Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots secured the AFC East title for the seventh year in a row in 2015, but their divisional competition was certainly much improved from years past.
Defense seemed to be the focus last offseason, as the Dolphins gave Ndamukong Suh a massive contract (six years, $114 million) and the Jets reclaimed Darrelle Revis from his Super Bowl sabbatical with the New England Patriots. There was another big move between two divisional foes as the Buffalo Bills hired Rex Ryan shortly after the New York Jets let him go. The emphasis will likely be on defense once again in the upcoming 2016 NFL Draft.
2015 Snapshot: The Bills came out of the gates hot in 2015, most surprisingly on the offensive side of the football. With the emergence of Tyrod Taylor at quarterback the Bills averaged more than 33 points per game during their 2-1 start, with the only loss coming to the New England Patriots by one score. They finished a mediocre (8-8), but Ryan seemed to move the needle in the right direction.
Biggest Needs: It is truly astounding that a Ryan-led defense finished second to last in the NFL with 21 sacks last season. Ryan is known for dominant defenses like the groups he had in New York with the Jets. The Bills struggled against the run and the pass in 2015, so any position along the defensive line makes sense. They may also think long term and attempt to address quarterback and offensive line issues as well.
First-round pick: No. 19 overall
Potential Pick: Depending on what happens with LeSean McCoy’s legal battle, the Bills could find themselves focusing on defense or replacing the huge offseason acquisition from a year ago. Assuming McCoy is in a Bills uniform in 2016, Buffalo will target the best defensive end available when it is their turn to pick. They may also look to land an inside linebacker that can run this defense for years to come. If they are willing to take the risk, Notre Dame’s Jaylon Smith is an extremely versatile linebacker coming off of a serious knee injury suffered at this year’s Fiesta Bowl.
2015 Snapshot: There was a lot of hype surrounding this team coming into the 2015 campaign. Ndamukong Suh decided to take his talents to South Beach, and another year under Ryan Tannehill’s belt provided valuable learning experiences. After a disappointing 6-10 showing, Miami has a new head coach in Adam Gase and the Dolphins are hoping he can turn things around.
Biggest Needs: Even with the NFL’s best defensive tackle, the Dolphins finished 28th against the run in 2015. Suh and the line are partly to blame, but the Miami linebackers are also very much responsible for the defensive woes. On the other side, the Miami offensive line allowed 45 sacks, which was the eighth most in the NFL.
First-round pick: No. 8 overall
Potential Pick: I like the Dolphins to play it safe here and take Alabama’s Reggie Ragland, a proven run stopper and the only premier linebacker in this draft without serious injury questions. I think Miami will wait to address their offensive line concerns until later in the draft, but if Notre Dame tackle Ronnie Stanley falls to No. 8 then they would be wise to snatch him up.
New York Jets
2015 Snapshot: New York finally moved on from the Rex Ryan era and the team had immediate success under Todd Bowles in his first season. The Jets were so close to the playoffs, and after defeating the Patriots in Week 16 all that was needed was one more win over the Ryan-led Bills. But alas, Ryan kept his former team out of the playoffs yet again.
Biggest Needs: Ryan Fitzpatrick replaced Geno Smith after a preseason fight with linebacker IK Enemkpali knocked Smith out for much of the season. After all of this madness a competitive football team came out of camp. However, neither Smith nor Fitzpatrick is the franchise quarterback of the future. There are also concerns at running back, as Chris Ivory has expressed it is not likely that the Jets keep him. Lastly, the Jets' defense was very good in 2015, but there are certainly areas that need improvement. Longtime outside linebacker Calvin Pace is coming off the worst year of his career, and at 35 it seems he has played his final game in a Jets uniform.
First-round pick: No. 20 overall
Potential Pick: This pick is too late to take a first-tier quarterback, so finding a replacement for Ivory or Pace must be the top priority. The best running back in the draft, Ohio State’s Ezekiel Elliott, may be too talented for general manager Mike Maccagnan to pass up. If he elects to build on the Jets’ impressive defense, Clemson’s Kevin Dodd (6-5, 280) could be just the outside linebacker the Jets need to move on from Pace.
New England Patriots
2015 Snapshot: The defending Super Bowl champion Patriots started off the year scorching hot but eventually struggled to close out their regular season and secure the No. 1 seed in the AFC. This came back to bite them in a huge way, as they lost a tight matchup with the top-seeded Denver Broncos on the road in the AFC Championship Game.
Biggest Needs: More air in their footballs. As a result of the Deflategate scandal the New England Patriots do not have a first-round pick in the upcoming draft. It likely won’t matter, as the Patriots' front office has proven countless times they are incredible at landing top talent in the later rounds.
First-round pick: N/A (Forfeited as part of punishment for Deflategate scandal)
Potential Pick: With their first pick coming late in the second round the Patriots will likely add some stability to their offensive line. They may also look to find an eventual replacement for recently retired linebacker Jerod Mayo.