In 2013, the New England Patriots wrapped up the AFC East once again, and they did it rather handily. However, that had less to do with the Pats' overall excellence than the fact that the rest of the division simply couldn't catch up.
Will the Bills, Dolphins or Jets find a way to rebound from past failures and present Bill Belichick's team with a real challenge? Let's take a closer look at where things stand heading into the offseason.
• Key free agents: TE Scott Chandler, DT Alex Carrington, S Jairus Byrd, S Jim Leonhard, K Dan Carpenter
• Players Buffalo needs back: Carrington, Byrd, Carpenter
Carrington looked to be a big part of the Bills' defensive line before he suffered a torn left quadriceps tendon last September, and he could be in the future. The real question for this team, of course, is Byrd. The veteran is still one of the NFL's best range safeties, and the Bills would like to try to avoid having to put the franchise tag on him for the second straight season, as it would raise the one-year price from $6.9 million to $8.29 million. He's a vital part of a defense that has shown great improvement in some areas in the last couple of years. Carpenter set a team record with four 50-yard field goals and can ease any concerns over that position in the long term.
• Players Buffalo should let walk: Chandler, Leonhard
Chandler used to be an underrated touchdown target, but he regressed last season as he recovered from a torn ACL. Leonhard still has some talent and veteran leadership abilities, but the Bills can do better -- the new safety template in the NFL requires more pure physical skill.
• Outlook: Buffalo comes into the 2014 league year with a $118.3 million cap number, and the elephant in the room is Mario Williams' $18.8 million cap hit. Williams had an excellent season, but his sacks dropped off in the second half of the year and he's a primary candidate for some sort of restructure. Buffalo's 6-10 season wasn't reflective of its top-line talent -- now, the front office must give second-year quarterback EJ Manuel the best possible targets so that he can meet the challenge.
BURKE: Potential salary cap casualties
• Key free agents: TE Dustin Keller, OT Tyson Clabo, OT Bryant McKinnie, OG Richie Incognito, OG John Jerry, DT Paul Soliai, DT Randy Starks, CB Nolan Carroll, CB Brent Grimes, S Chris Clemons
• Players Miami needs back: Clabo, Jerry, Soliai, Starks, Grimes, Clemons
Clabo and Jerry were bastions of stability on an offensive line that was fairly disastrous both on and off the field. Neither player is a world-beater, but with the high probability the Dolphins will be looking for a new left guard and left tackle in 2014, any port in a storm will do. Soliai has been an underrated player for quite some time, and Starks is one of the NFL's best at his position. Grimes and Clemons can continue to help in the back four if it's financially feasible, and Grimes, in particular, is capable of elite performances at times.
• Players Miami should let walk: Keller, McKinnie, Incognito, Carroll
Keller's horrid knee injury leaves his future in doubt, and with replacement Charles Clay having had a breakout season, it's probably best to move on unless there's enough interest on both sides for a reunion. McKinnie was a spackle replacement in the wake of the Jonathan Martin/Richie Incognito fracas, and between age and conditioning issues, there's a question as to whether he'll be attractive to any NFL team at this point. Incognito, who has been exonerated in the bullying scandal to a point, would be worth bringing back if he were a top-shelf player, but he's been a sieve for quite some time -- few guards allow more quarterback pressures. Carroll can be replaced fairly easily at this point.
• Outlook: Miami has $106 million in cap taken for 2014, but as we've already detailed, there are several needs along the offensive line, and those are generally expensive to fill. The first move will be to do something about Mike Wallace's preposterous $17.5 cap hit -- Wallace was brought in to be Miami's deep receiver, but caught just six of the 35 targets thrown to him over 20 yards. The Dolphins have a lot to deal with -- the bullying scandal didn't make anyone look good, and the number of general manager candidates brought in to replace Jeff Ireland speaks to further dysfunction.
New England Patriots
• Key free agents: RB LeGarrette Blount, WR Austin Collie, WR Julian Edelman, TE Michael Hoomanawanui, TE D.J. Williams, DE Andre Carter, LB Dane Fletcher, LB Brandon Spikes, CB Aqib Talib
• Players New England needs back: Blount, Edelman, Fletcher, Spikes, Talib
Blount was one of the NFL's most pleasant surprises in 2013, and one of the best examples of the player who thrives in Foxboro after iffy stops elsewhere. Given Bill Belichick's frequent praise, Blount should be considered to be a virtual lock to return as long as the price is right. Edelman had his best season for a Patriots offense dearly lacking in targets for all sorts of reasons. With better players around him, Edelman is a compelling slot target with enough speed to move outside in certain packages. Fletcher proved to be valuable as a depth player after missing the 2012 season. Spikes should be a centerpiece of New England's defense over the next few seasons. Talib is a more complicated question. He will unquestionably want elite cornerback money, and deserves it when healthy, but a hip injury limited his effectiveness down the stretch.
• Players New England should let walk: Collie, Hoomanawanui, Williams, Carter
Collie is a decent possession guy, but nothing about his skill set suggests he couldn't be replaced with a younger player or draft pick. Hoomanawanui did his best as a primary replacement for Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski, but he struggles to gain separation in coverage and he's not really the kind of tight end this offense is ideally built around. Neither Williams nor Carter did much to impress in limited time.
• Outlook: The Pats will be butting up against the 2014 cap with a current $123.8 million number, and that's a problem for a team in clear need of offensive playmakers. The three primary cap numbers belong to Tom Brady ($14.8 million), Vince Wilfork ($11.5 million) and Logan Mankins ($10.6 million), so there really isn't an obvious restructure guy. However, it would seem that Wilfork, who lost 12 games to a torn Achilles tendon last season, could be in line for a new contract that would ease his cap concerns -- ditto for Mankins, who had a fine season in 2013.
New York Jets
• Key free agents: WR Josh Cribbs, TE Jeff Cumberland, TE Kellen Winslow, OT Austin Howard, OG Vlad Ducasse, DT Leger Douzable, DE/LB Calvin Pace, S Ed Reed, K Nick Folk
• Players New York needs back: Cumberland, Howard, Cribbs, Douzable, Pace, Reed, Folk
That Cumberland led the Jets with four touchdown catches is just as much an indictment of the weapons the team has on offense, but there's no question he's a valuable player, and someone the Jets should focus on re-signing. Cumberland also averaged 15.6 yards per catch, which is sufficiently impressive. Howard is a quality run-blocker who's still getting the hang of pass protection. Cribbs could be a valuable reserve receiver and return man. Douzable is a good backup on a defensive line that is currently the Jets' best asset. Pace was re-structured last season and really brought it in a situational role, amassing a career-high 10 sacks. Reed is just about done -- he may have one season left with the Jets as a Rex Ryan favorite, but don't expect too much.
• Players New York should let walk: Winslow, Ducasse
Between his lack of consistent productivity and off-field headaches, Winslow is a player the Jets are unlikely to risk any further time with. Ducasse never really lived up to the promise of his second-round pick in 2010, and will likely be allowed to bail.
Second-year general manager John Idzik has a lot to do, but the good news is the longtime salary cap maven has some room with which to work. The Jets come into the new season with $110.2 million taken in cap room, and one very obvious chip to remove -- quarterback Mark Sanchez
has a $13.1 million cap number for 2014, and he'll almost certainly be cut before he's due a $2 million roster bonus in March. Freed from the constraints of the most ridiculous of former GM Mike Tannenbaum's contract decisions, the Jets can move on to their more obvious issues -- a receiver corps that won't scare anyone, an offensive line in need of assistance, and a defensive back seven with holes still to fill.