It remains to be seen whether the AFC East is the best division in football, but this much already is certain: After a dizzying series of transactions in the first week of free agency, it is the most interesting.
While the Patriots remain the class of the division and continue to look down on the competition while boasting the fourth Super Bowl title in the Bill Belichick-Tom Brady era, the Jets, Bills and Dolphins took significant steps to close the gap between them and the defending champs. Not only that, but the Patriots' roster is not as good today as it was when they beat the Seahawks in Super Bowl XLIX.
That's not to say the Patriots shouldn't be the divisional favorites heading into next season. But with all three divisional opponents making major moves via free-agent signings and trades, this should be a much closer race than it was in previous years.
Start with the Patriots themselves. They did re-sign free safety Devin McCourty, a mainstay of the defensive backfield. But they said goodbye to veteran defensive tackle Vince Wilfork in a salary-cap dump, and both starting cornerbacks from last season are gone. Darrelle Revis signed a five-year, $70-million deal with the Jets and Brandon Browner signed a three-year, $15-million deal with the Saints.
Belichick no doubt will replace the two as best he can, whether it be with second- or third-tier free-agent cornerbacks or draft picks. But Browner and Revis proved to be huge additions last season, and the Patriots will be hard-pressed to replace them.
The Jets already look like a much better team now than they were just a few days ago. First-year general manager Mike Maccagnan went on a spending spree, helped by former GM John Idzik's salary-cap bonanza, and the Jets have addressed the defensive backfield in dramatic fashion. Maccagnan came away with cornerbacks Revis, Antonio Cromartie and Buster Skrine, safety Marcus Gilchrist, wide receiver Brandon Marshall, quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick and guard James Carpenter. He also re-signed linebacker David Harris and running back Bilal Powell.
The Jets still are challenged at quarterback with Fitzpatrick and incumbent Geno Smith, but the supporting cast already is much better than it was last year. And there's still the draft, where the Jets might have a shot at Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota.
Rex Ryan must be shaking his head seeing the Jets sign all those cornerbacks, because he could have used a few good ones last season. But the new Bills coach has to like what he has in Buffalo, especially with newly acquired running back LeSean McCoy. Ryan also traded for quarterback Matt Cassel, who can be the game manager for Ryan's "Ground & Pound" offense. Ryan also has inherited an already terrific defense off the Bills' 9-7 team last season.
Former Jets GM Mike Tannenbaum has wasted no time in showing his aggressiveness with the Dolphins as the team's top football executive. The Dolphins landed prized free-agent defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh and signed Browns free-agent tight end Jordan Cameron. The man known as "Trader Mike" also acquired Saints wide receiver Kenny Stills in exchange for linebacker Dannell Ellerbe and a third-round pick.
Lots of moves in the AFC East, and plenty more to come in a division that suddenly just might be the most compelling in the league.