Free Agency Primer: AFC East
In 2013, the New England Patriots wrapped up the AFC East once again, and they did it rather handily. However, that had less to do with the Pats’ overall excellence than the fact that the rest of the division simply couldn’t catch up.
Will the Bills, Dolphins or Jets find a way to rebound from past failures and present Bill Belichick’s team with a real challenge? Let’s take a closer look at where things stand heading into the offseason.
• Key free agents: TE Scott Chandler, DT Alex Carrington, S Jairus Byrd, S Jim Leonhard, K Dan Carpenter
• Players Buffalo needs back: Carrington, Byrd, Carpenter
Carrington looked to be a big part of the Bills’ defensive line before he suffered a torn left quadriceps tendon last September, and he could be in the future. The real question for this team, of course, is Byrd. The veteran is still one of the NFL’s best range safeties, and the Bills would like to try to avoid having to put the franchise tag on him for the second straight season, as it would raise the one-year price from $6.9 million to $8.29 million. He’s a vital part of a defense that has shown great improvement in some areas in the last couple of years. Carpenter set a team record with four 50-yard field goals and can ease any concerns over that position in the long term.
• Players Buffalo should let walk: Chandler, Leonhard
Chandler used to be an underrated touchdown target, but he regressed last season as he recovered from a torn ACL. Leonhard still has some talent and veteran leadership abilities, but the Bills can do better — the new safety template in the NFL requires more pure physical skill.
• Outlook: Buffalo comes into the 2014 league year with a $118.3 million cap number, and the elephant in the room is Mario Williams’ $18.8 million cap hit. Williams had an excellent season, but his sacks dropped off in the second half of the year and he’s a primary candidate for some sort of restructure. Buffalo’s 6-10 season wasn’t reflective of its top-line talent — now, the front office must give second-year quarterback EJ Manuel the best possible targets so that he can meet the challenge.
• Key free agents: TE Dustin Keller, OT Tyson Clabo, OT Bryant McKinnie, OG Richie Incognito, OG John Jerry, DT Paul Soliai, DT Randy Starks, CB Nolan Carroll, CB Brent Grimes, S Chris Clemons
• Players Miami needs back: Clabo, Jerry, Soliai, Starks, Grimes, Clemons
Clabo and Jerry were bastions of stability on an offensive line that was fairly disastrous both on and off the field. Neither player is a world-beater, but with the high probability the Dolphins will be looking for a new left guard and left tackle in 2014, any port in a storm will do. Soliai has been an underrated player for quite some time, and Starks is one of the NFL’s best at his position. Grimes and Clemons can continue to help in the back four if it’s financially feasible, and Grimes, in particular, is capable of elite performances at times.
• Players Miami should let walk: Keller, McKinnie, Incognito, Carroll
Keller’s horrid knee injury leaves his future in doubt, and with replacement Charles Clay having had a breakout season, it’s probably best to move on unless there’s enough interest on both sides for a reunion. McKinnie was a spackle replacement in the wake of the Jonathan Martin/Richie Incognito fracas, and between age and conditioning issues, there’s a question as to whether he’ll be attractive to any NFL team at this point. Incognito, who has been exonerated in the bullying scandal to a point, would be worth bringing back if he were a top-shelf player, but he’s been a sieve for quite some time — few guards allow more quarterback pressures. Carroll can be replaced fairly easily at this point.
• Outlook: Miami has $106 million in cap taken for 2014, but as we’ve already detailed, there are several needs along the offensive line, and those are generally expensive to fill. The first move will be to do something about Mike Wallace’s preposterous $17.5 cap hit — Wallace was brought in to be Miami’s deep receiver, but caught just six of the 35 targets thrown to him over 20 yards. The Dolphins have a lot to deal with — the bullying scandal didn’t make anyone look good, and the number of general manager candidates brought in to replace Jeff Ireland speaks to further dysfunction.