This is Part 7 of an eight-article series that will provide a bird's eye view of where each team stands at the start of the offseason, looking at cap space, free agents, potential cap casualties and draft capital. We can't predict the future to perfection, but it helps to know this kind of stuff if you're drafting best-ball teams or making dynasty trades in February and early March before free agency begins.
We've already covered the NFC West, the NFC North, the NFC East, the NFC South, the AFC West and the AFC North. Now it's time for the AFC East, where the Bills and Patriots are developing a fierce rivalry while the Dolphins try to escape mediocrity and the Jets enter Year 2 of their latest rebuild.
Cap Space: -$8.2 million (23rd)
Potential Cap Casualties: WR Cole Beasley, C Mitch Morse, RG Daryl Williams, DT Star Lotulelei, LB A.J. Klein, OL Jon Feliciano, LB Tyler Matakevich
Detailed Cap Sheet: https://overthecap.com/salary-cap/buffalo-bills/
The Bills can free up $8.5 million by releasing Morse and/or $8.1 million with Williams, though both were 17-game starters last season and received adequate grades from PFF. For Beasley, it'd be $6.1 million in savings and only $1.5 million in dead money left behind, which probably makes sense after a down season (8.5 yards per catch) at age 32. Of course, Beasley might instead accept a pay cut, or else a short extension that lowers his 2022 cap hit.
Other potential cuts include backups Lotulelei ($4.1 million saved), Klein ($5.2 million), Feliciano ($4.1 million) and Matakevich (2.5 million), giving the Bills more flexibility than their No. 23 ranking in effective cap space would seem to suggest.
Key Free Agents: WR Emmanuel Sanders, CB Levi Wallace, DE Jerry Hughes, DE Mario Addison, OG Ike Boettger, DT Harrison Phillips, DT Vernon Butler, QB Mitchell Trubisky, RB Matt Breida
Draft Capital: 1st (25), 2nd (57), 3rd (89), 4th (128), 5th (167), 6th (183), 6th (202), 7th (229), 7th (244)
Wallace is the main attraction in this group of free agents, as the other three starters (Sanders, Hughes, Addison) are in their mid-30s. Plus, the Bills used their first two draft picks on defensive ends last spring, and have Gabriel Davis looking ready to step up alongside Stefon Diggs at wide receiver.
The (Way-Too-Early) Verdict: The Bills are in great shape, with no terrible contracts and easy exits from the not-so-good ones. They're also retaining a ton of talent, losing only four starters in free agency (and no true standouts) from a team that was one of the best in the league in both 2020 and 2021. On top of all that, they still own all their 2022 draft picks, and have a great opportunity this year with Josh Allen scheduled for a cap hit of only $16.4 million (that jumps to $39.8 million in 2023, pending restructure).
Buffalo is a friendly destination for any rookie wideout, and an early pick might even come right in as the No. 3 receiver behind Diggs and Davis if the Bills move on from Beasley. And while they're unlikely to use a first-round pick on RB or TE after breakouts from Devin Singletary and Dawson Knox, the Bills could add depth / backfield competition on Day 2. We may also see extensions for Singletary and/or Knox, both entering the fourth and final season of their respective rookie contracts. (ESPN Bills reporter Alaina Getzelberg suggests the O-line and D-line should be the priorities for Buffalo this offseason).
Cap Space: $56million (1st)
Potential Cap Casualties: WR DeVante Parker, S Eric Rowe, OL Jesse Davis
Detailed Cap Sheet: https://overthecap.com/salary-cap/miami-dolphins/
Parker isn't likely to be released, but given the injury-plagued 2021 and a new coaching staff for 2022, he could be a trade candidate, or else find his job in danger late in the game if he fails to impress at offseason practices and camp. While the team doesn't have any likely cuts that free up more than a few million, it's not really necessary anyway with all the cap space.
Key Free Agents: TE Mike Gesicki, WR Will Fuller, DE Emmanuel Ogbah, TE Durham Smythe, LB Elandon Roberts, QB Jacoby Brissett, RB Phillip Lindsay, RB Malcolm Brown, WR Albert Wilson, WR Mack Hollins, S Jason McCourty
Draft Capital: 1st (29), 2nd (50), 3rd (101), 4th (119), 4th (123), 5th (157), 6th (199), 7th (222)
The Dolphins have San Francisco's first-rounder instead of their own, a drop of 14 spots in the opening round. They also have a compensatory third-rounder rather than a regular-third round pick, but at least own an extra selection in the fourth (and otherwise have exactly one pick in each round).
The Dolphins can afford to spend big in free agency, as their own FA class includes only two guys who played two-thirds of the snaps on either side of the ball last year (Gesicki and Ogbah). The others are borderline-starter types or role players, apart from Fuller who missed nearly all of 2021 with a finger injury.
The (Way-Too-Early) Verdict: The wealth of cap space gives new coach Mike McDaniel a chance to bring in some of his own guys, assuming he can get on the same page with GM Chris Grier, who reportedly had issues with former coach Brian Flores. Unfortunately, McDaniel won't inherit a great roster or a ton of draft capital, and the recent allegations make team owner Stephen Ross look like a bumbling fool, at best.
A Shanahan disciple likely will want to focus on rebuilding one of the league's worst O-lines, hoping to spark a third-year breakout from QB Tua Tagovailoa, who showed some signs of progress in 2021 despite playing behind a line that ranked dead last in PFF's pass blocking grades and ESPN's pass-block win rate.
Tagovailoa could also use some receiving help even with Jaylen Waddle looking like a star, considering Gesicki's an impending free agent and DeVante Parker has struggled to stay healthy. Maybe that looks like another rookie, or perhaps a veteran like Allen Robinson, or they could even give Fuller another shot in Miami. With their backfield also subpar, the Dolphins could be in the mix for big-name additions at RB, WR and TE this offseason, though blocking is the more pressing concern (ESPN's Cameron Wolfe suggests they could add big names at WR and OT).
New England Patriots
Cap Space: $5 million (18th)
Potential Cap Casualties: WR Nelson Agholor, RG Shaq Mason, DL Davon Godchaux, DL Deatrich Wise
Detailed Cap Sheet: https://overthecap.com/salary-cap/new-england-patriots/
Agholor's $9 million base salary includes a $5 million guarantee, but after a quiet season, the Patriots may consider moving on despite eating a big dead-money charge (the $10 million can be spread between 2022 and 2023 evenly if Agholor is designated a post-June 1 cut, thus clearing ~$4.8 million in 2022 cap space).
The Pats could also save $5 million by cutting fellow receiver Kendrick Bourne, but an extension is much more likely given that he was better than Agholor last season. Other potential cuts would free up the following amounts of 2022 cap space: Mason ($7.4 million), Godchaux ($5 million), Wise ($4.9 million), Anderson ($2.7 million).
However, all besides Anderson were significant contributors last year, so the Patriots might focus on renegotiations to add cap space before free agency. Candidates include Matt Judon ($11 million base salary) and Hunter Henry ($9 million).
Key Free Agents: WR Jakobi Meyers (RFA), S Devin McCourty, CB J.C. Jackson, OT Trent Brown, C/G Ted Karras, LB Ja'Whaun Bentley, LB Dont'a Hightower, RB Brandon Bolden, K Nick Folk
Draft Capital: 1st (21), 2nd (54), 3rd (85), 4th (125), 6th (209)
If history is any guide, the Patriots will trade down to add more picks. They only own five at the moment, but that at least includes each of their own selections in Rounds 1-4.
Free agency could also be tough, as the Pats are middle of the pack in cap space and have a strong group of free agents that includes four starters from the defense and two from the O-line. Meyers is a restricted free agent and thus unlikely to leave, but interception-machine Jackson may have priced himself out of New England (he could also be franchise-tagged).
McCourty plans to play another season, per Mark Daniels of the Providence Journal, and while he'll probably stay with the Patriots, he'll still expect another decent payday after another strong season.
On the O-line, Karras earned PFF"s No. 15 grade out of 82 qualified guards last year, and he also has plenty of experience starting at center. The 380-pound Brown, meanwhile, missed half the season, but he graded out 34th of 83 at offensive tackle, similar to his marks from previous years. The Pats have always been good at replacing O-linemen, but it's still not optimal to lose two quality starters in one offseason, pecially when cap space and draft picks are at a premium.
The (Way-Too-Early) Verdict: The Patriots splurged last offseason, and while much of it worked, WR Nelson Agholor and TE Jonnu Smith provided minimal return on some pretty large contracts, and the Patriots don't have nearly as much flexibility this time around. They also have a strong free-agent class and a weak haul of draft picks, but there's reason to expect internal improvement in Mac Jones' second NFL season.
Whether or not Jones gets more help this offseason remains to be seen, as the Patriots have other gaps to plug and spent big on pass catchers just last year. That said, nobody would fault them if they made a splashy move for a wideout, hoping to further Jones' development and allow Jakobi Meyers to slide back to the type of secondary role for which he's better suited. Meyers and Hunter Henry seem like the safest bets for targets next year, with potential for significant growth beyond their 2021 numbers if Jones makes a leap of his own.
New York Jets
Cap Space: $35.1 million (6th)
Potential Cap Casualties: OT George Fant, C/G Connor McGovern, DT Sheldon Rankins, OT Greg Van Roten, TE Ryan Griffin
Detailed Cap Sheet: https://overthecap.com/salary-cap/new-york-jets/
The Jets can add around $10 million in cap space by cutting Fant and $9 million with McGovern, though both started 15 games on the O-line last season (with McGovern earning PFF's No. 9 grade among centers, and Fant checking in middle of the pack at OT). While I kind of figured they'd keep McGovern but not Fant*, coach Robert Saleh made it sound like he expects Fant to stay, recently noting that the veteran will compete with Mekhi Becton for the LT job in 2022..
Elsewhere, they can free up $5.4 million with Rankins, a disappointing first-round pick of the Saints who recorded three starts and three sacks after the Jets overpaid him last offseason. That's an easy one, while it'll be a tougher decision for the likes of Van Roten ($3.5 million), a solid backup, and Griffin ($3 million), an experienced tight end.
Key Free Agents: WR Jamison Crowder, WR Braxton Berrios, WR Keelan Cole, RT Morgan Moses, S Marcus Maye, DT Folorunso Fatukasi
Draft Capital: 1st (4), 1st (10), 2nd (35), 2nd (38), 3rd (69), 4th (109), 4th (115), 5th (145), 5th (162)
The Jets have two top-10 picks and four top-40 picks, putting them No. 1 in 2022 draft capital according to the old Jimmy Johnson chart. They also have an underwhelming free-agent class, with the main attraction (Maye) coming off a mediocre season that ended in early November with an Achilles tear.
Moses might be the second-most important piece from a real-life standpoint, though the Jets have options at tackle with Fant technically under contract and 2020 first-rounder Mekhi Becton hoping to bounce back from an injury-marred season. Either way, the Jets have options, and they also have a recent first-round pick (Alijah Vera-Tucker) at left guard.
At wide receiver, the Jets have three impending free agents who all are arguably at their best in the slot. Berrios is the most interesting at this point, and he'd make sense in New York as the slot specialist working between Elijah Moore and Corey Davis (then again, the Jets might want Moore in the slot quite a bit, in which case it'd make sense to get a No. 3 receiver who is less specialized).
The (Way-Too-Early) Verdict: The Jets have a wealth of cap space and draft picks, and they shouldn't have to spend much to keep their top free agents, if they even want them. Therein lies the problem... there's still not much talent on the roster, and it'll take more than one big offseason to bring the Jets anywhere near the Bills and Patriots in the AFC East.
In fantasy terms, the Jets do have an opportunity to give Zach Wilson all the on-field pieces he needs to succeed. Their track record with draft picks and signings obviously doesn't inspire confidence, nor did Wilson's performance last year, but there's a real chance he enters Year 2 with a solid O-line and an average or better group of pass catchers.