Scouting the NFL: AFC East Players To Watch

With the regular season around the corner, Inside The Pylon reached out to former NFL scout and current Scouting Academy director Dan Hatman for a cheat sheet on who the pros are keeping an eye on – and who may be in danger of losing their job. Here, he identifies which AFC East players to watch in 2015.

Buffalo Bills

Rookie Who Is Needed Early Players Who Need to Develop Quickly Veteran Who May Be Ready to Decline Most Intriguing to Study Excited About Expanded Role
John Miller EJ Manuel / Aaron Williams Kyle Williams Jerry Hughes Tyrod Taylor

New head coach Rex Ryan inherited one of the best defensive units in the league, complete with a stout defensive line, playmaking linebackers, and capable coverage in the secondary. As he transitions the group from a 4-3 base into his preferred 3-4 hybrid front, he’ll have multiple chess pieces to deploy in innovative ways, most notably Jerry Hughes, the
Most Intriguing To Study on film. Hughes washed out in Indianapolis where he was a first round pick, but found a home – and a role – in Buffalo. His pass rush skills are his calling card, but he’s become a more well rounded player in the last few seasons and it will be fascinating to see how Ryan employs him.

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The man in the middle, Kyle Williams, may be the Veteran Ready To Decline, having turned 32 this offseason. Williams regressed to just 5.5 sacks after his stellar 2013 campaign and the film shows a player who is no longer at his physical peak. That said, his role in Ryan’s scheme will change – and his sacks will probably continue to trend downward – but as long as he is stout at the point of attack, he will provide fellow defensive lineman Marcell Dareus the freedom to penetrate and wreak havoc behind the line.

In the secondary, it is time for 2011 second round pick Aaron Williams to convince Ryan he can be an impact player from his safety position. Williams’s play dropped off after Week 4 and he must Develop Quickly or risk losing his spot to the fantastically named Bacarri Rambo. Williams is not exceptional in any one facet of the game, relying more on a well-rounded skillset that has no major weaknesses.

Offensively, the Bills and new offensive coordinator Greg Roman will be counting on third round pick John Miller as the Rookie Who Is Needed Early. The Bills offensive line is a work in progress, featuring a motley crew of castoffs, recent draft picks, and the former Louisville guard who shows good strength and technique in both run blocking and pass protection. However, he needs to develop his consistency in pass blocking, his overall footwork, and his ability to move to the second level and engage defenders.

Finally, in what must seem like Groundhog Day to Ryan, the quarterback position is a major question mark. Former first round pick EJ Manuel has been assigned to the third string after a poor preseason and two years of poor on-field performance. He must Develop Quickly and work hard on the scout team to impress Roman and Ryan or he will be unemployed after the season. The starter will be former Baltimore Ravens backup Tyrod Taylor who did an outstanding job holding Joe Flacco’s clipboard for the past four seasons. He is Excited For An Expanded Role, having thrown just 35 passes in the NFL thus far. While Taylor is largely unknown, he will get every opportunity to learn on the job, as the alternatives of Manuel and journeyman Matt Cassel are unlikely to perform well enough to sustain playoff hopes for Ryan in his first season at the helm in Buffalo.

Miami Dolphins

Rookie Who Is Needed Early Players Who Need to Develop Quickly Veteran Who May Be Ready to Decline Most Intriguing to Study Excited About Expanded Role
DeVante Parker Will Davis / Billy Turner Cameron Wake Derrick Shelby Chris McCain

It is a make or break year for head coach Joe Philbin and the Dolphins, who have been close to a playoff spot in each of the past two Decembers, only to stumble at the finish. With some expensive offseason additions and the continued development of quarterback Ryan Tannehill, there are no more excuses in Miami. To support the QB, the Dolphins spent a first round pick on 6’3” DeVante Parker, a player with incredible leaping ability and the ability to high point the ball like few others. Parker struggled with a foot injury during his senior year at Louisville and had a recurrence of the injury during training camp, curtailing his practice time, but the Dolphins
Need This Rookie Early, both to help in the red zone and to support Tannehill’s continued development.

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Part of Tannehill’s struggles are easily attributed to the shaky offensive line play. Second year guard Billy Turner is under pressure to Develop Quickly after a poor training camp. Turner is a powerful player who is still working on his technique and footwork, and his work in pass protection has Dolphins’ fans concerned. Turner needs to have the light bulb come on – and soon – if he wants any chance at fighting off 2014 4th round pick Jamil Douglas for the RG position.

The Dolphins have a young roster and Pass rush specialist Cameron Wake is the most likely candidate for Veteran Who May Be Ready To Decline. The former CFL star has become an NFL star by consistently making quarterbacks run for their lives. However, he is now 33 and shows signs on film that his first step may be on the wane. The addition of Ndamukong Suh in the middle should draw some attention away, and one on one matchups should help Wake maintain his numbers, if not his previous form.

It’s unusual for a backup defensive lineman to be on the list of Most Intriguing To Study, but fourth year understudy Derrick Shelby is an exception. Because of Wake’s age and mileage, it would make sense for the Dolphins to rotate Shelby into the mix more than in seasons past. The pass rusher has shown some progress each year and may be ready to push for even more playing time in the event of injury – or even into next year if Wake is, indeed, in decline.

Third year cornerback Will Davis must Develop Quickly, as the third round pick in 2013 has yet to make an NFL start. Davis has great athletic tools, but limited football game experience. Concerns about his over-aggressiveness and lack of instincts are outweighing his obvious ability to flip his hips and run with just about anyone. He has shown tantalizing glimpses on film of his potential, but then on the very next play looks lost. For the time being he will be the 3rd CB, losing a camp battle with journeyman nickelback Brice McCain for the job.

Chris McCain made the Dolphins as an undrafted free agent last season and was the lone bright spot on their awful special teams unit in 2014. The reserve linebacker was pressed into service on defense when injuries piled up and showed some potential, and the Dolphins are now hoping that he is ready to perform as the starting outside linebacker this season. Excited About An Expanded Role, McCain has ideal size and athleticism for the job. However, his troubled college career resulted in too little game experience, and he can be deceived by opposing offenses who will look to exploit his aggressiveness.

New England Patriots

Rookie Who Is Needed Early Players Who Need to Develop Quickly Veteran Who May Be Ready to Decline Most Intriguing to Study Excited About Expanded Role
Tre’ Jackson Logan Ryan / Bryan Stork Tom Brady Shaquille Mason Dominique Easley

Tom Brady needs no introduction (especially this offseason…) but is the most likely candidate for
Veteran Who May Be Ready To Decline. For an elite quarterback, 38 is ancient. Few have continued to be as good at that age, and everyone’s skills begin to erode at some point. Brady showed signs of decline early last season because of poor protection – occasionally seeing ghosts in the pocket – and he’s taken his share of big hits. However, he is far from done, saying he wants to play well into his 40s. We will see how Father Time treats the four time Super Bowl winner this season.

Bryan Stork seized the starting center job in week 5 last year after coming back from injury, but new injuries and a pair of high upside rookies means he must Develop Quickly. When healthy, the former Remington winner plays with good balance and leverage. Stork’s major issue is injuries – he has had a series of minor nicks and his concussion history is of great concern. He will start this season on IR-DTR, putting him out of action until midseason at the earliest, which has a heavier impact on the unit as two rookies – Tre’ Jackson and Shaq Mason – are likely starters and are going to be critical to the Patriots chances in 2015.

Jackson has been the presumptive starter and the Rookie Who Is Needed Early since his selection in the fourth round. He starred at Florida State, where he was a teammate of The Stork and helped make Jameis Winston the #1 overall pick. A mauler with a mean streak, Jackson has all the tools to become a top notch run blocker and good pass protector at the NFL level. Like most rookies, he will need to clean up some technical deficiencies, most notably his footwork and use of hands when engaged with a defender.

Meanwhile the other rookie, Mason, will be the Most Interesting Player To Study this season as he makes the transition from Georgia Tech’s triple option offense to a line that requires pass blocking. Mason pops on college game film, often driving defenders backwards and cleaning out the trash with power, agility, and intense competitive toughness. However, he may have pass blocked fewer than 100 times in four years of play in college and has a lot to learn, especially on the technical side. Offensive line coach Dave DeGuglielmo and retired “consultant” Dante Scarnecchia have been working with Mason since his selection in the fourth round and the plan was for him to learn by watching in order to correct the disconnect between his hands and feet. However, with the loss of Stork, it appears Mason will be the starting left guard – which will be fascinating every time the Patriots drop back to pass. 

Cornerback Logan Ryan needs to Develop Quickly, as the Patriots’ secondary is undergoing a major renovation. The third-year player has shown ball skills and good awareness in zone coverage, but struggles with press man technique and against double moves. He needs to take a step forward after a preseason that had some observers predicting he would be cut.

Finally, the player Excited About An Expanded Role is second-year defensive lineman Dominique Easley, who has looked healthy and frisky in preseason action. Easley, who was a highly regarded prospect before tearing the ACL in his knee for the second time, still was selected in the first round because of his explosiveness and burst off the snap. His ability to play in a two gap system is questionable and he’s definitely in need of improvement against double teams, but when he gets off the line as quickly as he does on tape, there is the real possibility he may be a breakout player this season.

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New York Jets

Rookie Who Is Needed Early Players Who Need to Develop Quickly Veteran Who May Be Ready to Decline Most Intriguing to Study Excited About Expanded Role
Devin Smith Calvin Pryor / Quinton Coples Brandon Marshall Lorenzo Mauldin Jeremy Kerley

New head coach Todd Bowles inherits a defense with elite talent and a passing game that is filled with question marks. Rookie speedster Devin Smith arrives fresh off a national championship at Ohio State, where he led the team in receiving yards and made a number of big plays with his legit 4.4 speed. His route running needs work – he’s most proficient at the sorts of routes that require him to just flat-out outrun opponents – as does his technique in defeating press coverage. A preseason spent practicing against Darrelle Revis may have helped in that regard. The
Rookie Is Needed Early, as the Jets try to get their passing game off the ground.  

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Fifth year receiver Jeremy Kerley has regressed on the stat sheet for the past two seasons, but he should be Excited About An Expanded Role in new offensive coordinator Chan Gailey’s offense, which will look to target the slot receiver more frequently as a way to relieve pressure on Smith, Eric Decker, and Brandon Marshall outside the numbers. With the loss of tight end Jace Amaro to a season ending shoulder injury, Kerley will be tasked with crossing routes and working the middle of the field for quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick. Kerley has displayed the tools to be an excellent player in the middle of the field, but needs all the other pieces around him to come into focus.

Meanwhile, Brandon Marshall is newly arrived from the Chicago Bears, and the Veteran Who May Be Ready To Decline. The loquacious Marshall is still capable of creating moments of magic – such as his three touchdown performance against San Francisco in Week 3 last season – but they are becoming more infrequent as age and injuries mount. Going from Jay Cutler to Fitzpatrick (or Geno Smith) is another step down in quarterback quality, and with Decker, Smith, and Kerley also competing for targets, this could be the season Marshall’s production falls off a cliff.

Defensively, Bowles will be looking to get more from fourth year pass rusher Quinton Coples, who has been a disappointment since being selected 16th overall in 2012. Coples wowed scouts in the draft process with the physical skills to be a more impactful player, but an inconsistent motor (evidenced by admitting he played soft his senior year at UNC to protect himself) and a limited repertoire of moves has limited his production. Coples has not shown the same tools at the NFL level, but with the lack of capable pass rushers on the Jets roster, he needs to Develop Quickly and make his presence felt now. Bowles will probably ask less of Coples than did departed coach Rex Ryan, who favored moving his pieces around and trying exotic things.

Under Bowles, if Coples does not make any strides, third round pick Lorenzo Mauldin, the Most Intriguing To Study on film this season, will have to be the guy. A non-stop, high-motor, high-character player, Mauldin is everything Coples is not: productive, active, and involved in every play. The knock on the rookie is his lack of ideal size, quickness, and pass rush technique, making him a bit of a project, albeit one with upside and the chance to carve out a significant role for the Jets in 2015.

Meanwhile, second year safety Calvin Pryor will also needs to Develop Quickly as he transitions to Bowles’ scheme which emphasizes safety play. The hard hitter struggled in his rookie season with coverage responsibilities, but seemed to improve as the year went on. His college tape shows an aggressive but disciplined player who can do multiple things – exactly the kind of defensive back that Bowles has gotten the most out of during his coaching career. Bowles put together 4 Safety packages for the Cardinals the past couple years and has a knack for understanding a player’s strengths and finding a way to highlight them.  The addition of former CB Marcus Gilchrist to man the FS position should allow Pryor to play closer to the LOS on a more frequent basis.

Follow Dan on Twitter @Dan_Hatman

Dan Hatman is the Director of The Scouting Academy and writes for Inside The Pylon when not teaching future football scouts and coaches how to do their job.

All video and images courtesy the NFL and NFL Game Rewind.

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