AFC East: Sione Pouha

It was not a very good year for AFC East defenses in 2012. Three teams in the division finished with rankings in the 20s.

But there have been a lot of changes for the division via free agency and the draft. Let’s take a look at updated defensive rankings for the AFC East entering the regular season.

No. 1: Miami Dolphins

Analysis: The Dolphins ranked 21st in total defense in 2012. But Miami was decent against the run and only allowed 19.8 points per game, good for seventh in the NFL. The Dolphins’ biggest issue was their inconsistent pass defense. Miami gave up too many big passing plays and it cost the Dolphins some games. The Dolphins aggressively attacked their cornerback position by signing former Pro Bowler Brent Grimes and drafting Jamar Taylor and Will Davis in the second and third rounds, respectively. The Dolphins also added another pass-rushing threat with No. 3 overall pick Dion Jordan. If Miami stops allowing big passing plays, the Dolphins’ defense will be tough to beat.

No. 2: New England Patriots

Analysis: The Patriots were 25th in total defense in 2012. But I project New England to make a sizable jump in 2013. The Patriots made solid strides last year in red-zone defense and points allowed. But New England gave up too many chunk passing plays in between the 20s. The Patriots were 29th in pass defense last season. The return of No. 1 cornerback Aqib Talib to the secondary is huge, in addition to starting corner Alfonzo Dennard overcoming his legal issues and the Patriots signing hard-hitting safety Adrian Wilson. New England’s pass rush should also improve, led by a healthy Chandler Jones. There is a lot to like about the Patriots’ defense this season, especially with head coach Bill Belichick calling the shots. I wouldn’t be surprised to see New England move up 10 spots or more from last year’s ranking.

No. 3: New York Jets

Analysis: Here is one thing you can count on with the Jets under head coach Rex Ryan: He will field a very good defense. New York has been in the top 10 in total defense since Ryan took over in 2009. The Jets, despite their ugly 6-10 record, was ranked No. 8 in total defense last season. But look for the unit to take a step back in 2013. New York’s scheme remains strong, but this is the least amount of talent Ryan has had in his five seasons with the Jets. New York traded the best cornerback in the NFL -- Darrelle Revis -- to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and lost Pro Bowl safety LaRon Landry, linebacker Bart Scott and defensive linemen Sione Po'uha and Mike DeVito. The Jets will try to replace these established veterans with younger players, many of whom are rookies or players with just one year of experience. Defense will still be the Jets' strength, but they won’t be as strong on that side of the ball than in previous years.

No. 4: Buffalo Bills

Analysis: I had a hard time ranking the Bills’ defense. This group has talent on paper, but Buffalo never came close to putting it all together last season. The Bills ranked No. 22 in total defense in 2012, 31st against the run. It will be the job of new defensive coordinator Mike Pettine to get the most out of his talent. Buffalo has some quality players on defense. Pro Bowl safety Jairus Byrd, defensive tackle Kyle Williams, defensive end Mario Williams and former first-round picks Marcell Dareus and Stephon Gilmore are all talented. But collectively, the Bills’ defense grossly underachieved. The linebacker play must improve dramatically. I’m also concerned about two major holes at cornerback and safety.

I'm sure there will be plenty of debate about these rankings -- and really, the AFC East is wide open on defense this year. I wouldn’t be surprised if any of these teams lead the division defensively; all four have a chance to be competitive. It most likely will come down to which team can consistently execute defensively and stay healthy over a 16-game season.
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A look at whether each AFC East team has been a winner or a loser in free agency.

Buffalo Bills: The Bills have been losers in free agency mostly due to inactivity. Buffalo made just one signing: linebacker Manny Lawson. With a new head coach and new schemes on offense and defense, the Bills need a lot more than one linebacker to be competitive next season. Most important, they need to find a quarterback after cutting former starter Ryan Fitzpatrick. Buffalo also lost starting guard Andy Levitre, linebacker Nick Barnett, veteran safety George Wilson and receivers Donald Jones and David Nelson. The team has yet to fill those holes. Interestingly, the Bills were major players in free agency a year ago. They signed defensive end Mario Williams to a $100 million contract and made several other signings. However, Buffalo finished 6-10 in 2012 and decided to take a much quieter approach in 2013.

Miami Dolphins: The Dolphins are big winners in free agency. They landed the best wide receiver on the market (Mike Wallace) and the top linebacker (Dannell Ellerbe). Miami also signed a pass-catching tight end (Dustin Keller) and an additional, athletic linebacker (Philip Wheeler). Miami’s roster looks much stronger and more dynamic than it did heading into the 2012 season, when the team went 7-9. Dolphins general manager Jeff Ireland said it was his goal to close the gap with the New England Patriots. Ireland deserves a lot of credit for a solid game plan and executing it well. The Dolphins still have holes to fill at cornerback, left tackle and at pass-rusher. But Miami still has cap room to spend and 11 total draft picks next month. The Dolphins are not finished adding talent.

New England Patriots: The Patriots have had mixed results in free agency. But overall I would just barely put them in the winners' category. I do not like what they've done on offense, where they lost two starting receivers: Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd. The pair accounted for 192 receptions, 2,265 yards and 10 touchdowns last season. That's a lot of lost production that Danny Amendola and Donald Jones -- New England's two free-agent signings at receiver – will not be able to match. The Patriots also haven't re-signed starting right tackle Sebastian Vollmer, who remains a free agent. New England must patch these two holes offensively. On the other hand, I like what New England has done defensively. The Patriots solidified their secondary by signing former Pro Bowl safety Adrian Wilson and re-signing No. 1 cornerback Aqib Talib. They also re-signed backup corners Kyle Arrington and Marquice Cole and added exciting kick returner Leon Washington on special teams.

New York Jets: The Jets are huge losers so far in free agency. They lost talented players much faster than they can replace them. Former New York starters Shonn Greene, Keller, LaRon Landry, Yeremiah Bell, Sione Pouha, Bart Scott and Calvin Pace were either recently released or signed with other teams. The Jets are hamstrung by a tight salary cap. Therefore, first-year Jets general manager John Idzik has been forced to bargain shop. New York made several low-cost signings, such as tailback Mike Goodson and guard Willie Colon. But overall, the Jets have more holes than they can fill in one offseason.
During his introductory news conference as general manager of the New York Jets, John Idzik promised he would put together a competitive team. Then, Idzik swiftly released veteran talents Calvin Pace, Bart Scott, Eric Smith and now defensive tackle Sione Po'uha. Star cornerback Darrelle Revis also could be on the move from New York via a trade.

What gives?

The harsh truth is it will be an extreme long shot for the Jets to field a title contending team in 2013. New York must first go through a long and painful rebuild. Idzik is simply doing his job by putting a good face on the situation, but the reality is there's not much to look forward to with this year's version of the Jets.

Po'uha is a good player and a solid leader in New York's locker room, but he was overpaid by Jets' standards. Po'uha was reportedly due $4.9 million next season. The Jets needed the cap room more considering all the bad contracts they agreed to in the past.

New York must hit the bottom first before it gets back to the top, and that process will take at least two years. Po'uha was simply a victim of circumstance.

Jets likely without TE Dustin Keller

December, 7, 2012
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New York Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez will be back under center this weekend, but he most likely will be without his most reliable weapon.

The Jets listed starting tight end Dustin Keller (ankle) as "doubtful" for Sunday’s game against the Jacksonville Jaguars. This is another blow to Sanchez and New York’s offense, which has limited weapons even with Keller. New York also will be without speedy receiver Clyde Gates, who won’t play with a concussion.

In other Jets injury news, defensive lineman Sione Pouha (back), receiver Stephen Hill (knee) and backup quarterback Tim Tebow (ribs) are all listed "questionable." The Jets (5-7) are aiming to get closer to .500 against Jacksonville (2-10).

AFC East Week 13 injury analysis

November, 30, 2012
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The final injury reports are out for Week 13 in the AFC East.

Let’s take a look at who is expected to play and sit this weekend.

New England Patriots (8-3) at Miami Dolphins (5-6), Sunday at 1 p.m. ET

Patriots: The Patriots have masterfully overcome injuries this year. In this game alone, Pro Bowl tight end Rob Gronkowski (arm), Pro Bowl guard Logan Mankins (ankle) and starting defensive end Chandler Jones (ankle) are out against Miami. The Patriots, as usual, have a ton of players questionable. This is head coach Bill Belichick’s way of keeping everyone guessing. Among the 15 questionable players this week are tight end Aaron Hernandez (ankle), receiver Wes Welker (ankle), right tackle Sebastian Vollmer (back) and receiver Brandon Lloyd (knee). Most, if not all, are expected to play.

Dolphins: The Dolphins are a healthy team entering this game. Fullback Jorvorskie Lane (knee) is the only player listed as questionable. There are eight players listed probable, including starting receiver Davone Bess (wrist), linebacker Karlos Dansby (bicep) and safety Reshad Jones (thumb).

Jacksonville Jaguars (2-9) at Buffalo Bills (4-7), Sunday at 1 p.m.

Jaguars: As expected, star tailback Maurice Jones-Drew remains out with a foot injury. He’s the only big name on Jacksonville’s injury report who won’t play. Rookie receiver Justin Blackmon (groin), defensive tackle Tyson Alualu (calf), receiver Cecil Shorts (hamstring) and cornerback Rashean Mathis (foot) are all probable.

Bills: Cornerbacks Aaron Williams (knee) and Justin Rogers (foot) are both questionable. Both players provide needed depth in the secondary. Buffalo also could have a depth issue at wide receiver if starting receiver Donald Jones (calf) is a scratch. Jones is listed as questionable.

Arizona Cardinals (4-7) at New York Jets (4-7), Sunday at 1 p.m.

Cardinals: Cardinals quarterback Kevin Kolb (ribs) is questionable, although Arizona is expected to start Ryan Lindley. Defensive end Calais Campbell (calf) and tailback Chris Wells (knee) are also questionable. Former Jets safety Kerry Rhodes (back), who should be motivated to return to New York, is listed probable.

Jets: Receiver Clyde Gates (concussion) is listed doubtful and not expected to play. The Jets also have four players listed questionable, which include defensive tackle Sione Pouha (back), corner Aaron Berry (quad), linebacker Ricky Sapp (ankle) and quarterback Tim Tebow (ribs). Jets head coach Rex Ryan says Tebow will be a game-time decision. However, ESPN’s Ed Werder reports that Tebow will sit this weekend.

Final injury report: Patriots at Jets

November, 21, 2012
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The New England Patriots (7-3) and New York Jets (4-6) released their final injury report for the Thanksgiving game. Here is a look at who is expected to miss the AFC East showdown and what it means for both teams:

Patriots

Out: TE Rob Gronkowski (arm), DE Chandler Jones (ankle), G Logan Mankins (hip, calf)

Questionable: TE Aaron Hernandez (ankle), LB Tracy White (foot), WR Wes Welker (ankle), OT Sebastian Vollmer (back, knee), LB Brandon Spikes (knee), DL Nick McDonald (shoulder), WR Brandon Lloyd (knee), LB Dont'a Hightower (hamstring), S Steve Gregory (hip), G Dan Connolly (back), S Patrick Chung (hamstring), DL Ron Brace (elbow, shoulder)

Probable: WR Julian Edelman (hand), DL Kyle Love (knee), LB Jerod Mayo (elbow)

Analysis: Gronkowski is obviously the big injury for New England. He is expected to miss several weeks with a broken forearm. However, the NFL Network reports Hernandez, who is listed as "questionable," will return from his ankle injury on Thursday. That would be a big boost for New England’s top-rated offense. Jones is a loss, as well. But it’s best for him to sit this game and utilize the long week to try to get back for the next game. The Patriots have a ton of players questionable, but that’s always the case. New England coach Bill Belichick likes to keep opponents (and the media) guessing on who will play.

Jets

Questionable: DL Sione Pouha (back), DL Kenrick Ellis (knee), RB Joe McKnight (ankle), LB Bart Scott (toe), WR Jeremy Kerley (hamstring), DB Aaron Berry (quad), QB Tim Tebow (ribs)

Probable: RB Bilal Powell (shoulder), QB Mark Sanchez (back), OL Brandon Moore (hip), OL Matt Slauson, DL Mike Devito (finger), WR Clyde Gates (shoulder), TE Jeff Cumberland (wrist), LB Calvin Pace (shoulder), WR Stephen Hill (ankle), S LaRon Landry (heel), C Nick Mangold (thumb)

Analysis: The Jets are getting healthier, and they need all their weapons to upset New England. Ellis re-injured his knee last week against the St. Louis Rams and could be the biggest question mark. But I expect pretty much all hands on deck for this game. Everyone practiced at some point during this short week and it’s a huge game. A loss would put to rest any chance of the Jets making the playoffs.

Dolphins are at a crossroads

October, 26, 2012
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Ryan TannehillRonald C. Modra/Sports Imagery/Getty ImagesSince struggling Sept. 23 against the Jets, Ryan Tannehill has put together three solid games.

DAVIE, Fla. -- Miami Dolphins running back Reggie Bush walked into the media room with a smirk on his face Wednesday.

“Packed house,” Bush said with a grin. “I wonder why.”

Miami's rookie head coach, Joe Philbin, entered minutes later and also noticed a larger-than-usual media corps. It was quiet confirmation that the Dolphins finally are doing something right.

It’s been four years since the Dolphins have been this interesting. That was 2008, when former coach Tony Sparano led Miami to an unexpected 11-5 season and an AFC East title.

Since then, the Dolphins have pretty much been a bad punch line. This summer alone, Miami had to slog through a winless preseason and handle the Chad Johnson fiasco on national television during HBO’s “Hard Knocks.” A 1-3 start to the regular season also didn’t help things.

But the Dolphins are suddenly interesting again. They have won two straight with a talented rookie quarterback (Ryan Tannehill) and a physical defense. Many are wondering whether Miami is just a flash in the pan or potentially a surprise team in the second half of the season.

The Dolphins (3-3) are at a crossroads, and Sunday they travel to MetLife Stadium to face the rival New York Jets (3-4). This matchup will greatly affect the direction of both AFC East teams.

“It’s a big game,” the usually calm Philbin said. “No question about it.”

Added Jets coach Rex Ryan, “It’s a huge game for both teams. If it’s said otherwise, it’s not true, because nobody believes it. Everybody knows how huge this game is.”

Is Miami a contender or pretender?

This rebuilt Miami team wasn’t expected to compete for a playoff spot in 2012. But the division is mediocre and so is the AFC, and suddenly the wild-card spots are wide open for any teams that can get hot.

[+] EnlargeJoe Philbin
Kirby Lee/Image of Sport/US Presswire"It's a big game," Dolphins coach Joe Philbin said of Sunday's matchup with the Jets. "No question about it."
The veteran Jets have been there before. They went to back-to-back AFC title games in 2009 and 2010. It’s the younger, less experienced Dolphins who have to prove they are legit.

This is a golden opportunity for Miami to bury the Jets and send them packing for the season at 3-5. That is a record New York most likely wouldn't be able to recover from, especially with its best player (CB Darrelle Revis) and No. 1 receiver (Santonio Holmes) lost for the season.

If the Dolphins are legit, they won’t let New York “ground and pound” their defense. Miami’s run defense is fifth in the NFL, and another good performance would force the New York to go to its air attack and quarterback Mark Sanchez.

If the Dolphins are legit, they will establish Bush and their ground game on the road against a Jets defense ranked 30th against the run. The combination of running well and stopping the run has kept Miami in nearly every game this season.

If the Dolphins are legit, Tannehill will continue to show improvement after the bye. He struggled against New York’s defense in the teams' first meeting this season, throwing for just 196 yards and a costly pick-six. But Tannehill’s quarterback rating in the three games since have been 86.5, 92.3 and 112.0.

“I think he’s steadily improved each and every week,” Dolphins guard Richie Incognito said. “He’s done a really good job knowing what the defense is trying to do to us and putting us in the right protections and the right run calls.”

There are no excuses for the Dolphins, who have had two weeks to rest and prepare for their biggest rival. Miami nearly beat the Jets in the first meeting -- a 23-20 Jets overtime win in Week 3 -- and the Dolphins have seen enough tape to adjust to what went wrong.

Unlike the Jets, the Dolphins have been very fortunate with injuries and will enter this game virtually at full strength. Cornerback Richard Marshall (back) is the only player not expected to be available on Sunday. The Jets have injuries at linebacker (Bart Scott), defensive line (Sione Pouha, Kenrick Ellis) and running back (Bilal Powell and Joe McKnight).

A caveat might be the trash talk and emotion. These rivals simply don’t like each other. The back-and-forth between Dolphins players such as Bush and center Mike Pouncey and Jets players such as LaRon Landry and Aaron Maybin has made for a fun week. Landry has gone as far as to guarantee a win for the Jets.

Whether the trash talk leads to rough play remains to be seen.

“I go back to the game I saw on September 23 [and] it was a hard fought game by both teams,” Philbin said. “I didn’t think it was a dirty game. Players played hard, and I suspect that will be what happens this time around.”

The Dolphins have another thing going for them: Miami has never suffered a season sweep versus the Jets under Ryan. The Dolphins will be motivated not to let their biggest rival accomplish that feat.

“We know who we’re playing. This is a good football team,” Ryan said. “The fact that we’ve never beat them twice, that kind of gives us energy. The fact that we can go 3-1 in our division with two wins over Miami, that would be huge. So we see it as a real possibility.”

If the Dolphins are truly a contender, they will win this game and position themselves to make a push in the second half of the season. On the other hand, a loss by the Dolphins would throw them back in the pack of mediocre, sub-.500 teams.

It’s time for Miami to make its choice.

Jets re-sign NT Sione Pouha

March, 12, 2012
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The New York Jets have agreed to a three-year contract with pending free-agent nose tackle Sione Pouha, the team announced. Pouha played in all 16 games last season and had 58 tackles and one sack.

This was a move the Jets had to make. Pouha is one of the Jets' biggest cogs in the middle of their 3-4 defense, which ranked fifth in the NFL last season. He faces a lot of double teams and allows other players to fly to the football and make plays.

There aren't many natural 3-4 nose tackles in free agency. If New York couldn't re-sign Pouha, perhaps former Miami Dolphins nose tackle Paul Soliai would have been an option.

Also, credit an assist to Jets starting quarterback Mark Sanchez. New York signed its quarterback to a five-year contract extension Friday night to provide the Jets with the necessary cap room to re-sign Pouha and still have room for free agency, which begins Tuesday.

Early look at Jets free agency

February, 8, 2012
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The New York Jets have a lot of questions entering free agency. They have a lengthy list of names about to hit the market, spelled out clearly by Brian McIntyre of the well-respected Mac's Football blog.

Here's the list:

Restricted
Unrestricted
Analysis: There are not many "must-haves" on this list. The Jets already are strapped for salary-cap space and had locker-room issues. I expect plenty of turnover in free agency. Big names like Tomlinson and Burress are not expected to return on offense, and injuries suffered by Leonhard (knee) and Thomas (Achilles tendon) will hurt their chances to come back on the defense. If I had to pick two players from this unrestricted group who could return, it would be Folk and Pouha. But both would have to be at the right price. In terms of restricted players, I think Maybin is a guy the Jets will keep. They found a niche for him in New York and gave him a chance to jumpstart his career. Maybin also was one of the team's best pass-rushers last season.

Previewing AFC East salary cap

January, 20, 2012
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Free agency begins in less than two months. Teams around the league are planning their strategies and figuring out which big names to pursue.

But where teams stand with the $120-million salary cap next season will be an indicator of which will be aggressive and which won't.

Let's take an early look at the projected 2012 cap numbers in the AFC East:

Buffalo Bills (6-10)

Projected cap: $105.5 million

Key free agents: WR Steve Johnson, TE Scott Chandler, K Rian Lindell

Analysis: The Bills are looking pretty good entering free agency. General manager Buddy Nix says the team will spend to the cap this year. The first order of business is deciding on Johnson's future. The two sides are still a ways apart and I think it's a 50-50 proposition. With or without Johnson, Buffalo has the space to acquire impact players. We mentioned Houston Texans defensive end/linebacker and unrestricted free agent Mario Williams as a possibility to help the Bills' pass rush. But getting Williams -- or any top free agent -- to come to Buffalo will be a tough sell.

Miami Dolphins (6-10)

Projected cap: $114.3 million

Key free agents: DT Paul Soliai, G Vernon Carey, QB Chad Henne

Analysis: The Dolphins are in decent (but not great) shape with the cap. There will be an interesting dynamic in Miami to keep an eye on this offseason. Usually when a new coach comes in, there is huge turnover in the coach's first season. But that probably won't happen with general manager Jeff Ireland still in charge of the 53-man roster. Ireland is not going to cut many of the players he helped bring to Miami. But the Dolphins would have to do something if they want to make enough room to make a splash for a big free agent. Green Bay Packers quarterback Matt Flynn is a good example.

New England Patriots (13-3)

Projected cap: $99.9 million

Key free agents: WR Wes Welker, DE Andre Carter, WR Deion Branch

Analysis: It's amazing that the best team in the AFC East also is in the best shape with the cap. The Patriots have done a masterful job and have plenty of money to spend in free agency if they choose. A big chunk of it will go to Welker, who is due for a nice payday. New England won't let Welker slip away. The Patriots also have the tools to acquire defensive help in free agency, as well as sign their two first-round picks and two second-round picks in the draft. The Patriots are in position to be a major force again next season.

New York Jets (8-8)

Projected cap: $125 million

Key free agents: WR Plaxico Burress, DT Sione Pouha, S Jim Leonhard

Analysis: The Jets are the only AFC East team projected to be over the cap. This was a team built to win now and it didn't work out; now New York has to make some trimmings on the roster if it wants to do anything in free agency. There's a good chance Burress and Leonhard won't return. Pouha is a good player and could come back at the right price. Running back LaDainian Tomlinson also is a free agent. But his role was drastically reduced this past season and it's unlikely he will return. Tomlinson is contemplating retirement.

2011 All-AFC East Team

January, 5, 2012
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Darrelle Revis/Rob Gronkowski/Brandon MarshallGetty ImagesDarrelle Revis, left, Rob Gronkowski, middle, and Brandon Marshall shined in 2011.
The 2011 season was an interesting one filled with ups and mostly downs for the AFC East. Only one team finished with a winning record.

But that doesn't mean the AFC East lacked great individual performances. For example, the division produced an MVP candidate at quarterback who threw for more than 5,000 yards and another stellar season from the best cornerback in football.

Here is our All-AFC East Team for 2011:

Quarterback: Tom Brady, New England Patriots

Analysis: There is no question about this one. Brady set a new career-high with 5,235 passing yards, which surpassed Dan Marino's old record. New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees (5,476) finished with more yards and has the new record. Brady is the single biggest reason the Patriots are 13-3 and have home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. His performance carried New England through injuries and inconsistencies in other areas. Brady will be chasing his fourth Super Bowl title in the playoffs.

Running back: Fred Jackson, Buffalo Bills

Analysis: This might be a controversial pick, because two other running backs -- Reggie Bush and Shonn Greene -- had 1,000-yard seasons. But Jackson was the best running back I watched this season. He simply had some bad luck, suffering a season-ending leg injury. He was on his way to making his first Pro Bowl. Jackson rushed for 934 yards and six touchdowns in 10 games. He had an additional 442 yards receiving. His numbers would be off the charts if he'd played the final six games.

Fullback: Charles Clay, Dolphins

Analysis: Clay was one of the surprise rookies from Miami's draft class. He was a good blocker for Bush, has great hands and knows what to do with the football. Clay caught 16 passes for 233 yards. He averaged 14.6 yards per reception, which is astounding for a fullback. John Conner of the Jets is the best blocking fullback. But Conner is not a receiving threat.

Receivers: Wes Welker, Patriots; Brandon Marshall, Dolphins

Analysis: The best receivers in the AFC East this season are a pair of Pro Bowlers. Welker had an unbelievable year. He set a new career high with 1,569 yards. He also caught 122 passes and was one of the league's most sure-handed receivers. Marshall, in contrast, wasn't sure-handed. He had plenty of big drops, but still had a good season. Marshall caught 81 passes for 1,214 yards and six touchdowns. What's even more impressive is that Marshall put up big numbers despite Miami's in-season quarterback switch from Chad Henne to Matt Moore.

Tight end: Rob Gronkowski, Patriots

Analysis: Gronkowski showed flashes as a rookie. But no one knew he would explode the way he did in his second season. "Gronk" set an NFL record for tight ends with 17 touchdowns. He averaged more than one per game, despite many teams' focus on stopping him late in the season. Gronkowski finished with 90 receptions for 1,327 yards and made his first Pro Bowl. Considering he's only 22, it will most likely be the first of many Pro Bowls.

Center: Nick Mangold, Jets

Analysis: Jets head coach Rex Ryan says a lot of things. But we believe him when he says Mangold is the best center in the NFL. Mangold fought through an ankle injury but had another solid season. He was named to his fourth consecutive Pro Bowl. The Jets' offensive line was up and down but completely fell apart when Mangold missed two games. New York's entire running game and blocking scheme is built around its center -- and for good reason.

Guards: Logan Mankins, Patriots; Andy Levitre, Bills

Analysis: Mankins, who made his fourth Pro Bowl, stayed healthy right up until the end and played 15 of 16 games. He should be ready for the playoffs. Levitre was one of my favorite players to watch because of his versatility. He's a very good guard, a solid offensive tackle and struggled at center. Levitre was forced to play all three positions in Buffalo this season because of injuries.

Offensive tackles: Jake Long, Dolphins; Matt Light, Patriots

Analysis: Long played through injuries all season. His back bothered him, and he ended up on injured reserve after tearing his biceps. But Long at 80 percent is still better than most left tackles, and he was good enough to make his fourth Pro Bowl in four years. Light gets our last tackle spot over New York's D’Brickashaw Ferguson. The Pro Bowl nod went to Ferguson. But Ferguson struggled at times this season and didn't play up to his usual standards. I think Ferguson got in on reputation and name recognition.

Defensive ends: Andre Carter, Patriots; Mark Anderson, Patriots

Analysis: No one flinched when the Patriots quietly signed a pair of veteran defensive ends in free agency to bolster their pass rush. Most of the focus was on big-name acquisitions such as receiver Chad Ochocinco and defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth. But two of New England's best signings were Carter and Anderson. Each finished with 10 sacks, and Carter made the Pro Bowl despite a late, season-ending quad injury. For all of New England's issues on defense, arguably its biggest strength was rushing the passer. The Patriots registered 40 sacks, and Carter and Anderson combined for half of that total.

Defensive tackles: Vince Wilfork, Patriots; Sione Pouha, Jets

Analysis: Wilfork, 30, continues to improve with age. He combines strength and smarts to play defensive tackle/nose tackle. Wilfork finished with 52 tackles and 3.5 sacks. But it was his two interceptions this season that were most memorable. Wilfork rumbled for 28 and 19 yards, respectively, on his two picks. The second defensive tackle was one of the most difficult selections. But we went with Pouha over Miami's Paul Soliai. Pouha's numbers were more impressive for a nose tackle. He recorded 58 tackles, one sack and one forced fumble. Soliai played well for Miami but registered only 27 tackles.

Outside linebackers: Cameron Wake, Dolphins; Calvin Pace, Jets

Analysis: It was a down year for outside linebackers in the AFC East. Wake and Pace were the best of a thin crop. Wake's sack numbers dipped from 14 to 8.5 this season. Teams put more focus on Wake, and he faced more double teams. Pace stayed healthy this season but recorded his lowest sack total (4.5) since 2006. Pace's backup, Aaron Maybin, led the Jets with six sacks.

Inside linebackers: David Harris, Jets; Karlos Dansby, Dolphins

Analysis: Harris continues to be one of the most underrated players in the NFL. Harris was the Jets' most consistent defensive player outside of Darrelle Revis. He was always around the football and recorded 86 tackles, five sacks and four interceptions. The second inside linebacker was another tough call. But we think Dansby had a slightly better season than New England's Jerod Mayo. A tailback getting 100 yards against the Dolphins' defense was rare, in large part due to Dansby. He established a physical presence in the middle for Miami and recorded 103 tackles and two sacks.

Cornerbacks: Darrelle Revis, Jets; Kyle Arrington, Patriots

Analysis: What more can you say about Revis? He had another great season for the Jets. He led New York with 21 passes defended, and tied for the team lead with four interceptions. One pick was returned 100 yards for a touchdown. Teams opted to attack Revis more this season, which allowed more chances for him to make big plays. Arrington was this year's version of Devin McCourty. New England gave up a lot of passing yards, but Arrington made the most of his interception opportunities. He led the Patriots with seven picks and had 88 tackles.

Safeties: Yeremiah Bell, Dolphins; George Wilson, Bills

Analysis: The safeties struggled in the AFC East this season. But Bell was probably the most consistent in the division. He led Miami with 107 tackles. He also had two sacks and one interception. Wilson played lights out at times, particularly early in the season. He set a career high with 106 tackles and tied a career mark with four interceptions. Wilson did all of this despite missing three games with injuries.

Punter: Brandon Fields, Dolphins

Analysis: Fields was spectacular this season. He averaged 48.8 yards per punt and had 32 punts inside the 20. Fields was the only Dolphins player exciting to watch during Miami's ugly 0-7 start. Fields had a Pro Bowl season. But Oakland Raiders punter and Pro Bowler Shane Lechler is probably the best punter in the NFL.

Kicker: Stephen Gostkowski, Patriots

Analysis: Fantasy football players fell in love with Gostkowski this season. New England's high-scoring offense constantly put Gostkowski in position to rack up points, and he usually came through. Gostkowski led New England in scoring with 143 points. He made 28 of 33 field goals and all 59 extra points. The pressure of the playoffs always is different for kickers. But Gostkowski has shown no signs that he will be bothered by it.

Return specialist: Joe McKnight, Jets

Analysis: McKnight was a must-see because something exciting could happen every time he touched the ball. McKnight was fun to watch in the open field. He averaged 31.6 yards per kick return and is a Pro Bowl alternate on special teams. His longest of the season was a 107-yard touchdown return. The next step for McKnight is to develop as a running back. With LaDainian Tomlinson a free agent, McKnight could get a chance to backup Greene next season.

Jets' defense has its swagger back

November, 6, 2011
11/06/11
7:56
PM ET
Ryan FitzpatrickKevin Hoffman/US PresswireAn aggressive Jets defense limited Ryan Fitzpatrick to just 191 yards passing on Sunday.
ORCHARD, PARK, N.Y. -- In a rare occurrence this season, New York Jets head coach Rex Ryan stepped to the podium Sunday with very little to complain about with his defense.

"We gave up an 80-yard drive at the end of the game there when we were up a bunch of scores," Ryan scoffed. "So that was disappointing."

Ryan pointed out the only blemish in an otherwise stellar day for New York's talented but, at times, underachieving defense. The Jets' strongest unit turned back the clock -- circa 2009 and 2010 -- to cruise to a 27-11 victory over the Buffalo Bills.

More than 70,000 Bills fans came to Ralph Wilson Stadium expecting a "whiteout." They nearly witnessed a shutout, as New York battered and confused Buffalo's offense for four quarters. The Bills turned over the football three times and gained only 287 total yards.

New York's defense officially has its swagger back. That could only mean trouble for the rest of the NFL.

Jets defensive tackle Sione Pouha even has a nickname for the defense regaining its identity.

"It's totally attitude -- it's 'Jetstitude' the way we look at it," Pouha said. "It's playing like a Jet, aggressiveness, going out there in attack mode. I think today kind of displayed just what Jet football is all about."

Although they don't always put it together, the Jets have the NFL's most talented collection of defensive players.

The cornerback tandem of Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie is tops in the league. The linebackers, led by David Harris, Bart Scott and Calvin Pace, are physical playmakers. The safeties and defensive line play good, complementary roles when the Jets are at their best. All of those things came together in a big game.

"When everybody is rolling, this team is very hard to beat," Jets defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson said.

It marked the first time Buffalo was held to fewer than 20 points this season. Afterward, the Bills sounded perplexed about how the game went downhill so quickly.

"If it was one thing, we could have solved that," Bills coach Chan Gailey said. "You can always solve one thing in a game. They would bring pressure, they would play coverage. ... They would give us something we hadn’t seen or they would bring an extra guy. It was a combination. They kept us off balance and that’s what we can’t allow to happen."

The Jets' defense took apart Buffalo's offense systematically. It started with punishing Bills tailback Fred Jackson.

Jackson has bullied defenders all season. But New York matched and exceeded Jackson's physicality. The Jets even knocked Jackson (82 rushing yards) out of the game temporarily in the second half with big hit that caused a fumble and shoulder stinger. Buffalo's offense never recovered from that blow.

With Jackson not his usually dominant self, the Bills couldn't get anything going offensively.

Quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick had his worst game of the season. He threw for 191 yards, two interceptions and a late touchdown in garbage time. Most of the game the receivers were blanketed, and Fitzpatrick dangerously threw into tight coverage.

"For us, we were on our heels trying to figure out what they were doing and trying to figure out what was going on," Bills receiver David Nelson said. "It wasn't because of play calling or anything like that. We only had the ball twice in the first quarter and going three-and-out. We couldn’t get in rhythm."

It didn’t take long for several Jets players to turn toward the New England Patriots. The reigning AFC East champions are up next for the Jets with first place in the division on the line. The Patriots -- currently in a three-way tie for first place in the AFC East with the Jets and Buffalo -- beat New York 30-21 in the first meeting at Gillette Stadium.

Pardon me, but the Jets "can't wait" for next week's rematch at home.

“If you can’t get fired up and ready to play for this game, you shouldn't be playing," Jets tailback LaDainian Tomlinson said. "That's plain and simple."

Last month, New York was a team close to imploding during its three-game losing streak. This month, the Jets have their sights set on first place in the AFC East after a three-game winning streak.

It's a stunning turnaround for the Jets, who have found the winning formula with an aggressive defense and a ground-and-pound style on offense.

New York showed on Sunday it has as good a shot as anyone in the second half of the season.

"We know what we're capable of doing. We know we're not a team that's going to fold in the tank," Wilkerson said of the midseason turnaround. "We lost three in a row, but it's a long season. We kept preparing like we’ve always been doing, knowing that we'd get things turned around."

Camp Confidential: New York Jets

August, 20, 2011
8/20/11
12:45
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FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- Rex Ryan said it his first day on the job, and he’ll keep saying it until it actually happens -- the New York Jets are going to the Super Bowl.

Early on, Ryan’s bravado was a breath of fresh air. Now, after two consecutive losses in the AFC Championship Game, the brash coach will be perceived as a windbag if the Jets don’t get it done in 2011.

One more miss and the honeymoon is over.

“This is the best roster we’ve had since we’ve been here,” Ryan said.

That’s debatable. The Jets are older and slower at wide receiver, depth is a concern at some key spots, and they have middle-of-the-field issues in pass coverage. That said, they have a young quarterback on the ascent -- Mark Sanchez -- and improvement in his play could compensate for other deficiencies.

Win or lose, the Jets are a marquee team. HBO’s “Hard Knocks” show isn’t around this summer to record every word and action, but the team still is generating national news -- Sanchez’s GQ cover, Plaxico Burress' return to football, Ryan’s bold quotes, etc.

You’re just not hearing the R-rated language.

THREE HOT ISSUES

1. Can Mark Sanchez become a four-quarter quarterback? He already has won four playoff games in two seasons -- impressive stuff -- so you know he can win big games. His problem is consistency, playing well from week-to-week and quarter-to-quarter in the regular season.

Yes, quarter-to-quarter. The Jets didn’t score an offensive touchdown in the first quarter over their final 15 games (counting playoffs), and a lot of that falls on Sanchez. Part of it could be attributed to inexperience, needing time to adjust to defensive wrinkles, but a lot of it stemmed from his inaccuracy. He completed only 55 percent of his pass attempts, about six or seven points below where the Jets want him to be.

[+] EnlargeMark Sanchez
Bob Levey/Getty ImagesThe Jets need to see more consistency from quarterback Mark Sanchez.
If Sanchez can eliminate the inconsistencies and settle down -- he led the league in dropped interceptions -- the Jets will have a real chance to do something special. We already know he can make plays in the fourth quarter, but now he has to play the first like the fourth. Problem is, he lost 75 percent of his receiving corps before camp opened, putting the onus on him to familiarize himself with a new group. That takes time.

2. Can the Three Amigos (Egos?) co-exist? On paper, the Jets have one of the best receiving corps in the league: Santonio Holmes, Plaxico Burress and Derrick Mason. They’ve combined for more than 1,700 receptions and 24,000 yards, not to mention two Super Bowl-winning catches (Holmes and Burress). But now there will be a transition period, especially for Burress and Mason.

Not only are they learning a new system, they’re adjusting to life as secondary options. That’s not always easy for a receiver accustomed to being No. 1. Naturally, they’re all saying the right things, insisting they’re in it for the team, not themselves. We’ll see. Holmes is the No. 1 guy in these parts, and his new teammates will have to deal with that. If not, it will put a lot of pressure on Sanchez, who realizes he has a lot of mouths to feed.

The fact that Burress missed two weeks with a sprained ankle really slowed the process.

3. Do the Jets have a pass rush? This question really bugs Ryan because, as he likes to point out, the Jets finished eighth in sacks (40). Not bad, right? But sacks don’t mean everything, as coaches like to point out when it benefits their agenda. For instance: The Jets led the league in most big plays allowed on third down, and the primary reason was the lack of a consistent pass rush.

The Jets didn’t acquire anyone to help the pass rush, unless you count first-round defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson, but he’s really not an edge rusher. He’ll be more of a first- and second-down run defender than a pass-rusher in the sub packages. If anything, the Jets lost some pass rush because they released Jason Taylor and didn’t replace his five sacks.

What to do? Ryan and defensive coordinator Mike Pettine are masters of the blitz, designing clever pressure packages that confuse quarterbacks. They manufacture pressure, and sometimes simulate pressure, to rattle quarterbacks. For the most part, it works, but it’s a dangerous way to live, as the Jets discovered last season. They have fantastic cover corners in Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie, which makes it possible to employ that kind of scheme, but sooner or later the lack of a big-time rusher will catch up to them.

The Jets took a flyer on former Bills No. 1 pick Aaron Maybin, signing him to a minimum contract, but let’s be honest: He’s not the answer. It’ll be an upset if he makes the team.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

The Jets parted ways with two of their longest-tenured players, defensive end Shaun Ellis (Patriots) and wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery (Steelers). They were two of the most respected players in the locker room, players you always figured would retire as Jets.

Cotchery, unhappy in his role as the No. 3 receiver, requested his release. The Jets didn’t handle it well, cutting Cotchery before securing Mason, but it worked out in the end. They offered Ellis a one-year deal for the minimum salary, which he found insulting. He wound up signing with the rival Patriots, a PR hit for the Jets.

[+] EnlargePlaxico Burress
AP Photo/Julio CortezA sprained ankle has slowed Plaxico Burress since the start of training camp.
It makes them look cold, but the Jets evidently felt it was time to move on. The Cotchery decision could come back to bite them because he’s 29 and still can be an effective player.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT

After a 20-month prison sentence that cost him two seasons, Burress needs practice more than anyone. But he missed the first two weeks of camp and the first preseason game with a sprained ankle, a significant setback as he attempts to regain his form and learn the Jets’ offense.

The Jets hope that the 6-foot-5 Burress can cure their red zone issues, but he and Sanchez are having trouble connecting in practice. This is going to take time. Don’t be surprised if Burress is a part-time player in the first month of the season.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • Revis is having the best camp of his career. Yes, it’s true: This is only his third holdout-free training camp. But know this: He’s locking down receivers with the same determination he did in 2009, when he shut down No. 1 receivers on a weekly basis. This bodes well for the 10 players around him.
  • Burress is making most of the headlines -- Plax this, Plax that -- but the real prize of the offseason shopping spree is Mason. Ryan gets excited about reclamation projects, but let’s be honest: Burress hasn’t played in two seasons because he was in prison, and now he expects to come back to the pre-prison Plaxico. Whoa, let’s hold everything. Burress might turn out to be a good pickup, but it’s going to take time. Give him a few games into the season. In the meantime, they’ll ride Holmes and Mason.
  • You may not know this name -- Rob Turner -- but the Jets will miss him. He backs up at center and guard, plays tight end in the “jumbo” package, lines up on defense in goal line and blocks from the wedge on kickoff returns. In short, he does everything but mop the floors. Unfortunately for the Jets, Turner broke his leg in the preseason opener and will be lost for at least two months. It’s a big loss, even though the average fan might not think so.
  • The Jets are going to be vulnerable in the middle of the field in pass coverage. The safeties have suspect speed and the front seven also is short on the quicks. Opponents with athletic tight ends and crafty slot receivers are going to cause major issues for the Jets.
  • The run defense could be vulnerable up the middle. Dependable nose tackle Sione Pouha is hobbled by a sprained knee (not serious, but a nuisance), and inside linebacker Bart Scott is taking some time off with what’s believed to be a high-ankle sprain. Again, it’s not serious, but when two of your inside guys are hurting, it’s never a good thing.
  • Aside from Sanchez, the key player is running back Shonn Greene, the new feature back. No doubt, Greene has the talent to be the No. 1 tailback -- and he is -- but what about his durability? That always has been a question that dogs Greene. He’ll have to bring his A-game every week -- assuming he recovers soon from a skin infection on his right foot. When you’re a ground-and-pound team, you need a workhorse -- and LaDainian Tomlinson, 32, probably is too old to be that guy.
  • Remember this name: Jeremy Kerley. He’s a diminutive receiver/kick returner from TCU, and he will bring a lot of electricity. He’s only 5-9, if that, but he has tremendous acceleration and change of direction. He’ll be an immediate factor on punt returns and, if needed at receiver, he has the ability to make plays from the slot.

Three things: Jets at Texans

August, 15, 2011
8/15/11
11:30
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Three things to watch for when the New York Jets face the Houston Texans in the preseason opener for both teams (8 p.m. ET, ESPN).

1. The Jets’ passing game: The Texans were historically poor defending the pass last season, but they are attempting an overhaul in that department with Wade Phillips implementing his attacking 3-4 scheme in 2011. Houston certainly looks improved on paper, but there will surely be growing pains as the Texans attempt to integrate new faces into a new scheme, and then translate it all to the field very quickly. Can Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez and his group of pass-catchers take advantage of the miscues likely to present themselves?

2. Decipher the Blitz: Given the changes in Houston, I’m interested to see how well Sanchez reads the Texans’ blitz package prior to the snap, and how well he adjusts to what he sees. Even though Houston’s 3-4 is in its infancy, Phillips will still bring pressure from all over. Making the proper calls to pick up extra rushers will be crucial. Specifically, accounting for Mario Williams, who will be playing his first game at outside linebacker, should be the top priority in terms of keeping Sanchez protected.

3. Strength vs. Strength: The Texans’ offensive line is rarely mentioned as one of the best in the NFL, but Houston is superb up front. There is not one particular lineman who stands out, but it is a cohesive unit that is especially strong in the running game. With the exception of fullback Vonta Leach, who is now in Baltimore, Houston’s run blocking returns intact from last season. The Jets led by Sione Pouha, Mike DeVito and their exceptional inside linebackers, are a very difficult team to run on. It will be interesting to see how this matchup plays out.
To keep in line with the other AFC East blog posts I have written this week, let’s discuss the status of the Jets’ defensive line.

New York used two early draft picks on defensive big men and Shaun Ellis is now with the rival Patriots. Trevor Pryce didn’t play a lot of snaps for the Jets last year, but he was effective when he saw the field. He is currently a free agent without a team. So there will be significant changes.

[+] EnlargeMuhammad Wilkerson
AP Photo/Julio CortezThe Jets are hoping first-round pick Muhammad Wilkerson can fill the spot vacated by Shaun Ellis.
Let’s discuss the draft picks and how they fit in. New York used its first-round pick on Muhammad Wilkerson and a third-rounder on Kenrick Ellis. Wilkerson is an excellent physical specimen who looks custom made for defensive end in Rex Ryan’s version of the 3-4. A bigger body than Wilkerson but not as quick or explosive, Ellis is also dripping with potential. Ellis could be a king-sized end, or, if he can prove to consistently play with leverage and keep his pads down, a force in the middle at nose tackle. If not for off-the-field issues, Ellis would have been drafted much higher.

But like all rookies currently getting acclimated to the league, the learning curve for these two is especially steep this season due to the lockout. Compounding matters, Wilkerson is transitioning from Temple and Ellis from Hampton -- which are not exactly NCAA powerhouses. But even if Wilkerson struggles to read blocks and hold the point of attack on early downs as a starting defensive end, he should be quite effective as a rookie rushing the passer in the Jets’ sub packages.

Because of the emergence of Sione Pouha as an upper-echelon nose tackle, New York should be able to bring along Ellis slowly at that position -- maybe just rotating him in from time to time to give the massive Pouha a breather. Pouha offers nothing as a pass-rusher, but he knows how to use his big body very well versus the run. It generally takes two interior offensive linemen to move him backward. And his presence allows the Jets’ exceptional set of inside linebackers to shine.

Although one starting end spot is vacant with Shaun Ellis elsewhere (New York surely would like Wilkerson to grab that job by the throat this preseason), Mike DeVito is among the most underrated players in the league. He is a rock at his end spot. Much like Pouha, DeVito is a simply exceptional player versus the run. But as a pass-rusher, DeVito leaves something to be desired. That being said, you can win an awful lot of games with Pouha and DeVito anchoring the defensive front.

Outside of the four mentioned above, the Jets are a little light on the defensive line, which is a bit concerning considering where Wilkerson and Kenrick Ellis are in their development right now. One name to keep in mind is Jarron Gilbert, who was a failure in Chicago’s upfield 4-3 scheme. He really didn’t fit the mold of the Bears’ defensive ends or interior linemen. But Gilbert is only 24, is built like a 3-4 end and has rare athletic ability for such a big man. Gilbert could be exactly the type of guy whom Rex Ryan cultivates and turns into a productive player.

One other wild card at defensive end in this equation is Ropati Pitoitua. We haven’t seen much of Pitoitua, but he has rare size for the position and has reportedly been quite impressive thus far in camp.

The Jets still have one of the better defensive lines in football. But it isn’t without some uncertainty.

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

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