AFC East arms race threatens Patriots' stranglehold on division
In winning Super Bowl XLIX, the New England Patriots' dominance over the AFC East was magnified, but a tumultuous offseason has created a window of opportunity for the division's three other clubs.
New England spent its offseason making lateral moves and losing a number of players integral to its Super Bowl victory, all the while dealing with the fallout from its "Deflategate" scandal. Meanwhile, the Buffalo Bills, Miami Dolphins, and New York Jets entered into an arms race in an attempt to usurp the team that owns 11 of the last 12 division crowns.
Here is a breakdown of how each team made the AFC East arguably the league's most competitive division entering the 2015 season.
Jets turn anemic secondary into strength by inking Revis
New York's secondary was one of the weakest units in the league in 2014, featuring the anonymous Darrin Walls, Marcus Williams, Kyle Wilson, and Antonio Allen at cornerback, with the entire quartet playing below replacement level. Rookie Calvin Pryor was the secondary's bright spot, exhibiting flashes of stardom at safety, but he couldn't emerge as the group's leader.
When free agency arrived, the Jets fueled a decades-long rivalry with the Patriots by signing All-Pro cornerback Darrelle Revis. Both clubs accused each other of tampering, but no penalties were issued. Two days later, Antonio Cromartie also signed for his second excursion with the team, reuniting the league's most fearsome cornerback duo. With nickel and dime packages becoming more prevalent, the Jets added cornerback Buster Skrine for depth and signed safety Marcus Gilchrist to aid Pryor entering his sophomore year.
Geno Smith was heavily scrutinized during his first two seasons as a starting quarterback in New York. However, the West Virginia product never possessed a bona fide top receiver at the pro level, until the Jets traded for Brandon Marshall in March. With Marshall leading a receiving corps also featuring Eric Decker and the talented but erratic tight end Jace Amaro, Smith will have more talent at his disposal in 2015.
Todd Bowles, who became the team's new head coach in January, will implement a blitz-heavy scheme that ought to benefit New York's personnel group. Bowles used safety blitz packages more than any defensive coordinator during his time with the Arizona Cardinals, and with the additions of Revis and Cromartie, Pryor will be allowed to freelance as an eighth man in the box, which ought to play well to his excellent run-stopping ability.
The Jets turned their largest weakness into one of the league's most fearsome positional groups in a matter of months, and found an innovative head coach to attack the Patriots in multiple ways. The Jets gave themselves a legitimate chance to ascend from the division's basement.
Dolphins win Suh sweepstakes, commit to Tannehill
Miami acquired the crown jewel of free agency when star defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh opted to sign a six-year, $114-million contract with the club, making him the highest-paid defensive player in NFL history. Paired with Cameron Wake, Olivier Vernon, and Earl Mitchell, all four of the Dolphins' defensive linemen require a double-team. Suh turned a merely promising defense into a terrifying unit that could waltz into the playoffs.
Ryan Tannehill showed significant improvement in 2015, throwing for 27 touchdowns against a mere 12 interceptions, completing a career-high 66.4 percent of his passes. The Dolphins rewarded Tannehill with a six-year, $96-million contract extension, committing to the idea that with above-average talent around him, the soon-to-be 27-year-old is capable of steering the team to the Super Bowl.
Miami upgraded at tight end by signing Jordan Cameron, a legitimate safety valve for Tannehill and a player who will provide the Dolphins with a much-needed red-zone target.
Moreover, Miami provided Tannehill with a potential star wide receiver after drafting DeVante Parker 14th overall. Parker put together a torrid minicamp before undergoing foot surgery that may keep him out of Week 1.
With subtle improvements to a young offense and the acquisition of the league's most coveted defensive tackle, Miami is the team likeliest to overtake New England as divisional champions.
Bills gain swagger with Ryan, finally add playmakers
Although he was beloved by his players, the Jets fired Rex Ryan at the end of the 2014 season. With Doug Marrone opting out of his contract, the Bills gained a new head coach and some much-needed swagger when Ryan was appointed in January.
Buffalo was arguably the most active team during a turbulent offseason that reshaped the foundation of the league. In a shocking move for both parties involved, the Bills acquired 2013 rushing champion LeSean McCoy in exchange for burgeoning inside linebacker Kiko Alonso.
McCoy is the most dangerous weapon the Bills have featured at running back in a decade. Since Ryan is a major proponent of a strong running game, McCoy will be provided with ample opportunities to lead the league in yardage again. It's a savvy move that will also see Fred Jackson used judiciously.
After the Jets released the enigmatic Percy Harvin, Buffalo swooped in to sign the 27-year-old receiver. Harvin wasn't what the Jets bargained for when they acquired him in a mid-season trade with the Seattle Seahawks, but still possesses world-class speed. Buffalo will likely run some option sets with McCoy, Harvin, and wide receiver Sammy Watkins, who are all capable of running the ball out of the backfield on sweeps.
The Bills' improvements to a once-anemic offense didn't stop with McCoy. The team triggered the AFC East arms race after signing tight end Charles Clay, who signed a transition tag with the Dolphins, but was offered a five-year, $38-million contract by Buffalo that Miami didn't match. Predictably, Dolphins management was incensed by the proceedings.
Entering the 2015 season, the Bills' playoff hopes hinge on an excellent defense that led the league in sacks. After acquiring key weapons from their divisional rivals, either EJ Manuel, Matt Cassel, or Tyrod Taylor will have a host of playmakers to target, and the Bills now have a legitimate chance of reaching the playoffs for the first time since 1999.
The Jets, Dolphins, and Bills bolstered positions of weakness and turned them into tangible strengths entering 2015. By poaching players from their divisional rivals, all four teams engendered bitter rivalries.
The division is armed with game-breaking talent, and each team could make a strong case for boasting the league's best defensive line.
The offseason reshuffling of AFC East rosters may finally bring parity to a division in desperate need of it, giving all four teams a real shot at the division title.