Touring the NFL: We Begin In The AFC North & East

While we wait impatiently for a couple more weeks to pass—at which point we can confidently predict all the important things that will take place during the 2014 NFL season—it’s time to take a tour through all eight divisions. These posts will be part schedule breakdowns, part commentary on the buzziest aspects of each division and part stream of consciousness from the world’s leading stream of consciousness writer.

I’ll be tackling two divisions per post. The AFC gets to be the boring appetizer (because, seriously, the AFC is so boring), and the NFC gets to be the main course (coming next week).

AFC North

afc north

Best known for…

  • Suspensions, pending suspensions, apparently holding some very incriminating photos of the Commissioner with a tranny hooker (only possible explanation for the Ray Rice suspension), and the world’s most famous quarterback who hasn’t accomplished a single thing worthwhile

Most likely to…

  • Be the most boring division in all of football

Quick Hits

  • The AFC North certainly has all the makings of being extremely mediocre. Pittsburgh and Baltimore finished last year at 8-8, and you can make the argument that Cincinnati will do worse than last year’s 11-5 season while Cleveland improves on their 4-12 record. I see a likely scenario where all four teams finish with either seven, eight or nine wins. YAWN.
  • There’s definitely some intrigue with the five quarterbacks in this division. Joe Flacco and Andy Dalton get to hear about how much they’re overpaid every time they come up short, which will likely be often. Ben Roethlisberger tries to play in 16 games for just the third time in his career (seriously) and easily retains the title of oldest looking QB in the league. And of course, there’s the Messiah vs the Journeyman over in Cleveland.
  • You know how Cleveland has that awesome sports luck? I fully expect Josh Gordon to win his appeal on the pending season-long suspension only to see him sustain a serious injury in the third preseason game.
  • The Bengals are far and away the most talented team in this division, which is exactly why I expect them to miss the playoffs entirely.
  • Here’s what Cincy’s dealing with for a schedule this year: Outside of their normal divisional games, they’re also @New England, @Indianapolis, @New Orleans and home vs Denver. So they get the top three teams in the AFC and one of the NFC’s best. And to pile even more bullshit on the Bengals, five of their final seven games are on the road! (And their bye is in week 4, meaning no rest for a drained and battered team when they’re going through the tough part of the season later in the year). They better jump out to an awesome start if they have any aspirations to repeat their annual playoff disappointment.

Quick Hits On Johnny Manziel (per the NFL’s requirement that if you cover their league, you must over-cover their newest star)

  • He’s an injury waiting to happen. Why? Have you seen his playing style? He despises the pocket. And while a constantly scrambling and rolling out QB is exciting, it ultimately leads to careers like Michael Vick’s and Roethlisberger’s. Sure, those two guys aren’t bad, but just don’t expect 16-game seasons from Mr. Manziel.
  • The other reason for his very predictable health problems? Once again…Cleveland’s luck.
  • Speaking of that incredible luck, any doubt that Lebron James either suffers a torn ACL, gets caught up in a PED scandal or has a heart attack while doing the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge? Sorry, Clevers, but I know you’re nodding in reluctant agreement right now.
  • After watching the Browns’ first preseason game, I think I’d pay $150 for access to Cleveland’s local football announcers throughout the season. I’m pretty sure they required a pants change every time Johnny touched the ball. There’s a lot of overstimulation going on among Browns loyalists right now.
  • Brian Hoyer is absolutely the better quarterback at this time, but there’s no way Johnny sits on the bench for long. If the Browns start 0-3 with Hoyer, I think they insert the rookie after their week 4 bye. It’s a pretty easy five game stretch at that point to ease him into things.
  • But if the rest of the AFC is as bad as it appears to be, the Browns would be a borderline playoff team with a healthy Hoyer at the helm all year (and a non-suspended Gordon).

Fun with gambling

  • Apparently Vegas doesn’t have a clue what to make of these teams any more than I do. There’s essentially no favorite to win the division. Pittsburgh’s +200, Cincinnati is +200, Baltimore is +275, and Cleveland’s +500.
  • As for who will win the AFC: After Denver, New England and Indy, the oddsmakers basically threw the entire AFC North into the mix not daring to pick one with significantly better odds to get to the big game.
  • Who in the division has the best MVP odds? That would be Mr. Old & Dirty himself, Ben Roethlisberger (50/1).
  • My favorite bet in this division is: Manziel to win MVP at 100/1 odds.
  • RELAX, I’M JOKING. My real favorite is: Pittsburgh to win more than 8.5 games (-150). When in doubt, go with the best quarterback in the division.

 

AFC East

afc east

Best known for…

  • Being the most dominated division of the past decade (seriously, the Patriots must be so bored at this point)

Most likely to…

  • Finish exactly the same as the past three years where New England wins 12+ games and the other three teams can’t crack .500

Quick Hits

  • Everything begins with the Patriots when discussing the AFC East. I know it’s obnoxious, but these other three teams haven’t even made an effort to unseat them during the Brady/Belichick era. Is that why New England struggles in the playoffs these days? Because while the other playoff teams are being tested weekly in their respective divisions, New England’s sleepwalking its way through the regular season?
  • I fully expected to review the 2013 Patriots results and see that they decimated their division like usual. Actually, they went 4-2 and only outscored those opponents by 22 total points. Maybe the division’s finally catching up?
  • More interesting than thinking about that pipe dream…if you combined the Bills, Dolphins and Jets and made the best 53-man roster out of all possible players, would that team be able to keep up with New England? For the skill players you’d have to go with Ryan Tannehill, C.J. Spiller (?), Mike Wallace, Sammy Watkins, Erick Decker and Scott Chandler??
  • Jesus, the Patriots are truly blessed.
  • But in the perpetually watered-down AFC, could one of these three lesser teams sneak into the playoffs? Of course! But who could it be? As of now, I’m only willing to eliminate the Bills. On offense EJ Manuel might suck, C.J. Spiller probably isn’t going to turn into the next 2,000 yard rusher like we thought, and they seem to be expecting WAY too much from rookie receiver Watkins. On defense, they’ve only gotten worse in the past year.
  • I’m giving the Dolphins the nod over the Jets. Just barely, like 8-8 vs 7-9.
  • For once it seems like this division got stuck with a tough schedule. They face the AFC West, which produced three playoff teams last year, and they also get the NFC North, a division that people seem very bullish on (besides the Vikings).

Fun with gambling

  • Unlike the AFC North, the oddsmakers seem to think this division has already been won. The Patriots are -300 to win it while the Dolphins and Jets are both +650. The Bills pull up the rear at +900.
  • This division provides no good Super Bowl gambling options. You either have to take the team with the second best odds to win the the Championship (New England at 15/2) or expect an outright miracle in the form of the Dolphins or Jets (both 66/1).
  • Who in the division has the best MVP odds? Tom Brady, of course (9/1). Next best odds after him? A tie between Spiller and Rob Gronkowski (100/1).
  • My favorite bet in this division is: Patriots over 11 wins (-135).

That’s all I’ve got for this first installment of the division by division tours. It’s sad to think that out of these eight teams only two or three are even the tiniest bit interesting. I’m already looking forward to previewing the NFC, but I still have to get through the other eight AFC teams. More coming on Friday.

Advertisements

The Best NFL Predictions You’ll Ever Read, Part 2: AFC Team Records

In case you missed Part 1 of Ross & Neil try to predict each team’s record, check it out here: The Best NFL Predictions, NFC Team Records.

That’s where you can read about the NFC, but more importantly the terrible wager we made on who can be closer to more teams’ actual records at the end of the season.

Neil and I will be back early next week with our final predictions on playoff teams, superlatives (league MVP, passing title, etc) and unperlatives (not a word, I know, but this is where we predict first coach fired, first QB benched due to ineffectiveness, etc).

Compared to the NFC predictions where Neil and I were only more than one win apart on three teams, in the AFC we had five such teams where we were farther apart than a single win difference. It looks like Neil continued to play it safe in predicting no teams to truly bottom out that hard. I, on the other hand, am very pessimistic about the worst handful of teams in the AFC.

Read on for more.

BALTIMORE RAVENS

2012 Record: 10-6

2013 Super Bowl Odds: 28/1

2013 Prediction

Neil: 8-8

Ross: 9-7

Comment We Strongly Felt You Needed To Read

Neil: I thought we learned from the 2005 Red Sox that it is best to bring back as many parts of a championship as you can to repeat. And even if it doesn’t work, your fans will appreciate the effort. They also have suffered some injuries during the preseason that are not minor. That being said they have a good coach and great front office, so I wouldn’t be surprised if they somehow win the division.

Ross: Super Bowl Champs getting no love with the 28/1 Super Bowl odds. I do think they suffer the typical SB hangover, and they’ve certainly lost a lot of their 2012 offense. I think they struggle, but in the weak AFC that means getting nine wins and possibly the division title (more on that soon).

BUFFALO BILLS

2012 Record: 6-10

2013 Super Bowl Odds: 150/1

2013 Prediction

Neil: 6-10

Ross: 4-12

Comment We Strongly Felt You Needed To Read

Neil: Well, at least they are trying to make history in week 1 (first team to ever start an undrafted rookie at QB in week 1). Could be a tough year in Buffalo. At least they have a new coach that seems to have a plan, and initial reports are that E.J. Manual might be the real deal.

Ross: There’s a quarterback fiasco brewing in Buffalo. You never want to read something like this only 13 days from a team’s regular season opener: “…the Bills signed veteran QB Matt Leinart and traded with Detroit for backup QB Thad Lewis. It should also be noted that as of now the Bills are planning to start undrafted rookie Jeff Tuel in week 1.” What does this all mean? That this will be the team’s ninth straight year finishing below .500 (way below it in this case).

CINCINNATI BENGALS

2012 Record: 10-6

2013 Super Bowl Odds: 25/1

2013 Prediction

Neil: 8-8

Ross: 9-7

Comment We Strongly Felt You Needed To Read

Neil: Very similar to Tampa Bay. Very good defense. They added more weapons on offense. They are the trendy pick to win their division. It all comes down to whether or not The Ginger Prince is really an NFL-caliber QB.

Ross: This feels like the AFC’s version of the Tampa Bay Bucs. Specifically that the entire season hinges on the development of the QB. If Andy Dalton keeps being average Andy Dalton, then this team will never do better than nine or 10 wins and a quick playoff exit. Based on my prediction it’s clear I don’t think he’ll take the next step.

CLEVELAND BROWNS

2012 Record: 5-11

2013 Super Bowl Odds: 150/1

2013 Prediction

Neil: 7-9

Ross: 9-7

Comment We Strongly Felt You Needed To Read

Neil: Not to sound like a broken record, but another situation of “what can the QB do.” The Cleve’s defense should actually be very competent. They should have a good running game and will have some weapons at receiver once Josh Gordon comes back from suspension. Unlike Tampa Bay and Cincinnati, I think we already know that Brandon Weeden is not an NFL-caliber QB, and I don’t care that Norv Turner is his offensive coordinator now.

Ross: Stop. I’ll say it for you. I’m out of my god damn mind with this prediction. Every good sports prognosticator has to have one out-of-the-blue, so-crazy-it-just-might-work prediction, and the Browns to go 9-7 and win the AFC North is my version of that. I believe in a huge Trent Richardson year, a better than average Brandon Weeden year and a receiving group that’s a lot better than you think. I also believe they have seven very winnable games: Miami, Buffalo, Kansas City, Jacksonville, the Jets, Minnesota and Detroit. I’m all in on this team.

DENVER BRONCOS

2012 Record: 13-3

2013 Super Bowl Odds: 6/1

2013 Prediction

Neil: 13-3

Ross: 12-4

Comment We Strongly Felt You Needed To Read

Neil: Unless this is the year Payton Manning really drops off, I think they will be OK passing the ball. I do not believe their defense is going to be as good as last year (they had the 4th best defense in the NFL) and losing Von Miller for six games is a huge loss. They have some offensive line issues as well. That being said, their schedule is so easy they can still go 13-3 in the regular season. But don’t expect much in the playoffs. Again.

Ross: Coming off a year in which they went 13-3 and got the #1 seed in the AFC Playoffs, the Broncos get…the easiest schedule in the NFL. No seriously, it’s right HERE. Even if you think the Von Miller suspension and Elvis Dumervil fax machine faux pas is enough to make this defense bad, LOOK AT THEIR SCHEDULE. Their absolute worst case (barring Brock Osweiler being thrust into the starting QB role for some catastrophic reason) is 11-5. Kansas City x2, Oakland x2, San Diego x2, Jacksonville, Tennessee, Dallas, Philadelphia. You think they’re going to lose any of those games? Makes me sick.

HOUSTON TEXANS

2012 Record: 12-4

2013 Super Bowl Odds: 18/1

2013 Prediction

Neil: 10-6

Ross: 9-7

Comment We Strongly Felt You Needed To Read

Neil: They are going to win double-digit games again because their division is horrible. Maybe they can win their wild card game if they get to play Cincinnati for a third year in a row. Then they will lose to a good team. Sound familiar?

Ross: I think last year was a bit of an aberration and we should expect a record more in line with the Matt Schaub/Gary Kubiak era. I bet the Texans are psyched for a three-week stretch in September/October that goes @Baltimore, home Seattle, @ San Francisco. Seems fair.

INDIANAPOLIS COLTS

2012 Record: 11-5

2013 Super Bowl Odds: 40/1

2013 Prediction

Neil: 7-9

Ross: 10-6

Comment We Strongly Felt You Needed To Read

Neil: They had a -30 point differential last year but went 11-5? Really?!? They went 9-1 in games decided by a TD or less. I smell a HUGE regression coming.

Ross: I could have made Andrew Luck a keeper in an auction fantasy league for $16. I know his average auction price is much lower than that, but I worry he’s about to make a significant leap this year. On the flip side, the inexperience of this team makes me think a bad loss, such as blowing a game at San Diego or Tennessee, could definitely be on the horizon. But I’ll stick with my original 10-win prediction.

JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS

2012 Record: 2-14

2013 Super Bowl Odds: 300/1

2013 Prediction

Neil: 4-12

Ross: 3-13

Comment We Strongly Felt You Needed To Read

Neil: Rather than show Jacksonville’s games on TV, can the networks just show an “under construction” banner for every Jacksonville game and we can check back in on them in two years?

Ross: You watch a preseason game where Chad Henne is slinging the football all over the field to Justin Blackmon and Cecil Shorts, and you see Maurice Jones-Drew running wild. And you think, hey maybe this team will be frisky. But then you realize the Jags already named Blaine Gabbert the starter (and then promptly shut him down because of injuries…what did Henne do to deserve no shot at winning the job?), and Blackmon misses the first four games of the regular season, and that MoJo would have to put up an AP in 2012 type season to have a huge effect on this team’s record. And you realize they’re heading for the second pick in the 2014 draft.

KANSAS CITY CHIEFS

2012 Record: 2-14

2013 Super Bowl Odds: 50/1

2013 Prediction

Neil: 7-9

Ross: 6-10

Comment We Strongly Felt You Needed To Read

Neil: Yes, this team was very injured last year. Yes, Andy Reid is a huge upgrade from RAC. Yes, Alex Smith is a huge upgrade over Brady Quinn (and this is coming from a huge “Alex Smith is not a good QB” evangelist). But people are really picking them for nine or 10 wins and the playoffs? They only won two games last year. Seven wins would be a huge improvement.

Ross: I get all the reasons people are using to predict a big jump in wins for the Chiefs in 2013. I agree that their QB is going to be significantly better, that Jamaal Charles will be better another year removed from knee surgery, and a healthy and motivated Dwayne Bowe will be a stud. And while I agree that the coaching position got an upgrade, I do still think we need to remember they went from Romeo Crennel to Andy Reid, not Crennel to Bill Walsh. Reid is still the same guy he was in Philly. I’m fine with some improvement, but not playoff-level improvement.

MIAMI DOLPHINS

2012 Record: 7-9

2013 Super Bowl Odds: 40/1

2013 Prediction

Neil: 7-9

Ross: 6-10

Comment We Strongly Felt You Needed To Read

Neil: Let’s give it a second year to make sure Ryan Tannenhill is competent before we decide if Miami is on a path to competitiveness.

Ross: Make no mistake, this team’s ceiling is 8-8. Why? Because they have a sneaky hard schedule with an opening seven games that could see them at 2-5 or worse (look it up). But more importantly, Ryan Tannehill was 100% healthy last season, played in all 16 games, and threw exactly 12 touchdown passes. And yet I keep hearing his name thrown around as a guy to watch out for this year, in real football and fantasy. When did throwing 12 touchdowns over a full season become an indicator for good things to come?

NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS

2012 Record: 12-4

2013 Super Bowl Odds: 10/1

2013 Prediction

Neil: 11-5

Ross: 12-4

Comment We Strongly Felt You Needed To Read

Neil: The defense has been rebuilding for years and should be at least average this year. I know they completely overhauled the receiving corps and the whole offensive philosophy since they went from “monopolizing the two tight end offense” to “we don’t have any tight ends”, but they still have Brady, they still have Belichick, and they should easily go 6-0 in a weak division.

Ross: Pretty quiet offseason for them huh? It’s like, jeez, Patriots, stop being so friggen boring. Get in a public contract dispute with the guy who’s been your best receiver for the past six years. Find a high-profile offensive star to reveal a crazy double life full of murder, paranoia and PCP. Turn over your entire receiving corps right as your Hall-of-Fame QB is getting down to his final few years to compete. DO SOMETHING THAT’S NOT SO BORING FOR ONCE. (You wanted objective analysis on this team? Fine, here it is: There will be some growing pains with the young receivers, it’s possible Danny Amendola really is injury prone, which would be bad news for the Pats. Their one offseason acquisition to help out in the secondary, Adrian Wilson, might get cut by the end of the week. They will win 11 or 12 games because the AFC is terrible, but the entire fan base will be pessimistic going into the playoffs.)

NEW YORK JETS

2012 Record: 6-10

2013 Super Bowl Odds: 100/1

2013 Prediction

Neil: 8-8

Ross: 5-11

Comment We Strongly Felt You Needed To Read

Neil: I actually think the defense is going to be good enough to win them a few games against their relatively easy schedule. I am sad because no matter how disastrously their QB and coaching situation plays out this year, nothing will top my favorite moment of the entire 2012 season.

Ross: For as fun as the 2012 Jets’ season was, they didn’t really bottom out like I hoped. If you remember, because of the weak AFC, they were still technically in the playoff hunt through week 14. This year I want to see a disaster coming out of the gate, which shouldn’t be too hard considering they play a schedule that could legitimately put them at 2-7 just in time for their week 10 bye. When you factor in Mark Sanchez and Geno Smith playing hot potato with the starting QB position throughout the preseason, I have no doubts the bottoming out that I’ve longed for is finally here. Sad to see you go, Rex, Mark, et al.

OAKLAND RAIDERS

2012 Record: 4-12

2013 Super Bowl Odds: 250/1

2013 Prediction

Neil: 5-11

Ross: 2-14

Comment We Strongly Felt You Needed To Read

Neil: Another team completely rebuilding, which might actually work this time since the old owner isn’t around to derail the construction.

Ross: If the NCAA told Johnny Manziel he could either accept a five-game suspension or be guaranteed to get drafted first overall by the Raiders in 2014, which punishment do you think he’d pick? (Side note: It feels like a slap in the face to Jacksonville that Oakland’s getting better Super Bowl odds. The 2013 Raiders are going to make the 2013 Jaguars look like the 2007 Patriots.)

PITTSBURGH STEELERS

2012 Record: 8-8

2013 Super Bowl Odds: 28/1

2013 Prediction

Neil: 8-8

Ross: 9-7

Comment We Strongly Felt You Needed To Read

Neil: The defense, especially the pass defense, might be old and not that good. And the injury to Le’Veon Bell basically makes their offense “pass only,” which is tough since their QB never plays a full season. They are still the Steelers though, and the division is wide-open with Baltimore’s injury and personnel issues, and they have not missed the playoffs in consecutive years since 2000.

Ross: Yes, I’m picking all four AFC North teams to finish 9-7, however unlikely that is. More importantly, if you were the Steelers, why would you ever design a play again where Ben Roethlisberger stays in the pocket? Why would you even attempt to form a pocket around him? Couldn’t you come up with an entirely new offensive philosophy where you purposely let the pocket break down so the QB can scramble? Roethlisberger is Mark Sanchez as a pocket passer, but he’s Joe Montana when the pocket breaks down. If I found out right now that the Steelers were designing the first pocketless offense for the 2013 season, I’d pick Pittsburgh to go 14-2.

SAN DIEGO CHARGERS

2012 Record: 7-9

2013 Super Bowl Odds: 50/1

2013 Prediction

Neil: 7-9

Ross: 6-10

Comment We Strongly Felt You Needed To Read

Neil: They finally got rid of Norv Turner, so that’s a plus. Seems like they got a good head coach that knows the division and knows QBs. I think the plan this year is “let’s see if Phil Rivers is our guy, or if we need a new QB.” Unfortunately for Rivers, their receiving corps has already taken a huge injury hit.

Ross: No read on this team, but I can tell you that an awful 2012 is not going to humble Philip Rivers. I watched San Diego’s second preseason game and the guy was in midseason form…yelling at refs, shaking his head at teammates. I don’t think we need to worry about Rivers toning it down in his old age.

TENNESSEE TITANS

2012 Record: 6-10

2013 Super Bowl Odds: 150/1

2013 Prediction

Neil: 7-9

Ross: 6-10

Comment We Strongly Felt You Needed To Read

Neil: Tennessee’s strategy this year: let’s rebuild our offensive line so that Jake Locker can not use that as an excuse, and let’s decide if Jake is our QB of the future. It is not like they were going to the Super Bowl this year anyway.

Ross: Jake Locker almost tricked me in their 3rd preseason game. He actually looked competent. But he texted me after the game to make sure I wasn’t getting any crazy ideas like drafting him in fantasy or predicting the Titans to go .500. Love that man’s honesty.

2013 New England Patriots Preview (By A Guest Blogger Who’s A Real Life Journalist!)

[Editor’s Note: As I mentioned in my “What To Expect” blog post yesterday, I’ve commissioned the services of a real life journalist (read: someone who doesn’t just sit at home and blog in his undies) to preview the New England Patriots for us. Matt Blanchette is a Sports Anchor at ABC in Providence, Rhode Island. And unlike me, Matt has actually been attending Patriots training camp all summer so he’s a much better resource to update us on what’s actually taken place up to this point. Take it away, Matt.]

tom brady 1

I volunteered to be a guest blogger for Ross to provide a less biased opinion of the Patriots as we head into the 2013 season. I’ll do my best.

I am hardly the first to say it, but despite losing Rob Gronkowski to frailty, Aaron Hernandez to murdering, Wes Welker to Peyton Manning, Danny Woodhead to the Chargers and Brandon Lloyd to a local car wash, the Patriots offense will be fine. It is very simple. As long as Tom Brady is taking snaps, this offense will put up points. Sure, they won’t break records like the 2007 team, but the idea here is to win a championship, and you do that with a balanced offense and defense. Here is a position by position breakdown.

Quarterback

Tom Brady has only thrown one incompletion in two preseason games and seems to be “clicking” just fine with his new weapons. Despite the twitter meltdown last week after he left practice with a knee injury, TB12 looks as good as ever, and will be counted on perhaps more than ever. Ryan Mallet is developing and proving to be a worthy backup, though maybe not the trade bait some want him to be. And for anyone who thought Tim Tebow would elevate himself to #2, you are mistaken. Tebow has looked awful in camp and in the two preseason games. The Pats have actually changed the offense for him, and when he does run their typical offense, he continues to look lost. I still think he makes the team, but he will never be the starter.

Running Back

The Patriots deepest position on offense. I could see them keeping six players here. Steven Ridley is a beast, and if he cures his fumbling woes could be a top five back in the league. Shane Vereen is Kevin Faulk 2.0 and will be ideal on third downs. He has also proven he can run the ball in addition to catching it out of the backfield. Meanwhile, LeGarrette Blount has been one of the biggest surprises of camp. The former 1,000-yard rusher looks like he did when he was the starter for Tampa Bay. He is huge, and will be used on 3rd and short and goal line situations, but showed with his 51 yard touchdown run against Philly he can still bust the long one and is capable of finishing off runs. His emergence could cost Brandon Bolden a spot, but the second year player has also impressed in the limited time he has seen the field. Leon Washington hasn’t shown much as a RB, but with Welker gone, he will play a pivotal role as a return man, and his roster spot should be safe. Which leaves fullback James Develin. The college linebacker seemed like a long shot to make the team, but performed well in the second preseason game, and could take the spot of a tight end. 

Tight End

Which leads me to the TE position. There is no indication Rob Gronkowski is going to be healthy anytime soon, and will likely miss the first 6 weeks of the season, or more. Currently I would put undrafted rookie Zach Sudfeld at the top of the depth chart. He stands out in practice almost every day, and proved he can make a catch in traffic when he hauled in a TD against the Bucs. He is like a mini Gronk, has the 6-7 height and could grow into a great player. This leaves Jake Ballard to be primarily the blocking tight end on the two TE sets. He is proven, though his pass catching ability has been suspect at camp. Daniel Fells has dropped, and Michael Hoomanawanui could be a roster casualty in lieu of the aforementioned Develin.

[Editor’s Note: “Studfeld” is suddenly the cool nickname for undrafted rookie TE Zach Sudfeld, but I’ve got a pending copyright on Gronk Jr. and Baby Gronk. Based on the catches he’s made in preseason, get ready to hear a lot about Baby Gronk during the regular season.]

 Offensive Line

Brady will have his most solid unit in years. Logan Mankins, Nate Solder, Sebastian Vollmer and Dan Connolly are all mainstays. Ryan Wendell, Marcus Cannon and Will Svitek provide depth. This unit should not be an issue.

Wide Receiver

This is the most talked about unit on the team. Who is going to replace the production of the departed? Danny Amendola has shown an immediate chemistry with Tom Brady and the comparisons to Welker are accurate and just. If he stays healthy, Amendola will be a Pro Bowler. The rookies have all looked good, but not consistent. At this point undrafted rookie Kenbrell Thompkins is leading the pack. He’s shown the ability to be in the right place at the right time and has already earned Brady’s trust. Aaron Dobson is the best deep threat the Patriots have had since Randy Moss. He has the size, speed and hands to be a big time player in time. Julian Edelman and Josh Boyce are also in the mix.

Defensive Line/Linebacker

This could be the Pats’ strongest unit. Tommy Kelly has a lot left in the tank and could team with Vince Wilfork to be a force in the middle of the 4-3 defense. Chandler Jones is healthy again on one end, and is poised to have the breakout season everyone predicted during his rookie campaign. On the other end is Rob Ninkovich, who continues to make plays and is one of the leaders of the D. The linebackers are solid with Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes and Donta Hightower. Rookie Jamie Collins is in the mix and is an athletic freak, but part of me doubts he has that natural football instinct to ever be a star in the league.

Defensive Back

This unit has the most question marks. Alfonso Dennard has missed most of camp and has pending legal troubles. If healthy, he is a lock to start at corner, but that remains a question. Aqib Talib will start at the other corner, and should be motivated as he returns to the Pats on a one-year deal. He will almost always lock up with the opposing team’s number one. If Dennard plays, Devin McCourtry will start at safety. He too is dealing with an injury and has sported the red no-contact jersey for most of camp. Much like last year I expect him to rotate between corner and safety. Kyle Arrington can pick up the slack there, as well as subbing in nickel and dime packages. The other safety position will go to either incumbent Steven Gregory or veteran Adrian Wilson. Two former high-round picks Tavon Wilson and Ras-I Downling have looked shaky and appear to be complete misses.

So back to where we started, and maybe I am biased too, but playing in a weak AFC East, the Patriots should easily get to 12-4 again this year and put themselves in a position to make noise in the playoffs. How far they can go will depend on how quickly the new-look offense gels, and if the defense can keep from giving up as many big plays as they have the past two seasons. But once again Pats fans have plenty of reason for optimism in Foxboro.