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Words With Frenz mailbag: Aaron Hernandez not the only story in the AFC East

Posted by Erik Frenz  June 28, 2013 04:45 PM

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The news around the arrest of former Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez has captivated the nation, as fans, media members and former players weigh in with their thoughts.

But believe it or not, there are other things going on in a division with three other teams in it.

With the Dolphins signing every free-agent under the Sun, the Bills dealing without their best defensive player and so much more going on around the AFC East, there's plenty else to talk about.

So let's take a look at what's on the reader's minds this week.

You mean, the Patriots have a defense? From the sound of it, they only have an offense, and that offense is going to really suck next year.

patriots pass d first 9 final 7.pngAll kidding aside, the Patriots defense improved greatly over the course of the 2012 season, and didn't even look like the same defense by season's end.

Once players had stopped jumbling about, things settled down.

With a front seven that returns six starters, and a secondary that returns all of its major players from last season minus safety Patrick Chung, there's a lot of continuity on the defense for the first time in a long time.

I won't guess what ranking the defense will have, because those are superficial and sometimes misleading in the grand scheme of things, but the pass defense can be much better than it's been in year's past as long as the unit continues to grow together.

The only sure-fire starters on this team in the passing game are Danny Amendola and Rob Gronkowski. Beyond that, it's largely a mystery.

They have been adding depth at tight end like wildfire for the past two years, so if they want to keep things the same, they could continue with a two-tight end offense, but the only reason they implemented it so heavily in the first place was because they had both Hernandez and Gronkowski.

Just like the defense, the offense may not have a "base" look in 2013.

It's more likely they'll mix it up between personnel groups until they find the group that makes them the toughest to defend.

One of the Patriots' biggest strengths over the past few years has been their ability to create mismatches from their two-tight end set depending on how a defense matched personnel -- checking to a run against nickel formations, or throwing the ball when the tight ends were matched up with linebackers. At present, it doesn't look like the Patriots have a similar matchup threat to Hernandez on the roster.

This is the big question the Dolphins have faced this offseason: have they done enough on the offensive line to protect Ryan Tannehill?

All those new weapons at the skill positions won't do much good if Tannehill is constantly on his back.

First, the question at hand.

Tannehill was under pressure on 30.6 percent of his drop-backs in 2012, which ranked 15th out of 27 quarterbacks in the NFL according to Pro Football Focus. After losing left tackle Jake Long in free agency, the Dolphins signed right tackle Tyson Clabo, and are moving right tackle Jonathan Martin to the left side.

jonathan martin at both spots.pngMartin gave up more pressure on a per-snap basis at left tackle than right tackle, and while there's some debate as to the left tackle as the more important of the two spots, it's fair to wonder if the Dolphins got worse in pass protection this offseason.

There's a larger discussion here, though. The Dolphins witnessed Tannehill work some magic under pressure in 2012, as he ranked second in the NFL in accuracy percentage while under pressure. Part of his success was a result of his abilities in throwing on the move.

Certainly, the Dolphins would rather him not be under pressure, and Tannehill got knocked around a bit even with Martin playing on the right side.

There are other ways to buy time for Tannehill when he drops back to throw.

Some designed bootlegs can take advantage of his athleticism and get him away from pressure. The Dolphins must also be able to run the ball effectively, and could utilize some draw plays to get the defense to think twice about sending their rushers up the field.

If Tannehill faces consistent pressure, though, last season's numbers indicate he's up to the challenge.

More importantly than adjusting to the preponderance of pass-catching tight ends in the NFL, the Dolphins did what was best for their defense.

Both Kevin Burnett and Karlos Dansby were brought in to help execute the 3-4 defense, which calls for stay-at-home linebackers that defend the run well and can do some work in zone coverage. With Philip Wheeler and Dannell Ellerbe, though, the Dolphins think they have found more athleticism and speed at linebacker to help them execute a more aggressive scheme -- the two new linebackers are each three years younger than the linebacker they were brought in to replace.

According to PFF, the Dolphins defense blitzed on 38.7 percent of passing snaps in 2012, over the league average of 31.5 percent. Burnett and Dansby only rushed the passer on 10.4 and 11.2 percent of snaps, whereas Wheeler and Ellerbe rushed on and 12.8 percent and 13.4 percent, respectively.

An interesting chart from PFF details the strengths and weaknesses of all four linebackers, and we get a sense of why the Dolphins made the moves they did.

the linebacker switches.png

The Dolphins could be incredibly versatile on defense this year, and the athletic abilities of Wheeler and Ellerbe figure to contribute in that respect.

Why Byrd's contract still isn't done remains something of a mystery to me.

Look at the contract that safety Dashon Goldson signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as a comparison for what Byrd could earn. According to sports contracts website Spotrac, Goldson's contract is worth $41.5 million over the span of five years ($8.3 million per year), but all $18 million of his guaranteed money is earned in the first two years of the contract.

The Bills have roughly $16 million in cap space to work with for 2013, which is more than enough to work with. They are on the hook for $6.916 million guaranteed to Byrd on the franchise tag, which locks in if they don't get a long-term deal done for Byrd before July 14. Another $2 million in 2013 guarantees on top of what they'd already be giving him on the franchise tag would add up $8.916 million—roughly Goldson's 2013 guarantees. Where it might become tricky is next year, when the Bills are currently on the books for $114.3 million in salaries. That's roughly $8.7 million shy of this year's cap, which would be all but gone after signing Byrd.

The Bills have a few other important free-agents coming up, including center Eric Wood and tight end Scott Chandler, but so what? They can roll over some of their cap space from this year to help give them a little more room to work with. They could re-work a contract or two, as well, and could open up some more space by releasing wide receiver Brad Smith, who's set to count for $3.75 million against the cap in 2013 and $4 million in 2014. The Bills aren't held accountable for being under the 2014 cap until next year, so there's plenty of time for them to restructure a contract or two if they find one worth re-doing.

Got room for one more.

Before I write another word: Any sentence written about Dowling, at this point, comes with an implied "if he can stay healthy" attached somewhere in there.

He's going to have to really turn heads if he wants to make an impact as anything more than a nickel or dime defensive back. The Patriots have two cornerback spots locked down with Aqib Talib on the outside and Kyle Arrington in the slot, which leaves room for another outside corner and two more corners for depth.

Second-year cornerback Alfonzo Dennard played very well when given the opportunity, and was part of the aforementioned uptick in their performance down the stretch. Former Rutgers cornerback Logan Ryan was drafted in the third round, and could make a push for playing time.

Dowling will have some stiff competition, but it seems he is rising to the occasion. While we should take OTA observations with a grain of salt, he stood out in the eyes of ESPN Boston's Mike Reiss.

At 6'1" and 210 pounds, Dowling is the biggest corner on the Patriots roster and has the tools to be a solid man cover cornerback. The Patriots thought highly enough of him to give him the start in the first two games of his rookie season, but those were the last two games he'd play that year after he suffered a hip injury.

Expectations were still high for Dowling entering his second year, as he had fully recovered from the injury, but he was slowed down in training camp by an injury before working his way back into the lineup. He earned 37 snaps in the season-opener against the Titans, but earned just 46 snaps the rest of the way out, before landing on injured reserve yet again with a torn quadriceps.

Dowling has just one year left on his rookie contract, and the Patriots just gave Kyle Arrington a four-year, $16 million contract this offseason, and will also have to address Aqib Talib once again next offseason.

Without a doubt, 2013 is a make-or-break year for Dowling.

Alright, everyone, thanks for the questions! Anything else can be asked in the comments, or hit me up on Twitter at the link below.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Erik Frenz delivers analysis of the biggest news with the Patriots, including insight into the AFC East and New England's biggest rivals from a Patriots perspective. Erik is an interactive writer who engages his audience in his posts’ comments sections and on Twitter. Readers are encouraged to share their thoughts and ask questions. More »


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