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Third-year AFC East players entering crucial offseason

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Recent posts by Kevin Fishbain

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By Kevin Fishbain

The transitional period from being a rookie to a Year Two pro is considered a crucial offseason in the NFL. It gives players their first full, normal offseason and a chance to make that leap.

This summer, though, players entering Year Three also might benefit from that “jump.”

Last year’s lockout didn’t only cost the 2011 draft class, but also the 2010 rookies who didn’t get to benefit from a full offseason of developing and preparing for their second professional campaign.

For some players that entered the NFL in ’10, they didn’t need that full offseason.

See: Gronkowski, Rob.

But others looked just as lost as they did as rookies, and the next few months give those players an extra life, another chance. This can be helpful or a detriment for teams. On the one hand, clubs get another offseason to hope that a member of their ’10 draft class can live up to his potential. It also might make some clubs hold on to a player longer, a sense of false hope for a player who normally wouldn’t have made it past two seasons.

Here are players from the 2010 draft class entering a make-or-break offseason, looking to make a Year Three jump and benefit from an uninterrupted spring and summer for each of the four AFC East teams.

Patriots OLB Jermaine Cunningham

It was clear that Bill Belichick was a Cunningham fan after drafting the Florida product in the second round in 2010, and Patriots fans expected Cunningham to be the edge rusher the team seeked. Despite playing in 15 games with 11 starts as a rookie, Cunningham finished with only one sack and four QB hits, to go along with 35 tackles. In 2011, his role had completely diminished after the team featured more "40" fronts, which would move Cunningham to defensive end. In nine games, he made one tackle, before ending the season on injured reserve with a hamstring ailment.

This could be Cunningham’s last shot to make the squad, and it’s possible that finally getting a full offseason will get Cunningham playing at the level Belichick hoped when drafting him. The Patriots drafted three front-seven players — Dont’a Hightower, Jake Bequette and Chandler Jones — and Cunningham is very much on the roster bubble, but if a full offseason is all he needs to finally show some pass-rush effectiveness, it certainly would benefit the Patriots’ defensive front.

Another Patriots third-year player to watch this offseason: DE Brandon Deaderick.

Jets OT Vladimir Ducasse

The 2010 second-rounder hasn’t needed to start, as he has been a top reserve on a veteran Jets O-line, but Ducasse’s play in the preseason hasn’t led to much optimism. He was considered one of the Jets most hurt by the lockout last year, without the opportunity to spend a full offseason with former O-line coach Bill Callahan. The Jets moved Ducasse around from guard to tackle, and even with the struggles of ORT Wayne Hunter, Ducasse didn’t seem ready to start.

Now, Ducasse can get the full spring and summer to work with the team’s new offensive coordinator, Tony Sparano, an offensive line guru. Ducasse should feel a sense of confidence from the team after the Jets chose not to draft a tackle (despite the cries from the fan base), and Ducasse is expected to get an opportunity to battle Hunter to start Day One. Best-case scenario — the offseason pays off, and Ducasse gives the Jets a much-needed upgrade on the right side.

Other Jets third-year players to watch this offseason: CB Kyle Wilson and RB Joe McKnight.

Dolphins S Reshad Jones

In Week 10 of his rookie season in '10, Jones showed the playmaking abilities that keep optimism afloat that he could be the one to reinforce the Dolphins’ back end. In that game, Jones had a sack, an interception and two passes defensed in a win over the Titans.

Jones won the starting safety job last season and started 12 of the 15 games in which he played, but he was part of the reason the Dolphins’ defense failed to make big plays (Jones had only one pick and four passes defensed in '11), and his starting job is far from set in stone, especially with 2011 draft pick Jimmy Wilson factoring in the safety rotation as well as free-agent acquisition Richard Marshall.

Jones, like Ducasse, will work with a new coordinator this offseason, but he will get a full offseason with Kevin Coyle, who has had success with safeties, previously having served as defensive backs coach for the Bengals. A Year Three jump from Jones would help improve what is arguably the Dolphins’ weakest position on defense.

Other Dolphins third-year players to watch this offseason: OL John Jerry, CB Nolan Carroll and LB Koa Misi.

Bills LB Arthur Moats

Moats is still best known, certainly outside Buffalo, for his hit on Brett Favre in 2010 that knocked Favre out of a Week 13 contest. In Buffalo, Bills fans are waiting to see more.

Last offseason, the Bills looked to take advantage of Moats’ versatility, moving the pass rusher inside. He didn’t turn into a starter, though. Moats, who has five career sacks — 2½ in each season — is expected to get a chance on the strong side this season, a new position for him, but the margin of error is slim. He is not on the roster bubble, but the Bills drafted a pair of linebackers — Nigel Bradham and Tank Carder — and re-signed veteran Kirk Morrison. Moats has a chance to make a jump this offseason with noted defensive guru Dave Wannstedt in charge, but there is competition from players looking to get in the rotation — only Nick Barnett and Kelvin Sheppard have solidified starting spots in the LB corps. Moats has flashed some pass-rush prowess and the full offseason could give him an opportunity to see the field more in 2012.

Other Bills third-year players to watch this offseason: DE-OLB Danny Batten, DT Torell Troup and WR Marcus Easley.

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