As we hurtle toward the regular season, check out our division-by-division primers highlighting players and storylines to watch in 2017. Conor Orr tackles the AFC East below.
Most significant changes from 2016
Miami established itself as the only divisional threat to another Patriots AFC East title last season, posting a 10-6 wild-card campaign in coach Adam Gase's first year at the helm. These Dolphins continue to build a veteran roster at a time when other AFC East outfits (the Jets and Bills) are veering toward a youth movement. So, what's the outlook with Cutler taking the reins under center? Some analysts are projecting a slight upgrade over a Ryan Tannehill-led offense, though the range of possibilities for a 34-year-old semi-retired quarterback with one career Pro Bowl appearance (as a Bronco back in 2008) and a history of inconsistent play is fairly wide. Cutler had one of his better seasons with Gase while the pair worked together during the 2015 campaign in Chicago, though Gase seems to be having that effect across the NFL.
Could it work? Think of it this way: For the first time in years, Cutler is being looked at as a savior -- and not as a mistake. His contract in Chicago kept him around long past his expiration date with fans and coaches. This is the first time in years where the situation has been fit to Cutler's liking, and it might provide his best set of surrounding weapons since the days of Alshon Jeffery and Brandon Marshall.
One player to watch on each team
BUFFALO BILLS: LeSean McCoy, running back. McCoy is still in Buffalo, even though the Bills seem to be getting rid of every Doug Whaley/Rex Ryan remnant left in the building. The reason? He fits in just about any offense. Even at 29, with nearly 9,000 NFL rushing yards under his belt, McCoy is still one of the most dynamic backs in the league. So why keep an eye on him? Two reasons. First of all, would the Bills ever move him? General manager Brandon Beane shut down rumors last week and assured McCoy that nothing would happen. Still, they have already swapped Sammy Watkins, Ronald Darby and Reggie Ragland. Another reason to watch McCoy? This preseason, he remains as shifty as ever. If nothing else, he's getting to the point in his career where we should all take a step back and admire one of the league's most consistent playmakers.
MIAMI DOLPHINS: DeVante Parker, wide receiver.Jay Cutler told the Palm Beach Post this past weekend that Parker, a former first-round pick who has yet to deliver on lofty expectations, won't even have to be open to get the ball. "As long as there's just one [defender], the ball's going to go up to him," he said. Jarvis Landry was the center of attention for Ryan Tannehill -- and he'll still command a large role in this offense. But what if Miami is able to finally extract the potential of a receiver who saw his targets, receptions and catch percentage all dramatically increase a year ago but still fall well below the threshold of a No. 1 wideout? The Dolphins have been looking to diversify their weapon set ever since Adam Gase walked through the door. Establishing Parker could do it fairly quickly.
NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS: Rex Burkhead, running back. Each year, the Patriots seem to have one player on offense who is not traditionally considered good enough to warrant additional attention in the way of a double team or stacked box but ends up being so deadly that defenses have no choice. In the past, that title was held by the likes of Wes Welker, LeGarrette Blount and Julian Edelman before all elevated themselves into the category of weapon. Burkhead, to me, seems to be this overload player for 2017. Bill Belichick trotted out his new running back armada over the first three weeks of the preseason, showcasing all the different types of damage this diverse backfield can cause. Mike Gillislee broke out against the Lions last weekend. But in Burkhead, the Patriots have a poor man's do-everything back, a 27-year-old who already caught three passes for 50 yards and a touchdown this preseason, while adding another 20 yards on the ground. When Edelman, Blount and Welker began to rise in New England, their performances did not need to produce Pro Bowl-level statistics. They just had to be deadly at the right time. Burkhead will be one-on-one with an awful lot of linebackers this year ...
NEW YORK JETS: Jamal Adams, safety. During my week in Philadelphia for the draft, I had the chance to meet about a dozen of the top prospects in person. Adams distanced himself from the pack with a maturity that is hard to find in someone under the age of 25. Even though he hasn't seen it all, he operates with the confidence of someone who has. With the Jets in the midst of a full rebuild, this type of sophistication could wind up being a tremendous blessing. It's easy for players, especially in the tightly covered New York market, to become disillusioned with the type of overhaul this franchise is attempting. In reality, if Adams and fellow safety Marcus Maye (the Jets' 2017 second-round pick) play well this year, it will provide a tremendous lift for the team moving forward, a reason to believe this youth infusion could pay off down the road.
What we'll be talking about at season's end
While everyone associated with the New England Patriots rolls their eyes at the talk of perfection, I wonder if it is attainable by this team. Few would dispute that this is Bill Belichick's best roster since the 2007 Super Bowl squad that ended up losing to the Giants in the season finale. I think the Pats' unique strength, as we touched on above, is game-changing role players. And I believe this roster has more of them than ever before -- enough to offset the losses (like that of Edelman) which will inevitably come over the course of a season. This is the weakest, collectively, that the AFC East has been in some time, with two teams clearly charting a different course. Are the stars aligning for trophy No. 6?