AFC East offseason advice: How Jets, Bills should answer QB problems
With free agency starting March 9, USA TODAY Sports is looking at all eight NFL divisions and what could be in store for teams this offseason, as well as the moves they should make. Next up, the AFC East:
NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS
Prominent free agents: LB Dont’a Hightower, CB Malcolm Butler, TE Martellus Bennett, RB LeGarrette Blount, CB Logan Ryan, DT Alan Branch, DE Chris Long, DE Jabaal Sheard, S Duron Harmon.
Cap situation: $61.1 million in cap space, according to Overthecap.com.
Primary issues for 2017: The Super Bowl champs need to figure out how to keep key starters such as Hightower, Butler, Blount and Ryan — or at least find replacements who wouldn’t be serious downgrades. The Patriots also need to determine if backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo has a future with the team (he has one year left on his rookie contract) or whether his trade value is too high to pass up.
Our advice: This is where Bill Belichick does great work. He needs to persuade players like Hightower and Butler to potentially consider taking hometown discounts to return, allowing New England to fill other needs. And if one key contributor tests the market and leaves, replacing him in the draft should become a priority. As for Garoppolo, the Patriots should field calls and gauge interest on the quarterback. If there’s a package that blows them away — likely with a first-round pick attached to it — New England shouldn’t be afraid to trade Garoppolo, especially since Tom Brady has repeatedly said he wants to play for several more years.
NEW YORK JETS
Prominent free agents: QB Ryan Fitzpatrick, QB Geno Smith, LT Ben Ijalana.
Cap situation: $1.49 million in cap space, according to Overthecap.com.
Primary issues for 2017: Without question, the biggest need is quarterback. The defense, one of coach Todd Bowles’ specialties, requires significant improvement, most notably the pass rush, which ranked 29th in sacks (27) in 2016. The Jets also have to get more athletic and younger at several positions on their depth chart. They already have addressed one of their pressing issues by informing cornerback Darrelle Revis whe will be released.
Our advice: As Bryce Petty’s inconsistency showed and Christian Hackenberg’s inability to get in a game reinforced, the Jets need a more reliable passer if they want to win now. Since the Washington Redskins’ Kirk Cousins is likely to be franchised and not hit the market, free agency — at best — gives the Jets another bridge quarterback option in players such as Mike Glennon, Brian Hoyer and Josh McCown. If the price is right, however, a short-term deal with either of them provides an upgrade, but it should not be for more than two years. The draft is the solution for the future. With the No. 6 pick, the Jets should look at acquiring a surefire playmaker at one of four positions: quarterback, running back, cornerback or edge rusher. If New York whiffs here, jobs could be on the line. So if someone the likes of North Carolina’s Mitch Trubisky is around, the Jets need to turn in the draft card without hesitating.
Prominent free agents: LB Jelani Jenkins, WR Kenny Stills, TE Dion Sims, TE Jordan Cameron, FS Michael Thomas, DE Andre Branch.
Cap situation: $42.4 million, according to Overthecap.com.
Primary issues for 2017: The Dolphins found their workhorse running back in 2016 with Jay Ajayi, so the focus goes to finding role players on the offensive line and an edge rusher after the Mario Williams experiment failed to help take the pressure off Cameron Wake. Interior linebacker is another spot that could use more depth.
Our advice: With left tackle Branden Albert looking to be on the way out, Laremy Tunsil — fresh off a solid rookie campaign — will slide right in. But the Dolphins are going to have to add a guard — probably in the middle to late rounds of the draft — to make sure quarterback Ryan Tannehill stays upright. The Dolphins have cap space, but after spending big in free agency in consecutive years, it might be wise for Miami to be cautious. That’s why we’d be thinking pass rush with the team’s first-round pick, No. 22 overall.
Prominent free agents: CB Stephon Gilmore, DT Corbin Bryant, WR Percy Harvin, LB Lorenzo Alexander, FB Jerome Felton, WR Robert Woods.
Cap situation: $19.9 million in cap space, according to Overthecap.com.
Primary issues for 2017: With a March 11 deadline looming for Buffalo on quarterback Tyrod Taylor, the Bills must decide whether to exercise his option (which would pay him $27.5 million in 2017) or move on. But it’s up to new coach Sean McDermott and GM Doug Whaley to determine how Taylor fits in the team’s future, if he does at all. On the other side of the ball, it’s going to take time for McDermott’s system to be implemented on defense, and the Bills need a smooth transition there after Rex Ryan’s complex schemes often fell flat with his former players.
Our advice: The Bills should ride it out for at least one more year with Taylor and focus on other needs. Re-signing Gilmore would normally be a priority, but McDermott came from a Carolina Panthers system that placed more emphasis on the front seven than the secondary. Alexander tied for third in the NFL in sacks, but he’ll be 34 in May, so there’s no need to break the bank on him.
Follow Lorenzo Reyes on Twitter @LorenzoReyes.
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