1. QB. The Bills now regret re-signing Fitzpatrick to a $62 million extension in the middle of 2011, perhaps a hasty decision even at the time. Now new Head Coach Doug Marrone and his regime will have to decide what to with the Harvard quarterback. Cutting him can save the team nearly $500,000 in cap space and even more in actual cash, which makes his divorce with Buffalo likely. From there, the Bills have a couple of bottom of the barrel starters to choose from in free agency, a draft class of quarterbacks that does not include a Luck or Griffin, and the dead cap space of Fitzpatrick already committed to the position. Still, this is a position that must be upgraded for the future.
2. DE/OLB. Mario Williams got going down the stretch finishing with 10.5 sacks, but the defensive front as a whole did not apply nearly enough pressure on the quarterback. With the hire of Jets defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, it'll be interesting to see what base front he installs in Buffalo. Though Pettine added more 4-3 looks in 2012—something this defensive line seems best suited for—his bread and butter has been an aggressive 34 base. Their pursuit of another pass rusher should give some indication of which direction the team is leaning.
3. WR. While Fitzpatrick certainly didn't live up to his billing as a solid starting quarterback in 2011, there's blame to be shared by the receiving corps who failed to provide much help. Besides locking up Stevie Johnson long term, the Bills could use a bigger receiver opposite him. The team has drafted and acquired depth over the past few years through middle rounds and free agency, but hasn't made a concerted effort to bring in another imposing threat.
4. LB. Despite adding talented defensive linemen the past two seasons, the defense still remains porous against the run, finishing 31st in total rush defense and 30th in yards per carry. Adding downhill thumpers may be what the team needs—players that can maintain gap integrity and shed blocks playing a straight line to the ball. There should be veteran options in free agency if they want to shore this need up in the short run.
5. CB. Leodis McKelvin never materialized into his first round talent, but as a free agent could be brought back to contribute in subpackages. Regardless, the team will continue to look for a second starting corner behind their first round pick a year ago, Stephon Gilmore who was an atypical bright spot for the Bills in pass defense. If Pettine's defense is to be anything like the one he and Rex employed in New York, it will put great stress on the corners to win match-ups on the outside.
New York Jets:
1. QB. To call quarterback the greatest position of need is a little deceiving as it would be wise of the Jets to take a different approach than last time when they sacrificed many draft picks for Mark Sanchez, a quarterback just not quite on that tier. With the blueprint of how not to build for the future, the Jets should remain patient as they search for a player they feel can be groomed for the position while building up the rest of the offense if they feel that quarterback isn't available. With difficulties in moving Sanchez this year, there could be worse stopgaps then bringing in a roster cut to compete with him this year. The Jets actual biggest need is to remember that this isn't a one-year rebuilding plan.
2. OL. With Nick Mangold and D'Brickashaw Ferguson, the Jets have two premier talents at the two premium positions on the line. Brandon Moore, their other quality starter at right guard will be 33, a free agent and is no guarantee to return. When they were making their consecutive AFC Championship runs, offensively they did so with the league's best offensive line. That formula for success is something they'll look to find again, especially with rumors suggesting they'll pursue an upgrade at running back this offseason. Finding a left guard will build a strong "left side," and should be enough to allow them to move the ball on the ground, but building up that right side will be important for balance.
3. 3-4 OLB. The decision to clean house and retain Rex Ryan may go down as a semi-controversial one, but watching the defense he's put together year after year with their anemic 4-man pass rush gives some justification to the decision. With Revis and Cromartie on the back-end, they'll look to continue to build the pass defense into the signature of the team. If they can add pass rushers to phase out their soon-to-be 33 year old linebackers, the formula of defense and a run game could carry them and Ryan to their next franchise quarterback.
4. FS. Their starters from a year ago, Bell and Landry, are both free agents. Landry played well and is a good candidate to return to the organization, but Bell should be passed up in favor of moving Landry to strong safety and pairing him with a free safety with deep range. The other challenge for the Jets has been defending tight ends where they are average at best in the league. With Gronkowski and Hernandez in their path to the division crown, this is an area that may receive more emphasis that it otherwise would.
5. Depth. Over the past 6 years, the Jets have averaged just over 5 draft picks per year while draft builders like the Packers and Patriots have averaged nearly 9 over the same time span. If nothing else, draft picks help build up depth to better endure midseason injuries. The Jets under Tannenbaum have drafted well, but just haven't drafted enough, allowing depth to thin out and the average age of the team to creep up. While the team has more positional needs, such as running back and inside backer, they could benefit greatly from a couple years of using the best player available philosophy.
New England Patriots:
1. S. Since Rodney Harrison's retirement, the Patriots have had difficulties finding an adequate, consistent replacement. They've been through a number of starters and may have found one in Devin McCourty, who has played well enough to holding a starting position heading into next year. At the other position, they've had stretches of good play with Brandon Meriweather and Patrick Chung in the recent past, only to find each of them regress to the bench. Steve Gregory is clearly not a solution
2. WR. After the 2006 season where the wide receiver position cost the team another shot at a Title, Bill Belichick has stopped at nothing to ensure it wouldn't happen again with Brady at the helm. Defensive improvements will be important, but maintaining firepower on offense even more. Wes Welker's contract situation and Belichick's hard stance a year ago will make for an interesting storyline this offseason. He's invaluable in the slot on 3rd downs and having to replace him instead of complement him would force the offensive design to change next year
3. DT. In the modern landscape of the NFL, every team should be studying available pass rushers with rigor. For the Patriots though, it goes beyond a generic need to one where they should try to find inside rushers, if for no other reason than to give Wilfork some rest. Having played nearly 85% of defensive snaps over the past two years compared to approximately 65% over the previous two years shows a undesirable trend for a 330-pound body at the age of 31. An interior rusher would benefit an average Patriots pass rush and help to preserve the legs and prolong the career of the team's best defensive player.
4. CB. Trading for Aqib Talib midseason has worked to shore up two holes for the defense. Primarily, it gives the team #1 corner they've lacked for many years now and a player who can force turnovers. Secondarily, his play on the perimeter has allowed Devin McCourty to move to safety, where vision to the football has helped his game immensely. Alfonzo Dennard figures to be the starter opposite Talib going forward, but with a lack of depth in addition to a number of upcoming free agents, including Talib, there figures to be decent turnover at the position this offseason.
5. OL Depth. With a combination of age, free agency, and watching Brady get beat up through the middle at an uncomfortable rate early in the season, the Patriots will look to address the offensive line. It's a unit that has improved as the season has gone on, but free agent right tackle Sebastian Vollmer could stir up some panic if he chooses to sign elsewhere. In the past when defenses have been able to stifle or contain the Patriots offense, it's been with pressure up the middle. It's an area they'll continue adding to.
1. WR. It's difficult to imagine Ryan Tannehill becoming a significantly better quarterback without better weapons in the passing game. Internally, the Dolphins have expressed interest in luring one of the big three free agents to Miami. Though Greg Jennings would seem to make the most sense given the Dolphins head coach, perhaps Bowe or Wallace could aid their young quarterback more with styles that rely less on ball placement on short to intermediate throws. Re-signing Brian Hartline to assume the eventual #2 position in the offense seems like a no-brainer.
2. OL. With a premier name and former #1 overall pick set to hit free agency, this could be an interesting decision where the Dolphins choose to pass on making an offer to Jake Long due to his piling injuries over the past two seasons. With depth also a concern, this isn't a unit they will fully solidify this offseason, but with steps in the right direction and simply adding talent regardless of position, they can build formidable unit by scattering Long's would-be salary to several players. In this case, it would free up starting positions at tackle or guard.
3. DB. With starters Chris Clemons and Sean Smith set to become free agents, their contract situations will play a big role in upper management's decision to acquire outside help. If Smith bails, cornerback would move from a strong to critical need. Miami has the money to pay him, but given his size and athleticism, market value may exceed his actual worth as teams bid on a scarce mold at corner. Though the pass rush played well, the secondary lacked corner depth and safety play to force takeaways and prevent teams from moving the ball on them through the air. Only three teams finished the year with fewer interceptions (10), leaving a big gap in playmaking in the secondary.
4. Front 7 Depth. Whether it's depth or a starter, Miami should look to get younger and faster in the front seven. Holding the right draft pick could find the Dolphins in a position to capitalize on a pass rusher at defensive end depending on how the board shakes out. But with an offensive-minded head coach and an offense in desperate need for some playmakers, they could go the free agent route on the D-Line. Into the second and third rounds, talent generally seems to remain at the non-premium positions, where the Dolphins could attempt to find a future starting linebacker.
5. TE. If the Dolphins choose to ignore receiver in free agency and focus on reinvesting money on their own players, there are a number of talented tight ends that could be available for bargain price. Their own Anthony Fasano is an unrestricted free agent and is a dependable player, but lacks explosiveness that offenses have been able to take advantage of around the league.
Continue to AFC North -->