A Quick Look at the AFC EastSizing up the Patriots schedule

875021.jpg

A Quick Look at the AFC EastSizing up the Patriots schedule

Here are a few fun facts on the Patriots recent dominance in the AFC East:

Theyve won the division in nine of the last 11 seasons.

In the two seasons they didnt win, they finished with the same record as the champion but lost on a tie breaker.

Since 2001, the only team that comes close to matching the Pats nine division titles is the Colts. Theyve won seven, but will have to wait at least a few years to win another. (The Steelers and Eagles each won six.)

In those 11 seasons, the Pats have a division record of 53-15.

Over that time, there have been a few legitimate threats to the Pats crown, namely Bill Parcells Dolphins and the artist formerly known as Rex Ryans Jets, but in both cases, the Pats rode out the wave.

In the meantime, they reloaded. And now, they start another season as everyones odds on favorite to win the AFC East. (Right now in Vegas, youd have to bet 330 to make 100 on the Pats winning the division.)

So, whats up with the Jets, Bills and Dolphins?

Youve probably been following along, but just in case, heres a quick preview of what the rest of the AFC East has planned for this season.

Well start at the top and work our way down:

Buffalo Bills: Thats right. The days of jumping on the Bills bandwagon in Week 3 and abandoning ship by Week 6 are a thing of the past. This year, were revving things up in Week 1!

And will probably hit eject by Week 4. But for the first time in a long time, theres reason for pre-season optimism in Buffalo:

First of all, the pieces are still there on offense. At running back, Fred Jackson is healthy and CJ Spillers ready to breakout. At receiver, Stevie Johnson can still light you up, Donald Jones and David Nelson know how to get open, and third round pick TJ Graham is a former track star who can do things like this. On top of that, you can do a lot worse at tight end than Scott Chandler at tight end.

However, you cant do much worse than what Ryan Fitzpatrick did at the tail end of 2011. And his ability to turn things around will be the difference between this team making it back to the playoffs for the first time since the Music City Miracle or spending their 13th straight winter watching the playoffs from couch.

You remember the Fitzpatrick mess. Through seven games last season, hed thrown 14 touchdowns and only seven interceptions as the Bills raced out to 5-2 start. At that point, Buffalo rewarded their QB with a six-year59M extension (with a 10M signing bonus.)

In turn, Fitzpatrick unraveled, throwing only 10 touchdowns and 16 interceptions over Buffalos last nine games. By the end of the year, if you had your choice of Harvard alums, youd have rather had Natalie Portman quarterback your team than Fitzpatrick. Not coincidentally, the Bills lost eight of their last nine games and finished in last place for the fourth straight season.

But theres a big question that still hangs over Fitzpatricks horrendous stretch: Was he hurt?

His name didnt show up on the injury report during the season, but it was revealed over the winter that Fitzpatrick may have played the last few months with cracked ribs. The quarterback has refused to blame the ribs for his performance, but heres what Stevie Johnson told the Toronto Sun over the winter: "I know personally, in the huddle, the worst it got -- to my knowledge -- is he barely could say a full play under one breath," said Johnson. "It started right at the halfway mark (of the season). I mean, everybody in the league is injured or is hurt in some way. When it's your quarterback who's got to throw, and it's ribs -- I mean, it's tough. That's the last thing I heard was it was ribs, or what-not.

Seems pretty bad. But who knows how much it really affected Fitzpatricks play. On one hand, in 2009, we saw how much those cracked ribs messed with Tom Brady. But Brady was still respectable. Fitzpatrick fell off a cliff. Either way, the Legend of Fitzpatricks Ribs should be enough to provide him a clean slate in the eyes of Bills fans, and a fair chance to redeem himself this season.

Other than that . . . any news on the defensive side this offseason? Oh right. Mario Williams. The biggest free agent signing in franchise history.

We can talk all we want about the offensive side of the ball, but defense is where the Bill needed the most help last season. They ranked 30th in points allowed, and didnt discriminate in how they gave them up, ranking 29th in passing TDs allowed and 30th in rushing TDs. They also finished dead last in total sacks.

While Williams and former Patriot Mark Anderson should help in the sack column, the Bills drafted cornerback Stephen Gilmore with the 10th pick in last years draft. Hes 6-1, fast and physical and will start right away.

Add it all up, and its hard to imagine the Bills wont easily eclipse their 6-10 record from last season. Especially when, like the Pats and thanks to the NFC West, they have one of the easiest schedules in the league.

But then again, these are the Bills were talking about. Lets just wait and see.

Miami Dolphins: Speaking of which, wait and see is about all they can do down in Miami right now. Theyve handed the keys to a rookie quarterback, surrounded him with zero receiving talent and a feature back who isnt built to be a feature back.

But hey, at least their defense is . . . mediocre? They have a playmaker on the defensive line in Cameron Wake, who finished third in the league with 14.5 sacks two years ago but was held to only 8.5 last season. This spring, he signed a four-year50M extension with 20M guaranteed, so theres a lot to live up to. If hes not worth every penny, the Dolphins D wont have a shot at keeping their anemic offense in games.

New York Jets: The more I read about the Jets, the more Im reminded of the Red Sox. Owners who care more about perception and headlines then what really right for the team. A coach who doesn't know when to keep his mouth shut and can't get out of his own way. A roster that's packed with talent but has the chemistry of a blind date between an Occupy Wall Street alum and a Tea Bagger. It will make it impossible for these guys to gel out on the field. And even if they got the rest of that stuff cleared up (which they won't) there's still a long way to go before reclaiming the spot among the AFC's best.

On one hand, the defense, which ranked 20th in points allowed last year, should be better. They picked up LaRon Landry and Yeremiah Bell to play safety, and if they both stay healthy, they could be a dangerous duo. Speaking of which, Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie have seen better days but can still play with anyone. David Harris is solid in the middle at linebacker and in Ryan, they still have one of the best defensive minds in the game.

But in the end, the Jets offense on top of the day-to-day soap opera will keep this team down. Especially when the offense essentially is the day-to-day soap opera. Honestly, I think the only chance these guys have to really succeed is if one of their two quarterbacks get hurt. I know that's a crazy thing to say, but otherwise, the SanchezTebow controversy will linger and overshadow everything else they're trying to do.

These are uneasy times in Jet Land. Jobs and careers and insane levels of pride are on the line. And without any real plan of how to handle in place, the whole thing seems destined for a repeat disaster.

Take it from a Red Sox fan.

Rich can be reached at rlevine@comcastsportsnet.com. Follow Rich on Twitter at http:twitter.comrich_levine

Report: Patriots sign nine undrafted free agents

foster-arizona-s.jpg

Report: Patriots sign nine undrafted free agents

The Patriots have reportedly added nine undrafted free agents after selecting nine players in the 2016 NFL Draft.

DJ Foster, RB/WR, Arizona State
Shaquille Powell, RB, Duke
De’Runnya Wilson, TE/WR, Miss State
Steven Scheu, TE, Vanderbilt
Woodrow Hamilton, DT, Mississippi State
CJ Johnson, LB, Mississippi State
V’Angelo Bentley, CB, Illinois
Jonathan Jones, CB, Auburn
Cre’Von LeBlanc, CB, Florida Atlantic

Foster is arguably the highest profile player the Patriots signed and was filmed celebrating the moment.

Foster has the versatility the Patriots looks for. He played running back over his first three collegiate seasons before shifting to wide receiver. He finished his career at Arizona State with 666 total touches for 4,813 yards and 32 touchdowns.

Stay tuned for more…

'Football makeup' central to Pats draft picks

belichicksound_0430161462062176493_3450k_1280x720_677108803876.jpg

'Football makeup' central to Pats draft picks

FOXBORO – The Patriots added nine players through the draft this weekend.

And when you looked at their resumes and backstories, almost all of them had one of those “Patriot markers” on them. Some had a character trait. Some were from a program that the Patriots particularly trust. Some showed the ability to overcome adversity or be adaptable. And there weren’t any guys that seem to present off-field risks.

None of these markers, of course, are guarantees of anything. They’re all in their early 20s, still in their formative years. There’s no way to project how money, geography, opportunity and competing at this level will change them.

The football, said Nick Caserio, obviously comes first. But who a young player is has to be a big part of the equation.

“It’s everything,” said the Patriots Director of Player Personnel. “I mean, it really is. We try to look each position on the board, each position they have their own particular factors and position skill set that we evaluate and we go through and we assign a grade …There’s certain things that a corner’s going to have to be able to do. There are certain things that a tight end’s going to have to be able to do. Everyone has their own particular skills that they’re going to have to do. Will he check every box? Well maybe not but does he check enough?

“The most important thing is to take the strengths of a player and try to put him into position to where he can utilize those strengths. Not ‘well he doesn’t do this’. Then we won’t put him in that position hopefully. So [we] try to identify what the skill is, how well they do it, and then put them in a position where they can actually see it. So there’s the physical component.”

Then, Caserio said, there’s the projection of how the person will perform.

“Call it ‘football makeup’ component is a central part of it as well,” he said. “Look, we’re not perfect. Some players work the way we think (others don’t). It comes with the territory. But you’re trying to create a profile of the player within our building and then how he’s going to handle everything that comes along with being a New England Patriot. Being in the program, the demands that we place on those players, so you factor everything in. Some players, they may check every single place both from a physical standpoint and from a football-makeup standpoint and you have others that maybe they check enough of them and then you feel comfortable about that level.”

Rolling through the players they took, it’s interesting to try and see what may have been a “football makeup” draw with each. Second-round corner Cyrus Jones played for Nick Saban at Alabama. He’s played in the biggest games and shown well in them. He’s a film junkie. He tackles well. He plays with a chip on his shoulder. He’s not the biggest corner. But he’s got an edge and he excels on special teams.

Third-rounder Joe Thuney is “very productive, very durable, very bright; probably as intelligent as anybody at that position,” said Caserio. He also can play anywhere on the line. Smarts and versatility are highly valued by the Patriots.

Third-round quarterback Jacoby Brissett is a gifted, charismatic leader who’s had a relationship with Bill Parcells since Brissett was in high school. “I can't even describe what type of person he is and what he's meant to my life,” said Brissett. “Just him grooming me as a man and preparing me for tough times, hard times, good times. He's been so helpful to me throughout this process and just keeping my steady and keeping a good head on my shoulders and you know I just can't thank him enough.”

Third-rounder Vincent Valentine from Nebraska? Versatile big man who can play all over the defensive line.

Malcolm Mitchell, the Georgia wide receiver? You couldn’t find a more likable and genuine kid, it seems. And the scouting report offered by longtime draft analyst Nolan Nawrocki? “A tough, passionate, crafty slot receiver who can be trusted to move the sticks in critical situations … Brings similar energy, toughness and attitude as Steelers 1998 third-round pick Hines Ward. Smart and versatile enough to contribute in multiple roles perhaps even at cornerback where he began his Georgia career and could be most attractive to a veteran coaching staff such as the Patriots or Steelers.”

Kamu Grugier-Hill? A safety who can play at the linebacker level and has huge special teams upside that comes with a recommendation from Eastern Illinois college teammate Jimmy Garoppolo. Another sixth-rounder, Elandon Roberts? Big-time character guy who doesn’t have great measurables but had great production. Seventh-rounder Ted Karras? A four-year starter at guard in the Big Ten with Illinois. Seventh-round wideout Devin Lucien? Dedicated student who was able to switch from UCLA to Arizona State as a graduate transfer and still go out and be very productive with the Sun Devils in his final collegiate season.

There aren’t any real injury dice rolls.

There any character dice rolls.

The “football makeup” seems to be there.

Now?

“They have no idea what they’re getting into,” said Bill Belichick on Saturday night. “It’s not their fault. We all had to go through it at some point or another. They’re going to get a big dose of what they probably haven’t had a whole lot of, certainly any time recently. It’s a big load. The competition level is going to step up. The volume is going to step up. It’s not a scholarship. In college they can’t take them away from you. In the NFL you’re fighting for a job so it’s a whole new ball game.”

In the end, football ability will be the main determinant as to whether they stay or go. But the Patriots made sure that – at least on the surface – they all appear to have the ability to withstand what’s going to be coming at them.