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AFC East Report: Are the Patriots falling behind in their division?

Related: Bills sign wide receiver Stefon Diggs to reported 4-year, $96 million contract extension

AFC Wild Card Playoffs - New England Patriots v Buffalo Bills Photo by Bryan M. Bennett/Getty Images

After finishing the 2021 season in second place within the AFC East and as a wild-card playoff team, the New England Patriots are projected to take a step back this year — at least if the oddsmakers are to be believed. According to DraftKings Sportsbook, for example, the Patriots are seen as just the third best team in the division.

The Buffalo Bills, who have earned the AFC East title the last two years, are unsurprisingly seen as the frontrunners, followed by the upstart Miami Dolphins. Whereas both the Bills and Dolphins were quite active since the start of free agency in mid-March, the Patriots kept comparatively quiet.

They did acquire a pair of former first-round draft picks — wide receiver DeVante Parker and safety Jabrill Peppers — but at least on paper the Patriots’ roster appears weaker than it was coming off the 2021 season. The Bills and, in particular, Dolphins, meanwhile, were more aggressive in pursuing outside talent and added high-profile players such as linebacker Von Miller and wide receiver Tyreek Hill, respectively.

In turn, it appears the Patriots are falling behind the division. But, are they really? Let’s take a look at each team’s gains and losses this offseason so far — yes, including the New York Jets’ — to find out where they all currently stand.

Buffalo Bills

Acquisitions: LB Von Miller, TE O.J. Howard, G Rodger Saffold, DT DaQuan Jones, DT Tim Settle, DT Jordan Phillips, DE Shaq Lawson, RB Duke Johnson, LB Marquel Lee, QB Case Keenum, QB Matt Barkley, OL Greg Mancz, WR Jamison Crowder

Re-signings: WR Isaiah McKenzie, CB Siran Neal, G Ryan Bates, G Ike Boettger, RB Taiwan Jones, LB Tyrel Dodson, WR Jake Kumerow

Departures: CB Levi Wallace, G Jon Feliciano, DT Harrison Phillips, DT Vernon Butler, RB Matt Breida, DE Efe Obada, QB Mitchell Trubisky

Led by Levi Wallace and Jon Feliciano, the Bills lost some starter-level talent in free agency. However, it looks as if their acquisitions and re-signings more than made up for the losses. Former Super Bowl MVP Von Miller — arriving on a six-year, $120 million deal — as well as tight end O.J. Howard, guard Rodger Saffold, and a handful of talented interior defensive linemen are intriguing additions to what has already been one of the NFL’s better rosters.

While Miller, Howard and Saffold are no longer the same players they were a few years ago, bringing them in is more proof that the team is aggressively pursuing a championship while quarterback Josh Allen is still on a reasonable salary cap number. The team’s Super Bowl window will remain open as long as Allen keeps playing at an elite level, sure, but his cap hit jumping from $16.4 million in 2022 to $39.8 million in 2023 will complicate matters.

For the time being, though, the Bills still look like the class of the AFC East. They have the best quarterback, an impressive assortment of skill position players — including recently extended wideout Stefon Diggs — and one of the better coaching staffs in all of football.

Before adding draft selections to the equation, Buffalo remains the favorite to win the division a third straight year, and to make another deep run in the playoffs.

Miami Dolphins

Acquisitions: WR Tyreek Hill, OT Terron Armstead, WR Cedrick Wilson Jr., RB Chase Edmonds, G Connor Williams, QB Teddy Bridgewater, RB Raheem Mostert, DB Keion Crossen, FB Alec Ingold, WR Trent Sherfield, WR River Cracraft

Re-signings: TE Mike Gesicki, DE Emmanuel Ogbah, CB Nik Needham, WR Preston Williams, LB Elandon Roberts, LB Brennan Scarlett, TE Durham Smythe, LB Duke Riley, LB Sam Eguavoen, S Sheldrick Redwine, RB Salvon Ahmed, S Elijah Campbell

Departures: OL Jesse Davis, WR DeVante Parker, WR Mack Hollins, CB Justin Coleman, OL Greg Mancz, RB Duke Johnson, QB Jacoby Brissett

Few teams in the NFL have been as aggressive as the Dolphins. Entering the new league year among the leaders in salary cap space, they made the most out of it. Not only did they re-sign a significant portion of their in-house free agents, they also went out and acquired some of the top talent available in free agency.

Terron Armstead gives Miami an elite blindside protector for third-year quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, while Cedrick Wilson Jr. adds a reliable wide receiver option alongside 2021 first-round draft pick Jaylen Waddle and trade acquisition Tyreek Hill.

Trading for Hill is another chapter in the story that is Miami’s 2022 offseason. The Dolphins gave up considerable resources to acquire the 28-year-old from the Kansas City Chiefs: they traded away five total draft picks included first- and second-round selections this year, and then proceeded to sign him to a four-year, $120 million contract extension. Together with Waddle and Wilson Jr. he forms one of the better wide receiver trios in football.

The goal of all of those moves, and of adding offensive-minded head coach Mike McDaniel, is clear: to get the most out of Tagovailoa, and build a team that can rival the AFC’s best in terms of offensive firepower.

On paper, Miami has a lot of it after this offseason. It is therefore no surprise that the oddsmakers feel comfortable in the team leap-frogging the Patriots to join the top-two in the division and earn a potential spot in the postseason. That said, only time will tell whether or not the Dolphins can indeed live up to the lofty expectations their impressive offseason haul brings with it.

New England Patriots

Acquisitions: WR DeVante Parker, S Jabrill Peppers, LB Mack Wilson, CB Malcolm Butler, CB Terrence Mitchell, RB/WR Ty Montgomery, OL James Ferentz

Re-signings: S Devin McCourty, WR Jakobi Meyers, OT Trent Brown, RB James White, LB Ja’Whaun Bentley, WR Matthew Slater, K Nick Folk, QB Brian Hoyer,

Departures: CB J.C. Jackson, G Ted Karras, G Shaq Mason, RB Brandon Bolden, LB Chase Winovich, FB Jakob Johnson, WR Gunner Olszewski

As noted above, the Patriots as a whole appear to be a weaker team right now than they were at the end of the 2021 season. Not only did they lose Pro Bowl cornerback J.C. Jackson and their two starting guards, they also did not significantly bolster either position via free agency or the trade market: Malcolm Butler and Terrence Mitchell are downgrades from Jackson, while James Ferentz is a career backup.

The other acquisitions do improve the overall depth of the roster, and New England also did a good job keeping most of its veterans in the fold — a group including team captains Devin McCourty, James White and Matthew Slater. Compared to the Bills’ and Dolphins’ moves, however, the team was rather quiet.

So, are the Patriots falling behind in their division? From a talent gain/loss perspective so far in 2022, they are: the Bills appear to be a slightly better team, whereas the Dolphins look massively improved. New England, on the other hand, seems to be heading in the opposite direction.

However, there is more to that question than simply looking at the acquisitions that were or were not made this offseason. The Patriots’ moves, after all, suggest that they are counting on some serious second-year jumps out of players acquired during their massive spending spree last spring.

The biggest name on that list is Mac Jones, who is coming off an encouraging season and appears destined to become a long-term solution for the club at the quarterback position. Jones’ development in itself has the potential to help the Patriots make up plenty of ground compared to their competition: if he makes a sizable jump in performance in 2022, New England will be a better team — that is just the nature of the QB-centric game that is pro football.

If the other 2021 offseason acquisitions such as Jonnu Smith, Nelson Agholor, or additional members of an already solid-looking rookie class also show improvement, the Patriots could very well be a lot better this season. Some of it will depend on the draft — the holes at cornerback, linebacker and along the interior offensive line are real — but the glass looks half-full rather than half-empty, even after a relatively inactive free agency period.

New York Jets

Acquisitions: G Laken Tomlinson, TE C.J. Uzomah, S Jordan Whitehead, CB D.J. Reed, TE Tyler Conklin, DE Jacob Martin, DE Solomon Thomas, S Jovante Moffatt, K Greg Zuerlein

Re-signings: DT Nathan Shepherd, G Dan Feeney, CB Javelin Guidry, S Elijah Riley, WR Braxton Berrios, S Lamarcus Joyner, RB Tevin Coleman, G Conor McDermott, OT Greg Senat, DE Tim Ward, S Will Parks, WR Jeff Smith, FB Nick Bawden, QB Joe Flacco, K Eddy Piñeiro, QB Mike White

Departures: S Marcus Maye, OT Morgan Moses, DE Shaq Lawson, WR Jamison Crowder, DT Folorunso Fatukasi, LB Jarrad Davis, LB Blake Cashman

The Jets are in a similar situation as the Patriots, even though their ceiling appears to be lower at the moment. However, they too depend largely on the development of their second-year quarterback: if Zach Wilson, who was also drafted in the first round last April, can show some proper improvement, so will New York as a whole.

Wilson did not look as good as Mac Jones in 2021, but he has enough positive traits to become the franchise quarterback New York has been looking for ever since the days of Chad Pennington. The team is certainly trying its best to support him in his development, adding starter-level players such as guard Laken Tomlinson and tight ends C.J. Uzomah and Tyler Conklin via the free agency market.

Additionally, the Jets re-signed most of their in-house free agents. And even those they lost are not necessarily big departures: Marcus Maye will be replaced by Jordan Whitehead at safety, while Morgan Moses’ role as starting tackle will go back to nominal starter Mekhi Becton (who missed virtually all of 2021 with a knee injury).

All in all, New York therefore appears to be trending in a positive direction as well. And that is not even taking the upcoming draft into account. The team, after all, will rely heavily on it: the Jets own five picks inside the top-50, including two in the top-10.