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AFC East preview: Patriots still rule, Dolphins to surprise in 2018

With the dawn of a new NFL season almost upon us, we're going division by division to highlight the players and storylines to watch in 2018. Jeremy Bergman tackles the AFC East below.

Most significant changes from 2017

Former Philadelphia Soul co-majority owner Jon Bon Jovi once sang, "The more things change, the more they stay the same." A successful musician and arena football baron in his own right, Bon Jovi also happens to be very close to Patriots owner Robert Kraft, whose club has won the AFC East title nine straight seasons, dating back to 2009. In fact, the Patriots have claimed the division crown every year save for two since 2001, the first true Tom Brady-Bill Belichick season. Since then, peripheral greats have come and gone -- Richard Seymour, Corey Dillon, Randy Moss, Wes Welker, Darrelle Revis, to name a few -- but the results never change. With Brady and Belichick at the helm, New England clinches a first-round bye when it steps on the field in Week 1.

Not that the other organizations in the East don't try to outfox the so-called "Evil Empire." This offseason saw the Bills, Dolphins and Jets all make monumental roster moves as they anticipate the inevitable (?) post-Brady era.

Fresh off its first postseason run in nearly two decades, Buffalo offloaded its starting quarterback by trading Tyrod Taylor to Cleveland and hand-picked a shinier, younger, taller model in Josh Allen by trading up to select him seventh overall in the draft. But the rookie isn't assured the starting gig in 2018, and maybe it's for his benefit -- Buffalo lost three starting offensive linemen this offseason, too.

The Dolphins rid themselves of the non-Adam Gase Guys (out: Jarvis Landry, Ndamukong Suh and Mike Pouncey) and brought in replacements at every level (in: Albert Wilson, Danny Amendola, Robert Quinn and Daniel Kilgore). Miami also let Jay Cutler walk into (probable) retirement/reality TV, with Ryan Tannehill returning from injury and hopefully to form.

Gang Green spent some green. The Jets capitalized on their spacious cap situation by hauling in missing pieces on defense (Trumaine Johnson, Avery Williamson) and improving their offensive depth (Isaiah Crowell, Terrelle Pryor). But New York made the most noise this offseason by building a competent QB room -- re-signing Josh McCown, signing Teddy Bridgewater (who was since traded to New Orleans) and drafting the future, or very present, face of the franchise, Sam Darnold.

Every single one of these moves was made with the intention of building a winner, a roster that could dismantle the Pat-riarchy and usher in a new era of equal opportunity in the East.

And yet ...

Brady is back at age 41 and looking as sharp as ever. Belichick addressed weaknesses on the defensive line with a number of moves. Rob Gronkowski put off careers in professional wrestling and equine ownership to return to Foxborough. What New England currently lacks in receiver depth, it makes up for with tailback variety.

Despite the moving and shaking at the bottom of the division, the Patriots are heavy favorites to win the AFC East title for the 10th time in a row. Like Kraft's rocker buddy said, "It's the same old story, but it's told a different way." The rest of the division is livin' on a prayer.

One player to watch on each team

BUFFALO BILLS: Tremaine Edmunds, linebacker. Buffalo's other first-round rookie is the more likely of the two to start as a first-year player. After picking Allen, the Bills traded up again to select Edmunds 16th overall, and the middle linebacker has lived up to the hype thus far, save for some rookie growing pains. Edmunds replaces the departed Preston Brown and his league-leading 144 tackles in the middle of Sean McDermott's defense, a unit that, more than anything (aside from the LeSean McCoy-led running game), propelled Buffalo back to the postseason. If the Bills can maintain their top-tier takeaway tendencies once again, it will be because Edmunds held down the fort.

MIAMI DOLPHINS: Ryan Tannehill, quarterback. This is a do-or-die year for the former first-rounder. Tannehill hasn't taken a regular season snap since December 2016, the first year of Gase's reign in Miami Gardens. That was the quarterback's best season to date, but it was cut short before he could attempt to lead a postseason run. The 2018 Dolphins are built to Tannehill's strengths (short receivers for quick throws, power running game, athletic tight end in Mike Gesicki). Finally fully healthy and equipped, Tannehill will reveal his true talents or lack thereof this season, with more than just his future in South Florida at stake. Gase's reputation as a QB whisperer and his job security are on the line, as well.

NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS: Adrian Clayborn, defensive end. One of the lasting images from Super Bowl LII is Malcolm Butler on the sideline watching Nick Foles expose an outmanned New England secondary. But the problems with New England's defense were as evident up front all season long as they were in the defensive backfield in February. The Pats attempted to remedy their pass-rush issues by signing Clayborn, who recorded a career-high 9.5 sacks last season (with ample help from the Cowboys' Chaz Green). But New England didn't just acquire Clayborn for sack prowess. His flexibility and versatility on the defensive line may be most useful, and he could open up pass-rushing opportunities for less-polished athletes like Derek Rivers and Deatrich Wise. If New England gets off to a better start defensively this year than last year -- when Alex Smith, Drew Brees, Deshaun Watson and Cam Newton tore the Pats apart vertically in successive weeks -- you'll be able to look to the play of Clayborn as a catalyst.

NEW YORK JETS: Sam Darnold, quarterback. Uh, duh. At 21 years and 97 days old two Mondays from now, Darnold is set to become the youngest quarterback to ever start a Week 1 game. The rookie out of USC has shown more than enough during training camp battles and preseason drives to persuade management to hand him the keys to the, er, Jets. For a franchise that has lacked identity, consistency, competency, etc., at the QB position, Darnold's quick ascension to the starting role is a point of no return, especially for the front office. Starting Sept. 10 against the Lions, the Jets are Darnold, and Darnold the Jets, inextricably linked by their successes and failures over at least the next four seasons. If the rookie doesn't do enough in his first year, head coach Todd Bowles and general manager Mike Maccagnan are at risk of losing their jobs, propelling Gang Green back into another coaching carousel. If Darnold keeps New York afloat or, even better, competitive in 2018, the regime holds on, and the Jets can finally visualize a future to look forward to.

What we'll be talking about at season's end

Complaining about the Patriots' prolific performance is old hat. Oh, Brady threw for over 4,000 passing yards and a 104.3 passer rating with Phillip Dorsett as his third-leading receiver? Color me numb. The sun rose? Swell. Yeah, New England will win another division title, but it will feel like a swan song. The revolution is coming and its names are Kenyan Drake, Albert Wilson and Minkah Fitzpatrick. While the Patriots will win the East with a fine 11-5 record, Miami will sweep the Pats, building upon last December's Monday night beatdown, and surprise the league by stealing the second wild-card spot from the media darlings in Houston.

Follow Jeremy Bergman on Twitter @JABergman.

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