Now that the initial cash grab of free agency is over and teams have settled into an off-season game plan, it's a little easier to see where everyone in the AFC East is heading as we count down the days to Draft 2008. With that in mind, we thought we'd review what's taken place in terms of player movement and try to train our sights on the things that the Jets, Patriots, Bills and Dolphins will likely try to accomplish in the coming weeks, before diving headlong into the draft fray.
Today: the Patriots and the Bills. The Jets and Dolphins will follow on Wednesday morning.
New England Patriots
The Pats have done very little in terms of improving their roster this winter, though some will say there is little need to. And pro-Pats folks will say that the players they have lost, they either expected to lose (Asante Samuel) or felt they could afford to (Donté Stallworth, Randall Gay, Eugene Wilson). The most important move was the re-signing of Randy Moss, and the return of WRs Jabar Gaffney and Kelley Washington, along with the addition of Sam Aiken, gives the Pats plenty of depth and enough weapons to continue working out of their spread attack.
The concerns are on defense, where the LB corps needs to get younger on the inside and add another impact player on the edge of the 34 front, and in the secondary, where the defections of Samuel, Gay and Wilson have left the cupboard pretty bare.
Tedy Bruschi and Junior Seau are closer to 40 than 30 and that just isn't going to bode well for this team much longer. The Pats were fortunate to get a full 16 games out of those two players. Adalius Thomas and Mike Vrabel can both play inside but are more valuable outside players. The release of Rosevelt Colvin makes OLB depth a priority, and Bill Belichick in his scheme needs a player who can do a lot of different things, who can drop in coverage as well as rush the passer.
The big issue is when you lose multiple players at a position like the Pats have in the secondary. Depth is a serious issue at any position, and though the team signed Lewis Sanders from Atlanta and Fernando Bryant from Detroit, neither is a quality starter.
Expect cornerback to be high on the list on draft weekend. Safety is also a concern with Rodney Harrison pushing 35 and Wilson out of the picture. Brandon Meriweather has limited playing experience and is still an unproven commodity. Miami's Kenny Phillips, or one of the hybrid players we mentioned above, could be a consideration, and Penn State's Dan Connor or Auburn's Quentin Groves would answer the team's LB needs if either slips into Round 2.
However, with the Pats currently sitting at No. 7, they may be too high to take any of those players. Vernon Gholston of Ohio State is more of a DE, but he has played OLB in college and some scouts think he could make the switch. Don't be surprised to see them make a move for an impact player like that.
The Bills finished the 2007 campaign in strong fashion, and though their record was 7-9, this franchise feels like it is ready to turn the corner. The play of QB Trent Edwards has convinced the Buffalo brass he is the QB of the future. Now all they have to do is get him some help.
On defense, although they were worried about the LB corps being further thinned by free agent defections, they have done enough to bolster the front seven and plug up what was a porous run defense. Now they just have to shore up a secondary that has been raided the past two off-seasons.
RB Marshawn Lynch has shown he has the ability to carry the load as long as he can remain healthy, and the team spent free-agent dollars to upgrade the O-line a year ago. The issue for the Bison has been their inability to establish another receiving threat opposite deep-threat WR Lee Evans. Opposing defenses have doubled down on Evans and forced Edwards into an interminable checkdown offense.
They also have no threat in the middle of the field. Though TEs Robert Royal and Michael Gaines were factors at times in the red zone last season, Royal lacks the breakaway speed to challenge the safety or even beat LB coverage down the seam, and Gaines has moved on to Detroit. The Bills did not address the WR position in free agency, and though veteran TEs Courtney Anderson and Teyo Johnson were signed, they are not the type of receiving threats who will force opposing defenses to alter their coverages.
Expect receiver to be high on the team's list of priorities come draft day, but don't expect another burner. With Evans' ability to stretch the field, expect more of a complementary receiver, a big-bodied player who will be physical and win balls in the middle of the field. Not one of Buffalo's top four WRs measured 6'0" last season, so look for players like Texas' Limas Sweed, Oklahoma's Malcolm Kelly and Indiana's 6'6" James Hardy to be considerations if Buffalo looks to fill the need in Round 1.
At TE, Southern Cal's Fred Davis has some unbelievable receiving skills and Purdue's Dustin Keller has been impressive in workouts, as has Jermichael Finley of Texas.
On defense, Buffalo filled its most glaring need with the acquisition of DTs Marcus Stroud and former Viking Spencer Johnson. This should protect the LBs and allow them to run to the ball in Dick Jauron's attacking scheme, and with a healthy set of DEs in Aaron Schobel, Chris Kelsay and Ryan Denney, the front four seems solid.
The addition of Kawika Mitchell brings some versatility and playmaking ability to the LB corps. But with Jason Webster gone along with Coy Wire and Jeremetrius Butler, the Bills need safety help and an upgrade at corner, where Ashton Youboty hasn't developed into a starter yet, and Terrence McGee and Jabari Greer aren't true No. 1 corners. They will have to take a corner in the first round to get an immediate starter, but there are several hybrid players available such as Oklahoma's Reggie Smith, USC's Terrell Thomas and Iowa's Charles Godfrey.
Wednesday: Jets and Dolphins