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Wednesday, February 16, 2011
Leading Questions: AFC East

By Tim Graham

With the offseason in full swing, let's take a look at one major question facing each AFC East team as it begins preparations for the 2011 season:

BUFFALO BILLS

Can the defense become a difference-maker?

That abysmal 0-8 start and a record meager enough to lock down the third overall pick in the draft suggest the Bills were an utter mess in 2010. Statistically, they were on both sides of the ball.

Yet there's an unquestionably different vibe about the Bills' offense despite ranking 28th in points, 25th in yards, 18th in rushing offense and 24th in passing offense. Bills fans debate whether Ryan Fitzpatrick is an adequate starter. Running back Fred Jackson and wide receiver Steve Johnson are fan favorites.

There's a general belief head coach Chan Gailey has his young offense trending upward.

Buffalo's defense generates no such sentiment despite similar rankings: 28th in points, 24th in yards, 32nd in run defense and a misleading third in pass defense -- because opponents didn't need to throw. Opposing quarterbacks still recorded the league's fifth-highest passer rating against the Bills.

Buffalo needs an overhaul on defense, and they appear willing to try. Gailey brought in old pal Dave Wannstedt as assistant head coach and linebackers assistant. Wannstedt's influence is uncertain at the moment, but he has better credentials than defensive coordinator George Edwards, who oversaw a switch from a 4-3 to a 3-4 and, in the end, mashed them together.

The Bills also re-signed outside linebacker Shawne Merriman. He's a reclamation project. But who knows? At least they're trying.

Much more must be done. The Bills have a foundation player in defensive tackle Kyle Williams, but he's surrounded by flotsam. Inside linebacker and leading tackler Paul Posluszny is a free agent. Merriman was worth the gamble because the Bills are desperate for pass-rushers with 2009 first-round pick Aaron Maybin looking like a bust and a half.

The draft won't solve all their problems, and general manager Buddy Nix is averse to patching holes with free agents. Unless the Bills strike big in the draft and Merriman turns out to be worth the risk, expect the defense to cost them more games in 2011.

MIAMI DOLPHINS

Will Chad Henne be their long-term quarterback?

The Dolphins revealed a lack of faith in Henne in 2010. They benched him twice.

The first time was an out-and-out demotion. In Week 10 -- with Tom Brady performing like an MVP, Mark Sanchez well on his way to the playoffs again and Fitzpatrick giving Bills fans something to cheer about -- the desperate Dolphins replaced Henne with Chad Pennington. There's no telling how long Henne would have remained on the sideline if Pennington didn't reinjure his throwing shoulder shortly after kickoff.

The next time Tony Sparano pulled Henne was in the season finale, a blowout loss to a Patriots squad that rested some of its best players and had nothing to play for. Henne completed six of his 16 passes, threw an interception and had a 25.8 passer rating. Not the way any quarterback wants to enter the offseason.

Henne was the Dolphins' supposed quarterback of the future. They drafted him in the second round in 2008, the year they took his Michigan teammate Jake Long first overall. Henne hasn't worked out yet. He studied under Pennington for a season and then took over in 2009, when Pennington got hurt two games into the season.

In his two nearly full seasons, Henne, at best, has looked decent. Great games have been rare. He has frustrated Dolfans more often than not. Henne has a career 75.3 passer rating. He has thrown six more interceptions than touchdown passes.

There are no guarantees Henne will remain Miami's starter, although the prediction here is that he will be in 2011. A new infrastructure is in place, and whenever a young quarterback has new idea men around, there's a tendency to extend opportunities -- especially when owner Stephen Ross, a Michigan man himself, has promoted Henne as a future Dolphins legend.

The Dolphins said goodbye to offensive coordinator Dan Henning and hired Brian Daboll, formerly of the Cleveland Browns. Henne's position coach, David Lee, left to be offensive coordinator at Mississippi. Receivers coach Karl Dorrell was switched to quarterbacks.

Will new voices be enough to inspire Henne to another level? I'm skeptical. While it's easy to scapegoat Henning -- and to an extent Lee -- for the offense's struggles, it should be noted Henning and Lee were considered geniuses when Pennington ran the offense and the Wildcat became an NFL trend. I doubt Henning and Lee turned vapid when Henne became quarterback.

NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS

Will the defense remain a weakness?

Week by week, the Patriots' defense evolved into a commendable unit. In four of their last five regular-season games, they allowed 20 combined points. Two of those opponents were playoff teams.

They sent four defensive players to the Pro Bowl: nose tackle Vince Wilfork, inside linebacker Jerod Mayo, cornerback Devin McCourty and safety Brandon Meriweather. Three of them were starters.

Not bad.

The numbers tell a different story. The Patriots ranked eighth in points allowed, but 25th in yards allowed, 11th in run defense and 30th in pass defense. The Patriots were dead last in third-down efficiency. They let opponents move the chains 47 percent of the time. They improved over the final few games, but in December they were on track to record the fifth-worst defense on third down since the NFL-AFL merger.

The Patriots gave up 34 points to the Browns, 30 points to the Bills and 24 points each to the Detroit Lions and Cincinnati Bengals.

Bill Belichick's defense can improve simply with another year of experience and the return of a couple of key contributors who missed 2010 with injuries.

The Patriots were young on defense. They started four rookies a couple of times. Their top secondary -- cornerbacks McCourty and Kyle Arrington, safeties Meriweather and Patrick Chung -- went into the season with four combined NFL seasons.

Not only will the defense improve by being another year older and wiser, but they'll also be reinforced when defensive end Ty Warren and cornerback Leigh Bodden come back.

Hip surgery wiped out Warren's season. Warren was a fixture at left end and forced the Patriots to juggle their line continually. A shoulder injury sidelined Bodden, and while McCourty emerged as a Pro Bowler, Bodden's presence over undrafted sophomore Arrington would have given the Patriots a much more formidable secondary.

New England's obvious need is a pass-rusher. With two draft choices in each of the first two rounds and the wherewithal to lure a free agent, there are plenty of reasons to expect New England's defense to upgrade in 2011.

NEW YORK JETS

Can the Jets retain their loaded receiving corps?

The Jets are in a bad spot when it comes to free agency in general, but particularly in regard to their wide receivers.

Contracts are up for Santonio Holmes, Braylon Edwards and Brad Smith. They accounted for 17 of the club's 39 touchdowns.

Holmes spent the first four games on suspension, but he and Edwards combined for 105 receptions, 1,591 yards and 12 touchdowns. Smith was less of a threat in the receiving game, but he lined up as an option quarterback. He threw a touchdown pass and returned two kickoffs for touchdowns.

Jets general manager Mike Tannenbaum declared his intentions to re-sign them all, but he added the plan was in pencil and expressed considerable doubt he would hammer out any deals before March 3, when the collective bargaining agreement is expected to expire.

Until there's a new CBA, nobody knows what free agency will look like. When will the signing period commence? How many seasons of NFL experience will determine restricted or unrestricted free agency? What will salary-cap parameters be?

That's why bringing back all three receivers will be unlikely. Once they hit the open market, the Jets will have to compete with the rest of the league for three players who will be coveted.

The Jets acquired Holmes and Edwards because they had baggage, but they have enhanced their reputations immensely. Holmes served his suspension and was on his best behavior. Edwards defied his rap as a habitual ball-dropper.

The always-respected Smith once again proved to be a versatile weapon at a time when such players are in high demand.

The Jets must keep at least two of them. They can't afford to give Sanchez less to work with. The young quarterback has many admirable traits, but he has shown little capacity to carry the offense himself. Sanchez requires a strong support staff.

The Jets might be able to get away with losing one of these receivers. Tight end Dustin Keller was sensational while Holmes was suspended. Through the first four games, Keller had 19 receptions for 234 yards and five touchdowns. Then Keller got lost in the offense and didn't score another TD.