The New England Patriots are still the top team in the AFC East for a few reasons, but Tom Brady’s presence is the most important factor. Each year we get another example of how important the quarterback position is to a team's success.
Even at 35 years old, Brady finished the 2012 season in the top five in passing yards.
This production shows that Brady isn’t close to slowing down and should have several more successful seasons left in the tank. Erik Frenz does a great job taking a closer look at how many more years we can expect to see Brady dominate the league.
Here’s a quick glimpse on how Frenz feels:
“It is realistic to expect Brady to play at a high level for a minimum of three years, but that depends on a few factors:
- Does he avoid injuries?
- Does the Patriots' solid running game carry over into the 2013 season and beyond?
- Do the Patriots finally equip the offense with a legitimate outside-the-numbers threat?”
That article looks at a long-term projection, but it supports the argument that we can expect Brady to continue his strong play into next season.
With Brady under center, it’ll be tough for the rest of the AFC East to catch up.
Outside of the Brady factor, the current makeup of the other rosters in the division plays a role in the Patriots’ standing on top of the mountain.
New York is in the beginning stages of a rebuilding process that has seen major roster changes. At this point in the offseason, it's looking to replace as many as nine starters from last year’s lineup.
This group includes major contributors like Yeremiah Bell, Sione Pouha, Bart Scott, Mike DeVito, Shonn Greene, Dustin Keller, LaRon Landry and Brandon Moore. The addition of Willie Colon is the only real notable free-agent signing.
New York is also looking at trading its top player, as laid out in the below tweet from SI's Peter King:
Because of the amount of roster turnover, there’s little chance the Jets will challenge the Patriots.
The Bills and Jets have one major problem in common and that’s the lack of direction at the quarterback position. Buffalo’s decision to cut ties with Ryan Fitzpatrick leaves the team with Tarvaris Jackson as the top quarterback on the roster.
Buddy Nix and company have plenty of time to add to the roster, but it’s unlikely they’ll be able to add a difference-maker. The majority of the rumors have Buffalo targeting a quarterback in the upcoming draft.
West Virginia’s Geno Smith and Syracuse’s Ryan Nassib are the most discussed prospects. While both players have plenty of talent, neither is capable of pushing the Bills ahead of the Patriots. Adam Schefter's tweet below shows that Buffalo is also considering a middle-round prospect like Tennessee's Tyler Bray.
It also may target a veteran backup like Matt Flynn. However, he’s just as unproven as the rookie candidates.
Because of their flashy offseason, many will point to the Miami Dolphins as the top candidate to unseat the Patriots. It’s hard to argue against that logic. Miami has significantly upgraded the roster and will continue to do so because of the five draft picks it owns in the first three rounds.
However, it all goes back to the quarterback position. The Dolphins will need Ryan Tannehill to avoid a sophomore slump and take a major step forward. Tannehill’s performance as a rookie suggests a bright future, but it’ll take more than potential to claim the AFC East title.
The video below, from the Sun-Sentinel, features an interview where Joe Philbin talks about the different areas where Tannehill must improve:
Taking a longer look into the future, the Patriots’ dominance is at risk. They have several key players, like Brady, approaching the back-end of their careers. Young players like Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez have dealt with injuries over the past two seasons. Neither is approaching the injury-prone label, but it’s worth noting.
However, it’s way too early to predict the sky to fall. Last year’s draft provided the Patriots with several key parts on the defensive side of the ball. Chandler Jones, Dont’a Hightower, Tavon Wilson and Alfonzo Dennard all showed a ton of promise.
The Patriots defense played a major role in New England’s first Super Bowl win with Brady under center.
New England is also in a good salary cap situation, as laid out in this article by Pro Football Talk. Cap flexibility will be a key for the Patriots as they look to build a future after Tom Brady.
It’s also important to talk about the culture Bill Belichick and Robert Kraft have worked to build. Players across the league know that the Patriots are all about winning, and that anything less than a Super Bowl championship is unacceptable.
Because of this winning attitude, it’s not difficult for New England to lure talented players to town.