For decades, the AFC East was a division of haves and have-nots. There was typically one team that reigned supreme (Patriots and, more recently, Bills) while the others sat well on the outside of the playoff picture. Those days appear to be coming to an end, however, as this division is rapidly growing more competitive and may have multiple legitimate playoff contenders once the 2023 season kicks off.
Of course, the Buffalo Bills remain the favorite of this group and currently own the third-best odds to win the Super Bowl next season. Josh Allen's team was the odds-on favorite to win it all a year ago and were able to go 13-3 in the regular season, but injuries and subpar play down the stretch found themselves losing to the Cincinnati Bengals in the divisional round.
The Miami Dolphins were the surprise team of this division in 2022 as Tua Tagovailoa turned himself into the type of quarterback they can look to build around for the foreseeable future. They went 9-8 and reached the playoffs, but didn't go much further than Super Wild Card Weekend as Tagovailoa was shut down at the end of the year due to numerous concussions.
The Patriots finished under .500 for the second time in three seasons and their 8-9 mark was good for third place in the AFC East. New England rolled out an unorthodox approach offensively, placing Matt Patricia as the offensive play-caller. That decision led to a regression for the unit, particularly with quarterback Mac Jones. Bill Belichick has seemingly corrected that miscue, however, by recently hiring Bill O'Brien to be the club's next offensive coordinator.
New York finished last with a 7-10 record, but there is more room for optimism with this team than there's been in years past. They hit multiple home runs at last year's NFL Draft, bringing aboard cornerback Sauce Gardner and wide receiver Garrett Wilson, who won Defensive and Offensive Rookie of the Year honors. The Jets have the foundation of a playoff contender outside of the quarterback position as former No. 2 overall pick Zach Wilson was benched to end the year. If they can find a capable signal-caller, the Jets could make some serious noise.
So, will one of these teams unseat the Bills who have won this division in each of the last three seasons? Or will Buffalo continue to roll as it hunts for that elusive Super Bowl? They'll all spend the rest of this offseason trying to reach the peak of their powers. As they begin this building phase of the offseason, here's an outlook for each team in the AFC East as free agency approaches.
Note: Salary cap figures courtesy of Spotrac.
Needs: IOL, CB, RB, WR, S
Projected cap space: $-18,709,462 (26th)
The Bills have a couple of heavy hitters set to hit free agency in safety Jordan Poyer, guard Rodger Saffold and inside linebacker Tremaine Edmunds. First and foremost, they'll need to get cap-compliant and get their books in order to make a run at not only trying to re-sign these stars but add even more talent onto the roster. Of course, if any of them depart, that naturally creates a hole on the team that'll need filling either via free agency, trade or the draft.
Starting on offense, Saffold has said he intends to play in 2023 and hopes to be back with the Bills next season. Given Saffold's age -- he will be 35 at the start of next season -- there's a case to be made for the Bills to find a younger option at left guard to build a long-term wall in front of Allen, who was hit eight times in the playoff loss to Cincinnati. Along with Saffold, fellow lineman David Quessenberry -- who spent time rotating in at right tackle -- is also hitting free agency.
Solidifying the offensive line with players who possess a higher ceiling in both pass protection and in the running game is arguably the biggest need for Buffalo entering this offseason. Speaking of the running game, Devin Singletary is slated to hit free agency as well. While James Cook did show some promise during his rookie season, the Bills need to add more bodies to that backfield to help allow them to put teams away late with a steady rushing attack that burns the clock.
Defensively, the Bills should get a massive boost with the return of last offseason's free agent prize in Von Miller, who tore his ACL last year. That said, the secondary could be a point of emphasis with Poyer hitting free agency. Whatever capital Buffalo does have may be wise to go toward bringing Poyer back into the fold, while addressing their needs on offense could wait until the draft.
CBS draft projections: The Bills own the No. 27 pick at the 2023 NFL Draft. In his latest mock draft, CBS Sports draft analyst Ryan Wilson has Buffalo beefing up its backfield by selecting Texans running back Bijan Robinson. Meanwhile, CBS Sports' Chris Trapasso has them taking Georgia offensive tackle Broderick Jones, CBS Sports' Josh Edwards has pegged Boston College wideout Zay Flowers to come off the board there, and CBS Sports' Kyle Stackpole has the Bills selecting Tennessee receiver Jalin Hyatt.
Needs: OT, OG, TE, RB, LB
Projected cap space: $-12,665,862 (23rd)
One position the Dolphins won't need to worry about this offseason is quarterback. While that has been a common storyline for Miami over the last few years, Tagovailoa played like a franchise quarterback under first-year head coach Mike McDaniel. The only concern, of course, surrounds Tagovailoa and the litany of concussions he suffered last year. However, solely from his play on the field in 2022, he's shown the Dolphins he can be "the guy." However, he does need better protection in front of him.
The Dolphins spent big along the offensive line last offseason by bringing in left tackle Terron Armstead and center Connor Williams, but the unit still needs more to help keep Tagovailoa upright. Specifically, the right tackle and guard spots were the big issue for Miami, which will need to improve in some capacity in 2023. Given how much money they spent last offseason, the Dolphins may be more apt to try to answer those concerns via the draft. However, Miami is without a first-round pick this year after being punished by the NFL for impermissible contact with Tom Brady and Sean Payton, along with trading for pass rusher Bradley Chubb.
Running back has also been a position of need for Miami for years, and continues to be so this offseason. Raheem Mostert, Jeff Wilson Jr., Salvon Ahmed and Myles Gaskin are all slated to hit free agency. The Dolphins could pick and choose who they wish to retain from that group or go outside the organization to improve the backfield. Tight end is another area to highlight for Miami with Mike Gesicki hitting unrestricted free agency.
CBS draft projections: The Dolphins do not own a first-round pick in the 2023 NFL Draft. Their first selection comes in the second round at No. 51 overall. At that spot, CBS Sports draft analyst Ryan Wilson has them selecting Tulane running back Tyjae Spears in his latest mock draft.
New England Patriots
Needs: OT, WR, LB, DB
Projected cap space: $37,821,222 (5th)
New England arguably already made its most important move of the offseason by hiring O'Brien. While the play-calling on that side of the ball was a glaring issue in 2022, this unit is also missing a playmaker who puts fear into an opposing defense. Jakobi Meyers is slated to hit free agency, and retaining a reliable weapon like him would behoove the Patriots and Mac Jones. That said, if they want to use whatever money they'd have allocated to retain Meyers for someone who possesses a higher ceiling at the wide receiver position, that could be an option. The Patriots should be among the teams waiting in the wings in the event that there is another star receiver looking for a new contract that his current club won't give him (ex. A.J. Brown with the Titans last offseason). That could be their best option at finding a true No. 1 option in the passing game, especially considering their lack of success drafting at that spot in recent years under Belichick.
The offensive line -- specifically tackle -- is another big need for this offense. Starting left tackle Isaiah Wynn is going to be a free agent and the Patriots could also clear roughly $11 million by cutting starting right tackle Trent Brown as well. Neither one of these players should be considered a can't-lose piece of the offense, but New England should look to upgrade on each side of the line.
Defensively, the Patriots secondary has interesting young pieces in corners Jack Jones and Marcus Jones, along with safety Kyle Dugger. However, the status of Jonathan Jones (unrestricted free agent) and safety Devin McCourty (mulling retirement) are major question marks. Adding more bodies to the defensive backfield should be among the priorities, especially if McCourty calls it a career.
CBS draft projections: The New England Patriots own the No. 14 overall pick in this year's draft and CBS Sports draft analyst Ryan Wilson has them bringing aboard TCU wide receiver Quentin Johnston with that selection. CBS Sports' Chris Trapasso also has New England taking Johnston there, while CBS Sports' Josh Edwards has them addressing the defense with Arkansas linebacker Drew Sanders, and CBS Sports' Kyle Stackpole has them bringing in Georgia offensive tackle Broderick Jones.
New York Jets
Needs: QB, OL, S, DT, LB
Projected cap space: $-2,445,607 (18th)
Despite a last-place finish in 2022, the New York Jets showed that they are not far away from contending for the playoffs. The major thing holding them back from doing so currently is the quarterback position. This offseason, the Jets do seem hellbent on trying to upgrade at that spot by any means possible and could look to swing big. They've already hosted recently released Raiders quarterback Derek Carr and are also expected to be in the market for Aaron Rodgers if he and the Packers decide to part ways. That is the major storyline to follow with the Jets this offseason.
Outside of hunting for a QB, the Jets are largely in a good spot thanks to some outstanding drafting, particularly last year. They brought in both the Offensive and Defensive Rookies of the Year in Garrett Wilson and Sauce Gardner, while also adding running back Breece Hall and Jermaine Johnson. While there's certainly a strong young core being built in New York, the Jets do have some holes that need to be filled.
The offensive line is arguably the top priority beyond the quarterback spot. As a former offensive lineman, GM Joe Douglas, was likely physically ill by the poor play from that unit a year ago once Alijah Vera-Tucker went down. Tackle George Fant is hitting the open market, but New York should look to improve with a young starting tackle with a higher upside. The Jets could once again target the O-line in the draft or they could look to add one of the top free agents on the market in Mike McGlinchey to fill that role on the right side. Center Connor McGovern is also about to hit free agency.
Defensively, the safety spot was a weakness for the secondary last year, so it begs the question if the Jets will look to retain LaMarcus Joyner (free agent this offseason) or commit to Jordan Whitehead (free agent in 2024). They could look to overhaul that position group, as a couple of our CBS Sports NFL Draft analysts project they will early in the 2023 NFL Draft.
While he still has one more year left on his contract, the Jets could also look to hand All-Pro defensive tackle Quinnen Williams a lucrative extension this offseason. That said, the defensive tackle spot as a whole also could need addressing with Sheldon Rankins, Nathan Shepherd and Solomon Thomas all hitting the open market.
CBS draft projections: The New York Jets own the No. 13 pick at the 2023 NFL Draft. There, CBS Sports draft analyst Ryan Wilson has them taking Florida offensive lineman O'Cyrus Torrence and CBS Sports' Chris Trapasso has them adding Northwestern offensive tackle Peter Skoronski. Meanwhile, both Josh Edwards and Kyle Stackpole have New York selecting Alabama safety Brian Branch.