By Steve Silverman
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This division has long been the province of the New England Patriots, and while the Jets appear to have made more progress than the Bills or Dolphins, nothing appears to have changed that in the offseason.
The Jets performance in the draft was solid, and the Bills did not do a bad job, but it doesn’t look like the Dolphins did enough to close the competitive gap in the division.
In Bill Belichick’s private moments, he is probably quite thrilled that he can start thinking about the postseason early in the year. As long as Tom Brady is healthy, the Pats should have enough to clinch the division by Week 15.
The Jets came into the draft needing more big-play makers, and they appear to have gotten several of them. Here’s our look at how the teams in the AFC East performed in this year’s draft.
Many have questioned whether the Bills needed to move up to the No. 4 pick to select wide receiver Sammy Watkins with the fourth pick because this draft was so rich in wide receivers. However, Watkins has rare talent and could be a gamebreaker that gives the Buffalo offense a major lift. Don’t be surprised if Watkins does not have a legitimate chance to win offensive rookie of the year honors.
The Bills definitely gambled when they took Alabama offensive tackle Cyrus Kouandjio in the second round. Kouandjio has second-round ability, but will he stay healthy? If the answer is yes, Kouandjio may make quarterback E.J. Manuel as happy as Watkins.
Preston Brown is not a flashy player, but the third-round choice from Louisville is going to be a solid inside linebacker who can make plays against the run. Keep an eye on seventh-round selection Randell Johnson from Florida Atlantic. He is a big, strong outside linebacker who delivers big hits and forces opposing running backs to take notice of him.
This is a team that lacks star power and universal appeal, so they really do mirror head coach Joe Philbin’s warm-milk personality.
The Dolphins did not seem likely to change this approach in the draft, especially considering the fallout from the Richie Incognito-Jonathan Martin bullying scandal last season. The selections of Ja’Waun James of Tennessee and Billy Turner from North Dakota State in the first and third rounds, respectively, was designed to help out a porous offensive line. James is decent but not great, while Turner can also play guard and his versatility is a plus.
The Dolphins reached for cornerback Walt Aikens in the fourth round. The Dolphins need help at the position, but the transition from Liberty to the NFL means that it will take time for Aikens to feel comfortable. Wide receiver Matt Hazel of Coast Carolina (sixth round) is a good route runner and could earn legitimate playing time.
New England Patriots
Drafting the best football player available really is an option for the Patriots. Most teams have to fill significant weaknesses, but Belichick knows his team is going to be in the playoffs and he can look for players who should make his team stronger in postseason games.
That’s why he gambled on Dominique Easley from Florida in the first round. The defensive lineman has been a gamebreaker when healthy, but he has had two ACL tears. Look for the Pats to work him into the rotation slowly.
Second-round quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo has a chance to replace Brady in two more years, assuming that’s when Brady decides to retire. Garoppolo is smart, productive and has the arm strength needed to become successful on a long-term basis.
Fourth-round selection Cameron Fleming of Stanford gives the offensive line greater depth, and so does sixth-round guard Jon Halapio of Florida. Wideout Jeremy Gallon may have been the 244th pick in the draft and a seventh-rounder, but he runs well after the catch and he has big-play talent.
New York Jets
The Jets wanted to get a playmaker in the secondary with their first-round choice, and they did just that when they took Calvin Pryor of Louisville with the 18th pick in the first round. You could argue that the Jets would have been better off with Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, but Pryor is an explosive hitter with good but not great ball skills.
Look for second-round selection Jace Amaro to help out the passing game from the tight end position. The 6-5, 265-pounder from Texas Tech has excellent pass-catching range, and that should help Geno Smith because the quarterback’s overall accuracy is not his strong suit.
Third-round cornerback Dexter McDougle of Maryland was not the most consistent player during his college career, but he has excellent instincts and intangibles. McDougle injured his shoulder in the fourth game of the season for the Terrapins last year.
Fourth-round wide receivers Jaleh Sanders of Oklahoma and Shaq Evans of UCLA should be a solid duo. Sanders is fairly elusive, while Evans is a smart route runner who knows how to get open even if he is not a burner.
Brandon Dixon (sixth round) of NW Missouri State has the athletic skills to be a good cornerback, but his game is not quite there at this point. Quarterback Tajh Boyd (seventh round) demonstrated the kind of arm strength to make the scouts take notice. He is a developmental prospect who lacks size, but has solid athleticism.
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