Thursday, April 15, 2010

Marshall to Dolphins adds to AFC East intrigue, but changes little

Before trading a 2010 and 2011 second-round draft pick for Broncos receiver Brandon Marshall, the Dolphins were firmly entrenched as the third best team in the AFC East. After the trade, they still are. This trade sure makes the division more interesting, but I can't say it bumps the Dolphins ahead of the Patriots or the Jets. The Bills, well, they don't even deserve a mention from here on out. They'll be lucky to win half as many games as any other team in the division.

Heading into next week's NFL draft, the AFC East is shaping up to be a heated three-team race. The Jets have made big splashes this offseason, trading for Antonio Cromartie and Santonio Holmes while banishing Kerry Rhodes to the desert in Arizona and signing LaDainian Tomlinson to replace the released Thomas Jones.

Assuming they don't move from their current late-first round draft slot, they seem to be looking at a player like Penn State defensive end Jared Odrick or TCU end Jerry Hughes to bolster a non-existant early-down pass rush. They could also look to add depth in the secondary, but the late-first round prospects at corner and safety (unless a player like Boise State's Kyle Wilson or USC's Taylor Mays has a Brady Quinn-like fall) aren't quite as salivating there as they are on the defensive line.

New England hasn't done much but they still have the division's lone proven star quarterback in Tom Brady and that has to count for something in the quarterback-driven NFL. The Pats are not without question marks though, considering the uncertain health of Wes Welker and the increasing age of Randy Moss.

If this team can't throw the football better than the rest of the division, they will fall back to the pack rather quickly with little running game and a defense that needs a serious injection of youth, as seen in the playoffs against Baltimore. With four picks in the first two rounds of the draft (compared to New York and Miami's lack of picks), they very well could fill a lot of their holes.

If New England falls off or the Jets don't live up to the hype, Miami will be waiting to pounce. The trade for Marshall (and subsequent four-year, $47M deal they signed him to) gives Chad Henne the legitimate receiving threat he didn't have last season. I liked what I saw from Henne last season and I expect him to take a big step forward this year, even more so than Mark Sanchez in New York.

If Ronnie Brown comes back healthy this team will continue to pound the run with Brown and Ricky Williams and their defense is better than New England's. I think the Jets and Dolphins are MUCH better teams than the Patriots when you take the 21 positions that aren't quarterback into account. But that one position does make a world of difference, and that's why the Pats will always be contenders with Brady at the helm.

It's way too early to make divisional predictions but there is a slim chance all three of these squads could put together 10-win seasons and make the playoffs. After all, Miami won the AFC East in 2008, New England last season and the Jets made the AFC Championship game.

Some may think it's way too early to get excited about football with baseball just getting underway and the NHL and NBA starting their playoffs (I'll say my piece on how great the NBA playoffs are tomorrow). But football is interesting year-round, something you can't say for any of the three sports I just mentioned. I can't wait for the draft next week, especially because I get to go for the second year in a row!

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