2012 was a strange year in the AFC East. It was a lot like the past few years, in that the Patriots were the class of the division, and everyone else was struggling to keep up. However, there's talent from the other three teams on the rise.
The Dolphins appear to have their franchise quarterback in place. Ryan Tannehill experienced the standard roller coaster ride of a rookie season, but he proved himself capable of holding down the position even without any help at receiver. The Bills cleared out the coaching staff and will head into 2013 with a new head coach and coordinators. There are at least signs of hope for both franchises.
Then you have the Jets. Rex Ryan is sticking around for another season, but he still doesn't possess a quarterback capable of fostering a winning atmosphere on his roster. Mark Sanchez is not the answer, while Tim Tebow appears to be more of a diversion from the actual game, as the media is relentless in their coverage of his situation.
Tom Brady and Bill Belichick should be in line for another double-digit win season in 2013. The remainder of the AFC East needs work, some more than others. As we sit just a few weeks away from free agency, let's break down what needs to happen for each team to experience a perfect offseason.
Despite the constant success the Patriots experience, they haven't won a Super Bowl since 2004. The pieces on offense are in place to make another run. Tom Brady is the same Tom Brady. Stevan Ridley proved to be a reliable workhorse in the backfield. Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez are two of the best in the business if they can stay healthy.
Wide receiver will need some attention soon. Wes Welker is set to become a free agent. Using a franchise tag on him would cost a lot of cap space, and we know Welker hasn't been pleased with contract talks over the last year. Julian Edelman, Deion Branch and Donte Stallworth are all free agents as well.
The Patriots have plenty of questions at wide receiver and as Jeremy Gottlieb of Pats Pulpit wrote, nothing is ever predictable with New England.
Regardless of what decisions get made, this is probably the most fascinating aspect of the Pats' off-season. Welker may be one of the most important, valuable players in franchise history, but if the past 12 years of following this team have taught us anything, it's that this is a business first and foremost and sometimes, loyalty, sentimentality and past greatness hardly matter.
Right tackle Sebastian Vollmer is also looking for a new contract, and he'll demand a high price. He's another one in the running for a tag.
Cornerback is a serious issue for the Patriots. Aqib Talib and Kyle Arrington are free agents. It looks like there will be several veteran corners on the market once March 12 rolls around. Brent Grimes and Chris Gamble are two possible candidates from the NFC South. The position is thin for New England.
The No. 29 overall pick is all over the map in mock drafts. Some believe the Patriots should address safety or corner, while others think drafting a guard would help shore up the interior offensive line.
Perfection: Re-sign Vollmer and Welker, sign a top corner in free agency and address receiver or corner with first pick.
Fixing the aforementioned receiving issue for the Dolphins is clearly the most important task that lies ahead. Brian Hartline will be an unrestricted free agent, and even if Miami does re-sign him, he isn't a No. 1 wideout. Hartline would make a solid second option with a star playing opposite him.
Greg Jennings continues to be linked to South Beach. He would instantly improve the receiving depth chart, but is he the best option? A 29-year-old who dealt with injury issues over the last two seasons may not be as attractive as Mike Wallace or Dwayne Bowe, both potential free agents as well. Jennings might be the cheapest.
Left tackle Jake Long and corner Sean Smith are up for free agency as well, likely the two biggest decisions for the Dolphins to make. Both want huge contracts, and both are top candidates for a franchise tag.
Smith is an especially interesting franchise tag candidate because as Kevin Nogle of The Phinsider wrote, Smith has flashed the ability to be one of the best in the NFL, but lacks consistency.
Smith would make sense, as the Dolphins are hurting at cornerback already, and losing Smith would make the need even worse. The team chose Smith over Vontae Davis last year, and now losing Smith would only compound the inability to cover wide receivers the team already has. Smith is inconsistent at best, being able to shut down some of the game's best wide outs one week, only to get torched repeatedly the next week. It is hard to see him as a "franchise" player, but the team could hit him with the tag, then try to negotiate a deal with a lower salary cap number.
Switching to a 4-3 set Miami's defense back a bit in 2012. The transition is still a work in progress. Cameron Wake is always impressive, but he needs help in getting after the passer. Drafting one of the top-tier defensive ends at No. 12 overall could push Jared Odrick inside and help take some of the pressure of Wake.
The Dolphins also ranked 27th against the pass. They need another playmaker in the secondary. If Smith leaves, this obviously becomes a major concern. Cornerback could be relatively deep in free agency, so Miami needs to be on the hunt for help.
Perfection: Sign Wallace, re-sign Smith and draft a defensive end like Ezekiel Ansah in Round 1.
It's hard to believe just how far off the rails the Jets' 2012 season went. Between a horrible quarterback controversy and the loss of Darrelle Revis to a torn ACL, the season was basically doomed from the start.
First and foremost, the Jets need to clear up their quarterback situation. Mark Sanchez has regressed badly, and the only thing Tim Tebow is doing is creating a massive distraction for the team. The choice to trade for Tebow last year was hard to explain, and after all that's gone on, he's impossible to trade to another team. They need to either commit to one of the quarterbacks on their roster, or cut bait with all of them and start over.
Finding a quarterback is often easier said than done. Nick Foles could be one candidate, but as Gang Green Nation discussed, the price pays a big role in whether Foles is a potential fit with the Jets.
Elsewhere on offense, the Jets could really use another playmaker at wide receiver. They drafted the fleet-footed Stephen Hill last year, but he didn't make a huge impact, probably in part because of the quarterbacking issues. If the offense had another player that defenses needed to key in on, it would open things up for everyone else. They will also probably need to replace free agents Dustin Keller and Shonn Greene. Neither were great fits for new offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg's West Coast scheme, but it's two new holes that need to be filled.
On defense, the Jets are in a transition period. They're reportedly planning on cutting some aging players like Bart Scott and Calvin Pace, but the situation is more of a remodel than a complete demolition. The return of a healthy Revis would be helpful, but he is reportedly on the trade block and demanding a big new contract.
Perfection: Find some clarity at quarterback, find another wide receiver and draft a young playmaker on defense.
The Bills entered the 2012 season with raised expectations, but true to form, they underachieved and finished 6-10. Ryan Fitzpatrick was inconsistent, and the defense was incredibly disappointing. In the end, Chan Gailey took the fall, but a lot of the issues with this team remain.
Fitzpatrick is not the quarterback that will get the BIlls back to the playoffs. However, the 2013 draft class does not seem to have the kind of quarterback a team confidently stakes their future to. There has been a lot of chatter that they are targeting Ryan Nassib, due to his connection with new head coach Doug Marrone, but he would be a reach at the eighth overall pick. The team also has needs at linebacker, so it's hard to peg where they'll go in the first round.
Elsewhere on offense, Buffalo needs another wide receiver to complement Stevie Johnson. Beyond Johnson and running back C.J. Spiller, there simply aren't a lot of options that defenses need to respect. The team could make a play for a big name free agent like Dwayne Bowe.
The biggest potential loss is free agent guard Andy Levitre, who has become arguably the team's best offensive lineman. Losing Levitre would create a huge hole in a line that's been developing into one a quality unit over the past few seasons, and would set the team back farther than they can afford.
Defensively, the Bills desperately need to re-sign free safety Jairus Byrd. Byrd has established himself as one of the top safeties in the NFL, and it would be a huge blow if the team let him walk. They also have a need a cornerback following the release of veteran Terrance McGee. The most glaring weakness on the roster is at linebacker, which got even thinner following the release of Nick Barnett. The Bills probably had the worst linebacking corps in the NFL last season, so they could address that position early in the draft.
While the Bills would ideally be able to sign both Levitre and Byrd, that may not be possible. Brian Galliford of Buffalo Rumblings debated which player should receive the franchise tag if the Bills are unable to sign both.
Perfection: Re-sign Byrd and Levitre, draft either a quarterback or linebacker in the first round and sign a free agent wide receiver.