Competition Fierce in AFC East As Battle for Superiority Continues
Poor Buffalo Bills.
Having already witnessed the New York Jets make several high profile additions, those associated with Buffalo must have sat quietly in a darkened room as news broke about Brandon Marshall's blockbuster trade to the Miami Dolphins last week.
The Dolphins and Jets have made some big moves in this year's free-agency period to launch a full-scale assault on the AFC East. And they have left Buffalo in their wake.
As if to make things even worse, the other team in their division is the New England Patriots.
The future of the Bills hardly looks bright. Without a starting quarterback, and any established wide receiver, the Bills have propped up the division for the last couple of years. Now they have been left even further behind by their divisional rivals.
But while the gap widens between the Bills and the rest of the division, competition at the top just got a whole lot more interesting.
Having dominated the division for much of the last decade, the New England Patriots' hold on the AFC East is now being seriously tested.
In 2008, the Miami Dolphins recovered from a 1-15 season to win the division, and last year the Jets went further than the Patriots in the playoffs, despite New England winning the division.
Some high-profile acquisitions have now made the AFC East the most competitive division in the NFL, and following some tough competition in the division the last two years, now, the competition is set to be even fiercer.
Miami made the first big move in this year's free agency, signing former Arizona Cardinals linebacker, Karlos Dansby. The Dolphins needed big-name signings, and to ensure they got their man, they made Dansby the highest paid inside linebacker in the NFL to secure his services.
Then it was the Jets' turn to stake their claim to the division.
Rex Ryan has made it his prerogative to snap up as many top players as possible, despite being limited in their offseason moves by reaching last year's AFC Championship game. The Jets instead made a couple of trades to bolster their ranks, but not before they signed one of the most feared running backs in recent NFL history.
New York wasted no time in getting former San Diego Charger LaDainian Tomlinson to visit. He liked what he saw and turned down a move to Minnesota Vikings, and a possible union with Brett Favre, in favour of a move to the big apple.
Having released veteran running back Thomas Jones, the Jets will now have LT to provide backup for Shonn Greene. The rookie will be entering his second NFL season, and staked his claim to the starting job with some highly impressive performances during the playoffs.
Greene rushed for 135 and one touchdown as the Jets torched the Bengals, before inspiring a 17-14 win over the San Diego Chargers with 128 rushing yards from 23 carries, including a 53-yard touchdown.
Greene will improve next year, and under the tutelage of LT, he will no doubt prosper. LT joined the Jets because he saw it as his best chance to win a Super Bowl ring, and that goes some way to explaining the optimism in the green half of New York this offseason.
In the last week, the Jets found another top offensive weapon. Santonio Holmes was unceremoniously offloaded by Pittsburgh Steelers for just a fifth-round pick, and Rex Ryan was the man who snapped up the former Super Bowl MVP.
Now Holmes can take some of the receiving responsibility off Braylon Edwards, who struggled to adapt to life in New York since his trade from Cleveland earlier in the year. He will take some of the pressure off Edwards, and give Mark Sanchez another weapon that will no doubt help his development.
Ryan hasn't just focused on offense though. He also found himself a partner for last year's standout player, Darrelle Revis, to create an excellent cornerback tandem.
Antonio Cromartie jetted in from the west coast for what will likely be a second-round pick in next year's draft. He is a former pro-bowler, and will take some of the pressure off Revis when it comes to dealing with the league's top receivers. While some question his work ethic and attitude to contact, Cromartie will be expected to perform at his 2007 standards.
Ryan will hope that he can deliver to these standards, and along with Revis, form the most devastating cornerback duo in the league.
"Revis Island" isolated a number of former pro-bowl receivers last season, limiting them to very little action thanks to his tight coverage. He made a name for himself as a cornerback who could shut down any top receiver in the league, and is now arguably the top cornerback in the whole NFL.
From this week onwards though, Revis will have to contend with Brandon Marshall.
Miami fans had grown exasperated with their lack of big-name receiver. Ted Ginn failed to deliver as that man, and Miami required a top wide receiver to help aid their new franchise quarterback, Chad Henne, in his development.
To do this, they got the top wide receiver.
Marshall received a record 21 passes in one game last season. He is coming off his third consecutive 1,000 yard, 100 catch season. He is a big, physical player. A grave danger in the red zone, he is also capable of making a huge play for a touchdown, with two 75-yard TDs last season alone.
Brandon Marshall is unstoppable right now.
However, he comes with baggage. Personal issues and legal troubles blighted his time in Denver. He was desperate for more money and fell out with the coach.
Now he is the highest paid wide receiver in NFL history. He is out of Denver, which was home to several bad memories for him (not least the fatal shooting of a former teammate), and no longer has to work with Josh McDaniels.
Marshall is back in his former home state of Florida with the money he wanted. He is happy with developments, and if he can perform at those levels in Denver while unhappy, who knows what he can achieve in Miami.
The Dolphins immediately became contenders for the AFC East with one signing. If they have a strong draft, who knows what they can achieve.
So where does this leave New England?
Well, they won the division last year, but haven't made much of an impact in free agency.
Instead, they will look to the draft. With four draft picks in the first 53, the Patriots could find four immediate starters due to the depth in this year's draft class.
New England are ready to make their moves on April 22 and 23, and with a history of great draft picks, their rivals have good reason to be concerned.
However, Patriots fans might also have reason to be concerned.
Unlike the other teams in their division, they offer very little in the way of a running game, and still lack of big name running back.
Randy Moss is likely to depart after this season, meaning a replacement a wide receiver is a necessity, and Adalius Thomas is continuously moaning and linked with a move away from New England.
There are issues that must be addressed in New England, and some are even beginning to question the infallible Tom Brady.
Brady suffered a season-ending injury in 2008, and there are concerns that he will not be able to repeat his accomplishments from before the injury. He had the usual flashes of brilliance, but now they were interspersed with interceptions and incompletions.
However, he has a full season under his belt since his injury, and can press on next season. If he has a solid set of receivers to look for, you can't really argue that Brady won't perform.
He is still an exceptional football player, but the team around him might be starting to question whether they can still win the AFC East next year with so many voids in a team that went unbeaten throughout the regular season just three years ago.
With New York and Miami signing such great players in free agency, and with the draft ahead of them, the Patriots are no longer looking over their shoulders to see their rivals. The Jets and Dolphins are right alongside them.
The Patriots are no longer considered AFC East's favourites. They aren't even a guarantee for the playoffs. However, New England can take comfort in this year's draft, and three second round picks.
Next year they have two first round picks.
They have the steps in place to rebuild their side, and they have leaders who will provide excellent teachers for their rookies.
Tim Tebow is rumoured to be a target. Working behind Tom Brady might not be the worst thing for his development. Welker will return, and four top draft picks will work wonders for New England.
There are real reasons for optimism in New England, Miami, and New York.
As it stands, there is no clear favourite for the division. There might not even be a favourite at all. In fact, the favourite might not win the division. Who expected Miami to turn a 1-15 season around to become AFC East Champions?
The division now has the ability to provide one of the most exciting battles in recent NFL history. All three teams are vying to become the best, and all three teams could succeed.
The competition is fiercer than ever, and it is promising to be an enthralling season in the NFL's top division.
Perhaps unless you live in Buffalo. Then it could be a very long year indeed.
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