Inside the Division

The AFC East has invited some immediate impact personnel into the division over the off-season.  The usually strong eastern quartet is coming off a rather down season, as they collected just 28 total wins in 2005, which tied them for the least amount of combined wins with the NFC West.

Whether it has been additions or subtractions, coaches or quarterbacks, there have already been plenty of noteworthy changes up and down the east, with the always crucial draft still looming.

The Miami Dolphins welcomed the biggest name to the division in the off-season.  The Dolphins finished last year's regular season atop an NFL-best six-game winning streak.  Coach Nick Saban and company rode that momentum into the spring, picking up an MVP-caliber QB in Daunte Culpepper from the Minnesota Vikings in exchange for a second-round pick.  Saban could be taking somewhat of a gamble with Culpepper, who comes to South Beach following a few adverse on and off-field matters.  During his worst professional season out of Central Florida, Culpepper received injury to insult last October, sustaining three torn knee ligaments.  Prior to Culpepper's injury, his numbers included a 72.0 passer rating with 7 touchdowns (6 passing) and 12 interceptions in just seven games.  Off the field, the infamous "Love Boat" incident caused quite a stir throughout Viking nation, with Culpepper's name popping up frequently.

With the 16th overall pick in the draft, the Dolphins may look to build off of their key acquisition of Culpepper.  The idea of picking up a young talented wide receiver to be a third option behind proven talents Chris Chambers and Marty Booker makes sense.  Remember, Culpepper put up his best numbers when throwing to reliable targets in Randy Moss and Chris Carter.  The most notable receivers in the draft are Florida's Chad Jackson and Ohio State's Santonio Holmes, both of which have made multiple workout visits to Miami.  If the Dolphins pass on either of these wideouts, perhaps Ernie Sims, a junior linebacker out of Florida State, could be their man to boost the front seven, which is slightly impaired after losing some key veterans.  Linebacker LaVar Arrington, released by the Washington Redskins in the off-season, has allegedly spoken to the Dolphins; however his asking price of around $6 million appears a bit too high.

The reigning AFC East champs, the New England Patriots, have, in so surprise, remained quiet this off-season.  In fact, the only splash they have made in the news recently, has been most notably departures, including clutch kicker Adam Vinatieri (signed with rival Colts as a free agent), veteran DE Willie McGinest (reunited with former defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel in Cleveland) and number one wide receiver David Givens (signed with Tennessee as a free agent).  New England was irritated with injuries relentlessly last season, most notably LB Tedy Bruschi (stroke), DE Richard Seymour (knee), and safety Rodney Harrison (knee).  Also hit with threatening injuries from last year were center Dan Koppen (shoulder) and tackle Matt Light (ankle), meaning former Super Bowl MVP quarterback Tom Brady may be that much more vulnerable in the pocket.

The apparent one way turnstile out of the New England locker room doesn't mean Coach Bill Belichick's boys won't be primed to repeat in 2006.  They have made some quiet – yet crucial - additions, as they re-signed marquee veterans in Seymour and team leader WR Troy Brown, along with their young secondary talents, safety Guss Scott and DB Randall Gay.

With an aging corps of linebackers and a sometimes shaky secondary, the Patriots are looking to fill some holes on defense.  Coach Belichick invited USC safety Darnell Bing to Foxborough for a second visit.  Bing could turn out to be a possible long-term replacement for Harrison, whose knee injury is potentially career-threatening.  Another possibility is to pick up a reliable cornerback, which has clearly contributed to the struggle of the defense over the last two seasons.  Junior Richard Marshall of Fresno State is a proven playmaker who delivers the crushing blows a la Harrison, and his 4.4 speed will help out the safeties on deep balls.

Another direction the Patriots could go is to the other side of the ball, and pick up a running back in the wake of Corey Dillon's obvious signs of fatigue last season.  If Memphis' RB DeAngelo Williams is available, he may turn out to be a steal with the 21st pick, as Williams, with a very comparable running style to Seattle's Shaun Alexander, is the active career leader in the NCAA for rushing yards, all-purpose yards, rushing average, and rushing touchdowns.

For almost every football team across the NFL, the off-season means scouting free agents and potential draft picks in preparation for the 2006 season.  The Buffalo Bills had a bigger task on their hands, as they had to find a coach, a general manager, and both offensive and defensive coordinators.  In the first two weeks of January, general manager Tom Donahoe was fired and quickly replaced by Marv Levy.  Soon thereafter, head coach Mike Mularkey announced his resignation, only to make room for Dick Jauron.  Jauron spent last season as defensive coordinator of the Detroit Lions, who shared the same 5-11 record as the Bills.  Another similar stat in which both Jauron's former team and current team shared is the amount of points each teams' defense gave up.  With that said, the Bills may attack the draft with their 8th pick to get a highly touted defensive specimen, notably, DT Haloti Ngata or DT Brodrick Bunkley.

Ngata, the 6'5", 338-pound junior out of Oregon, would be extremely welcomed by newly-appointed defensive coordinator Perry Fewell.  Ngata would take the reigns from Sam Adams, who was released in March after playing in 45 games over the past three seasons in Buffalo.  Bunkley could actually prove to be a better fit because the 6'3", 284-pound Florida State alum would play the three-technique in Buffalo's new "Tampa Two" scheme.  He is coming off a stellar season in which he recorded a school record 25 tackles for a loss, giving him 37 for his career.  In an indication of Jauron's focus towards a well-built defense, the Bills also tagged CB Nate Clements as their franchise player.

In case the Bills chose to address their other line, they could go after either one of the outstanding offensive tackles in D'Brickashaw Ferguson out of Virginia or Winston Justice from USC.  While Ferguson has been the talk of the draft so far, Justice put up great numbers at his pro day workout and has been moving up draft boards.

In other moves around Bills camp, publicly frustrated WR Eric Moulds was traded to the Houston Texans in exchange for a 5th round draft pick.  Just four days removed from Moulds' departure, the Bills added familiar face Peerless Price.  Price tallied 22 touchdowns in his stint with the Bills from 1999-2002, but couldn't parallel that success in either Atlanta or Dallas.  Also coming in is Andre' Davis, a fifth-year receiver from New England with 14 career touchdowns and close to 2,000 kick return yards.  These two acquisitions will join last year's young returning wideouts, Lee Evans (7 TD's) and Josh Reed (2 TD's).

The New York Jets finished last season at the bottom of the AFC East.  To help lead them out of the cellar and into the thick of things is former New England Patriots defensive coordinator Eric Mangini.  Approaching the 2006 draft with the 4th and 29th overall picks (only the Jets and 49ers have two picks in the first round), the Jets have been the focal point of trade rumors regarding draft position.

Aside from the draft, New York has made many improvements to specifically fit the newly reinforced defense alignment by grabbing LB Brad Kassell, CB Andre Dyson, and defensive linemen Kimo von Oelhoffen and Monsanto Pope.

The departure of last season's team sack leader, John Abraham (10.5 sacks, 44.0 tackles) created a vacancy on the defensive side of the field, which may possibly be filled by NC State's DE Mario Williams. If Williams isn't taken by New Orleans (assuming the Texans chose Reggie Bush first), he would be available for the Jets, as the Titans have not shown much interest in choosing Williams over a quarterback.

The Jets hope Chad Pennington's arm is healthy and he's ready to take on the starting job.  By picking up Patrick Ramsey, the Jets brass may be indicating that they are set at that position, at least for their first pick.  If this is the case, the Jets may follow suit and draft Virginia's OT D'Brickashaw Ferguson to protect their quarterbacks.  Maryland TE Vernon Davis and Ohio State LB A.J. Hawk may also receive long looks, and the top three quarterbacks will be heavily scrutinized as well.

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