Monday, April 25, 2011

NFL Draft Preview: AFC East

Because the NFL is mired in a lockout, the upcoming draft could potentially be the last significant football event for quite some time. With the 2011 NFL Draft set to begin this Thursday, April 28th (8 P.M., ESPN), we will be analyzing two divisions each day for the next four days, looking at each team's potential needs and which direction each team might be heading with their first pick. First on the docket is the AFC East, with the North, South, and West divisions soon to follow.

Last year, the AFC East was dominated by the New England Patriots and New York Jets, and unless things change very quickly and unexpectedly, it appears those two teams will be the class of the division once again. The Miami Dolphins are stuck in a tricky rebuilding phase with a potentially combustible quarterback situation, while the Buffalo Bills find themselves in a similarly difficult situation. So, with this in mind, how will these teams address their needs in this year's draft? Hit the jump to find out.

Buffalo Bills
2010 Record: 4-12 (Missed playoffs)
Early Picks: 3rd, 34th, 68th
Team Needs: Defensive End, Linebacker, Quarterback, Tackle

The Bills find themselves in a difficult situation. Basically, their draft strategy comes down to whether or not Buffalo's front office is confident that Ryan Fitzpatrick is a viable long-term option at the quarterback position. On one hand, Fitzpatrick has put up good numbers (3000 yards, 23 TDs, 15 INTs in '10). At the same time, few people actually believe that he is a championship-caliber signal-caller. However, plenty of others believe that Fitzpatrick could thrive with better weapons around him. Steve Johnson had a breakout season at wide reciever (1,073 yards, 10 TDs), but he had fewer than 200 career receiving yards prior to that. With so many glaring needs, especially on the defensive side of the ball, Buffalo needs to figure out which direction they want to go.

The Bill's biggest needs other than quarterback lie in their defensive front. Buffalo had trouble getting off the field on defense last year, largely because of its 27th-ranked pass rush (only 27 sacks for the entire season). Both Sports Illustrated's Peter King and ESPN's Mel Kiper, Jr. have indicated that the Bills are enamored with Texas A&M linebacker Von Miller, who may just be the best overall prospect in the entire draft. The best bet with the pick, in my opinion, is Miller, because I expect Auburn quarterback Cam Newton to be off the board by the time Buffalo picks. If Newton were still available at number three, however, Buffalo would have a difficult decision on its hands. In the second and third rounds, do not be surprised to see the Bills draft one defensive and offensive lineman each in an effort to create greater overall depth.

Miami Dolphins
2010 Record:  7-9 (Missed playoffs)
Early Picks: 15th, 79th
Team Needs: Quarterback, Running Back, Guard/Center, Safety

The Dolphins appear to be in full rebuilding mode after a disappointing 2010 campaign.  According to Sports Illustrated's Peter King, management is unimpressed with incumbent quarterback Chad Henne (3,301 yards, 15 TD/19 INTs in '10), so that position is definitely a possibility with the 15th pick. Also, running back has suddenly become a position of need, with the contracts of Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams both expiring after the end of last season. Because of the labor uncertainty, the Dolphins won't know who (if either) of the two would return next season. Miami's 14th-ranked scoring defense (20.8 PPG) was adequate for most of 2010, so look for most the focus to be on the offensive side of the ball.

The first look for Miami could be running back, but with such a weak running back class, it would be hard to justify any running back being selected even close to as high as the 15th pick--unless they want to trade up for Mark Ingram, which is highly unlikely. Therefore, look for Miami to look elsewhere. If the Dolphins front office is high on any of the second-tier quarterback prospects, look for them to spend the 15th pick on one. With Cam Newton and Blaine Gabbert likely to be selected in the top 10, Miami should select someone such as Jake Locker, Ryan Mallett, or even Andy Dalton with their first round pick. With their third-round pick, the Dolphins should draft based on the best player available, because they have so many needs.

New England Patriots
2010 Record: 14-2 (Lost in Divisional Playoff)
Early Picks: 17th, 28th, 33rd, 60th, 74th, 92nd
Team Needs: Guard, Tackle, Outside Linebacker, Running Back

As a result of some shrewd trades, the Patriots have an incredible number of picks early on in the draft. And, with perhaps the NFL's best returning roster, New England finds itself in a very good position heading into the draft. Looking at their depth chart, the only real thin spots are the offensive line (depending on which veterans return and which ones are let go) and running back. But, as anyone who has watched the Patriots recently knows, running back is unlikely to be their focus early on in the draft due to their pass-heavy attack.

Coach Bill Belichick has expressed his openness to trading some of his picks, so it is unlikely that New England will actually pick twice in each of the first three rounds; instead, look for Belichick to trade the 17th pick for two lower picks, one for this year and one for next year. This would leave the Patriots with two picks close to each other, at 28 and 33. If Andy Dalton, the former Texas Christian quarterback, is still available, I would not be surprised to see Belichick to take him at 28. More realistically, however, look for the Patriots to draft based on who the best available player is at the time.  If either Mississippi State tackle Derek Sherrod or Baylor guard Danny Watkins is available, either choice would be an interesting addition to an already strong offensive line.  However, it wouldn't be surprising if, unhappy with the potential pool of running backs and offensive linemen available in the middle rounds, Belichick trades down even more to acquire picks in late rounds and/or 2012.

New York Jets 
2010 Record: 11-5 (Lost in AFC Championship)
Early Picks: 30th, 94th
Team Needs: Defensive End, Defensive Tackle, Safety, Guard, Wide Receiver

The Jets had a solid season in 2010, getting to the AFC Championship for a second straight year behind a strong defense and the consistent play of young quarterback Mark Sanchez (3,291 yards, 17 TDs/13 INTs). The Jets are short on picks early on in this year's draft, so it is vital that a big need or two is filled by their first two picks. New York could go in a few different directions with this pick, depending on what they plan to do with their pending free agents (free agents will only be able to re-sign after the lockout is over). Both starting receivers, Braylon Edwards (904 yds, 7 TDs) and Santonio Holmes (746 yds, 6 TDs in only 12 games), are unsigned, and many older players from last year's defense are currently without a contract as well.

Either Holmes or Edwards (or both) should be re-signed once the lockout is over, so it would be surprising to see the Jets draft a receiver with the 30th overall pick.  The team's defensive ends, however, are getting old--Shaun Ellis is 33--and seemed to have lost a step or two last year. The lack of pressure made shutdown corner Darrelle Revis' job that much more difficult, and the defense was just slightly more easy to maneuver around than it was the year before. As a result, look for the Jets to look for a defensive end late in the first round, possibly Ohio State's Cameron Heyward or Iowa's Adrian Clayborn if one is available.  If the Jets front office suddenly decides that they are happy with their aging defensive line, look for them to add a safety with that #30 pick.  The Green and White only have one safety under contract right now, and UCLA S Rahim Moore projects out as a late-first round selection.  DE is still the odds-on favorite, but it wouldn't be too surprising to see the Jets fortify their secondary instead.

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