NFL Nation: Jermaine Cunningham

Uh, oh: Ngata active for Baltimore Ravens

November, 24, 2013
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BALTIMORE -- Bad news for the New York Jets' offensive line, which struggled last week: Baltimore Ravens nose tackle Haloti Ngata, who sat out last week with a knee injury, is active and will start Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium.

This could pose problems for the Jets' interior, especially rookie left guard Brian Winters, who was awful against the Buffalo Bills.

There were no surprises among the Jets' inactive players: quarterback David Garrard, wide receiver Jeremy Kerley, running back Alex Green, linebacker Garrett McIntyre, guard Will Campbell, tackle Ben Ijalana and tackle Oday Aboushi.

Former New England Patriots linebacker Jermaine Cunningham, who signed last week, is active and will make his Jets debut.

Inactive for the Ravens are cornerback Asa Jackson, safety Omar Brown, running back Bernard Scott, center Ryan Jensen, wide receiver Deonte Thompson, linebacker John Simon and defensive tackle Brandon Williams.

Tight end Dennis Pitta (hip), who returned to practice last week, remains on the injured-reserve list.
LONDON – The San Francisco 49ers roster is about to change.

The 6-2 49ers -- who have won five straight games going into their bye week -- are poised to get much better. They have six players who are likely to come off various different injury/illness lists including linebacker Aldon Smith, receivers Mario Manningham and Michael Crabtree, cornerback Eric Wright, rookie defensive lineman Tank Carradine and rookie linebacker Nick Moody.

The 49ers will have to subtract from the 53-man roster with each activation. It will be interesting because this is a deep roster and some good, young players will be out. But that’s the trouble with having a good team. There’s no doubt the 49ers will get markedly better with the return of most of these players.

Here are some candidates to be removed from the roster: Cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha, receivers Marlon Moore and Quinton Patton (only if he is put on the injured reserve because his foot is not responding), linebacker Jermaine Cunningham, No. 3 quarterback McLeod Bethel-Thompson and defensive lineman Demarcus Dobbs.

The most likely to go are Asomugha, Moore and Cunningham. They have not had a role in the past several weeks.

Complicating matters (again, which is a positive in the big picture) is the special teams coverage units are much improved. So players like Kassim Osgood, Bubba Ventrone, Darryl Morris, Nate Stupar and Anthony Dixon will be difficult to cut even though their role is nearly all special teams. The 49ers know improved special teams make them much more dangerous and that’s difficult to tinker with.

The roster roulette will likely start to occur next week. Manningham, Wright and Carradine all must be activated by early next week.

Sharing some midday cut-down thoughts

August, 31, 2013
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Sharing non-Tim Tebow-based thoughts on some of the Patriots' roster moves today:

1a. The change at punter, with Zoltan Mesko out and rookie Ryan Allen in, has many layers. Both showed this preseason that they are deserving of punting in the NFL this season and that's why I took the unconventional approach of keeping both on a final 53-man roster projection (the idea being that maybe it would have been easier to slide Allen to the practice squad after a few weeks). Allen's upside is obvious; his leg is a bit stronger than Mesko's. But Mesko's control and directional punting seemed a notch above over the course of training camp and the preseason. However, Allen's three second-half punts on Thursday might have been the clincher, which showed his potential when it comes to control and directional punting.

Mesko
Allen
1b. Economics shouldn't have been the primary reason for the decision to go with Allen over Mesko, but it has to be a consideration. Mesko was due to earn $1.3 million in the final year of his contract. Allen has a three-year contract and is due to earn $405,000 this season.

1c. There is a trickle-down effect when it comes to the field-goal operation, as Mesko has served as the primary holder for kicker Stephen Gostkowski. Allen didn't hold at Louisiana Tech, but he's worked on the skill since joining the Patriots. Allen will likely become the primary holder, although backup quarterback Ryan Mallett could also be a consideration for the role.

1d. In 2005, the Patriots released rookie kicker Robbie Gould after an impressive camp and later regretted it when Adam Vinatieri departed in free agency the following year. I wondered how much that experience might have played a factor in this decision.

1e. Mesko goes down as one of the players who was most fun to cover. He also seemed most genuine and his farewell message to fans was most classy. One of my favorite personal memories of Mesko was how he was brought to tears after receiving the team's community service award in 2012. It meant so much to him and the emotions took over.

2. The biggest surprise has come among the reserves at defensive end, with Justin Francis, Marcus Benard and Jermaine Cunningham all being cut. They projected to the 3-4-5 spots on the depth chart. Health was likely a factor with Francis and Cunningham, as they have been sidelined. There is always the possibility for them to return if not picked up elsewhere, but an initial thought is that 2013 seventh-round pick Michael Buchanan (previous film breakdown) has impressed to the point that the coaching staff felt comfortable letting go of more experienced depth at the position. Buchanan was impressive on Thursday.

3. Tight end Michael Hoomanawanui was scheduled to earn $1.3 million, but he's agreed to reduce the salary this year with the chance to recoup some of the earnings in incentives, which helped him stick on the roster. Hoomanawanui's smarts, professionalism and dependability made an impression on the coaching staff last season. That he was the last tight end standing among the group of himself, Jake Ballard and Daniel Fells is a minor surprise.

4. The release of defensive tackle Marcus Forston was a mild surprise from this viewpoint. This could mean that rookie defensive tackle Joe Vellano is the top backup behind Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly. Vellano caught the eye early in training camp, but still didn't think he'd top Forston at this point.

5. Still waiting to hear the fate of presumed bubble players like Vellano, safety Adrian Wilson, running back Leon Washington, linebacker Jeff Tarpinian, cornerback Marquice Cole, fullback James Develin and linebacker Steve Beauharnais.

Source: DE Cunningham to be cut

August, 31, 2013
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The Patriots informed defensive end Jermaine Cunningham that he will be released, a source confirms.

Cunningham has been hurt for most of the preseason and didn't play in a game. The move is considered a minor surprise, and also reflects some of the ups and downs the team has had in the second round of the draft, as Cunningham was a second-round pick in 2010.

Tight end Rob Gronkowski and offensive tackle Sebastian Vollmer are two solid second-round picks, but the list of second-rounders that haven't panned out is quite longer, and includes receiver Chad Jackson (2006), cornerback Terrence Wheatley (2008), safety Patrick Chung (2009), defensive tackle Ron Brace (2009), cornerback Darius Butler (2009), Cunningham and cornerback Ras-I Dowling (2011).

The jury is still out on safety Tavon Wilson (2012).

At defensive end, the Patriots currently have Chandler Jones, Rob Ninkovich, Justin Francis, Michael Buchanan and Jake Bequette.

Pro Football Talk first reported the news on Cunningham.
The Patriots have informed defensive end Marcus Benard that he has been released, a source confirms.

This is a mild surprise as Benard had been playing a top backup role, while also coming onto the field in sub situations as an interior rusher.

The five-year veteran had a career-high 7.5 sacks in 2010 with the Browns before injuries derailed him the past two years. After signing with the Patriots on Jan. 24 this year, he flashed some pass-rush explosion in training camp as he seemed to be making the most of his fresh start.

With starting ends Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich entrenched atop the depth chart, Benard had been competing for a reserve role against the likes of Jermaine Cunningham, Justin Francis, Jake Bequette and Michael Buchanan. In recent weeks, Cunningham and Francis were both sidelined with injury, so the 6-foot-2, 260-pound Benard seemed like he might have had some security.

But as we've learned on an annual basis with Bill Belichick, the Patriots often have their fair share of surprises as cutdown day approaches.

Current defensive end depth chart
Jones
Ninkovich
Francis
Cunningham
Buchanan
Bequette

Rapid reaction: Patriots 25, Bucs 21

August, 16, 2013
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Rapid reaction from the New England Patriots’ preseason game against the Buccaneers, a 25-21 Patriots win:

Brady doesn’t miss a beat. If there were any questions about quarterback Tom Brady and his injured left knee, they were answered with authority. In 12 pass attempts, there was just one incompletion (on a third-down throw to receiver Danny Amendola) as he carved up the Buccaneers’ defense on the team’s first drive, an impressive 15-play, 80-yard march that included a variety of formations and personnel groupings. Before the game, Brady was fired up as he entered for warm-ups, running from one end zone to the other and giving Buccaneers defensive end Adrian Clayborn a friendly fist bump. Clayborn, of course, had the bull-rush in Wednesday’s practice that pushed Patriots left tackle Nate Solder into Brady.

PatriotsBucsTop unit on defense produces four sacks. After a preseason opener in which the pass rush wasn’t as disruptive as desired, the Patriots swarmed against the Buccaneers, with the tone set by middle linebacker Brandon Spikes on the first play as he charged downhill and steamrolled running back Doug Martin to register a sack. Spikes added a second sack on the Buccaneers’ second drive, while ends Chandler Jones (nice rush against left tackle Donald Penn in which he got low and pushed Penn back) and Rob Ninkovich added sacks. If the pass rush can perform like that during the season, the Patriots’ D could be dangerous.

Amendola’s home debut a success. Playing the same role as Wes Welker in the team’s offense, free-agent signee Danny Amendola had a Welker-type performance (7 targets, 6 catches, 71 yards, TD). Here is one indication that reflects how the Patriots view Amendola as their No. 1 target: He was the lone receiver who played only the first two series (20 snaps). All other receivers were playing into the second half.

Sudfeld’s emergence continues. Patriots free-agent tight end Zach Sudfeld started and not only has he appeared to carve out a spot on the roster, he’s in position to contribute as the team’s “move” tight end. Sudfeld was on the receiving end of a thread-the-needle two-point conversion pass from Brady, and later made a very nice 22-yard touchdown grab on a Ryan Mallett pass that was tipped before Sudfeld showed excellent concentration and came down with it. At 6-foot-7 and 260 pounds, Sudfeld has a big catch radius, runs well and currently looks like the team’s best “move” tight end (the old Aaron Hernandez role).

Injury report. There were no major injuries for the Patriots, although second-unit right tackle R.J. Mattes was knocked out of the game with a right ankle injury. Mattes is a long shot to earn a roster spot, but the Patriots have been managing a shortage along the line for most of training camp and this is another hit to be accounted for.

Tough night for Tebow. For the second week in a row, No. 3 quarterback Tim Tebow played the entire second half. It was a tough passing performance for Tebow, who fired an errant, high pass to receiver Kenbrell Thompkins early in the fourth quarter that was intercepted. Tebow also skipped a throw up the right sideline on his first pass attempt. His best success came when he was running, but there weren't many highlights when he was in the game in the second half.

Quick hits. The emergence of rookie free-agent receiver Kenbrell Thompkins continues. Thompkins played 36 first-half snaps (21 with Tom Brady in the game), compared to second-round draft choice Aaron Dobson, who had 17 first-half snaps (two with Brady). ... Defensive end Marcus Benard looks like he’s carving out a role for himself, as he was the first sub rusher to enter the game. That’s the role that Jermaine Cunningham opened the 2012 season playing. Cunningham is currently injured. ... Kickoff coverage was one downer for the Patriots, as they gave up returns of 63 and 40 yards.

Practice report: Day 3 in Philly

August, 8, 2013
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PHILADELPHIA -- The Patriots and Eagles wrapped up their week of joint practices on Thursday, conducting a light workout in helmets and shells with a focus on special teams and situational work.

It was the third joint practice of the week, an experience that both teams seemed to view as productive.

From an attendance standpoint, second-year cornerback Alfonzo Dennard left the field early with strength and conditioning coach Harold Nash. He eventually returned alongside Nash, though he did not participate in drills from that point on. It is unclear the nature of the issue he is dealing with.

The following players were not spotted during the workout: receivers Michael Jenkins and Mark Harrison, cornerback Ras-I Dowling, safety Nate Ebner, tight ends Brandon Ford and Rob Gronkowski, offensive linemen Marcus Cannon, Markus Zusevics, Tyronne Green and Kevin Haslam, and defensive linemen Jermaine Cunningham and Armond Armstead.

Kickoff is set for 7:30 p.m. EST on Friday, the first exhibition game for both teams.
Brady/BushAP Photos, US PresswireTom Brady, left, and Reggie Bush are their respective teams' most potent offensive threats.


Few predicted before the season that Sunday's meeting between the New England Patriots and Miami Dolphins would have playoff implications for both teams. But New England and Miami each has a lot at stake in this AFC East matchup.

The Patriots (8-3) are fighting for a first-round bye and possibly home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. They trail the Baltimore Ravens (9-2) and Houston Texans (10-1) in the chase for the top two seeds in the AFC with five games remaining.

Meanwhile, the surprising Dolphins (5-6) want to keep their playoff hopes alive. Miami is only one game out of the final wild-card spot behind the Pittsburgh Steelers (6-5) and Cincinnati Bengals (6-5).

Something has to give when these two rivals meet at Sun Life Stadium. Our ESPN.com experts weigh in on this matchup.

James Walker, AFC East blog: Mike, it's no surprise the Patriots are playing meaningful December games. But Miami is a total shock. I thought this would be a rebuilding year for the Dolphins with a rookie quarterback (Ryan Tannehill) and rookie head coach (Joe Philbin). But the fact that sports fans in South Florida will still be talking about the Dolphins in December -- and not the Miami Heat -- is a miracle in itself. In terms of the big picture, I think we’re seeing the beginning of a new threat developing in the AFC East. The New York Jets are no longer a threat to the Patriots, as we saw on Thanksgiving, and the Buffalo Bills never seem to have it together. But Miami is a young, up-and-coming team that should be solid in the next year or two. Sunday is a good measuring stick to see where the Dolphins stand against the best team in the division. Mike, how are the Patriots viewing this game?

Mike Reiss, ESPNBoston.com: James, the Patriots call these type of situations "hat-and-T-shirt games." Our colleague Tedy Bruschi came up with that saying because if the Patriots win, they clinch the AFC East and will have hats and T-shirts waiting for them. They have two difficult games after this one -- back-to-back home prime-timers against Houston (Dec. 10/ESPN) and San Francisco (Dec. 16/NBC) -- but I don't see them overlooking the Dolphins. South Florida has often been a challenging place for the Patriots to play. I think they respect the Dolphins, and specifically the threat that running back Reggie Bush can be and how stingy the defense has been in the red zone and on third down. Still, the Patriots have looked lethal the past two games and should be up for the task.

Walker: Miami’s front seven has been solid most of the year. But there is a huge mismatch with Patriots quarterback Tom Brady throwing against Miami’s secondary. The Dolphins are 26th against the pass and have been short on cornerback depth all season. Opponents have been picking on Miami corners Nolan Carroll, Jimmy Wilson and R.J. Stanford. The Patriots have enough weapons to spread Miami out and take advantage of these matchups. Brady is seeing the field extremely well. He has thrown 14 touchdowns and zero interceptions during New England’s five-game winning streak. It will be up to Miami’s offense and Tannehill to keep pace. Andrew Luck recently struggled against New England. Why do rookie quarterbacks often get embarrassed against Bill Belichick’s schemes?

Reiss: I'm not sure I would necessarily say that has been the case. This Patriots defense has done some great things in recent weeks, but it has also had its struggles at times. The main thing the Patriots have going for them is their amazing turnover differential. They are plus-24 -- easily the best in the NFL. But opponents have moved the ball on them at times. I would envision the Patriots’ plan to be centered around Bush. Try to take him away as both a rusher and receiver, and look to create turnovers from there.

Walker: Miami’s running game averaged 6.8 yards per carry last week against Seattle. The Dolphins are at their best then they can run and stop the run. This might be the only way for the Dolphins to beat the Patriots. Miami, in many ways, has to play defense with its offense. The Dolphins have to control the clock and reduce the number of plays for the Patriots’ offense. Miami is not the type of team that wins in shootouts. The Dolphins average only 19.2 points per game. This is a plodding, physical team. And if this game gets into the 30s, that probably means the Patriots win.

Reiss: I'd agree with that, James. It's challenging to control the tempo against the Patriots, but most of the teams that have had success in recent years did so by controlling the ball on offense. The other area that I think is important to focus on is the Dolphins' pass rush against the Patriots' offensive line. The O-line has generally been excellent for the Patriots this season, and last Thursday, they were without starting right tackle Sebastian Vollmer and didn't miss a beat. Cameron Wake can obviously be a disruptive player, so let's keep a close eye on the edges and if the Patriots can continue to protect Brady, whose name seems be generating some momentum in the MVP discussion. On the other side of the ball, the right defensive end spot bears watching. That's where the absence of rookie Chandler Jones (sidelined since injuring his ankle Nov. 18 against the Colts) and top backup Jermaine Cunningham (four-game suspension) could create a large void. Jones' status could become more clear in the coming days, and if he plays, that's a one-on-one matchup I don't want to miss -- Jones versus Dolphins left tackle Jake Long. If Jones doesn't play, can the Patriots generate enough pass rush without two of their best threats?

Walker: With huge games looming against the 49ers (8-2-1) and Texans (10-1), normally I would label this a trap game. But as you mentioned, the Patriots are not the type of team that looks ahead. They do a good job of focusing week to week and that should be more than enough to handle the Dolphins. I predict New England wins 31-17. The Dolphins don’t have enough horses to compete with the Patriots just yet. But it’s a good chance for the Dolphins to see where they are at this stage.

Reiss: The Patriots are the class of the AFC East and have been for most of the past decade. The question that interests me is which division foe -- Bills, Dolphins or Jets -- is closest to making a run at them. I pick the Dolphins because I think they have the greatest future potential at quarterback. I have always enjoyed conversations with Philbin, who grew up in Massachusetts, and believe he is the right coach for the Dolphins. He's establishing the foundation with the Dolphins and believes in fundamental football first and foremost. They are on their way. But I agree with your thoughts in this game, James, as I see the Patriots on a different level.

Thoughts on Cunningham's suspension

November, 26, 2012
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The NFL announced New England Patriots defensive end Jermaine Cunningham is suspended four games without pay for violating the NFL’s performance-enhancement drug policy. Barring an appeal, Cunningham will be out until the regular-season finale against the Miami Dolphins on Dec. 30.

Here are several thoughts on Cunningham’s suspension:
  • It is interesting to think back to how much Patriots head coach Bill Belichick raved about Cunningham’s improvement in the offseason. Entering 2012, Cunningham was a draft bust who couldn’t get on the field. But this year he showed considerable improvement and was busted for performance enhancers. Maybe those two are related. Maybe that's not the case. But it is curious now to connect the dots.
  • Cunningham’s suspension makes it more important for rookie defensive end Chandler Jones to return from his ankle injury. Jones missed his first game of the season against the New York Jets on Thanksgiving, and the Patriots didn’t miss a beat. New England’s defense played well in a 49-19 win over the Jets. But New England’s schedule will only get tougher. The Patriots will play at Miami (5-6) on Sunday, followed by games against the Houston Texans (10-1) and San Francisco 49ers (8-2-1). The Patriots need all hands on deck during this battle for playoff positioning.
  • This suspension could put Cunningham’s long-term future with the Patriots in jeopardy. He was a draft bust for most of his career and then busted for PEDs after finally showing improvement. Cunningham will return for the regular-season finale and the playoffs. But his roster spot may be one to keep an eye on in the offseason.

Eagles' Vick still doesn't get it

August, 20, 2012
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The Philadelphia Eagles' season rests on quarterback Michael Vick. All of the talent they've assembled around him will go to waste if he cannot cash it in with a healthy, productive season. Vick enters the 2012 season under more pressure than any player in the league, and much of the pressure he faces is pressure simply to stay on the field.

And yet, for the second time in two preseason games, Vick on Monday night had to leave early after suffering an injury against the Patriots. X-rays on his ribs were negative, which is the good news for the Eagles. And with 20 days left until the Eagles' regular-season opener, it's unlikely they'll subject him to further preseason game action even if he's healthy enough to play.

[+] EnlargeMichael Vick
AP Photo/Steven SenneMichael Vick ended up with a visit to the X-ray machine for the second time in two games.
But the problem here runs deeper than that, of course. The problem is that Vick is an injury-prone player and the Eagles cannot survive if he gets injured. He banged his thumb on a teammate's helmet in the preseason opener, and that turned out fine. He took a huge hit in the ribcage from Jermaine Cunningham in Monday's game and headed off for the X-ray machine again, and that seems to have turned out as well as the Eagles could have hoped. But this is a bad pace, an X-ray per game, and it's the reason you can't feel very good about picking the Eagles to win the NFC East, even if you've convinced yourself they should.

Making matters worse is that the play on which Vick got injured Monday was symptomatic of past problems that have led to past injuries. He kept the play alive longer than he should have. Evan Mathis got beaten on a block, and the rush was on Vick more quickly than it should have been. He spotted it and spun away, but rather than (a) throw the ball out of bounds when he saw the play was broken (b) fallen on the ball and taken the sack or (c) run out of bounds, he stepped back up and heaved the ball downfield as hard as he could. It was a stupid throw for two reasons. First, it could easily have been intercepted (not that such things matter in games that don't), and second, it left him open for Cunningham's hit. Had Vick rid himself of the ball at the first sign of trouble, the hit never would have happened.

Vick doesn't give up on plays. He believes himself talented enough to make something out of nothing. And throughout his career, he's encountered a fair bit of evidence to support his belief. But what Vick needs to understand is the level of responsibility he bears, and the proper way to manage that responsibility. The Eagles need him on the field more than they need him to turn one busted play into a miraculous 40-yard gain. The great quarterbacks know when to ditch the ball or take the sack. If Vick wants to be a great quarterback, he's going to have to be reliably healthy. And to do that, he's got to learn these lessons. The distressing part of the first half of the Eagles' second preseason game is that the play on which Vick got injured supports the theory that he'll never learn how to minimize his injury risk.
Perhaps no other AFC East pick in the 2012 draft was more controversial than the New England Patriots’ selection of little-known defensive back Tavon Wilson of Illinois. Wilson, New England’s second-round pick, was the 24th rated safety by Scouts Inc. and wasn’t even invited to the NFL combine.

Wilson
This was viewed as a major reach by Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, who vehemently defended the pick. But looking deeper, Belichick's track record in the second round has been questionable for the past 10 drafts.

Here’s a look at Belichick’s picks in the second round since 2003:

2011: CB Ras-I Dowling and RB Shane Vereen
2010: LB Jermaine Cunningham, TE Rob Gronkowski, LB Brandon Spikes
2009: CB Darius Butler, S Pat Chung, DT Ron Brace, OT Sebastian Vollmer
2008: CB Terrence Wheatley
2006: WR Chad Jackson
2004: DE Marquise Hill
2003: S Eugene Wilson and WR Bethel Johnson

Of this group, Gronkowski and Vollmer are definite hits. Spikes and Chung have potential but need to prove they can stay healthy for a full season

For the second round, two stud players in 14 picks (14.3 percent) is a low success rate. If you’re generous and include Chung and Spikes, that’s still only 28.5 percent.

Mike Reiss of ESPNBoston.com wrote a good column this weekend that Belichick should be trusted with the pick of Wilson. But history shows Belichick struggles in the second round, particularly with defensive backs. Butler and Wheatley were recent busts. Dowling didn't play last season and gets a chance to show what he can do this year.

Belichick may fool everyone with the Wilson pick. A player who was on no one’s radar could turn out to be a rookie contributor or starter in New England’s defense, which was ranked No. 31 last season.

But history suggests this could be another second-round whiff by Belichick. The pressure is on Wilson to change that trend.

Final Word: AFC East

September, 9, 2011
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NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 1:

[+] EnlargeC.J. Spiller
Photo by Rick Stewart/Getty ImagesRunning back C.J. Spiller could help Buffalo slow down Kansas City's pass rush.
Handling Hali: Something to watch carefully when Buffalo visits Kansas City is how the Bills handle linebacker Tamba Hali. If left alone, he will torment Bills left tackle Demetrius Bell. If Buffalo designates a tight end next to Bell to assist with Hali or assigns a running back to chip him, that leaves the rest of Buffalo’s protection scheme vulnerable against pass-rushers Justin Houston, Glenn Dorsey and Wallace Gilberry. Kansas City also has a strong secondary. I have a hard time believing that Buffalo will have much success through the air this week. One guy who could really help their cause if used properly is running back C.J. Spiller.

Inexperienced Cowboys: Dallas visits the Jets on Sunday night. This is a terrible matchup for the Cowboys’ offense. Instead of older, heavy-footed road graders up front, the Cowboys' offensive line has an influx of athletic, but very young, starters. This could pay off in time, because they should be much better equipped to pass-block and get out on the screens and draw plays that favor Felix Jones. But for now, I expect huge growing pains. Ultra-talented Cowboys first-round pick Tyron Smith will not play because of a knee injury. I expect Dallas’ protection schemes to have plenty of breakdowns. That is an awful situation against a defense coached by Rex Ryan. Compounding matters for the Cowboys are the matchups on the perimeter. Miles Austin and Dez Bryant are as good a pair of starting wideouts as you will find. But Austin isn’t 100 percent healthy, and Darrelle Revis will shut down whichever wide receiver he covers. Antonio Cromartie is a very good man-to-man cover man who thrives against bigger wide receivers like Austin and Bryant. However, it should be noted that New York’s third-down defense last season gave up too many big plays.

Test for New England: New England travels to Miami for the early "Monday Night Football" game. Although it struggled this preseason, particularly against the Lions, I still consider New England’s offensive line one of the very best. But they will be tested in a huge way on the road. In the Miami heat, the fatigue factor will favor the home team. Miami has an extremely physical and deep 3-man defensive line. Led by Cameron Wake, the Dolphins’ edge pass-rushers are a real handful for any protection scheme. New England might be without starting right tackle Sebastian Vollmer, so we might see first-round pick Nate Solder in his first action.

Pressure from Patriots: When Miami has the ball, I expect Bill Belichick to dial up a lot of front-side pressure. Chad Henne is not very mobile, and he can struggle with pressure right in his face. Jake Long returns, after missing the preseason, to man his left tackle spot. I worry about the right side of the Dolphins’ offensive line, particularly starting right tackle Marc Colombo. He should be out-manned by players such as Shaun Ellis and Jermaine Cunningham, let alone the added front-side pressure. Compounding the problem, right guard Vernon Carey has little experience at guard. Anthony Fasano is an excellent blocking tight end and will have to spend much of his time on the right side, but the Miami running backs are either small and lacking physicality (Reggie Bush) or lacking experience (Daniel Thomas) in protection.

Stopping the run: The Bills' defense was awful against the run last season, but I am betting that it improved with the drafting of Marcell Dareus and some other additions. I expect the run defense to be particularly stout up the middle, where Dareus, Kyle Williams and Nick Barnett play. However, the changes might not pay off big against the Chiefs because Jamaal Charles is such a great runner outside the tackles. I also expect Dexter McCluster’s role as a ball carrier to increase.
NFC: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South Unrestricted FAs

A look at the free-agent priorities for each AFC East team:

Buffalo Bills

1. Add new blood: For the most part, most of the Bills’ free-agents-to-be would not be big losses. Buffalo should have plenty of money to spend once free agency does finally open. Obviously, this has been a losing franchise for some time now, and transforming the roster and changing the culture of the organization should be a very good thing. The Bills did take a fine step in the right direction in the 2011 draft, taking several prospects from big-college programs with winning histories.

2. Keep Paul Posluszny: Although inside linebackers generally are not difficult to find, Posluszny is the type of guy Buffalo needs to keep within the organization. He is productive, tough and able to lead the defense on every down. Last season wasn’t his best, but Posluszny was fantastic in 2009, and I fully expect him to get back to that form, especially playing behind what should be a vastly improved young interior defensive line.

3. Eliminate needs: I list the Bills’ three greatest needs as left tackle, outside linebacker and tight end. Rome wasn’t built in a day, but if Buffalo could knock out one or two of these needs in free agency, it would go a very long way in its rebuilding process. Jared Gaither or Doug Free could potentially fill Buffalo’s left tackle position for years to come, while Matt Light could hold down the fort and provide leadership until Chris Hairston or a future draft pick is ready. An outside linebacker such as Manny Lawson, Matt Roth or Mathias Kiwanuka could also be money very well spent to pose an edge presence opposite Arthur Moats, whom I featured in my Soon to be Stars series. Zach Miller is really the only free-agent tight end who would qualify.

Top free agents: Posluszny, Donte Whitner, Drayton Florence

Miami Dolphins

1. Add running back help: Miami used the 62nd overall pick in 2011 to select Daniel Thomas, a big, bruising runner with a lot of ability. But of course, Thomas is going to be a rookie this season, and fully counting on him to carry the load and learn the pass protections would be foolish. Miami needs a backup plan. Bringing back Ronnie Brown, or more likely, Ricky Williams, wouldn’t be a terrible situation. But just adding Brown or Williams wouldn’t be enough. Snatching up Ahmad Bradshaw or DeAngelo Williams would obviously be a huge addition and would push Thomas to backup status. Even bringing in a reliable back like Joseph Addai or Jason Snelling might do the trick as Thomas develops. Another option is to add a specialty player like Darren Sproles.

2. Find competition for Chad Henne: Personally, I am not ready to write off Henne. I believe in the approach that Miami has taken this offseason. The Dolphins have surrounded him with pieces to make his life much easier. But still, adding a veteran signal-caller seems like a must at this point. Suitable options include Marc Bulger, Donovan McNabb or even Vince Young, who is soon to be released by Tennessee. If quarterback remains a problem after this year, then Miami needs to sell the farm to draft its next franchise quarterback. But in the meantime, this would be my approach.

3. Make a splash on D: To me, the Dolphins’ three biggest needs are quarterback, running back and then free safety. Even if Miami didn’t add a defender of any sort in free agency, I would rank its 2011 defense among the best in the NFL. I am that high on this group. But what if the Dolphins could land a real talent at free safety? Imagine the possibilities. This is a deep free-agent class of safeties. I would love to see the Dolphins sign someone like Michael Huff or especially Eric Weddle. Even adding a solid player with upside like Brodney Pool would be helpful here.

Top free agents: Ronnie Brown, Ricky Williams, Tony McDaniel, Richie Incognito, Tyler Thigpen

New England Patriots

1. Lock up Logan Mankins: Because the Patriots designated Mankins their franchise player, I didn’t include him among their top free agents. But New England does have to get him locked up. Mankins might just be the best guard in all of football. With Matt Light potentially leaving town, the Patriots cannot afford additional unrest along their offensive line. Mankins would be the ideal player to line up next to Nate Solder to help the rookie’s transition to the NFL.

2. Find a pass-rusher: I see outside linebacker as New England’s greatest need, followed distantly by wide receiver and defensive end. Although I expect Jermaine Cunningham to develop quickly into a solid starter, adding one more edge player who can be disruptive on throwing downs is something that still needs to be addressed after the team curiously ignored it in the draft. The name I like best for the Patriots here is Mathias Kiwanuka, if his health checks out. He is smart, versatile and has some experience at linebacker. Two other players who fit the bill are Matt Roth and Manny Lawson.

3. Acquire a deep threat: I am not as sold as most that New England must add a wide receiver who can stretch the field. But this is a tremendous organization, and the Pats just don’t have many needs, so picking up such a luxury player could be the difference between a Super Bowl championship or another early exit in the postseason. My favorite fit for the Patriots is Braylon Edwards. Edwards is immensely talented, and if submersed in this environment with Tom Brady throwing him the ball, he could quickly rank among the top wideouts in all of football.

Top free agents: Matt Light, Gerard Warren

New York Jets

1. Make critical decisions on their own players: The Jets have a lot of free agents, and they are one of the teams in the league with the least amount of money to spend as it stands today. New York has come very close to its goal the past couple of seasons, but this free-agency period is absolutely critical to staying among the best teams in the NFL.

2. Address wide receiver: Considering who is up for free agency, wide receiver has to be the biggest worry for the Jets right now. I greatly respect Braylon Edwards’ abilities, but Santonio Holmes is just the better player right now. In fact, I see Holmes as a top-10 wide receiver. He is incredible in the clutch. Mark Sanchez needs quality options to throw to at this point of his young career. If the Jets brought back Holmes, increased TE Dustin Keller's role and also found a bargain at wide receiver late in free agency (maybe Randy Moss or Chad Ochocinco), then I think they would be OK.

3. Don’t forget about the trenches: The Jets are a physical team that is strong on both lines of scrimmage. Two of their starting offensive line spots are uncertain at this point. And although they drafted Muhammad Wilkerson and Kendrick Ellis, rookie defensive linemen rarely make a major impact -- especially in a 3-4. Shaun Ellis is probably going to be playing elsewhere, and New York doesn’t have a high-end outside linebacker. So there are concerns up front. The Jets will have to sign some cheaper veteran options -- probably to one-year contracts -- to shore things up.

Top free agents: Santonio Holmes, Braylon Edwards, Shaun Ellis, Antonio Cromartie, Brodney Pool, Brad Smith

Scouts Inc. watches games, breaks down film and studies football from all angles for ESPN.com. Follow Matt Williamson on Twitter @WilliamsonNFL.

Patriots back-to-work FYI

July, 25, 2011
7/25/11
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NFC: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South Unrestricted FAs

Readiness factor: The Patriots' organization might have the NFL's most established infrastructure. Players dutifully follow Bill Belichick's scripted, proven routines. Leadership from players such as Tom Brady, Wes Welker, Logan Mankins, Matt Light (if he returns) and Vince Wilfork will help the Patriots galvanize more speedily than most clubs.

Biggest challenge: The Patriots need to manufacture a pass rush. It will be interesting to see whether Belichick pursues assistance through free agency or sticks with the youngsters on his roster. The Patriots tied for 14th in sacks last season with 36. Starting outside linebackers Tully Banta-Cain, Rob Ninkovich and Jermaine Cunningham combined for just 10 sacks and 26 quarterback hits.

Backfield in motion: The Patriots had an entertaining tandem with BenJarvus Green-Ellis pounding out the carries (1,008 yards and 13 touchdowns) and Danny Woodhead electrifying fans as a combo runner-receiver (926 yards from scrimmage and six TDs) last season. But the rest of the backfield depth chart could be erased (see below), and the DanJarvus Green-Woodhead attack probably won't handle as much responsibility. The Patriots drafted running backs Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley back-to-back in the second round.

Key players without contracts for 2011: Mankins' contract has expired, but the Patriots placed the franchise tag on him. Light, running backs Kevin Faulk, Sammy Morris and Fred Taylor and safety Brandon McGowan are up in the air.

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.

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