We will preview an NFL division each day for eight days, before presenting final standings, fantasy and statistical leaders, award winners, playoff results and power rankings. This analysis is part of a broader endeavor with FOXSports.com's Fantasy Football..
Rosters and depth charts are up-to-date and as accurate as possible as of June 9, 2009. A schedule of upcoming NFL preview content including links to other previews that have already been posted is located here.
Also, we account for players with injury histories who are considered likely to miss games despite currently being healthy by randomly taking them out of what the analysis dictates is the correct number of games throughout the season. For players who will begin the season injured or who are assumed to replace the current starter during the season, we deliberately make those roster changes in the appropriate weeks. All of these items can cause some perceived inconsistencies with the scores, especially when a team plays one opponent from its division with one set of starters and uses different personnel later.
Today we preview the AFC North.
New England Patriots (11-5)
Coming off a year where 11 wins could not secure a playoff berth, Tom Brady returns to the team to rekindle the Pats' record-setting offense of 2007. The Patriots average 24.5 points per game (#5 in the NFL) and allow 19.0 points (#10) against a schedule featuring seven games against teams who made the playoffs in 2008.
Absolute Record: 16-0
Most Significant Newcomer: Shawn Springs/Leigh Bodden - Tom Brady is not a newcomer, but he will obviously have the biggest impact of any Patriot who did not contribute last season. Excluding Brady though, this is a very different roster than the great teams of the last few seasons. In the off-season New England signed nine free agents who had been cut by their previous teams - giving them 18 non-drafted additions to the squad. Gone are previous mainstays with names like Vrabel, Harrison, Evans, Cassell, Hobbs and Gaffney who played significant roles in the Patriots' successes. New England has overhauled its depth chart at tight end, wide receiver, running back, defensive tackle, linebacker and safety, but at no position are newcomers more important than at cornerback. Shawn Springs and Leigh Bodden are both among those who were cut by their 2008 teams, yet both should start this season. The offense may not fully return to 2007 form, but it should be great again this year, so much of the pressure will fall on the defense and primarily the new secondary. Springs and Bodden have 232 games of experience and 45 career interceptions between them. If they can hold up for the entire year against Terrell Owens, Brandon Marshall, Roddy White, Reggie Wayne, Steve Smith, Andre Johnson and others, the team will be in great shape.
Biggest Strength: The System - The brain trust of Bill Belichick and Tom Brady.
Most Exploitable Weakness: Health and Age - We may be projecting Tom Brady to play all 16 games - like he did every season before last - but another injury to him could keep this team from the playoffs once again. Furthermore, the team has had other recent age and injury concerns, yet replaced many of its older players with players of around the same age. By the start of the season, New England will be relying on more than 20 players 29 years old and older to contribute. Fred Taylor, Joey Galloway, Shawn Springs, Tedy Bruschi, Sammy Morris, Adalius Thomas and Kevin Faulk are not necessarily young or healthy.
Possible Fantasy Sleeper: Alex Smith, TE - It's very hard to identify sleepers from the Patriots because their commodities are either obvious (Brady, Moss, Welker, Gostkowski) or completely unreliable (any RB, other WRs). The tight end position is very intriguing though because New England has stockpiled depth at the position. Ben Watson, Chris Baker and Alex Smith will all play and all have previous seasons of 40+ receptions. Alex Smith, a former third-round pick for Tampa Bay, is the youngest, most-athletic TE and has the least history of injury of the three. Watson and Baker may be ahead of him on the depth chart, but the Patriots will find a way to use Smith and may have to if one of those players goes down. Our current projection is for Alex Smith to catch 14 passes for 168 yards and 1 TD, but that could go up significantly if either of the guys in front of him fall.
Closest Game: @ New Orleans (Week 12) - As we will unveil in a week or so, New Orleans is a good team with a prolific pass offense that could give the Patriots fits on the road. New England is actually favored in every game on its schedule, but this shootout is the closest at just 51% and an average score 25-27 that shows how explosive the Saints are in their wins.
Fantasy Notables (fantasy rank at position in parentheses): Tom Brady (3) 3,901 yards, 27 TDs, 13 INTs; Kevin Faulk (39) 795 total yards, 8 TDs; Sammy Morris (53) 667 total yards, 6 TDs; Fred Taylor (54) 707 total yards, 5 TDs; Randy Moss (4) 83 receptions, 1,283 yards, 9 TDs; Wes Welker (10) 111 receptions, 1,161 yards, 7 TDs; Stephen Gostkowkski (14) 44/45 XPs, 23/30 FGs
Projected 2009 Results:
|2||@New York Jets||55||20-19|
|7||@Tampa Bay Buccaneers||76||24-17|
|11||New York Jets||63||22-16|
|12||@New Orleans Saints||51||25-27|
New York Jets (9-7)
Eric Mangini was fired after he and Brett Favre could not lead the Jets to the playoffs in 2008. Rex Ryan, a defensive guru from Baltimore replaces him and already has made comments about his team visiting the white house. With a big question mark at quarterback, they may not be there yet, but this is a likely playoff team. The Jets average 21.5 points per game (#13) and allow 18.9 points (#9) against a schedule featuring six games against 2008 playoff teams.
Absolute Record: 11-5
Most Significant Newcomer: Rex Ryan, Head Coach - Ryan is more significant than Mark Sanchez, Bart Scott, Lito Sheppard and others because this team mirrors the 2008 Baltimore Ravens. With its strong, versatile and athletic 3-4 defense, stable of running backs and rookie quarterback, not to mention Scott, defensive end Marques Douglas and safety Jim Leonhard all the pieces are in place for Ryan to have the same success in New York as he did as defensive coordinator last year in Baltimore. While David Harris and Kerry Rhodes have shown flashes of brilliance, Ed Reed and Ray Lewis are not on the Jets. However, New York has a better offensive line than Baltimore and a fairly easy schedule. Add Ryan's defensive ingenuity and the Jets should get the wild card.
Biggest Strength: Offensive Line - Some great offensive lines, like in New England and with the Giants, are great units with no one who stands out above (or below) the group. Most NFL fans could acknowledge their prowess, yet not name any of their components. The Jets offensive line has a chance to be just as great as those teams, but is different in that it has personality and five very unique parts. Alan Faneca, Damien Woody, Nick Mangold and D'Brickashaw Ferguson were each first round draft choices, who have essentially started every possible game since their careers began, making eight total Pro Bowls in the process; while Brandon Moore has paved the way for Jets running backs like Curtis Martin, LaMont Jordan, Thomas Jones and Leon Washington for six seasons. Add in the blocking of fullback Tony Richardson and the running game could be as strong as any in the league and the young quarterback should have time to throw.
Most Exploitable Weakness: Quarterback - The QB will need time because, no matter who it is, he will be raw and lacking weapons (Jerricho Cotchery, Dustin Keller and...). Our rookie projection system likes Sanchez to be a solid veteran for many years, but the transition is not easy and the schedule is the toughest at the beginning of the year when we expect him to be thrown into action. In our analysis, we assume that Sanchez takes 93.2% of the Jets' snaps, ultimately completing 59.7% of his passes for 2,569 yards, 16 TDs and 14 INTs. Those are not great numbers, but would get the team in the playoffs. Anything short of that production from the quarterback position could doom this team.
Possible Fantasy Sleeper: David Clowney, WR - With a great pass-catching tight end and several good, all-around running backs alongside Jerricho Cotchery, no one has to step up as the number two wideout on the Jets for the team to succeed. But if a player on their roster were to do so, we like Clowney over Chansi Stuckey or Brad Smith. The notion is that young quarterbacks like to throw to tight ends and running backs more than other QBs because that is "safe," but that has not really been the case recently. Young quarterbacks are drafted highly because of physical tools including arm strength, so when teams actually call on them to make plays in the passing game, it's usually to leverage those abilities (see Roddy White and Mark Clayton from 2008). Our projections have Stuckey and Clowney splitting targets as the second wide receiver, with Clowney averaging about four yards-per-reception more than Stuckey. Obviously then, if Clowney wins the spot, he is much more valuable in fantasy.
Closest Game: Carolina (Week 12) - The Jets should go 4-1 after this game, so a home victory late in the season against a strong Panther team could be the difference in a late playoff run and momentum heading into the post-season.
Fantasy Notables: Mark Sanchez (23) 2,569 yards, 15 TDs, 14 INTs; Thomas Jones (20) 1,348 total yards, 9 TDs; Leon Washington (44) 818 total yards, 6 TDs; Jerricho Cotchery (27) 67 receptions, 913 yards, 6 TDs; Dustin Keller (7) 56 receptions, 670 yards, 4 TDs; Jay Feely (15) 36/36 XPs, 26/30 FGs
Projected 2009 Results:
|2||New England Patriots||45||19-20|
|4||@New Orleans Saints||47||22-24|
|11||@New England Patriots||37||16-22|
|14||@Tampa Bay Buccaneers||68||24-20|
Miami Dolphins (9-7)
Year two of the Sparano-era in Miami sees the Dolphins decline by two wins from last season and fail to make playoffs. The Dolphins average 19.8 points per game (#23) and allow 18.8 points (#8) against a schedule featuring six games against 2008 playoff teams.
Absolute Record: 9-7
Most Significant Newcomer: Jason Taylor, LB - Miami was relatively quiet this off-season. While the numbers suggest that drafting Sean Smith and Vontae Davis and signing Gibril Wilson should help a defensive secondary that lost Reynaldo Hill and Andre Goodman, and the possibilities with Pat White are intriguing, Jason Taylor is the guy with this biggest potential and likley impact this season. Taylor is back in Miami, where he was one of the top players in the league for 11 seasons, averaging over ten sacks a season over that period. He can be a game-changing player no matter his age and one would assume that Bill Parcells and the Dolphins have a plan to best utilize his skills (a la Joey Porter in 2008). The projections have Taylor with seven sacks, two interceptions and 56 total tackles.
Biggest Strength: Turnover Margin - Last season for the Pro Football Writers of America awards, I voted for Chad Pennington as the NFL's MVP. His efficiency in leading his team to the AFC East title by masterfully managing a game with few mistakes and enough big plays positively impacted his team's chances of winning greater than any other player in the league. In 2008, Miami only turned the ball over 13 times while forcing 30 turnovers for a league-high margin of +17. For a team void of superstar, play-making talent, the key to returning to the playoffs will be reaching that level of efficiency again. Another way to put that may be that Chad Pennington has to play another full season... and the Dolphins have to get a little lucky again.
Most Exploitable Weakness: Return Defense - The Dolphins may lack a "superstar playmaker," but they also do not have too many exploitable weaknesses on offense or defense. Miami could use some work defending punt and kick returns, however. In 2008, the Dolphins finished 29th and 25th in the NFL respectively in those categories. In 2009, the team faces top return men like Clifton Smith, Leodis McKelvin, Chris Carr, Darren Sproles, Leon Washington, Jerrious Norwood, Roscoe Parrish, Reggie Bush and Jim Leonhard, so they better figure out how to fix issues in the return game if they want to come close to winning the field position battle.
Possible Fantasy Sleeper: Davone Bess, WR - Greg Camarillo is slated to start next to Ted Ginn Jr., but he is still battling back from a torn ACL. Whether he is fully ready to go by the regular season or not, Bess is an intriguing fantasy option. He had 35 catches for 366 yards in the team's last six games (when Camarillo was out) last year and really found his niche as a possession receiver. Since he does not get many yards-per-reception or touchdown opportunities, he will need a great deal of targets to be valuable, yet it is clear that Pennington appreciates Bess and will likely be comfortable using him heavily all year. Our projections have Bess at 44 receptions for 489 yards and three touchdowns. Camarillo and Ginn combine for 82 receptions, so expect Bess' numbers to go way up if either of those players gets hurt.
Closest Game: Indianapolis Colts (Week 2) - If Pennington eventually gets hurt or is replaced later in the season, a week two home game against Indianapolis is especially critical to the Dolphins' chances. A win could keep them from starting 0-3. While the Jets unique opponents are Oakland and Cincinnati, Miami draws Pittsburgh and San Diego. The Dolphins have to win close games like this to even that gap. They may be catching the Colts are the right time too as the team works out the kinks under a new coaching staff.
Fantasy Notables: Chad Pennington (30) 1,858 yards, 10 TDs, 6 INTs; Ronnie Brown (13) 1,469 total yards, 10 TDs; Ricky Williams (52) 731 total yards, 5 TDs; Ted Ginn Jr (42) 52 receptions, 785 yards, 4 TDs; Anthony Fasano (22) 30 receptions, 419 yards, 2 TDs; Dan Carpenter (12) 31/31 XPs, 29/33 FGs
Projected 2009 Results:
|3||@San Diego Chargers||38||19-24|
|5||New York Jets||49||19-17|
|7||New Orleans Saints||55||24-21|
|8||@New York Jets||43||14-19|
|9||@New England Patriots||34||16-22|
|10||Tampa Bay Buccaneers||71||26-17|
|13||New England Patriots||32||16-21|
Buffalo Bills (7-9)
Will Terrell Owens be happy with 7-9? That will likely be the biggest story in Buffalo this season. A talented team quickly becomes in disarray without strong coaching and with some very obvious holes. The Bills average 21.0 points per game (#17) and allow 23.4 points (#24) against a schedule featuring just four games against 2008 playoff teams.
Absolute Record: 4-12
Most Significant Newcomer: Jermaine McGhee, DE - The Prairie View A&M product has never played a down in the NFL, but was brought in as insurance for ends Aaron Schobel and Chris Kelsay. McGhee may be built more like a linebacker at 6'3", 242 pounds, yet has one extra letter in his last name than Bills' Pro Bowl corner Terrence McGee, so we project him to be extra awesome - even if we are not clear whether this is this same Jermaine McGhee who played "Flame Dancer #9" in Dance Flick. Who did you think we were going to highlight, Harvard product, Ryan "Crazy Legs" Fitzpatrick?
Biggest Strength: Wide Receivers - What seemed like a position of weakness quickly became a strength when Terrell Owens joined the Bills. There is now a little bit of everything in the mix. Roscoe Parrish is a quick, diminuitive player with return skills. James Hardy has protypical size and youth. Josh Reed is a fantastic possession receiver. Lee Evans is a great deep threat. Terrell Owens is the total package (good and bad). And, when he is not subbing for Marshawn Lynch during Lynch's impending suspension, Fred Jackson may even split out and display his pass-catching talents. The offensive line lost a bit when Jason Peters left to Philadelphia, but having this many weapons at wide receiver should help Trent Edwards and the Bills offset that loss.
Most Exploitable Weakness: Decision-making - This is where a very talented team misses the playoffs. Even the numbers can illustrate how this could quickly become a fractured, underperforming team. Buffalo finished 27th in the turnover margin at -8 in 2008. In his career, Trent Edwards has the same number of interceptions as touchdowns. As previously referenced, Marshawn Lynch has off field issues that will keep him from playing at the start of the season. And while drafting well overall, the front office made a mistake with Aaron Maybin and let Pro Bowl left tackle go without adequately replacing him. And that's just what shows up in the numbers.
Possible Fantasy Sleeper: Fred Jackson, RB - Jackson is a more dynamic player than Marshawn Lynch and will get a chance to fill in for Lynch at the beginning of the year. He should still see 8-12 touches a game after that. Assuming Lynch misses three games, we have Jackson at 437 rushing yards, 358 receiving yards and eight touchdowns.
Closest Game: Miami Dolphins (Week 12) - Buffalo is really only favored to beat the bad teams on its schedule, but this late game against Miami in Buffalo provides the Bills a chance to upset a division opponent and salvage something from the season.
Fantasy Notables: Trent Edwards (11) 3,282 yards, 21 TDs, 17 INTs; Marshawn Lynch (27) 1,043 total yards, 8 TDs; Fred Jackson (41) 796 total yards, 8 TDs; Terrell Owens (12) 73 receptions, 1,150 yards, 6 TDs; Lee Evans (23) 54 receptions, 919 yards, 6 TDs; Rian Lindell (18) 35/35 XPs, 25/34 FGs
Projected 2009 Results:
|1||@New England Patriots||31||21-28|
|2||Tampa Bay Buccaneers||56||25-21|
|3||New Orleans Saints||43||24-25|
|6||@New York Jets||30||17-25|
|13||New York Jets||39||20-22|
|14||@Kansas City Chiefs||56||21-22|
|15||New England Patriots||28||18-24|
Click here to view a schedule of 2009 NFL previews and see others that have been posted.
Paul Bessire is the Product Manager of Content and Quantitative Analysis for WhatIfSports.com, a division of FOX Sports Interactive specializing in fantasy football simulation analysis and football sim games. With any comments, questions or topic suggestions, Paul can be reached at BtB@whatifsports.com. Thanks!
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