In an NFL off-season that has been full to the brim with intriguing talking points, the AFC East has been perhaps the most intriguing division to chart. What other division offers Bill Belichick, Tom Brady, Randy Moss, Bill Parcells, the Wildcat, Terrell Owens, Rex Ryan and Mark Sanchez as talking points? Each of the four cities in this division has plenty to discuss, even during this dreaded portion of the NFL calendar.
In 2008 - with the Patriots down their star quarterback - the Miami Dolphins claimed a division title before bowing out in the first round of the playoffs to a Ravens team led in part by Ryan, now the Jets' head coach. The Pats get Brady back and look to re-claim their division crown, while the Jets re-build behind Ryan and his rookie quarterback. Meanwhile, the Bills are making any desperate attempt possible to hop back into the division race after going 0-6 against their three chief rivals last season.
It's been an interesting off-season to say the least, and there's plenty to chew on. Which team had the best off-season? That's for you to decide...
BUFFALO BILLS (2008 record: 7-9, 0-6 AFCE)
Two big story lines: Clearly, the biggest waves in Buffalo came from the off-season signing of WR Terrell Owens. Desperate for any big-play threat offensively, the Bills rolled the dice and inked the controversial receiver to a one-year, $6.5 million deal to play opposite WR Lee Evans and catch passes from still-developing QB Trent Edwards.
Meanwhile, the team made another big splash a week prior to the NFL Draft when it dealt OT Jason Peters to Philadelphia for three draft picks, including a first-rounder this season (eventually used on Louisville OG Eric Wood). Trading the two-time Pro Bowl left tackle left the team with a giant void on Edwards' blind side, and their decision to fill the void with converted RT Langston Walker has raised some eyebrows league-wide.
Two bigger gambles: The Bills made their biggest gamble of the off-season in late December when, despite finishing 7-9 for a third consecutive season, owner Ralph Wilson elected to retain the entirety of his coaching staff, including head coach Dick Jauron. That's the first leap of faith the team took this off-season.
The other gamble was made a year prior, when the team handed the starting quarterback job to Edwards. No matter what happens with the rest of the players the Bills picked up, the onus - for better or worse - will be on Jauron and Edwards in 2009.
Additions (10): QB Ryan Fitzpatrick, RB Dominic Rhodes, WR Terrell Owens, TE Shawn Nelson, OG Eric Wood, OG Andy Levitre, C Geoff Hangartner, DE Aaron Maybin, CB Drayton Florence, S Jairus Byrd
Subtractions (7): QB J.P. Losman, TE Robert Royal, OT Jason Peters, OG Derrick Dockery, C Duke Preston, LB Angelo Crowell, CB Jabari Greer
MIAMI DOLPHINS (2008 record: 11-5, 4-2 AFCE)
Two big story lines: It was a pretty quiet and uneventful off-season in South Florida until the Dolphins brought back DE Jason Taylor after the draft. After a season in Washington, Taylor spurned the Patriots to re-join his old teammates in Miami - even while knowing he'll only be a part-timer. It's unclear how effective Taylor can be in the twilight of his career, even as a situational player, but from a pure PR standpoint, this move was huge in Miami.
The Dolphins are seen as innovators in league circles for initiating the rise of the Wildcat offense in the professional ranks, and the Dolphins fully committed to the move when they selected versatile QB Pat White in the second round of the draft. While Miami's Wildcat was innovative last season, it also got a bit stale and easier to defend as the season wore on. That should change with the ultra-athletic White in the fold.
Two bigger gambles: Miami was the one team in the division that did not make bold moves to try to get significantly better, instead choosing to fortify its secondary (can you blame them with T.O. and Randy Moss in the division?) and tie up some of its own players to long-term deals. The strategy leaves the Dolphins with largely the same division winner they fielded last year - but with Brady returning in New England, will it matter?
The team is also gambling in investing further resources into the Wildcat. Largely credited as the driving force behind the team's surprise run last season, the offense should become easier to defend as more and more teams see the look and implement bits of it into their own offensive philosophies. The addition of White, meanwhile, further muddles the future of the quarterback position in Miami, where Chad Pennington won't last forever and Chad Henne remains the future starter - we think.
Additions (8): QB Pat White, OG Joe Berger, C Jake Grove, DE Jason Taylor, CB Eric Green, CB Vontae Davis, CB Sean Smith, S Gibril Wilson
Subtractions (3): C Samson Satele, CB Andre Goodman, S Renaldo Hill
NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS (2008 record: 11-5, 4-2 AFCE)
Two big story lines: Hey, did you guys hear that Tom Brady is back? New England's all-world signal caller returns after missing all but a couple quarters' worth of 2008 action with a surgically repaired knee. He's at 100%, and he wants to play until he's 41. In an off-season that saw a considerable amount of change in New England, it's got to be nice to point to Brady (and Belichick) and say "Yeah? Well, we'll still beat you senseless next season."
Clearly, the big change came in January, when Scott Pioli left to join the Chiefs as GM and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels vacated his post to
methodically tear apart coach the Denver Broncos. Who here thinks that the latest two defectors will have any effect on New England's on-field performance? Yeah... me neither.
Two bigger gambles: Both of New England's gambles came in one trade when they dealt QB Matt Cassel and LB Mike Vrabel to Pioli's Chiefs. Cassel had proven to be a valuable commodity, and now the Pats face huge question marks again should Brady go down. Meanwhile, on a defense that hasn't been as good as advertised in a couple of seasons, Vrabel - one of the team's proven playmakers - was mercilessly shipped to one of the league's worst franchises. Those are two heady contributors that the Pats gave away essentially for nothing. Oh, they'll eventually look like geniuses for the move, but until that happens, it's a gamble - particularly in trading away proven insurance for Brady.
Additions (10): RB Fred Taylor, WR Joey Galloway, WR Greg Lewis, WR Brandon Tate, TE Chris Baker, NT Ron Brace, CB Shawn Springs, CB Leigh Bodden, CB Darius Butler, S Patrick Chung
Subtractions (7): QB Matt Cassel, RB LaMont Jordan, FB Heath Evans, WR Jabar Gaffney, LB Mike Vrabel, LB Larry Izzo, CB Ellis Hobbs
NEW YORK JETS (2008 record: 9-7, 4-2 AFCE)
Two big story lines: The Jets made a splash in late January when, after firing head coach Eric Mangini as the scapegoat for their 2008 collapse, the team hired the ridiculously brash Rex Ryan to replace him. Ryan immediately made friends with fans of AFC East division rivals by stating that his Jets would win a Super Bowl and visit President Barack Obama at the White House within a "couple of years". Ladies and gentlemen - the AFC East's brand new Public Enemy No. 1!
Trading two picks and three players for rookie QB Mark Sanchez was a headline-maker, too. After striking out with the Brett Favre Experiment last season, the Jets were facing a QB competition between the venerable Kellen Clemens and the honorable Brett Ratliff prior to the draft. It was a bold move to pick up arguably the Draft's best quarterback - and it could very well pay off. Perhaps not as soon as Jets fans would like, but it could still work.
Two bigger gambles: A clear area of weakness in New York is wide receiver, where Laveranues Coles was released, and the only proven option is the somewhat overrated Jerricho Cotchery. Seriously - if anyone reading this can pump out a 4.7 forty and catches a loaf of bread when your wife throws it to you, the Jets may be interested.
Oh, and you know what? Handing the keys to the franchise to a gunslinger head coach and a rookie quarterback is pretty bold, too - particularly with an unproven and risk-taking GM (Mike Tannenbaum) calling the shots.
Additions (8): QB Mark Sanchez, RB Shonn Greene, DE Marques Douglas, DT Howard Green, LB Bart Scott, CB Lito Sheppard, CB Donald Strickland, S Jim Leonhard
Subtractions (10): QB Brett Favre, WR Laveranues Coles, TE Chris Baker, DE David Bowens, DE Kenyon Coleman, DT C.J. Mosley, LB Eric Barton, CB Hank Poteat, S Abram Elam, K Mike Nugent