In a couple of weeks, players for AFC East teams will compete to be among the final 53 on each squad’s rosters.
However, the result of each team’s season is very often predicated upon the performance of its franchise player. They are often the performer the team puts the most resources and responsibility upon. An injury to that player or performance issues with him could be the difference between making the postseason or changing the direction of the team.
Here are the four players who qualify for the franchise player distinction for each team in the AFC East, along with some honorable mentions.
Franchise Player: E.J. Manuel
Honorable Mentions: Kiko Alonso, Sammy Watkins
Manuel was a shocking selection to many as the No. 16 overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft. With a rookie season to acclimate himself to the pro game, the honeymoon before the former Florida State Seminole needs to prove himself as the quarterback who can end a 14-year playoff drought. For the Bills it appears to be over after the team traded up for wide receiver Sammy Watkins in the draft.
Manuel, who ranked No. 27 in ESPN’s NFL quarterback rankings (via thephinsider.com), was 4-6 as a starter in his rookie season, throwing for 11 touchdowns and 9 interceptions. Knee injuries cost Manuel valuable time in training camp and six games of the regular season, so staying durable and on the field will be key for him to progress.
Manuel used this offseason to not only recover from injury, but work with a quarterback coach that sees loads of potential for the second-year quarterback, according to Fox Sports’ Ross Jones:
Manuel training with a quarterback guru, along with the 49ers’ Colin Kaepernick (via NFL.com) shows he knows the importance of this upcoming season. With last year’s quarterback of the defense, linebacker Kiko Alonso, likely absent this season with a Torn ACL, Manuel may have to bring his game to a Pro Bowl-level for Buffalo to make a run at the postseason.
Franchise Player: Ryan Tannehill
Honorable Mentions: Cameron Wake, Mike Wallace
After being selected as the No.9 pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, Tannehill is entering a make-or-break third pro season in which a pair of promising but ultimately mediocre first two seasons (15-17) puts pressure on him to lead Miami back to the postseason for the first time since the 2008 season.
The Dolphins have invested heavily in help for Tannehill over the past two offseasons. They are spending over $21 million on wide receivers Mike Wallace, Brian Hartline, and Brandon Gibson this year (via spotrac.com). Signed left tackle Branden Albert, and spent this year’s first two draft picks on an offensive tackle (first-round pick Ja’Wuan James) and wide receiver (second-round pick) Jarvis Landry.
In ESPN’s NFL quarterback rankings, Tannehill was ranked No. 23, with Kevin Nogle of The Phinsider explaining why:
When the rankings were first released, there were lots of Dolphins fans irate that Tannehill would be so low. It is, however, a pretty fair ranking, I believe. Tannehill is 15-17 in his career, with a 79.1 passer rating. He has just six more touchdowns to interceptions (36-30), and a career 59.4 completion percentage. Over the same time period, Palmer is 14-17, with an 84.6 passer rating. He threw 46 touchdowns with 36 interceptions, and had a 62.2 completion percentage. Palmer also threw for over 1,000 more yards than Tannehill, breaking 4,000 yards each season while Tannehill’s career high is 3,913 yards. And that’s just one spot ahead of Tannehill.
Tannehill has all the talent and pieces around him to succeed this season, but he cannot get sacked anywhere near the 58 times he went down in 2013 (via ESPN.com). Nor can he afford a three-interception performance in a must-win game to get into the postseason like he had in Week 17 against the Jets last season.
A repeat of either could lead to Miami looking elsewhere at the quarterback position.
New York Jets
Franchise Player: Sheldon Richardson
Honorable Mentions: Geno Smith, Muhammad Wilkerson
When the Jets traded the face of the franchise, cornerback Darrelle Revis, to Tampa Bay, they received the No. 13 overall pick in the 2013 NFL draft. With that selection, they took University of Missouri defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson.
Little over a year later, Richardson is the reigning defensive rookie of the year, and looks to be a key piece in New York trying to get back into the playoffs after three years of mediocrity (22-26). Richardson finished his first season with 78 total tackles and 3.5 sacks, and was ranked No.94 among NFL.com’s top 100.
Richardson also embodies the confidence that is often mistaken as arrogance that head coach Rex Ryan often exhibits. Richardson told the New York Post exactly what he thought of the New England Patriots and their quarterback Tom Brady ahead of last year’s week 8 matchup that the Jets won (via foxsports.com):
Richardson’s attack method is not a new one — he’s going after Brady, and he’s saying the Patriots get special treatment from the league. Such things have been said before. But Richardson did add some originality to his comments, such as his revisionist football history.
“You’re going to see a lot of stuff, man, that the Patriots can do to you, that they get away with, that we can’t do to the Patriots. It’s just the way it is,” he told the Post. “It’s just the way the world works.”
Richardson’s beef starts with Brady.
“Why do we make rules after he gets hurt?” Richardson asked, presumably speaking of the rule protecting quarterbacks from players already on the ground, which was made after Brady’s 2008 injury. “I don’t know why a bunch of stuff. They made the tuck rule back when? 2000 when? Tom Brady rule, right? OK, a lot of great quarterbacks have hurt a knee before, but now we can’t hit quarterbacks in the knees now ’cause Tom Brady gets hurt. Doesn’t it seem that way? Right or wrong?”
For a team that lost much of its defensive identity when Revis departed, Richardson has appeared to be the first step for the Jets to regain it. His swagger, along with his play, will be something to watch in his sophomore campaign.
New England Patriots
Franchise Player: Tom Brady
Honorable Mentions: Rob Gronkowski, Vince Wilfork
Brady could be the face of the NFL, much less the team that he has quarterbacked for the better part of the last 13 years. Yet, his place among the game’s greats has been challenged more this off-season than at any point in his career following a sub-par season by his standards.
Despite losing top receivers like Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd to free agency, and injuries to targets like Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Dobson, Brady still threw for 4,343 yards and 25 touchdowns to only 11 interceptions. Still, Pro Football Focus’ Sam Monson made the case in a piece for ESPN that Brady was not a top-five quarterback this past season because of his struggles with accuracy and turnovers when under pressure (via nesn.com).
Monson was not alone, with the Washington Post’s Neil Greenberg also saying that Brady was not a top-five signal caller in 2013:
ESPN’s Mike Sando asked 26 league insiders to grade every projected starting quarterback on a 1-5 scale, with “one” reserved for the best and “five” for the worst. The poll had New England’s Tom Brady tied for the top spot, in Tier 1, along with Peyton Manning (Denver), Aaron Rodgers (Green Bay), Drew Brees (New Orleans) and Andrew Luck (Indianapolis).
Here’s the thing: Brady is no longer a top-five quarterback in the NFL.
Let’s start with the basics: Brady completed the fourth most passes last season (380) for the sixth most yards (4,343) and was outside the top 10 for touchdowns (25) and quarterback rating (87.3). According to ESPN’s Total Quarterback Rating, he ranked 11th (61.1).
In terms of creating catchable passes for receivers, Brady ranked seventh (70.8 percent catchable passes thrown) while Rodgers (74.1 percent), Manning (72.3 percent) and Brees (72.1 percent) all ranked in the top five.
On passing attempts targeted 20 yards or more downfield, Brady completed 22 of 75 passes for 774 yards, four touchdowns and four interceptions. His completion percentage ranked 10th among quarterbacks with at least 50 deep ball attempts.
Brady’s ability to continue to keep the Patriots within striking distance of a Super Bowl title (three straight AFC Championship game appearances) should be evidence enough of the level he has played. But with his place on the quarterback totem pole being questioned, how the 37-year old responds will be one of the major storylines of this upcoming NFL season.
For more AFC East news, come back next week!
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