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AFC East offseason review: Leave it to the Patriots to find ways to get even stronger

This is the first of a three-part series examining how the rest of the AFC East fared during the offseason. Today's installment looks at the New England Patriots.

How do they do it? How do the New England Patriots go 14-2, win a fifth Super Bowl, and then attack the offseason with shocking fervor to ensure that they're well positioned to collect even more Lombardi trophies in what is left of the Tom Brady window of opportunity?

Sorry, Bills. Sorry, Dolphins, Sorry, Jets (although your challenges, as we'll explore at the end of this series, go well beyond trying to keep up with the Pats).

The rich didn't just get richer. They managed to achieve unparalleled wealth in a system supposedly designed to promote parity.

Suffice it to say the Patriots, as they've been known to do under Bill Belichick, figured out how to beat the system once again. They entered last March's free-agency period with ample cap space (more than $60 million), which was consistent with their typical conservative approach to building around Brady.

But then they were anything but typical in signing cornerback Stephon Gilmore away from the Bills with a five-year, $65-million contract (with $40 million guaranteed). They also worked trades to give Brady more weapons and to enhance their defensive front.

Here's the breakdown on the Patriots:

Key additions: CB Stephon Gilmore (FA, Buffalo), WR Brandin Cooks (trade, New Orleans), DE Kony Ealy (trade, Carolina), TE Dwayne Allen (trade, Indianapolis) and RB Mike Gillislee (RFA, Buffalo).

Key losses: CB Logan Ryan, RB LeGarrette Blount, TE Martellus Bennett, DL Chris Long and DL Jabaal Sheard.

Better, worse or the same?: Much better!

The Patriots apparently are fully aboard with the idea of Brady, who turns 40 in August, playing into his mid-40s -- and perhaps even longer. They've spent and maneuvered with the idea of keeping the Brady-Belichick dynasty humming along at least for a few more years.

After initially being expected to part ways with Malcolm Butler, the Patriots wound up keeping the standout cornerback they already had on the roster. With the addition of Gilmore, who had five interceptions last season, they now have as strong a corner pairing as any team in the NFL.

Brady has done just fine working mainly short and intermediate routes with ultra-precise-route-running receivers Julian Edelman, Chris Hogan, and Danny Amendola, and taking advantage of constant coverage mismatches with tight end Rob Gronkowski (when he's healthy).

Now, he has a genuinely constant deep threat in Cooks, who caught 78 passes for 1,173 yards and eight touchdowns last season … just in case opposing defensive coordinators needed another reason to go to the aspirin bottle.

Allen should more than adequately replace Bennett and provide another complement to Gronk.

Gillislee became the second former Bills player in as many years to join the Patriots as a restricted free agent. Hogan made a similar jump in 2016 and was the hero of New England's AFC Championship Game victory against Pittsburgh. Gillislee arguably is the best No. 2 running back in the league, and now it is the Bills -- not the Patriots -- that must spend at least two games per year dealing with his explosive running and incredible knack for finding the end zone.

Ealy has underachieved, with only 14 sacks in three seasons with the Panthers. Still, the Patriots think he can help pick up the slack after the free-agent departures of Long and Jabaal Sheard.

Next: Miami Dolphins

More from the AFC East series:

AFC East offseason review: Leave it to the Patriots to find ways to get even stronger

AFC East offseason review: Dolphins take methodical approach to improvement

AFC East offseason review: Jets hoping short-term pain will mean long-term gain

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