After more than a decade of dominance, by the New England Patriots, the gap between the have and the have-nots in the AFC East closed up considerably during the 2015 season.
Though the Pats won their 12th division championship in 13 years, lurking closely behind them were the New York Jets, and to a lesser extent the Buffalo Bills, with the Miami Dolphins pulling up the rear. All three of those teams made significant additions to their teams last offseason, with varying results, and still New England prevailed.
For any of the other AFC East contenders to dethrone the Patriots this time around, they’ll need to make some more moves this spring to take the next step. New England, too, is looking at an important offseason. No longer the defending Super Bowl Champions, the Pats were bounced from the postseason by the eventual Super Bowl 50 Champion Denver Broncos in the AFC Championship Game and will have to find a different recipe for postseason success if they hope to return to the top of the sport. That starts in free agency, where all four AFC East teams are certain to be players in the market for improvements.
Here’s a look at what each AFC East team is prioritizing in free agency and what they can do to improve their squads and fill out their roster.
NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS
Team needs: Offensive line, running back, middle linebacker, defensive tackle, wide receiver
It’s not often the Patriots have trouble on offense. With Tom Brady at quarterback and Rob Gronkowski at tight end, they have two of the best the game has ever seen at their respective positions. However, the Broncos exposed some weaknesses and created a blueprint teams will follow if the Pats don’t improve. Doing that starts with upgrades along the offensive line, which ranked near the bottom of the league in blocking, especially pass blocking for Brady. Getting better on the interior of the o-line must be their top priority. They need help at the skill positions, too, particularly running back, where injuries to Dion Lewis and LeGarrette Blount left them in a bind. They could also use a physical deep threat to complement the game of Julian Edelman at wide receiver. On defense, the middle got weaker with the retirement of Jerod Mayo, so an inside linebacker should be a priority, and some depth on the defensive line would help as well.
Top target that would make sense: Alex Boone, G, San Francisco 49ers
The Pats aren’t a team known to spend often to upgrade their offensive line on the open market, choosing instead to develop options from within. In fact, all seven players that logged at least one start on the revolving New England offensive line last season were Pats products. However, the production wasn’t up to par and it’s time to go shopping. Boone would represent a significant upgrade at left guard alongside Nate Solder, who be returning from a season-ending biceps injury suffered in the first month of the season. Boone is expected to command big money, and the Pats are projected as one of the NFL’s most cap-strapped teams. But they can get creative with some of their long term deals, and with their window with Brady likely closing in the next few years, the time is now to do just that.
A few other targets: Richie Incognito, G, Buffalo Bills; Manny Ramirez, C/G, Detroit Lions; Matt Forte, RB, Chicago Bears, Chris Ivory, RB, New York Jets; Rolando McClain, LB, Dallas Cowboys; Nick Fairley, DT, Los Angeles Rams; Mohamed Sanu, WR, Cincinnati Bengals.
If the Pats don’t want to spend big on the offensive line, Incognito and Ramirez — both on the backend of their careers — might be more up their alley. Incognito rehabbed his image in Buffalo, but his reputation might keep him from a big contract, while Ramirez is the type of swing interior lineman New England is looking for. At running back, the Pats’ options are plentiful. Forte has been linked to them since the moment he became a free agent, but with Lewis due back to resume his role in the passing game, Ivory might be a better fit as a between the tackles runner. Since moving to Dallas, McClain has shown the potential that made him a top draft pick, but he’s also shown what kept him from reaching his ceiling. Still he’s a talent New England could take a chance on. That’s also true of Fairley, who has failed to live up to the hype, but could thrive in a rotational role with the Pats. Sanu got lost in the shuffle in Cincy, but is still in his mid-20s and represents a significant upgrade over the recently released Brandon LaFell.
NEW YORK JETS
Team needs: Quarterback, offensive line, outside linebacker, running back, tight end
Like New England, the majority of New York’s needs are on offense, where they have a plethora of free agents and decisions to make. At quarterback, they must decide whether Ryan Fitzpatrick is good enough to be their guy as they try to take the next step, or if they should take a risk on a guy that could be either better or worse for the team. Regardless of who is under center, the Jets have to get better in front of their quarterback, as they too had one of the 10 worst offensive line groups in the league last season. Running back will also be an area of significant need for NY, as their top three RBs are set to hit the open market. Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker are the best Jets receiving tandem in quite some time, but in a league that’s being taken over by tight ends, it’s shocking how long it’s been since New York has had one that could really produce. On defense, the Jets are in solid shape, holding an embarrassment of riches up front and a strong core on the backend, they could, however, use some help off the edge if they can manage it. Problem is, New York is near the bottom of the league in available salary cap space as it currently stands, so they’ll also have to get creative to address their shortcomings.
Top target that would make sense: Brock Osweiler, QB, Denver Broncos
It seems likely at this point that the Jets turn back to Fitzpatrick, especially given the constraints of their budget, but if they can clear some space and Denver lets quarterback Brock Osweiler hit the market, the 25-year-old could pay big short and long-term dividends for New York. With Sam Bradford off the market and Kirk Cousins tagged, making him effectively unavailable as well, Osweiler is the cream of the crop at the quarterback position, and one of the most talented QB’s to make it to the market in quite some time. While it’s unclear whether he has the upside Denver once anticipated from him, Osweiler still has at least Fitzpatrick upside with the potential to be much, much better. Bringing him to New York would be a great way to start an important offseason for the Jets.
A few other targets: Chase Daniel, QB, Kansas City Chiefs; Kelvin Beachum, T, Pittsburgh Steelers; Donald Penn, T, Oakland Raiders; Bruce Irvin, LB, Seattle Seahawks; Matt Forte, RB, Chicago Bears; Ronnie Hillman, RB, Denver Broncos, Ladarius Green, TE, San Diego Chargers.
If Osweiler either fails to make it to the market or turns out to be too expensive for the Jets, they could turn their attention to Daniel as a potential replacement for Fitzpatrick. The Chiefs reserve doesn’t quite have the upside of Osweiler, but his ceiling is significantly higher than Fitzpatrick’s. The Jets biggest need on the offensive line is at tackle, where RT Breno Giacomini was among the worst players in the league last year. Beachum, coming off an ACL injury, would represent a risk, but that risk could lower his price tag and bring with it a significant reward. Penn would be more of a veteran presence, but could also stabilize the end of the line. Bringing in Irvin would represent a “rich get richer” move for the Jets, who are already so strong on defense, but they’ve already been linked to him, making it more than a pipe dream. Forte is going to be in high demand, which may take the Jets out of the mix, but they could certainly use his skillset. Hillman would also be an interesting fit, replacing Ivory with a fresher model. A move for the underappreciated Green would strengthen New York’s passing game for whoever is under center.
Team needs: Defensive end, linebacker, guard, wide receiver, cornerback
The Bills finished a disappointing 8-8 in Rex Ryan’s first year as head coach, but there were plenty of reasons for optimism in Buffalo, and they enter the offseason with a pretty talented roster still mostly intact. They certainly need to find help in the pass rush after ranking last in the AFC in sacks last year despite a plethora of talent up front. They also need something more in the middle of the defense to try to fix a linebacking group that was a significant weakness for Ryan’s group in 2015. Adding some depth at cornerback after cutting Leodis McKelvin should also be on the radar. On offense, the Bills are in pretty good shape after placing the franchise tag on Cordy Glenn, but the pending departure of guard Richie Incognito could create a need on the interior of the line. They could also use another option at wide receiver to complement the X-Y combo of Sammy Watkins and Robert Woods. However, like the Jets, Buffalo is cash-strapped, so filing their limited needs in free agency could be a complex endeavor.
Top target that would make sense: Jason Pierre-Paul, DE, New York Giants
Buffalo’s ill-fated marriage with star defensive end Mario Williams came to an end last month with Williams, who had all but quit on the team last year, essentially fist pumping his way out of town after being released. Despite Williams’ shortcomings, his presence alone was a factor for the Bills defense and his departure creates a hole. Ryan has already hired his brother Rob to come to Buffalo and help get more out of the current group of pass rushers, but they’ll need one more piece. Enter Pierre-Paul, who could be just what the doctor ordered. Once considered one of the league’s top defensive ends, it’s hard to know what Pierre-Paul’s ceiling is with the misshapen claw that used to be his right hand, but he still has considerable talent and if anyone can get the most out of him it’s the Ryans. Add in the fact that his hand creates doubt about the depth of his market and how much he can command, and he’s a great fit for the Bills on a short-term “prove it” type deal.
A few other targets: Greg Hardy, DE, Dallas Cowboys; William Hayes, DE, Los Angeles Rams; Jerrell Freeman, LB, Indianapolis Colts, Rolando McClain, LB, Dallas Cowboys; Brandon Brooks, G, Houston Texans; Travis Benjamin, WR, Cleveland Browns; Patrick Robinson, CB, New Orleans Saints.
Hardy’s off-the-field issues are well-documented, but he showed enough talent with Dallas that he’ll catch on elsewhere, and I wouldn’t put it past the Ryans to make it Buffalo. Hayes is also an intriguing option. The 30-year-old has shown flashes of what he can be, but has never put it all together. The Bills may have enough of those guys, or perhaps Rex will keeping trying. Freeman would be a solid fit in the middle of the defense, as a guy who knows where he and his teammates need to be at all times. McClain is another troubled former Cowboy with talent at a position of need, which could entice Buffalo. If Incognito bolts, Brooks could be a cheap alternative to solidify the line. Taylor would benefit from adding a target of Benjamin’s caliber to the passing game, as would Watkins. McKelvin’s replacement might come from the draft, but Robinson could make for a decent depth piece to step into a role wherever needed in the secondary.
Team needs: Cornerback, running back, offensive line, wide receiver, safety
The Miami Dolphins made the biggest splash of the 2015 offseason, signing Ndamukong Suh to a mega deal. Suh’s arrival was expected to strengthen the Dolphins defense and boost Miami toward playoff contention. Instead, the franchise took a significant step back and the 2015 season exposed a litany of flaws. The Dolphins will have their work cut out for them filling those holes, as they currently sit as one of just three teams over the cap. For Suh and the pass rush — which was solidified when the team tagged Olivier Vernon — to have success, Miami has to find ways to get better on the backend, at both corner and safety. On offense, new head coach Adam Gase has his hands full, and one of the first orders of business should be some o-line upgrades, but the Dolphins might also need to replace key free agents at running back and wide receiver. Last offseason was a huge one for Miami and this one has the potential to even more game-changing for the franchise. Without much money to spend, that could be trouble.
Top target that would make sense: Janoris Jenkins, CB, Los Angeles Rams
When the Rams franchised Trumaine Johnson, it made certain that Jenkins would hit the market as the top available cornerback. The former second round pick has emerged as one of the league’s best cover corners. That’s something the Dolphins thought they were getting when they signed Brent Grimes, but despite the fact that he’s made the Pro Bowl each of his three years in Miami, Grimes has taken significant steps back each season, and at 33 when the 2016 season starts, Grimes may be on his last legs However, the decline of their last big ticket corner shouldn’t deter Miami from making a run at Jenkins, who is just 27. It should spur them on. The only question is whether they can clear the space to do so.
A few other targets: Sean Smith, CB, Kansas City Chiefs; Ronnie Hillman, RB, Denver Broncos; Jeff Allen, G, Kansas City Chiefs; Andre Smith, T, Cincinnati Bengals; Marvin Jones, WR, Cincinnati Bengals; Rueben Randle, WR, New York Giants; Tashaun Gipson, FS, Cleveland Browns.
Should Jenkins’ price tag not be in their budget, the Phins could fall back on a reunion with Smith, a steady top tier corner. If Lamar Miller leaves Miami, Hillman could come right in and fill his role in a timeshare with Jay Ajayi. The key to upgrading the offensive line for the Dolphins will be consistency on either side of franchise center Mike Pouncey. Six different players made starts at the guard and tackle positions for Miami in 2015 and the only 16-game starter was Dallas Thomas, one of the worst-ranked guards in the league. Both Allen and Smith could provide stability along that offensive line, to help the Dolphins get moving again in Gase’s offense. Another dynamic wide receiver would also help that along, especially if Rishard Matthews bolts for greener pastures. Marvin Jones would be a great fit, but is a big ticket item. The Dolphins could instead settle on Randle, who didn’t live up to the potential in New York but is still just 24 and has all the physical ability to be a playmaker. Miami has one of the league’s most underrated strong safeties in Reshad Jones, but to make the back end of their defense truly better, the Dolphins need someone to hold it down deep and the addition Gipson would create an excellent tandem as the last line of defense.
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Source: Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk
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Did Bucs put too much pressure on Aguayo?
Source: Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk
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Broncos holding their breath on Derek Wolfe
Source: Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk
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