Wild Pitches - 5/25/2013

by Hal Bent

I know I'm in the middle of the baseball season, the NBA playoffs, and the NHL playoffs, but for some reason I just want to write about football.  Go figure.  Let's see what the competition is up to as the off-season activities start and we turn to see what the teams in the AFC East bring to try to compete against New England this season.

Another off-season, another year with New York Jets drama, head-scratching moves by the Buffalo Bills, and the Miami Dolphins going hog-wild in free-agency trying to "win the off-season" and buy their way into competing with the New England Patriots. The Patriots have been on a run equaled in the modern era only by Bill Walsh's San Francisco 49ers, with each of their rivals in the AFC East having made runs at the Bill Belichick led Patriots teams over the past decade.

New York Jets:
The Jets made their usual headlines for all the wrong reasons yet again this off-season.  Still lacking offensive play-makers, the Jets continued to make moves that defied logic.  With the arrest of their premier free-agent signing, running back Mike Goodson, last week for drug and weapons charges the Jets are again being ridiculed for their ridiculous front office and coaching moves.  Goodson had a list of issues as long as the dollar signs on his contract, but the Jets seemingly brought him in without a background check.  Their other big free agent signing, quarterback David Garrard, did not make it to training camp before retiring due to his knee injury. Do the Jets perform physicals and background checks or just throw darts at free agent lists?

Add in that the Jets are still dealing with quarterback Mark Sanchez possibly at quarterback, even with Garrard's retirement and their release of Tim Tebow after one year of the failed experiment.  The Jets took another lightning-rod with their pick of quarterback Geno Smith in the 2nd round of the the 2013 NFL Draft.  In addition, they traded their only All-Pro talent, cornerback Darelle Revis, and drafted his replacement, Dee Milliner, in the first round.  Revis is coming off major-knee surgery.  Milliner is coming off a college career marred with 5 surgeries. Nice to see the Jets finally have a player to match-up with the Patriots depth on injured reserve by taking their own Ras-I Dowling. 

The Jets used their second 1st round pick on yet another defensive tackle, Sheldon Richardson. This was to try to replace their best defensive tackles, Mike DeVito, who left in free agency to escape to Kansas City and Sione Po'uha, one year after they gave him $9.5 million guaranteed.  So the Jets maintained the status quo: a defense slowly eroding and an offense with few play-makers or weapons and a gaping hole at quarterback.  Not exactly a great off-season.  

Buffalo Bills:
Speaking of strange quarterback moves, the Bills checked in by grabbing quarterback EJ Manuel with the 16th overall pick.  As Manuel develops, the Bills have...Kevin Kolb? Tarvaris Jackson? At least they have some young receivers to throw to, as the Bills grabbed slow-footed USC receiver Robert Woods and undersized but speedy Texas receiver Marquise Goodwin. Goodwin, as Longhorn fans are familiar with, had only one flaw: he drops the ball...ALL THE TIME. Well, maybe Woods can run-block for CJ Spiller and Goodwin can return punts.  Of course, the Bills still need help for Stevie Johnson at wide receiver. Johnson, of course, tweaked his back during off-season workouts.  Many in New England believe it was from him putting his foot in his mouth, tweeting out a week before the Marathon Bombing in Boston:

@StevieJohnson13: “War is nothing to be played with. I apologize North Korea…….but if y’all do bomb 1st… Bomb Foxboro, Mass. Sincerely, #BillsMafia”
The Bills had a decent defense last season, but it took a hit this off-season as they released linebacker Nick Barnett, safety George Wilson, and cornerback Terrence McGee.  THey did keep safety Jairus Byrd and cornerback Leodis McKelvin, and also added linebackers Manny Lawson (free agent) and Jerry Hughes (trade with Indianapolis). Again, like the Jets, the Bills are not going to challenge New England in 2013 and are building for the future putting their hopes for the 2014 and beyond on a rookie quarterback.

Miami Dolphins:

The Dolphins surprised last season behind rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who had an excellent rookie season in the shadow of fellow 1st round picks Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III.  This season, the Dolphins turned their mountain of cap space into an off-season free for all, as they signed every free agent under the sun, it seemed (other than running back Reggie Bush, who they let walk). 

They started by resigning a trio of contributors prior to free agency, keeping wide receiver Brian Hartline, back-up quarterback Matt Moore, and safety Chris Clemons.  Then they splurged on both sides of the ball, signing premier free agent wide receiver Mike Wallace away from the Steelers, linebacker Dannell Ellerbe from the Ravens, linebacker Philip Wheeler from Oakland, tight end Dustin Keller from the Jets, and wide receiver Brandon Gibson from the Rams.  Not done after the first few days of free agency, the Dolphins franchised defensive tackle Randy Starks, and then went bargain shopping after the initial rush of big contracts. The Dolphins netted two offensive linemen on the cheap, guard Lance Louis (from the Bears) and tackle Tyson Clabo (from the Falcons).  They added defensive lineman Vaughn Martin from the Chargers, and got depth for the secondary in cornerbacks Brent Grimes (also from the Falcons) and Patrick Scales (raiding the Ravens again).  Whew! 

I hate to say it, but the Dolphins got some really good pieces in free agency, and got great value for their dollar in Clabo and Grimes. Their draft raised some eyebrows, as Dion Jordan, defensive end from Oregon, was a bit of surprise. He will be charged with chasing Tom Brady, but is one of those hit-or-miss one-dimensional pass rushers.  They grabbed cornerbacks Jamar Taylor in the second round and Will Davis in the third, as they desperately needed help in the secondary.

The Dolphins will be the main competition in the AFC East for the Patriots. Remember, the Dolphins are counting on a trio of young, unproven backs to try and replace Reggie Bush, who was their entire offense last year. They swapped Anthony Fasano for Dustin Keller, who is injured more often than naught.  The Steelers let Mike Wallace walk for a reason, and history is hardly filled with former Steelers who thrive outside of Pittsburgh. The Dolphins went crazy adding linebackers, which was a position of strength last season, because they released Karlos Dansby and Kevin Burnett.  The secondary is still a question mark. As good a signing Tyson Clabo was, it was a necessity due to losing their best offensive lineman, Jake Long.  The Dolphins season really revolves around quarterback Ryan Tannehill taking a big step forward in  2013.  Any slippage at quarterback could lead to a long, frustrating season and general manager Jeff Ireland's head on the chopping block.  Remember, the Bills "won" the free agency battle last year and all they got in return was enough losses to earn the #8 overall pick (which, of course, they traded). 

The New England Patriots may not go 6-0 against the AFC East in 2013 (like they did last year), but their competitors in the AFC East are an intriguing mix for sure.  With the Jets and Bills in the first two weeks of the season, the Patriots will be tested immediately within the division.  Miami does not come to Foxboro, MA until week eight, and then the Patriots arrive in South Florida in week 15 in what could be an intriguing show-down for division supremacy.  Or, it could be like week 17 last year, when the Dolphins quit on the season early and the Patriots rolled to a 28-0 win and locked up the first round bye in the playoffs. Only time will tell. 


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