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How NFL free agency (and Tom Brady’s exit) have changed the AFC East power rankings

Is 2020 the year the Bills — or someone else — dethrone the Patriots?

Artwork of Bills QB Josh Allen jumping over two Patriots defenders and holding the ball out, superimposed on a black and white background with stars
Josh Allen and the Bills will be trying to leap over the Patriots in the AFC East.

The Bills are going for it. Months after wrapping their most successful season of the millennium, Buffalo has cashed in its assets to build a championship-caliber roster. Head coach Sean McDermott has a stellar defense, a budding offense, and a heady blend of veterans and prospects capable of doing what no team has done since 2008: dethrone the Patriots atop the AFC East.

While it’s entirely too early to bury Bill Belichick, a busy start to the 2020 offseason has set up the most compelling race the division’s seen in more than a decade. New England stands at the precipice of a new era now that Tom Brady signed with the Buccaneers.

The Bills are first in line when it comes to beneficiaries from any Patriots downturn, but they aren’t alone. The Dolphins built off last year’s better-than-expected campaign with a handful of splashy moves. The Jets added talent as well, though whether or not Adam Gase can do anything with it remains to be seen.

So what does the AFC East look like following a burst of free agent activity but before the 2020 NFL Draft? The Patriots get the benefit of the doubt in the division’s top spot — but the teams that were once firmly in their rear view now threaten to pull up alongside them.

1. New England Patriots

Key additions: Beau Allen, Damiere Byrd, Adrian Phillips, Brandon Copeland

Notable losses: Tom Brady, Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins, Danny Shelton, Duron Harmon, Ted Karras, Nate Ebner, Stephen Gostkowski

The Pats are the favorites until proven otherwise, but New England may have just gone from the division’s best quarterback situation to its worst. Brady’s move to Tampa leaves the team’s current QB depth chart in some order of Jarrett Stidham, Cody Kessler, and, once again, Brian Hoyer.

Brady struggled with an underwhelming cast of targets last season. So far, head coach and general manager Bill Belichick has done little to fix that, with Byrd as the only new face. His 32 catches last season with the Cardinals were a career high by a mile.

Whomever takes the reins at quarterback will have to hope 2019 additions N’Keal Harry and Mohamed Sanu improve. With limited spending room thanks to the $13.5 million in dead cap Brady left behind, any major upgrades will likely have to come in the draft — where the Patriots have four of the top 100 picks, but no second-rounder due to last year’s Sanu trade.

Furthermore, several stars from 2019’s top-ranked defense have departed. Van Noy, Collins, and Shelton all rebounded from bad situations elsewhere to become key contributors in Foxborough. Now they’ve cashed in that vested stock for raises, leaving gaps in a sturdy-but-aging defense. Low-recognition signees like Allen, Phillips, and Copeland will try to boost their reputations in these openings, but none are a surefire bet.

Still, the Patriots have most of the parts of a championship defense under contract — like Devin McCourty, Dont’a Hightower, and reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore. Last year proved they could win 12 games (albeit against a relatively soft schedule) with a quarterback who ranked 18th among qualified starters in passer rating. All Belichick may need to win the AFC East for the 13th season in a row is a competent QB — even if the rest of the division is gunning for him harder than ever.

2. Buffalo Bills

Key additions: Stefon Diggs, Mario Addison, Vernon Butler, A.J. Klein, Daryl Williams, Quinton Jefferson, Tyler Matakevich, Josh Norman

Notable losses: Jordan Phillips, Shaq Lawson, Kevin Johnson

The Bills took full advantage of New England’s weakened grasp on the division by acquiring a wide receiver capable of speeding Josh Allen’s development. Diggs wasn’t a cheap addition; Buffalo shipped first-, fourth-, fifth-, and sixth-round picks for the Pro Bowl wideout and a seventh-rounder. But he’s coming off the best season of his career, is 26 years old, and is under contract for the next four seasons as a reasonable average salary of just under $12 million. He fills an immediate need and will assume the essential role of “guy who chases down Allen’s sorta-accurate bombs.”

Buffalo also did a good job filling the roles vacated by its two biggest free agent departures. Phillips had a breakthrough 2019, but his 9.5-sack season — he had 5.5 the previous four years — was likely unsustainable. Rather than pay big to retain him, the Bills will replace his impact with a combination of 2019 first-round pick Ed Oliver and free agent signees Butler and Jefferson.

The same goes for Lawson, whose edge-rushing duties will fall, in part, to veteran addition Addison. Those free agents will bring immediate production to the NFL’s sixth-most efficient defense, per Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric.

Former Carolina tackle Daryl Williams provides the experience necessary to let Cody Ford develop at his own pace at guard, or move inside should Ford be ready to hold down the right tackle spot. A deep well of draft talent should allow the club to pick up another pocket protector despite its lack of a first-round pick as well.

Whether or not the Bills can roll that momentum into a division title may hinge on whether Allen can continue his growth as a quarterback. This is still shaping up to be the best team Buffalo’s had since Jim Kelly was taking snaps.

3. Miami Dolphins

Key additions: Byron Jones, Kyle Van Noy, Shaq Lawson, Emmanuel Ogbah, Ereck Flowers, Ted Karras, Jordan Howard, Kamu Grugier-Hill, Clayton Fejedelem

Notable losses: none, so far

The Dolphins spent 2019 shipping out talent; 2020 has been all about reloading. Miami has handed out more than $233 million in contracts to lure other team’s free agents to Florida, rebuilding a defense that ranked dead last in efficiency last fall (by a large margin!) in the process.

Head coach Brian Flores is following the same blueprint his former employers did in New England by making his secondary the strength of his defense. Jones didn’t come cheaply at five years and $82.5 million, but he’ll team with Xavien Howard to give the Dolphins arguably the league’s top one-two punch at CB. Things aren’t as stable at safety, but signing Van Noy, Lawson, and Ogbah (18.5 sacks, 44 QB hits between them in 2019) will bring added pressure.

Miami’s offense remains a writhing ball of questions, starting at quarterback. Ryan Fitzpatrick rode his typical roller coaster between under- and overachievement last season, but he’ll give way to whichever rookie quarterback the team drafts this spring — whether that’s in Week 1, Week 8, or even in 2021. They’ll have a lineup of young skill players to target as well: DeVante Parker (recently extended in the midst of a 1,200-yard season), Mike Gesicki, Albert Wilson, and Howard are all under contract for 2020.

The Dolphins are still likely a year away from contention, but it’s not difficult to see the improvements they have made. We haven’t even gotten to the draft, where they will have three first-round picks, five of the first 56 selections, and 14 picks total. Miami still has plenty of room to add playmakers and the salary cap space to flip one or more of those picks for veteran help.

4. New York Jets

Key additions: George Fant, Connor McGovern, Greg Van Roten, Patrick Onwuasor, Pierre Desir, Breshad Perriman

Notable losses: Robby Anderson, Brandon Shell, Maurice Canady, Brandon Copeland, Brett Qvale, Tom Compton

Make no mistake: this offseason is all about giving Sam Darnold the tools to make the leap. After focusing on big-name defensive talent last spring, New York has moved its 2020 chess pieces to provide a clean path of attack. Fant, Van Roten, and McGovern will help overhaul a line that allowed the blossoming QB to be sacked 33 times in 13 games last season.

Perriman will be counted on to replace the mercurial Anderson as a deep threat. That will help reinforce the Jets’ existing playmaking infrastructure, which includes Le’Veon Bell (who averaged a career-low 3.2 yards per carry in 2019), Jamison Crowder, and ... huh, I guess that’s about it. That can be addressed with the No. 11 pick in the draft, which is stacked with stellar wideouts.

New York’s current lineup of free agent help are all useful, if unspectacular additions. There’s nothing here that suggests it will be enough to spark a turnaround. The Jets were worse than their 7-9 record would lead you to believe, losing games to then-winless teams in the Dolphins and Bengals in 2019. Head coach Adam Gase has done nothing to earn the team’s trust, especially after his former charges in Miami have often soared after escaping his influence (Parker, Jarvis Landry, Kenyan Drake, and, most of all, Ryan Tannehill).

New York has the talent to make a run. Unfortunately, a good chunk of the Gase experience so far has been creating a product that’s less than the sum of its parts.