Jon’s Pre-2013 Season Watch List Part 1 (AFC East and North)

Given the recent weather it’s hard to imagine that next February we’ll be tuning in to one of the coldest Superbowls in recent history at the MetLife Stadium in New York. So for the new fans around the UK, who should we be looking out for as the season edges closer?

Training camp is here, and every week the teams are getting further away from being ‘good on paper’ and closer to  reality.We’re casting our eyes round the league as it stands at the moment and looking at key players for each team division by division.

Rather than go for the obvious choices (we’ll always be looking at the key offensive playmaker, the Quarterback) we’ve tried to shine a spotlight on a few of those players that will make the difference between the playoffs and the chilly heights of Gridiron glory, or the scrap heap of ignominious defeat.

With that in mind, here’s some of the players that have made our watch list over at the Gridiron Gentlemen’s Club, and that we’ll be keeping a close eye on. Grab a glass of Pimms, pull up a deckchair and let’s take a tour around the NFL. First stop, AFC East, and North.

AFC East

Buffalo Bills,  Robert Woods (Wide Reciever)

Like many other teams the Bills offense has relied heavily on formations with three Wide Recievers for the last two years, but free agency has taken its toll with Donald Jones and David Nelson off to pastures new. There are some talented targets on the team for QB Kevin Kolb such as CJ Spiller, but to make the most of the 3 WR sets they’ll need rookie Robert Woods to be a great counterpart to Stevie Johnson, or they’ll have to rely on T.J Graham. And he’s rubbish.

Miami Dolphins, Jonathan Martin (Left Tackle)

Miami’s finest flippered footballers have been recruiting like crazy over the summer and are starting to look like a credible threat in what has for the last few years been a fairly weak division, dominated by the Patriots. Jonathan Martin has swapped over from Right Tackle in 2012 to the crucial Left Tackle position, protecting QB Ryan Tannehill’s vulnerable blindside from the opponents pass rushers. While it won’t be solely his responsibility to stop Tannehill getting sacked, if you see him repeatedly going down like a sack of spuds its probably Martin’s fault. He’s under the spotlight and will need to step up if the investments the Dolphins have made are to pay off.

New York Jets, Santonio Holmes, (Wide Reciever)

The Jets ended the 2012 season looking like a big green mess. With Tim Tebow’s departure to the Patriots, the battle for QB is now between Mark Sanchez and rookie Geno Smith, and as was the case with Tebow it won’t be long before the fans are baying for Sanchez’ blood. Whoever wins the dubious honour of being starting QB will need to make the best use of the Jets limited targets to justify their existence pretty quickly, and the safest pair of hands right now is probably Santonio Holmes. Expect him to make plenty of catches, but don’t expect him to be diplomatic when it comes to the Sanchez-Geno battle, he’ll be anything but. It may get better for the Jets but there are blood, sweat and tears to come both on and off the field.

Patriots, Danny Amendola, (Wide Reciever)

Make no mistake the Patriots offense has taken a massive knock this offseason with the loss of  WR’s Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd. Tight End Rob Gronkowski has lingering health issues, putting the Patriots twin-tight end offense in jeopardy. Oh and TE Aaron Hernandez killed someone and was (quite rightly) dropped like a hot brick. Although the receiving corps has reasonably good weapons at WR in the shape of Dobson, Edelman and Boyce, and at Running Back with Stevan Ridley the pressure is on former Rams WR Danny Amendola to replace Welker’s prolific levels of productivity in the slot. Amendola is a good signing and throws himself into his games, literally, which considering the hits he was prepared to take for the Rams says a lot for his commitment. But you can’t catch a pass in the medical room which is where he spent much of 2012. If the Brady Bunch want to success this season Amendola needs to become far more resilient.

N.B By the way I could be completely wrong about this but don’t expect to see Tebow for a year or two. He’s there to learn how to be a real QB, before being traded away Either that or he might be running round the field dressed as Pat Patriot.

AFC North

Baltimore Ravens, Michael Huff (Free Safety)

Another premiere team that lost a lot of its veteran heavyweights, this time after winning the Superbowl, the Ravens have made some excellent signings to replenish the team with younger talent. Free Safety Ed Reed has left a very large pair of boots to fill by moving to the Texans, but former Oakland Raider Michael Huff looks like a good fit, he’s younger and more athletic than Reed for a start. Free Safety is a great defensive position to watch, so look out for Huff roaming the back field looking to make some strong tackles and interceptions.

 

Pittsburgh Steelers, Jason Worilds – Outside Linebacker

The ageing ‘12 Steelers defense was like a lump of steel when it came to giving up yards but about as dynamic when it came to creating interceptions and turnovers, and a turnover-prone offense undid much of that good work. A return to form will mean a renewed focus on the pass rush from players like Jason Worilds who will be looking to defend his (likely) starting position from longer-term investment Jarvis Jones. To do that he’ll need to get better at beating the opposite blockers to put pressure on the QB. Watch out for him at Outside Linebacker, trying to get past the line of scrimmage and close to the QB in the pocket to force quick and inaccurate passes.

Cleveland Browns, Trent Richardson (Running Back)

We’re all collectively rooting for the Browns this season to finally make the playoffs for the first time since 2002 and you can read Dan’s blog post here which breaks down the investments to the front seven and coaching staff.  Running Back Trent Richardson was key to the Browns Offense last season, carrying much of the team, including QB Brandon Weedon, all while nursing broken ribs from the 6th game onwards. Even if the Browns passing game improves as expected, T-Rich will need to put up the bulk of the scores, and keeping him healthy will be a number one priority.

 

Cincinnati Bengals, Andy Dalton (Quarterback)

The Bengals have and elite wideout in the shape of A.J Green, and fellow WR’s Andrew Hawkins and Mohamed Sanu are fairly respectable if somewhat pedestrian. We said we wouldn’t concentrate on QB’s but I’m singling out Andy Dalton here as it’s his tendency to take his eye of those receivers when under pressure that will stop them racking up the points. Fans talk about a QB having ‘pocket presence’; an ability to look out for open recievers while instinctively  knowing how much time they have left before being tackled. Watch out for how he moves in the pocket and how accurate his throws are, particularly the deep ones.

That’s all for now, stay tuned for the next in the series where I’ll be moving on to the AFC South and West.

Photo credit: ROBERT SABO/NEWS