- Steve Muench, Scouts Inc.
The deadline for underclassmen to declare for the draft is Jan. 15 and we are three months away from the start of free agency. Still, it's never too early to start examining teams' potential team needs and possible fits for the 2014 draft. Adjustments can always be made along the way.
Here's an early look at the AFC East, where the Patriots continue their division dominance despite appearing vulnerable this year. So what do the Jets, Dolphins and Bills need to do to get back into the playoffs and compete for a championship? As usual, draft-eligible non-seniors are denoted with an asterisk.
Draft Position: No. 9 overall
Needs: Offensive line; tight end; outside linebacker
The Bills need to keep their 2013 first-round quarterback, EJ Manuel, upright. That starts with addressing the offensive line, where they need help at guard and right tackle.
The Bills need an outside linebacker who can push for the starting job opposite Manny Lawson, and it will be interesting to see if they pull the trigger on Buffalo linebacker Khalil Mack if he's there at No. 9. There should be talented offensive tackles on the board, but Mack is our No. 5 overall prospect and he fills a need.
Safety is also worth monitoring. Jairus Byrd and 31-year-old Jim Leonhard will be unrestricted free agents. There's no guarantee they'll sign Byrd to a long-term contract, and using the franchise tag may be a mistake considering his disappointment with that move last year. He missed almost all the off-season training program and then the first five games of the season with foot injuries. They should also look for a strong safety to push Leonhard even if he comes back.
Draft Position: No. 22 overall
Needs: Offensive line; defensive tackle; corner
Losing offensive tackle Jonathan Martin and offensive guard Richie Incognito may have cost the Dolphins a trip to the playoffs this year. Finding their replacements is an important piece to the puzzle when it comes to their success in 2014 and beyond, considering the punishment Ryan Tannehill, their young franchise quarterback, took this year. Tackle, where 34-year-old Bryant McKinnie and 32-year-old Tyson Clabo will be unrestricted free agents, is the greatest concern.
Cornerbacks Brent Grimes and Nolan Carroll will be unrestricted free agents, plus Dimitri Patterson is a 30-year-old journeyman coming off a season-ending injury. Injuries played a role in rookies Jamar Taylor (second round) and Will Davis (third round) failing to make an impact.
Defensive tackles Randy Starks and Paul Soliai will be 30-year-old free agents and it may be too expensive to bring both back, especially considering Jared Odrick will be a free agent in 2015 if they don't lock him up before that.
Draft Position: No. 28# overall
Needs: Tight end; interior OL; defensive tackle
Talented tight end Rob Gronkowski has undergone several surgeries since breaking his arm in 2012, he's missed 14 games over the past two seasons and he sustained a serious right knee injury in December. Michael Hoomanawanui and Matthew Mulligan aren't difference-makers in the passing game and they aren't under contract for next year.
Left offensive guard Logan Mankins is the only certainty when it comes to the interior offensive line, and he didn't have a great year by his standards. Center Ryan Wendell doesn't match up well with bigger defensive tackles and he will be a free agent. Right guard Dan Connolly can play center if Wendell doesn't return, but ideally, the Patriots should find a player to push him for a starting job.
Versatile Marcus Cannon could be the answer at right guard. The problem is they need an insurance policy in the event he needs to stay at right offensive tackle where Sebastian Vollmer's injury history is a concern.
At defensive tackle, 32-year Vince Wilfork and 33-year old Tommy Kelly are coming off of season-ending injuries. The Patriots have gotten admirable contributions from two unheralded rookies, a mid-season free agent signing and a player they gave up very little to acquire at the trade deadline, but they have been gashed by the run.
Finally, will New England re-sign corner Aqib Talib or will he sign elsewhere? He's been their best cover corner, so the Patriots could target a corner such as Michigan State's Darqueze Dennard in the first round if Talib leaves.
# Playoffs will determine the Patriots' final draft order.
Draft Position: No. 18 overall
Needs: Wide receiver; guard; outside linebacker
A second-round pick in 2012, Stephen Hill has landed on injured reserve with a knee issue each of his first two seasons and hasn't come close to realizing his potential. Santonio Holmes caught 23 passes in 11 games after missing most of last year with a foot injury. There's a chance he gets cut.
Right guard Willie Colon has landed on injured reserve three of the last four seasons. While he started 16 games this year, he reportedly tore his biceps in the regular season finale and he turns 31 in April. He's not under contract for next year, either. Left guard Vlad Ducasse, who will be an unrestricted free agent, lost his starting job to 2013 third-round pick Brian Winters. Winters needs to progress or they could be looking for his replacement in a year.
The Jets signed 33-year-old outside linebacker Calvin Pace to a one-year deal and he recorded a career-high 10 sacks. The problem is, even if they re-sign him, they can't expect that kind of production. Quinton Coples is a quality starter who flashed down the stretch, but he hasn't developed into the difference-maker the Jets thought they were getting when they took him 16th overall in 2012.
414dTodd McShay, Steve Muench and Kevin Weidl