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Inside the NFL: Pursuers close in on Patriots in AFC East

The gap is narrowing.

Maybe the New England Patriots can still look at the rest of the AFC East through the rearview mirror, but what they’re seeing is a lot closer to them than before they won a fourth Super Bowl last month.

The Buffalo Bills, New York Jets and Miami Dolphins appear to have improved through additions made since the NFL’s free-agent signing/trading period began nearly two weeks ago.

The Patriots seem to have gotten worse. Perhaps not fall-off-the-cliff worse, but a legitimate case can be made that they are less talented than the team that beat the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLIX.

Yes, the Pats still have Tom Brady and he still has Rob Gronkowski, Julian Edelman and Brandon LaFell to catch his passes. Yes, they have reached the Super Bowl five times since 2002, only one fewer than the total number of playoff appearances by the rest of the AFC East in the same span. But their divisional competitors have made the sort of moves that figure to give them sufficient antidotes to Brady’s passing prowess and the genius of coach Bill Belichick.

Start with the Bills. After taking the biggest step toward enhancing their chances of thwarting Brady with the hiring of Rex Ryan, the Bills made sure Brady’s biggest coaching nemesis has all of the ammunition he needs by spending the huge dollars necessary to retain standout pass-rusher Jerry Hughes.

Could they have gotten by with the Pro Bowl defensive line trio of Mario Williams, Marcell Dareus, and Kyle Williams? Yes. But Ryan’s many pressure packages are that much stronger utilizing Hughes’ considerable speed off the edge.

The Bills further helped their Brady-stopping cause by trading for LeSean McCoy and signing free-agent fullback Jerome Felton, who give them the primary ingredients for a ball-controlling offense designed to keep Brady and other opposing quarterbacks on the sidelines as much as possible. The same can be said for the addition of Charles Clay, who gives the Bills a clear blocking upgrade at tight end and a dependable short-area target that helps move the chains – provided, of course, the Bills have a quarterback that can take advantage of him.

If Percy Harvin, another free-agent signing, can show the game-breaking form he has occasionally displayed as a returner and runner (while providing an upgrade in the No. 3 receiver role), the Bills should better be able to counter-punch the Patriots’ offensive explosiveness.

The Jets delivered a huge double hit to New England by signing away cornerback Darrelle Revis, who gets to shut down a Patriots receiver at least twice per season. They added another experienced corner in Buster Skrine, who is capable of making good plays when he isn’t drawing pass-interference penalties, and a strong safety in Marcus Gilchrist.

New coach Todd Bowles brings defensive expertise that should help the Jets continue to make the most from their strong front. He does inherit a shaky offense, however, but there’s a chance for at least slight improvement there with the additions of wide receiver Brandon Marshall – who should create matchup problems for the Patriots’ new cornerback duo – and veteran quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick.

The Dolphins landed as large a Brady buster as any opponent could have when they signed the top prize of free agency, defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, to a six-year contract worth a staggering $114 million, including $60 million guaranteed. He’ll give Miami someone who can generate the considerable interior pressure that tends to do the most to disrupt Brady, while also drawing blockers away from talented ends Cameron Wake and Olivier Vernon.

Miami might very well have gotten an addition by subtraction when it traded away over-priced and under-producing wide receiver Mike Wallace and linebacker Dannell Ellerbe, and cut linebacker Philip Wheeler. The Dolphins do seem to have better fits with the additions they did make to their passing game: tight end Jordan Cameron and wide receiver Kenny Stills, who caught 63 passes for 931 yards with the New Orleans Saints last season.

Beside the loss of Revis, the Patriots also said good-bye to their other starting cornerback in the Super Bowl, Brandon Browner, who brought a physical presence that was particularly useful in helping New England beat Seattle. Those absences alone are enough to raise questions about the Patriots’ ability to remain as dominant a force as they’ve been for a long time.

But the Pats also parted ways with long-time defensive-line anchor Vince Wilfork, lost a good third-down back (Shane Vereen) and a solid linebacker (Jonathan Casillas) to the New York Giants, and a good linebacker (Akeem Ayers) to the St. Louis Rams.

Beyond retaining All-Pro safety Devin McCourty, the Patriots didn’t exactly make the ground shake with the signings of defensive end Jabaal Sheard, linebacker Jonathan Freeny, tight end Scott Chandler, wide receivers Brandon Gibson and Kevin Dorsey, and cornerbacks Chimdi Chekwa, Bradley Fletcher and Robert McClain.

Concussion discussion

Chris Borland’s sudden retirement after only one NFL season is going to show up in a variety of formal, and informal, discussions at the league meeting that begins Monday in Arizona.

It’s already part of a larger media conversation about safety in the league, because Borland, 24, said concerns over the long-term effects of head trauma prompted him to decide to end his career as a linebacker before it ever had a chance to begin with the San Francisco 49ers. During an interview with CBS This Morning, he cited a routine play during training camp last summer that he believes caused him to suffer a concussion that he never reported to the team’s training staff. He said he then began doing research that didn’t lead to many answers about the game’s risks and to ultimately conclude “there were too many tragedies for me to be comfortable playing.”

Among them were the deaths of players such as Hall of Fame linebacker Junior Seau and former standout safety Dave Duerson. Both died of self-inflicted gunshot wounds to the chest so that their brains would be intact for research into the effects of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). In 2013, ABC News/ESPN reported that Seau’s family was told that findings by the National Institutes of Health determined his brain showed abnormalities associated with CTE.

Borland joined an alarmingly long list of players under the age of 30 to recently decide to walk away from the game. The others are 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis (chronic foot pain), Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Jason Worilds (wants to pursue other interests), Tennessee Titans quarterback Jake Locker and Dolphins cornerback Cortland Finnegan.

During a media conference call in advance of the meeting, NFL Competition Committee chairman Rich McKay pointed out that concussions in the league were down 25 percent over the past year and 36 percent since 2012. He also noted that there was almost a 63-percent drop in fines for hits on defenseless players from 2013 to 2014.

McKay never mentioned Borland or other early retirees, but it was clear the NFL wanted to get out the message that safety matters, and that through rules changes, points of emphasis in officiating, and disciplinary action it is making strides to create a safer game.

“It shows players are comporting to the rules they grew up with,” McKay said, explaining that players are entering the league having played under stricter safety rules at the high school and college levels. And the committee is going to recommend additional rules changes related to enhancing safety.

Another area where Borland’s retirement is bound to be discussed is in business sessions at the meeting. As a third-round draft pick, he received $617,436 as a bonus for signing a four-year contract. The 49ers would be within their right to try to recoup $463,077, which represents three-quarters of the money that calculated as an advance on each year of his contract.

At the very least, NFL executives are bound to address how to handle future deals with players, especially those selected in the first few rounds and receiving heftier signing bonuses, in the event they, too, opt for early retirement.

More replay savvy?

A number of proposals to expand the use of instant replay as an officiating tool will be considered by club owners in Arizona.

One, from the Detroit Lions, wants all fouls called by officials to be reviewed. That is unlikely to pass; even Lions General Manager Martin Mayhew admitted as much to the Detroit News.

However, other proposals that call for replay expansion could be adopted and there’s a statistic from last season that indicates replay is being handled with greater efficiency than ever. According to McKay, the average length of games dropped from three hours, seven minutes and 37 seconds in 2013 to 3:05:53 in 2014.

“Give officials a lot of credit for the way instant replay” was used in reducing the time of games, which has long been a major point of emphasis for the league.

Mediocrity rules

Want more explanation of why trades stole the spotlight at the start of the NFL’s business season?

Giants owner John Mara didn’t mince words about the quality of the 453 players who hit the open market on March 10.

“There were obviously some star players out there,” Mara told the New York Post. “But for the most part I thought it was a mediocre free-agent class.”

email: vcarucci@buffnews.com

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