We are two divisions into our breakdowns of the best, worst, and next moves for teams in free agency. The AFC North was first with the Baltimore Ravens and Cleveland Browns being most active. After that was the NFC North where the Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers both got back to old ways but to differing ends.
In this installment, we’ll look at the AFC East. It’s a division that has seen much upheaval in the past 18 months and the offseason has so far been more of the same. With one team looking like it’s on its way down, another appears poised to take the mantle of division bully. The division’s other two residents are just trying to find their way through the early rebuilding stages.
Free Agency Best and Worst: AFC East
Best Move: Acquiring a WR1
This one might get a few sideways looks. Some might take issue with designating Stefon Diggs as a true number one wide receiver. But for the price the Buffalo Bills paid to the Minnesota Vikings (1st, 5th, and 6th round in 2020, 4th round in 2021), they better hope he delivers like one. After back-to-back 1000-yard seasons (compared to Buffalo’s first since 2015) he should.
Trepidation over anointing Diggs as a number one receiver is understandable. After all, he was second on his team in receiving yards in 2018 and 2017 to Adam Thielen. An injury to the latter allowed Diggs to operate as the top option for a team that was much more run-oriented than the prior season. At 17.9 yards per reception (t-4th in the NFL), he at least brings the big play.
Worst Move: Losing 43% of Sack Total
That is a staggering number for a team that ranked 12th in sacks. The total (19 sacks) didn’t all come from one player. Instead, it was a group effort that included four players: defensive tackle Jordan Phillips (9.5), EDGE Shaq Lawson (6.5), linebacker Lorenzo Alexander (2), and defensive tackle Corey Liuget (1).
They brought in a trio of players (EDGE Mario Addison, DT Vernon Butler, and DE Quinton Jefferson) to make up the difference. Addison (9.5) has 29.5 sacks the last three seasons but was a part-timer before then and is already 32. Bulter’s six sacks are also nice but their draw is familiarity with head coach Sean McDermott. Luckily they only have to replace one starter.
Next Move: Upgrade the Offensive Line
Let’s say the Bills are set at left tackle with Dion Dawkins, who graded the highest out the offensive linemen. Every other spot should be up for grabs. Center Mitch Morse and Quinton Spain (who just re-signed this offseason) seem next closest to locks. But after that, guard Jon Feliciano and tackle Cody Ford could lose their starting spots.
In fact, Buffalo has already made an attempt on that front with the addition of Daryl Williams, another former Carolina Panthers player. His arrival might seem like a blow to Ford, but it might be a bigger signal that Feliciano (28 years old and in a contract year) is on the block. Spain and Williams have never been anything special but Buffalo is banking on the sum being greater than its parts.
Best Move: Locking Down the Corners
Miami Dolphins head coach Brian Flores is a Bill Belichick disciple. He’s just one season removed from coaching linebackers for the New England Patriots. It is the emphasis on the cornerback position that earns the nod for best move thought. With former Dallas Cowboys corner Byron Jones in tow, the Dolphins boast one of, if not the top duo in the NFL.
Pairing Jones (52.8 percent completion allowed over the last two years) with Xavien Howard is borderline overdoing it considering their division. Howard is coming off of a down campaign and potentially facing discipline stemming from a domestic battery arrest this offseason. So Jones is both a partner and an insurance policy. A very expensive insurance policy.
Worst Move: Paying Kyle Van Noy
‘Questionable’ might be a more appropriate description for this one. Kyle Van Noy is cashing in on a successful three-and-a-half-year stint with the Patriots and heading to South Beach to be reunited with Flores. Part of a complete overhaul of the defense, the signing can go one of two distinct ways and that’s why it’s not a full-blown bad move.
Jamie Collins was traded to the Cleveland Browns midway through the 2016 season. His first full season he missed 10 games with a torn MCL. Year two in Cleveland wasn’t bad, he recorded 104 total tackles with 73 solo stops. But he returned to New England in 2019 and traded some tackles (58 solo) for sacks (seven). Injury aside, Van Noy’s signing could be a boon or an overpayment for mediocrity.
Next Move: Offensive Investments
Seven of their 10 free agency moves (signings and re-signings) were on the defensive side. For an offense that was 25th in scoring and 27th in yards, that has to change and fast. Multiple mock drafts have them trading up for Tua Tagovailoa or even Joe Burrow. It’s unlikely, but with Ryan Fitzpatrick returning they have to address the future beyond Josh Rosen. Right?
The offense needs several infusions of talent, not just at quarterback. The signed former Bears and Philadelphia Eagles running back Jordan Howard. He instantly slots in as their best back, but they’re thin behind him. The same goes for wide receiver where they need of playmakers behind DeVante Parker and Preston Williams, who is coming off a torn ACL.
New England Patriots
Best Move: Embracing the Rebuild
One of the lasting traits of the Belichick era in New England has been the propensity to move on from players a year too soon rather than a year too late. Well, after two decades in the Northeast, quarterback Tom Brady has headed for warmer weather. That puts the Pats into a certain level of rebuilding. It remains to be seen what that level is, however. The quarterback room is less-talented with Jarrett Stidham, Brian Hoyer, and Cody Kessler.
That very uncertainty is exactly why the Patriots and Belichick should be commended. It would have been easy for The Hoodie to fight to keep Brady around or even walk away as his quarterback left town. Instead, he is undoubtedly going to embrace this opportunity to prove that it was he, not Brady, that was mostly responsible for their unprecedented run the last 20 years.
Worst Move: Not Having Next QB1
It isn’t often the Patriots get caught with their pants down in terms of being ill-prepared. But that seems to be exactly the case now with Brady in the NFC and their best replacements being a second-year pro or a journeyman. Now, Belichick won 10 games with Matt Cassell filling in back in 2008. So maybe his faith in Stidham will pay off again.
That hasn’t stopped speculation from mounting about some of the available veteran options. Andy Dalton and Cam Newton have both been mentioned frequently and present reclamation projects that would further Belichick’s legend. Or he could take a passer that falls or trade up to take one. We just don’t know at this point. It’s pretty much business as usual for the Patriots.
Next Move: More Offensive Firepower
Some have speculated that New England will effectively tank this season in hopes of being in the position to draft Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence next year. The biggest issue with that is it dismisses the ego of Belichick. It’s almost unfathomable to think he’d waste a year at all let alone a chance to prove it was him all along, not the quarterback.
Regardless of who is under center this season or next, the Patriots need to give him a better arsenal than Brady had in 2019. They long got by with what many considered a bunch of misfits that Brady made look good. Well, we saw last season those misfits were better than they were given credit for. New England better load up or they won’t have to try to tank.
New York Jets
Best Move: Attempting to Fix O-Line
There should be a caveat on this one. Or at least most of the emphasis should be on the ‘attempting’ part. The New York Jets had the 30th ranked pass-blocking unit and the 31st run-blocking group. The names they added don’t necessarily instill confidence that they have actually solved it though.
Outside of Connor McGovern, none of the other signees (Josh Andrews, George Fant, Greg Van Roten) or the re-signee (Alex Lewis) received good marks from Pro Football Focus. Obviously, they aren’t the be-all-end-all, but some teams do use it so it holds some weight. The Jets threw bodies at the position. We’ll see if they’re finished doing so.
Worst Move: Disarming Darnold
When the Jets let Robby Anderson leave via free agency to the Carolina Panthers, they lost their second-most receiving yards and third-most receptions from 2019. He was far from a complete player, but Carolina didn’t really pay him like one. A failure to address his loss will put the focus on some of the other questionable moves by this regime already.
New York will have Jamison Crowder and Chris Herndon back but neither has the field-stretching ability that Anderson Brings. But that could very well change with them holding the 11th overall pick. Still, it’s fair to wonder if keeping Anderson around was worth it for the development of quarterback Sam Darnold who will now have to build a rapport with someone new.
Next Move: Build Talent
It’s going to be tempting for the Jets to start believing that they have a shot at making the playoffs. The Patriots are the most vulnerable they’ve been since 1999, Miami is rebuilding, and while Buffalo made the postseason last year, they aren’t so far ahead of the rest of the division. New York might want to consider trading down to acquire more picks.
This is the alternative to simply taking the best player available; which would also be valid for the Jets. They just need so much that the better use of, at least, the first of their eight current picks is to get their hands on as much draft capital as possible. In addition to the receiver and offensive line, they need help in the secondary and with the pass-rush.