Despite the dominance of the New England Patriots in the AFC East since the turn of the century, every team will feel they have a strong chance of winning this division going into the season.
The Pats will be without star quarterback Tom Brady for the first four games, due to his alleged involvement in the Deflategate scandal, and they have lost some outstanding talents from their secondary.
Brandon Browner, Kyle Arrington and, most importantly, Darrelle Revis, have all left; with the latter joining division rival New York Jets. The Pats have also lost defensive tackle/roadblock Vince Wilfork to the Houston Texans. The loss of star players could come back to haunt Bill Belichick in his bid to win his seventh consecutive AFC East title.
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BEWARE OF GANG GREEN
While the Patriots’ roster has weakened, the rest of the division has become much stronger. As mentioned, the Jets have picked up Revis, and can now boast one of the best cornerback duos in the whole league, with Antonio Cromartie filling the other corner slot.
Brandon Marshall (WR), Stevan Ridley (RB) and Leonard Williams (DE) and Devin Smith (WR) from the draft are all smart pick-ups from the Jets, but a lot will hinge on the performance of third-year quarterback Geno Smith, who has recently been named the starting QB.
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The Miami Dolphins have also made huge strides towards improvement this offseason. Big-play receiver Kenny Stills, Greg Jennings (WR), Jordan Cameron (TE) and DeVante Parker (WR), from the draft, have all been brought to South Beach. Not to mention the acquisition of 307 pound defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh.
Securing quarterback Ryan Tannehill to a new six-year deal has capped off the Dolphins’ impressive pre-season movement. Tannehill, now in his fourth year, has improved season after season and Phins fans will hope that correlation continues.
The AFC East is made up by Rex Ryan’s Buffalo Bills, who will also feel disappointed if they do not take top spot in the division. The Bills - who finished 9-7 last season - have secured arguably the biggest deals in the offseason and are now genuine contenders for the entire conference, let alone the division.
They shook the NFL world when they traded linebacker Kiko Alonso to the Philadelphia Eagles for running back and human highlight reel LeSean McCoy in March. They also acquired QB Matt Cassel from the Vikings; an experienced signal caller who will, presumably, be handing the ball to McCoy most plays.
But when Ryan does decide he wants to use the solid arm of Cassel, there is no shortage of willing recipients. Second-year wide out Sammy Watkins racked up six touchdowns in his rookie season, and will only get better. Add in Robert Woods, Percy Harvin and tight-end Charles Clay and you have a receiving group worthy of getting excited about.
RETURN OF THE PATS?
It’s difficult to rule out the Super Bowl champions though. They still have the majority of the roster that won the Vince Lombardi trophy in February, and one of the best coaches in the history of the league. The improvements of the three other teams will mean for a much more competitive AFC East than has been the case in recent years.
Brady and co have their work cut out for them if they are to retain the division title. Ultimately, the loss of key players and their star quarterback, for the first four games at least, pending Brady’s appeal, could result in the Foxborough club being forced to relinquish their division championship and, subsequently, the Super Bowl.
One thing is for certain though; Bills, Dolphins and Jets fans all have reason to be excited ahead of the coming season. Whether they’re still as excited come December will be dictated by the rollercoaster ride that is the NFL regular season.
1st: Buffalo Bills (11-5)
2nd: Miami Dolphins (10-6)
3rd: New England Patriots (9-7)
4th: New York Jets (7-9)