Four Downs: AFC East
by Vince Verhei
Biggest Need: Offensive Line
The surprising retirement of offensive tackle Brad Butler at age 26 left a bad Buffalo line in complete shambles. The Bills currently have 11 offensive linemen on the roster, only four of whom have started as many as ten games in a season.
Right now, the two most talented members of the Buffalo line are the starting guards, both 2009 draft picks: first-rounder Eric Wood and second-rounder Andy Levitre. Wood had a severe leg fracture last season and didn't start walking until March 4, so the Bills aren't sure he'll be ready for the start of the season.
If the season started today, one tackle spot would be filled by Cornell Green, recently signed from Oakland. Green will be 34 when the season begins. He started 38 games for the Raiders over the past three seasons, and only eight games in the first seven years of his career with the Jets, Broncos, and Buccaneers. The other tackle would likely be Demetrius Bell, a seventh-round pick in 2008. Bell started eight games last year before a knee injury ended his season. At center would be Geoff Hangartner, who played well last season as a starter after spending four years as a backup with Carolina.
Behind them? Six anonymous warm bodies with a combined 18 career starts in the NFL, only two of whom were drafted, and none earlier than the fifth round.
By Football Outsiders' advanced metrics, the patchwork line was serviceable in run blocking, finishing 12th in Adjusted Line Yards. However, they were a pass-blocking disaster, ending up dead last in Adjusted Sack Rate. According to the Football Outsiders game charting project, Bills linemen led the league with 28.5 blown blocks that led to sacks.
The Bills may be tempted to take a quarterback in the draft, especially if Notre Dame's Jimmy Clausen falls into their laps. But if they don't upgrade their line first, any quarterback they draft will have a short career.
Free Agency Recap
Since general manager Buddy Nix and head coach Chan Gailey arrived in January, it has been a lot of out with the old, and a little bit of in with the new. Most famously, the Bills announced they would not be offering a contract to Terrell Owens after 2009's one-year experiment. They also declined to offer contracts to wide receiver Josh Reed and defensive end Ryan Denney. Finally, the Bills released tight end Derek Fine and wide receiver Justin Jenkins.
The Bills lost a pair of veteran offensive linemen when tackle Jonathan Scott signed with the Steelers and guard Richie Incognito joined the Dolphins. Both were starting at the end of last season for Buffalo.
A number of Bills free agents remain unsigned, including linebacker Chris Draft and guards Kendall Simmons and Seth McKinney. Nix recently said that the team was not interested in re-signing Simmons or McKinney.
Defensive end Aaron Schobel has not decided whether to retire or to return for a 10th season with the Bills.
The Bills' gains in free agency are limited. Besides Green, the team added a pair of defenders: former Broncos linebacker Andra Davis and former Ravens defensive tackle Dwan Edwards. It's worth noting that Edwards was only available because he failed physicals with the Seahawks and Dolphins. He missed the entire 2008 season after a neck injury that required spinal fusion of the C3 and C4 vertabrae.
The Bills also re-signed veteran safety Bryan Scott, a versatile defender who spent much of last year filling in at outside linebacker when everyone else in Buffalo was injured.
Biggest Need: Pass Rushers
Yes, pass rushers. That may be surprising for a team that tied for third in the NFL with 44 sacks and led the league in Football Outsiders' Adjusted Sack Rate. But a lot of those sacks have left town. Linebacker Joey Porter led Miami with nine sacks, but he was released after the season and has since signed with Arizona. Jason Taylor chipped in with seven sacks, but he's an unrestricted free agent and remains unsigned. It appears the Dolphins have no interest in bringing Taylor back. The Dolphins' starting outside linebackers are currently Cameron Wake and Charlie Anderson. Wake showed great promise in limited time last year, his first season since coming south from the CFL. He had 5.5 sacks despite making only 10 tackles on defense. (He had 13 more on special teams.) Anderson, though is a career journeyman with only eight starts in 92 games played. Unless Wake truly blossoms in his sophomore season, the Dolphins are going to need help putting opposing quarterbacks on the ground in 2010.
At this point, the free agent pool for outside linebackers is pretty shallow. The best available is probably Chike Okeafor, who has played 12 years for the 49ers, Seahawks, and Cardinals. Though he had only 4.5 sacks last season, he has been dependable, collecting at least that many every season since 2002.
The Dolphins could also use a receiver. Brian Hartline, Greg Camarillo, and Davone Bess were somewhat effective as possession receivers, but brought no big-play threat to the table. Ted Ginn has been terribly unreliable; last year he had a catch rate below 50 percent for the second time in three years. As a team, the Dolphins had only 29 receptions of 20 yards or more last year, fewer than any team except Cleveland.
Free Agency Recap
In a limited crop of free agents, the Dolphins signed one of the best in former Arizona linebacker Karlos Dansby. The versatile player has ranked in the top 20 in Defeats in the NFL in four of the past five seasons, and he doesn't turn 29 until November. He's an enormous upgrade over last year's inside linebackers. Ayodele, Channing Crowder, and Reggie Torbor combined for 28 defeats last season. Dansby alone had 26.
Miami added Richie Incognito to bolster what was already the league's top run-blocking unit.
The Dolphins also re-signed a pair of their own free agents, veteran nose tackle Jason Ferguson and quarterback Chad Pennington. It's an even-numbered year, so if Chad Henne struggles, expect Pennington to win his third Comeback Player Of The Year award.
New England Patriots
Biggest Need: Linebackers
The Patriots struggled against the run last year, ranking 26th in Adjusted Line Yards. Their pass rush was slightly better, and they finished 18th in Adjusted Sack Rate. Individually, though, there were no stars to be found here. They had only one player in the NFL's top 80 in Rushing Defeats (tackles for no gain or a loss, or that stop a runner on third or fourth down), and that was nose tackle Vince Wilfork. Inside linebacker Jerod Mayo gets a lot of tackles, but they usually come after the runner has gained a few yards, not in the backfield.
The pass rush was led by Tully Banta-Cain's ten sacks, but that was something of a fluke. Banta-Cain's previous career high was just 5.5 sacks, so expect him to decline in 2010. No other Patriot had more than five sacks. The other outside linebacker, Adalius Thomas, was practically invisible against both run and pass. The Patriots badly need more playmakers here.
Keith Bulluck is available, and at 32 he was still effective for Tennessee last season. But his signing would be at best a one- or two-year stopgap for the Patriots. He's coming off an ACL injury and might not be ready for the start of the season, plus there's no guarantee he'd play well in a 3-4 after spending his entire career in as weak outside linebacker in Tennessee's 4-3 scheme. Expect New England to address this situation in the draft, not free agency.
If the Patriots go offensive in the draft, they need a tight end. Benjamin Watson was lost to Cleveland in free agency, and that leaves a bigger hole than fans might think. Although the Patriots have thrown fewer passes to tight ends in recent years, Watson actually ranked as the top tight end last year in Football Outsiders' per-play statistics. Last year's other tight end, Chris Baker, was released; the Pats signed Alge Crumpler away from Atlanta, but he's primarily a blocker at this point in his career.
Free Agency Recap
Besides Watson, the Patriots only lost one player in free agency: defensive end Jarvis Green, who signed with Denver.
New York Jets
Biggest Need: Front Seven Depth
The Jets finished eighth in run defense last year, measured both by total yardage and by Football Outsiders' advanced metrics. Their front seven, however, was even better than that, ranking second in FO's Adjusted Line Yards, which gives extra credit for tackles for loss and ignores yardage on long runs.
With that in mind, it seems odd that the Jets should be looking to replace any of these men, but the team needs to get younger. Inside linebacker David Harris is the only starter in the front seven under 29. Further, defensive end Marques Douglas, who started 12 games for Gang Green in 2009, remains unsigned. Recent rumors have had him going anywhere from New England to Carolina to Tampa Bay to Tennessee. If the Jets can't make a deal with Douglas, they'll be in need of a new starter next to Kris Jenkins and Shaun Ellis.
There are a few candidates out there who might fit the bill. The best option might be Bryan Robinson, most recently of the Cardinals. Although he'll be 36 when the season opens, he hasn't missed a game in four years, and he was third among Arizona linemen in rushing tackles last year. At 304 pounds, he's the ideal size for a 3-4 end, and has also played nose tackle in the past. Another option would be Travis Kirschke, who has played in Pittsburgh's 3-4 for the past six seasons.
If Douglas does return to the fold, the focus will switch to the outside linebackers. The Jets were just 14th in Adjusted Sack Rate last season, and would benefit from a superior individual pass-rush threat. But then, who wouldn't?
Free Agency Recap
The Jets weren't content to wait for the draft to address their team needs, making a series of high-profile trades and signings. They started by re-signing a bunch of their own starters who were facing free agency, including wide receiver Braylon Edwards, fullback Tony Richardson, and safety Eric Smith. They released Thomas Jones, clearing the way for Shonn Greene to start at running back, and picked LaDainian Tomlinson to back him up. They made a pair of big trades in the secondary, shipping safety Kerry Rhodes to Arizona and grabbing cornerback Antonio Cromartie from San Diego. Their biggest acquisition in free agency was former Browns safety Brodney Pool, signed to fill Rhodes' position.
(Portions of this article originally appeared on ESPN.com Insider.)