The Patriots are in very good shape to return for the AFC Championship Game in 2016. Here's my thoughts on how their conference rivals have done so far.
Pittsburgh Steelers: The Steelers will be without WR Martavis Bryant, who is facing a full-year suspension. The Steelers do have viable options to replace him with Sammie Coates and potentially bringing back WR Mike Wallace, who served in a similar capacity in the Steelers offense 2009-2012 as Bryant. Overall, the Steelers are a bit weaker at TE with Heath Miller retiring and they will miss his blocking skills with Ladarius Green. I still have them as the #2 team in the AFC after free agency. If they land some impact talent in their secondary, I expect them to challenge the Patriots for the top seed.
Cincinnati Bengals: The Bengals' season went south as soon as Andy Dalton's thumb broke while making a tackle after an ill-advised interception. They lost their #2 and #3 WR, that were realistically their 4th and 5th target in their offense to big contracts and were able to retain their starting middle linebacker and strong safety. This is a team that is well-positioned in the AFC picture and have a lot of talent thanks to great signings and strong drafting. Even though the Bengals have that playoff bugaboo hanging over them, it is a team that can be expected to compete for a title once they break through that mental block.
Kansas City Chiefs: The Chiefs are the only team that I think have gotten better in this free agency period. They were able to retain key players that are getting up there in age. The Chiefs were able to add Mitchell Schwartz to a very reasonable deal to improve the RT position on their offensive line. The Chiefs have to be the favorite to win their division since that team really lacks any weaknesses. While they aren't in the same tier as the Patriots and Steelers, they are a dark horse threat to carry the AFC in 2016.
Denver Broncos: Key players have left in search of big contracts. The Broncos were able to retain Derek Wolfe and Von Miller, which is a plus. However they have lost Danny Trevathan, Brock Osweiler, and Malik Jackson in free agency. I don't expect Denver to worry too much about it and they are a very well-run organization. I expect them to be able to fill these losses with impact talent on the defense. Trevathan and Jackson are nice players, but not key cogs for them. They may have to find a QB better than Mark Sanchez if they want to compete for the AFC West division. I still have them as a playoff team.
New York Jets: The Jets have the personnel to defeat the Patriots, but they lack a quarterback as they are struggling to retain Ryan Fitzpatrick. As the market dries up, I believe Fitzpatrick will return to the Jets eventually, but they are definitely going to be a tough opponent. The Patriots will win the AFC East in 2016, but the Jets are definitely going to make that as tough as possible. With a receiving corps that features Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker, the Patriots CBs are going to have their hands full. Jets lost Chris Ivory and replaced him with Matt Forte, which to me is a lateral move if not slight downgrade although they will have a better receiver out of the backfield now. The RB position had an overall plus upgrade because Khiry Robinson is underrated.
Houston Texans: The Texans have gone bold this offseason with the additions of QB Brock Osweiler and RB Lamar Miller. After winning the AFC South, the Texans feel that having a competent QB could make them competitive against the top teams in the conference and are hoping the big moves on offense help them go from an anemic unit to a respectable one. If the Texans offense does improve as well on the field as they have on paper, they should be a tough team to beat for the Patriots and makes them the favorite in the AFC South.
Buffalo Bills: The Bills overall stayed about the same. They lost LB Nigel Bradham and WR Chris Hogan, but were able to retain their top FA in Richie Incognito. The Bills aren't as threatening as the Jets when it comes to the AFC East picture, but they can be a nuisance both on and off the field. The Bills are talented enough to beat the Patriots in a single game where a lot of breaks go their way. One story line to monitor this season is how the Bills defensive backs handle former teammate Chris Hogan and the New England Patriots receivers.
Miami Dolphins: One word describes the Miami Dolphins season, LOL. The Dolphins lost Olivier Vernon and Rishard Matthews, but replaced them with Mario Williams and 2015 1st round pick Devante Parker. The Dolphins also attempted to make a splash by acquiring 2015 FA bust Byron Maxwell and Kiko Alonso for a 4th round pick while swapping first round picks, which has the equal value of a low 2nd round pick for the difference between the 8th and 13th overall pick. We'll see if this is more of the same and the Dolphins slowly spiraling towards football oblivion.
The Patriots typically do their damage in free agency on the 2nd week, which means some very interesting stuff should happen in the coming days. I expect the Patriots to address the RB and OL positions of need while continuing to look for depth options at DE, DT, LB, and CB. The Patriots don't necessarily need to make any big signings and could use their cap space to extend their most important defenders before reaching free agency. Grab the popcorn, soda, and candy folks, it's going to be a good educational movie.