While the NFL's other seven divisions ebb and flow and shift in power, the AFC East has been owned all century by one rough-and-tumble dictator: the unstoppable Patriots.
New England under Bill Belichick has revolutionized the practice of in-season preparation and execution, but the Patriots equally shine when the games go dark. We talk about Belichick as the greatest coach of this generation, but that's only half the equation. He's also the league's most cunning football czar, outgunning opponents in free agency, fleecing newbie general managers with high-value trades and finding affordable gems who bottomed out elsewhere, only to shine in Foxborough.
This offseason was no exception, as New England offset a flurry of free-agency losses by signing a starting cornerback in Stephon Gilmore and engineering a juicy trade for electric wideout Brandin Cooks.
Trading for Cooks and former Panthers defensive lineman Kony Ealy left New England without a first- or second-round selection in the 2017 NFL Draft, but the Patriots could recoup a slew of high picks if the Browns make an offer they can't refuse for backup passer Jimmy Garoppolo.
Who else matters in this division? Let's start in Miami, where the Dolphins took a major step forward under new coach Adam Gase in 2016. Making the playoffs for the first time since 2008, Miami re-signed plenty of its own free agents -- led by wideout Kenny Stills -- and brought in talent from afar, including linebacker Lawrence Timmons and pass-catching tight end Julius Thomas.
The Bills answered their biggest offseason question by keeping mobile quarterback Tyrod Taylor on a restructured two-year deal. The team is starting over with new coach Sean McDermott, who arrives as a skilled defensive architect from Carolina. Buffalo has been relatively quiet this offseason, but the team turned heads by using free agency to add not one but two tight ends in Patrick DiMarco and Mike Tolbert.
That brings us to the Jets, a reeling club that seems destined to play through next season with one of the worst rosters in the NFL -- and no hint of a quarterback. One of the league's most battered fan bases can only hope the joyless ride leads them to a high draft pick -- high enough to grab one of next year's premier signal-calling prospects.
FREE AGENCY NOTABLES
- 'TOP 100 PLAYERS OF 2017'
▹ Ike Taylor's Rankings:
▸ 100-81 | 80-71 | 70-61 | 60-51
- FIRST LOOK AT 2017 SEASON
▹ Early OROY, DROY predictions
▹ Why 'Hawks will regain their swagger
▹ Ranking the 5 best offseasons
▹ Who will snap playoff drought in '17?
▹ Projected Starters (NFC):
▸ East | North l South l West
▹ Projected Starters (AFC):
▸ East | North l South l West
This space is typically used to highlight a free-agent signing, but let's talk about Cooks. "Since I've owned the team," said New England's Robert Kraft, "the only player that could make an impact like that at wide receiver was Randy Moss." Asking Cooks to live up to Moss' legacy is a tall order, but Cooks -- coming off back-to-back 1,000-yard campaigns -- brings an entirely new element to an offense that already houses workhorse Julian Edelman and three-time All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski. Throw in pass-catcher Chris Hogan (and perhaps Adrian Peterson) and we're looking at an offense prepared to set records.
New England couldn't keep everyone, but replacing Bennett with former Colts tight end Dwayne Allen is risky. Gronkowski simply can't be counted on to log 16 games, a reality that made Bennett vastly important to the Patriots in 2016. While Allen has attractive tools, there's no evidence he can put it all together and duplicate what Bennett did last autumn. We trust New England, though, to maximize its roster.
The Dolphins badly needed to upgrade their linebacking corps and found a reliable veteran in Timmons. He's on the wrong side of 30, but the former Steeler gives Miami an instinctive inside thumper who could wind up taking over in the middle, leaving Kiko Alonso to shift to the weak side. Moreover, Timmons is durable, having not missed a game since 2009. He alone won't save this defense, but the Fins went out of their way to re-sign lineman Andre Branch and safety Reshad Jones.
Buffalo Bills: It was past due for the Rex Ryan Experiment to come to a close. McDermott arrives with a strong résumé from Carolina, where he unleashed a ferocious front seven and maximized the play of his secondary. The offense will pound teams with DiMarco and Tolbert blasting holes for LeSean McCoy, but Taylor could use help at receiver after Robert Woods and Marquise Goodwin exited stage left. With Gilmore also gone, it's possible the Bills target a cornerback or even a safety with the No. 10 overall pick -- that is, if they don't grab a quarterback.
Miami Dolphins: Gase was a Coach of the Year candidate last season, and the attention was fully deserved. It's easy to forget how milquetoast this team was before his arrival, but last year's 'Fins were tasty on offense thanks to the emergence of running back Jay Ajayi. For Miami to get back to the playoffs, more help is needed at outside linebacker, along with added depth along the defensive line. The team could also use competition at guard. If any team outside of New England emits a glimmer of hope, though, it's the Dolphins.
New England Patriots: We've spent plenty of time on the Patriots, but questions remain. Will cornerback Malcolm Butler -- a restricted free agent -- be dealt? Will New England ship Garoppolo to Cleveland? If both moves come to pass, the Patriots have a chance to regain lost first- and second-round picks and own the draft the same way they dominated free agency. If Butler is sent elsewhere, the Patriots are a candidate to deal for Seattle cover man Richard Sherman.
New York Jets: Fans must prepare for a painful season ahead. The team cut bait with a handful of veterans -- Brandon Marshall, Nick Mangold, Ryan Clady, Nick Folk and Darrelle Revis -- while bringing in offensive tackle Kelvin Beachum and quarterback Josh McCown. The 37-year-old journeyman will "compete" with Bryce Petty and Christian Hackenberg under center, and it wouldn't be surprising to see all three take meaningful snaps. New York could swing for the fences on a quarterback with the No. 6 pick, but a wiser selection might be playmaking tight O.J. Howard out of Alabama. The offensive line could also use help if Gang Green plans to keep its signal-callers out of the hospital.