Despite all of his talent, Steve Johnson's irreverent attitude may stop the Bills from paying him like an elite wide receiver. (AP)
The Patriots nearly brought home a Super Bowl title to end the 2011 season and are already being tabbed as a favorite to reach the big game again next year. Before that, however, they have a lot of work to do in free agency, more than any other team in this division.
That said, New England's AFC East rivals all have some critical decisions to make in the coming weeks, with names like Stevie Johnson, Paul Soliai and LaDainian Tomlinson in line to join the free-agent ranks.
Here's a look at where the AFC East stands as free agency approaches:
• Key free agents: TE Scott Chandler, LBs Andra Davis/Kirk Morrison, WR Stevie Johnson, WR Roscoe Parrish, OL Chad Rinehart, S Bryan Scott, OL Kraig Urbik (restricted)
• Players Buffalo needs back: Chandler; Rinehart; Urbik
After making one catch over his first three NFL seasons, Chandler emerged with 38 grabs and six touchdowns in 2011. He's not a huge asset in the run game (Pro Football Focus rated him as the third-worst blocking TE in the league), but with tight ends taking on more and more responsibility around the NFL, he could add a huge dimension to Buffalo's passing game.
Rinehart and Urbik are both restricted free agents, and Buffalo sounds as if it will tender both players. That's smart, since the pair combined for 25 starts on the offensive line and played well.
• Players Buffalo should let walk: Davis/Morrison, Johnson, Parrish
The Bills went out on a limb with both Davis and Morrison, in the hope that one of the two would be able to lock down a starting linebacker gig. Neither panned out -- that duo combined for all of 21 tackles last season.
Parrish has fallen off the map, but Johnson represents a predicament for Buffalo. Johnson has said he wants to come back to the Bills, but is he worth No. 1 receiver money? A franchise tag would cost Buffalo $9.4 million. If that's what it takes, Buffalo should consider looking elsewhere. For all his catches (158 over the past two seasons), Johnson can be immature and a distraction.
• Outlook: Buffalo does not have to do any major overhauling this offseason, unless it so chooses. The most pressing matter comes in the form of Johnson, who's a key cog in the Bills' passing attack. The Bills cannot afford to handcuff themselves by overpaying him.
• Key free agents: DB Will Allen, OL Vernon Carey, OT Marc Colombo, QB Chad Henne, DE Kendall Langford, DT Paul Soliai
• Players Miami needs back: Carey; Langford
The list of players Miami needs back originally read "none," before reconsideration. The reasoning behind that gut reaction is that there isn't a name on that list of key free agents that played particularly well in 2011, nor is there anyone who would gut the Dolphins by leaving. Soliai's closest, but we'll get to him in a minute.
If the 30-year-old Carey, who's started 107 games for Miami since 2004, wants to be paid like a guaranteed starter, then the Dolphins should let him go. If he can be convinced that he's more of a role player on the line, then he'd be a versatile asset to have back. The same goes for Langford, who might be better off if new coach Joe Philbin employs a 4-3 instead of the 3-4 on defense.
• Players Miami should let walk: Allen; Colombo; Henne; Soliai
Let's start with Soliai, who's coming off a Pro Bowl season. His accomplishment actually happens to be the problem for the Dolphins, who simply cannot afford to pay Soliai what he'll command on the open market. If Philbin swaps to a 4-3, as mentioned above, it could minimize the impact of losing Soliai in the middle.
As for the other three on this list, it's just time to move on from Miami. Allen is on the downside of his career, Henne never panned out and Colombo flat-out stunk in 2011.
• Outlook: Philbin will have to decide how many of the incumbent players fit his schemes, which could lead to more shake-ups on the roster. From a free agency standpoint, Miami is in solid shape, with a little money to spend, even if Soliai's presence will be missed.
New England Patriots
• Key free agents: DE Mark Anderson, WR Deion Branch, DE Andre Carter, C Dan Connolly, RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis, LB Gary Guyton, QB Brian Hoyer, S James Ihedigbo, DT Kyle Love (exclusive rights), DB Antwaun Molden, WR Matthew Slater, DT Gerard Warren, WR Wes Welker
• Players New England needs back: Anderson; Connolly; Love; Slater; Welker
Anderson recorded 10 sacks, and at 28 years old, might be entering his prime. If this is a pick-one proposition between he and Carter (32, coming off a season-ending injury), the Pats must choose Anderson. New England has a similar situation with Connolly, who stepped up and started 13 games after Dan Koppen fell to injury -- pick the younger, healthier option.
Love developed well over the season, his second in the league and first as a full-time starter. Slater, meanwhile, claimed a Pro Bowl bid as a special-teams player and is versatile enough to suit up at receiver or in the secondary.
And then there's Welker. Despite his Super Bowl drop, he's one of the best receivers in the league and a perfect fit for this offense. The Patriots cannot and will not allow him to leave.
• Players New England should let walk: Branch; Carter; Green-Ellis; Guyton; Warren
You probably could add a couple more names to this list -- looking your way, James Ihedigbo and Antwaun Molden -- but New England may opt to keep at least the former.
Branch, Carter and Warren all have the same problem: Age. Of that group, Branch is the most intriguing case, but we all saw how badly New England needs to upgrade its receiving corps with a tall, deep-threat wide receiver. Branch is neither of those at this point.
• Outlook: Their returning talent and financial flexibility (New England's projected to be $20 million or more under the cap) makes it easy to favor the Pats for a return Super Bowl trip. They have a lot of work to do this offseason, though, starting with a lengthy list of in-house free agents.
New York Jets
• Key free agents: WR Plaxico Burress, K Nick Folk, S Jim Leonhard, S Brodney Pool, DT Sione Pouha, RB LaDainian Tomlinson
• Players New York needs back: Leonhard, Pouha
Leonhard suffered a major knee injury late in the season, so the Jets will have to make sure he's healthy. Assuming he can get back at some point in 2012, he would remain valuable for New York.
Pouha should be the top priority by a large margin. He's the space-eating cog in the middle of the Jets' 3-4 defensive front. It would be nearly impossible for the Jets to find an adequate nose tackle replacement if Pouha left.
• Players New York should let walk: Burress, Pool, Tomlinson
Burress' return to the NFL could have gone a lot worse -- eight touchdowns and 45 catches last season. Still, he'll be 35 before the 2012 season begins, and the Jets could spend his money elsewhere. There's also minimal reason to bring Tomlinson back. After a strong 2010 he stumbled mightily in 2011 and looks closer to retirement than a big free-agent deal.
Pool might be an option for the Jets if Leonhard isn't one, but the Jets would be just as wise to check out the free-agent safety market before giving the up-and-down Pool another deal.
If the Jets can get Pouha back under contract, everything else is gravy. Unlike the thrifty Patriots, New York's monetary situation is far from rosy -- the Jets are projected to be right up against the 2012 salary cap. That's why it doesn't make a lot of sense to shell out dough for guys like Burress or Tomlinson when smarter options are available.