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NFL Notes: Despite changes, AFC East Remains a Challenge

There have been plenty of comings and goings in the AFC East, but the talent level remains quite high throughout.

Patriots Head Coach Jerod Mayo
Patriots Head Coach Jerod Mayo

The draft is still a few weeks away and there will be more additions to come, but the AFC East has already seen plenty of changes.

In New England the most glaring difference is the new regime with Jerod Mayo taking over for Bill Belichick. But elsewhere in the division, the alterations are more personnel based – and at least on paper it doesn't seem like any of the three foes figures to be much worse for the wear.

While the draft will add some talent to the mix, it's time to take a look at the offseason to this point for each of New England's AFC East rivals.

Buffalo Bills

Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen (17) in the huddle against the Green Bay Packers.
Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen (17) in the huddle against the Green Bay Packers.

We'll start at the top with the four-time defending AFC East champ Bills. On the surface it would appear as if general manager Brandon Beane and coach Sean McDrmott are in full rebuild mold. On the eve of the new league year, Beane sent a handful of veterans packing, ostensibly looking to pare payroll and create some cap space.

Veteran safety Jordan Poyer, center Mitch Morse and cornerback Tre'Davious White were all released. In addition, the Bills chose to let veterans Micah Hyde, Gabriel Davis, Dane Jackson, Tyrel Dodson and Leonard Floyd depart via free agency.

Those moves, along with a restructuring of Josh Allen's contract, were seen as necessary to get under the cap. But soon thereafter, Beane wound up spending plenty of cash to retain offensive linemen David Edwards and Dion Dawkins, defensive lineman Daquan Jones and A.J. Epenesa and running back Ty Johnson. The Bills also added Curtis Samuel, Austin Johnson and Mike Edwards via free agency, plus some veteran depth in Will Clapp, Nicholas Morrow, Mack Hollins and Mitch Trubisky.

When the moves were complete it seems like Beane was looking to shake up the roster more so than creating cap space. In the end, Poyer and Morse will be missed but moving on from the oft-injured White was likely a solid gamble.

And as long as Allen remains in place and healthy, the Bills remain formidable and should be considered a threat in the AFC. And until someone proves capable of knocking them off, they remain the favorite in the AFC East.

Miami Dolphins

Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa (1) prepares for the snap.
Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa (1) prepares for the snap.

In two seasons under coach Mike McDaniel, the Dolphins have made major strides. But despite that improvement, Miami is still searching for postseason success and remains a notch below the Bills.

At this stage it would appear that the Dolphins might be poised to take a step back. Like Buffalo, Miami said goodbye to a handful of respected veterans such as Emmanuel Ogbah, Jerome Baker and Xavien Howard. But the biggest loss of all was Christian Wilkins, who signed with the Raiders via free agency. That will leave a gaping hole in the middle of the defense, a unit that will be led by defensive coordinator Anthony Weaver, who replaced the respected Vic Fangio after some philosophical differences led to his departure.

In addition to Wilkins, the Dolphins also lost Robert Hunt, Andrew Van Ginkel, Brandon Jones and Raekwon Davis to free agency.

The Dolphins were able to lure some new faces to replace them, however. Linebacker Jordyn Brooks, center Aaron Brewer, corner Kendall Fuller, tight end Jonnu Smith, edge rusher Shaq Barrett and Poyer all signed with Miami. All but Wilkins were replaced by comparable or superior players, so McDaniel should have the tools to take another crack at unseating the Bills.

Now it will be up to McDaniel to continue to tinker with his offense and find a way to avoid the late-season collapses that have plagued his teams the last two seasons. The next item on the to-do list could be a contract extension for Tua Tagovailoa. Tagovailoa remained healthy throughout the 2023 campaign and with most of his weapons back in the fold he should be poised for another solid year while playing under the fifth-year option.

The Dolphins are flawed but possess plenty of talent.

New York Jets

New York Jets before an NFL football game against the Washington Commanders.
New York Jets before an NFL football game against the Washington Commanders.

Of the three rivals the Jets are the toughest to forecast. That's because of Aaron Rodgers' status after missing all but a handful of snaps due to a ruptured Achilles in his first season with New York. On the surface it certainly appeared as if Rodgers fit in well with his new team despite the injury. He remained a vocal part of the offense and even worked hard enough to return to the practice field down the stretch, although despite reports to the contrary he wasn't close to being activated for a game.

Now the question is, can Rodgers remain healthy enough to lift a sagging offense that is holding the team back? Time will tell, but the fact that reports indicate he is healthy and will take part in the team's offseason workouts is a positive first step.

It has been a pretty quiet offseason thus far for the Jets. They did lose talented pass rusher Bryce Huff to the Eagles in free agency, but otherwise the departures were modest losses – safety Jordan Whitehead, defensive tackle Quinton Jefferson and cornerback Bryce Hall.

The Jets mitigated the Huff loss by swinging a trade with the Eagles, acquiring Haason Reddick for a conditional third-round pick. The Jets added veteran backup quarterback Tyrod Taylor in free agency and bolstered their offensive line with John Simpson, Morgan Moses and Tyron Smith. New York also picked up defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw and wide receiver Mike Williams, who should help Rodgers get the offense on track.

New York is pretty tight against the cap (roughly $1.43 million in space) so more moves will likely be coming, but the Jets already had the best defense in the division and were able to keep most of the key pieces in place including free agents C.J. Mosley and Solomon Thomas. If Rodgers is at full strength, the Jets should contend with the Bills and Dolphins for AFC East supremacy.

Odds and ends

As expected the league was able to force their two main initiatives through at the recently completed meetings in Orlando, Fla., outlawing the hip-drop tackle and radically changing the kickoff setup. There's something unsettling about the manner in which these new rules seem to get legislated each year, however.

Anytime the league is invested in a change, the owners seem to line up in lockstep and rubber-stamp the proposals through easily. The hip-drop tackle ban, which drew plenty of criticism from the players themselves – both offensively and defensively – passed unanimously. The proposal to change the kickoff was met with just three dissenting votes – the Raiders, 49ers and Packers. In other words, if the league wants something done, it makes sure its constituents fall in line. Meanwhile, there was no discussion on potential changes to the onside kick with the league saying it would look into it further in the coming months because all their efforts were placed on other areas.

The tackle ban is particularly controversial, especially with all the rhetoric about increased injury odds stemming from the technique. Rich McKay, chair of the competition committee, was adamant in defending the change.

"We have an obligation from a health and safety standpoint to protect players when there's unreasonable risk of injury," McKay said last week. Bottom of Form "And in this one, there's pure data that it's an unreasonable risk of injury. So that's why we changed the rule.

"We made a lot of playing rule proposals and changes over the year on health and safety. And sometimes, they're looked at as though you're making the game softer. I just don't agree with that at all. I believe you're trying to make the game safer."

Yet, during the very same set of meetings, word trickled out that the league plans to play games on Christmas Day, which in 2024 falls on a Wednesday. So, as teams are gearing up for the stretch drive their schedules will be altered greatly, potentially creating even shorter weeks of preparation and recovery. Somehow, the league steadfastly denies the existence of any data showing the increased likelihood of injury on short weeks but remarkably determined that a specific type of tackle leads to a roughly 25 percent greater chance of injury.

Got it.

No one wants to see players get injured, but it's an unfortunate byproduct of the sport. Legislating helmet-to-helmet contact out of the game as much as possible makes sense. Dealing with concussions in general in a more comprehensive manner also is smart. But at the same time fans want to watch something resembling the game they love, and very few have been clamoring for more action on Christmas Day.

Yet, year in and year out we get selective safety from the league.

DISCLAIMER: The views and thoughts expressed in this article are those of the writer and don't necessarily reflect those of the organization. Read Full Disclaimer

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