Off-Season Report Cards: AFC East
Sizing up the off-season moves of the Bills, Dolphins, Patriots and Jets, and how they’ll influence the 2017 campaign.
Do large paydays make for big wins? Here are three high-spending teams from recent years, and their ensuing results.
2016: 7–9, third in AFC East.
Significant additions: Head coach Sean McDermott, GM Brandon Beane, FB Patrick DiMarco (FA), S Micah Hyde (FA), K Stephen Hauschka (FA), CB Tre’Davious White (R1), WR Zay Jones (R2)
Significant losses: CB Stephon Gilmore, WR Robert Woods, RB Mike Gillislee, LB Zach Brown, S Aaron Williams, K Dan Carpenter
Since Terry and Kim Pegula bought the Bills, bringing the team under the control of the same family that runs the NHL’s Sabres, a common slogan seen on hats and T-shirts in upstate New York has been “One Buffalo.” This off-season, a similar phrase has been coming out of One Bills Drive: “One voice.”
That voice belongs to Sean McDermott, the new head coach hired away from his job as the Panthers’ defensive coordinator to replace Rex Ryan. McDermott spoke for the team at the combine, during free agency and the draft and also in the hiring of Brandon Beane, his former colleague in Carolina, to be Buffalo’s new GM.
The one-voice approach is the Bills’ best chance of ending the 17-year playoff drought that hangs over everything they do. The club handled the transition somewhat awkwardly, allowing Doug Whaley to silently remain in the GM seat through the draft, while it was clear that McDermott was the one running the show. But ultimately, they got this part right—starting fresh with a new coach and GM who are on the same timetable and have an established working relationship. They also cleaned house in the front office, surrounding their new hires with two well-respected personnel execs, Brian Gaine from Houston and Joe Schoen from Miami.
This kind of unity has been absent from the organization for quite some time. In recent history, Doug Marrone opted out of his contract, for reasons he has never fully explained, after his second season in Buffalo. He was succeeded by Ryan, whose early declaration of “alignment” in the organization had faded within the year. Both coaches had arranged marriages with Whaley, who had been with the club since 2010 and officially assumed the GM job in ’13. The picture painted at the end of the ’16 season was that of a disoriented organization, one that seemed confused on not only how to explain why it had fired its head coach before the final game of the season, but also what it was looking for in its next one.
Putting Whaley in charge of the coaching search, then firing him four months later, did little to counter the notion that the Bills lacked a clear blueprint for how to build a winner. But since McDermott was hired, the club has put its trust in him to lead the way. Perhaps the need for a single voice was reinforced early in the off-season, when there appeared to be an organizational divide over the future of Tyrod Taylor. The extension the quarterback signed last summer forced the Bills to make a decision this spring on picking up his option, which included a $27.5 million commitment in 2017. The front office had taken steps to distance itself from Taylor, but the coaching staff, which includes offensive coordinator Rick Dennison, Taylor’s QB coach in Baltimore in 2014, preferred to keep him. The decision to retain Taylor on a restructured contract was a win for the Bills, and particularly for McDermott’s power in the organization.
McDermott began reshaping the roster this off-season, putting an emphasis on the draft. The Bills let several players with expiring contracts walk out the door, among them cornerback Stephon Gilmore and wide receivers Robert Woods and Marquise Goodwin. McDermott drafted replacements, selecting cornerback Tre’Davious White in the first round and wide receiver Zay Jones in the second round. They traded down from the No. 10 pick to No. 27, making the deal with a Chiefs team eager to land quarterback Patrick Mahomes, and in doing so picked up a 2018 first-rounder.
The amount of authority the Bills have given a first-time head coach has raised some eyebrows. But the message has come through loud and clear: Everyone will be on the same page moving forward, and the page will be that of Sean McDermott.
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2016: 10–6, second in AFC East. Lost in wild-card round.
Significant additions: LB Lawrence Timmons (FA), S Nate Allen (FA), TE Julius Thomas (trade), DL William Hayes (trade), DE Charles Harris (R1)
Significant losses: T Branden Albert, DE Mario Williams, DT Earl Mitchell, S Isa Abdul-Quddus, DE Dion Jordan
In early March, Adam Gase was angsty about what was going to happen with Kenny Stills. The Dolphins knew the receiver could very well leave in free agency and in fact had started cushioning themselves for the potential loss a year earlier, when they traded up for another receiver, Leonte Carroo, in the draft. Asked at the combine how he felt about Stills returning, the head coach squirmed. “One day I feel good about it,” he said, “and one day I feel like crap about it. I hate free agency.”
Stills didn’t leave. Before free agency opened, he agreed to a four-year, $32 million deal to stay in Miami. Both the player and his coach cited their close relationship as an important reason why.
That was just one move, but it represents where the Dolphins are headed. In his second year on the job, Gase has earned the trust of both players and the organization to lead this team in the right direction. Miami’s approach this off-season reflected the way Gase wants to do business: Methodically address team needs, and keep your own guys. And apropos to the second point, create an environment in which players want to stay.
This was not the year of spending $60 million on Mike Wallace or $114 million on Ndamukong Suh, the big free-agent fish—and that’s a good thing. Much of the Dolphins’ off-season spending was directed toward their own players. They kept Stills and defensive end Andre Branch before they hit the market, ensuring they had enough good starters at the critical positions of receiver and pass rusher. They gave extensions to safety Reshad Jones and linebacker Kiko Alonso.
Beyond their own roster, the Dolphins traded for TE Julius Thomas and DL William Hayes, and supplemented their 30th-ranked run defense by signing LB Lawrence Timmons to a two-year, $11 million deal. In the draft, not even the offensive-minded head coach was tempted by flashy skill position players—in fact, the Dolphins only drafted one offensive skill player, in the seventh round. Instead, they used five of seven picks on defensive players, focusing on the front seven on both Day 1 (DE Charles Harris) and Day 2 (LB Raekwon McMillan). Miami’s defense faltered too often last season, particularly up front, and the club responded by addressing that weakness directly.
So much of the Dolphins’ 2017 outlook depends on Ryan Tannehill continuing to progress in Gase’s offense and staying healthy after suffering an ACL injury that did not require surgery. Neither of those are certainties. And after being a surprise playoff team in ’16, the expectations in Miami have been raised.
The Dolphins kept together the core of a playoff team, while fortifying areas of weakness. It wasn’t sexy, but it was prudent, and that’s the look of a team headed in the right direction.
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NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS
2016: 14–2, first in AFC East. Super Bowl champions.
Significant additions: CB Stephon Gilmore (FA), WR Brandin Cooks (trade), DE Kony Ealy (trade), TE Dwayne Allen (trade), RB Mike Gillislee (FA)
Significant losses: CB Logan Ryan, RB LeGarrette Blount, TE Martellus Bennett, DL Chris Long
Back in March, when free agency opened, the Patriots were just five weeks removed from their fifth Super Bowl title. If any team was going to surprise during the reckless spending period of the NFL calendar, no one expected it to be them.
Bill Belichick’s team is known for being measured and staid; with the luxury of their collection of rings, they sit back and simply let the market come to them. But this year, about 12 hours before free agency opened and during the negotiating period for teams and players, came news of a stunner.
The Patriots were landing Stephon Gilmore, the former Bills cornerback expected to command top dollar on the open market. And the Patriots weren’t giving him one of those one-year mercenary deals they are known for, or taking advantage of his desire to play for a winner. They were paying Gilmore full market value, a five-year contract worth $65 million, the kind of deal the Patriots generally don’t dole out to players outside of their system.
Yes, New England had more than $60 million in cap space entering free agency, plenty of room to spend. But the Gilmore move was part of an uncharacteristically bold off-season that looked very much like the Patriots pushing all their chips in for a championship—that is, another championship, or two, while Tom Brady is still Tom Brady.
They sent a first-round pick to New Orleans for WR Brandin Cooks, the kind of downfield burner Brady hasn’t had since Randy Moss. They traded their second-round pick to Carolina in exchange for defensive end Kony Ealy (read: future assets in exchange for ones that can help them in the present). After signing Gilmore, conventional Patriots wisdom would have been to trade Malcolm Butler the season before he becomes an unrestricted free agent, as they did last year with Chandler Jones and Jamie Collins. But while the Patriots engaged in trade talks with the Saints, a deal never materialized, keeping Butler in New England with Gilmore to form one of the best cornerback tandems in the league.
Brady has said he wants to play until he’s 45—or 70, if you go off his cheeky video decrying the so-called Madden curse. But the fact that the Patriots did not trade Jimmy Garoppolo this off-season, despite fervent interest in Brady’s backup, is a possible sign that Belichick isn’t betting on having No. 12 for quite that long. You don’t often talk about a reigning Super Bowl champ reloading for the following season, but that’s exactly what the Patriots have done.
That’s not to say they abandoned their usual way of doing business. Anticipating that tight end Martellus Bennett would be too pricey in free agency, they replaced him even before he officially left, trading for Dwayne Allen on the eve of free agency. For the second straight year, they swiped a restricted free agent from the Bills—running back Mike Gillislee—and also took advantage of the little-used May 9 tender to get back compensation for losing LeGarrette Blount to the Eagles. The Patriots also played the Dont’a Hightower situation just right. He made one of the key plays in Super Bowl LI, but they let him test free agency, correctly anticipating that the market for an inside linebacker wouldn’t be robust enough to lure him away from New England. All bread-and-butter plays in the Patriots’ playbook.
Many coaches around the league suspect that Belichick, 65, and Brady, who will turn 40 in August, will retire together. Of course, no one outside of New England truly has any real knowledge of their plans. But this is the point in their partnership when the short term may for once take precedence over the long term—and, at least for the next year or two, that is not welcome news for the rest of the NFL.
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NEW YORK JETS
2016: 5–11, fourth in AFC East.
Significant additions: QB Josh McCown (FA), CB Morris Claiborne (FA), LT Kelvin Beachum (FA), S Jamal Adams (R1), K Chandler Catanzaro (FA)
Significant losses: CB Darrelle Revis, C Nick Mangold, WR Brandon Marshall, T Ryan Clady, T Breno Giacomini, K Nick Folk
It wasn’t that long ago—17 months, to be exact—that the Jets were a team with double-digit wins, one victory away from a postseason berth. How quickly things change in the NFL.
That was the 2015 season, when optimism was high for new head coach Todd Bowles and GM Mike Maccagnan. Owner Woody Johnson authorized an off-season spending spree that doled out $168 million to five players, including Darrelle Revis, who was given a hero’s welcome back to the team that drafted him. Two years later, only two of those players, cornerback Buster Skrine and guard James Carpenter, are still with the team. They tried to “win now” that first year and failed, and what’s left behind is an awkward dynamic—a team starting over in year three of a regime.
Johnson preached patience to fans this off-season, but really, there’s no other message to send. The Jets have gone into total tear-down mode with their roster, cutting most of their roster’s most familiar faces: Revis, center Nick Mangold and receiver Brandon Marshall. The moves cleared gobs of cap space but also left gaping holes at some of the most critical spots on the field. When your strongest position on offense is guard, that’s not a great indicator of success.
The eroded talent base on this roster is not the sole responsibility of the current regime. The flip-flopping in organizational philosophy over the last several years has done no one any favors. The last time Jets fans heard the plea of patience wasn’t long ago: 2014, John Idzik’s second year as general manager, the famous draft when he selected 12 players. Both Idzik and head coach Rex Ryan were fired eight months later, and just three of those 12 players are still on the roster.
Building through the draft is the ideal, but the reality is that patience is scarce in the NFL. Maccagnan came onto the job with an approach he billed as a “competitive rebuild,” but the Jets came out of the first two years absent both results and a clear path forward. Now, they’re committing to just the rebuild part. Look no further than how they handled the draft. Maccagnan traded back four times, boosting the Jets’ haul to nine picks; he also picked up a fifth-rounder in 2018, and he used the team’s top two picks on safeties. That’s the picture of a general manager building for the long term, not the short term.
The Jets signed Josh McCown in the off-season because they needed to ensure they had a quarterback who can start in Week 1. He is that, and by all accounts an excellent teammate, and the Jets don’t need that much more from him. A team in rebuild mode doesn’t want a 38-year-old starting the entire season. What the Jets do need to do is start Christian Hackenberg at some point this fall and come out of this season with a better idea if there’s a future with the 2016 second-round pick.
The Jets didn’t draft a quarterback out of what was billed as a mediocre class this year, but talent evaluators are expecting a much stronger 2018 QB class—starting with USC’s Sam Darnold. Given the way their current roster looks, the Jets could very well be in contention for a very high draft pick.
New York’s approach of starting over again, and building from the ground up, is the right one. But for Maccagnan and Bowles, this is a tricky position for their third year on the job. The big question: Will Johnson have the same patience he’s asked for from the fans?