Part 10 in a 10-part series examining key storylines leading into Patriots' training camp...
The question: Will the Patriots top the Jets?
Three factors: How many free agents the Jets lose; what kind of players the Patriots add; putting pressure on Mark Sanchez.
Finding the answer: It’s no secret that the Patriots have dominated the AFC East with eight division titles in the past 10 years. The only time they didn’t win it after 2002 was when quarterback Tom Brady went down with a knee injury in the first game in ’08.
But while division titles are nice, they don’t mean much unless you do something in the postseason. And it’s all about what have done for me lately.
In that regard, face it, the New York Jets are the reigning kings of the AFC East.
While the Patriots haven’t won a playoff game since the 2007 AFC Championship game, the Jets have won four and made two consecutive conference title games under coach Rex Ryan and quarterback Mark Sanchez.
The Patriots had their chance to quiet Ryan last season when the two teams met in a divisional playoff game, but the Jets came into Gillette Stadium and dominated the Patriots in a 28-21 victory.
Another early exit for the Patriots, and a victory for Ryan to give him a 3-2 head-to-head edge over Patriots coach Bill Belichick.
Will that change this season? We’ll probably have a better idea very soon after both teams have a chance to adjust to the post-lockout world of the NFL.
The Jets have a whopping 16 players that are due to hit unrestricted free agency on Thursday. Of those, 11 played big roles for the Jets last season: starting WRs Braylon Edwards and Santonio Holmes, versatile yet underused WR Brad Smith, CB Antonio Cromartie, DE Shaun Ellis, third CB Drew Coleman, safeties Brodney Pool, Eric Smith and James Ihedigbo, P Steven Weatherford and K Nick Folk.
At the start of free agency, the Jets had less than $4 million in cap room – not counting rookies.
That’s an awful lot of firepower that is set to hit the market. But general manager Mike Tannenbaum is very smart and knows how to work the salary cap for all it's worth. The Jets are going to have a plan.
The Patriots meanwhile have 10 unrestricted free agents, and only LT Matt Light is considered a key cog.
If one team had an edge in the draft, it figures to be the Patriots who could be getting immediate help from their first four picks: LT Nate Solder, CB Ras-I Dowling, and RBs Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley. All were taken in the first 73 picks
The Jets had one taken in that timeframe – DT Muhammad Wilkerson (30th) – and there’s a chance third-round pick Kenrick Ellis (94th) could be deported depending on what happens with his court case.
So the Patriots appear to have the better nucleus – and then some – returning from a 14-2 team.
When the Jets figure out their roster, they are sure to add some key pieces. But so will the Patriots, who figure to target help at their weak spots – OLB, WR and possibly safety.
In the end, the Patriots are going to need to be better than the Jets on the field. On offense, someone is going to have to emerge as a deep threat to scare Ryan and his defense. After trading Randy Moss last year, the Patriots lacked that kind of player and Ryan boasted of using it against the Patriots in his book.
“Without Randy Moss, the Patriots didn’t have the same vertical threat to their offense, and we planned to show them how much that hurt their offense by constantly challenging the short stuff,” he wrote. And they did.
The Patriots are also going to have to figure out a way to bring more pressure against Sanchez behind the Jets’ vaunted offensive line. In the Patriots’ two victories over the Jets, Sanchez completed just 38.1 and 51.5 percent of his passes. In the Jets’ three victories, Sanchez was at 63.6, 70 and 64 percent. If you make Sanchez feel the heat, you’re going to have a good shot of winning the game.
Considering the flux the Jets have with their roster right now, yes, the Patriots should find a way to put the Jets in their rear view mirror. But they’re going to have do it on the field.