The also-rans have gained some ground on the Patriots. Of course, they could not lose any more ground without giving up and joining the American Athletic Conference. The perennial division champs look more vulnerable than usual, and the Dolphins appear poised to pass them, but appearances can be deceiving. Objects in the Patriots' rear-view mirror are not as close as they appear, and Dustin Keller's preseason injury was a reminder that banking on a free agent splash is rarely a wise investment.
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New England Patriots
In a tweet: The dynasty that refuses to die refuses to die.
What's New: The Patriots lost four of their five reception leaders in the offseason. A fifth, Rob Gronkowski, will miss part of the season. Replacing 286 to 341 receptions won't be easy, but the Patriots have rebuilt their skill position corps out of free agent veterans (Danny Amendola, Leon Washington, LeGarrette Blount), high draft picks (receiver Aaron Dobson) and rookie free agents (Kenbrell Thompkins, Zach Sudfield). It's a diverse, talented group, though even optimists admit that this looks like the 2007 passing explosion in reverse.
What's Old: Tom Brady is still Tom Brady. Bill Belichick is still Voldemort. A defense that bottomed out in 2011 has been rebuilt with a core of young talent, though it is hard to tell by the raw stats, since the Patriots allowed so much soft garbage yardage in 52-28 victories last year.
Football Outsiders Stat: The Patriots went three-and-out on just 12.2 percent of drives, the third-lowest percentage since 1997. Brady and Belichick's staff know how to move the chains. And keep in mind that the Patriots were without one or both of their star tight ends many times in 2012.
Best-Case Scenario: The offense loses only 10-15 percent of its efficiency, while the defense gains that back with Aqib Talib playing a full season and youngsters like Chandler Jones and Dont'a Hightower growing into their roles. The 2013 Patriots look like the 2001-04 Patriots. You know, the team that wasn't flashy but won Super Bowls.
Worst-Case Scenario: After five years, the doomsday prophets are finally right. The Patriots not only lost Wes Welker and Aaron Hernandez, but their precious Patriots Way, the ineffable (read: imaginary) ability to do everything right on and off the field. Even the zaniest alarmists don't dare predict a sub-.500 finish, but it is not crazy to suggest that institutional rot has eaten away at the team's infrastructure (unless you have been suggesting it over and over since the fourth quarter of Super Bowl XLII).
Bottom Line: The Patriots have not lost their way, though they have lost valuable contributors. If anything, they are getting back to their roots, with Blount and Washington beefing up the long-neglected power-running game and unknowns like Sudfield and Thompkins harkening back to the days when the Patriots built a powerhouse out of spare parts. Brushing off the impact of so many offensive losses is as silly as squawking like Chicken Little about a team that retools its offense every three years anyway. The Patriots have receded at a win per year since their 14-2 season in 2010. They can keep doing that and still be playoff contenders in 2016.
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In a tweet: Jeff Ireland is doing silly things louder and with more dollar signs.
What's New: After years of Tantric free agency policies that kept the team mired at 7-9, general manager Jeff Ireland finally provided satisfying release to the purse strings. Mike Wallace, Dannell Ellerbe, Brent Grimes and Dustin Keller (already out for the year) headlined their free-agent splurge. A bold draft-day trade to move up and select Dion Jordan increased the win-now urgency for a franchise that was content to idle in neutral through an entire presidential administration.
What's Old: Ryan Tannehill would have been a standout rookie in a normal season. Last year, he was the fourth-best rookie quarterback in a historic group, so his rock-solid debut (despite a lackluster receiving corps) was easy to overlook. Cameron Wake remains the star of a very good, experienced defensive line. Coaches Joe Philbin, Mike Sherman and Kevin Coyle all return to build on their modest 2012 success.
Football Outsiders Stat: Wallace was just 8-for-37 for 300 yards on deep passes (more than 15 yards in the air) last year for the Steelers. He was 0-of-10 on deep passes from the Charlie Batch-Byron Leftwich Sunshine Boys, so his stats are not as bad as they look. Still, deep-threat receivers can be a hit-or-miss proposition, and the Dolphins have $30-million guaranteed riding on Wallace.
Best-Case Scenario: Wallace provides the deep threat Tannehill needs while opening up the middle of the field for Brian Hartline and whoever replaces Keller. Ellerbe and fellow free agent Philip Wheeler give Coyle blitz options that he lacked last year, taking the pressure off Wake to provide most of the pass rush. Weak Bills and Jets teams and a foundering Patriots juggernaut pave the way for double-digit wins and a shot at the division title.
Worst-Case Scenario: The Dolphins lost almost as much on the free-agent market as they gained, and the cracks began to show in training camp, with Jonathan Martin struggling to replace Jake Long at left tackle, Keller getting injured and cornerback depth behind Grimes becoming an issue with the departure of Sean Smith. Ireland bought high on several of his acquisitions (Wallace, Ellerbe, Jordan), and it will only take a few minor disappointments to turn the Dolphins explosion into a fizzle.
Bottom Line: The Dolphins are fashionable selections to win the AFC East, but Ireland's sudden shift from lowballing penny-pincher to drunken sailor skipped all of the productive gears in between. Warning lights flashed on the dashboard throughout the preseason: Martin got pushed around in practice, Jordan couldn't find the first string with a GPS, Keller got hurt. If free-agent money could turn a 7-9 team into a champion, the Redskins would have won five Super Bowls in the last decade. Ireland spent a lot of money to get a little better; a wild card is possible, but that's a heck of a consolation prize for five years of wandering.
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In a tweet: E.J. Manuel brings new optimism to … WHOOPS, he's hurt. Resume pessimism.
What's New: Doug Marrone is Chip Kelly with a generic label: a canny college football strategist available at rock-bottom prices. General Manager Doug Whaley brings the Bills out of the Cold War era and into the information age. E.J. Manuel had a spotty college record but peaked at the right time -- the weeks between the combine and the draft. The Bills are either suddenly ahead of the curve or have been stalled by the side of the highway for so long that they are starting to hallucinate.
What's Old: Many of the pieces that made the Bills a playoff team on paper in 2012 are still in place: Kyle Williams, Mario Williams and Marcell Dareus on the defensive front, speedy C.J. Spiller and diva-lite Steve Johnson at the skill positions. The Bills are still perpetually cash-strapped and must drive over the Canadian border once per year to generate revenue and stock up on prescriptions.
Football Outsiders Stat: The Bills may have been terrible under Chan Gailey, but they were envelope pushers. They led the NFL in empty backfield sets (17 percent) and three- to five- receiver packages (80 percent) last year, and they were among the last holdouts from the Wildcat glory days. Marrone will tone down some of Gailey's thrillbilly wrinkles, replacing them with read-option tactics and a multi-faceted offensive attack.
Best-Case Scenario: Manuel, one of the most mature rookie quarterbacks in his class, overcomes a preseason knee injury and develops quickly. A speed-laden offense (Spiller, Johnson, Manuel, rookie receivers Marquise Goodwin and Robert Woods) pressures opponents, while Mike Pettine's defense provides all the innovation of a Rex Ryan scheme without the downside (Rex Ryan). Factor in the 41-year old Whaley, and the Bills enjoy a much-needed youthquake.
Worst-Case Scenario: The new executives and coaches turn out to be the best candidates that limited money can buy. Buffalo remains the place where the wrinkles of new football ideas get ironed out before they are ready for Broadway. Also, lots and lots of Kevin Kolb rolling to his right and getting sacked.
Bottom Line: The Bills usually follow busy offseasons and productive drafts with encouraging Septembers. Then, everything goes kablooey. Whaley, Marrone and Pettine have a major advantage over all of the Gailey-Dick Jauron-Dave Wannstedt types that have held the Bills' reins in recent years: They are not retreads doomed to max out at mediocrity. The Bills can hover near .500 with a blistering offense and a troublesome defensive front, but hope for the future is more important than the win-loss record. Whaley, Marrone and Manuel could be the faces of a new era. I would write that with more confidence if I had not written similar things about the Bills so often in the last decade.
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New York Jets
In a tweet: Mister Idzik, cleanups needed on aisle 1,2, 3, 6, 24, the coach's office …
What's New: General Manager John Idzik brings a no-nonsense approach to the NFL's nonsense savants. He also brings self-awareness: The Jets are a bad team that now acts like it is rebuilding, as opposed to a bad team that thinks it's the deadly archrival of the Patriots. Offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg is a former Andy Reid sidekick and old-school West Coast offense disciple who plans to install an actual, functional offense this season, as opposed to Tony Sparano's mix of Wildcat rehashes and incomplete passes. Geno Smith is the quarterback of the future and controversy of the present. Fellow rookies Dee Milliner and Sheldon Richardson reinforce a defense that is never as good as its reputation, nor as bad as it looks when the offense keeps giving opponents the ball around midfield.
What's Old: Rex Ryan and Mark Sanchez might be lame duck and lamer duck, but they are still around. The offensive line and defense are still peppered with very good players -- Nick Mangold and D'Brickashaw Ferguson on offense, Muhammad Wilkerson, Antonio Cromartie and others on defense -- who could be the nucleus of a playoff team if the Jets acquire some cohesion/direction/vision/quarterbacking.
Football Outsiders Stat: The Jets ran the ball on 62 percent of first downs last year, the highest figure in the NFL. Mornhinweg's Eagles ran on just 40 percent of first downs, 31st in the league, but Andy Reid's decision to abandon the run in 2003 had a lot to do with that. Until the quarterback situation putrefies, decomposes and sprouts new life, expect Mornhinweg to veer closer to that 60 percent figure.
Best-Case Scenario: Smith takes over sooner than later, all of the murmurs about his maturity are just talk and the real rebuilding begins. The Jets have just enough skill position talent to be competitive and win some 19-13 games, and Idzik's soft-spoken approach takes hold of the organization and makes the Jets more like a team and less like an angry sports radio show come to life. A sub-.500 season with no boasting, few bloopers and hope for the future would feel like 12-4 to weary Jets fans.
Worst-Case Scenario: Ryan has had trouble adjusting to Idzik's "don't say stupid things" directive: Intead of blustering and cracking jokes, he now admits that he misses important plays during games and doesn't keep close track of injuries. A Smith-Sanchez-Whoever controversy that lingers too long will accomplish nothing, but Smith may simply be unprepared to start until late in the season, and rushing him into the New York limelight could be more disastrous than suffering through another year of Sanchez.
Bottom Line: Since arriving in New York from Seattle, Idzik defused the Darrelle Revis nuclear warhead, acquired the most heralded quarterback in the draft in the second round AFTER grabbing two can't-miss defensive prospects, played hardball with the rookies in an ongoing effort to solve the Jets' cash crunch, made a tough decision about Tim Tebow quickly enough to put that whole mess in the rearview and applied restrictor plates to the team's lunacy engines. It was a tremendous offseason that will allow the Jets to be a quality, sustainable playoff team by 2015 or so. For now, they are a fallow field, which is much better than the Superfund site they were last year.