2015 NFL Season Primer: AFC East

Dan Kitchen, Contributor

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As the NFL season kicks off this week, it is fun to look ahead and project what the storylines at the end of the season will be. Instead of picking who will play each other in Super Bowl L this year, this exercise will go division by division looking at the players each roster has to offer, including who could breakout or breakdown this year, who the best rookies are, and where the best rookies of next year will likely play on each team. This piece highlights the AFC East.

Buffalo Bills

Surprise Player: Robert Woods, WR

Robert Woods is a player I was higher on than most people before the 2013 NFL Draft, and I think he is in for a breakout campaign this year (or as much of one as Buffalo’s quarterbacks will allow). Recording 699 yards last season, Woods showed excellent potential, and should enter the next season ahead of Percy Harvin on the depth chart. 1,000 yards and double-digit touchdowns might be a little too optimistic given the number of weapons on the roster and the uncertain nature of the signal-callers, but Woods should notch career-highs in both receiving yards and touchdowns.

Bust: The Offense (and by Correlation, the Quarterbacks)

Without an obvious candidate for a “bust” player, I had to default to the obvious choice for the Bills, but with a twist. The offense looks like one of the league’s best: Pro Bowler LeSean McCoy and always consistent Fred Jackson at running back, and a receiving depth chart that contains explosive second-year receiver Sammy Watkins, the underrated Robert Woods, one of the fastest receivers in the game in Marquise Goodwin, and the disappointing yet still explosive Percy Harvin. But the central piece of that offense is in one of the worst situations in the entire league. The flavor of the Buffalo month is Tyrod Taylor and his 35 career pass attempts, and behind him is journeyman Matt Cassel and a player the team seems to have given up on in EJ Manuel. If any one piece can sabotage the entire offense, it’s the QB, and Buffalo is dangerously close to facing that situation.

Best Rookie: John Miller, OG

Drafted in the third round out of Louisville, Miller was brought in to immediately compete for a starting spot at guard, and it appears Miller is very much in contention for the second spot there alongside Richie Incognito. Other Buffalo rookies will get their moments to shine as well, notably Ronald Darby, who has been impressing in practice thus far. However, Darby will be facing better quarterbacks in games than he has in Buffalo (Matt Cassel & Tyrod Taylor aren’t exactly Pro Bowlers), where as Miller will have an easier transition from Buffalo’s pass rushers to other teams’. This could be a close competition between the two.

Projected 2016 First-Round Targets: Quarterback, Linebacker, Defensive Line

 

Miami Dolphins

Surprise Player: Jarvis Landry, WR

A trendy pick for a fantasy sleeper, Landry impressed as a potential slot receiver last season, catching 84 passes for 758 yards. This year, being given an increased chance to perform, Landry should go nowhere but up. Ryan Tannehill has shown improvement, and he and Landry can form a solid QB-WR duo that gives other teams headaches.

Bust: Greg Jennings or Kenny Stills, WR

My first draft had Lamar Miller slotted here, but upon further consideration, I rated the odds of either Jennings of Stills having a declining season higher than Miller. If asked to estimate the top three receivers in Miami, Jennings and Stills would be first and second, with Jarvis Landry operating as a third option. Whichever receiver is named the top target, they have their work cut out for them. Greg Jennings has been on a major downswing ever since his eight-game season in 2012, while Kenny Stills will be thrust into his biggest role yet, and even though Ryan Tannehill is improving, he is still not the passer Drew Brees is. Combining all three receivers will make a serviceable passing attack, but the cards aren’t in the deck for Jennings or Stills to have a major breakout season to become a true franchise receiver.

Best Rookie: DeVante Parker, WR

DeVante Parker makes this a clean sweep for receivers on the Miami section of this post. The team wants to work Parker onto the field his rookie season, and even though the first two sections stated how Jennings, Landry, and Stills will form the top three receivers to start the year, the Dolphins would not have drafted Parker in the first round if they intended for him to be a fourth option his entire rookie season. Jordan Phillips will not see as much action behind the monstrous Ndamukong Suh and his even more monstrous contract, and Jamil Douglas isn’t poised to make much of an impact as a backup offensive lineman, barring a serious injury.

Update: Even with Douglas being named a possible starter, the edge will remain with Parker until Douglas is firmly entrenched as the starter, and has shown improvement that ranks him above the man he is replacing, Billy Turner.

Projected 2016 First-Round Targets: Safety, Linebacker, Defensive End

 

New England Patriots

Surprise Player: Bryan Stork, C

Here is a list of players I had to disqualify because of earlier breakout season they’ve had in the last three years: Jaime Collins, Dont’a Hightower, Brandon LaFell, Chandler Jones, and Logan Ryan. The Patriots are making a run at being the deepest team in the league, and with a little more promise from young guys at quarterback and receiver, would be set for years after Tom Brady has retired. The only player on my preliminary list without a true “breakout” season, Bryan Stork went from being a fourth round pick to an eleven-game starter last season. Expect that number to be sixteen this year (barring an injury), and coupled with some quality play in the middle of the offensive line.

Update: Stork will miss part of the season with injury, but his replacement will take his place in both the offensive line and in this section. Whoever plays center for much of the season will grow, and qualifies for the spot here.

Bust: Malcolm Butler, CB

Just as with picking a surprise player, I had a list of Patriots I discounted before finally settling on Butler. Rob Ninkovich? Too consistent to pick against him. Alan Branch? May not play enough to warrant a bust label. Julian Edelman (or whichever players end up starting next to him)? As long as they get to catch passes from Tom Brady more than half the season, they’ll be fine. Butler comes with an asterisk though, because he may not end up being the full-time starter for most of the season. Assuming he ends up as a top-three corner though, he would still be remembered for that one play in some game against Seattle, and it’d take one heck of a season to live up to his expectations from that one moment. (It may not be the best reasoning for picking Butler as a bust, but there’s no obvious bust that will get lots of playing time for New England, so I had to reach a little.)

Best Rookie: Malcom Brown, DT

As mentioned earlier, the Patriots boast a ridiculously deep roster. Because of that, there are many scenarios where not a single rookie starts higher than third-string on the depth chart, first-round pick Brown included. One of the weaker positions on the team is defensive tackle, and Brown will need to beat out at least three potential starters/reserves to get on the field. The odds aren’t in favor of any rookie getting to make a big impact in New England this season, but if they are going to want to get one of them on the field, it’d be their first-rounder. Also worth mentioning is a sleeper for this award: Tre’ Jackson, who is a couple injuries or poor performances away from being right behind a starter, instead of buried behind several other players.

Projected 2016 First-Round Targets: Cornerback, Wide Receiver, Offensive Line

 

New York Jets

Surprise Player: Calvin Pryor, S

The winner by default, Pryor also has a legitimate chance to breakout this year. Everyone other starter on defense minus Quinton Coples has already had their surprise season, and letting Pryor play alongside a revised secondary that contains Darrelle Revis, Antonio Cromartie, and Marcus Gilchrist can only help him improve on his rookie season. Coples has already had a season to play alongside impact players in New York, and has yet to top 6.5 sacks in a single season. I’ll give the edge to Pryor on that one. (Note: the offense was not mentioned as having a viable candidate because their main players are either established veterans at their ceilings or in too inconsistent of a situation to imagine producing significant results.)

Bust: The offense

The Jets will be a tale of two teams this year: on defense, they brought back a group that can mesh with their younger guys and make one of the better units in the league. On offense, they lost the best of their bad situation due to the Smith-Enempkali incident, and unless Ryan Fitzpatrick can keep up his form from twelve games last season, they will be counting down the days until Geno gets back. A running back platoon of Chris Ivory, Bilal Powell, and Zac Stacy shouldn’t scare anybody, and new acquisition Brandon Marshall can’t produce like a star if his quarterbacks aren’t playing well. This season has the potential to be very long for the green and white.

Best Rookie: Leonard Williams, DL

With Sheldon Richardson suspended to start the season, first-round pick Leonard Williams will get a chance to start immediately, and every review out of camp indicates he will step in admirably. With how many impact players the Jets are fielding on defense this season, Williams can quietly make an impact on his own terms, while learning the whole time.

Projected 2016 First-Round Targets: Quarterback, Running Back, Wide Receiver

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