Biggest Summer Questions for AFC East Defenses

The Patriots will be counting on a leap in production from Chandler Jones in his sophomore season. (Photo: USA Today Sports Images)

BBD Staff Writer: Eric Samulski

Last week, I looked at the biggest questions facing AFC East offenses. This week, it’s time to turn our attention to the biggest questions on the defensive side of the ball.

New England Patriots

Can Chandler Jones make the leap?

Earlier this offseason, I listed Chandler Jones as one of my breakout players for the 2013 season. Jones told the media in May that he is working on becoming bigger and stronger, and if that is the case, it seems as though he’s poised to make the leap in terms of production. However, Jones has always been a bit more potential than results, especially as a pass rusher.

An athletic specimen, Jones never had more than 4.5 sacks in a season at Syracuse. He had six last season for the Patriots, but none in the team’s final six games of the regular season. If he’s going to step up as one of the leaders of the Patriots defense, he’s going to need to prove he can get to the quarterback consistently.

With the questions the Patriots have on the offensive side of the ball, the defense is going to have to prevent shootouts. Jones being a consistent pass-rusher could go a long way to making that happen.

Can they get anything out of Tommy Kelly?

In 2010, defensive tackle Tommy Kelly emerged as a star for the Oakland Raiders. He clogged up the middle of the defense and blocked running lanes to make 60 tackles, while he also recorded seven sacks.

He had 7.5 sacks in 2011 and was proving himself as a mainstay on the Raiders defense. Then the wheels fell off in 2012.

Kelly was unable to get after the quarterback consistently last season. He notched only one sack and was only credited with 12 quarterback hurries by Pro Football Focus (subscription required). When the Raiders decided to rebuild their defense this offseason, Kelly was released as one of the casualties.

He joined the New England Patriots this offseason, joining the long line of veterans who have looked to rebuild their career in New England. If the Patriots can get the 2010 version of Tommy Kelly back and pair him with Vince Wilfork, their front seven could be a dominant force and help make the offense’s job that much easier.

Miami Dolphins

Are Dannell Ellerbe and Philip Wheeler an upgrade at LB?

The Dolphins spent a lot of money in free agency. Their spending may not be more important at any other position than at linebacker, where they spent a combined $27 million guaranteed to land Philip Wheeler and Dannell Ellerbe.

Replacing Karlos Dansby and Kevin Burnett, who were both cut by the Dolphins, will be a tall order for Wheeler and Ellerbe. Dansby and Burnett were the team’s two leading tacklers last sesaon, with 134 and 110 tackles respectively. Wheeler and Ellerbe were both solid in their own right last season, recording 109 and 92 tackles respectively, but replacing defensive leaders is never an easy task. If one of these guys isn’t up to the challenge of added responsibility, the money might not prove to be well spent.

Will Randy Starks be a distraction?

Randy Starks enjoyed his second Pro Bowl season last year. He had 27 tackles, 4.5 sacks and anchored the middle of the Dolphins defense. However, he wanted a long-term contract this offseason. He was franchise-tagged and signed to a $8.45 million tender, but decided to skip some offseason workouts to send a message to the team, according to Omar Kelly of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

Despite showing up for minicamp, Starks is still searching for a long-term deal. Contracts that hang over a team like this can often become distractions during the season, especially if the team doesn’t get off to a good start. With nobody seemingly well positioned to take his spot in the lineup, the Dolphins need Starks to be at his best all season or the defense will be without its anchor in a division of talented running backs.

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Tags: AFC East, Chandler Jones, Dannell Ellerbe, Darrelle Revis, Dee Milliner, Jairus Byrd, Kiko Alonso, Nigel Bradham, Philip Wheeler, Questions, Randy Starks, Sheldon Richardson, Tommy Kelly, Training Camp

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