AFC East roster reset: Patriots vulnerable after Tom Brady's exit? | NFL.com

 nfl.com  04/07/2020 16:19:00 

Our Roster Reset series takes a division-by-division look at where things stand across the league heading into the 2020 NFL Draft. Jeremy Bergman examines the current makeup of the AFC East below.

We're living in a brave new world. Norms have been upended, expectations have been recalibrated and no one knows what the hell comes next. All this the result of one of the more shocking developments in recent American history, a reality that few dared to comprehend as credible years, months or even weeks ago.

Tom Brady left the New England Patriots.

Sure, while it's not the most upending sociological event to strike the world, the nation or the eastern seaboard in the last month by a long shot, Brady's departure from the six-time Super Bowl champions for, of all franchises, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who have not made the playoffs since New England went 16-0 in 2007, reshaped the NFL landscape. And nowhere has The Pharaoh's exodus had a more noticeable impact than in the division to which he laid waste for two decades.

Ever since Mo Lewis ruptured Drew Bledsoe's insides in the first game after 9/11, Brady, Bill Belichick and the Patriots have torn through the AFC East, their success unprecedented. Seventeen division titles, including 11 straight since 2009; Chad Pennington quarterbacked the two other teams to win the East in that span (2002 Jets, 2008 Dolphins). Buffalo, Miami and New York have 11 playoff appearances combined in that time frame.

A football fan's favorite chicken-or-the-egg argument -- besides "Is it Brady or Belichick?" -- debating whether the Patriots have been that dominant or whether their AFC East opponents have been that inept has been the hallmark barstool debate in Atlantic pubs for a decade-plus. Now, with Brady in St. Jetersburg, both cases might finally reach their closing arguments.

The window to compete with and finally overtake New England is open, and the Bills, Dolphins and Jets have all made efforts this offseason to hop through it and leapfrog the Pats.

Buffalo, fresh off its second playoff appearance in three years and its first 10-win season of the century, beefed up its defensive line and secondary with multiple signings, including three former Panthers players. But the Bills made their biggest splash on offense, trading their first-round pick and then some for Stefon Diggs, Josh Allen's presumptive top target for the foreseeable future.

In the second stage of their rebuild, the Dolphins spent big in March, landing big-ticket cornerback Byron Jones, signing Jordan Howard to be their starting tailback and picking three more prospects off of the Patriots' player tree (Ted Karras, Elandon Roberts, Kyle Van Noy). According to Spotrac, no team has spent more this offseason than the Dolphins (over $237 million on free agents alone, and $100 million more than the next-closest team, Detroit, at the publishing of this piece).

With Sam Darnold reaching a make-or-break season, Gang Green bolstered its offensive line with five signings, replaced Robby Anderson with Breshad Perriman and cut a pair of starting cornerbacks from 2019. But in his first full offseason as Jets general manager, Joe Douglas has yet to make a big splash like those made in years past by Mike Maccagnan (Trumaine Johnson in 2018, Le'Veon Bell and C.J. Mosley in 2019). It might be for the best.

The Patriots have reloaded without Brady, inching up against the salary cap with their retentions of Devin McCourty and Joe Thuney. But New England has lost six players to Belichick disciples in Miami and Detroit this offseason, mostly on defense, and has not yet located a surefire replacement for Brady under center ... that we know of.

FREE AGENCY NOTABLES

BIGGEST ADDITION: Stefon Diggs, wide receiver.
Old team: Minnesota Vikings. New team: Buffalo Bills.

Normally, I wouldn't suggest the addition of a wide receiver, however costly the acquisition or prolific the player, is the most significant of a division's offseason happenings. But Buffalo's trade for Diggs is just that. The Bills located the right player at the right time to fill a glaring hole in their roster and invested heavily in him. Just hours after Arizona fleeced Houston for DeAndre Hopkins, Buffalo sent Minnesota the No. 22 pick in the 2020 draft, a 2020 fifth-round pick, a 2020 sixth-round pick and a 2021 fourth-round pick for a receiver who was more vocally disruptive and less productive than Hopkins, but one whose contract situation was at least resolved. Locked in for four seasons, with a potential team out in 2023, Diggs comes to Buffalo as inarguably the best route runner and deep threat Josh Allen has had in his young career. The Bills pegged John Brown as their No. 1 last year, and while he logged his second career 1,000-yard season, no one would mistake the speedster for the X-factor in Buffalo. Bringing in Diggs, however, rounds out a three-headed monster at receiver with Brown and slot man Cole Beasley and provides Allen a durable top-shelf target at a reasonable price. Whether Diggs wishes by midseason that he'd rather be sending passive-aggressive tweets targeted at Kirk Cousins and Rick Spielman than being overthrown by Allen in lake-effect snowstorms remains to be seen. For now, Buffalo can relish the road taken, and Diggs can acclimate himself to the status of the division's alpha receiver.

BIGGEST LOSS: Trevor Siemian, lol jk, Tom Brady, quarterback.
Old team: New England Patriots. New team: Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Are the Patriots going to miss Tom Brady? Can Geico really save you 15 percent or more on car insurance? Did the little piggy cry wee-wee-wee all the way home? As league-average as the 42-year-old Brady was for most of the 2019 season, his loss in New England, on and off the field, will have incalculable ripple effects, many of them immediately negative. For one, unlike the Packers in 2008 or the 49ers in 1993, the Patriots do not have a surefire heir to Brady's throne. New England employs Jarrett Stidham, a well-regarded second-year QB out of Auburn whose only significant regular-season experience in 2019 resulted in a Jamal Adams pick-six, and just recently replaced well-coiffed journeyman Cody Kessler with bald journeyman Brian Hoyer. Unless they select a QB early in the draft (New England enters with just one pick, No. 23, in the first 86) or signs a free agent when his market deflates (Jameis Winston, Cam Newton, etc.), the Pats will enter 2020 with one of the league's worst QB rooms. Stidham practiced with the 1s often in 2019, but there's no substitute for live-game action. New England might have to play a different style whenever the coming season begins, one more reliant on Sony Michel, James White and the run game than ever before; the Pats' signing of Danny Vitale suggested that could be the case. It could be a winning style if executed well, but unlike in many years past when Brady was under center, it's not a sure thing.

SLEEPER ADDITION: Joe Thuney, offensive guard.
Old team: New England Patriots. New team: New England Patriots.

There are a number of players who could've satisfied this part of the article: Pierre Desir or Patrick Onwuasor on the Jets, Mario Addison on the Bills, Jordan Howard on the Dolphins, to name a few. But I'm going to ignore my editors' framework here and go with a player who didn't go nowhere in Thuney. Before free agency began, Thuney was considered the second-best offensive lineman available behind Brandon Scherff. A premier interior lineman, he was set to break the bank somewhere outside of Foxborough, possibly even in New York, where the Jets were reportedly mounting an offer for the Patriots guard. Before Thuney could hit the market, however, New England slapped a $14.8 million franchise tag on him, preventing the guard for jetting to the rival Jets and protecting Sam Darnold for the long term. New York pivoted and spent on lower-grade offensive linemen elsewhere, but the Pats protecting Thuney killed two birds with one stone: It kept him in their building for the time being and out of that of the enemy. Whether Thuney is on the Pats' roster come Week 1 is a decision still to be made. He recently signed his tender and could be trade bait around draft day. Either way, New England weaponized the guard's services for its own benefit, an under-the-radar offseason addition by lack of subtraction.

WHAT'S NEXT?

Buffalo Bills: Buffalo can spend the first night of the virtual draft offline; the Bills spent their first-round pick on Diggs, don't own a selection until No. 54 in the second round and have just seven total. With a pretty sound roster just in need of seasoning, the Bills can build depth at certain positions as a luxury. After losing Frank Gore (still a free agent), Buffalo could target an RB in the draft for the second straight year to pair with Devin Singletary or a TE to pair with Dawson Knox. Buffalo also needs to exercise Tre'Davious White's fifth-year option by May 30 or sign the All-Pro CB to a healthy extension.

Miami Dolphins: No team has more riding on its performance in the draft than the Dolphins. Miami owns 14 selections, including three first-rounders and six in the first 70 picks. The Fins have been planning for this moment for months, shipping out Minkah Fitzpatrick and Laremy Tunsil last year for the chance to be in this position. It's anticipated that the Dolphins will go quarterback with its first pick (currently No. 5). But who will that quarterback be? And which draft slot will Miami eventually use to make that pick? Those things remain TBD. The Dolphins are a candidate to trade into the top three to ensure a selection of Tua Tagovailoa, Justin Herbert or even Joe Burrow, if the Bengals pass or Miami attempts to trade into the top position. Signal-caller aside, the Dolphins should build up their offensive weaponry in the draft, too, potentially taking the first RB and/or a top WR off the board at Nos. 18 and 26. Don't be surprised if the Fins try to move Josh Rosen, too, either during or after the draft, as they'll have little use for him with Ryan Fitzpatrick and Yung Marino to be named later in the QB room.

New England Patriots: Are the Patriots settled at quarterback? It's the question that will follow New England at least until someone in a Flying Elvis helmet takes snaps under center in Week 1. It's one that can be briefly, if not absolutely, addressed on draft night. In addition to the QB quandary in Foxborough, the Patriots are also in need of help at tight end, in the front seven and, if they decide to deal Thuney, on the interior line. With 12 draft picks to use either as selections or trade compensation, Belichick will surely figure out how to address their most pressing needs in the most creative way possible.

New York Jets: After addressing the offensive line with great energy in free agency, will the Jets do so again in the first round? Or will New York target a flashier position like wide receiver or edge rusher to fill holes left mostly unpatched in March? That's a decision that might be dependent on Jadeveon Clowney. New York has been eyeing the free-agent edge rusher as his price slowly drops from its astronomical $20 million-per peak. If the Jets were to make a move for Clowney, it would free Douglas to focus on the best player available at offensive line or wide receiver at No. 11 in the draft. That might be their operating strategy regardless, but a resolution to Clowney's free agency would clarify New York's intentions. Also, high on Douglas' checklist, and that of Gang Green's online GMs: extending All-Pro safety Jamal Adams.

Follow Jeremy Bergman on Twitter @JABergman.

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