New England Patriots: Geno Smith
New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick has job security. His three counterparts in the AFC East? Not so much.
Rex Ryan landed a contract extension this offseason, but don't let that fool you. He will have reason to be nervous if the New York Jets miss the playoffs for the fourth consecutive season. The Buffalo Bills' 6-10 record last season wasn't ominous for Doug Marrone -- that was just his first year on the job. But with an ownership change on the horizon, a failure to improve in 2014 might not bode well for Marrone.
Then there is Joe Philbin of the Miami Dolphins. He survived a bullying scandal that took place in his locker room and on his practice field. A late-season collapse that cost Miami a playoff berth couldn't sink Philbin, not when you consider the adversity the team fought through just to be in contention. But now Philbin enters his third year, when a lot is expected of a regime. He is likely out of second chances.
The four writers who cover the division -- Rich Cimini in New York, Mike Reiss in New England, Mike Rodak in Buffalo and James Walker in Miami -- offered their insights on the AFC East hot seat and other key topics. They also polled their Twitter followers to find out if they saw the issues differently.
Which AFC East coach enters camp on the hottest seat?
Rich Cimini: Doug Marrone's seat is lukewarm and Rex Ryan's is warm. Joe Philbin? Let's just say his tush is feeling extreme heat. Frankly, I'm a bit surprised he survived last season's debacle. Not only did the Dolphins collapse down the stretch to blow a playoff spot, but they became a national punchline because of the bullying scandal. The mess cost general manager Jeff Ireland his job, but Philbin emerged as the Teflon Man. He has now run out of mulligans. Philbin is working for a new GM, Dennis Hickey, and it's hard to imagine him returning in 2015 if the Dolphins miss the playoffs again. Philbin is an offensive-minded coach, but his offense -- quarterback Ryan Tannehill, in particular -- has shown no improvement. ... We would mention Bill Belichick's seat, except it's really not a seat. In this division, it's a throne.
Mike Rodak: This is a close race between Rex Ryan, Doug Marrone and Joe Philbin. Ryan faces the tough scrutiny of the New York market, and if the Jets' combo of quarterbacks Geno Smith and Michael Vick doesn't pan out, Ryan could be gone, despite his contract extension this year. In Buffalo, a pending ownership change naturally puts Marrone's future in doubt. I don't think CEO Russ Brandon or general manager Doug Whaley would fire Marrone even if things don't go well this season, but their voices might not matter if a new owner wants sweeping changes. In Miami, new GM Hickey has given Philbin his vote of approval, but how long will that last? If I had to pick one situation where the head coach's job is most in question, it's Philbin with the Dolphins.
James Walker: Miami's Joe Philbin has the hottest seat in the AFC East. After going a combined 15-17 his first two seasons, this year is really playoffs or bust for Philbin. He was fortunate to survive last year's late-season collapse and major locker-room issues with the bullying scandal that embarrassed the franchise. General manager Jeff Ireland and offensive coordinator Mike Sherman and others lost their jobs, but Miami owner Stephen Ross offered Philbin one more opportunity to prove he's the right coach for the team. The key for Philbin will be winning within the division. He is 4-8 against AFC East teams, and that won't cut it this season.
Which of your team's positional battles intrigues you the most?
Cimini: No question, it's the quarterback situation even though Geno Smith versus Michael Vick isn't a true open competition. No matter, it's still a compelling story, one that will create many headlines in training camp. It's Smith's job to lose, but I'm curious to gauge his development now that he has had a full season and a full offseason to immerse himself in the offense. More than anything, he should be better at seeing the field and reading defenses. How will he handle the pressure of knowing there is a capable replacement if he falters? Let's be honest, he never had to deal with that as a rookie. If Smith is outplayed by Vick, it will put the coaches in a delicate position. Clearly, they want Smith to be the starter, but they also have to consider the possible message it sends. If the best guy isn't playing, it's bad form. One position, so many fascinating subplots.
Reiss: Receiver looks like the Patriots' most compelling position battle. They are counting on big-time improvement from second-year players Aaron Dobson (second round), Josh Boyce (fourth round) and Kenbrell Thompkins (undrafted), while big 2013 free-agent signing Danny Amendola will be looking to prove he can stay healthy and recapture the magic we saw in the 2013 season opener. Veterans Julian Edelman and Brandon LaFell are also expected to play significant roles, and can slippery-quick seventh-round pick Jeremy Gallon be a sleeper? Lots of questions to answer.
Rodak: The starting spot that seems most up for grabs in Buffalo this offseason is at safety. Who will start opposite Aaron Williams? The Bills lost Jairus Byrd and didn't address the loss in free agency or the draft, instead putting their faith in two of their draft selections from last season -- Duke Williams (fourth round) and Jonathan Meeks (fifth round) -- as well as a more experienced veteran, Da'Norris Searcy. With Aaron Williams recovering from shoulder surgery for most of organized team activities, we didn't get a great feel for which player had the best shot to win Byrd's old job. In the few times that Williams was on the field, it was Searcy lining up with the first team, but Duke Williams and Meeks also got reps with the first unit throughout OTAs. It's a battle that will continue into training camp.
Walker: The Dolphins have a few good position battles, but I am most intrigued by the competition to be the slot receiver because of the immense depth at the position. The Dolphins have Brandon Gibson, Rishard Matthews and rookie second-round pick Jarvis Landry all competing for one spot. In addition, these receivers have different styles. Gibson is more detailed and cerebral. He gets open with his route-running. Matthews is the biggest and most physical receiver of the bunch. Landry is sort of a combination of the two, but he lacks blazing speed. I think all three are capable of handling the position. It's just a matter of who performs the best and which style the coaching staff prefers.
@mikerodak running backs look to be more interesting than I expected, and even though there isn't competition QB growth is #1- Bob rieth (@Bob_rieth) June 16, 2014
Which veteran on your team is poised for a breakout season?
Cimini: For several reasons, it should be Quinton Coples. After two nondescript seasons, it's time to turn potential into production -- and he knows it. The talent is there. With Coples, whose work ethic was questioned when he came out of North Carolina, it is a matter of want-to. Does he want to be great? The former first-round pick was slowed last season by a position change ("rush" linebacker) and a fractured ankle in the preseason, which cost him three games. Now he should be comfortable at the position and he dropped weight in the offseason, which should help his quickness on the edge as a pass-rusher. Coples has the ability to turn a middling pass rush into a very good one.
Reiss: With the Patriots bolstering their secondary with Darrelle Revis, a player like third-year defensive end Chandler Jones could be a primary beneficiary of better coverage. He had six sacks as a rookie and followed that up with 11.5 last season. Could he hit 15 this season? As long as he stays healthy, it wouldn't surprise me.
Rodak: There was no shortage of breakout performers for the Bills last season, especially on defense. Defensive end Jerry Hughes, cornerback Leodis McKelvin, safety Aaron Williams and defensive tackle Marcell Dareus all enjoyed the best seasons. This season, I see two strong candidates for breakout performances: wide receiver Robert Woods and cornerback Stephon Gilmore. Woods had a strong start to last season -- he was a candidate for NFL rookie of the month in September -- but a revolving door at quarterback and a late-season ankle injury hampered his progress. If quarterback EJ Manuel bounces back from his up-and-down rookie season, Woods could stand to benefit. I would give him the edge to break out over Gilmore, a former first-round pick who was limited by a wrist injury most of last season but is among the better cornerbacks in the division when healthy.
Walker: Last season the Dolphins saw significant returns from a second-year defensive end, Olivier Vernon. He led the Dolphins with 11.5 sacks and really came on strong in 2013. So I'm going to stick with the same position and the same experience level and go with current second-year defensive end Dion Jordan. The Dolphins got little return for their No. 3 overall pick last year -- he had just 26 tackles and two sacks. But I like what I saw from Jordan during organized team activities and minicamp. Jordan hit the weight room hard this offseason and bulked up about 17 pounds. He's much stronger, which is key because Miami's coaching staff was concerned about Jordan's ability to stuff the run. Jordan should put up better numbers and be an all-around better player. His biggest issue is getting playing time behind Vernon and Pro Bowl defensive end Cameron Wake.
@JamesWalkerNFL Dion Jordan. Can't hold him back anymore. He will get 10 sacks and will be on the field 40 plays per game- Tom Ernisse (@ternisse13) June 4, 2014
How many years do you think Tom Brady has left?
Cimini: No doubt, Jets fans will celebrate the day Brady decides to call it quits. Statistically, he's in a two-year decline, but he played with such a patchwork receiving corps last season that it's hard to say he is going south. Brady, who turns 37 in August, should have at least two more Brady-like seasons. I'm basing that on recent history. After all, John Elway won his second Super Bowl at 38 -- and promptly retired. It's rare in the modern era for a quarterback to play well beyond 38. Brett Favre had a great year at 40, and Warren Moon enjoyed a good year at 38, but the examples are few and far between. The Patriots drafted Jimmy Garoppolo in the second round for a reason. Brady is signed through 2017, but I'd be mildly surprised if he's still around at the age of 40.
Reiss: I'm not going to be the one who bets against Tom Brady. I still see him playing at a high level through the completion of his current contract in 2017, and based on the way he takes care of his body, the dedication to his craft, and the desire to play as long as possible, I could see him going the Warren Moon route and playing into his 40s. It's all contingent on good health, but will Tom Brady still be slinging passes and winning games in the year 2020? Yup.
Rodak: I would peg Brady's window at 3-4 years. In the past, he has spoken about his fear of the "abyss" that will follow his playing career. Yet we've also seen him in the public eye as a father in recent years and I think he would embrace that role in retirement. The bigger question is whether Bill Belichick would ever "move on" from Brady or simply allow him to play -- and start -- as long as he'd like. Belichick is markedly unemotional when he makes personnel decisions, so I don't think he would necessarily let Brady dictate when his career ends. Even if Belichick's final season coincides with Brady's, I think Belichick would want to leave the organization in a good spot. That could mean handing over the reins to a younger starter if the situation calls for it.
Walker: I covered Brady for two seasons as ESPN.com's AFC East reporter. To me, he has always come off as a player who wished he could play football forever. You would be surprised how many NFL players are not that way. Brady isn't motivated by money or fame. I think there is a genuine love for the game and thirst for competition that will be hard for Brady to let go. That is why I expect Brady to hold on for as long as he can. I expect two or three more quality seasons, but I wouldn't be surprised if Brady tries to go longer. I think Brady is too competitive to walk away on his own. Father Time might have to pull him away from the NFL.
@MikeReiss Two. (hoping he goes out with a ring (a la John Elway)- Because i think he has less than 3 - I'm watching the back up QB battle.- Elizabeth (@capesquad) June 18, 2014
1. Offense starts fast. No Amendola, Gronk and Vereen? No problem, at least to start, as Tom Brady found rookie wide receiver Aaron Dobson for a 39-yard touchdown on the team's opening drive. Dobson was untouched and uncovered on the play, taking his first career catch for a score. The offense started with two backs and two receivers on the field, with fullback James Develin getting some early offensive run.
2. Talib forces Hill fumble. The Jets looked to have a big play on their hands when quarterback Geno Smith hooked up with Stephen Hill up the seam, but New England cornerback Aqib Talib saved his defense by forcing a fumble that was scooped up by Devin McCourty and returned deep into Jets territory. The end result: a chip-shot field goal by Stephen Gostkowski to put the Patriots up 10-0.
3. Jets claw back. The Jets, briefly, cut the lead to 10-6, though a touchdown throw from Smith to Clyde Gates was called an incompletion after a video review. Smith deserves credit for putting together an impressive drive, standing tall in the pocket and delivering a couple of solid throws.
4. Connolly, Gregory each banged up. Both eventually returned to the game, but right guard Dan Connolly and safety Steve Gregory had to receive medical attention during the first quarter. Hard to tell specifically what they were dealing with, but it looked like a left-hand issue for Connolly. Marcus Cannon stepped in for Connolly, while rookie Duron Harmon took Gregory's place.
5. Penalty box. The following Patriots were flagged for penalties during the first quarter: offensive tackle Nate Solder (holding; declined) and defensive end Chandler Jones (roughing the passer).
• The Jets have lost five straight games to the Patriots, the third-longest losing streak versus New England in franchise history (7 from 2003-06, 6 from 1994-97).
• Geno Smith takes his 1-0 record into New England, where rookie QBs have gone 0-4 against Bill Belichick teams and have lost by an average of 23.5 points per game:
• Like Mark Sanchez before him, Smith started and won in Week 1 as a rookie for the Jets in 2009. And like Sanchez before him, he’ll oppose Tom Brady and the Patriots in Week 2. Some may recall that Sanchez won that game, too.
• Smith seemed to get more comfortable with the flow of the game as it went on, as evidenced by his Total QBR. In the first quarter it was 31.2. It rose to 28.1 in the second quarter, 60.3 in the third and 76.0 in the fourth.
• Smith left the pocket 17 times in Week 1, most of any quarterback. On those plays Smith went 6-of-9 passing for 60 yards, scrambled six times for 47 yards and was sacked twice.
• According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the Patriots are the first team since the merger in 1970 to face rookie quarterbacks in Weeks 1 and 2 of a season. They beat EJ Manuel in Buffalo last week.
• Brady enjoys playing on Thursdays, as he’s 5-0 and has the best record on that day among quarterbacks who have made at least five starts.
• With Shane Vereen ruled out and Danny Amendola likely to join him, Brady will be without two of his top three targets from Week 1 this Thursday. When targeting those two and Julian Edelman in Week 1, Brady went 24-of-33 with two TDs. When targeting all other Patriots receivers, Brady went 5-of-19 with an interception.
• Amendola had 10 receptions, including nine for first downs in Week 1. Since the start of 2008, Wes Welker had at least nine first downs in a game twice in 77 games:
• Stevan Ridley was limited to 13 snaps in Week 1, his lowest output since the 2011 season, after being benched for an early fumble. Ridley averaged 33.1 snaps per game last season, including playoffs. With Vereen out, Ridley will likely play more than in Week 1 as long as he hangs on to the ball.
• Brady has thrown a TD pass in 49 straight games, the second-longest streak in NFL history and he’s four shy of tying the record. The mark is held by Saints quarterback Drew Brees, who had his 54-game streak snapped in 2012.
Whenever the Patriots and Jets square off there’s going to be a layer of intrigue. The teams have had no shortage of dramatic moments in the recent past, both during games and in the days leading up to them.
To the surprise of many, the Jets got the job done narrowly at home over the Bucs in Week 1, sparked by a late scramble by quarterback Geno Smith and subsequent personal foul penalty that pushed them into game-winning field goal range.
With a chance to jump out in front of the rest of the division at stake, here are five items we’ll be watching for on Thursday night.
1. Who catches passes? With Danny Amendola (groin) likely to sit out Thursday’s game, the Patriots must go back to the drawing board to find their top receiver. The presumptive top target this week is Julian Edelman, a Week 1 star who has long held the trust of Tom Brady. Behind Edelman, Kenbrell Thompkins will hold down the perimeter targets, with Josh Boyce as a candidate to step into a third receiver role. Fellow rookie Aaron Dobson (hamstring) could be active this week, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if he doesn’t play a major offensive role even if he suits up. He’s still in the development stages. Tight end Zach Sudfeld (hamstring) might be out, catapulting Michael Hoomanawanui into a starting role.
2. Ridley the bell-cow back? After being benched in the second quarter due to a fumble, might running back Stevan Ridley be put right back into his starting role in the backfield? The team needs him with Shane Vereen now on the short-term injured reserve list, and Ridley has bounced back from fumbling woes before. Consider this: In the four games following his fumbles in 2012, Ridley averaged 17.75 carries. In the other 12 games, he averaged 18.25. Don’t be surprised if he takes on a leading role again this week. Veteran Leon Washington, if healthy, could be used to replace Vereen.
4. Wilfork vs. Mangold. We don’t often dig into individual matchups for our items to watch for, but this one is too good to ignore. When the Patriots play the Jets, it means two of the very best at their craft go head-to-head, as nose tackle Vince Wilfork will often align over Jets center Nick Mangold. Mangold left Week 1 with an elbow issue but later returned and should be good to go on Thursday. The Jets love to run the football, but Mangold will have his hands full in trying to generate movement against Wilfork.
Muhammad Wilkerson is a star already, while first-round pick Sheldon Richardson had an active afternoon against both the run and pass, totaling seven tackles and a half sack. Veteran Antwan Barnes adds edge pressure and the Jets' front seven will be a big test even without 2012 first-round pick Quinton Coples. The Patriots' offensive line picked it up down the stretch against Buffalo, but it must be ready again when the Jets take the field. This defense will find ways to manufacture pressure through both schemes and individual rushers.
A walkthrough is a slower-paced practice in which players are usually in shorts and T-shirts, and is focused more on the mental side of the game. This isn't anything out of the norm for a Bill Belichick-coached team when facing a short week of preparation.
"We feel like this is the best way to do it," Belichick said.
A few other soundbites from Belichick:
How he handles Stevan Ridley's fumbling issue and if he talks to him: "I've talked to Stevan. Look, every player has the same responsibility every week -- be ready to play, be ready to go. That's their job. They can't control coaching decisions. They control their preparation and they control their performance when they're in the game."
Impressions of Jets quarterback Geno Smith: "I thought he played well in the preseason, limited opportunity, and I thought he played very well against Tampa last week. He ran well, he threw well, made good decisions, and moved the team at critical points in the game. That's the most important thing; made the plays that he needed to make to win."
His plans on handling the loss of Shane Vereen: "Whatever players are active for the game, I expect them all to be prepared and ready to play. We'll see how it all turns out."
The teams also had similar outcomes during their season-opening games, as the Patriots marched to a narrow road victory over the Bills, while the Jets squeaked past the Buccaneers at home, with each team winning with a field goal in the closing seconds.
Neither team has had much time to think about their Week 1 victory, however, as they are each preparing on a short week, with the Patriots hosting the Jets this Thursday night in a nationally televised game.
Though the Jets are perhaps the Patriots' most familiar opponent, below is an overview on names and notes for Gang Green.
Record: 1-0 (t-1st in AFC East)
Head coach: Rex Ryan (fifth season)
Offensive coordinator: Marty Mornhinweg
Defensive coordinator: Dennis Thurman
THREE PLAYERS TO KNOW, OFFENSE
1. QB Geno Smith. The player some thought could be the first man taken in this year’s draft ended up sliding to the Jets at pick 39 in Round 2, and now he’s the team’s starting QB. Incumbent starter Mark Sanchez went down with an injury during the preseason, putting an end to a bizarre competition that Smith may have won by default as much as anything else. The rookie fared pretty well in his first NFL action, completing 24-of-38 attempts for 256 yards and a touchdown. He turned the ball over twice and had some uneven moments during the game, but Smith’s second-half contributions were important in the dramatic win.
2. C Nick Mangold. The Patriots got a look at a terrific center last week in Eric Wood for Buffalo, but Mangold may well set the standard league-wide among interior linemen. He’s dependable, strong, smart, athletic and a leader for an offense that needs it. Mangold and Vince Wilfork have shared glowing praise for each other previously, and that’s a one-on-one battle worth watching. He left the team’s season opener with an elbow injury, but later returned.
3. RB Bilal Powell/RB Chris Ivory. Ivory was acquired through a draft day trade in New Orleans, and though his poor Week 1 production (just 15 yards on 10 carries) has some wondering what to make of his prospects, he’s a gifted runner who can smash through traffic. Powell, meanwhile, was the starter in Week 1 and the Jets’ leading carrier with 12 rushes, though he too was held in check by the Bucs’ run D.
THREE PLAYERS TO KNOW, DEFENSE
1. DL Muhammad Wilkerson. Versatile, strong, disruptive and tough, Wilkerson is one of the best young defensive linemen in the NFL. He’s been everything the Jets had hoped when they snatched him with the 30th pick in the 2011 draft. He’s been productive as a pro (he had 69 tackles and 5.0 sacks last season), but the numbers don’t tell the whole story on Wilkerson. He has the ability to move around the line if needed and he’s the type of player the Patriots’ offensive line will seek out before every snap and identify where he’s aligned.
2. CB Antonio Cromartie. When he’s at his best, Cromartie is an incredibly difficult cornerback to throw at. He’s long, fast and has good ball skills, something the Jets have relied on since acquiring him in a trade with the Chargers in 2010. He’s never been afraid to speak his mind and has a short memory on the field -- a good thing for a defensive back. With Darrelle Revis now in Tampa Bay, Cromartie is the leader of the Jets secondary.
3. LB David Harris. Our take on Harris? An underrated rock in the middle of the Jets defense. He was an All-Pro pick in 2009, but that’s the extent of his individual player honors, despite the fact that he’s had three seasons with 123 or more tackles and has 22.5 sacks in six years. The Jets rely heavily on Harris as a defensive quarterback, working closely with head coach Rex Ryan and new defensive coordinator Dennis Thurman.
Other notes: The Jets had a pair of first-round picks this year, using both on defensive players. Cornerback Dee Milliner made a couple of tackles in Week 1, while defensive lineman Sheldon Richardson shined with seven stops and a half sack. ... 2012 first-round pick Quinton Coples, whom the team moved from defensive end to outside linebacker this offseason, remains out with a hairline fracture in his ankle. ... The Jets exchanged Landrys at safety this offseason, losing LaRon in free agency while signing his brother, Dawan. He made an interception in his Jets debut. ... Veteran receiver Santonio Holmes was active in Week 1 after a long recovery from a Lisfranc injury, totaling one catch on three targets.