In two weeks, the AFC East has certainly changed. But how much? Has it shifted the balance of powers at all? The New England Patriots have reigned supreme since Mo Lewis knocked out Drew Bledsoe in 2001 and, again, made a couple of shrewd decisions.
Here are the Top 10 moves the first two weeks of free agency, in order of potential impact.
10. Isa Abdul-Quddus signs with Miami. A smart signing by the Dolphins at three years, $12.75 million. Abdul-Quddus graded out as Pro Football Focus’ No. 1 safety from Week 10 to Week 17 last year in Detroit. He should form a solid duo at safety with Reshad Jones. Considering Rob Gronkowski, Julian Edelman, Martellus Bennett, Brandon Marshall, Eric Decker, Sammy Watkins and Charles Clay all reside in the division, Miami needs the help.
9. Bills shed salaries. Doug Whaley and Jim Overdorf had no choice but to cut loose several players (Mario Williams, Leodis McKelvin, Kraig Urbik, Boobie Dixon), in addition to letting Nigel Bradham walk. In a tough situation, they probably made the right calls, too. Williams checked out. Ronald Darby replaced McKelvin at cornerback. “Boobie D” might’ve had the best personality on the team, and one heck of a back story that dates back to a homeless shelter, but averaged 2.1 yards per carry last year.
8. Dolphins trade for CB Byron Maxwell, LB Kiko Alonso. Yeah, this was a strange one. Even after restructuring his deal, Maxwell will make $17 million in salary with $13.5 million guaranteed the next two seasons. The ex-Seahawk was mostly a disaster last year in Philadelphia and Alonso wasn’t much better. Now, both will try to get their turn their careers around ... all at the cost of Miami moving from No. 8 overall in the draft to No. 13. That could be a major difference in talent.
7. Jets tag DE Muhammad Wilkerson ... but lose DT Damon Harrison to the New York Giants. New York was able to keep Wilkerson at the price of $15.7 million this season, but lost its unsung plug front in Harrison. The 6-foot-4, 350-pound boulder had 72 tackles (39 solo) last season, making life easier for those around him. He’s a costly two-down player at $24 million guaranteed, but leaves a void behind him. Harrison was PFF’s No. 2-rated run-stopping defensive tackle and a (literal) huge reason the Jets finished No. 2 against the run as a team.
6. Patriots trade DE Chandler Jones. Bill Belichick and the Patriots decided they’d rather work toward locking up cornerback Malcolm Butler, linebacker Jamie Collins and linebacker Dont’a Hightower long term rather than Jones, so they took compensation for Jones while they could. These are the forward-thinking decisions the perennial winners make – decide who your core players are before it’s too late. So Jones is off to Arizona for guard Jonathan Cooper and a second-round pick. Maybe Cooper can turn his career around under O-Line coach Dante Scarnecchia. Yes, Jones had 12.5 sacks last season but there shouldn’t be a steep drop-off to veteran pick-up Chris Long.
5. Matt Forte signs, Bilal Powell re-signs in new-look Jets backfield. Two smart, decisive moves here. After losing Chris Ivory to the Jacksonville Jaguars – and wisely not topping the Jags’ five-year, $32 million deal – the Jets added the veteran Forte and re-signed Powell. There’s an element of risk in that Forte has 2,500-plus touches on the odometer, but he didn’t show signs of slowing down too much in 2015, still effective with 99 total yards per game. Meanwhile, Powell (4.5 avg. last season) remains a nifty change of pace.
4. Ex-Bill Mario Williams signs with the Dolphins. Hey, maybe he’ll recapture his old form. Back at defensive end, back to exclusively rushing the passer – with Ndamukong Suh demanding attention inside – Williams could be a double-digit sack threat again. Miami is willing to find out at two years, $17 million. But very rarely do players at this point of their career suddenly turn it on and dominate when their effort is called into question to this degree. One teammate said Williams “totally checked out” in 2015. The Dolphins’ defensive line, once a strength with Olivier Vernon and Cameron Wake, could prove to be one massive, underachieving money pit.
3. Cordy Glenn gets the franchise tag, Richie Incognito is re-signed. Take a moment to picture the Bills’ offensive line if they were unable to re-sign these two. Not pretty. The Bills absolutely needed to lock up both Glenn and Incognito. This offense hasn’t gotten a lot right over the last 16 years but sure as heck had a good thing in 2015 running behind these two. Glenn is a source of reliability, playing on in 2014 after having a kidney removed. Again, the Bills will try to run the ball 30-plus times a game in 2016. Facing the cutthroat run defenses of the NFC West and AFC North, two maulers are a must. And inside the locker room, Incognito’s voice is valued.
2. Jets play hardball with Ryan Fitzpatrick. So ... who’ll play quarterback for the Jets? As of press date, that remained an unknown. Fitzpatrick, 33, reportedly wants more than the Jets are willing to pay. And while the Jets surely don’t want to pay Brock Osweiler-like money to someone they view as a bridge to a younger quarterback, they’re also a legitimate contender in 2016 with Fitz and not so much without Fitz. Despite those absolute clunkers against the Bills, Fitzpatrick finished with 3,905 yards, 31 touchdowns, 15 interceptions and an 88.0 passer rating. In this QB-starved NFL, someone will pay him. And no doubt, the rest of the AFC East is waiting to see what GM Mike Maccagnan does at the position.
1. The rich get richer in New England. The price may seem high for Chris Hogan (three years, $12 million), but here’s thinking Hogan and the Patriots are a perfect fit. Four-time Super Bowl winner Tom Brady loves receivers who excel on option routes, who view the game through the same lens. And Hogan, who plays inside and outside, should bring such a football IQ. Save your “workmanlike” and “blue collar” and “possession receiver” cliches, too. Hogan ran a 4.47 and bench-pressed 225 pounds 28 times back at his pro day, a combination you rarely ever see. He’ll bring toughness. The last few weeks of the season, Hogan played through torn ligaments in his wrist. And, of course, the following week the Patriots traded for dynamic tight end Martellus Bennett. Just like that, New England has the most loaded arsenal in the NFL. It’ll be tough for any team in this division to catch them.