NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS
One thing you can say about the Patriots is that they are stockpiling talents on their roster unlike any other team in the league right now. The term of the rich getting richer certainly applies to them.
Tom Brady returns after a major knee injury early in 2008. It is an injury that usually takes 18 months to get close to all the way back from, but New England is gambling Brady will continue to exceed all others and their expectations. In fact, they are so confidant in Brady, they traded Matt Cassel away. Cassel started for the injured Brady last year, and performed better than expected. New England has Kevin O'Connell returning for his second season, and also picked up Andrew Walter. Walter was a former starter in Oakland who was desired by many teams the last few years.
The running game is a group of backs who figure to share the ball over the course of the year. Fred Taylor, Sammy Morris, Laurence Maloney, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, and Kevin Faulk all do different things when they have the ball, and New England will try to use this to their advantage. This versatility and depth should keep all of the running backs fresh, since none are expected to carry the load primarily.
Randy Moss and Wes Welker are the primary receivers of the Patriots. Moss is the guy who can hit the home run at any time, while Welker works the underneath routes. New England recently picked up veterans Joey Galloway and Greg Lewis to add much needed depth. One player to watch is rookie Julian Edelman, a quarterback in college. Edelman is very athletic, albeit injury prone. The possibility of using him in the single wing is plausible if he makes the team.
The tight end position received an offseason upgrade in preparations for the possibility of Ben Watson's departure at the end of the year. They picked up veterans Chris Baker and Alex Smith, both who have experience as starters.
The offensive line is deep and sound. New England went out and drafted a few more players to learn from their veterans. Led by veteran Matt Light, the group is equally good in the running or passing game. Factor in the young players learning, and the future appears as bright as the present.
Defense is where head coach Bill Belichick excels, and he has built up an impressive group of defenders. The defensive line is maybe one of the deepest in the AFC. Led by Vince Woolfork, Ty Warren, and Richard Seymour, the Patriots added pass rushing defensive end Derrick Burgess and drafted defensive tackle Ron Brace to help Jarvis Green add impressive depth. This is the unit that makes the linebackers look good.
Tedy Bruschi is the leader of a linebacking unit that is very, very deep. Adalius Thomas, Pierre Woods, Vinny Ciuciu, and Eric Alexander are all veterans looking to help the team. Jarod Mayo is coming off of an impressive 2008 rookie season, while Shawn Crable's rookie year was washed away by injury. Tully Banta-Cain excels on special teams, while second year player Gary Guyton hopes to stick as well. Paris Lenon was an excellent pick up in the offseason, and Tyrone McKenzie is a fluid tackling machine that was drafted in the third round this year. There will be a real battle in training camp for jobs amongst this deep group.
The secondary is an interesting group. Veterans Shawn Springs and Leigh Bodden are slated to start at cornerback, with youngsters Terrance Wheatley, Darius Butler, and Jonathan Wilhite providing depth. Brandon Merriweather is penned in as the starting strong safety, but he has the ability to play free safety. James Sanders is the starting free safety, but rookie strong safety Patrick Chung could soon push Merriweather over into that spot. If Springs can stay healthy, it gives guys like Wheatley and Butler another year to mature and learn. Chung's development could provide a real boost to this unit, because of his play making abilities.
New England is a team full of specialists, and this fits in perfectly with today's NFL. It is becoming more of a rare occurrence to see a player on the field for every down these days. With the Patriots loaded with veterans, this could be important as far as keeping players fresh and healthy deep into the year. This edge is what the Patriots are hoping is what pushes them back on top of the league when the 2009 season concludes.
Buffalo took a step backwards in 2008, after showing promise the season before. This is the year the Bills must progress, or Dick Jauron could very well lose his head coaching job.
The offense has a chance to be very effective, even with their starting running back Marshawn Lynch suspended for the first three games of the season. The depth behind Lynch consists of Fred Jackson, Xavier Omon, and Dominic Rhodes.
Quarterback Trent Edwards had an injury filled 2008 season, and was not consistent. He has shown glimpses of being very good, and this might be the season that will be most telling in the direction he is headed. He will have plenty of weapons at his disposal.
One of those weapons is the enigmatic wide receiver Terrell Owens. Owens was signed by the Bills after he was released by the Dallas Cowboys. He has athletic talent, but his main issue has been his propensity to draw negative attention to himself gleefully. Owens has divided locker rooms, and caused his teams victories with his destructive behavior. Now nearing the end of his career, the hope is that Owens keeps quiet and just plays football in hopes of finishing his career strong.
Across from him at WR is the underrated Lee Evans, a receiver who has the ability to stretch the seam. Evans might be the most important Bill on offense, because none of the other players have his home run capability.
The other receivers are a mix of slot guys and youngsters. Josh Reed is a consistent possession type who works the slot real well. Roscoe Parrish is a top flight punt returner, and has had moments working the slot for Buffalo. James Hardy was the Bills second round draft choice last season, but has been buried deep on the depth chart. Steve Johnson was drafted in the seventh round last year, but appears to have passed Hardy on the depth chart.
The tight end position is rather intriguing. Derek Shouman is the blocker of the group, but they have two young guys who excel at catching the ball. Derek Fine was drafted in the fourth round last year, and started in five of the ten games he played. Shawn Nelson is a rookie just drafted in the fourth round this year. He is very athletic, and has the ability to get deep. This trio gives Buffalo the ability to be flexible in many offensive sets.
The Bills offensive line has been very good the past few seasons, and many hope for them to continue to be even after trading All-Pro Jason Peters. Langston Walker moves into Peters slot, and has shown the ability to play the position in the past. Buffalo also lost starting guard Derrick Dockery and starting center Duke Preston after 2008.
Buffalo attacked the 2009 draft with the want to fill slots. They used their second pick in the first round on center Eric Wood. They then drafted Andy Levitre in the second round, the first guard drafted. Both are expected to start alongside Walker and Brad Butler. It will be interesting to see if Wood plays center or guard, because the Bills signed the versatile Geoff Hangartner to a big free agent contract after 2008. Hangartner can play center or guard, as can veteran Seth McKinney. The Bills offensive line coaches, Sean Kugler and Ray Brown, will have quite a task sifting this out to a cohesive unit.
If the offense didn't have enough exciting possibilities, the defense has created a unit that has Bills fans excited. They feature a defensive line that is full of possibilities. It is a veteran group that has had troubles staying healthy. If they can be that, it will help the back seven.
The secondary features quite a few exciting players. Terrence McGee and Leodis McKelvin are very athletic cornerbacks who also excel at returning kickoffs. They are backed up by veterans Drayton Florence and Ashton Youboty, who are solid players in their own right. Donte Whitner is the starting free safety who has assumed the leadership role of the group, and relishes supporting the run defense. This is the group that could carry Buffalo into the playoffs.
The linebackers need to improve. Veterans Keith Ellison and Kawika Mitchell start on the outside. Both are decent all around types, but neither are considered game changers. Aaron Maybin was the Bills first draft choice in 2009, and is very raw. He is also supremely athletic, and could see time as an OLB and DE in certain situations. Paul Posluszny is the starting MLB looking to improve upon his 110 tackle total in 2008. If this unit does not step up, it will be a problem coming down the stretch run of the season.
One thing that Buffalo does really well is play special teams. Bobby April is the coach, and his unit has won several games for Buffalo over the past many years. Parrish, McKelvin, and McGee are explosive returners. Rian Lindell is a solid kicker who has sealed many victories for the Bills late in games. Expect more of the same in 2009.
You can call them the Buffalo Bills, the Toronto Bills, or the Buffronto Bills, but you very well could be calling them a playoff team this year. Dick Jauron, his family, and coaching staff is praying this is so.
NEW YORK JETS
If your a fan of the Jets, you have to be pleased with the pedal to the metal approach the team has taken lately. They went out and hired a head coach who embodies this philosophy in Rex Ryan. Rex, much like his legendary father Buddy, is a defensive oriented coach who preaches constant pressure in all directions.
One of the Jets first moves to kick off the Ryan era was to be aggressive in the 2009 NFL Draft. They traded up to get quarterback Mark Sanchez, giving up three players and two draft choices. The Jets are hoping Sanchez can be the quarterback the team has sought since the days of Ken O'Brien at the least. He is expected to battle Kellen Clemens for the starting job.
One offensive strength the Jets have is their running attack. Thomas Jones is in his last year with the team, and should be playing hard for a contract next year. Leon Washington is a tiny back who excels on special teams. He is also in his contract year. Both will be pushed by rookie Shonn Greene, a compact runner who is best between the tackles. This is a three headed monster that could wear teams down late in the game.
The starters on the offensive line are sound, but there is not much depth behind them. A few injuries to this unit could spell doom for the Jets 2009 hopes. They are especially good in the running game, and are helped by fullback Tony Richardson. Richardson has long been one of the better blocking backs in the NFL.
The receiving game may have as many questions as the quarterback situation. Jerricho Cotchery is the most proven receiver, and he has had moments of inconsistency. Chansi Stuckey is expected to start at the other spot, and it remains to be seen how he handles the duties full time. Neither are speed merchants, so the Jets are hoping David Clowney will be the home run threat. Clowney is raw and inexperienced, but might be the fastest receiver on the team. Other guys to look at in camp are veteran Aundrae Allison, Marcus Henry, Paul Raymond, and the versatile Brad Smith.
Tight End Dustin Keller could be the Jets best threat in the passing game. Keller is fast and athletic. His health is paramount, now that Alex Smith has left for Tampa Bay. All that remains on the roster behind Keller is three unproven rookies.
Defense is where the Jets season will be made or lost. Ryan has a lot of tools to work with, and the possibilities are endless. The biggest strength of the defense might be in the secondary.
The Jets starting tandem at cornerback might be the best in the league. Darrelle Revis and Lito Sheppard are both excellent players. Their backups are Dwight Lowery and Donald Strickland, both very good players in their own right. The Jets appear set when opponents go to multiple WR sets.
Kerry Rhodes and Jim Leonhard are the starting safeties, but there is a chance rookie Emanuel Cook could push for playing time.
Linebacker has some depth behind a starting unit that could create havoc on the NFL in 2009. Led by David Harris and Bart Scott in the middle, the Jets are hoping the trio of Calvin Pace, Vernon Gholston, and Bryan Thomas crash teams off the edges with abandon and success.
The defensive line is a group of run stuffers, so it is vital that the linebackers are able to penetrate and create the pressure. With the solid group of cornerbacks, Ryan can afford to gamble often.
The New York media will hype the quarterback, no matter how little of importance the position is to the teams game plan and success. Look at the team they share their stadium with as an example.
The real key to the Jets hopes in 2009 will be their ability to control the clock, and dominate on defense. A formula Rex saw work in Chicago when his dad won a Super Bowl, and when Rex won a Super Bowl when he was the defensive line coach in Baltimore. He now hopes his Jets defense can get him another ring.
Bill Parcells continues to build something in Miami, but there is a question if they can succeed with mirrors again. The single wing offense, now re-dubbed "Wildcat", gave Miami a nice return from the NFL cellar last year. The offense, though easy to defender if if opponents stay within their containment responsibilities, takes advantage of defenses with poor fundamentals.
Expect more of the same as Miami continues to gain experience in 2009. The offense is still led by quarterback Chad Pennington, though second year quarterback Chad Henne might not be far away from replacing him. Rookie Pat White is very athletic, and might be seen running the "Wildcat" several times this year. White also might be used as a receiver.
Miami's main offensive attack comes from the running game. Led by Ronnie Brown, it had proven to be effective. Ricky Williams provided a nice change of pace last year, and the effectiveness of this duo is critical to the Dolphins success.
The offensive line is young and promising. Offensive tackle Jake Long showed why the Dolphins selected him as the first player in the draft in 2008. His bookend is Vernon Carey, who is a seasoned veteran. Jake Groves was brought in via free agency to start at center, and is considered one of the better centers in the AFC. The guard situation is intriguing. Veteran Justin Smiley mans one starting spot, while second year players Shawn Murphy and Donald Thomas will battle Andy Alleman, a third year player, for the other starting job. This group will decide the fate of the team.
The receivers are a young group still learning the game. Led by tight end Anthony Fasano and wide receiver Davone Bess, Miami is still looking for more pass catchers. Ted Ginn, Brian Hartline, Patrick Turner, and Greg Camarillo will all battle for playing time. Ginn also serves as the Dolphins kickoff return specialist, while Bess returns punts.
The defense carried Miami to a surprising 2008 season, and this young group expects to be even better in 2009. Linebacker Joey Porter got most of the press, but that mainly came from his propensity of running his mouth without thought. Porter did have a nice season rushing the passer, but his success was because of the improved play of the defensive line.
Parcells has built a deep unit for the defensive line. Led by young and promising defensive ends Kendall Langford and Phillip Merling, the unit rotates six deep every Sunday. Several of the players are versatile enough to line up all over the line of scrimmage as well.
The linebackers are led by Porter, and it is a deep unit. One of the most interesting moves the Dolphins made recently was re-acquiring Jason Taylor. Taylor is one of the best defensive ends in Dolphins history, but he is now slated to play SLB.
The secondary might end up being the story of the Dolphins defense in 2009. They drafted cornerback Vontae Davis in the first round, and cornerback Sean Smith in the second round of the 2009 draft. Both will battle incumbents Eric Green and Will Allen for playing time. Miami also picked up free safety Gibril Wilson, after he had a disastrous season in Oakland last season. If this unit falters, Miami could be in for a long season ahead.
The special teams found a nice surprise in kicker Dan Carpenter in his rookie 2008 campaign. Brandon Fields was also excellent as their punter. Both kickers were solid last year, but Miami could improve on their return game.
The Dolphins aren't going to sneak up on anyone this year, so it will be interesting to see how they handle the new founded attention their opponents will give them. Even if Miami doesn't repeat last seasons success, it is clear Bill Parcells has them on the right path.