Buffalo Bills: New England Patriots
Did the AFC East's best keep on getting better?
The perennial division champion New England Patriots signed elite cornerback Darrelle Revis, which could offset significant free-agency gains by the New York Jets and Miami Dolphins.
The Buffalo Bills are in good position to improve through this week's NFL draft. EJ Manuel, the Bills' top pick last season, returns as the starting quarterback and is one of three second-year players facing intense scrutiny in 2014.
Who finishes atop the AFC East in 2014 could depend largely on which team best handles the stretch run, as December features five inter-division matchups -- including three in a row for the Patriots to end the season.
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 offseason and other key topics. They also polled their Twitter followers to find out if they saw the issues differently.
Which AFC East team has had the best offseason to date?
Rich Cimini: I'm all about the stars, which is why I'm picking the Patriots, who landed the best free agent of them all: Darrelle Revis. He's one of the top two cornerbacks in the league, a legitimate game-changer. His presence will allow Bill Belichick to play more press-man coverage, which will help their pass rush and create headaches for opponents. Once Brandon Browner serves his suspension, they'll have two physical corners. The Jets and Dolphins helped themselves in free agency, addressing need areas, but neither team acquired a player as good as Revis. The Patriots lost a terrific corner in Aqib Talib and actually upgraded. How often does that happen in free agency?
Mike Rodak: Comparing gains and losses in free agency, the Patriots have fared the best. The season is never won in March, but the Patriots were able to upgrade even after losing cornerback Aqib Talib. Signing Darrelle Revis was the most significant free-agent move in the division, while Brandon Browner adds another quality player to the secondary. The Jets aren't too far behind. Eric Decker and Chris Johnson add firepower where the Jets have struggled in recent years -- at their skill positions. Neither player, though, is on the same level as Revis, which is why I give the Patriots the edge. Honorable mentions go to the Dolphins for signing Branden Albert and the Bills for signing Brandon Spikes.
James Walker: I like what the Jets have done this offseason. It has been offense, offense and more offense in free agency for New York. The Jets went out and signed wide receiver Eric Decker, former Pro Bowl running back Chris Johnson and veteran quarterback Michael Vick. All three have a chance to make an impact on New York's weakest side of the football. Jets head coach Rex Ryan is a great defensive mind and has that side taken care of. It's just a matter of New York scoring more points this year. If the Jets can add a receiving threat such as Marqise Lee or Brandin Cooks in the first round Thursday, look out for "Gang Green."
Will an AFC East team select a quarterback in the first three rounds of the draft?
Cimini: No one will pick a quarterback in the first two days of the draft. The most likely candidate is the Dolphins, who have a new offensive coordinator and might be looking to acquire some Ryan Tannehill insurance after two so-so seasons -- but it won't happen before the fourth round, not this year. Neither Geno Smith nor EJ Manuel is entrenched with the Jets and Bills, respectively, but their teams have too many other needs to start doubling down on quarterbacks. The Patriots made headlines by hosting Johnny Manziel on a pre-draft visit, but I'm not buying it. It's still too early to start looking for an heir to the Tom Brady throne.
Rodak: The Patriots are the most likely to select a quarterback in the first three rounds. Their backup since 2011, Ryan Mallett, enters the final season of his rookie contract and hasn't proved in limited playing time that he's capable of being a starter. Mallett was a third-round selection and that could be the sweet spot for the Patriots again, although I wouldn't put it past them to take a quarterback in the second round if one of the top signal-callers falls. The Bills might also pluck a quarterback off the board by Friday night. EJ Manuel, a first-round pick last year, is their starter but they could use an upgrade over Thad Lewis or Jeff Tuel as their backup. If the right quarterback falls, Buffalo might pounce.
Walker: The third round seems like the best possibility; it's the safest round of the three for avoiding a quarterback controversy. The Bills would have the best case for drafting a quarterback fairly early. The team has said several times that it's behind 2013 first-round pick EJ Manuel, but I don't see any reason for the Bills to avoid adding depth at the position behind Manuel in the middle of the draft. Backup quarterbacks Thad Lewis and Jeff Tuel are not the answers. Manuel had injury issues last year, as well. It makes sense for the Bills to consider a capable backup.
@RichCimini Pats and Mettenberger is a match made in heaven. Strong arm? Statue in pocket? Tall? Character/Injury concern? All check marks.- Bob (@Bobister) May 6, 2014
What stands out about the NFL schedule for each AFC East team?
Cimini: Prepare for the missiles of October. The Jets face Philip Rivers, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady in a 12-day span, Weeks 5 to 7. Before that, they meet up with a few other top quarterbacks: Aaron Rodgers, Jay Cutler and Matthew Stafford. The Jets' suspect pass defense, which allowed nearly 4,000 yards last season, will be seriously tested. This is the main reason they need to prioritize cornerback in the draft.
Rodak: I've harped on this point before, but the Bills might have the NFL's toughest December schedule. Who knows where they'll be by Thanksgiving -- they could be in the playoff hunt or fading -- but their final month is brutal. The Bills must travel to face Peyton Manning and the Broncos, return home to host Aaron Rodgers and the Packers, make a cross-country trip to face the Raiders and then head back East to finish their regular season on the road against Brady and the Patriots. Ouch. Perhaps it's better that this four-game stretch comes at the end of the season rather than the beginning -- the Bills could be staring down an 0-4 start if it did -- but if they have any hope at the playoffs, they're going to need to win a couple of those games.
Walker: The Dolphins must bring their A-game on the road because they do not have back-to-back home games until the final two weeks. The Dolphins were a respectable 4-4 on the road last season, but it will be challenging for them to put together any significant winning streaks away from Sun Life Stadium. Miami's regular-season opener at home against the Patriots also stands out. We will find out immediately whether the Dolphins are a legitimate threat to New England in the AFC East.
@JamesWalkerNFL the 4 game stretch playing the broncos jets ravens and pats. ultimately make or break us- Michael Broyles (@mikesdolphins) May 7, 2014
Which AFC East second-year player has the most to prove?
Cimini: My first inclination is to say Jets quarterback Geno Smith, who could lose his starting job to Michael Vick, but that's the Jets beat writer in me talking. The better answer is Bills quarterback EJ Manuel. Why him? Unlike Smith, Manuel was a first-round pick, which means greater expectations -- and those expectations were heightened when the Bills anointed him as The Guy. Smith has yet to receive that kind of endorsement from the Jets. The Bills have hitched their franchise to Manuel, who is coming off a mediocre-at-best rookie season in which he went 4-6 as the starter. He was hampered by injuries, but part of being a franchise quarterback is being on the field.
Rodak: It has to be EJ Manuel. Geno Smith is a close second, but the Jets have Michael Vick to lean on. The Bills decided not to add an experienced backup quarterback this offseason, clearing the way for Manuel to be their unquestioned starter. Manuel needs to be more consistent. He showed flashes last season but also had some downright horrid games, including a four-interception afternoon against the Buccaneers. Manuel must also stay healthy. His three knee injuries last season limited him to 10 games and set back his development. Another injury this season will cloud the picture and keep the Bills from knowing exactly what they have. That could give him more leeway if he isn't progressing as quickly as the team would like, but it could also cause the Bills to look elsewhere.
Walker: It's easy to point to the quarterback position and say New York's Geno Smith and Buffalo's EJ Manuel have the most to prove. But neither player was drafted higher in 2013 than Miami's Dion Jordan, the No. 3 overall pick. The Dolphins traded up nine spots to get Jordan last year, only to use him as a backup defensive end and special-teamer. It was head-scratching to figure out why such a dynamic talent couldn't find his way onto the field. Jordan's usage actually was one point of contention between Dolphins head coach Joe Philbin and former general manager Jeff Ireland, who had a falling out last season. Was Jordan not ready for the NFL level? Was Miami's coaching staff holding him back? This is a big Year 2 to answer those questions.
@MikeReiss. Dion Jordan his lack of production as a #3 pick especially when Miami drafted him to put pressure on Brady...gives him the nod- paul (@kurtzfam4) May 6, 2014
The Buffalo Bills on Wednesday named rookie quarterback EJ Manuel their starter, and he won't have to wait long to face his first major test in the NFL. The Bills are hosting the New England Patriots in their opener Sunday, pitting Manuel against one of the league's most accomplished passers, Tom Brady. With Brady adjusting to the absence of last season's top five receivers, there's no shortage of intrigue in this tilt between division rivals.
Let's dive into this one:
Mike Rodak: Mike, we've seen Brady put on some passing clinics against the Bills in his career. In 2007, he threw for five touchdowns and nearly 400 yards at Ralph Wilson Stadium, as one example. Yet his past two trips to Buffalo have been different. In 2011, he threw four interceptions, and the Patriots lost. Brady looked much better in his visit last season, but it was largely the running game that powered the Patriots to a second-half comeback and the win. With so many new faces on offense, what can we expect out of Brady on Sunday?
Mike Reiss: We've seen an invigorated Brady this year, Mike, and it's probably because he knows more is being asked of him. In a way, he's not just the team's quarterback, but also another coach with all the new faces at receiver and tight end. He's 36 years old, but he looks like he's about 26 in terms of the way he's playing. As you know from your time around the Patriots, this is an attack that takes pride in tailoring itself on a week-to-week basis in hopes of exploiting the opponents' weakness. That's why they were so content to run the ball out of their two-TE package last year in Orchard Park when the Bills went to their small nickel defense. Given what you've seen from the Bills' defense, what might be the weaknesses the Patriots will target?
Rodak: A few weeks ago, Mike, my reaction would have been that the Patriots should try to do what they did last season, and test the Bills' run defense. But a few things have changed recently that may have offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels pondering more of a passing-based attack. First, the Bills lost their top cornerback, Stephon Gilmore, for the first six to eight weeks of the season. That's a huge blow, and the Bills are struggling to find a capable replacement.
Second, safety Jairus Byrd is dealing with plantar fasciitis. His foot injury kept him sidelined even during some light warm-up drills at Monday's practice, and ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter reports that Byrd's injury could affect his ability to play Sunday and beyond. Without Gilmore and Byrd, the Bills have what could be a porous secondary. There are matchups there the Patriots can take advantage of. Speaking of matchups, Bills receiver Steve Johnson said this week that he believes the Patriots "don't have anybody to stop him." Is he right?
Reiss: Hard not to appreciate Johnson's sense of humor. He was kidding, right? He had me right up until the point that he was listing off Patriots defenders and mentioned safety Patrick Chung, who is now with the Eagles. Johnson had six catches for 86 yards in November 2012; one difference this time around for the Patriots is the presence of top cornerback Aqib Talib, who didn't play in that game and has been a difference-maker since his arrival.
Overall, there hasn't been as much attention placed on the Patriots' defense because so much focus has been on the new faces at receiver and tight end, and maybe there should be. It's hard to tell if this unit will be better than last year's; it's almost the same defense, and they're banking on the development of some younger players, like defensive end Chandler Jones and linebacker Dont'a Hightower to elevate them. The main thing that stands out to me in this matchup is that the Bills have impressive speed and playmaking ability with running backs C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson and multiple weapons that can hurt a defense in tight end Scott Chandler and receivers Johnson, T.J. Graham, Robert Woods and Marquise Goodwin. I want to see if the Patriots can match their speed while in their sub defense. Will we be seeing Spiller throwing up on the sideline by the end of this one because he was used so much?
Rodak: I don't think so, Mike. I think the Bills want to air it out and test the Patriots' defense. The Bills started the preseason by staying conservative with their offensive game plan, but they mixed in a lot more "go" patterns later. One thing is clear: The Bills have the speed at receiver to be a major threat to the Patriots. While Woods and Graham may work more in the short-to-intermediate area, I can see the Bills trying to hit some home runs, as Patriots coach Bill Belichick called them Monday, with Johnson and Goodwin. As we saw last season in Seattle, it's possible to get behind the Patriots' defense, and when an offense can make those big plays in their own stadium, it gets the home crowd going.
I won't go as far as saying the Bills will defeat the Patriots, but the big play is something the Patriots will have to look out for. But beyond that, Mike, I think the Bills' offense may be dangerous for its pace. I know the Patriots are thin at defensive tackle and made some surprising moves at defensive end during final cuts last weekend. When the Bills turn the dial up on offense Sunday, how do the Patriots compensate on defense?
Reiss: Every season, it seems Belichick has a more liberal substitution pattern defensively in the opener because it's the first time all of these players will be going wire-to-wire. So I'd expect some element of that. But if the Bills quicken the pace, the substitutions might have to be more on a series-by-series basis than within a particular series. Overall, this isn't something that will be new to the Patriots' defense; they see it themselves, to a degree, in practice each day while going up against Brady and New England's fast-paced offense. Linebacker Jerod Mayo said Monday that Belichick makes sure players are in physical condition to answer such a challenge.
But like you, I do think it's fair to question how they handle the deep ball and some of the other threats the Bills present. Even if it's Jeff Tuel throwing it, we saw in the third preseason game that he can get the ball downfield -- his first pass attempt against the Redskins was a completed long bomb down the left side to Graham (called back because of offensive pass interference). I'd sum up thoughts on the Patriots' defense this way: It's a unit that has thrived off turnovers. But if those aren't there, the question is if it's a unit that still can control a game.
This has been fun; let's wrap it up with a final thought.
Rodak: Mike, I think it’s important not to overlook Mario Williams in this game. Williams was limited by a wrist injury the previous time he played the Patriots, and despite coming into training camp with a sore foot this season, he should be ready to go Sunday. We've seen top-end pass-rushers like Terrell Suggs and Jason Taylor be effective against the Patriots. I think Williams’ presence makes Patriots left tackle Nate Solder a player to watch. If Brady's timing with his new group of receivers is off slightly -- as is to be expected at this point -- then it could give Williams that extra second to beat Solder and get to Brady. Just like the big play on offense, getting sacks and pressures on defense will make the Buffalo crowd a part of this game. What’s your final thought, Mike?
Reiss: The Bills are the Patriots' most frequent season-opening opponent, this being the ninth time. We remember what happened the previous time a Patriots-Bills opener took place in Orchard Park. It was 2003, and the Bills, lifted emotionally with Drew Bledsoe at quarterback and just-released Patriot Lawyer Milloy at safety, recorded a rousing 31-0 victory. Ten years later, can the Bills pull the surprise again? The Patriots are heavy favorites, but there’s always an element of the unknown with a season-opening game. Will look forward to seeing you there.