Barnwell: How Patriots can get back to Super Bowl, plus offseason moves for AFC East

Updated: February 22, 2018

7:31 AM ET

Last week I previewed the beginning of each NFC team’s offseason by identifying the first five things it should do during this downtime. Now we’ve wrapped the AFC. Here’s what we covered this week:

AFC West

  • Tuesday, Feb. 20: AFC South

  • Wednesday, Feb. 21: AFC North

  • Thursday, Feb. 22: AFC East

    AFC East: Bills | Dolphins | Patriots | Jets
    AFC North: Ravens | Bengals | Browns | Steelers
    AFC South: Texans | Colts | Jaguars | Titans
    AFC West: Broncos | Chiefs | Chargers | Raiders

    AFC East

    Let’s finish the series by getting to the Super Bowl runners-up and the AFC East.

    Buffalo Bills

    1. Sign Vontae Davis. The former Colts cornerback has been through Buffalo for a meeting, and while he slipped during his final year with Indy, Davis was reportedly injured and should be healthy now. Davis will turn 30 before the 2018 season, but he was a legitimate No. 1 cornerback at his best and should come at a relatively cheap cost. While the Bills could still re-sign E.J. Gaines, the idea of lining up Davis and Tre’Davious White at cornerback next season should be tantalizing to defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier and coach Sean McDermott.

    2. Move on from Tyrod Taylor. To be clear, I don’t think the Bills should be so aggressive in moving on from the best quarterback they’ve stumbled upon in years, but it’s clear that Buffalo has no intention of holding onto the 28-year-old Taylor, who had his worst season as part of a frustrating offensive scheme under now-fired offensive coordinator Rick Dennison. The Bills should designate Taylor as a post-June 1 release, which will free up $15 million on their cap for 2018 and get them over $44 million.

    3. Explore the trade market for Cordy Glenn. The organization also seems relatively disinterested in keeping their expensive left tackle around, given that second-round pick Dion Dawkins looks like he could be a viable NFL left tackle after a promising rookie season. Glenn missed time in September with an ankle injury and wasn’t immediately moved back into the lineup after he returned, then missed another game later in the year before hitting injured reserve with a foot ailment that had been bothering him all season.

    The Bills dumped Marcell Dareus for a sixth-round pick in part over concerns about a brutally onerous contract. The 28-year-old Glenn has three years and $30 million left in his deal, which is about average money for a starting left tackle at this point. Consider that Kelvin Beachum, who had been injured and ineffective for the prior two seasons, got three years and $24 million from the Jets last offseason. Glenn is never going to live up to the broader terms of the five-year, $60 million deal he signed with Buffalo before the 2016 season, but what’s left is manageable.

    In a free-agent pool where Nate Solder is the only notable veteran left tackle available, Glenn has legitimate trade value. The Bengals, Buccaneers, Cardinals, Giants, Patriots and Texans could or should all be in the market for left tackle help this offseason. You would forgive the Bills if they don’t want to send another player to Foxborough, but GM Brandon Beane might be able to get another third- or fourth-round pick to go with his four top-56 selections in this year’s draft.

    4. Bring back Preston Brown and Kyle Williams. As someone who built his defense in Carolina around Luke Kuechly, McDermott is quite familiar with the value of a useful middle linebacker. Brown led the league in tackles this past season, and while that’s more of a curiosity stat than a measure of actual performance, Brown was one of just four linebackers to take more than 99 percent of his team’s defensive snaps in 2017. The only linebacker who played more regular-season snaps than Brown’s 1,098 was Demario Davis of the Jets.

    As for Williams, the longtime Bills stalwart’s return seems predicated more upon his interest in playing another season than anything else. Buffalo has no obvious replacement for Williams on the roster, so even if he’s not going to be as impactful of a player as he once was, the Bills should be happy to get one more year out of the 12-year vet.

    5. Acquire two quarterbacks. The Bills are shopping for a quarterback at the right time, given how deep both the draft and free-agent classes are with viable options. Beane has the 21st, 22nd, 53rd and 56th picks to work with in this year’s draft and plenty of cap room. Buffalo could certainly make a credible pitch to Kirk Cousins, given that the Bills have both the defense and running game Cousins would want from a contending team, if not necessarily the receiving corps.

    Assuming Cousins goes elsewhere, new offensive coordinator Brian Daboll has spent three different stints over the past 15 years working for the Patriots, but he also served as offensive coordinator in Cleveland, Miami and Kansas City. The Dolphins stint could be of note given that both Chad Henne and Matt Moore are both free agents this offseason, and while they might not be the most exciting options, Moore might be a reasonable bridge if the Bills draft a quarterback in the first round.

    A run at Sam Bradford would make sense given that the Bills spent most of last season privately (and publicly through the media) wishing for a more traditional starting quarterback. Bradford is as traditional as it gets, and he had his best season as a pro with the Vikings in 2016, although there obviously are concerns about the health of his knees after two ACL repairs and a third lost season to a knee ailment in 2017. Bradford also might be available on a one-year deal, which would give the Bills time to develop a younger passer behind the 30-year-old.

    It will be interesting to see what Beane does with those draft picks. Does he wait to get a quarterback with the 21st overall pick? It’s too early to say who that passer would be, but if Beane falls in love with Josh Allen or Baker Mayfield and thinks they are franchise passers, does the GM package a bunch of the Bills’ picks together and move up to draft someone ahead of the Broncos and Jets at No. 5 and No. 6, respectively?

    The Jimmy Johnson chart suggests that the Bills could send picks 21, 22, 53 and 56 to the Colts for the third overall pick and the 100th selection and basically get a fair return, although I suspect it would cost Buffalo more given the popularity of this year’s quarterback class. The Bills probably could get away with sending 21, 22 and their 2019 first-round pick. If the Broncos or Jets come away with Cousins, they also could be in line to make a deal with the Bills at a similar price.

    Miami Dolphins

    1. Do something about Jarvis Landry. The problem with the Dolphins franchising Landry isn’t wanting to keep their slot receiver around. He’s a good player, and the Dolphins have relied on him to make plays to keep their offense going for stretches over the past three seasons. Landry’s franchise tag comes in around $16 million, which isn’t unreasonable for a player with Landry’s production on paper.

    The issue instead is that this speaks to how the Dolphins manage their roster haphazardly. Miami re-signed third wideout Kenny Stills to a four-year, $32 million deal last offseason, which was a remarkable amount of money for a player who had just experienced an unsustainable touchdown spike (which subsequently regressed toward the mean in 2017). Spending that much would be a stretch, but committing $8 million per year to a wideout coming off a 726-yard season set the absolute floor at $8 million for Landry, who has racked up more yards over each of the past three seasons than Stills has in any of his five professional campaigns.

    Now, the Dolphins are theoretically planning on committing $16 million to Landry and $8 million to Stills. They still have first-round pick DeVante Parker, who has been a perennial breakout candidate at wideout. Signing Landry would be assigning a disproportionate amount of the team’s resources to wide receiver, which would be a problem given the Dolphins’ needs elsewhere on the roster.

    Making this even more difficult is that the Dolphins repeatedly handed out expensive deals with multiple guaranteed years last offseason, most of which don’t look very good a year later. Stills is guaranteed $8 million in 2018. Kiko Alonso is guaranteed nearly $8 million. Andre Branch, a journeyman who racked up 4.5 sacks (most of which were coverage sacks) in 2017, is guaranteed a whopping $7.9 million. Lawrence Timmons went missing before Week 1 — thankfully, from Miami’s perspective — and likely voided the $4.5 million guaranteed to him in 2018.

    As a result, the Dolphins — who enter the offseason $8.6 million over the salary cap after re-signing Landry — don’t have many palatable options in terms of creating cap space to keep Landry around. They can restructure Reshad Jones‘ massive deal to free up about $7 million in cap space, and given how heavily they’re invested in the 2017 Pro Bowler, I suspect it will be Mike Tannenbaum’s first move. Miami could cut Ja’Wuan James, who missed half of the 2017 season, but dumping his $9.3 million cap hit also would open up a hole at right tackle.

    The next step might be to move on from Ndamukong Suh, who had his least productive season since signing a six-year, $114.3 million deal with the Dolphins before the 2015 season. The problem is that the Dolphins already restructured Suh’s deal to turn $20 million of his $23.5 million base salary from 2016 into a signing bonus, and $12 million of that prorated bonus is still looming on their ledger.

    The Dolphins would eat a staggering, and perhaps unprecedented, $22.2 million in dead money on the Suh deal if they cut the most expensive defensive tackle in league history this offseason. They would save only $3.6 million on Suh’s $26.1 million cap hit, which is the third largest in football. More likely is that they would designate Suh as a post-June 1 cut, which would free up $17 million in 2018 but leave $13.1 million in dead money on Miami’s cap next year. No, Miami does not manage its cap well.

    Perhaps the Dolphins are franchising Landry in the hopes of finding a trade partner for their wideout. There are several problems with that idea. One is that the slot receiver market is going to be absolutely flooded with talent this offseason, with a group that is likely to include Tavon Austin, Danny Amendola, Randall Cobb, Jordan Matthews and Kendall Wright. None of those guys would realistically expect to bring home more than $6 million on a one-year deal. Is there really a team out there that would rather trade a draft pick to the Dolphins for the privilege of giving Landry $16 million per year?

    The other concern is that Landry might very well jump at that $16 million figure and sign the franchise tag, which would leave the Dolphins stuck in a difficult cap situation and without any long-term solution on the former LSU star. It would preclude Miami from making any other major signings and likely force the Dolphins to either get rid of Suh or quarterback Ryan Tannehill, costing them a player at a position where they are far more vulnerable.

    The Dolphins should act quickly. If they wanted to use the leverage of the tag to sign Landry to a long-term deal in the $10 million range, get that done. If they’re tagging him to make a trade, the Dolphins need to execute something soon or remove the tag before Landry finds it comfortable enough to keep.

    2. Explore a replacement for Ryan Tannehill. The Dolphins might not necessarily want to replace their starting quarterback, who should be healthy after finally undergoing surgery on a torn ACL in August. Tannehill posted solid numbers during Adam Gase’s first season with the team in 2016, including his first era-adjusted yards-per-attempt mark above league average as a pro.

    Tannehill is due a base salary of $17.5 million in 2018 as part of a $19.8 million cap hit. None of it is guaranteed. The key date is March 18, at which point $5.5 million of Tannehill’s salary becomes guaranteed. It’s four days into the league year, meaning that the Dolphins could theoretically look into signing a veteran replacement for Tannehill and move on from their incumbent while creating $15.2 million in cap space.

    Miami probably doesn’t have the cap space to compete with the rest of the league for Cousins, although they could create room by cutting Suh and Tannehill and revoking Landry’s franchise tag, which would combine to free up just over $48 million. It’s fair to wonder whether they might see Bradford as an upgrade on Tannehill at a roughly similar price tag.

    Alternately, the Dolphins might very well look into scouting this year’s quarterback crop, given that there are still likely to be options on the board when they pick at No. 11 overall. If Gase and Tannenbaum are in love with a quarterback, it wouldn’t be shocking to see Miami try to trade up and move into position to grab a passer, although the Dolphins wouldn’t be able to make that deal until mid-April, at which point it would be too late to move on from Tannehill scot-free. In that case, the Dolphins would either have to keep Tannehill as a lame-duck starter or eat the $5.5 million and cut him anyway while signing a veteran like Henne (or re-signing Moore) to serve as their bridge option.

    3. Pick up DeVante Parker’s fifth-year option. We’re rapidly getting to the point where Parker goes from being a perennial breakout candidate to a disappointment. Last season was a lost year for Parker, who racked up 230 yards and a score in the first three games of the season, although a fair amount of that production came late in blowout losses against the Jets and Saints.

    The 2015 first-round pick injured an ankle early the following week against the Titans, missed a month of action, and averaged just 48 receiving yards per game the rest of the way without scoring another touchdown. Parker struggled for consistency; he had eight games with 60 receiving yards or more, which was in line with guys like Doug Baldwin and Stefon Diggs, but Parker also had three games in which he racked up one catch for no more than 6 yards.

    The Dolphins shouldn’t commit to Parker, and they probably can’t sign the Louisville product on a long-term deal if they invest in Landry and Stills, but the risk-reward ratio is still heavily favored toward picking up fifth-year options for players as promising as Parker. The Dolphins will have a difficult choice to make next year if Parker does finally have that upper-echelon season, but that’s a problem Tannenbaum would love to have.

    4. Cut Lawrence Timmons and find linebacker help. Timmons was disappointing in his lone season with Miami, and given how many Steelers veterans on the wrong side of 30 have struggled after leaving the cocoon of Pittsburgh over the past couple of decades, it probably shouldn’t have been much of a surprise. The 31-year-old won’t approach the $5.5 million he’s due on his current deal if he hits the free market again, but after handing Timmons a $5 million signing bonus on a two-year deal, the Dolphins will save only $4.5 million by cutting the former Pro Bowler.

    The goal for Miami likely will be to go with Alonso and 2017 second-rounder Raekwon McMillan, who missed the entire year with a torn ACL, as its coverage linebackers. The Dolphins then would be in the market for a strongside linebacker to play as a run defender on early downs. This shouldn’t cost very much, although the Dolphins are in their own world at times when valuing players. Someone like Paul Posluszny could figure in here.

    5. Fix the offensive line. Miami’s offensive line was predictably a mess last season, in part because of injuries. James missed eight games, as did utility lineman Ted Larsen, who likely would have started at guard. An interior with stopgap guards in Anthony Steen and Jermon Bushrod was predictably bad, with both guards hitting injured reserve. It’s not necessarily a surprise that those guys weren’t very good even when they were healthy. The exception might be Mike Pouncey, who played in all 16 games after returning from hip surgery but wasn’t his old self, racking up eight penalties, including five holding calls.

    Much depends on what the Dolphins do elsewhere; their cap space and high draft picks might be spoken for. If Miami mostly holds serve and brings back Tannehill, the offensive line would be a logical place for the Dolphins to invest. They probably can’t afford Andrew Norwell, although a less expensive option like Pittsburgh’s Chris Hubbard would be a logical signing to fill in at either guard or tackle. Likewise, while Notre Dame guard Quenton Nelson won’t fall to Miami at No. 11, the Dolphins could — and realistically should — look at drafting one of the five tackles Mel Kiper Jr. projects to come off the board in the first round of this year’s draft.

    New England Patriots

    1. Pick up the fifth-year option for Malcom Brown. The Texas product hasn’t grown into a star defensive lineman for the Patriots, but Brown has been a three-year starter for the Pats and serves as a valuable part of their rotation on the interior. The Patriots might not necessarily think about signing Brown to an extension this offseason, but keeping him around for 2019 is a no-brainer.

    2. Clear out cap space. There are a few obvious moves for the Pats to make. Martellus Bennett won’t be back at a cap number of $6.2 million, nor will backup tight end Dwayne Allen, who has a $5 million salary. New England also won’t pick up Alan Branch‘s option after the defensive tackle fell out of the rotation, freeing up an additional $3.6 million. Finally, David Harris might retire but won’t be around for 2018 at his current cap hit of $2.8 million. Cutting those four guys would free up just under $17 million and push the Pats to $34 million in free space.

    Both Flowers and Mason will be unrestricted free agents after the 2018 season, and while the Patriots have them both on bargain-basement rookie contracts this year, it would make sense for them to at least try to extend both before free agency. Flowers’ low sack totals might help keep his price tag down. I wonder if the Patriots might be able to secure the 24-year-old on a deal with an average annual salary of $10 million to $11 million. Mason should come in slightly cheaper, as he’ll be closer to $8 million to $9 million per year.

    5. Address left tackle. Mason and Marcus Cannon, whose 2017 seasons were riddled by injuries, will be manning the right side of the Patriots’ line in 2018. Joe Thuney is a useful run-blocking guard on the other side. David Andrews is signed to a low-cost, long-term deal at center. Four of the five spots are set for the Pats in 2018.

    Left tackle? That’s wide-open. Nate Solder is a free agent, and there’s a chance the 29-year-old could step away from football as his young son fights cancer. Cannon could move to the left side, but the Patriots replaced him in 2017 with a rotation of Cameron Fleming and LaAdrian Waddle, who were ineffective and are now both free agents. The Patriots drafted a possible replacement for Solder last year — third-rounder Antonio Garcia — but the Troy product is a project who missed his entire rookie season with an undisclosed injury. It would be risky at best to protect Brady’s blind side with Garcia.

    It’s likely the Patriots add a tackle this offseason, either with a high draft pick or signing a cap casualty. Jason Peters and Jared Veldheer would make sense as short-term options who are likely to be released by their current employers. The Patriots also might look to draft a tackle with the 31st or 43rd overall selections in this year’s draft.

    New York Jets

    1. Pick up the fifth-year option on Leonard Williams. The Jets took the best player available when they drafted Williams with the sixth overall pick in the 2015 draft, and while his sack total fell from seven in 2016 to two in 2017, Williams wasn’t any less impactful. He finished the year with 25 knockdowns, a total that should usually result in something closer to an 11-sack campaign.

    Teams don’t often hand out fourth-year extensions to first-round picks — the only defensive linemen drafted under the new collective bargaining agreement to get such an extension are Robert Quinn and J.J. Watt — but Williams is in line for an expensive deal this time next year. Assuming the 23-year-old stays healthy and sees his sack total bounce back toward the mean in 2018, Williams should be in line for a five-year, $70 million extension next offseason.

    2. Cut Muhammad Wilkerson. While the Temple product is still talented enough to make the Jets regret this decision, his behavior behind the scenes suggests that he has checked out and doesn’t want to toil in the trenches for Gang Green any further. The 28-year-old has no trade value with three years and $49 million remaining on his deal, so the Jets will simply move on from a lineman who racked up 28.5 sacks between 2013 and 2015 before recording just eight over the past two seasons.

    The Jets can create $17 million in space by designating Wilkerson as a post-June 1 release, which would take them over $100 million in available cap space. Guess what they should do with that cap space?

    3. Go after Kirk Cousins. The rumor mill suggests that the Jets will go over the top to bring in Cousins, and given that their quarterback depth chart consists of Bryce Petty and Christian Hackenberg, you can understand why. The number that keeps coming up is $60 million in Year 1, which isn’t difficult for the Jets to pull off when they have that $100 million in space.

    I’ve run through a few Cousins contracts during this series, but here’s how the Jets can pay Cousins $60 million in his first year of a five-year, $150 million deal. GM Mike Maccagnan doesn’t like handing out deals with huge signing bonuses, and because the Jets have so much cap room, it makes sense for them to pay Cousins a relatively modest signing bonus (here $15 million) and instead take the brunt of the cap hit in Year 1 with a $35 million roster bonus:

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