The Bills, Dolphins and Jets have work to do if they want to close the gap on the Super Bowl champions
The New England Patriots won the AFC East by a wider margin than any other division champion in the NFL in 2016. That's pretty much how things have gone over the last decade and a half, as Bill Belichick, Tom Brady and Co. continue their unfathomable success as the other three teams in the division seemingly rotate finishing second, third or fourth.
New England has dominated in free agency, but they still have holes to fill and depth to build. Unlike its divisional counterparts, the Patriots will be without a first-round pick in the 2017 draft (barring another shrewd move or two) to help them fill those holes and build that depth. The Bills and Jets, meanwhile, will have very early picks at their disposal to help with their biggest needs.
2016 Snapshot: The Bills finished the 2016 campaign with a 7-9 record, losing four of their last five games. The lone win during that stretch came against the lowly Cleveland Browns. The Bills were doomed by a laughable passing attack, thanks in large part to another season of a hobbled Sammy Watkins and a limited stable of weapons at the receiver position.
Biggest Needs: Obviously, the Bills need a more dependable playmaker at receiver. Robert Woods and Marquise Goodwin were the top two producers at the position a season ago, but both have found new homes on the West Coast during free agency. Buffalo also could use more stability on the offensive line — especially at right tackle.
First-round pick: No. 10 overall
Potential Picks: Buffalo will be in position to take one of the top two wide receivers on the board: Clemson's Mike Williams or Western Michigan's Corey Davis. Either one is an immediate starter and No. 1 option in the passing attack, relegating even a healthy Watkins to the second option at this point — if not making him expendable altogether. The Bills can pick up adequate offensive line depth later in the draft, but they won't find elite talent at the receiver position beyond Williams and Davis.
2016 Snapshot: The Dolphins had a relatively successful 2016 season. They won 10 games, qualified for the playoffs and appear to have found a star in running back Jay Ajayi. The problem is, they share a division with the Patriots — regularly one of the league's most prolific offensive teams. Young stars can be found throughout the offensive depth chart, but the defense — specifically the front seven — is just not built to stop New England right now.
Biggest needs: Miami needs linebackers — plain and simple. The Dolphins need versatile outside linebackers who can rush off the edge or drop off and cover tight ends and running backs at a moment's notice. That's their best hope of matching up and attempting to slow down what today's NFL offenses are doing.
First-round pick: No. 22 overall
Potential Picks: The Dolphins will be in position to address outside linebacker by taking either Zach Cunningham from Vanderbilt or Alabama's Tim Williams. Both are superior athletes and guys you'd expect to be long-term starters. There also is a chance that the Dolphin brass is wooed by the versatility of Michigan's Jabrill Peppers, who spent time at both safety and linebacker during his collegiate career.
New England Patriots
2016 Snapshot: They won the Super Bowl despite the greatest quarterback in NFL history missing a quarter of the regular season. It was a stark reminder to the rest of the league just how solid the Patriot organization is and how far ahead the franchise is of everyone else right now. And the Rocky Balboa-fashion in which they came back to win Super Bowl LI had the football world questioning everything we thought we knew about the game and perhaps even life itself.
Biggest needs: Bill Belichick likes to have a solid collection of versatile edge rushers, and right now his stockpile is bordering on what he would consider low. Additionally, it's starting to feel like Rob Gronkowski's best days are behind him. When healthy, he's probably still the best player at his position, but the reality is that he has only played in 70 percent of New England's games over the past five seasons and hasn't played a complete season since 2011 — his second year in the league.
First-round pick: none.
First pick: No. 72 overall
Potential picks: It all boils down to what's available and what Belichick values more at this point. If he's leaning toward grabbing an impact defender who can get after the quarterback, there's a good chance that Ohio's Tarell Basham — the MAC Defensive Player of the Year — is available. If he's looking to add a pass-catching tight end to groom as Gronkowski's eventual replacement, Virginia Tech's Bucky Hodges is someone who might hear his name called when New England makes its first pick.
New York Jets
2016 Snapshot: The Jets slogged their way to five wins over the Browns, Bills (twice), 49ers and Ravens. They did so with an aging roster and disarray at the quarterback position. Head coach Todd Bowles constantly looked like he couldn't wait for the season to be over, and a quick glance into the stands during home games reflected the same.
Biggest needs: Take your pick. Of course the Jets need a quarterback, but truthfully, you don't want to plug a fresh signal-caller into a mess like this without some house cleaning and upgrades. That's probably one of the biggest reasons why they gave journeyman Josh McCown $6 million. Remember, New York's top returning receiving option is Eric Decker. Matt Forte and Bilal Powell top the running back depth chart, which would be great if we were headed into the 2012 season. If you take a step back, it's clear to see that this is a total rebuild. That's going to require the Jets spending their early pick on the best player available, regardless of need.
First-round pick: No. 6 overall
Potential picks: Again, it's a crapshoot. If they want to draft the most mature, prepared and accomplished quarterback available to be the face of the team going forward, the Jets are selecting Clemson's Deshaun Watson. If they want to build the line, they either reach for or trade down to draft Wisconsin offensive tackle Ryan Ramczyk. They could go defense and take Ohio State corner Marshon Lattimore or Tennessee defensive end Derek Barnett. My best guess is that New York's draft board looks more like a dart board at this point.
— Written by J.P. Scott, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. His work has appeared on SI.com, FoxSports.com, Yahoo! and Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @TheJPScott.