlier in his career.

"And I think after 27 starts, it's not a big enough body of work to come up with a definitive judgment on Chad Henne. I think the franchise would take a giant step backwards if they started over and went and got another rookie. Unless it's an established, veteran, free-agent quarterback, I think Chad Henne is the answer for the Dolphins this year."

Also discussed in the segment were the fractured front-office relationships stemming from owner Stephen Ross' pursuit of Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh. Ross and general manager Jeff Ireland flew cross country to woo Harbaugh, leaving Sparano to twist.

"That broke a trust right there," ESPN's Chris Mortensen said. "Even though this is trending down a little bit, it has not been a collapse. ... That trust is tough to repair, but somehow Ireland and Sparano have got to do that, because it's not a disaster."

Draft Watch: AFC East

March, 24, 2011
3/24/11
12:00
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NFC Draft Watch: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

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

Buffalo Bills

The Bills went through a defensive overhaul last year under new head coach Chan Gailey and coordinator George Edwards. They morphed from Dick Jauron's 4-3 Tampa 2 scheme to a traditional 3-4 set. The Bills drafted accordingly, but as the season wore on and they failed to stop the run -- they ranked dead last in the league in rushing yards allowed per carry and per game -- they sunk back into a 4-3 mindset and frequently added another defender to the line. They've also hired Dave Wannstedt as assistant head coach and linebackers assistant. Wannstedt is a 4-3 devotee. All of this adds up to the Bills being interested in the best available defenders they can find, regardless of whether or not they fit into a preconceived scheme.

Miami Dolphins

Rightly or wrongly, the Dolphins' offensive identity the past three seasons has been the Wildcat. Those days would appear to be over. Offensive coordinator Dan Henning and quarterbacks coach David Lee (the man who introduced the Wildcat) are gone. Wildcat trigger man Ronnie Brown and speed-motion back Ricky Williams don't have contracts, and both could be on other teams. The one player the Dolphins drafted specifically to enhance the Wildcat, quarterback Pat White, was released after one season. Miami's new offensive identity has yet to be determined under new offensive coordinator Brian Daboll. Nobody can say for sure what he'll be looking for, but the run game must be strengthened. Head coach Tony Sparano said this week the Dolphins will remain a power rushing team. Brown and/or Williams will need to be replaced, and reliable interior linemen must be found.

New England Patriots

The Patriots are the NFL's most flexible club entering the draft. They own two picks in each of the first three rounds and in three of the top 33 slots. Bill Belichick can go any direction he chooses and certainly will have his staff working the phones for trade possibilities. The Patriots have a rich history of trading back to accumulate more picks, but they might be more open to trading up this year. They have decent youth on the roster, so when you consider the possibility of adding six more players drafted no later than the third round -- plus their picks in the fourth, fifth and sixth rounds -- you have to wonder if there will be room for them all on the 53-man roster. The glut of picks also allows the Patriots to select the best available player and not fret about specific needs with any given pick.

New York Jets

The Jets made it to the AFC Championship Game again and will draft 30th. Head coach Rex Ryan has playfully groused about the late position and the fact the Jets will have to rummage for the best player still on the board. The Jets drafted cornerback Kyle Wilson 29th last year and immediately named him the team's starting nickelback and punt returner. That didn't work out. Wilson started six games, made 19 tackles, defensed five passes and returned 15 punts. While that negative experience could entice the Jets to return to their usual ways and move up in the draft for a prospect they truly covet -- as they did with cornerback Darrelle Revis, linebacker David Harris and quarterback Mark Sanchez -- an inability to trade players until there's a new collective bargaining agreement might make that difficult.

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