The well-drafting Patriots, the New York pressure on the Jets, and the Top 10 staples Buffalo and Miami have made this division an interesting blend of young talent.
While guys like Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez have changed more than just the Patriots offense by themselves (also the way the NFL is using tight ends), the Bills and Dolphins had added depth and some surprisingly impactful playmakers through the draft. The Bills lead the way with four on this Top 10 list, but the Patriots take the cake in true difference makers.
1. Rob Gronkowski, TE, New England - 23 years old
A true, dynamic playmaker that has completely forced Bill Belichek to revamp his offense (in a good way), Gronkowski isn't just an NFL tight end of old that we've seen. His triple threat ability as a blocker, short area/block and release talent, and seam and receiver-like pass catching ability forces defenses to adjust in ways that deter overall success. He was Top five in the NFL in receiving yards and receptions, and first in touchdowns among all pass catchers.
2. Nate Solder, OT, New England - 24 years old
Out of college, I was worried about Solder's ability to keep rushers from getting underneath, his ability to hold inside leverage, and ability to stay consistent against NFL rushers. However, in the Patriots wide split, open space pass blocking front, his 6'9 size and length allow him to beat rushers to the rush point every time. Both put in a position and scheme to succeed, Solder should be Brady's left tackle and his heir's blindside protector for the future.
3. Marcel Dareus, DT, Buffalo - 22 years old
Moved around a bit as a rookie, Dareus showed why he was viewed as both one of the "safest" picks in last year's draft as well as a rusher with unique upside. Dareus was moved around the defensive play, playing many techniques, but eventually wound up being most successful as a head-on, inside rusher from the nose tackle spot. Such a tough position to get production out of, if Dareus can stay consistent, the Bills defense will blossom around him.
4. Stevie Johnson, WR, Buffalo - 25 years old
The lone bright spot in the Bills passing game for now and the future, Johnson's impact on both keeping Ryan Fitzpatrick more consistent as well as adding a deep threat to this team is invaluable for this team's future. While they'll eventually need to find him a suitable complement, his deep play ability and run after catch talent is enough to set the deep part of the field for this offense.
5. Aaron Hernandez, TE, New England - 22 years old
Gronkowski's running mate in this tight end culture overhaul that is taking hold in the NFL, Hernandez's ability to set the underneath and flat area as a run after catch tight end adds such a unique aspect to the offense. Not quite the blocker of Gronk, Hernandez is a better slot receiver and situational H-Back type pass catcher that teams need to attempt to scheme for. It's unlikely that both he and Gronk can be on the team long term, but thanks to Gronkowski's new horrible-for-him contract, it is possible.
6. Mark Sanchez, QB, New York - 25 years old
Many have already tossed their support away from Sanchez as a franchise quarterback in favor of counting the days until Tim Tebow is the starter. I'm not one of them. I've been told the offense former offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer put it was far too complicated and over-bearing for Sanchez. Because of that, he struggled to be successful early in games due to the overbearing play calls and dimensions of the offense. He thrived when the offense got simpler late in games where his natural ability could take over. Tony Sparano will implement a much simpler offense, one that could give Sanchez the best chance to succeed.
7. Mike Pouncey, OC, Miami - 22 years old
While taking a center in the Top 20 is something I'd rarely support, Pouncey filled an immediate need fo a team still searching for a franchise quarterback. Having a center with SEC experience, a high football IQ, and natural pass blocking talent on the interior was too much to pass up. Pouncey has played as well as expected thus far, and his consistency will be much to the chagrin of Ryan Tannehill for the future.
8. CJ Spiller, RB, Buffalo - 24 years old
An explosive playmaker, Spiller is only begininng to hit his stride as a big play threat in the NFL. Maybe at best as part of a running back by committee (with Fred Jackson as of now, great duo), Spiller as a situational guy will be a headache for teams for the future. If he can continue to read and cut up and through the hold consistently and continue to make an impact in the open field, he'll have a chance to live up to the Top 10 ability if this offense can take the next step.
9. Vontae Davis, CB, Miami - 24 years old
Not a shut down cornerback by any stretch of the imagination, Davis has progressed (maybe a bit slower than they hoped/thought) into a more than adequate starter who's physical and athletic enough to cover feature receivers in the NFL without an overly need for help. Still taking unnecessary steps at times in his transitions and overall needs to perfect his technique, the talent and current ability is there to be a more than capable starter.
10. Jarius Byrd, S, Buffalo - 25 years old
Former Oregon cornerback turned NFL free safety, Byrd has come a consistent staple in the defensive backfield for a team that has had much turnover and inconsistent rotations at the position. He's able to play physical in zone pickups down the field and has solid zone depths that allow him to cover ground well in the passing game. I'm excited to see him progress more next to George Wilson for the future.
Ryan Mallett, QB, New England
Aaron Maybin, DE/OLB, New York
Kyle Wilson, CB, New York
Muhammed Wilkerson, DT/DE, New York
Brian Hartline, WR, Miami
Daniel Thomas, RB, Miami