Patriots Must Stay a Step Ahead of the AFC East

Scott Iskowitz

The off-season is just getting under way, but the best team in the division must find a way to widen the gap.

The Patriots have had, or tied, the best record in the AFC East every single season since 2001. If that's going to change, the other teams in the division need to improve faster than the Patriots can complete their roster reload. The draft is yet to come, but if free agency is used to flesh out the roster, the Patriots would be a zombie's last choice.

While it makes sense the top team would have less holes than the rest, it's clear that the rest of the AFC East have holes in their wallets and are trying to buy their way to the top.

The Patriots have made three moves. They've resigned long snapper Danny Aiken. They've brought back tight end Michael Hoomanawanui. And they've acquired cornerback Darrelle Revis.

Normally when a team picks up a position's best player of his generation, that's cause for celebration. And it is. The Patriots were never going to splurge in free agency, so picking up Revis counts as breaking the mold. He's undeniably made the Patriots a better team than before free agency, which is what every team wants to do, and it's clear that the Patriots will continue to use the draft to their advantage.

But let's take note of the rest of the division. This isn't the end of the Patriots; far from it. This is just to point out the progress each of the rivals have made.

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Miami Dolphins

The Dolphins have made one of the strongest pushes in the league, although you could easily say the same thing about last season and its disastrous end. I personally believe the Dolphins have done things correctly so far. They've reinforced their defense, by extending veteran corner Brent Grimes (Pro Football Focus's #2 corner), as well as gave a team friendly one year boom/bust deal to Louis Delmas. Both are strong moves in a passing league. Edit: It seems as if they've just signed Cortland Finnegan. If he was recover from a bad year, he'd be another quality pick-up.

They've also bulked up their defensive line by signing back Randy Starks on a shockingly cheap two-year deal and rotational DT Earl Mitchell, to make up for the loss of Paul Soliai.

On the offensive side, they've brought in tackle Branden Albert on a monster contract, but he immediately shores up one of the weakest positions on the team and should help out one of the worst offensive lines in football.

Miami's strategy seems sound and it's clear that their success in 2014 will rest on the shoulders of quarterback Ryan Tannehill and on how he develops. I didn't like Tannehill coming out of the draft, but he's definitely emerged as a quality starter. Should he become more consistent, the Dolphins are a strong choice to be a potential wild card contender.

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New York Jets

Unlike the Dolphins and their splashy moves, the Jets have opted to build from the ground up. While I'm personally biased and believe that the Jets are doing it the right way (build through the draft, supplement with free agency), I don't believe they've made that strong of a push thus far.

The Jets record was greater than their performance and they had a few holes to patch up. Veteran pass rusher Calvin Pace is still unsigned, after completing his best season, while they still need to find replacement for safety Ed Reed and guard Willie Colon (not impossible, but just more holes than before). So when the Jets franchised their kicker Nick Folk, people scratched their heads- but they were able to lock him in to a multi-year deal.

In three understated moves, the Jets signed back cornerback Darrin Walls, defensive tackle Leger Douzable, and tight end Jeff Cumberland. All three are merely serviceable rotational depth, but it shows that the Jets are interested in building a strong 53- not just a top heavy roster. These three represent cheap fits with experience in the system and they should prove wise holdovers into 2014.

New York's two biggest splashes are still smart pick-ups, with Eric Decker signing a reasonable deal for slightly over $7 million per season (Danny Amendola is $6 million per season. I call it fair). He provides a solid complement to receiver Jeremy Kerley, without breaking the bank, while still allowing the Jets to pursue the depth at the position in the draft.

Their other grab was former Seahawk OT Breno Giacomini on a four year deal. He'll be replacing departed free agent Austin Howard ($6 million per season in Oakland), so while their quality of play should be consistent, Giacomini is likely in on a smaller contract.

The Jets also claimed former third round pick Johnny Patrick off of waives from San Diego.

While I believe the Jets to be much further away from the playoffs than the Dolphins, we have to remember they were a couple ball bounces away from making the playoffs last season (and a couple bounces away from a first 5 overall pick). These moves are all positive steps, in my opinion, and a quality draft at both linebacker, receiver, and offensive line could position the team for a good future.

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Buffalo Bills

The Bills have to hope that defensive wins championships because that's how they've been building themselves. While their offense looks like it should continue to flounder for another season or two, their defense is definitely top 5 in quality. New defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz is going to have plenty of toys to play with and it should allow the Bills to wisely focus on their offense in the draft.

The Bills have signed back strong safety Aaron Williams, but the middle of the defense will miss the departed Jairus Byrd. Apart from safety, the Bills are stacked. They've brought in Keith Rivers to complement rookie sensation Kiko Alonso, and they're going to bring in Brandon Spikes to be middle linebacker. They've signed cornerback Corey Graham to complement shutdown corner Stephon Gilmore.

This defense is going to be good. Really good.

On offense, they're providing some consistency with tight end Scott Chandler back after a career season on a two year deal. They also signed guard Chris Williams, although this is probably the lowest ranked transaction in the AFC East thus far as they've greatly overpaid for him.

The final move was their resigning of kicker Dan Carpenter.

The Bills are making some moves in the right direction, but I still believe their offense will prevent them from moving into the next tier of teams. They really need some consistency out of running back C.J. Spiller, and they need one of their wide receivers to emerge. Add in the growth of E.J. Manuel and the Bills have a lot of questions and need another couple of seasons before they start answering them. They just have to hope that they don't have to rely on the legs of Fred Jackson for another season.

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In my opinion, the Dolphins have "won" the AFC East free agency crown for the second season in a row, while the other three teams are in a similar grouping. The Patriots added the single best player thus far, with little else. The Jets have added plenty of quality depth, but no real headline acquisition (a good thing for the Jets). The Bills have added a handful of quality tier-2 free agents, but their questionable contract to Williams stops them from matching the Dolphins.

But in reality? The Patriots are still ahead of the rest of the division. The Patriots are starters are the second youngest in the division- the defense is the youngest (if we're considering the Patriots starting DTs as Sealver Siliga and Chris Jones, which I feel is fair as they played the last half+ of the season). Only four starters are over the age of thirty: Tom Brady, Logan Mankins, Dan Connolly, and Rob Ninkovich.

The other teams aren't catching up to the Patriots. The Patriots are just getting started. The other teams can sign all the free agent talent that would like to; New England is reloading and has made it to three straight conference championship games.

Now they have Revis. Now they can hopefully play with both Rob Gronkowski and Danny Amendola and Jerod Mayo. Now they can have a full season of Jamie Collins, of Dont'a Hightower playing in his natural position, of their receiving corps not being all first years.

The other teams may have taken a step forward in free agency. But the Patriots are already walking.

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