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2013 NFL Preview: AFC East
By Matt Horkman

Buffalo Bills

Key Games -- Week 4 vs. Ravens, Week 6 vs. Bengals, Week 7 at Dolphins, Week 10 at Steelers, & Week 17 at Patriots

Breakout Player -- The Bills have a plethora of defensive lineman with former No. 2 overall pick Marcell Dareus, consistent veteran Kyle Williams, and the talented Mario Williams. Overlooked, however, is fourth-year defensive lineman Alex Carrington. He didn’t start a game in ‘12, but he’s made a smooth transition to new defensive coordinator Mike Pettine’s scheme. Because of his improved pass rush, Carrington could make a big impact on one of the NFL’s best front lines. 

Rookie Impact -- As a first-year head coach, Doug Marrone’s first priority was identifying a quarterback he could mold into a franchise player. For Marrone, Florida State quarterback E.J. Manuel is that player. There will be bumps ahead for the rookie signal caller (he recently injured his knee), but the combination of a short passing game along with dynamic scrambling ability, should allow Manuel to contend for offensive rookie of the year. In addition to Manuel, Buffalo invested a second-round pick in Robert Woods, who quickly cemented himself as the team’s starting receiver opposite of veteran Steve Johnson.

Fantasy Stud -- After accounting for 1,600-plus total yards, Spiller enters ‘13 as a consensus RB1. Buffalo coaches have spoken publicly about their desire to build the offense around the fourth-year back’s abilities. By the end of the year, Spiller’s production should compare favorably with the likes of Jamaal Charles, Marshawn Lynch, and Ray Rice.

Prediction -- Last year’s version of Buffalo lacked an identity, but the 2013 version of the Bills will not share a similar problem. Led by Manuel and Spiller, they’re going to wear down opponents with an explosive running attack. Their hybrid defense prides itself on confusing opponents and forcing quarterback’s into making poor decisions, where Pro Bowl safety Jairus Byrd will look to take advantage. Many were picking Buffalo as the AFC’s surprise team in 2012. They failed to live up to those expectations leaving the bandwagon nearly empty. By the off-season, though, some may hope back on, as 2013 will turn out as a big stepping-stone year for Buffalo.

7-9

Miami Dolphins

Key Games -- Week 2 at Colts, Week 7 vs. Bills, Week 8 at Patriots, Week 11 vs. Chargers, & Week 14 at Steelers

Breakout Player -- The most obvious candidates are Ryan Tannehill and Lamar Miller, but the latter hasn’t put enough separation between himself and Daniel Thomas, and Tannehill may still be a year away. The outside-the-box candidate is defensive end Olivier Vernon. He won the starting job over rookie Dion Jordan because the latter has missed too many practices. Vernon was dominating in one-on-one drills during camp, and with ideal versatility, he could find himself making a larger impact than Jordan.

Rookie Impact -- Expectations were second-round cornerback Jamar Taylor would emerge out of training camp as a starter. That won’t happen, thanks to a sports hernia that caused him to miss sometime. Instead, third-round corner Will Davis has taken advantage of the reps. Davis is liable to allow a big play or two, and that may relegate him to nickel duties, but he’s shown ball-hawking capabilities throughout camp. That’ll be a major boon to Miami’s defense.

Fantasy Stud -- By fantasy standards, Wallace was disappointing in 2012. He did score eight touchdowns, but his 836 receiving yards was well below his two-year average of 1,225 from 2010 and 2011. The Dolphins are going to place a bigger emphasis on the pass this season, and as the team’s No. 1 wide receiver, Wallace’s production should have him finishing as a top 20 receiver under standard rules.

Prediction -- The Dolphins made a lot of noise in March causing many to declare them winner‘s of the off-season. When has winning the off-season ever worked? Miami has too many holes and it starts with their offensive line. Their system centers on the pass, so keeping Tannehill upright is vital to their success. They let their best left tackle (Jake Long) walk this off-season and replaced him with Jonathan Martin, who struggled early in training camp. The defense is also counting on Dion Jordan to make an impact, but the recent successes of San Francisco’s Aldon Smith and Denver’s Von Miller, has many forgetting that rookie pass rushers seldom make an impact. The Dolphins overachieved by finishing 7-9 a year ago, and while I do believe they’re better than my predicated record suggests, Tannehill and the defense remains a year away from pushing the team into the playoffs.

5-11

New England Patriots

Key Games -- Week 5 at Bengals, Week 9 vs. Steelers, Week 12 vs. Broncos, Week 13 at Texans, & Week 16 at Ravens

Breakout Player -- Chandler Jones started his rookie campaign well. He had five sacks in his first six games, but an injury slowed him down during the second half of the season. The Patriots are expecting Jones to take a major step forward, especially as he develops a better pass rushing repertoire. With excellent size and athleticism, look for Bill Belichick to create mismatches by moving him around.

Rookie Impact -- If there’s an unlikely hero in 2013, it’ll be receiver Kenbrell Thompkins. The undrafted rookie has outperformed second-round pick Aaron Dobson and is currently slotted to start opposite of Danny Amendola.

Fantasy Stud -- Over the last three seasons, Brady’s touchdown pass to interception ratio is better than four to one. Only Aaron Rodgers rivals his ability to protect the ball. The off-season wasn’t good to Brady, though, as he saTom Bradyw much of his receiving corps from the previous season leave because of one reason or another. As a result, he’s no longer penciled in for the 35-plus touchdowns and 4,500-plus passing yards that you’d come to expect. Look for his production to dip, resembling his ’09 output of 28 touchdowns and just over 4,300 yards.

Prediction -- It was a tumultuous off-season for New England. The team obviously had to part ways with Aaron Hernandez because of his off-field situation, but they failed to bring back Wes Welker, and Rob Gronkowski hasn’t been healthy all off-season. Many expect the Patriots to just plug in the next guy and chug along, but none of their tight ends is capable of replacing Gronkowski or Hernandez. Danny Amendola, who is Welker’s replacement, has missed 22 games in his four-year career. The defense, while improving, remains a far cry from what it was during early 2000 dynasty years. Despite their misgivings, the Patriots play in the lowly AFC East, which is arguably the worst division in football. They’ll win the division, but a third consecutive trip to the AFC championship is not happening.

10-6

N.Y. Jets

Key Games -- Week 2 at Patriots, Week 3 vs. Bills, Week 6 vs. Steelers, Week 7 vs. Patriots, & Week 13 vs. Dolphins

Breakout Player -- For whatever reason, Rex Ryan came to the defense of inside linebacker Demario Davis. Ryan assumed that Davis had already achieved the bust label after only one season of backing up Bart Scott. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Ryan’s defense of Davis suggests he has big plans for the second-year player, who offers the kind of athleticism that usually fares well in his scheme. 

Rookie Impact -- Expected to start at cornerback, Dee Milliner faces the pressure of replacing one of the best players at his position in Darrelle Revis. An inconsistent preseason may cause worry, but he has the size and coverage skills to thrive in Ryan’s system. His main obstacle might be the mental aspect of the game, as the media is sure to draw comparisons (both good and bad) to his predecessor.

Fantasy Stud -- There’s not a lot of fantasy excitement surrounding the Jets’ offense, especially concerning their passing attack. However, in New Orleans, running back Chris Ivory flashed starter’s ability by averaging 5.1 yards per carry on 256 attempts. His production prompted the Jets to trade for the fourth-year running back. He’ll have to overcome defenses stacking the line of scrimmage, but he should receive enough touches to emerge as a backend RB2.

Prediction -- While there are some young players to get excited about on defense, the Jets enter ‘13 with one of the worst offenses in football. Mark Sanchez has definitely achieved bust label and the team may force Geno Smith into playing before he’s ready. The receiving corps is in shambles, so whichever quarterback is under center won’t get much help from his skill players. The defense is good enough to keep them competitive in about half their games, but the Jets have the look of an organization ready to implode. Rex Ryan is a terrific defensive mind, who fits better as a defensive coordinator than a head coach. That’s probably what he'll do in 2014, as it’s unlikely he’ll survive the coming storm.

2-14

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