The AFC East has long been dominated by the New England Patriots and 2015 was no different, with a final week inter divisional battle between the Bills and Jets keeping New York out of a wildcard spot. With a new head coach in Miami & regimes coming into their second years for the Bills and Jets, lets take a look at some of the key free agency moves which have taken place in the AFC East and the positions of need for each team heading into the 2016 NFL draft.
New York Jets
Compared to 2015, where new general manager Mike Maccagnan made some splashy moves with the excess of cap space he inherited from the John Idzik regime, 2016 has been a lower key affair due to the Jets having restricted money to play with. To free up more space, the first big cut was Chris Ivory, who was signed by the Jags. Maccagnan pulled a 2 for 1 deal with the proceeds, picking up backs Matt Forte and Khiry Robinson as well as re-signing Bilal Powell to bolster the backfield. Long time defensive lineman Damon Harrison moved to the Jets’ stadium-mates, the Giants, for a price the Jets simply couldn’t match. The D-line remains stacked with Mo Wilkerson, Sheldon Richardson and Leonard Williams, although there is still a question mark over Wilkerson’s future. He was franchise tagged, but rumours of a trade still abound.
What the Jets still haven’t managed to do is seal the deal with a viable starting QB for 2016. The best fit would appear to be re-signing Ryan Fitzpatrick, who had a career year in green and white last season and only seems to thrive in a Chan Gailey system, but talks have come to a stalemate. Fitzpatrick is demanding more than double the $7million per year the Jets are currently offering. It’s hard to know where the leverage lies, given that none of the other QB seeking teams are interested. Indications suggest the two parties will come to some sort of compromise which will bring Fitzpatrick back to the Jets.
Mid tier acquisitions such as DE Jarvis Jenkins have pushed the Jets cap space to the limit so they’ll need to draft well to continue building on last year’s tentative success. The retirement of LT D’Brickashaw Ferguson (who played every single snap in his ten season career in NY), suggests that the team tried to restructure his contract to free up cap room, something he was unwilling to accept. The departure of Ferguson leaves a gaping hole in the Jets’ already shaky offensive line which will have to be filled either through a trade (Wilkerson) or with the number 20 pick in the draft. Mike Maccagnan’s draft philosophy is to take the best player available, but the O-line is an undeniable need. The Jets are also in desperate need of a pass rusher to complement promising second year outside line backer Lorenzo Mauldin. The pass defense has long lagged behind their consistently top 5 ranked rushing defense, so expect to see the Jets take an OLB at some point in the draft.
New England Patriots
The Patriots are not an organisation who splash cash about in free agency and indeed have made moves to free up cap space. Last year a restructuring of quarterback Tom Brady’s contract saved them $24 million and this year they have given him a two year contract extension, which in reality saves the team another $1 million. We also know that New England often have a wider plan behind their actions. When they traded top quality defensive lineman Chandler Jones to the Cardinals in return for guard Jonathan Cooper and a second round draft pick, on paper this looked like a huge win for the Cardinals. However, within hours, the Patriots signed defensive end Chris Long and in the process saved themselves nearly $8million in cap space whilst acquiring a hugely productive player.
Typically the Patriots like to run two tight end sets which are difficult for opposing defenses to match up against; a system at it’s peak in 2011 with Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. In a bid to return to this, Scott Chandler was released early March as he was unable to fulfill the role as hoped, where-after New England traded a fourth round pick for TE Martellus Bennett from Chicago. Bennett is a former pro bowler who played a key role in the Bears offense until 2015 which he finished on injured reserve having questioned his place in the new system.
New England have also picked up former Bears linebacker Shea McLellin, who was a first round pick in 2012. McLellin never reached his full potential in Chicago, who didn’t pick up his fifth year option, but Bill Belichick has a knack for getting the best out of such players. McLellin has played in a variety positions including defensive end in the 4-3 system and both inside and outside linebackers in the 3-4. This is something Belichick looks for in players and is likely a major reason the Patriots signed him on a three year deal.
The Patriots do not have a first round draft pick in 2016 (following the ‘deflategate’ scandal), but have aquired additional second and sixth round picks in trades. Offensive tackle is the most obvious need to target; after having to dig deep into the depth chart following multiple o-line injuries in 2015. Beyond this we may see them look to add a wide receiver to give Brady options outside of the slot, or a new cornerback to add depth to a group where Superbowl 49 hero Malcolm Butler is starter.
“There’s no question that it doesn’t get much worse than this,” said Rex Ryan of the 2015 Bills season, especially considering the high expectations for what he could do with the promising roster in upstate New York. Finishing with a 500 record wasn’t in the plan. The defense, usually the flagship of a Rex Ryan team, were particularly disappointing with DE Mario Williams amongst players who publicly complained about the system. Despite Ryan saying he would like to keep him, Williams, who had a $19.9 million salary-cap number was released. He reportedly told ESPN that he would be willing to take a “pay cut” to stay in town, if the Bills met him “halfway” in terms of adjusting Rex’s scheme. This obviously wasn’t to be.
Rather than huge amounts of player cuts, a number of coaching changes have been made to try and improve things including the historic signing of Kathryn Smith as special teams quality control coach; the NFL’s first full time female coach. In a further defensive change, they released D-line coach Karl Dunbar (who had moved to Buffalo with Rex), and signed John Blake in his place. More interestingly, they also signed Rex Ryan’s twin brother Rob as assistant head coach/defense, hot off his mid season sacking as the Saints’ defensive co-ordinator. Watch this space for the inevitable headlines and soundbites.
Other signings have been rather low key as many key players remain on the roster including Marcel Dareus, Tyrod Taylor and LeSean McCoy. Guard Richie Ingonito, who had a decent first year in Buffalo last season, has been resigned to a three year contract and tackle Cordy Glenn has been franchise tagged, meaning the O-line remains relatively intact. With decent depth, there is no obvious desperate area of draft need so the Bills will likely aim for further depth in key positions. A wide receiver to complement Sammy Watkins might be an option, especially Ras Percy Harvin is unlikely to play in 2016 and the talent quickly drops off behind Watkins. They may also look for a developmental QB for the future considering that back up EJ Manuel is in the last year of his contract. Also look for the Bills drafting defensive players better suited to the Ryan system.
After a tumultuous 2015, where head coach Joe Philbin was fired mid season, the Dolphins return under Adam Gaise for 2016 hoping to improve on their 6-10 record.
They quickly cut Brent Grimes whose wife caused Twitter scandals with her derogatory tweets about QB Ryan Tannehill and the organisation in general. WR Greg Jennings was also released. A major loss is pass -rusher Olivier Vernon who signed for a huge contract with the flush New York Giants. To fill the gap, Miami picked up Mario Williams following his release from the Bills. They also traded with the Eagles for line backer Kiko Alonso and corner back Byron Maxwell, but they are unlikely to make up for the loss of Vernon. To improve on their 25th ranked defensive performance last season, the Dolphins will also need to see a better return from the cap space swallowing contract they gave Ndamukong Suh last year.
The running back position has also seen several changes this off season. Free agent Lamar Miller, who has spent the last four years in Miami but didn’t feel he was effectively used last year, left for the Texans. The Dolphins had hoped to sign a C.J Anderson from the Broncos in his place, but their offer sheet was matched by Denver, meaning Anderson remains with the Super Bowl Champions. They have added Daniel Thomas (who the team have released twice previously) and Isiah Pead but British born Jay Ajayi is currently their best back.
As part of the Maxwell/Alonso trade, Miami swapped first round draft picks with the Eagles so now pick at 13 rather than 8. They have a wide range of roster needs and mock drafts rarely agree on where they’ll go in the first round. Despite the Maxwell aquisition, cornerback is likely high on the priority list as is further depth on the offensive line. We may even see them grab one of the high ranked running backs like Ezekiel Elliot, if he remains on the board.Across the rounds expect the Dolphins to pick across many positions to provide the depth and future talent that is currently lacking.