Talk this summer about the AFC East has been all about an off-the-field issue.
For this past month, dominating the headlines has been the saga surrounding tight end Aaron Hernandez, who has been charged with murder and released by the New England Patriots. Soon it will be seen how much that might affect the Patriots, who have won at least a share of 12 straight division titles.
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In addition to the loss of Hernandez, the Patriots saw star receiver Wes Welker bolt during the offseason to Denver as a free agent and star tight end Rob Gronkowski underwent back surgery in June, although there remains hope he will be ready for the regular-season opener. Put all together and that has to help the chances the Miami Dolphins have of challenging the Patriots in the AFC East.
Here’s a look at how Miami’s division rivals stack up entering training camp:
New England Patriots (12-4, 1st)
Key free-agent additions: WR Danny Amendola (St. Louis), S Adrian Wilson (Arizona), WR Michael Jenkins (Minnesota), QB Tim Tebow (New York Jets), WR Donald Jones (Buffalo), DL Tommy Kelly (Oakland), RB Leon Washington (Seattle).
Key free-agent losses: WR Wes Welker (Denver), RB Donny Woodhead (San Diego), OL Donald Thomas (Indianapolis), S Patrick Chung (Philadelphia), TE Aaron Hernandez (released).
Rookies: LB Jamie Collins (second round, Southern Mississippi), WR Aaron Dobson (second, Marshall), CB Loggan Ryan (third, Rutgers), S Duron Harmon (third, Rutgers), WR Josh Boyce (fourth, Texas Christian), DE Michael Buchanan (seventh, Illinois), LB Steve Beauharnais (seventh, Rutgers)
Analysis: The Patriots must make up for the departure of quarterback Tom Brady’s favorite target in Welker, who has made five straight Pro Bowls, and for the loss of Hernandez, who had looked to be a rising star after catching 79 balls for 910 yards in 2011. There will be plenty of pressure on Amendola to replace Welker and for two-time Pro Bowler Gronkowski to make up for the loss of Hernandez whenever he might get healthy. The Patriots at least still have Brady, showing no signs of slowing down even though he turns 36 in August. The defense is solid but not spectacular. Defensive tackle Vince Wolfork remains one of the NFL’s best and linebacker Jerod Mayo is coming off a second Pro Bowl. Depth on defense is a concern. Signing Kelly should help on the line.
New York Jets (6-10, tied for 3rd)
Key free-agent additions: LB Antwan Barnes (San Diego), RB Mike Goodson (Oakland), TE Kellen Winslow Jr. (New England), G Willie Colon (Pittsburgh),
Key free-agent losses: RB Shonn Greene (Tennessee), LB Bart Scott (released), S LaRon Landry (Indianapolis), G Matt Stauson (Chicago), QB Tim Tebow (released, signed with New England).
Rookies: CB Dee Milliner (first round, Alabama), DT Sheldon Richardson (first, Missouri), QB Geno Smith (second, West Virginia), T Brian Winters (third, Kent State), T Oday Aboushi (fifth, Virginia), DT William Campbell (sixth, Michigan), FB Tommy Bohannon (seventh, Wake Forest).
Analysis: The largely rebuilding Jets have quarterback issues. Mark Sanchez is still around, largely because he has $8.25 million guaranteed money on his contract. But he will be pushed by Smith, the exciting rookie from West Virginia. At least Tebow isn’t still on hand to create a distractions. The Jets also must replace Greene, who bolting after rushing for a team-high 1,063 yards. Chris Ivory, acquired from New Orleans, could be the favorite to replace him. The defense lost star cornerback Darrelle Revis, who was traded to Tampa Bay after missing the final eight games due to a knee injury. Another key defensive departure was Scott. But linebacker David Harris and cornerback Antonio Cromartie are solid and Milliner and Richardson will look to make impacts as rookies.
Buffalo Bills (6-10, tied for 3rd)
Key free-agent additions: QB Kevin Kolb (Arizona), OLB Manny Lawson (Cincinnati), DT Alan Branch (Seattle).
Key free-agent losses: QB Ryan Fitzpatrick (released, signed with Tennessee), G Andy Levitre (Tennessee), LB Nick Barnett (released).
Rookies: QB EJ Manuel (first round, Florida State), WR Robert Woods (second, USC), LB Kiko Alonso (second, Oregon), WR Marquise Goodwin (third, Texas), S Duke Williams (fourth, Nevada), DB Jonathan Meeks (fifth, Clemson), K Dustin Hopkins (sixth, Florida State), TE Chris Gragg (seventh, Arkansas).
Analysis: It remains to be seen who will start the opening game at quarterback, but if it’s Kolb he will just be keeping the position warm for Manuel, who is the future. The Bills released Fitzpatrick after four up-and-down seasons, figuring it was time to start over. Regardless of who the quarterback is, the Bills will need rising star running back C.J. Spiller, who last season rushed for 1,244 yards, to take plenty of pressure off him. On defense, the Bills have much work to do after being 26th in NFL in points allowed. They do hope for a big season from defensive end Mario Williams, bothered by a wrist injury last year after having been a high-profile free-agent signee. The Bills are weak at linebacker but they do have a pair of solid secondary starters in Jairus Byrd and Stephon Gilmore.