There’s a lot of work to be done in the AFC East. Here’s what the teams need to address.
While the Buffalo Bills finished with a 4-12 record last season, they might have found their answer at quarterback — at least in the short term. Journeyman signal caller Ryan Fitzpatrick was an afterthought coming into last season, but he wound up being one of the biggest surprises in the AFC East after finishing with 23 touchdown passes in just 13 starts. However, he’s only signed through 2011 and turns 29 in November.
What the Bills have to do is build up their less-than-stellar defense. They must add at least two pass rushers who can provide an immediate impact. The decision to re-sign OLB Shawne Merriman is a big gamble, considering he hasn’t been healthy since the 2007 season.
Key Free Agents
Paul Posluszny/ILB – Posluszny has not been the impact player many thought he would be when the Bills selected him in the second round of the 2007 NFL draft. He was part of the NFL’s worst run defense last season which gave up more than 169 yards per game. If the old free-agency rules are in effect, Posluszny would become an unrestricted free agent. While he might not have lived up to the hype, the Bills don’t have anyone left on their 80-man roster who is capable of replacing him.
Donte Whitner/S – The former first-round pick out of the 2006 NFL draft started all 16 regular-season games last season, but was part of a defense which gave up more than 26 points per game. Whitner’s ability to play free safety or strong safety will help him find other suitors should the Bills not want to re-sign him.
Drayton Florence/CB – Florence, who turns 31 in December, played fairly well last season, but the team needs to get 2008 first-round pick CB Leodis McKelvin more playing time.
QB (developmental), OLT, ORT, OLB, SS
The Dolphins looked like they would be firing head coach Tony Sparano after their dalliance with former Stanford head coach Jim Harbaugh, but they wound up giving Sparano a contract extension. The team, in order to get to the playoffs next season, must improve its underachieving offense. It starts with the offensive line. That would help inconsistent QB Chad Henne and their running game enormously.
Miami’s defense is very solid, so if the Dolphins can significantly improve their offense, they could seriously push for a playoff spot next season.
Key Free Agents
Ricky Williams/RB – The veteran running back turns 34 in three months, so he might not be a big priority to re-sign. However, Williams certainly could handle a No. 2 role for a team.
Ronnie Brown/RB – Brown, who turns 30 in December, is not coming off a strong season. But part of it could be attributed to the struggles of the offensive line blocking for the running game. The Dolphins’ top three running backs are unsigned, so it’s not out of the question that they try to re-sign him.
Richie Incognito/C-G – The veteran interior offensive lineman started all 16 regular-season games last season, but because he did not play at a high level, he’s not expected to be re-signed by the team.
Paul Soliai/DT – The interior defensive lineman became a big surprise for the Dolphins last season, especially against the run. If the old free-agency rules are in effect, Soliai could become an unrestricted free agent.
C, G, WR, TE, OLB
New England Patriots
The Patriots wound up having an outstanding regular season despite trading veteran WR Randy Moss. However, their shocking playoff loss at home against the division rival New York Jets continued to show that they have no downfield threat in the passing game. While TEs Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez became a big part of the passing game in their rookie season in 2010, neither player became a big threat down field.
The Patriots, in order to do go deep into the playoffs next season, must address their pass-rushing problems. That was very evident during their playoff loss to the Jets.
Key Free Agents
Kevin Faulk/RB – Faulk, who turns 35 in June, is coming off ACL surgery. And with him out last season, the team turned to RB Danny Woodhead, so Faulk might have seen his last days in a Patriots uniform.
BenJarvus Green-Ellis/RB – Green-Ellis turned out to be one of the biggest surprises for the team last season, rushing for more than 1,000 yards and posting 13 touchdowns on the ground. He will be a restricted free agent, so look for the team to place a decent tender level on him so he doesn’t leave.
Sammy Morris/RB – The veteran running back has been a jack of all trades since he signed with the team for the 2007 season. Morris plays fullback, running back and is a key special teams contributor.
Logan Mankins/G – Because the Patriots don’t have a viable replacement on their 80-man roster, Mankins is expected to get the franchise designation. If the situation turns ugly again, the team could wind up trying to trade him, but the Patriots really need him.
Matt Light/OLT – Light turns 33 next season, but the Patriots might not have his replacement lined up. Some personnel evaluators thought Sebastian Vollmer was drafted to be his replacement, but he seems at home at right tackle.
Gerard Warren/DL – While he was thought to just be depth at the end of the roster, Warren wound up starting 10 of the 16 games he appeared in last season for the Patriots. However, the team has pretty solid depth on the defensive line.
WR, G, LT, OLB
New York Jets
The New York Jets got back to the AFC Championship Game for the second straight season, but came up a bit short of the Super Bowl again. And now, they have 18 free agents for next season. There’s virtually no way they will be bring them all back, perhaps not even half of them, but they must re-sign the key starters from both sides of the ball.
The good news is the coaching staff will be intact for another season. It was believed because of the success of the team for the past two seasons, that some of the coaches would find better jobs elsewhere.
Key Free Agents
Tony Richardson/FB – The veteran blocking fullback is nearing the end of a terrific 16-year career. The Jets already have his replacement lined up in John Conner.
Santonio Holmes/WR – With the likelihood of ILB David Harris getting the team’s franchise tag designation, Holmes becomes the second most important free agent to bring back. He could get the transition tag designation, but that wouldn’t totally assure the team of keeping him. While the Jets only gave up a fifth-round pick to acquire him last April, he quickly became the team’s best deep threat at the position.
Braylon Edwards/WR – The Jets gave up two draft picks two years ago in order to pry him from the Cleveland Browns, so you would think they would try to re-sign him. But the Jets also have a lot of other key free agents to sign, so Edwards is far from a lock to come back.
Brad Smith/WR-KR – While Smith rarely is used as a receiver, he’s a part of the team’s third-down package as a wildcat quarterback. But his biggest impact is in a kickoff/returner role.
Wayne Hunter/OT – Hunter is probably one of the top backup offensive tackles in the NFL, but it remains to be seen if the Jets will try to re-sign him. Hunter played well enough last season when getting to start for RT Damien Woody that he might yield a decent free-agent contract elsewhere.
Shaun Ellis/DE – One of the most durable 3-4 defensive ends in the NFL, Ellis could be hard to replace if the Jets aren’t able to re-sign him. They simply do not have enough depth at the position.
David Harris/ILB – Because the Jets have no viable replacement for Harris, he’s expected to receive the franchise tag designation before the Feb. 24 deadline. Harris is an outstanding fit for the Jets’ 3-4 defensive scheme.
Antonio Cromartie/CB – The Jets wound up giving what amounted to a second-round pick in the 2011 NFL draft to acquire the veteran defensive back last March. That’s a pretty big price to pay for a guy on the final year of his rookie deal, so look for the Jets to make a push to re-sign him. If they are unable to do so, 2010 first-round pick CB Kyle Wilson would be expected to replace Cromartie in the starting lineup.
Brodney Pool/FS – The veteran defensive back started 12 games out of the 15 he appeared in last season, but it’s questionable whether he really made an impact on their defense.
Eric Smith/FS – He has essentially been their top backup safety and of their top special teams players for the past three seasons. Three out of the four safeties on the Jets’ 80-man roster are unsigned for next season.
James Ihedigbo/S – He’s one of the top backup players and an excellent special teams player. Ihedigbo might not be a priority right away for the Jets to re-sign, but his presence is certainly needed.