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AFC East fantasy football preview

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Michael Harmon

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The replacement referees are readying for their first game action this week. Starting Thursday, anxious football fans and fantasy owners will sit in their homes and local watering holes to watch the first dress rehearsals for the 2012 season.

I can already hear the music behind the pre-game discussions of Tebow, Manning, Luck and the myriad storylines that will fill airtime once the third-string players hit the field. It’s the most wonderful time of the year, to be sure. Fans are packing into college campuses across the country for a glimpse of their heroes … and the lovely, unmistakable sound of an air horn.


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Let’s run rampant in the AFC East and get things started with those Jets.

New York Jets

Overview: The media frenzy in New York continues unabated in 2011. “Hard Knocks” is working down the coast, but the arrival of Tim Tebow has all eyes drifting to Cortland, New York. I witnessed it first-hand for Monday’s practice, the session later dubbed “Fight Night.” Rex Ryan welcomes the attention. Will the team play well enough to warrant positive reviews?

Quarterback: It was supposed to be a competition. Until positive reports from a mid-week practice ahead of the preseason opener, many pundits and fans (I heard them at Monday’s practice) were calling for Tim Tebow’s outright release. Sanchez throws a much more efficient, catchable and predictable ball. Unless the Jets absolutely implode during the early weeks of the regular season and Sanchez’s decision-making is an obvious cause, I can’t see Tebow claiming his job.

Tebow will make a few plays and hit the highlight reels. There will certainly be gimmicks afoot to get the ball in his hands. I just can’t anticipate a consistent workload.

Running Back: Shonn Greene remains the workhorse in the New York backfield between the 20s. He’s often dismissed in the fantasy realm, but he did amass 253 carries in 2011. Greene also continued to work on his footwork and hands in passing routes, as I witnessed in Monday’s practice.

Joe McKnight and Bilal Powell are vying for the No. 2 role in the New York offense, an opportunity to serve as a change-of-pace back and pass receiver. McKnight set off the highly-viewed brawl on Monday by throwing a football off of a defensive back’s facemask. The winner of this battle likely receives 8-10 touches per game.

Obviously, the role of goal-line back must be considered as well. I can see the arguments and pleas for Tim Tebow to receive RB eligibility already. Don’t forget. Sanchez scored six rushing touchdowns last season as well.

Wide Receiver: The wide receiver position is currently hurting in New York. Santonio Holmes has been sidelined because of a rib injury, while Jeremy Kerley and Chaz Schilens are nursing injuries of their own.

Their absences afford rookie Stephen Hill additional reps with the starters, and he has the size and speed to become an immediate downfield threat for this offense. His willingness to block and participate in the running game likely rewards Hill with additional playing time, even when the receiving corps returns to full strength.

Patrick Turner is also vying for additional playing time as a receiver. The fourth-year pro spent most of his 2011 season working on special teams.

Tight End: Jets fans and fantasy owners anxiously anticipate a monster season from Dustin Keller. Keller amassed 65 receptions for 815 yards last season with five touchdowns. The lack of proven depth in the receiving corps portends to another sizable weekly target count in 2012.

Kicker: Veteran Josh Brown came to camp in competition with incumbent Nick Folk for the placekicker role. Folk converted 19-of-24 attempts last season, including 8-of-13 from distances of least 40 yards. According to all reports, the kickers have battled to a draw early in camp. The winner will be a spot starter in the fantasy realm.

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Defense: The Jets were a middle of the road defense in 2011, surrendering an average of 22.7 points per game. Overall, they came through for fantasy owners by generating 34 turnovers and 35 sacks. Remember, the offense regularly put them in bad position because of turnovers. Cromartie, Revis and Scott are back to anchor this squad, and the secondary ranks among the best in the league. They’ll need an immediate impact from first-round pick Quinton Coples off the edge to disrupt the QB.

Buffalo Bills

Overview: The Bills were a feel-good story early in the season, with Ryan Fitzpatrick’s beard becoming a folk hero in and of itself and Fred Jackson receiving MVP mentions. The team collapsed down the stretch. They retooled the defense immensely, and a full offseason of workouts should improve communication between Fitzpatrick and his receivers. I’m officially intrigued.

Quarterback: The bearded one, Ryan Fitzpatrick, performed exceptionally well in spots, but he was also prone to the big giveaway. Fitzpatrick finished the 2011 campaign with 24 touchdowns and 25 turnovers. He’s the stand-alone No. 1 option in Buffalo, spending much of his offseason working painstakingly on his mechanics.

Vince Young and Tyler Thigpen are locked in a battle for the No. 2 slot. According to reports from Buffalo, neither player has stood out in workouts, meaning that it will probably take the bulk of the preseason to see that separation.

Running Back: Fred Jackson was pacing as an early MVP candidate when he sustained an injury and missed the stretch run. C.J. Spiller performed well in his stead, but Jackson returns to reclaim the bulk of the workload. I suspect a 20-10 or 18-12 split is in the offing behind Fitzpatrick.

Wide Receiver: Stevie Johnson earned his second straight 1,000-yard season in support of Fitzpatrick last season. His showmanship isn’t always appreciated by his coaches and teammates, but he was effective (76 receptions after posting 82 in 2010). Despite back-to-back strong seasons, fantasy owners have generally relegated him to a WR3 slot. There’s definite high-end WR2 potential is the backfield performs as expected.

David Nelson returns as the No. 2 receiver. He quietly amassed 61 receptions in 2011. He’s been dealing with a knee injury early in camp, thus offering additional reps to Donald Jones and Derek Hagan. The Bills reportedly like Hagan’s skillset (we did, too, during his early run in Miami) and will give him every opportunity to win a role.

Tight End: Scott Chandler caught 38 passes for the Bills in 2011, including six touchdowns. He rates as a TE2 option, but owners in touchdown-heavy leagues need to take notice. He’s a red zone monster in Chan Gailey’s offense.

Kicker: Rian Lindell returns to action after missing the second half of the 2011 season because of a broken bone in his shoulder. He had converted 13-of-15 field goal attempts prior to his injury. Lindell has also historically been a solid contributor of bonus points for his long-distance field goals.

Defense: Buffalo fans and the football world received a shock when it was announced that Mario Williams was signing a free agent deal to play for the Bills. The team would later add sackmaster Mark Anderson to pair up with Williams, thus making the front-end of Dave Wannstedt’s defense quite formidable. The Bills tied for 29th place in total defense last season, allowing a deplorable average of 27.1 points per game. The frenetic pass rush will help cover any deficiencies in the secondary.

New England Patriots

Overview: The Patriots are the prohibitive favorite in the division and for a charge toward New Orleans. The offense has the potential to challenge all scoring records. An improved back-seven on defense makes another deep run in the playoffs inevitable, and the point totals of fantasy lineups worldwide will be padded by Brady and company.

Quarterback: What else is there to say? Tom Brady is back with a full complement of weapons, including his two tight end behemoths, Wes Welker and deep threat Brandon Lloyd. On paper, it’s almost unfair. If you simulate this squad on Madden, they might flip the score. Bobby Hoyer returns for his fourth season as a backup to Brady. Fantasy owners remember the success enjoyed by Matt Cassel when substituting for an injured Brady several years ago.

Running Back: The New England running back position stands as the lone unsettled piece of the puzzle. Stevan Ridley averaged 5.1 yards per carry in limited duty last season (87 rushes). He’s expected to be the leader of a committee that will include folk hero and former fantasy spot starter Danny Woodhead and Shane Vereen.

Wide Receiver: Welker returns to set the pace of the receiving corps, but he has an established veteran to run alongside him this time out in Brandon Lloyd. Ironically, a leading trading card manufacturer produced a trading card depicting what Lloyd would like in a Patriots uniform, a jersey emblazoned with the No. 83. I digress.

There is depth in New England beyond the marquee starters. Remember, Aaron Hernandez anticipates arguing for a “wide receiver” label as he approaches his next deal. Veterans Jabar Gaffney and Deion Branch remain with the team, and Julian Edelman (former part-time DB) rounds out the unit.

Tight End: I don’t know that I need to belabor the point. Rob Gronkowski remains a flamboyant character in the normally staid New England universe, but he’s a terror down the seams and owns the red zones. Aaron Hernandez logged 79 receptions and 910 yards as well. Pick your poison.

Former fantasy stud Visanthe Shiancoe is also in camp, but he’s not eating into the gaudy stats from this duo.

Kicker: Stephen Gostkowski converted 28-of-33 field goal attempts in 2011, but the eye-popping number on the stat sheet was his total of 59 PATs. He’s the one option on the board where you never fear a shutout.

Defense: The Patriots were a middling defense overall (allowing 21.4 points per game), but contributed to the bottom line for fantasy owners with 33 takeaways and 40 sacks. Harmon “Man-Crush” Vince Wilfork continues to dominate the defensive line, and the arrival of Dont’a Hightower solidifies the linebacker corp.

Miami Dolphins

Overview: The Dolphins brought in Joe Philbin from the Packers to jumpstart this offense and compete in the AFC East. The defense is game, and early reports have been positive about the team’s rookie signal caller. Add “Hard Knocks” to the mix and you have a renewed curiosity in the squad.

Quarterback: The first depth chart released by the Dolphins put David Garrard atop the list. Garrard returns to the playing field after missing the 2011 season because of back concerns. He continues to be tested by Matt Moore and rookie Ryan Tannehill, who has surprised many of his toughest critics early in camp. None of these options rates better than a QB3 out of the gate.

Running Back: Reggie Bush finally produced his breakthrough season in 2011. He rushed for 1,086 yards and caught 43 passes. Fantasy owners are not anticipating a repeat performance, consistently drafting Bush as a back-end RB2 option. The notion that Miami plans to split him out wide in formation as a receiver does not help his cause.

The presence of second-year bruiser Daniel Thomas, not to mention the selection of Lamar Miller in this year’s draft, also underscores concerns about Bush’s durability. Thomas is a powerhouse between the tackle who stands to assume a sizable role in his second year to help sustain drives, and will likely serve as the team’s goal-line option.

Wide Receiver: The artist has reclaimed the name of Chad Johnson. I had just gotten used to the whole “Ochocinco” tag, so this was a disappointing offseason development. Following a lost year in New England (15 receptions), Johnson seeks to find a role in Miami.

Davone Bess and Brian Hartline are the other top receivers in Joe Philbin’s offense. Bess’ production dropped precipitously in last year’s debacle (51 receptions). He’d amassed 155 receptions in the previous two seasons. Hartline is recovering from an appendectomy and a lingering calf injury, issues that are expected to sideline him for at least two additional weeks.

Tight End: Anthony Fasano caught five touchdowns passed in 2011, but finished the season with just 32 receptions. He’s failed to catch more than 39 passes in a season.

Kicker: Carpenter converted 29-of-34 field goal attempts last season, including 13-of-16 from distances of at least 40 yards. He also missed two games. Carpenter remained a steady, reliable fantasy kicker in spite of the team’s ineptitude last year. It can’t be any worse under Philbin, right?

Defense: The Dolphins ranked sixth in total defense last year, allowing just 19.6 points per game. The imposing defensive front also compiled 41 sacks, which tied them for tenth in the league. Unfortunately, the unit generated only 22 turnovers. That number will need to increase if they’re to mount any challenge in the AFC and rate as a consistent fantasy play.

Tagged: Browns, Titans, Ravens, Steelers, Texans, Ben Roethlisberger, Ray Rice, Arian Foster, Jake Locker, Trent Richardson, Bills, Dolphins, Patriots, Jets, Chad Johnson, Tom Brady, Rian Lindell, David Garrard, Brandon Lloyd, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Reggie Bush, Fred Jackson, Nick Folk, Stevie Johnson, Patrick Turner, Aaron Hernandez, Joe McKnight, Tim Tebow, Ryan Tannehill, Stephen Hill

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