The Buffalo Bills won the AFC East last season with a 13-3 regular-season record, and they beat the Colts and Ravens in the NFL Playoffs before ultimately falling to the Chiefs in the AFC Championship. The Miami Dolphins were in second place with a 10-6 regular-season record, representing a changing guard for this division as the Patriots finished just 7-9. The New York Jets rounded out the division at 2-14 and will pick #2 overall in the upcoming draft.
Current Cap Space: -$322 k (as of 2/16)
Top Free Agents: OT Daryl Williams, LB Matt Milano, OG Jon Feliciano, CB Levi Wallace, DE Trent Murphy, CB Josh Norman, OG Ike Boettger
Biggest Team Needs: IOL, CB, LB, RB, EDGE, TE, OT
2021 Draft Picks: #30 (R1), #61 (R2), #94 (R3), #145 (R5), #189 (R6), #200 (R7)
Analysis: The Bills have some big decisions to make in the coming weeks, with 3/5 offensive line starters set to be free agents. Daryl Williams has turned into one of the more reliable players at right tackle in the NFL, so he’ll be a top priority to bring back. Jon Feliciano and Ike Boettger may become cap casualties, though, which would leave the Bills in desperate need of interior offensive line help in the draft. Buffalo’s run game was not a strength this past season, and it will be critical to find a way to keep their offensive line intact in order to find a way to improve that in 2021. Devin Singletary and Zack Moss are solid enough players to get the job done, but a boost in rushing production needs to be keyed by improvement in run-blocking.
Levi Wallace is a major free agent on defense after a strong season in coverage opposite Tre’Davious White. Matt Milano and Trent Murphy are important parts of the team’s front seven. Linebacker was already set to be a top need for the team in this draft, but if Milano departs in free agency, it will easily become their most significant need. PFF projected Milano’s contract at 4 years, $45 million, which would require some maneuvering for the Bills to be able to afford. Luckily for Buffalo, they do have the ability to release defensive linemen Quinton Jefferson and Vernon Butler for a combined $13.3 million in cap savings.
On the offensive side of the ball, most things are set in place with Josh Allen and a talented group of receivers headlined by Stefon Diggs. John Brown, Gabriel Davis, and Cole Beasley fill out one of the most talented receiving corps in the NFL. The Bills do have some extenuating needs in the run game and on defense, but it would take some creative cap maneuvering to be able to do more than bring back their own free agents. This offseason will be defined by Buffalo’s ability to navigate the cap while retooling their offensive line and front seven, mostly by bringing back their own players. Daryl Wiliams and Matt Milano are the team’s biggest priorities, and they likely won’t be able to resign all of their impending free agents.
1st-Round Pick Targets: IOL Alijah Vera-Tucker, IOL Wyatt Davis, LB Zaven Collins, EDGE Azeez Ojulari
Free Agency Targets: OT Russell Okung, EDGE Haason Reddick, LB K.J. Wright
Current Cap Space: $26.1 million (as of 2/16)
Top Free Agents: QB Ryan Fitzpatrick, RB Matt Breida, LB Kamu Grugier-Hill, C Ted Karras, P Matt Haack, LB Elandon Roberts
Biggest Team Needs: WR, RB, LB, OT, IOL, EDGE, IDL, S
2021 Draft Picks: #3 (R1), #18 (R1), #36 (R2), #50 (R2), #82 (R3), #114 (R4), #183 (R6)
Analysis: The Dolphins are going to be one of the most fun teams to follow this offseason. The team sounds confident it has found its franchise quarterback in Tua Tagovailoa, and they certainly found their franchise head coach in Brian Flores. The Miami defense was excellent last season in propelling the team to a 10-6 record, and Elandon Roberts is the only quasi-starter to be a free agent. Offensively, the Dolphins have some work to do. While Myles Gaskin and Salvon Ahmed showed flashes last season, Miami has to find a rusher capable of pushing for 1,000+ yards to maximize Tagovailoa’s rushing capabilities. The receiving corps of DeVante Parker, Preston Williams, and Mike Gesicki can be a bit bland at times, and Miami is in a tremendous position to add a dominant wideout to that group.
At #3 overall, both Ja’Marr Chase and Devonta Smith should be available, while reuniting the latter with his former Alabama teammate in Tagovailoa is an attractive option. Miami also can trade down from this pick as there are sure to be QB-needy teams desperate to trade up for Justin Fields or Zach Wilson. With two first-round picks and two second-round picks, the Dolphins have the highest-value draft capital in football. The Dolphins also have the enviable position of the 9th-most cap space in the NFL. They can make a play at one of the top safeties in Justin Simmons, Anthony Harris, Marcus Williams, or John Johnson III to provide an upgrade in their secondary. They can also bring in one of Chris Godwin, Allen Robinson, Kenny Golladay, Will Fuller, or Corey Davis to add some juice to the passing game. There are reportedly multiple free-agent receivers interested in playing for this team, and that should come as no surprise – T.Y. Hilton and Marvin Jones have already been linked.
Armed with a boatload of cap space, a dynamic pairing of a young QB and a young head coach, and a top-tier market in football, the Dolphins will undoubtedly be major players in free agency and a thorn in the side of teams attempting to bring back their own players.
1st-Round Pick Targets: WR Devonta Smith, WR Ja’Marr Chase, OT Penei Sewell, DE Gregory Rousseau, LB Micah Parsons
Top Free Agent Targets: WR Allen Robinson, WR Will Fuller V, WR Chris Godwin, WR Kenny Golladay, S Justin Simmons, S Anthony Harris, RB Chris Carson
New England Patriots
Current Cap Space: $62.7 million (as of 2/16)
Top Free Agents: OG Joe Thuney, CB Jason McCourty, RB James White, DT Lawrence Guy, DT Adam Butler, C David Andrews, RB Rex Burkhead, DE John Simon, QB Cam Newton, WR Damiere Byrd, DE Deatrich Wise Jr., CB J.C. Jackson
Biggest Team Needs: QB, WR, IDL, LB, OG, S, OT, RB
2021 Draft Picks: #15 (R1), #47 (R2), #110 (R4), comp. (R4), comp. (R4), #142 (R5), #171 (R6), #173 (R6), #205 (R7)
Analysis: For the first time in what feels like forever, it’s time for a full-scale tear-down and rebuilding process for New England. Armed with over $60 million in cap space, the fourth-most in the NFL, Bill Belichick has a lot of options for how to reshape this roster. The biggest question for this team moving forward will be at the quarterback position as Cam Newton becomes a free agent. The franchise has shown little faith in Jarrett Stidham, and I would be shocked if they didn’t bring in another passer through the draft or free agency (or both). Ryan Fitzpatrick stands out as a likely free-agent signing at quarterback.
Wide receiver is also a massive need with Julian Edelman’s best days behind him and a lack of explosiveness across the board in this offense. Bill Belichick doesn’t strike me as the type to go out and offer a big-name free agent a huge contract, but that might be the best path forward with so much talent at receiver up-for-grabs. On the offensive line, David Andrews and Joe Thuney’s potential departures could leave the interior a little light, but I’d expect both players to be top resigning priorities. The return of right tackle Marcus Cannon will likely push Michael Onwenu back inside, though, so Thuney may be out the door. Damien Harris will likely become the team’s full-time running back this season after some impressive play last year, and White and Burkhead are likely expendable.
Dont’a Hightower and Patrick Chung, two defensive starters, are expected to return after opting out of the 2020 season as well. After losing Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins before last season, Hightower’s return will be massive for this front seven. Chase Winovich could use some help in the pass-rushing department, and the defensive line needs some retooling with several players set to become free agents. Bill Belichick needs to come up with a big response to Tom Brady’s title, and he’ll certainly be motivated to do so. The Patriots have plenty of assets to help this team bounce back from a down year.
1st-Round Pick Targets: QB Mac Wilson, DE Kwity Paye, WR Rashod Bateman, WR Rondale Moore
Top Free Agent Targets: QB Ryan Fitzpatrick, WR Curtis Samuel, EDGE Jadaveon Clowney, WR T.Y. Hilton
New York Jets
Current Cap Space: $68.7 million (as of 2/16)
Top Free Agents: RB Frank Gore, WR Breshad Perriman, EDGE Jordan Jenkins, CB Brian Poole, S Marcus Maye, S Bradley McDougald
Biggest Team Needs: QB, WR, CB, EDGE, RB, TE, LB
2021 Draft Picks: #2 (R1), #23 (R1), #34 (R2), #66 (R3), #86 (R3), #97 (R4), #129 (R5), #137 (R5), #161 (R6), #213 (R7)
Analysis: Adam Gase is gone, and the Jets can finally move forward from a nightmarish 2020 season. Robert Saleh might be my favorite head-coaching hire of this offseason, and I believe he’s going to bring a culture of hard work and intensity to New York. This team has far more established talent than their 2020 record (2-14), and poor media coverage would have you believe, and they also have the third-most cap space in the NFL. Last season’s first-round pick, offensive tackle Mekhi Becton, showed real promise in his rookie season and looks like a long-term building block for this team. The Jets can build arguably the best young offensive tackle duo in football if they pair Becton with Penei Sewell, a generational prospect who’s my top-rated player in this class.
The Jets have yet to fully commit to Sam Darnold as the team’s quarterback for at least one more season, but they have to add more dynamic offensive talent to help him succeed. New York has been fielding trade calls on Darnold, and that trade would clearly push them towards drafting Justin Fields or Zach Wilson. Breshad Perriman is a free agent and may not be back, so the top-tier free agent WRs are on the table for the Jets, and the run game also needs to be revived. However, a stronger run game would flow from a higher-octane passing game, which is the team’s biggest priority.
Defensively, Marcus Maye will surely be back on a contract that makes him one of the highest-paid safeties in football, and it will be well-deserved. C.J. Mosley will return after opting out of the 2020 season while Quinnen Williams, Folorunso Fatukasi, and John Franklin-Myers provide a strong foundation for the defensive line. Some edge-rush help would be huge for this team, as would some secondary reinforcement with Brian Poole, a free agent. However, the Jets should have one of the best run defenses in the NFL next season. New York has two first-round picks and six picks in the first four rounds, so their mountain of cap space isn’t the only path to improving this roster. With Robert Saleh at the helm, a strong offseason could push this team into the playoff conversation next year.
1st-Round Pick Targets: OT Penei Sewell, QB Justin Fields, QB Zach Wilson, WR Ja’Marr Chase, WR Devonta Smith
Top Free Agent Targets: WR Chris Godwin, WR Allen Robinson, EDGE Shaquil Barrett, CB Jason Verrett, CB Troy Hill