First of an eight-part series
In PFW's midseason team reports, we focus on each team's biggest surprise and biggest disappointment, a fantasy football MVP, an assistant coach on the rise, and a fearless prediction for the second half of the season.
Biggest surprise: QB Trent Edwards did not play well at the start of the season, so it was not a huge shock that he was removed from the lineup for Ryan Fitzpatrick. But for the team to outright release the 2007 third-round pick — after having him atop the depth chart all summer, during training camp and then the first two games — turned many heads, as most expected the Bills to at least acquire a draft choice in exchange for Edwards.
Biggest disappointment: OLB Aaron Maybin was targeted as a player set to improve during his second year, but that has yet to happen. Maybin still has not recorded a sack as an NFL player, and the team has made him inactive for three games in a row. Choosing the Penn State defender with the No. 11 pick instead of Clay Matthews or Brian Orakpo looks worse every week.
Fantasy MVP: Nobody expected the Bills to be a passing team when the season began, but some lineup changes have resulted in WR Stevie Johnson becoming a top fantasy option. He's scored TDs in five consecutive games and has become Fitzpatrick's favorite target, especially when approaching the endzone.
Assistant coach on the rise: Fitzpatrick will never make Buffalo fans forget Jim Kelly, but behind the tutelage of QB coach George Cortez, Fitzpatrick has developed into a bit of a threat under center. Cortez has worked with the veteran on getting rid of the ball quickly and spreading the ball to a variety of receivers, and the work has paid off in an improved offensive output since Fitzpatrick was named the starter before Week Three.
Fearless prediction: "With the first pick of the 2011 NFL draft, the Buffalo Bills select quarterback Andrew Luck from Stanford." — Roger Goodell, April 28, 2011.
Biggest surprise: CB Vontae Davis has turned into a shutdown corner, just one year after the rookie was victimized often by receivers. After the Dolphins' Week Two win over the Vikings in which Davis picked off Brett Favre, the future Hall of Fame QB called Davis one of the best cornerbacks many around the league had not heard of.
Biggest disappointment: While most of the blame should fall on his offensive line, RB Ronnie Brown has been a disappointment. There were high hopes for a healthy Brown heading into this, his contract season. Aside from Brown's one big run against the Vikings (51 yards), Ricky Williams has looked more consistent running the football.
Fantasy MVP: While WR Brandon Marshall and RB Ronnie Brown have underachieved in fantasy terms, WR Davone Bess has been a revelation. Finding openings on underneath routes with secondaries worrying too much about Marshall, Bess has been extremely productive, leading the team in receiving touchdowns and second to Marshall in receptions and receiving yards. He is QB Chad Henne's safety valve on third down, but Bess has shown great athleticism in making defenders miss and racking up yards aver the catch. For a No. 2 or 3 receiver on a fantasy team, Bess has been great. Honorable mention to PK Dan Carpenter, who has been automatic and getting lots of points since the Dolphins have failed to punch it in inside the red zone.
Assistant coach on the rise: It's hard to ignore the effect defensive coordinator Mike Nolan has had on this squad. It is the best unit on this team at the midway point, thanks to his schemes that allow the players to fly around and be more aggressive. After a similar turnaround in Denver last season, Nolan could be back on a list of candidates for head-coaching openings around the league, assuming the Dolphins' "D" continues its success during the final stretch.
Fearless prediction: The Dolphins haven't put it all together — yet. Their offense has stalled too often, Marshall has taken over two games but only has one touchdown, and the running game has not gotten going. The defense is the only aspect of the team that has overachieved, and it doesn't seem to be slowing down. The Dolphins are a confusing referee call (vs. Pittsburgh) and a few mistakes (vs. N.Y. Jets) away from being 6-2. If they can get the offense rolling, there are enough weak teams on the schedule to balance out the tough opponents, and the Dolphins could make the playoffs as the second team from the East, getting a wild-card spot ahead of the Jets after finishing at 9-7 or 10-6.
NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS
Biggest surprise: Aaron Hernandez is not only a rookie tight end, he was the second rookie tight end the Patriots drafted. Now, the versatile and athletic Hernandez leads the team in receiving yards. Nobody expected the youngest player in the NFL to make such an impact on a team with plenty of weapons.
Biggest disappointment: Darius Butler was supposed to be the team's top cornerback after Leigh Bodden landed on injured reserve. Butler not only was torched in Week Two against the Jets and lost his job to Kyle Arrington, but he has rarely seen the field since, aside from playing on special teams.
Fantasy MVP: Especially with Randy Moss gone, Tom Brady is clearly the fantasy MVP. He spreads out his passes so much that it is rare for any one receiver (including tight ends) to have gaudy offensive stats. Wes Welker is healthy, but not enough to have a big fantasy season. The Patriots' passing offense has been proficient this season, and no matter who is catching balls (Welker, Brandon Tate, Deion Branch or Hernandez), Brady is tossing it, so he gets to rack up the points.
Assistant coach on the rise: Many of Bill Belichick's top assistants have gotten jobs elsewhere, so there are not as many big names on his staff. But special-teams coach Scott O'Brien, in his second season with the Pats, received a lot of well-deserved praise following the Pats' win over the Dolphins. Tate has two kick returns for touchdowns this year, the punting has improved tremendously with rookie Zoltan Mesko, kick coverage has been solid and special teams won a game for the Pats against the Dolphins, thanks to two blocked kicks. O'Brien's unit has been one of the best in the league this year.
Fearless prediction: The Patriots have some tough opponents in the second half of the season (Steelers, Colts, Jets, Packers and Dolphins), but the way the offense has played most of the season, this is a team that could easily go 12-4 and possibly get home-field advantage in the AFC throughout the playoffs. Without many standout teams, the Pats are already off to a good start, passing tests against the Ravens and Chargers but stumbling against the Browns last Sunday. As susceptible as the defense looks at times, Belichick continues to make sure his defenders are in the right place at the right time to make critical plays, and the offense is second in the league in points per game. With confidence on the field and chemistry off it, plus the addition of Pro Bowl OG Logan Mankins for the stretch run, the Patriots could yet finish as the best team in the AFC.
NEW YORK JETS
Biggest surprise: Mark Sanchez's growth from a turnover-prone rookie (20 interceptions) to intelligent QB has delighted coaches and turned some heads, especially after a rough preseason. Sanchez had turnovers in only three of the team's first eight games.
Biggest disappointment: Starting with his demands for a new contract that held him out of training camp, followed by a hamstring injury and inconsistent play, 2010 hasn't been the best year for CB Darrelle Revis. Revis hasn't trapped opponents on his island as much as he had in the past, and he's without an interception.
Fantasy MVP: On a roster with so many offensive weapons, few people projected TE Dustin Keller to be a go-to player in the Jets' offense. But Keller has become the main man for Sanchez in the red zone, and he's among the top two on the team in catches, yards and touchdowns.
Assistant coach on the rise: DB coach Dennis Thurman is lucky to have the league's best cornerback in his unit, but it is the man opposite Darrelle Revis who has shown Thurman's magic. CB Antonio Cromartie has been the best corner in the NFL in 2010, evolving from a ball hawk who would only look for interceptions and often forget to cover his man into an all-around player who can lock down top wide receivers throughout the game.
Fearless prediction: A tough 20-day December stretch (at New England on Monday night, vs. Miami, at Pittsburgh, at Chicago) will push the Jets into a wild card spot and a first-round playoff date with the AFC West champ on the road. They will win that game but won't be able to do it again a week later, losing in the divisional round of the postseason.
You can read more midseason team analyses in the current print edition of PFW (cover date: Nov. 14, 2010) — including categories such as team MVP, player to watch and keys to the second half — on sale now at retail outlets. You can also purchase a print or electronic (PDF) copy of the issue at PFWstore.com.