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AFC East: 6 Things You Should Know

Here are six things you need to know about the AFC East in 2015.

Mark Gunnels



What the New England Patriots have done in the AFC East hasn’t been achieved by any other team over the past dozen years. During this time frame, the Patriots have came away division champs 11 times.

The main reason for that is legendary quarterback/Uggs pitch-man Tom Brady.

He’s a four-time Super Bowl champion, a three-time Super Bowl MVP and a two-time league MVP. With all of those impressive accolades attached to his name, you can arguably say he’s the best quarterback to ever play the game.

However, New England may be without Brady for the first quarter of the season. His brief absence gives other teams in the division a chance to get an early lead.

Without further ado, let’s take a look at six things you should know about the AFC East.

The true importance of Jimmy Garoppolo’s audition – Jimmy Garoppolo, 23, is currently preparing for the four biggest games of his life. As mentioned before, Tom Brady will be gone due to his role in ‘Deflategate’.

Unlike Brady, Garoppolo was a sought after player out of college. The 6-foot-2, 225 quarterback out of Eastern Illinois was selected by New England in the second round of the 2014 NFL Draft, which made him the franchise’s highest quarterback picked since Drew Bledsoe went No. 1 overall in the 1993 draft.

The four opponents Garroppolo will face consist of Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Jacksonville and Dallas. While none of those defenses (except for Buffalo) instills great fear, you have to keep in mind Garoppolo will be a starter for the first time in his professional career.

Head coach Bill Belichick likes what he’s been seeing out of the rookie.

“I think Jimmy is working hard, I think he’s making progress, and I think that’s what the guys who are out there are doing,” the six-time Super Bowl champion coach said. “I don’t think any of us are really ready to play yet. We’ve got another week for that — or coach — as it applies. So, we’ll just keep working to that point and then we’ll get a better idea of how that all comes together when we actually play out there in a competitive situation.”

Remember when the Kansas City Chiefs signed Matt Cassel to a $68 million deal?

Well, Cassel was able to cash in because of his 11-5 season in New England. The team missed the playoffs, but his individual prowess was enough for him to set himself up financially for life.

Albeit a shorter sample size, Garoppolo has a chance to do similar things as Cassel.

Bills want historically great defense – Last year, the Buffalo Bills defense ranked fourth overall, which is very, very good. Nonetheless, that’s not good enough for new head coach Rex Ryan.

“This team, we know how loaded we are with talent,” Ryan said. “There’s no question about it. You mentioned how well we played on defense last year. Fourth in the league is probably a little disappointing, to be honest with you, because that’s not where my expectations are. I know we’ll lead the league in defense. That’s just the way it goes.”

Linebacker Nigel Bradham took it even a step further.

“We want to be the best in history — one of the greatest,” said the young linebacker. “That’s what we’re striving for … the greatest of all time, not just this year or last year.”

Buffalo led the league in sacks a year ago and while that may not be the case this year, defensive coordinator Dennis Thurman doesn’t want you to be fooled.

“It’s not necessarily the number,” Thurman explained. “A lot of it has to do with the timing of the sacks, when they come. Just like turnovers, there are teams that get a lot of turnovers, a high number but how crucial are they? At what points in the game do they come?”

Will this be the best defense ever?

Probably not, but they could be the best defense in the league this season behind elite passers Mario Williams, Marcell Dareus and Jerry Hughes.

Geno Smith’s last chance – This is it.

The 24-year-old is entering his third season, which will either make or break his career in a Jets uniform. To say Smith has struggled would be a vast understatement.

Through 30 starts, Smith has a touchdown to interception ratio of 25 to 34 with a QB rating of 71.5. Fortunately, Smith will finally have a legitimate set of receivers led by Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker.

Also, new offensive coordinator Chan Gainley is implementing a spread offense that somewhat resembles the one Smith ran at West Virginia.

“It’s definitely an offense where things are wide open,” Smith said. “We get to flex out our tight ends a bunch and use those guys as wide outs. You can see some spread principles in there. You can also see where we can run the ball.”

If Smith is unable to prove he’s a quality starter this year, expect for him to be out of New York sooner rather than later.

Sammy Watkins primed to reach elite status – Entering the 2014 season, everyone was raving about then rookie Sammy Watkins, but things quickly changed when Odell Beckham Jr. burst onto the scene with his historically great rookie campaign.

It’s not as if Watkins was a disappointment. He did catch 65 passes for 982 yards with six touchdowns. The circumstances hindered Watkins a bit, however.

“He was doubled almost every snap,” Ryan said. “I know when he wasn’t because he torched us [the Jets] when I thought we could play man coverage on him. That was a mistake.”

With the talent Buffalo has brought in, Watkins won’t see as many double teams moving forward.

“I think it’ll open up opportunities for Sammy,” Ryan said. “When you look at Woods and Percy [Harvin] out there as well and Clay I think we’ll have some matchup problems in our favor based on our ability to run the football.”

The only problem is Buffalo doesn’t even know who their quarterback will be. Nonetheless, Watkins should be able to thrive off a lot more one-on-one coverage this season.

Malcolm Butler wants to be remembered past the Super Bowl – This time last year, most people had no idea that Malcolm Butler existed.

Now, the second-year cornerback can’t go anywhere without being reminded of his legendary game-saving interception in the Super Bowl. The positive attention Butler receives nowadays is a good thing, but with that being said, Butler doesn’t just want to be defined off one play.

“I respect everything. everybody congratulating me and saying I’m a great guy, great player and all that. But I have to prove myself all over again. From preseason to Week 16 and then some. So I’m coming out here trying to string some days together to get better and better,” Butler said.

With Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner no longer in the picture, Butler will get every opportunity to prove he’s not just a one hit wonder.

Ryan Tannehill accepts leadership role – Every year since Ryan Tannehill has been in the league, he’s improved.

A season ago, Tannehill threw for 27 touchdowns, over 4,000 yards and compiled a QB rating of 92.8. With the additions of Greg Jennings, Kenny Stills and rookie DeVante Parker, Miami’s aerial attack looks to see a major boost.

Miami proved they’re all in on Tannehill after giving him a six-year, $96 million extension. With a contract of that magnitude, it’s only right for Tannehill to have a different mindset going forward.

“I think we have a lot of great leaders, but I definitely consider myself a big leader on this team,” Tannehill said.  “As far as the franchise, they have been great to me this offseason as far as communication through free agency, through the team last year. Obviously the contract is huge. They put their money where their mouth is, so to speak, with the contract and really taking my viewpoint and my thoughts on things throughout the offseason.”

Wide receiver Jarvis Landry believes in his quarterback.

“This year it’s definitely critical and vital for him to not only be our leader but continue to get better as he has every year,” said the second-year pro. “So I don’t think he feels any pressure, but at the same time he knows his potential to perform at a high level — and he’s going to do that for us.”

The Dolphins are hopeful Tannehill’s leadership translates to a playoff berth.

As the pre-season and regular season arrive, make sure to keep these six things in mind when watching AFC East football.

Mark Gunnels is an NFL columnist for Football Insiders. He has several years of experience covering the NFL and NCAA football. He's the radio color commentator for Lincoln University football. Mark's work has been featured on Sports Illustrated, Fox Sports and Yard Barker.

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