FOXBORO MA - SEPTEMBER 26: Vince Wilfork of the New England Patriots. Do YOU want to get in his way? (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)
It feels like only yesterday that the 2010 season started, but here we recognize AFC East players who have stood out so far.
Quarterback: Tom Brady, Patriots (131 completions, 1,362 yards, 11 TDs, 4 interceptions)
Brady doesn’t have the most yards (Chad Henne) or the best QB rating (Ryan Fitzpatrick), but he owns the highest completion percentage at 66.2% and the most TDs with 11. The Patriots have the best points-per-game average in the league with 29.5, and are tied With San Diego for third in total points (177) despite having played one game less than the Chargers, Tennessee (199) and Oakland (179!?). Brady has not always made solid throws and his decision-making has not been up to his usual standard, particularly in the loss to the Jets. However, he led a fourth-quarter/overtime comeback against the highly-touted Ravens defense, and had a key touchdown drive to start the second half against a San Diego squad that had totally shut the Patriots down offensively up to that point. When the pressure is on, Brady is the quarterback I trust most to carry his team to victory.
Runner Up: Mark Sanchez, Jets (98 completions, 1,100 yards, 9 TDs, 2 interceptions)
Running Back: LaDainian Tomlinson, Jets (92 carries, 490 yards, 5 TDs)
LT has come on with a vengeance this season, proving he is still to be respected. He has over 150 more rushing yards than the next back in the division, who happens to be his teammate Shonn Greene. He also has the most touchdowns with five, and is averaging 5.3 yards per carry. While it remains to be seen if he can sustain his level of performance the entire season, he has already proved many of his doubters wrong.
Runner Up: BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Patriots (68 carries, 259 yards, 4 TDs)
Fullback: Lousaka Polite, Dolphins
Polite is a solid blocker, and a very good short-yardage back. If you only need one yard, he is the guy get it. He has five first down conversions this season, four rushing and one receiving.
Runner Up: John Conner, Jets
Wide Receiver 1: Brandon Marshall, Dolphins (42 receptions, 524 yards, 1 TD)
While Marshall has struggled to find the end zone, he is an absolute beast catching the ball. "Covered" is a relative term for Brandon, who has the size and strength to out-fight any defender for the ball. He is tied for sixth in the NFL with 87.3 receiving yards per game.
Runner Up: Braylon Edwards, Jets (21 receptions, 343 yards, 4 TDs)
Wide Receiver 2: Steve Johnson, Bills (25 receptions, 372 yards, 5 TDs)
Johnson has been a nice surprise for the Bills in his third season. After playing sporadically and catching only two passes last season he has played every game, with three starts in 2010. Last week he broke out against the Ravens for eight catches, 158 yards and a TD. He has found the end zone in each of the Bills last four games. At 6’2" and 202 pounds he is the big target Buffalo needs to complement speedster Lee Evans.
Runner Up: Davone Bess, Dolphins (32 receptions, 348 yards, 3 TDs)
Tight End: Dustin Keller, Jets (24 receptions, 343 yards, 5 TDs)
Keller overcame the mistakes he had in Week 1 and has solidified himself as a quality receiving tight end. His five touchdowns are tied with Steve Johnson for the most of any AFC East pass-catcher, and he is averaging an impressive 14.3 yards per catch. Keller has the speed to stretch the middle of the field, and the toughness to withstand hits and fight for extra yards.
Runner Up: Aaron Hernandez, Patriots (27 receptions, 355 yards)
Tackle 1: D’Brickashaw Ferguson, Jets
The Jets have only allowed 9 sacks (third in NFL) this season in 179 pass attempts, and left tackle Ferguson is a big reason for that. He received a nice contract extension during preseason, and has been earning it so far.
Runner Up: Sebastian Vollmer, Patriots
Tackle 2: Jake Long, Dolphins
Despite a couple penalties so far this season, Long has helped keep Chad Henne upright against some of the most fearsome pass rushes in the league. The Dolphins have only given up 10 sacks despite facing the Jets, Steelers, Vikings and Packers (without Clay Matthews).
Runner Up: Damien Woody, Jets
Guard 1: Brandon Moore, Jets
The Jets are averaging 159.2 yards per game on the ground, with a 4.9 average per carry. Moore has been consistent in opening up holes, and has protected "The Sanchize" admirably.
Runner Up: Andy Levitre, Bills
Guard 2: Stephen Neal, Patriots
Stephen Neal is playing at a high level despite considering retirement in the offseason. New England has benefited from having his consistency and experience at right guard while Dan Connolly and Ryan Wendell have filled in for Logan Mankins at left guard.
Runner Up: Dan Connolly, Patriots
Center: Nick Mangold, Jets
Mangold has struggled with some penalties, but has provided excellent protection and helped in the running game.
Runner Up: Geoff Hangartner, Bills
Kicker: Dan Carpenter, Dolphins
While not as strong kicking off as Stephen Gostkowski, Carpenter has hit 13 of 15 field goals, and is perfect in six attempts from inside 39 yards. He has hit five out of six from 40-49 yards, and two of three from 50 plus. His long this season is 53 yards.
Runner Up: Stephen Gostkowski, Patriots
Punter: Steve Weatherford, Jets
Weatherford has punted 32 times, and has a net average of 40.1 yards. He has forced opponents to start inside the 20 yard line on 13 occasions, and has no punts returned for touchdowns.
Runner Up: Brandon Fields, Dolphins
Nose Tackle: Vince Wilfork, Patriots (17 tackles, 13 solo, 1 pass defended)
Wilfork has played both nose tackle and end for the Patriots, with excellent results. New England positions him wherever they think opponents will try to run the ball, and Wilfork usually forces them to adjust their game plan. While he has not lit up the stat chart, his contributions are massive. He has anchored the young Patriots defense, leading by example and setting the emotional tone. Big Vince is a player no offensive lineman wants to see across from them.
Runner Up: Sione Pouha, Jets (25 tackles, 18 solo, 1 sack, 2 passes defended, 2 fumbles recovered)
Defensive End 1: Shaun Ellis, Jets (18 tackles, 12 solo, 3.5 sacks, 1 pass defended, 1 forced fumble)
At age 33, Ellis is still going strong. He played his best game in Week 1 where he accumulated 7 tackles, a sack and a forced fumble. His 3.5 sacks lead the team, and are the most by any defensive lineman in the division.
Runner Up: Kendall Langford, Dolphins (20 tackles, 14 solo, 2 sacks, 2 passes defended)
Defensive End 2: Dwan Edwards, Bills (39 tackles, 22 solo, 1 sack, 1 pass defended)
Edwards leads all defensive linemen in the NFL with 39 tackles. Week 4 against the Jets he racked up 11 total tackles, an incredible number considering he plays defensive end.
Runner Up: Gerard Warren, Patriots (9 tackles, 6 solo, 2 sacks)
Outside Linebacker 1: Cameron Wake, Dolphins (20 tackles, 16 solo, 6 sacks, 3 passes defended, 1 forced fumble)
After starting only one game in 2009, the 28-year-old Wake has really come on this year. He has the speed to get around the corner and make quarterbacks uncomfortable, and long arms to disrupt passing lanes and tip the ball. He had three sacks against Green Bay in Week 6, and the scary part is he is still improving.
Runner Up: Jason Taylor, Jets (19 tackles, 13 solo, 3 sacks, 1 pass defended, 2 forced fumbles, 1 fumble recovery)
Outside Linebacker 2: Rob Ninkovich, Patriots (29 tackles, 20 solo, 1 sack, 4 passes defended, 2 interceptions, 2 fumble recoveries)
Ninkovich has stepped up with some key plays for the Patriots this season. His two interceptions against Miami in Week 4 came when the Dolphins were threatening to build some momentum, and helped secure the win for New England. He struggled somewhat against the run in the early weeks, but has improved his technique, and is playing smart defense. Last week against San Diego, Ninkovich jumped on the live ball following Philip Rivers’ backward pass. While other players assumed the play was over, Ninkovich got back up, and returned the fumble 63 yards, leading to a Patriots field goal. He may not be the most polished outside linebacker, but his heads-up play in critical situations makes him a valuable member of the New England defense.
Runner Up: Koa Misi, Dolphins (14 tackles, 9 solo, 3.5 sacks, 2 fumble recoveries, 1 TD)
Inside Linebacker 1: Jerod Mayo. Patriots (72 tackles, 51 solo, 1 sack, 1 pass defended, 1 fumble recovery)
Mayo leads the NFL with 72 tackles, and is on pace for over 200 on the season. He has returned to the outstanding form that earned him Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2008, and has paired well with Brandon Spikes at the heart of the New England defense. Mayo always seems to be around the ball, and has improved his pass defense as well. In the overtime win against the Ravens in Week 6, Jerod tallied an astounding 18 combined tackles. He epitomizes the no-nonsense, hard-working attitude that the Patriots preach.
Runner Up: David Harris, Jets (40 tackles, 27 solo, 2 passes defended)
Inside Linebacker 2: Karlos Dansby, Dolphins (43 tackles, 33 solo, 1 sack, 1 pass defended)
The Dolphins star offseason signing on the defensive side of the ball has fit in nicely, providing some extra speed and sure-tackling in the middle of the field. Miami has a lot of huge defensive linemen, and they do a good job of clogging the line of scrimmage, allowing Dansby and the other linebackers to jump on the ball carrier wherever he emerges.
Runner Up: Bart Scott, Jets (30 tackles, 16 solo, 1 pass defended, 1 forced fumble, 1 fumble recovery)
Cornerback 1: Antonio Cromartie. Jets (17 tackles, 16 solo, 13 passes defended, 2 interceptions)
Cromartie stepped into the primary cornerback position while Darrelle Revis was out. Aside from a debacle of a season opener, he has played well. His size and agility makes him a good match against big receivers, and he has the speed to stay with the faster players as well. His 13 passes defended lead the league. If he can continue to avoid the mental mistakes and penalties, he should be a valuable asset for the Jets, and an excellent counter-point to Revis.
Devin McCourty, Patriots (26 tackles, 23 solo, 5 passes defended, 1 interception)
Cornerback 2: Jason Allen, Dolphins (30 tackles, 22 solo, 10 passes defended, 3 interceptions)
Not all of Allen’s performances have been stellar, but he has more interceptions than any other player in the division. Two of those picks came in Miami’s Week 2 win over the Vikings. He has supplanted Sean Smith as the starter opposite Vontae Davis, and it’s a pairing that seems to work well.
Vontae Davis, Dolphins (16 tackles, 16 solo, 5 passes defended, 1 interception)
Safety 1: Patrick Chung, Patriots (48 tackles, 34 solo, 4 passes defended, 2 interceptions, 1 TD, 1 punt block, 1 field goal block)
Chung has come on strong in his second year, and like Mayo, seems always find the ball and get in on every tackle. His Week 4 game against Miami was a masterpiece, as he blocked two kicks and returned an interception for a TD. "Mini-Missle" is an excellent tackler, and packs a wallop. His speed and range are impressive, and if Brandon Meriweather can become more consistent, they could form a lethal partnership for the Patriots. Chung is a hard worker, and puts in a lot of effort on the practice field and during games. New England may have found their replacement for Rodney Harrison, minus the 'dirty' play.
Runner Up: Donte Whitner, Bills (54 tackles, 38 solo, 1 fumble recovery)
Safety 2: Yeremiah Bell, Dolphins (46 tackles, 37 solo, 1 sack, 1 pass defended, 1 forced fumble, 1 blocked field goal)
Bell leads the Dolphins in tackles. He had (or tied for) the most stops on the team in each of their first four games. Against Pittsburgh his sack on Ben Roethlisberger lead to a fumble recovery and a field goal for Miami. In Week 3 he blocked a 61-yard Jets field goal just before the half. He has formed a good partnership with Chris Clemons, and both are playing at a high level.
Runner up: Chris Clemons, Dolphins (30 tackles, 23 solo, ½ sack, 2 forced fumbles)
Coach: Bill Belichick, Patriots
Rex Ryan is also deserving of praise for his ability to hold together a team many thought would have imploded by now, but what Belichick has done with the Patriots this season is nothing short of phenomenal. The defense has overcome preseason injuries to key players Ty Warren and Leigh Bodden, and formed a team-first mentality where no player holds his head higher than any other. Bill has taken on added responsibility, and has hand-coached this young squad into a tight unit where players know their roles and responsibilities, and are trusted to do their jobs. If a player struggles, they are often replaced by the next best option, regardless of experience, reputation or contract. Rookies Devin McCourty, Brandon Spikes and Jermaine Cunningham have played key roles on the team, and seem to improve with every game.
On offense Belichick made the shocking trade of Randy Moss in order to help the team in both the short and long term. While it is rarely a good thing to lose a player of Moss’ talent, Bill sent the message that there is no room for players who are not 100% committed to the cause. Danny Woodhead and Deion Branch have come in and given their all, and the New England offense is adapting on the fly. With so many young players on both sides of the ball, the Patriots are well situated going forward because those guys will be taught by one of the best coaches of all time. It will be interesting to see how the roster looks in a few years once they (and the next crop of rookies) have matured.
Not all of Belichick’s decisions work out for the best, and he is far from flawless. However, in a league where fortunes can change in the span of a few games, his ability to adapt to challenges quickly and decisively without jeopardizing the long-term stability of the club has insured the Patriots remain competitive every year.