Perhaps no division in 2014 showcased why the modern NFL is all about the quarterback more than the AFC East. The New England Patriots won their fourth Super Bowl in 15 years on the strength of Tom Brady's late-career greatness along with a strong ground game and a superior defense. Meanwhile, the Miami Dolphins are still trying to figure out what they have in Ryan Tannehill, the New York Jets are doing the same with Geno Smith and the Buffalo Bills are just hoping they have something fixable in EJ Manuel. The Jets and Bills made coaching changes in the offseason, and the Dolphins are still trying to make the leap from mediocrity to consistent success.
New Bills head coach Rex Ryan talked about winning the respect of long-suffering Buffalo fans, of "building a bully" and making opponents question whether they wanted to play Ryan's team for a full 60 minutes. That confident approach was typical of Ryan's tenure with the Jets, but the hopes any AFC East team has at a division title remain dictated by the success of the Patriots, as has been the case for more than a decade.
In that regard, the more things change in this division, the more they stay the same.
Free agents: WR Marcus Easley, WR Deonte Thompson, TE Lee Smith, OL Chris Hairston, OG Erik Pears, DE Jerry Hughes, DE Jarius Wynn, LB Brandon Spikes, LB Stevenson Sylvester, LB Larry Dean, SS Da'Norris Searcy
Free agents of note: Searcy will hit the open market after a breakout season, and given the league-wide need for cover safeties, he's got a good shot at some serious money. Spikes is a one-trick pony, but it's a very good trick: He's an outstanding run-stopper, and he really showed that in 2014. Hughes, however, was an absolute revelation in Jim Schwartz's defense last season, grabbing 9.5 sacks and 61 total pressures. The Bills are extremely interested in bringing back Hughes, who could expand upon his pass-rush prowess in Rex Ryan's system.
Positions in need of improvement: Buffalo's recent signing of Richie Incognito is telling: The Bills need serious help along their offensive line, and if they're desperate enough to bring a player with Incognito's baggage on board, at least they're aware of it. Left tackle Cordy Glenn might have been the best player on the line last season, and he allowed eight sacks. With Kyle Orton retiring, the Bills must figure out if Manuel can be the long-term answer at quarterback. The results so far have been disconcerting. At running back, C.J. Spiller (who may decline a player option and become a free agent as well) and Fred Jackson don't bring the total package. Ryan inherits an outstanding defense, especially with Kiko Alonso returning from his 2014 knee injury, but the offense will need to be built up from scratch, with the exception of the receiver position.
Free agents: QB Matt Moore, RB Knowshon Moreno, RB Daniel Thomas, TE Charles Clay, OT Jason Fox, G Daryn Colledge, C Samson Satele, DT Jared Odrick, LB Kelvin Sheppard, LB Jason Trusnik, S Jimmy Wilson. S Louis Delmas
Free agents of note: Veterans Moreno and Thomas haven't proven to be the answer in the running game, and the Dolphins will likely move on from both of them along with Colledge, who gave up too many sacks. Odrick and Wilson, however, are worth bringing back if the team can swing it—Wilson had an outstanding 2014 season under the radar, and Odrick is a good rotational player. Clay was reasonably productive even while playing through a knee injury.
Positions in need of improvement: Another top-line running back would be a big help, and a bigger receiver who can bring in some of Ryan Tannehill's less accurate deep passes would also be a benefit. The offensive line needs help as well. Rookie Ja'Wuan James was outstanding in the preseason, but he was eaten up by pass-rushers once the season got going, and left tackle Branden Albert isn't sure if he'll be ready for the season opener after tearing two knee ligaments in the middle of last season. The second-half collapse along the front seven indicates it's time to start rebuilding with youth there as well.
New England Patriots
Free agents of note: Vereen is a major part of the Patriots' receiver packages, especially from the slot, and the Patriots will surely try to re-sign him. Connolly was a bright light along an offensive line that was frequently overwhelmed by better defenses, giving up just one sack in 1,071 total snaps while switching between center and left guard. Ayers is a potentially exciting sub-package player who could be brought back relatively inexpensively, but it's McCourty who may be the most valuable name on this list, given the way he's developed as a true free safety.
Positions in need of improvement: Through New England's passing game has morphed into one that relies heavily on short passes and play-action, Tom Brady could use a big vertical threat to open that part of the offense up a bit, and there are several prospective candidates in the draft. Outside of Connolly and rookie Bryan Stork, the offensive line is an issue (left tackle Nate Solder allowed seven sacks last season, which is pretty brutal in a quick-passing offense), and New England will need a Vince Wilfork replacement in time. There's also the matter of Darrelle Revis' one-year option versus a long-term deal—he has a $12 million roster bonus due March 9, and the Pats will want to soften the short-term hit to their books by adding more years to a restructred deal. You know Bill Belichick won't be dumb enough to dump Revis, at least without a solid plan in place.
Which brings us to ...
New York Jets
Free agents: QB Michael Vick, RB Bilal Powell, FB John Conner, OT Ben Ijalana, OG Willie Colon, DT Leger Douzable, NT Kenrick Ellis, OLB Jermaine Cunningham, ILB David Harris, LB Nick Bellore, CB Kyle Wilson, CB Phillip Adams, S Dawan Landry, LS Tanner Purdum
Free agents of note: The Jets will want a capable backup quarterback as they assess Geno Smith's future, but it probably won't be Vick. Powell is a decent back who excels in pass protection. Harris has been a great player, but new head coach Todd Bowles prefers linebackers who can cover. Colon had a pretty good season at right guard and could be a bridge on a short-term deal as the Jets look to reconfigure their front five. Neither Wilson nor Adams have shown enough to be retained.
Positions in need of improvement: After two bad general managers (Mike Tannenbaum/John Idzik), new GM Mike Maccagnan and Bowles have their work cut out for them. Eric Decker's drop-off when he moved from Denver to New Jersey showed just how much improvement the Jets' passing game needs; the offensive line is a problem outside of Nick Mangold and D'Brickashaw Ferguson; the running game is above average in spurts but inconsistent; and while the front seven is pretty impressive, the secondary was an unmitigated disaster in 2014. Unless the new guys can pull off an improbable turnaround, the Jets might be in for a few more rebuilding years.