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Shakeup in starched-up AFC East highlights early stages of offseason

Terrell Owens' signing with the Buffalo Bills on Saturday added some flavor to the AFC East -- the NFL's most buttoned-up division. Whether Owens validates his history as a boil on every team he has played for or confirms how good of a wide receiver he is probably will be known by midseason. For now, five months before training camp, at least we've got something to talk about.

What Buffalo's great risk/reward decision highlights is that the AFC East, through the early stages of the offseason, has seen the brunt of its teams push the envelope. There is some character throughout the starched-up division, and not just because T.O. just became the biggest thing in Buffalo since Jim Kelly, Andre Reed, Bruce Smith, Thurman Thomas and chicken wings.

Quarterback Matt Cassel was traded from New England to Kansas City, which means Tom Brady will be back from the knee injuries that ended his 2008 season before the first game was finished. The Patriots also moved quickly to sign former Jacksonville Jaguar Fred Taylor to fortify an already fairly solid stable of running backs.

Newly hired Jets coach Rex Ryan acquired his former pupil, linebacker Bart Scott, from Baltimore via free agency, and one-time Pro Bowl cornerback Lito Sheppard in a trade with Philadelphia. New York still needs to fill the void left by one-and-done quarterback Brett Favre, but that might not happen right away, providing a measure of intrigue.

Miami has been the still water amid the splashing waves throughout the rest of the division. But the Dolphins got things rolling during the 2008 season by making the Wildcat formation an NFL staple and rallying from a 1-15 mark in 2007 to claiming the AFC East title and a playoff berth in 2008. So, technically, everyone else is catching up.

Now there is T.O.

There is always change in the NFL, but this is a division that witnessed Miami and New England win 11 games, New York nine and Buffalo seven. It was the best division, top to bottom, in the AFC, so not much was wrong. Yet, unlike a relatively dormant NFC South, where teams posted the best win-loss record in the league, the AFC East has been trying to upgrade with bold moves that could generate results or set a franchise back for years to come.

The Bills had to do something because, after winning their first four games in '08, they tanked, winning three of their remaining 12 games. There was/is no team identity, and coach Dick Jauron probably has to compete for a playoff berth to retain his job, which is probably why he was willing to gamble on Owens. Quarterback Trent Edwards has promise, but his growth could be enhanced or blunted by Owens, who has yet to play for a quarterback with whom he hasn't clashed.

The Dolphins did most of their overhaul last season, with the coaching staff, front office and roster. Team executive Bill Parcells, general manager Jeff Ireland and coach Tony Sparano aren't trying to upset their developing foundation with earth-shaking moves. At some point in the next few years, though, it will be their turn.

The re-tooling of the Jets -- one year after they spent more than $100 million in free agency and traded for Favre -- shows this is not about a growth process. They are hoping that Ryan, a first-time head coach, can do what Miami, Baltimore and Atlanta did with first-year head coaches in 2008 -- get to the playoffs. Ryan is charismatic enough to quickly gain converts. Adding Scott, Sheppard and safety Jim Leonhard bolsters a defense that is pretty deep and athletic.

There is still the issue at quarterback, though. Will New York ride with Kellen Clemens, Brett Ratliff or Erik Ainge at a time when immediate success seems paramount, or will Jeff Garcia or some other aged ringer get a call a few weeks before training camp? Based on early returns, the parts haven't stopped moving.

On the issue of moving parts, the Patriots, who lost vice president of player personnel Scott Pioli to the Chiefs, certainly have a few more tricks up their sleeves. The second-round pick New England got from Kansas City for Cassel and linebacker Mike Vrabel -- it still seems like a discounted return -- gives the Patriots four of the top 58 picks in the draft, which will be held April 25-26. Think Bill Belichick is going to sit on all those? Even if he does, he hasn't faltered much, historically, in the draft.

New England also could be holding a potential trump card for the latest development in the division.

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Terrell Owens' signing with the Bills only makes the Patriots' decision to bring in Shawn Springs even more important.

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Should the Patriots finalize an agreement with veteran cornerback Shawn Springs, they could acquire a foil to Owens. Springs has a long and relatively successful history playing against T.O., and he has spoken about how he is able to get Owens off his game by being physical with him at the line of scrimmage. Springs, formerly of Washington, held Owens to two first-half catches in the Redskins' 26-24 victory over Dallas last season. Springs was sidelined with a calf injury later in the game, and Owens finished with seven grabs, which further showed how effective Springs was against Owens.

Having to face Springs twice a season is hardly the only headache Owens might have to contend with in the AFC East. The Jets' acquisition of Sheppard adds to a secondary that already features young and talented cornerbacks Darrelle Revis, a Pro Bowler, and Dwight Lowery. Miami cornerback Will Allen plays behind an aggressive front that puts significant pressure on quarterbacks.

Still, facing that traffic with Owens is something the Bills felt was better than facing it without him.

The abundance in activity in the AFC East actually outshines most of what's gone on throughout the NFL. The Redskins and Giants added muscle to the NFC East by stockpiling defenders -- namely DT Albert Haynesworth (Washington) and linebacker Michael Boley (New York Giants).

Cassel's departure to Kansas City is one of a plethora of moves by AFC West teams, but most of those changes were relatively non-descript. Former Philadelphia safety Brian Dawkins' free-agent signing with Denver, which has been one of the most active teams in free agency based on volume, was more of a surprise than a seismic jolt that could alter the strength of power in the division. Then again, with so many teams being no better than ordinary in the AFC West, Dawkins' arrival to a team that is changing its roster and has overhauled its coaching and front office could be all it takes to get to the playoffs.

While some teams have been moving fast and furiously, others seemingly have been idle, even though some have plenty of money to spend. Most of those teams have or are planning on re-signing their own players, which is why Carolina, Dallas, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Indianapolis, Arizona, Tennessee and even Oakland haven't been major players on the open market. Building through the draft and retaining players of value, while parting with those on the decline, is the way of the NFL, even if some of those players (Derrick Brooks, Marvin Harrison, Matt Birk, Dawkins, Keith Brooking, Taylor) have some sentimental bond.

Which brings us back to T.O.

T.O. has not only played with three different teams -- and has left both a wake of production and destruction -- he also has played in two different divisions (San Francisco, NFC West; Philadelphia and Dallas, NFC East). His departures were never on good terms. Though it is only coincidental, he has been cast to a conference in which he has never played.

This is Owens' first stint with an AFC team. It's also his first stint in a smaller market with an established, old-guard owner. Owens will be playing in a fishbowl, which might be good for him. Whether it's good for everyone else is always the question to be answered.

This likely is the final chapter in the career of the 35-year-old Owens, but it is certainly a new chapter for a team, a division -- even a conference -- that just got an injection of attention it might or might not really want.

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