NFL Nation: Eric Smith

Former Jets could find home with Bills

February, 20, 2013
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Last week, the AFC East blog examined the possibility of the Buffalo Bills going after projected New York Jets castoffs. We mentioned Calvin Pace and Bart Scott as two Jets likely to be released.

On Tuesday, that projection became a reality as New York cut five players: Pace, Scott, safety Eric Smith, offensive tackle Jason Smith and tight end Josh Baker. These now former Jets are all free game for Buffalo to recruit.

With former Jets defensive coordinator Mike Pettine now running Buffalo’s defense, expect the Bills to be on the short list for Pace, Scott and Eric Smith.

Let's take a look at each player and how they would fit with the Bills:
  • Scott brings attitude and toughness. Those are two things Buffalo lacked on defense and within its thin linebacker corps. The Bills were 31st against the run last year and were pushed around way too often. Scott can help against the run and knows Pettine's defense well. But Scott, 32, is a limited, two-down linebacker at this stage in his career. The Bills would need a more athletic linebacker to cover on passing downs.
  • Pace is the best player of the three defenders. He is 32 but still has something left in the tank. Pace recorded 55 tackles and three sacks in 2012. He's also durable and hasn't missed a start since 2010. The biggest issue with Pace is his declining sack numbers. Pace had a season-high eight sacks in 2009, but that number has decreased every year since. He may not add much of a pass rush to Buffalo but could provide mentorship and knowledge to Buffalo’s younger defenders.
  • The Bills also have an opening at safety after releasing veteran leader George Wilson. However, Smith would be a downgrade as a starting safety. Smith is limited in coverage and is not always a reliable tackler. Pettine may have interest in Smith as a third safety who also can assist on special teams.

Buffalo has the cap room to make some veteran additions. Free agency doesn't start until March, but the Bills can get a head start due to these recently released former Jets.

Jets begin a long, hard rebuild

February, 19, 2013
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The New York Jets made a series of expected cuts Tuesday. New York released veteran linebacker Calvin Pace, safety Eric Smith, offensive lineman Jason Smith and tight end Josh Baker, the team announced

It was only a matter of time before New York made wholesale changes under new general manager John Idzik. The Jets cleared $21.2 million of salary-cap room with these four cuts and are still about $2 million over the cap, ESPN.com senior writer John Clayton reports. In other words, this is just the beginning for the underachieving Jets, who finished 6-10 in 2012.

Due to poor cap management over the years by former general manager Mike Tannenbaum, the Jets are forced to undergo a youth movement. Other veterans such as linebacker Bart Scott and popular backup quarterback Tim Tebow shouldn't be too far behind in finding their way out of New York.

The Jets will miss Pace and Eric Smith, in particular. Both were contributors to New York’s back-to-back AFC title game appearances in 2009 and 2010.

But it will be a while before the Jets have a chance to reach that level again. Therefore, New York made a wise move to begin its long, hard rebuild by releasing four veterans on Tuesday.
When Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis tore his knee in a Week 3 overtime win at Miami, it meant we were denied a marvelous matchup on Monday Night Football.

Hardly anyone in the NFL would try to cover Houston receiver Andre Johnson one-on-one.

Were Revis playing for the Jets at Met Life Stadium Monday, he’d be doing just that.

“Let’s face it, Andre Johnson is as good as it gets in this league as a receiver,” Jets coach Rex Ryan told Houston reporters on a conference call Wednesday. “But we would actually put Revis out there by himself and, not saying not to worry about it, but a lot of straight man-coverage against him and bet you we’re the only team in the league that would do that.”

Without Revis, Kyle Wilson steps into the lineup. He and Antonio Cromartie will be charged with slowing Johnson, but they’re sure to get help from one of three safeties -- LaRon Landry, Yeremiah Bell or Eric Smith.

It’s a shame we won’t see the matchup of two premiere guys. But the Texans won’t be sad to miss Revis, especially a year after they were the team missing key pieces for so many matchups.

AFC East training camp battles

July, 3, 2012
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AFC camp battles: West | North | South | East NFC: West | North | South | East

An early look at the biggest training camp position battles:

BUFFALO BILLS

Receiver: Donald Jones versus Marcus Easley versus T.J. Graham

The Buffalo Bills need at least one more receiver to step up if their offense wants to go to the next level. The Bills are hoping to find a gem from a group of unknowns in Jones, Easley and Graham. Jones was the starter last year and showed a few flashes and deep speed. A season-ending ankle injury cut his year short. He returns with two players gunning for the same job.

Easley is an intriguing player. He has some tools but also had a lot of bad luck with injuries. The Bills have stayed patient, but Easley may be down to his last chance. Graham, a rookie third-round pick, also is in the mix. The Bills hope Graham can develop fast and make his mark. The winner of this battle will complement 1,000-yard receiver Steve Johnson and slot receiver David Nelson in Buffalo's passing game.

MIAMI DOLPHINS

Quarterback: Matt Moore versus David Garrard versus Ryan Tannehill

We have yet another three-way position battle in the AFC East. The Dolphins are leaving all of their options open at quarterback between Moore, Garrard and Tannehill. All three quarterbacks bring something different to the table. Miami coach Joe Philbin said he wants to make a decision after the third preseason game.

From my point of view, Garrard looked better in the practices I attended. He looks more comfortable than Moore, the incumbent, because Garrard has played in a West Coast offense. The Dolphins plan to run a precision passing game based on timing and progressions, and that's not Moore's game. Moore has a backyard style. Tannehill is the furthest behind and still needs to get used to the speed of the NFL game. He had only 19 career starts in college and has often looked that way in practices open to the media this offseason.

NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS

Running back: Stevan Ridley versus Shane Vereen

The reigning AFC champions are venturing into the unknown at running back. After losing dependable starter BenJarvus Green-Ellis to free agency, the Patriots are looking to second-year tailbacks Ridley and Vereen to carry the load. Both will get their share of carries this year. But the one who performs best in training camp and the preseason will be the starter.

Ridley averaged a solid 5.1 yards per carry as a rookie in 2011. He has a good burst between the tackles but needs to fix his fumbling woes. He had two late-season fumbles in the regular-season finale against Buffalo and the divisional playoff game against Denver. Patriots coach Bill Belichick didn't go back to Ridley the rest of the postseason. Vereen is quick and looks to be more of a home run hitter. Injuries hampered Vereen last season, but the Patriots are pretty high on last year's second-round pick. Danny Woodhead and former Indianapolis Colts tailback Joseph Addai also are in the mix for depth. Woodhead and Addai are expected to contribute more on third-down situations.

NEW YORK JETS

Safety: LaRon Landry versus Eric Smith

The Jets didn't have many weaknesses on their fifth-rated defense last season. But the biggest weakness was definitely safety. The Jets were eaten alive oftentimes over the middle of the field in 2011. Various tight ends and slot receivers had a field day because New York lacked the size, athleticism and physicality necessary to own the middle of the field.

Enter new safeties Landry and Yeremiah Bell. Both are solid veterans who are sure tacklers and physical hitters. Jets head coach Rex Ryan is excited over the prospect of having two enforcers over the middle waiting to blow up receivers. Bell is already making plays in organized team activities and minicamp. He will get one starting position. Landry is the favorite over Smith, last year's starter. However, Landry is still ailing from an Achilles injury and has yet to show the coaching staff how he fits in the defense. Once Landry returns, he must beat out Smith for a starting role.

Ranking team needs: Jets

February, 28, 2012
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This week the AFC East blog will look at each division team and examine the biggest needs entering free agency and the draft. On Tuesday we start with the New York Jets, who finished 8-8 last season.

No. 1 need: Safety

Analysis: The Jets are hurting badly at safety. Opponents found the weakness in New York's defense last season by avoiding corners Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie and attacking the middle of the field. The Jets allowed several big games by tight ends last season. Starting safety Jim Leonhard is coming off a season-ending knee injury and is a free agent. He probably won't find a job until he's 100 percent again, which could be several months down the line. The other starter, Eric Smith, struggled mightily in 2011. The Jets need upgrades at both safety spots, making it doubly tough to fill this position. Look for New York to address this need in both the draft and free agency. Fortunately for New York, there are plenty of good safeties entering free agency this year.

No. 2 need: Right tackle

Analysis: The Jets surprised many by guaranteeing Wayne Hunter’s contract for 2012, but that doesn't guarantee he will be a starter. Hunter was very inconsistent last season, and the Jets need help at right tackle to give quarterback Mark Sanchez enough time in the pocket. Hunter was better in a backup role than as a full-time starter. Perhaps getting help at right tackle would upgrade the starting position and help Hunter, who would be in a more comfortable role.

No. 3 need: Receiver

Analysis: With starting receiver Plaxico Burress about to hit free agency and unlikely to return, the Jets need to find another starting-caliber receiver for their 25th-ranked offense. Jeremy Kerley (a 2011 draft pick) showed flashes last season. He caught 29 passes for 314 yards and one touchdown. But Kerley may not be ready for a starting role. The Jets could use a big and fast receiver via the draft or free agency to pair with Santonio Holmes.

That is our list. But feel free to let the AFC East blog know what you think New York's biggest need is by voting in our SportsNation poll.

Rapid Reaction: Jets 27, Bengals 7

August, 21, 2011
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Thoughts from the Jets 27-7 preseason win over the Cincinnati Bengals.

WHAT IT MEANS: Rebounding from a so-so performance last week, the New York Jets improved in all phases and defeated the helpless Cincinnati Bengals on a rainy Sunday night at New Meadowlands Stadium. Plaxico Burress was the star, but this was more than a one-man show. Midway through the preseason, the Jets (1-1) have to feel good about themselves. And there appeared to be no major injuries.

LIKE OLD TIMES: Burress made his Jets debut and gave the rain-soaked fans what they wanted -- a moment to talk about. The moment came with 51 seconds left in the second quarter, when he made an over-the-shoulder, 26-yard touchdown catch. With his back to Mark Sanchez, Burress threw his 6-foot-5 body into a dive, securing the high, arching pass as he skidded across the wet turf.

With that one play, Burress announced his return to football. After nearly two years in prison, he was back, demonstrating the kind of athleticism you wouldn’t expect from a 34-year-old receiver that spent that much time in the big house. It came against a backup cornerback named Fred Bennett, but that didn’t matter. It was all about body control, hand-eye coordination and sticky hands.

Burress played 30 of 32 plays in the first half, finishing with three catches for 66 yards. Translation: A smashing debut.

SANCHEZ ROCKS: After an efficient but largely non-descript performance last week, Sanchez (12-for-20, 173 yards, two TDs) delivered some big plays in the passing game. The protection was better this week, thanks to the return of All-Pro center Nick Mangold. He led the offense to two touchdowns (drives of 16 and 99 yards) and a field goal in seven possessions, wrapping up the night with a 10-play, 99-yard touchdown drive.

Until then, the Sanchez-led offense was like the weather -- blah. In fact, the Jets started 0-for-6 on third down. The turning point was a 43-yard pass to a wide-open Dustin Keller, providing good field position after being backed up at their 1. From there, Sanchez hit Keller on a third-down catch, setting up the Burress highlight-film catch.

WIDE-OPEN OFFENSE: For the second straight week, the Jets relied heavily on a three-receiver attack. In fact, they used their “11” personnel package (3 WRs, 1 TE, 1RB) on 19 of 32 plays in the first half. With Derrick Mason (knee) sitting out, they used Burress, Santonio Holmes (16-yard TD) and rookie Jeremy Kerley in three-wide packages.

NO GROUND AND POUND: By placing an emphasis on the passing attack -- a necessity, given the new parts -- the running game was out of sync. LaDainian Tomlinson got the start with Shonn Greene (foot) out of the lineup, and the 32-year-old looked a bit sluggish. He rushed for 16 yards on nine carries. Tomlinson got a lot of work, appearing in 31 of 32 plays in the first half. Joe McKnight and Bilal Powell didn’t see significant time until the second half.

OPPORTUNISTIC D: The Jets roughed up the offensively challenged Bengals, intercepting three passes -- Eric Smith, Jim Leonhard and Brashton Satele. The three turnovers set up 17 points for the Jets, and that was pretty much the story of the game. Keep in mind, the Bengals no longer have Carson (I Wanna Retire) Palmer at quarterback. They started rookie Andy Dalton and replaced him with journeyman Bruce Gradkowski.

WELCOME MAYBIN: Bills castoff Aaron Maybin, the 11th overall pick in the 2009 draft, made his presence felt in his Jets debut. After only three days of practice with the team, Maybin recorded a strip sack on Bengals third-string QB Jordan Palmer. Hey, that might have been enough to grab a spot on the 53-man roster.

Jets back-to-work FYI

July, 25, 2011
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NFC: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South Unrestricted FAs

Readiness factor: The Jets' coaching staff and much of the roster will remain intact, which reduces the learning curve. But the Jets won't have training-camp bonding time at SUNY Cortland, an enhancement Rex Ryan and his players prized the past two seasons. They already pulled the plug on their upstate training camp and will convene at team headquarters in Florham Park, N.J.

Biggest challenge: All their free agents. The Jets have some biggies, most notably at wide receiver. They must keep young quarterback Mark Sanchez's support staff stocked with weapons, and receivers Santonio Holmes, Braylon Edwards and Brad Smith are about to hit the market. So are cornerback Antonio Cromartie and safeties Brodney Pool, Eric Smith and James Ihedigbo.

What a rush: The Jets quietly tied for eighth in the NFL in sacks last season but didn't have a fearsome presence in an overall defense designed to create mayhem. Of the 40 sacks they recorded last season, more than a quarter of them belonged to defensive backs and almost half were rung up by players who aren't under contract. The Jets released outside linebacker Jason Taylor (5 sacks). Defensive end Shaun Ellis (4.5 sacks) also has an expired contract.

Key players without contracts for 2011: In addition to the above, fullback Tony Richardson, cornerback Drew Coleman, top special-teams tackler Lance Laury, kicker Nick Folk, punter Steve Weatherford.

Inside view on getting Jets over hump

June, 15, 2011
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Antonio Cromartie, Santonio Holmes, Brodney PoolGetty ImagesAccording to one Jets insider, the team should bring back Antonio Cromartie, Santonio Holmes and Brodney Pool.
While yakking with a key starter from last year's New York Jets squad this week, I asked a question I posed on the AFC East blog last month and have addressed regularly in my weekly chat.

What team is the class of the division? The New England Patriots, coming off 14 victories and another title? Or the Jets, who knocked the Patriots out of the playoffs and reached their second straight AFC Championship Game?

"Until we dethrone them," he said, "the Patriots are the class of the AFC East. That's the bottom line. There's no other way to slice it. You've got to knock them off the pedestal. That's goal No. 1, winning the division. That's the easiest way to get to the ultimate goal of the Super Bowl."

That comment alone wasn't enough for the player to request anonymity, but the next part of our conversation made him feel it was necessary for the sake of diplomacy and because he wants to keep his job next season.

I wanted to know more. To extract his veteran insight on the state of the Jets, I asked what his game plan would be if I could appoint him general manager for the next couple months.

How would he get the Jets over the hump from runners-up to AFC East champs and into the Super Bowl? He must have pondered that very question over the past few months because, without much thought, he rattled off six key steps to propelling the Jets upward.

Here they are, in order of what he felt was most important, along with his reasoning:

1. Re-sign receiver Santonio Holmes.

"You have to do that," our embedded analyst said. The Jets have three prominent free-agent receivers, but Holmes must be the priority over Braylon Edwards and Brad Smith. Holmes missed four games while serving a suspension but made 52 catches for 746 yards and six touchdowns. He was a clutch performer and added a couple more touchdowns in the playoffs.

"If I had to choose between Santonio, Braylon or Brad Smith -- I don't think you can re-sign them all -- I'll take Santonio because of his body of work," the Jets insider said. "He's more established."

Smith averaged 28.6 yards on kickoff returns and scored two touchdowns, and was the club's third-leading rusher with 299 yards and a TD as a gadget quarterback. The Jets led the NFL in average start position after a kickoff (at the 31.5-yard line). But the insider said revamped kickoff rules would neutralize Smith's impact in 2011.

The possibility of signing Plaxico Burress is intriguing and could help the Jets cope with any inability to re-sign Edwards or Smith. As for whether Burress would be a problem for head coach Rex Ryan, the insider laughed.

"With everything we have in our organization, he'd be just one of the guys," he said. "He wouldn't stand out like a sore thumb.

"Guys just love playing for Rex. With Rex's personality and the way he runs the show, Plaxico would just fit right in. Rex doesn't have problems with guys who have so-called character issues or big personalities. Rex is a big personality himself. A guy like Plaxico would do well with the Jets."

[+] EnlargeDavid Harris
Alan Maglaque/US PresswireDavid Harris is slated to become a free agent after the 2011 season.
2. Get inside linebacker David Harris signed to a long-term contract.

Harris led the Jets with 119 tackles. He recorded three sacks, 14 quarterback hits, a forced fumble and a recovery.

He signed his franchise tender and is under contract for next season, but he'll be a free agent again next offseason unless the Jets broker another deal before then.

"I've got to lock up David Harris," the insider said. "He's one of the more underrated defenders in the league. I've got to get him signed long-term."

3. Re-sign cornerback Antonio Cromartie.

Another significant free agent, Cromartie helped limit opposing quarterbacks to a 50.7 completion percentage -- lowest in the league by far -- and a 77.1 passer rating. He notched 42 tackles, three interceptions and a team-high 18 passes defensed.

Besides, the Jets invested too much in him to let him stroll for nothing this summer.

"If I gave up a second-round pick for the guy, I don't want to see him walk out the door," the insider said. "That would be a high draft pick I'd wasted.

"Plus, with no offseason to monitor the young players, I don't know what I have with Kyle Wilson. The team hasn't had a chance to coach him up. He didn't do the things the team expected last year. So I need to get Antonio Cromartie back to make sure I shore up the secondary."

4. Find a pass-rusher or two.

One of the Jets' biggest perceived weaknesses heading into the offseason was their inability to generate a more formidable pass rush last season.

"This team has a defensive scheme that can be dangerous with a pass rush," the insider said. "We had a great group, but that'll make my defense even stronger."

Outside linebacker Jason Taylor's status is in question. The Jets cut him, but it's not unfathomable he could return. Last year's regular starters, Calvin Pace and Bryan Thomas, are under contract. Thomas recorded a team-high six sacks last season, while Pace had 5.5 sacks. Taylor added five more. Those aren't fearsome numbers.

Football Outsiders charted the Jets for 117.5 hurries (seventh in the NFL), but just 38 quarterback hits (tied for 23rd).

[+] EnlargeDamien Woody
Richard A. Brightly/Icon SMIDurability concerns could steer the Jets away from bringing back Damien Woody.
5. Sign a free-agent right tackle.

The Jets released Damien Woody after the season, but published reports before the lockout indicated the club was interested in bringing him back.

Woody can't provide many guarantees in what would be his 13th NFL season. Although he has been to the Pro Bowl, is one of few players on last year's roster who owns a Super Bowl ring and started 13 games last season, there are injury concerns. He battled knee problems before an Achilles' injury landed him on injured reserve in the playoffs.

There don't appear to be any solutions on the roster. Last year's second-round draft choice, Vladimir Ducasse, was a tackle at Boston College but was unable to win a job at guard. Woody's reliable backup, Wayne Hunter, is a free agent.

6. Identify a safety to solidify the secondary, looking first at Brodney Pool.

The Jets' best safety, Jim Leonhard, is coming off a broken shin that had him limited to a scooter during rehab. Pool, Eric Smith and James Ihedigbo all are free agents.

Pool started 12 games. He ranked fourth in tackles with 63. He registered a sack, an interception, nine passes defenses, a forced fumble and a recovery. Smith started six games and was fifth with 57 tackles. He also made an impact on special teams (19 tackles), as did Ihedigbo (27 tackles).

"I would try to get Brodney Pool or Eric Smith back," the Jets insider said. "Both played well down the stretch, but I think Brodney Pool was a guy who, as it got later in the season, really picked up the scheme and became a playmaker at the safety position."

I found the insider's opinions to be insightful. Nowhere among the list of issues to address were quarterback Mark Sanchez, left guard or kicker Nick Folk. The obviously aren't major concerns with this veteran player.

Once the lockout concludes, we'll see how much the anonymous player's wish list jibes with Mike Tannenbaum's.
Carlton Mitchell and Steve BreastonGetty ImagesCarlton Mitchell and Steve Breaston were the cream of the NFL tweeting crop in the latest Twindex.
My eyes glazed over as would-be analysts offered little worthy of attention on Twitter regarding the NBA Finals, starting with too many of these: “Who ya got tonight, Mavs or Heat?”

Yawn-inducing, akin to, “What up [insert city here]?”

Over the last two weeks, we heard who came close to missing a flight and who was delayed and what they thought of the airports they were delayed in.

But even in such a desolate landscape, wonderful things popped up.

Little known Carlton Mitchell, a second-year Browns wide receiver, was consistently hilarious and emerged from nowhere to take the top spot -- not by a nose, but in a landslide.

Laughs are aplenty among the rest of the field in the second edition of the NFL Twindex, one man’s subjective rankings of the best NFL tweeters out there over the last two weeks.

Big names who did well in the feature’s debut disappeared, with only three players retaining a spot in the top 10.

Without further ado, the new list:


Have a tweet I need to see? A Tweeter who needs more consideration? Find me at @ESPN_AFCSouth and @PaulKuharsky.

AFC East labor impact

March, 11, 2011
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NFC labor impact: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

A team-by-team look at how a continued labor impasse and extended NFL freeze on transactions would affect the division:

Buffalo Bills: The Bills are a young team that built momentum toward the end of last season. They went 4-4 in the second half. Over a six-game stretch in October and November they went 2-4, and each loss was by three points to an eventual playoff team. Three of them were in overtime.

A prolonged work stoppage would stunt Buffalo's development. Head coach Chan Gailey is entering his second year, but his first offseason with Ryan Fitzpatrick as starting quarterback. The Bills also could draft a quarterback next month, but they wouldn't be able to sign him or work with him until there's a new collective bargaining agreement.

Inexperienced players with one or two years dot the roster: running back C.J. Spiller, guards Eric Wood and Andy Levitre, nose tackle Torell Troup, outside linebackers Aaron Maybin and Arthur Moats, safety Jairus Byrd. They would benefit from as much prep time as they can get.

Miami Dolphins: The Dolphins' offense will have serious difficulty taking shape if there's a long work stoppage. Incumbent quarterback Chad Henne wouldn't be on the securest footing if we were heading into a normal offseason. The Dolphins were frustrated enough to remove him as their starter twice last year. Now he's working with a new offensive coordinator (Brian Daboll) and new quarterbacks coach (Karl Dorrell) who never has been a quarterbacks coach before.

Henne got a head start on his offseason by meeting with Daboll and Dorrell and trying to absorb as much of the playbook as he could. Henne intends to communicate Daboll's philosophies to his teammates with informal workouts in South Florida.

That's where the Dolphins can have an advantage if they remain diligent. A large percentage of their players maintain homes in South Florida, making it easy for them to assemble for group sessions.

All of Henne's work could be rendered moot if the Dolphins want to acquire another quarterback, but then they'll have another problem. Until there's a new CBA, teams cannot sign free agents or make player trades. That means the Dolphins are in limbo if they want to make a play for an intriguing group of candidates that includes Kevin Kolb, Kyle Orton, Carson Palmer, Donovan McNabb and Vince Young.

New England Patriots: If any team can withstand a protracted work stoppage, it's the reigning AFC East champions. The Patriots have a solid roster filled with veterans, particularly on offense. Their coaching staff remained mostly intact. They're flush with draft picks.

The biggest impact probably would be felt on defense, where the Patriots sometimes started four rookies: end Brandon Deaderick, outside linebacker Jermaine Cunningham, inside linebacker Brandon Spikes and cornerback Devin McCourty.

Although a couple of veteran defenders returning from injuries -- defensive end Ty Warren and cornerback Leigh Bodden -- should help stabilize them, the Patriots will have difficulty coaching up their youngsters and improving their terrible third-down defense in a compacted offseason.

Another issue could be the way the Patriots flip through interchangeable parts. The Patriots are adept at discovering undrafted free agents and reclaiming other teams' castoffs while constantly overturning the bottom of their roster. With no CBA, these roster moves cannot happen.

New York Jets: Free agency will be the Jets' biggest issue if a work stoppage drags out. They have the most free agents in the AFC East and declined to re-sign any of them aside from placing the franchise tag on inside linebacker David Harris. The Jets didn't want to make any decisions until they knew what the next CBA looked like. That created several questions up and down the roster.

Receiver is the biggest question mark. Santonio Holmes and Braylon Edwards are without contracts, and quarterback Mark Sanchez needs a strong supporting cast. On defense, safety is a concern with Brodney Pool, Eric Smith and James Ihedigbo all about to be free agents, too.

No CBA means the Jets won't be able to sign incoming free agents either. Polls have shown players around the league would love to play for Rex Ryan more than any other coach. But the Jets can't use that to their advantage until there's a new deal.

Draft Watch: AFC East

March, 10, 2011
3/10/11
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NFC Draft Watch: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Each Thursday leading up to the NFL draft (April 28-30), the ESPN.com NFL blog network will take a division-by-division look at key aspects of the draft. Today's topic: biggest team needs.

Buffalo Bills

Where would you like to start?

Offense? How about left tackle, right tackle, tight end and -- if there's a great one still on the draft board -- quarterback?

Defense? How about the line, outside linebacker, inside linebacker, cornerback and safety?

Special teams? OK, the Bills are fine there.

But kicker, punter and running back are about the only positions the Bills can draft third overall and not help themselves.

The most pressing needs, however, are tackle and outside linebacker. The Bills haven't drafted an offensive tackle earlier than the fifth round since taking Mike Williams in the first round in 2002, and their line play shows that. They have tried to coach up late draft picks (Demetrius Bell, Ed Wang) and rummaged through free agency (Cornell Green, Mansfield Wrotto, Jonathan Scott, Jamon Meredith) rather than acquire that prized blindside protector.

The Bills were so desperate at outside linebacker they plucked the injury-ravaged Shawne Merriman off waivers last year and then, even though he got hurt again minutes into his first workout, gave him a contract extension.

They can't bank on Merriman to anchor their pass rush. Yet even if he can contribute, they'll need more help. The Bills recorded 27 sacks last year. Only three teams had fewer.

Miami Dolphins

The Dolphins probably will need a running back. They could stand to upgrade at quarterback if they can.

But they definitely need interior offensive linemen.

They recently re-signed left guard Richie Incognito to an extension, but they still have problems at center and right guard. Although they have two solid book-end tackles in Pro perennial Bowl left tackle Jake Long and veteran Vernon Carey, they've been a mess in between for the past three years.

The Dolphins need to upgrade their power running game. Despite having a capable and healthy backfield tandem in Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams last season, the Dolphins ranked 21st in rushing yards, 29th in yards per carry and 29th in rushing touchdowns.

A stud running back certainly can help, and the Dolphins might have little choice but to take one with their 15th selection. Brown's and Williams' contracts are up. That's why so many draft analysts project the Dolphins will take Alabama running back Mark Ingram and then address the O-line later.

New England Patriots

Funny how things work for the Patriots when it comes to draft picks. The reigning AFC East champs might have the fewest needs but have the most draft picks at their disposal.

The Patriots went 14-2 last season and own two draft choices in each of the first three rounds. So the Patriots have the flexibility to go any number of directions.

The most obvious need is outside linebacker. The Patriots' entire outside linebacking corps mustered 13.5 sacks last year. Dolphins outside linebacker Cameron Wake generated 14 sacks all by himself.

Offensive line is another concern because there are so many question marks. Right guard Stephen Neal retired. Left guard Logan Mankins is upset. Left tackle Matt Light isn't signed. Nick Kaczur is coming off serious back surgery. The timing is right to bring in some fresh O-line blood.

The Patriots had one of the NFL's most entertaining backfields last year, with BenJarvus Green-Ellis rushing for over 1,000 yards and Danny Woodhead making the Jets look foolish for cutting him. But each running back has his limitations, and the Patriots could be on the lookout for an all-purpose back adept at catching a pass and converting a third-and-short.

New York Jets

The Jets are in a weird spot. They finished the season as a team with talent at virtually every position.

But they have a crowded group of free agents and couldn't bring themselves to sign any (aside from giving inside linebacker David Harris the franchise tag) until a new collective bargaining agreement was in place. The Jets want to know what the new salary cap is before moving forward.

That leaves a lot of loose ends for the Jets heading into the draft. Will they need a receiver to replace Santonio Holmes or Braylon Edwards? A cornerback to replace Antonio Cromartie?

The needs we can bank on are outside linebacker and safety.

The Jets must generate a better pass rush and still need to recover from the Vernon Gholston pick that set them back. Outside linebacker Bryan Thomas is competent, but no star. He led the Jets with just six sacks. Calvin Pace had 5.5 sacks. The recently released Jason Taylor added five.

Safety is an area of emphasis because they could have stood to upgrade even before Brodney Pool, Eric Smith and James Ihedigbo became free agents. Jim Leonhard is a Rex Ryan favorite but recovering from a broken shin.

AFC East draft season: Who needs what?

February, 9, 2011
2/09/11
5:26
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Gabbert, Ingram & Ayers US PresswireBlaine Gabbert (Bills), Mark Ingram (Miami), and Akeem Ayers (Patriots) could all fit in the AFC East.
Nobody can say for sure when the 2011 NFL season will begin or what the free-agency period will resemble.

But we do know there will be a draft in April.

Rather than depress everybody with labor musings, let's focus on the only player personnel activities we can count on.

To set the stage for draft season and the NFL scouting combine in two weeks, I canvassed four evaluators I respect to compile a list of positional needs for the AFC East.

I asked National Football Post scouting guru Wes Bunting, Scouts Inc. draft analyst Steve Muench, Pro Football Weekly senior editor Nolan Nawrocki, and CBSSports.com senior analyst Rob Rang to share their rundown of shortcomings for each club.

I merged their insights to come up with a consensus. From there, I targeted some candidates who fit the profile of need combined with draft position.

The new collective bargaining agreement can impact these projections significantly. If a CBA can be hammered out before the draft, then perhaps teams will be able to address some needs via free agency. Otherwise, front offices will have more roster uncertainties than usual when they're on the clock in Radio City Music Hall.

Buffalo Bills

Pick: Third.

Consensus needs: Offensive line, quarterback, defensive tackle, outside linebacker.

Analysis: An asterisk should be affixed to any Bills forecast. Few experts would have rated running back as a target area last year, but they selected C.J. Spiller ninth overall out of Clemson. So who knows what they're thinking?

All four analysts rated offensive line either first or second among the Bills' most needful areas. Nawrocki and Muench were specific about tackles -- a position the Bills haven't drafted earlier than the fifth round since 2002. Nawrocki called tackle the No. 1 priority.

Muench and Bunting rated quarterback as the most important position.

The good news for the Bills is that they likely will be able to take the first quarterback or tackle off the board if they choose.

But none of the analysts projected the Bills to take an offensive lineman third overall. The best prospects simply aren't considered worth that high of a slot.

"Ryan Fitzpatrick is an excellent backup and stopgap, but he's an adequate at best starter," Muench said. "If the Bills can get Missouri quarterback Blaine Gabbert at No. 3, then I think they pull the trigger."

Rang labeled defensive line Buffalo's biggest concern, noting opponents averaged a gaudy 169.6 rushing yards last season, and this year's draft class is deep along the defensive front.

Who could be there: Alabama defensive tackle Marcell Dareus and Clemson defensive end Da'Quan Bowers are top candidates. Gabbert should be on the board when the Bills pick. Auburn quarterback Cam Newton almost certainly will be available. The two teams drafting ahead of the Bills, the Carolina Panthers and Denver Broncos, aren't expected to take a quarterback.

Miami Dolphins

Pick: 15th.

Consensus needs: Running back, interior offensive line, quarterback.

Analysis: Of the four AFC East teams, the Dolphins presented the most straightforward consensus among the panel. Three of four rated running back as the chief concern. Three of four listed guard second.

Two experts listed quarterback, with Bunting deeming it the greatest deficiency. Even so, Bunting added Alabama running back Mark Ingram is an attractive possibility in the first round.

Free agency mysteries could put the Dolphins in a backfield bind. Contracts for Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams are about to expire.

"Running back is an obvious concern," Rang said. "Lex Hilliard could surprise if given a real opportunity, but many believe the Dolphins will be tempted by Ingram in the first round."

Muench found quarterback to be an interesting position for Miami in the draft.

"The argument could be made that quarterback is the Dolphins' top need," Muench said, "but not from a draft perspective. Miami won't find a better quarterback than Chad Henne at pick 15, and trading up will prove difficult.

"If the Dolphins have decided to move on from Henne, then signing a free agent or trading for a quarterback makes the most sense. Regardless, they should take a chance on a developmental prospect in the middle rounds."

Who could be there: The Bills' slot is the only one in the AFC East that comes with some clarity. The middle of the first round is dicey to predict. Will Ingram still be on the board? The Dolphins also could be tempted to grab Newton if he's still waiting by his phone or Arkansas quarterback Ryan Mallett, although multiple reports suggest Mallett's stock is plummeting. As for interior linemen, the 15th slot seems way too soon for anybody in this year's class. The top candidate is Florida guard Mike Pouncey, younger brother of Pittsburgh Steelers rookie Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey.

New England Patriots

Pick: 17th and 28th.

Consensus needs: Outside linebacker, offensive line, running back, defensive end.

Analysis: The Patriots have a pair of first-round choices to address their needs. They also have two picks each in the second and third rounds. With so much inventory to wheel and deal, it's hard to speculate what Bill Belichick will do or where he will end up picking within the first couple rounds.

None of the four analysts prioritized the same top position for New England, but all of them ranked outside linebacker among their top three needs.

Nawrocki was specific in stating the Patriots need a five-technique defensive end, although veteran Ty Warren is returning from a hip injury that sidelined him for 2010.

Bunting's emphasis was on a do-it-all running back. BenJarvus Green-Ellis had a nice campaign as the AFC East's lone 1,000-yard rusher, but he's not a threat in the passing game. Danny Woodhead is a top-notch complementary player, but he doesn't have the size to be a workhorse.

[+] EnlargeLogan Mankins
AP Photo/Stephan SavoiaThe contract status of guard Logan Mankins could impact New England's draft needs this year.
Three of the four analysts viewed New England's offensive line as an issue dependent upon the ability to re-sign Pro Bowl guard Logan Mankins and ambiguity over the futures of veteran left tackle Matt Light and right guard Stephen Neal.

"Light has been a solid bookend for the past 10 years, but he turns 33 this offseason, and explosive edge rushers gave him problems last year," Muench said. "It's also worth pointing out that New England wants its young tight ends making plays downfield and not helping in pass protection."

Who could be there: Pass-rushers always are a hot commodity, and this year is no different. Defensive ends and outside linebackers can be difficult to sort because teams will project them into different roles. UCLA outside linebacker Akeem Ayers and Missouri outside linebacker Aldon Smith are strong possibilities. It's foreseeable New England will be considering the fifth or sixth best defensive end on its board at No. 17 -- if you believe the Patriots will keep that pick, of course. Purdue's Ryan Kerrigan and Wisconsin's J.J. Watt project in that range. Illinois running back Mikel Leshoure is considered second in this year's class behind Ingram.

New York Jets

Pick: 30th.

Consensus needs: Outside linebacker, wide receiver, defensive line, safety.

Analysis: Analysts were fragmented on the Jets, and a major reason for that is their volume of free agents and the degree of difficulty general manager Mike Tannenbaum will have in re-signing the most important ones.

"Collectively, their roster is one of the strongest in the league, but they do have some questions to answer," Nawrocki said.

For instance, receiver either could be a huge offseason weakness or a major strength. Santonio Holmes, Braylon Edwards and Brad Smith are free agents, but Tannenbaum stated he intends to re-sign them all. The likelihood of that happening is dubious, as illustrated by three of the four panelists rating wide receiver either second or third for the Jets.

Nawrocki and Rang each listed outside linebacker first.

"The Jets must account for the failure of Vernon Gholston, who likely will be released soon, and get younger at outside linebacker," Nawrocki said.

Gholston was the sixth overall selection in the 2008 draft and has failed to record an NFL sack. Jason Taylor had five sacks last season, but he'll turn 37 at the start of next season and might not be back.

"The Jets need a pass-rusher to take the next step," Rang said. "If there is a 3-4 outside linebacker prospect they like on the board at No. 30, he's the favorite."

Muench rated free safety as the Jets' biggest need. Not only could the Jets stand to upgrade that position, but also Brodney Pool and Eric Smith are free agents.

"As good as this defense is," Muench said, "imagine if Rex Ryan had a safety that can match up with receivers and play a center-field role like he had with Ed Reed in Baltimore."

Who could be there: Draft boards are highly unreliable by the end of the first round. Prospects you thought would go in the top 15 drop into the 20s. A player expected to be available early in the second round is long gone. Nawrocki's mock draft has Ayers slipping to the Jets. Bunting and Rang each have Baylor defensive tackle Phil Taylor slotted 30th.

Your 2010 All-AFC East team revealed

January, 26, 2011
1/26/11
2:08
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Vince Wilfork and Kyle WilliamsGetty Images, US PresswireThere was enough room on the All-AFC East team for nose tackles Vince Wilfork and Kyle Williams.
Reader input didn't make compiling the 2010 All-AFC East team a simple process.

Despite your tremendous response to help me assemble the quintessential roster, I had to make an executive decision, break a deadlock, defend one of my no-brainer selections and throw out some ballots because of shenanigans.

In the end, we have an All-AFC East squad everybody should be satisfied with.

We began the process a week ago, when I chose 10 players I believed were automatic. The other 17 positions were for you to vote upon. You didn't disappoint.

There were some great races, most notably at left tackle and nose tackle.

As with any voting process on the AFC East blog, I always can be convinced to move from a stance. My instructions were to vote for one nose tackle for a 3-4 scheme with emphasis that New England Patriots keystone Vince Wilfork and Buffalo Bills standout Kyle Williams must be considered nose tackles because that's how each team identifies him.

But enough readers made the case that Wilfork and Williams played elsewhere along the line so frequently that they should be eligible for some quasi position. I do appreciate the point.

The Patriots' official game-by-game player participation record says Wilfork started eight games at defensive end. Williams started every game at nose tackle (12) or defensive tackle (four).

I decided to add Wilfork and Williams as "defensive tackles" on a defensive front with New York Jets defensive end Shaun Ellis, who received an avalanche of votes. But I didn't want to slight the No. 2 defensive end, Kendall Langford of the Miami Dolphins. Langford received a healthy number of votes. Too many to dismiss.

That left me with a dilemma: How can I honor four defensive linemen and still maintain a 3-4 alignment? I took the easy way out. I added a 12th defender. I'm not thrilled with my final decision, but it's an appropriate way to give proper credit where it's due.

On the other side of scrimmage, Dolphins left tackle Jake Long and Jets left tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson finished in a tie, forcing me to make the call. Each was selected to be a Pro Bowl starter. Long was voted All-Pro.

I chose Long. He played hurt for much of the season. He slipped on plays here or there, but he mostly remained dominant.

A few readers took me to task for my coronation of Dolphins punter Brandon Fields without allowing a vote because Jets punter Steve Weatherford had a great season. Weatherford tied an NFL record with 42 punts inside the 20-yard line. He was impressive.

But I found Fields more remarkable this year. He ranked fourth with a 46.2-yard average (3.6 yards longer than Weatherford). Fields' net average of 37.8 yards was only 0.3 yards shorter than Weatherford's, but the Dolphins were atrocious on special-teams protection and coverage. They fired their special-teams coordinator after Week 4. Fields had two punts blocked and one returned for a touchdown.

The Jets have venerable special-teams coach Mike Westhoff and sensational coverage men, as illustrated by four Jets receiving at least two votes for the special-teams position on the All-AFC East team.

And it's not often a punter is MVP of a game, but Fields certainly was against the Jets in Week 14.

There were some surprises in the balloting.

Bills receiver Steve Johnson ran away with one of the two available spots, but I didn't expect Santonio Holmes to take the other one so handily over teammate Braylon Edwards or Patriots star Wes Welker.

I assumed Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski would win, but in a close race, especially with the possibility of splitting votes with teammate Aaron Hernandez. Gronkowski crushed everyone else. He had four times as many votes as his closest competition, Dustin Keller of the Jets.

Bills linebacker Arthur Moats finished a distant second to Calvin Pace. But I found it amusing that almost every time a vote came in for him, the reader stipulated it was because Moats injured Brett Favre.

Patriots rookie Devin McCourty had six times as many votes as Dolphins cornerback Vontae Davis for the position opposite Jets star Darrelle Revis. Antonio Cromartie wasn't remotely in the race.

The most balanced voting happened at the safety positions. Patriots strong safety Brandon Meriweather edged out Jim Leonhard of the Jets, with Donte Whitner of the Bills closely behind in third.

Bills free safety Jairus Byrd, a Pro Bowler as a rookie in 2009, accumulated just 14 more votes than Patrick Chung of the Patriots.

The special-teams race was fun to track. Thirteen players received at least one vote, with Jets hitter Eric Smith barely beating teammate James Ihedigbo and Bills fullback Corey McIntyre.

Cromartie's remedy for Ward? Choke him

January, 23, 2011
1/23/11
9:36
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It took a few days, but the New York Jets finally revealed a source of disdain within the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Unlike previous games, especially their divisional playoff last week against the New England Patriots, the Jets were lovey-dovey all week in their comments about their AFC Championship Game opponents.

The Steelers affectionately responded in kind.

But the Jets couldn't contain themselves forever. ESPNNewYork.com contributor Ian Begley spoke with some Jets defensive backs who delivered ominous words for Steelers receiver Hines Ward.

Jets cornerback Antonio Cromartie offered the best remedy for dealing with Ward's reputed dirty play:

"Grab his ass by the throat and choke the s--- out of him."

Jets safety Eric Smith stopped short when talking about a course of action he has in mind for Ward.

"If I finish what I said and then do what I planned on doing, I'm going to get fined," Smith said, referring to this past week's warning from the league that comments can be taken into account when punishing players for nasty hits.

Smith claimed Ward took multiple cheap shots on the Baltimore Ravens last week.

"He's out there hitting Dawan Landry in the back," Smith said. "He came across and hit Ray Lewis in the back. Ed Reed was 30 yards downfield, and he's going down and hitting him.

"It's just unnecessary things like that that make you mad as a defender."

Jets safety James Ihedigbo added: "We're going to deal with [Ward] early so he knows what type of game it's going to be, and that none of that stuff is being tolerated."

Final Word: Jets-Colts

January, 7, 2011
1/07/11
4:00
PM ET
Wild-card Final Word: NY Jets-Indy | Baltimore-K.C. | N.O.-Seattle | G.B.-Philadelphia

Three nuggets of knowledge about Saturday’s Jets-Colts wild-card game:

[+] EnlargeNew York Jets coach Rex Ryan
AP Photo/Bill KostrounNew York Jets coach Rex Ryan will try to avenge last season's AFC Championship Game loss this Saturday against the Colts.
If the Jets were the type of team to look ahead, they would admit the Patriots are their biggest concern today. We're speaking, of course, about a team coached by a guy who in the summer scrawled on the side of a tour bus that his team would be Super Bowl champions, a guy who on last year's postseason itinerary scheduled a ticker-tape parade through the Canyon of Heroes. So we know the Jets aren't very good at adhering to the "one game at a time" chestnut. The Colts look vulnerable (by their standards), and the Jets can draw confidence from last year's AFC Championship Game that they will compete Saturday night. Against the teams the Jets probably would face in this year's conference title game, the Jets own a recent victory against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field and a lost a close one to the Baltimore Ravens in the season opener. So that would leave figuring out how to beat the Patriots next week at Gillette Stadium, where the Patriots won 45-3. That probably makes the look-ahead Jets more nervous than the Colts do.

Lesser names in the Jets' secondary will be in the spotlight as much as Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie. The "other guys" must step up to stop Colts quarterback Peyton Manning from waltzing down the field. Drew Coleman, who has shown a knack for big plays this season, will be the starting nickelback. Dwight Lowery, Kyle Wilson and Marquice Cole also will have roles in the Jets' sub packages. The defensive backfield is more flexible than it was in last year's AFC title game. Lowery started opposite Revis and surrendered nine receptions for 124 yards and a touchdown. Manning won't strike so hotly against Cromartie. That said, the Jets will need safeties Brodney Pool and Eric Smith to play well on the big stage. The Jets lost safety Jim Leonhard to a broken leg in early December, making Pool and Smith targets for opposing quarterbacks in the middle of the field.

Even a year later and with more weapons, the Jets still must limit the need for Mark Sanchez to win the game. In last year's playoffs, the Jets' objective was run, run and run some more, hope to get an early lead and then keep running until the clock struck 0:00. Sanchez completed just 12 passes in road victories against the Cincinnati Bengals and San Diego Chargers. Against the Colts in the AFC Championship Game, Sanchez was forced to throw because the Jets trailed in the third quarter -- and by the dreaded two scores with about nine minutes left in the fourth quarter. The Jets' front office helped their offense evolve into a team that could come from behind. They traded for Santonio Holmes and added LaDainian Tomlinson as a receiving threat out of the backfield. The Jets went from a team that ran on 58.9 percent of their plays in 2009 to one that ran 49.1 percent of the time this season. Even so, the Jets can't trade throws with Manning and the Colts. The Jets must establish themselves as the superior physical team -- which they are -- with a steady amount of Shonn Greene runs against a Colts run defense that has improved but still can be forgiving. From there, Sanchez can run play-action passes.

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