Today marks the end of this series of look-ins at each of the divisions as we zoom toward the opening of training camp. I began out West with the new-look Raiders and Randy Moss and end it here with the AFC East and the return of Ricky Williams to the rebuilt Dolphins.
Fantasy owners are looking for big things out of Willis McGahee and the Bills offense. The Patriots suffered some casualties on the coaching staff and the O-Line, but appear primed for a run to the big game in Detroit. And, let's not forget the season turned in by the Jets and Curtis Martin a year ago. Chad Pennington is back and healthy will a better complement of weapons and will be competitive.
Don't worry. We're just getting started with our NFL coverage as we take you to your draft day. I'll be touring the camps of the northeast in early August, giving you a bird's eye view of the activities.
But for now, let's take a peek at the defending champs.
New England Patriots (2004 Stats: Rushing: 7th at 133.4 YPG, Passing: 13th at 234.4 YPG)
The Patriots suffered several casualties on the coaching staff with the losses of Charlie Weis (Notre Dame) and Romeo Crennel (Cleveland Browns). Crennel also took locker room leader Joe Andruzzi with him. New England also awaits a decision as to whether Tedy Bruschi will be available to the defense, and it appears that Richard Seymour may hold out at the start of camp. However, they return 19 of 22 starters, shored up the secondary and added to the return game with the addition of Tim Dwight.
In addition to the coaching changes, the Patriots also said goodbye to offensive linemen Adrian Klemm and Joe Andruzzi. The Pats selected two guards in the first three rounds of the draft to address the losses. That won't stop Corey Dillon, who regularly put up huge numbers as part of some truly awful Bengals teams.
Bill Belichick will do the playcalling for Tom Brady this year and has a number of weapons at his disposal. Brady will have no fewer than six capable receivers, including his two tight ends, and will continue to spread the ball around. The detailed game plans and flawless execution of said plans under Belichick should not be compromised with the loss of Weis.
Fantasy Power List
Corey Dillon (First Round): Rushed for a career-high 1,635 yards in the Patriots' system and signed a contract extension. Dillon has rushed for at least 1,100 yards in seven of eight NFL seasons (he battled injuries, the coaching staff and Rudi Johnson in 2003). Right now, Dillon's about as safe a play as you can make in the draft.
Tom Brady (Sixth Round): With his ascension to the sixth round of fantasy drafts (eighth or ninth round pick a year ago), owners are finally catching on to Brady's value. He tossed 28 TD passes for the second time in three seasons and topped 3,600 passing yards for the second straight year. Brady should have more weapons to throw to in '05, with Super Bowl MVP Deion Branch healthy, David Givens returning and the addition of his former Michigan Wolverines teammate David Terrell. Oh, and he's got two great receiving tight ends in Daniel Graham and second-year player Ben Watson.
Daniel Graham (Eighth Round): He started strong in '04 with five touchdowns in the first four games, was forced to block and help in pass protection during the middle of the season and scored touchdowns in the playoff weeks. Graham and Ben Watson could develop as a Marcus Pollard-Dallas Clark-type duo for the Patriots this year. Owners are confident that Brady will continue to find Graham in the red zone.
Troy Brown (Ninth Round): Despite catching only 17 passes a year ago with one touchdown, this versatile performer remains at the forefront of fantasy owners minds. They're hoping that the defensive secondary will be solid and allow Brown to concentrate on offense.
Deion Branch (10th Round): He missed half of the regular season, but proved to be a great waiver wire pickup late in the campaign, scoring touchdowns in Weeks 16 and 17. Of course, he also saved two big games for the AFC Championship and Super Bowl (MVP). Brady is still going to effectively spread the ball around, but he showed the chemistry he has with Branch in the playoffs. If you project last season's stats over an entire campaign, Branch is looking at 70-80 catches, near to 1,000 yards and 8-10 touchdowns. That's tremendous value for such a late-round pick.
David Terrell: Will his reunion with Brady be the cure to the ills of this first-round bust? Through four NFL seasons, Terrell has been saddled with injury and attitude issues. The hopes of using him as a big play red zone threat failed to materialize in Chicago. He caught 42 balls for a career-high 699 yards, but reached the end zone just once. He'll be competing with Watson and Graham for red zone targets and should be a force in the vertical game. Terrell is worth a flier late in the draft as his role for '05 is defined.
New York Jets (2004 Stats: Rushing: 3rd at 149.3 YPG, Passing: 22nd at 201.9 YPG)
The Jets return 18 starters this year, including four members of the offensive line that aided Curtis Martin to the rushing title. They are somewhat concerned that new starter Adrian Jones will struggle in place of the departed Kareem McKenzie, but the new spread attack should be able to take some of the pressure off of him. The Jets had the fifth-ranked defense against the run a season ago and will need big years from Dewayne Robertson and company to repeat that accomplishment. If they can stay healthy, Chad Pennington and company should get some short field opportunities. And, if they can get those clock management issues of the past and forget about Doug Brien's failure in the playoffs, look out!
Curtis Martin led the NFL with over 1,600 rushing yards last year. He'll continue to shoulder the load for Herman Edwards' offense, but don't be surprised if backup Derrick Blaylock is more involved in the offense than the departed LaMont Jordan was in '04. Martin has tallied 10 straight 1,000-yard seasons to open his career. He won't be denied in his quest for number 11.
The Jets are counting on the right shoulder of Chad Pennington to be healthy to start the 2005 campaign. He's been throwing well in the offseason and has more targets this year, including the return of Laveranues Coles. New coordinator Mike Heimerdinger will look to spread the field and offer more downfield looks for Coles and company.
Fantasy Power List
Curtis Martin (Third Round): Martin rebounded from a sub-par 2003 season (in terms of touchdowns, anyway) to win his first league rushing title in '04. He piled on 10 games with at least 99 rushing yards and achieved his highest TD total since 1996! And, he reached the 1,000-yard mark for the 10th straight year.
Laveranues Coles (Fifth Round): Coles returns to the Jets after a two-year stint in Washington. He and Chad Pennington will look to rediscover the chemistry that yielded 1,264 yards and five scores in 2002. Coles will always make his share of catches, having topped 80 receptions in three straight seasons. Think about it; he still snagged 90 balls in Washington last year! His return to the Jets will open up the offense under Mike Heimerdinger.
Chad Pennington (11th Round): According to reports, Pennington has fully recovered from the shoulder injury forced him to miss three full games in the middle of the season and impacted his play last year. He's throwing 30-40 yard darts and will be ready for the start of camp. The Jets have upgraded the passing game with the trades for Coles and TE Doug Jolley. Second-year receiver Jerricho Cotchery is expected to step up an make an impact alongside Wayne Chrebet and Justin McCareins, who is strangely going undrafted right now.
Derrick Blaylock (13th Round): Blaylock's selection isn't necessarily confined to handcuff status. Those who draft Curtis Martin should certainly look to Blaylock for production, but he may just serve a bigger role in deeper leagues, as he's expected to be part of both the rushing and passing attacks in Heimerdinger's offensive scheme. And, as he showed in Kansas City, he can dominate if given the opportunity.
Pennington: The amount of game time missed in the past two seasons has sent Pennington's fantasy stock falling. He was a top QB selection in 2003 after his tremendous '02 campaign (3,120 yards with 22 touchdowns against six interceptions), but has left fantasy owners frustrated since. Pennington started strong last year with two multi-TD efforts to start the season, but then it became the Curtis Martin show (he was shut out in three of the next four games). Operating with Heimerdinger's spread out attack, it could be Pennington's year to shine.
Buffalo Bills (2004 Stats: Rushing: 13th at 117.1 YPG, Passing: 27th at 189.5 YPG)
It's a new world order in Buffalo. Drew Bledsoe is gone, replaced by second-year QB J.P. Losman. Willis McGahee ascended to the feature back role midway through the '04 season and didn't look back. For all the changes and additions to the offensive firepower, the Bills didn't tinker with the success on defense. They'll return 10 starters to the defense that ranked second against the run and first in sacks a season ago. The loss of Pat Williams causes some concern, but the Bills believe that their two-man rotation of Ron Edwards and Tim Anderson should be able to pick up the slack.
The Bills lost both starters on the left side of the line, which is cause for some concern. Willis McGahee is the hottest thing on the fantasy circuit right now, with expectations sky-high for a monster year. Travis Henry remains on the roster in a backup role right now (see below). After that, the talent takes a hit with Daimon Shelton and Joe Burns next in line.
J.P. Losman takes the reins in Buffalo and will have plenty of help in the receiving corp. Eric Moulds and Lee Evans are returning stars, and the team feels very good about their selection of Roscoe Parrish in this year's draft. Mark Campbell and Tim Euhus are two tight ends to watch as the season approaches if you don't acquire one of the top-tier players at the position. Tom Clements is confident that Losman has the makeup to be a star right away and will put him in the position to make plays.
Fantasy Power List
Willis McGahee (First Round): McGahee's brilliance in the second half of '04 has him vaulting fantasy favorites such as Shaun Alexander and Priest Holmes into the second draft slot. He scored 13 touchdowns and racked up 1,058 yards in just 11 starts last year. Reports have him working out like a madman this offseason in his quest to join the game's elite class.
Eric Moulds (Sixth Round): Moulds still earned his fourth 1,000-yard season in 2004 and racked up 88 receptions. However, his big performances occurred in the first half of the campaign. Moulds scored four of his five touchdowns in the first half of the season and recorded three of his four 90+ receiving yard performances during the early part of the campaign. With the early selection, owners are banking that first-year starter J.P. Losman will help the Bills eclipse their 25th-place ranking in total offense of last year.
Lee Evans (Eighth Round): The speedy second-year receiver from Wisconsin finally got a chance to shine in the second half. He showed big play capability early on, and became a fixture in the offense from Week 9 forward. Evans caught seven touchdowns over a five-week period down the stretch, including four touchdowns in the fantasy playoffs (Weeks 14-16). Here's your scary stat for Evans' 2004 season. He had a catch of 30 or more yards in eight different games!
J.P. Losman (12th Round): We already know that Losman will be more mobile than the statuesque Bledsoe. Now, we just need to see how effectively he can manage the Bills offense. He's got a strong supporting cast, so he should be able to enter a situation akin to Ben Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh a year ago. Although, fantasy owners and I are counting on him to toss it long more than Big Ben last year.
Travis Henry: He's still on the roster for now. There are several suitors still on the board, with the Seahawks now joining the mix with fears that Shaun Alexander will sit home with the PlayStation. Henry is being forgotten in fantasy drafts right now, but should be included in your plans. At worst, he stays in Buffalo as insurance for McGahee. At best, you're stealing a starter in the late rounds if he gets dealt.
Roscoe Parrish: Parrish has been impressive in mini-camps and will look to wrestle the No. 3 receiver role from Jose Reed and up and coming Sam Aiken and Jonathan Smith. He'll offer a second burner option with Lee Evans and will help spread the field to let McGahee run wild. He's going to give Losman another home run threat.
Miami Dolphins (2004 Stats: Rushing: 31st at 83.7 YPG, Passing: 20th at 211.9 YPG)
The Dolphins shuffled everything after a terrible 2004 season, in which it ranked 28th in scoring at a paltry 17.2 points per game. There's a new head coach, new offensive coordinator, and 10 new starters. It'll be tough to expect a big turnaround from the Dolphins overnight, Nick Saban is aggressively retooling the team to be competitive immediately.
Sammy Morris and Travis Minor attempted to step in for Ricky Williams a year ago, and though they were solid in spots, combined with several other backs to achieve a miserable 83.7 yards per game. Nick Saban hired a new offensive line coach as one of his first acts and is determined to get a running game going with the selection of Ronnie Brown and the return of Williams. Saban showed that he can get production of dual tailbacks in the past when he was at LSU.
A.J. Feeley enters camp as the starter, but Gus Frerotte will look to challenge for the top spot as camps begin. The Dolphins have a great receiver in Chris Chambers, a solid No. 2 in Marty Booker and one of the top pass-catching tight ends in the game in Randy McMichael. If they can achieve consistency on the offensive line and protect the winner of the Feeley or Frerotte battle, the Dolphins should be able to made a significant jump in point production.
Fantasy Power List
Chris Chambers (Fifth Round): While a number of questions remain about the different facets of the Miami offense with a new coaching staff and personnel, Chambers' value as a top fantasy wideout remains fixed. Despite the offensive ineptitude of the Dolphins in '04, he caught a career-high 69 passes and still hauled in seven touchdowns. Saban also brought in Gus Frerotte, who will likely unseat A.J. Feeley for the starting QB role. With a settled quarterback situation and a viable top running (or two, see below), Chambers should be even better this year.
Randy McMichael (Seventh Round): McMichael was huge in '04, hauling in 73 passes for almost 800 yards with four touchdowns. He's a favorite among fantasy owners and one of the first tight ends off of the board. Unfortunately, as of this writing, McMichael faces a possible suspension after a second altercation with his wife in just over a year. Keep an eye on this situation as you construct your rankings. I'll report back once more information is available.
Ronnie Brown (Ninth Round): After running through a myriad of backs last year en route to the 31st-ranked rushing offense in the NFL (83.7 yards per game), the Dolphins wasted no time in grabbing Brown on draft day. He's expected to miss the start of camp as negotiations on his contract continue, but it's not likely to last too deep into the summer. New coordinator Scott Linehan likes to spread the field, which should give Brown plenty of running room.
Ricky Williams: After a long, strange trip that kept him off of the field in '04, the Heisman Trophy winner is eyeballing a return to the field. Though the Dolphins drafted Ronnie Brown second overall, Williams won't return to the game to sit on the bench. He's the player to watch as camps open and Nick Saban tries to revive the 31st-ranked rushing offense of a year ago.