It was business as usual in the AFC East last season, as New England won its ninth straight division title. The Patriots were four games clear of second-place Buffalo, which tied for the largest margin in the NFL by a division champion. As long as Bill Belichick and Tom Brady are around, New England will remain a threat in both the division and the conference, but have the winds of change started to swirl in the AFC East?
Following a tough Super Bowl LII loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, the Patriots have seen both coaches (namely defensive coordinator Matt Patricia) and players leave. New England also has acquired an additional first-round pick with the trade of wide receiver Brandin Cooks. This follows earlier trades orchestrated by the Bills and Jets to move up in the draft while the Dolphins have been busy remaking their roster.
Buffalo Bills (9-7, 2nd in AFC East, lost to Jacksonville in wild-card round)
2017 snapshot: The Bills put an end to the NFL’s longest postseason drought (17 years), thanks to an assist from the Bengals, who beat the Ravens on a late touchdown in their regular-season finale. Buffalo was one-and-done in the playoffs, however, losing to Jacksonville 10-3 in the wild-card game. The Bills made the playoffs despite featuring a passing attack that ranked second to last in the NFL (176.6 ypg).
Biggest needs: Buffalo traded quarterback Tyrod Taylor to Cleveland for a third-round pick in the upcoming draft. And even though the Bills signed free agent AJ McCarron to a two-year deal, finding a long-term answer at quarterback is critical. Wide receiver is another need, as none caught more than 27 passes last season. Buffalo also could be looking at a new left tackle after trading former starter Cordy Glenn to Cincinnati in a deal that also involved draft picks. Linebacker figures to be a focus as well after Preston Brown, the team’s leading tackler by far in 2017, left in free agency.
First-round picks: Nos. 12 and 22 overall
Potential picks: Thanks to the trades involving Taylor and Glenn, the Bills now have five of the first 65 picks in this draft. Even though Buffalo has already moved up nine spots (from No. 21 to 12), general manager Brandon Beane has the ammo if he wants to increase his chances of getting one of the top quarterbacks. The Bills reportedly held private workouts with UCLA’s Josh Rosen and Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield, and Josh Allen from Wyoming could be a possibility as well. If the Buffalo keeps both first-round picks (instead of packaging one or both to move up even higher), then the second one could potentially be used on either a linebacker (like Alabama’s Rashaan Evans), a defensive lineman, or one of the top offensive tackles (such as Texas’ Connor Williams, Notre Dame’s Mike McGlinchey or UCLA’s Kolton Miller).
Miami Dolphins (6-10, 3rd in AFC East)
2017 snapshot: The Dolphins got off to a 4-2 start but a five-game losing streak from late October through November pretty much put an end to their playoff hopes. A roster churn that started with the trade of running back Jay Ajayi in October continued this offseason with the team bidding good-bye to wide receiver Jarvis Landry (trade) and defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh (released), among others.
Biggest needs: The Dolphins struggled against the pass last season, allowing an opponent passer rating of 94.8, which ranked 28th in the NFL, and a lack of talent at the cornerback position can be blamed for this. The release of Suh also means the team will be looking for a replacement to anchor the defensive line, while the linebacking corps could use an impact playmaker. On offense, the line is a bit unsettled even after signing Josh Sitton in free agency while tight end is completely up for grabs following the release of Julius Thomas. Quarterback and wide receiver are two other positions that bear watching with Ryan Tannehill coming back from a torn ACL and the departure of Landry, although Danny Amendola and Albert Wilson were signed in free agency.
First-round pick: No. 11 overall
Potential picks: Just outside of the top 10, the Dolphins should have the ability to address one of their biggest needs with one of the top prospects available at the position. If it’s cornerback that could mean Ohio State’s Denzel Ward, UCF’s Mike Hughes or Iowa’s Josh Jackson. If finding a new defensive anchor is the focus, tackles like Washington’s Vita Vea or Alabama’s Da’Ron Payne could be in the discussion. Miami also could have a shot at either Virginia Tech’s Tremaine Edmunds or Georgia’s Roquan Smith to plug in right away at linebacker. But the real intrigue comes if the Dolphins decide to take a quarterback, as they have been already connected with Baker Mayfield.
New England Patriots (13-3, 1st in AFC East, lost to Philadelphia in Super Bowl LII)
2017 snapshot: The defending Super Bowl champions lost their opener at home to Kansas City in stunning fashion and then proceeded to go 13-2 the rest of the way. After struggling initially, the defense turned things around and finished fifth in points allowed despite ranking 29th in yards. On offense, Tom Brady was brilliant on his way to winning his third MVP award. Brady also rewrote the record book with 505 passing yards in the Super Bowl, but the Patriots couldn’t muster enough points to overcome the Eagles’ own offensive onslaught.
Biggest needs: One of the reasons New England’s defense struggled in some respects last year is because linebacker Dont’a Hightower tore his pectoral muscle in October. He should be back, but this unit desperately needs an infusion of youth and talent. The defensive line was a bit of patchwork group that featured plenty of fluctuation and was aided by some contributions from unexpected sources. Finding a consistent playmaker that can come off of the edge would be a welcome addition. The Patriots unexpectedly lost left tackle Nate Solder in free agency to the Giants, so a new blindside protector for Brady, who will turn 41 in August, is now needed. And the trade of Jimmy Garappolo to San Francisco has once again stirred up the talk about who will eventually replace Brady as the team’s next quarterback.
First-round picks: Nos. 23 and 31 overall
Potential picks: The surprising trade of Brandin Cooks to the Rams doesn’t make wide receiver a sudden need, but what it does is add the potential for even more intrigue in the draft. New England now owns a pair of first- and second-round picks. Is that enough ammo for the Patriots to move up and potentially enter the sweepstakes for one of the top QBs on the board? Tom Brady certainly isn’t getting any younger. And there’s still the chance that New England trades Rob Gronkowski, whose own future has become a hot topic. As far as more immediate needs go, Solder’s departure opened a rather important hole on the left side of the offensive line. Tackle is fairly deep this year, so the Patriots could choose to address it right away or try to find their guy later in the draft. Outside of packaging some picks to put them in position to take a quarterback, it doesn’t seem like the Patriots will take a skill position player until the later rounds, unless there’s a wide receiver (Alabama’s Calvin Ridley?) or tight end (South Carolina’s Hayden Hurst? South Dakota State’s Dallas Goedert?) they really like. Remember, right now New England possesses four of the first 63 picks in the draft.
New York Jets (5-11, 4th in AFC East)
2017 snapshot: The Jets won just five games for the second season in a row, but in some ways that was impressive considering the dearth of talent on the roster. Points were hard to come by on offense (18.6 ppg, 24th in the NFL) as the passing game averaged fewer than 200 yards per contest. The defense held its own for the most part, but gave up way too many touchdowns through the air (30) and failed to muster much of a pass rush (28 sacks, 28th).
Biggest needs: The Jets’ quarterback situation in recent seasons has been as dire as any team outside of Cleveland. Josh McCown was re-signed and 2014 first-round pick Teddy Bridgewater was added in free agency, but make no mistake: this draft is all about the QB for the J-E-T-S. As expected, Muhammad Wilkerson signed with a new team in free agency, so while the middle of the defensive line is in good shape, a new end is needed to pair with Leonard Williams. The offensive line is probably going to be addressed at some point in this draft too as the unit could use an upgrade, particularly at tackle. The linebacking corps also took a hit with Demario Davis leaving in free agency.
First-round pick: No. 3 overall
Potential picks: Already in decent position to get a quarterback with the sixth overall pick, general manager Mike Maccagnan sent it and three second-round selections (two in 2018, one in ’19) to swap places with Indianapolis. Now sitting at No. 3, the Jets should be able to get their guy. The question is who? The expectation is that Sam Darnold will be taken by Cleveland at No. 1 overall. So does that mean Josh Rosen is headed to the Big Apple? Or Josh Allen? Or could it be Baker Mayfield? Because of the trade with the Colts, the Jets have just six total picks in this year’s draft with their next one not coming until the third round. Expect several of these to be used to bolster both lines of scrimmage.