By Steve Silverman
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There is little doubt that the news has been good for the Jets, Miami Dolphins and Buffalo Bills through the early part of the offseason.
All three appear to have made up ground on Super Bowl champion New England in the AFC East. They are stronger, and the Patriots are weaker.
While we are still in the middle of March and have not thrown the NFL Draft into the equation yet, the difference between the Patriots and their division rivals is quite a bit less than it was at the end of last season.
Obviously, the Jets struck the most notable blow in the attack on New England by signing all-world cornerback Darrelle Revis away from the Patriots, bringing him back to his original NFL home. The Pats were also hurt by the defection of cornerback Brandon Browner to the New Orleans Saints and running back Shane Vereen’s decision to sign with the Giants.
Even with the signing of Revis, Antonio Cromartie, Marcus Gilchrist and Buster Skrine, new Jets general manager Mike Maccagnan has more work to do. That work is on the offensive side of the ball where Geno Smith will be challenged by Ryan Fitzpatrick, who was acquired in a trade with Houston. The Jets also brought in Brandon Marshall to upgrade the receiver position, but it’s not going to work if Gang Green doesn’t get better quarterback play.
Marshall, by the way, is not a malcontent who will pick fights and destroy the Jets’ locker room. However, he is not blind. He was forced to work closely with Jay Cutler in Chicago, and he could not hold the company when he saw Cutler repeat his mistakes on a weekly basis and basically go through the motions.
Marshall will be a good citizen at the start, but if the Jets’ quarterback play is not at least functional, it could be a matter of time before he speaks his mind again.
The Bills made a big upgrade on the offensive side with the acquisition of LeSean McCoy from the Philadelphia Eagles. McCoy has been one of the most versatile backs in the league for the last three seasons, and there is no doubt that Rex Ryan wants to take advantage of his talents as a runner and a receiver.
While the Bills were not in bad shape at the running back position with Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller, McCoy’s ability and consistency is a legitimate upgrade. Additionally, the signing of dynamic Percy Harvin will make the passing game even more dangerous.
The Bills’ defense was already among the most improved in the game, and Ryan will get everything out of that unit, but the elephant in the room is at quarterback. Can EJ Manuel, Matt Cassel or Tyrod Taylor get the job done consistently? Very unlikely, and we know that Rex is not going to give them any answers.
The Dolphins made the biggest move of free agency with the signing of defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh. The move could give Miami the best defensive line in the NFL, as Suh will anchor a unit that includes two outstanding pass rushers in Cameron Wake and Olivier Vernon.
Wake and Vernon tormented Tom Brady in the season opener at Miami last season, and there’s every reason to think Brady and Bill Belichick are sweating as they contemplate going up against that trio in 2015.
The Dolphins also added tight end Jordan Cameron from the Cleveland Browns and traded for wide receiver Kenny Stills from the Saints, and that should give them a workable crew of receivers that the team did not have previously.
But like the Jets and Bills, the Dolphins have questions at quarterback with Ryan Tannehill at the controls. Tannehill makes the Dolphins more accomplished at the position than the Jets or the Bills, but he has a hard time playing well on a week-to-week basis.
Regardless of the deficiencies at the quarterback positions, the Jets, Bills and Dolphins are far closer to the Patriots than they have been in a long time.
All three will have further opportunities to improve in the secondary free agent market and the NFL Draft.
The Patriots, after all, cannot stay on top forever. They may very well be vulnerable this season.
Follow Steve on Twitter at @ProFootballBoy