Coming July 8: NFC East Players to Watch
• Is the hype around the Jets justified?
A qualified yes, if only because the mix of offseason additions and holdovers from last year's run to the AFC championship game looks great on paper. We know, we know, paper championships mean nothing in the real world and the Jets will have plenty of work to do to get back to the postseason, to say nothing of the title game or the Super Bowl. But the team should be better than the one that led the Colts after 30 minutes, because the additions of Antonio Cromartie and Santonio Holmes fill huge holes, while a healthy Kris Jenkins and maturing Mark Sanchez are the equivalent of significant trade pickups.
• Can the Patriots stand up to an aerial assault?
Passing is the hot new thing in the AFC East this season, as the addition of Holmes and Brandon Marshall to the Jets and Dolphins, respectively, will mean a lot more balls in the air for two teams that lived and died by the run in 2009. The Patriots will need to gird themselves to stop these offenses a combined four times in the year to come, something that could present a problem unless they find better answers to their issues at cornerback and pass rusher. Darius Butler and Jonathan Wilhite were underwhelming across from Leigh Bodden in the secondary last year, which could open the door for first-round pick Devin McCourty as a starter. Tully Banta-Cain had 10 sacks in 2009 but no one else on the roster had more than five. Someone is going to have to step up and provide pressure if the Patriots are to repeat as division champs.
• Have we seen the last of the wildcat in Miami?
Marshall's arrival in Miami signals more than Bill Parcells's willingness to gamble on a talented player with character flaws. It also signals a significant change in the team's thought process on offense. With Chad Henne and his strong arm throwing to Marshall, the Dolphins have less need to reach into their bag of tricks to find ways to move the ball down the field. What's more, Ronnie Brown's inability to stay healthy gave Ricky Williams an extended chance last year, and Williams proved to be an even bigger beast when running out of traditional sets. The Dolphins will likely still find ways to showcase both their backs (and backup quarterback Pat White) but don't expect to see quite as much of the wildcat as in the past two seasons.
• Will the Bills' defense thrive in its new 3-4 scheme?
The change in looks for the front seven in Buffalo means a lot of position shuffling among their holdover players. Aaron Maybin and Chris Kelsey are now outside linebackers, while Marcus Stroud and John McCargo are going to play on the ends of the defensive line. Those kinds of changes usually lead to some growing pains, pains that would be exacerbated if Aaron Schobel goes through with his retirement plans instead of making the shift to linebacker. That's a lot of moving parts for a team that isn't looking like it will wow anyone with its work on the offensive side of the ball -- and that could spell big trouble in upstate New York.
• The Jets will regret letting Jay Feely leave this offseason -- all the hand-wringing about the departures of Alan Faneca, Thomas Jones and Leon Washington ignored the obvious replacements on the roster. No such replacement exists for Feely.
• The Bills will heavily scout Jake Locker and Christian Ponder -- the top two college QBs in the 2011 draft class should be of great interest for a team whose shortcomings in that area make them a likely contender for the first overall pick.
• Chan Gailey will be a one-year man in Buffalo. See above: the Bills need to do an exhaustive housecleaning.
• Ronnie Brown won't lead the Dolphins in rushing -- Williams wasn't just the healthier running back in Miami last year, he was the better one, too.
• Re-signing Vince Wilfork will prove to be the best Patriots move of the offseason. With questions at linebacker and in the secondary, the Pats couldn't afford to lose their most disruptive player.
• The Dolphins' addition of Karlos Dansby will be a disappointment. Dansby is a good player, but the Dolphins won't be better on defense because they didn't do enough to upgrade their pass rush or secondary.
• Dustin Keller will make the Pro Bowl. All the help on the outside of the Jets offense will mean lots of single coverage for a tight end who runs like a receiver.
• Tom Brady will be back with the Patriots in 2011 -- real bold one here.
• The division winner won't be the Bills ... or the Patriots.