The AFC East Draft
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Buffalo Bills (11th and 28th Overall Picks)
The "tweener" is a common category among current pro prospects, and it's a designation that can be applied to every wave of the NFL defense. With the advent of Justin Tuck in the Giants' amazing defensive line, teams were intrigued by end/tackle tweeners like USC's Lawrence Jackson. It was assumed that every 6'4", 270-pound college end would have the speed to rush outside, and the ferocity to make plays inside. This hypothesis failed to account for Tuck's specific and special abilities, and Jackson has been a middling pro prospect so far. College "endbackers" are snapped up by teams hoping to find the next DeMarcus Ware, and they wind up with kids who hang between two positions - possessing neither the pass rush abilities of elite defensive ends nor the skill sets of outstanding outside linebackers. And the road is littered with players possessing cornerback size and safety speed. It's the inverse equation that gets you to the Pro Bowl.
At 6'4" and 250 pounds Penn State endbacker Aaron Maybin is a tweener with issues. Can he play the run and be an every-down player when he's giving up 60 pounds and more to offensive tackles? And can he overcome his own inexperience? Maybin played in every Penn State game in 2007, but as a reserve end. He wasn't a regular starter until the third game of the 2008 season. He put up 12 sacks and 20 total tackles for loss last year, but the moves to succeed at the NFL level might not be there yet. The Bills selected Maybin 11th overall based on his potential, but it's unclear what they've got. Maybin may actually project as a linebacker at the next level. Right now, it's time for a few growing pains. Maybin is training with Ray Lewis in the offseason, so at least he won't be lacking an intense workout buddy ... and from Shane Conlan to Paul Posluszny, the Bills have had exceptional luck with Penn State linebackers.
There were no such concerns with Buffalo's second first-rounder, Louisville center Eric Wood. Regarded by many as the best at his position, Wood will actually kick out to right guard to begin his NFL career as the Bills redefine an offensive line that's been soft up the middle. In a division with Kris Jenkins, Vince Wilfork, and Jason Ferguson, that's not good. In 2008, the Bills ranked 11th in Adjusted Line Yards overall, but 26th in the Mid-Guard area. The hope is that Wood, who started 49 straight games at center and has an old-school mean streak, can be the pointman of a line that lost left tackle Jason Peters (in the trade to Philadelphia that made Wood's selection possible) and left guard Derrick Dockery. Fellow rookie Andy Levitre of Oregon State's highly-regarded line will occupy whichever guard position Wood doesn't.
Miami Dolphins (25th Pick Overall)
Tom Brady throwing to Randy Moss, Wes Welker AND Joey Galloway. Buffalo's Quarterback Du Jour with T.O. as a complementary target to Lee Evans. Mark Sanchez growing quickly in a refined offense. The AFC East is a bad place to be a bad quarterback. That's why the Dolphins, who took the division is one of the all-time great turnaround stories, went after Illinois' Vintae Davis. Like his older brother Vernon, Davis possesses nonpareil athleticism - he's got consistent 4.4 speed at 5'11" and 200 pounds. Also like his brother, Davis has the potential to be much more an athlete than a football player, as his technique and discipline have come into question. If anyone can whip the younger Davis into shape, it's Dolphins head capo Bill Parcells, who has a remarkable record of reformation with players just this side of reckless. Last season, Miami ranked 12th in Defensive DVOA against the pass, but 30th against #2 receivers. This is probably why the Dolphins signed Will Allen to a two-year extension, but let Renaldo Goodman toddle off to Denver. Veteran Eric Green will replace Goodman in the short term, but expect to see Davis out there in at least nickel looks sooner than later. At its best, Davis' fast, physical style could go a long way to allowing Miami to defend that division crown.
New England Patriots (34th Pick Overall)
The Patriots are another team that realizes the value of a good secondary - in 2008, the Patriots ranked 21st in Pass Defense DVOA, which was the real issue that kept the team out of the playoffs. Matt Cassell was one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL down the stretch, so it wasn't the absence of Mr. Brady that stopped that remarkable franchise; it was a secondary with several serious problems. One problem was that strong safety Rodney Harrison retired after a season in which he was the Patriots' most-targeted defensive back and ranked 63rd in Success Rate in his final season (Success Rate is determined by incompletions and interceptions, as well as plays which prevent offenses from extending drives.)
Replacing Harrison will be Oregon's Patrick Chung, a hard-hitting defender who played several positions for the Ducks. Personnel versatility is a must on a Bill Belichick-coached team, and Chung played just about everywhere in Oregon's defensive backfield. When I caught up with him in early April for a Scout.com feature, Chung talked about his different roles, especially the "Rover" position played so well by Brian Urlacher at New Mexico. "Rover is safety/corner/linebacker all rolled into one," he said. "You have to cover tight ends, cover slot receivers, play in the box, Cover-2 and Cover-3 and you are pretty much the guy who covers the whole field and you have to be flexible enough to do that." Chung has some coverage ability, but he'll likely be used a bit like Harrison was - as a supreme downhill tackler.
New York Jets (5th Pick Overall)
The Jets' Brett Favre experiment faded down the stretch, and ex-New York quarterback Chad Pennington took the Dolphins to the division title. New head coach Rex Ryan needed his version of a Matt Ryan or Joe Flacco - the kind of potential franchise quarterback that could define the team as Ryan hopes he himself can from the sidelines. As the Jets looked through all available options, it turned out to be a no-brainer - after one workout, Ryan and his staff wanted USC's Mark Sanchez, and traded about half their draft and a few veteran players for Cleveland's fifth overall pick.
What makes Sanchez so impressive? There's the fact that with three total starts before his 2008 season, he took the reins last year and threw for 34 touchdowns and only 10 interceptions. His passer efficiency rating of 164.64 ranked first in the Pac-10 and sixth in the NCAA. His career completion percentage of 64.27 ranks third in school history behind Matt Leinart and Rob Johnson. With Sanchez, NFL teams were going just as much on potential as production, but there is a maturity and polish about him that has impressed a great many personnel people. When I interviewed him for the Post just before the draft, he talked about the qualities he believes will set him apart at the sport's most difficult position.
"More than anything, just how excited I am to play in every game and every practice," he said, when asked about the attributes that don't show up on tape. "How I study and take the preparation phase to heart. It's important to me to be prepared and to study the right way. Being a personality in the locker room, someone that other guys can talk to and look up to. A vocal leader, an emotional leader, and someone who knows when to lead by example. I think that really shows when you celebrate after plays and you're with the guys all the time when you're playing or practicing or just in social situations, it's important to be a team guy."
That final attribute would set Sanchez apart from his predecessor, who's busy torturing the NFL with yet another offseason of "Will he/won't he?"
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