Jay Skurski spots the up-and-comers who will make a difference in his team-by-team division breakdowns, in predicted order of finish.
By Jay Skurski
news sports reporter
New England Patriots
New faces: WR Danny Amendola, RB Leon Washington, S Adrian Wilson, DT Tommy Kelly, TE Zach Sudfeld.
Saying goodbye: TE Aaron Hernandez, WR Brandon Lloyd, DT Kyle Love, WR Wes Welker, RB Danny Woodhead.
Youth movement: The Patriots decided to let Welker, one of quarterback Tom Brady’s favorite targets, walk. In his place, they signed Amendola, who is five years younger and should be used similarly in the slot.
Best young player: TE Rob Gronkowski, right.
Pressure’s on: Coach Bill Belichick. His biggest job this season is to limit the potential distraction brought on by the murder charge against former star tight end Hernandez. Belichick gets his team playing its best as the season goes on. Over the last three years, the Patriots are 23-1 in games played in the season’s second half.
They’ll win the division (again) if: Brady stays healthy. New England went 6-0 in the AFC East last year and sacked division quarterbacks 22 times while forcing 19 turnovers.
They’ll stumble if: The defense can’t create as many turnovers as in the past. Over the last three years, New England has forced 113 takeaways – the most in the league.
New faces: WR Mike Wallace, CB Brent Grimes, LB Dannell Ellerbe, WR Brandon Gibson, LB Philip Wheeler.
Saying goodbye: RB Reggie Bush, WR Davone Bess, T Jake Long, CB Sean Smith, LB Karlos Dansby.
Youth movement: The Dolphins replaced Dansby, 31, and Kevin Burnett, 30, with Ellerbe, 27, and Wheeler, 28. Dansby was highly productive last season. They’re paying a lot more for what could be similar results.
Best young player: DE Olivier Vernon. He had 3.5 sacks as a rookie in 2012, but Vernon has looked great in camp. He could be ready for a breakout season.
Pressure’s on: LT Jonathan Martin. The Dolphins let Long go in free agency to St. Louis. It’s a stretch to believe Martin will be as good as Long. Vernon has dominated Martin in camp.
Next man up: The Dolphins added former Jets tight end Dustin Keller on a one-year contract as part of their spending frenzy, but he suffered a devastating knee injury and is out for the season. That means second-year man Michael Egnew, who did not catch a pass in 2012, will be counted on at tight end.
They’ll challenge the Pats if: Quarterback Ryan Tannehill continues to develop and coach Joe Philbin can blend in up to 10 news starters after a free-agent spending spree.
They’ll disappoint minority owner Gloria Estefan if: No. 1 receiver Wallace doesn’t live up to his monster contract.
New faces: LB Manny Lawson, DE Jerry Hughes, DT Alan Branch, QB Kevin Kolb, G Doug Legursky, QB Matt Leinart.
Saying goodbye: QB Ryan Fitzpatrick, S George Wilson, LB Nick Barnett, G Andy Levitre, CB Terrence McGee.
Youth movement: The Bills got younger in a lot of places, especially at quarterback and linebacker. First-round draft pick EJ Manuel is the long-term starter at quarterback when he’s healthy, and undrafted free agent Jeff Tuel has done enough to earn a roster spot. Rookie second-round draft pick Kiko Alonso will take over for Barnett as the Bills’ every-down linebacker.
Best young player: RB C.J. Spiller. The signs point to him being the Bills’ next superstar. Offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett has said they will ride Spiller. Good idea.
Pressure’s on: The cornerbacks. With Stephon Gilmore missing at least the first month, the Bills will be counting on Leodis McKelvin and journeyman Crezdon Butler to hold down the outside spots. That’s a dangerous plan, but there doesn’t seem to be an alternative on the roster.
They’ll go .500 if: Spiller becomes an All-Pro, going for 2,000 combined yards rushing and receiving. That would take a lot of pressure off Manuel.
They’ll be competing for the No. 1 pick if: Manuel shows he’s not ready when he gets into the lineup.
New York Jets
New faces: RB Chris Ivory, TE Kellen Winslow, OL Willie Colon, NT Antonio Garay, S Dawan Landry.
Saying goodbye: QB Tim Tebow, RB Shonn Greene, G Brandon Moore, CB Darrelle Revis, S LaRon Landry.
Youth movement: The Jets traded Revis, who suffered a torn ACL last season, to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. To replace him, they drafted Dee Milliner out of Alabama. The pressure on Milliner will be immense – Revis was the league’s best defensive player before getting hurt.
Best young player: DT Muhammad Wilkerson. He has eight sacks in his first two years. He should anchor a front three that is still a strength for New York.
Pressure’s on: Coach Rex Ryan. The hot seat has to be unbearable for Ryan. From the ongoing circus surrounding the Jets’ quarterback competition between Mark Sanchez and rookie Geno Smith to the battles he’s had with the New York media, Ryan must know he’s on his way out. It’s a matter of time before new General Manager John Idzik brings in his own guy.
They’ll stay out of the AFC East basement if: The Bills are worse.
They’ll get the No. 1 pick if: Ryan can’t keep a lid on the mess.