Buffalo Bills: New York Jets

NFL Nation: 4 Downs - AFC East

May, 7, 2014
May 7
2:01
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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.

First Down

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 Reiss: The Patriots get the nod here because they added the best overall player in cornerback Darrelle Revis and re-signed receiver Julian Edelman (the Jets had explored poaching him), but I don't think it's a large gap to the next club. I like what the Dolphins have done to start rebuilding their offensive line (Branden Albert, Shelley Smith) while also bringing in defensive tackle Earl Mitchell, re-signing cornerback Brent Grimes and potentially getting some value with cornerback Cortland Finnegan.

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."


Second Down

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.

Reiss: Yes. One of the things that has become clear in the build-up to the draft is that this is a good year for clubs looking for a developmental quarterback. ESPN's Mel Kiper said he has spoken with teams who have identified as many as 15-20 draftable quarterbacks this year, which is higher than the norm. NFL Network's Mike Mayock said he has 10 signal-callers with grades within the first three rounds, which is about double the norm. I think Buffalo (insurance for EJ Manuel) and New England (backup Ryan Mallett's contract expires after the 2014 season) are the spots to look within the division.

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.


Third Down


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.

Reiss: The Patriots have a well-placed bye week and some of their biggest games around it. A Nov. 2 home game against the Broncos precedes the bye, then coming out of it is a Nov. 16 road game against the Colts. Fun, fun. If that's not the iron of the schedule, then back-to-back road games against the Packers (Nov. 30) and Chargers (Dec. 7) probably qualifies. Also, with the season concluding with three straight division games, the AFC East could still be up for grabs late.

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.


Fourth Down


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.

Reiss: Bills quarterback EJ Manuel would be my choice. He looked like a foundation-type player in the season opener against the Patriots last year, and had a few bright spots in ensuing weeks, but overall had an uneven first year in the NFL that was affected by injuries. The Bills surprised many by using a first-round draft choice to select him last year, and because of that Manuel gets the nod here over Jets quarterback Geno Smith, a second-round pick. It will be intriguing to see how things unfold with Smith now that the Jets have also signed Michael Vick, but I think the discovery process on Manuel in Year 2 -- is he really a franchise quarterback? -- trumps it.

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.

Double Coverage: Bills at Jets

September, 20, 2013
9/20/13
12:00
PM ET
Smith-Manuel USA TODAY SportsAFC East rookie quarterbacks Geno Smith and EJ Manuel face each other for the first time.

The quarterback situation in the AFC East can be described this way: Tom Brady and the young guns. Two of the young guns will face each other Sunday at MetLife Stadium, where the New York Jets and Buffalo Bills -- both 1-1 -- will be battling to stay out of last place in the division.

The Bills had their choice of any quarterback in the draft, and they selected EJ Manuel with the 16th pick. The Jets, who had the ninth and 13th picks, rated Geno Smith over Manuel but waited until the 39th pick before taking him. So far, Manuel is off to a better start than Smith, at least from a statistical standpoint, but this rivalry could last years. Both teams are hoping for that, anyway.

This should be a competitive game, as both teams appear to be at similar stages of development. The Bills are rebuilding with a new coach, former Jets assistant Doug Marrone, and the Jets are rebuilding with the same old coach, Rex Ryan. They have other things in common: They both suffered close losses to the New England Patriots and they both beat a team from the NFC South -- the Bills the Carolina Panthers, the Jets the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

ESPN Jets reporter Rich Cimini and ESPN Bills reporter Mike Rodak discuss the matchup:

Cimini: Mike, New York is a quarterback-obsessed town, so I think there will be a lot of interest in Smith versus Manuel. If Smith becomes a bust and Manuel a star, the Jets will be second-guessed for passing on Manuel. Hey, that's the way it goes. The old-timers are still ticked off the Jets picked Ken O'Brien over Dan Marino. Smith has played well in stretches, but the early trend is that he'll hit a funk. In Week 1, it was the second quarter. In Week 2, it was the fourth quarter -- three interceptions. What about Manuel? I know he missed some time in the preseason. What do you like (and not like) about his game?

Rodak: Rich, I've been impressed with Manuel's demeanor more than anything. He has the walk and talk of a franchise quarterback, and that sense has only grown for me since early in the preseason. The loss of Kevin Kolb was unfortunate for him and the Bills, but I think it was the best thing to happen to Manuel. The pressure is off and the job is his, and that's one of the reasons why I said in our ESPN.com preseason predictions that he will be Offensive Rookie of the Year. Here's the caveat for me, though: He needs to keep his bad mistakes in check. I think the most encouraging thing about his performance in the preseason and the regular-season opener was that he didn't commit costly turnovers. But Sunday, he was strip-sacked and threw a bad interception and was lucky to have his defense come up big both times and keep the game close. That might not happen against better opponents or on the road. Other than the quarterbacks, the biggest storyline coming out of this game is the return of Bills defensive coordinator Mike Pettine to MetLife Stadium to face his old team. What's the feeling like between Ryan and his former assistant, and what sort of chess match can you see developing between these defensive minds?

Cimini: The Ryan-Pettine relationship is interesting. Basically, Ryan gave him his big break in the business, nurtured him for a decade, handed him the defense last season, and suddenly it was Splitsville. It was a curious departure, considering Pettine made a lateral move to the Bills. Deep down, I think they like and respect each other, but I think they both realized the relationship had run its course. As for the chess match, it will be fascinating. Let's put it this way: I wouldn't want to be a rookie quarterback, facing one of these guys. Ryan, the Jets' de facto coordinator, can confuse inexperienced quarterbacks with pressure and simulated pressure. Heck, he confused Brady last week. That Manuel faced a Ryan-like scheme all spring and summer will undoubtedly help him. Of course, the same could be said for Smith. I know this much: Ryan and Pettine are highly competitive, and there's more personal pride on the line than either one will admit. Ryan has a different challenge in that he'll have to face an up-tempo offense. Tell me more about the Bills' hurry-up.

Rodak: It's been evident that the Bills want to move fast, but I think they still want to speed things up some more. The problem in the first game was not converting third downs. Regardless of how fast they got plays off on first and second downs, they were 4-for-13 on third down, which often took the up-tempo offense off the field quickly. They improved to 6-for-14 on third down in Week 2, but more importantly jumped from 15 first downs to 24 first downs, evidence of a better showing on early downs. Marrone also said Monday that there were problems with the coach-to-quarterback communications system, another factor in the offense not reaching its desired efficiency. So while we've seen glimpses of the pace the Bills want to run, it hasn't always been there.

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