Patriots training camp preview: How the AFC’s power structure changed this offseason

Stop us if you've heard this before: New England's biggest challenger won't come from the AFC East.

Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield (6) runs a drill at the team's NFL football training facility in Berea, Ohio, Thursday, June 6, 2019. (AP Photo/Ron Schwane)
Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield runs a drill at the team's NFL football training facility in Berea, Ohio, Thursday, June 6, 2019. –AP

COMMENTARY

It’s July, which across much of the major American sports landscape means it’s team-building time. The NBA and NHL have both begun their free-agent bonanzas, while baseball’s trade deadline will dominate discussion about that sport between now and its arrival on the 31st.

In football, though, this month brings a different type of team building. Most of the offseason transactions have already been made, so entering July means that by the time the calendar flips next NFL training camps will be underway, and clubs will be in the process of whittling down to 53 players and preparing for the new season.

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Once again — for the fourth time in the past five seasons, and ninth in 18 campaigns — AFC teams will set out on that journey with the big-picture purpose of overtaking the Patriots, the reigning kings of the conference who themselves return to defend their crown with what Pro Football Focus has declared the best roster in all of football.

It’s not the same roster that won New England’s sixth Super Bowl. In fact, with the retirement of Rob Gronkowski and the exit of Trey Flowers to Detroit, it’s arguably worse. The Pats were not among the teams to make a big splash this spring, opting instead to re-sign lesser portions of their own talent and take shots on more accomplished veterans whose accomplishments could well be completely behind them.

After all of the various transactions, though, have any of those other teams caught up to — or even closed — the gap on New England? With training camp now roughly three weeks away, here’s a look at how that question may be answered at different levels of the AFC hierarchy:

WITHIN THE AFC EAST: No.

It may be mildly surprising to some, but this is actually the first time in three years that the Patriots are the only AFC East team coming off a playoff berth. The Dolphins were in the mix for a while, and in control of their place in the postseason after beating the Pats with the logic-defying miracle at Miami in early December, but dropped three straight from there, and ultimately finished at 7-9.

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By virtue of that collapse, last season also marked the first since 2012 in which only one East team finished at 8-8 or better. And while there may be reasons for each of the three teams to be optimistic in the long term, it still appears highly unlikely that an active offseason for each of the three also-rans will do anything to shake up the divisional dynamics.

That woeful close to 2018 prompted the Dolphins to push the reset button, beginning with the firing of coach Adam Gase and eventually resulting in a near-total tear down. The team parted ways with quarterback Ryan Tannehill, too, executing a draft-day trade with the Cardinals for Josh Rosen, who went third overall in 2018. He’s now at the helm of the operation on the field, while ex-Patriots defensive coach Brian Flores heads the Dolphins on the sidelines.

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Both offer reasons for hope. However, the rest of what Miami did this offseason — its highlight free-agent signings were likely former Pats Dwayne Allen and Eric Rowe — suggests 2019 is probably hopeless.

Gase was tossed off the sinking ship in Miami but didn’t remain out of work for long, quickly agreeing to be the Jets’ head coach, and actually given control of player personnel for a period after the team axed general manager Mike Maccagnan in mid-May.

That unorthodox decision came after the draft, and after a free-agent period in which New York was able to attract some big names. Le’Veon Bell sat out last season, but figures to be a big-time weapon out of the backfield. Linebacker C.J. Mosley was signed away from the Ravens, for whom he was voted a second-team All-Pro in four of his five seasons. Former Redskins receiver Jamison Crowder is a productive pass-catcher.

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But coming off a 4-12 season in which they ranked 29th on defense and 23rd offensively, the Jets offseason places almost all of the impetus for improvement on second-year quarterback Sam Darnold, whose rookie season featured 17 touchdown passes, 15 interceptions, and a passer rating of 77.7. Decent enough numbers to build upon, but nothing to suggest he’s ready to unseat Brady.

Like the Dolphins and the Jets, the Bills have also entrusted their quarterback duties to a first-round choice from the draft class of 2018, their wagon tied to Josh Allen. He wound up with more interceptions (12) than touchdowns (10), and with a rating (67.9) about 10 points lower than Darnold’s. He gained a lot of yards with his legs, though as a pure passer he’s probably behind the two other classmates in his division.

Give Buffalo credit, though, for doing what a team should when trying to build around a young QB: They gave him protection and pieces that play to his strengths. The Bills used their first-round pick to draft a defensive tackle who’ll try to replace the retired Kyle Williams, but otherwise dedicated the bulk of their resources to signing five offensive lineman, drafting a sixth, signing slot receiver Cole Beasley from the Cowboys and speedy downfield target John Brown from the Ravens.

They’ve made an effort to surround Allen with a pocket, first and foremost, and with options at different levels of the passing game. It may be difficult to hide all of his deficiencies, but the Bills have at least created a structure in which he can improve and build confidence that could pay dividends — probably after Brady retires.

AMONG THE AFC’s OTHER PLAYOFF TEAMS: It’s still the Patriots’ conference to lose.

The Chiefs and Chargers may contest the very premise that they’ve got to catch up to the Patriots, based on what they did in 2018. Kansas City earned the No. 1 seed by posting a 12-4 record, then twice took fourth-quarter leads before falling in overtime of the AFC Championship. Had the coin flipped once more, they may well be entering this year as the team to beat. And the Chargers could carry a similar lament. They also went 12-4, better than the Patriots’ 11-5, but because of rules about seeding and division winners they were forced to travel to Foxborough for the Divisional playoff and got whacked on the road.

Neither Kansas City nor Los Angeles needed to get a whole lot better going into 2019 — and that feeling was reflected in a relatively quiet offseason for each. The Chiefs added the Honey Badger to their defensive backfield, and also brought in the Seahawks’ edge rusher Frank Clark. But the addition of Tyrann Mathieu basically just offsets the loss of Eric Berry from their safety group, and they lost both Justin Houston and Dee Ford up front on a defense that was already a liability. They could also be missing Tyreek Hill for some time, with a potential player-conduct suspension hovering over the franchise that cut Kareem Hunt last year. On top of all that, it’s a big ask if they’re counting on Patrick Mahomes to be as unbelievably good as he was last year.

The Chargers didn’t lose much beyond receiver Tyrell Williams and safety Jahleel Addae — but they didn’t add much, either, essentially stopping at linebacker Thomas Davis. Coach Anthony Lynn appears to be building something, so continuity could is a good thing, but it remains to be seen how that group responds to the 41-28 whooping it took at Gillette Stadium in January.

Another team that believes its building toward something is the Colts, who used much of their available salary cap space to retain players at risk of leaving, but still had enough to add Houston and Spencer Ware (another defector from the Chiefs), and also got some help for the resurgent Andrew Luck by bringing receiver Devin Funchess aboard on a one-year deal.

The Colts were dangerous a year ago, winning 11 of 12 to reach the Divisional round, and in their second-year under Frank Reich could be in position to unseat the Texans in the AFC South. Indianapolis went to Houston in January and came away with a 21-7 triumph, but even after that humbling the Texans didn’t do much to upgrade. They lost Mathieu and potentially downgraded at two other spots in their secondary. Meanwhile, star Jadeveon Clowney refuses to sign his franchise tag. And all the Texans did to address allowing a league-high 62 sacks was to draft tackles, both with some question marks, in the first two rounds.

The AFC’s other playoff team, the Ravens, appear to have taken a step back after relying heavily on the NFL’s No. 2 scoring defense in 2018. They lost Mosley, pass rusher Terrell Suggs, and safety Eric Weddle — arguably their most important piece at all three levels of the unit — and while safety Earl Thomas comes in with a big reputation, there are questions about what he has left. Offensively, they spent draft capital to try and add pieces around Lamar Jackson, though an already challenged group will now be working with less wiggle room.

All of that considered, the tussle for the top of the AFC could include more teams than it has in some time. With the Chiefs, Chargers, Colts, and Texans, there figure to be at least four teams in the range of 11-12 wins, and fighting the Patriots for a first-round bye. Yet there’s not a team among that group that appears to have surged past New England. Rather, it’s a collection of clubs seeking to sustain what they’ve started to build with still-developing foundation pieces. If they can do so, they’ll be in the mix.

But sustainability is what the Patriots do better than anybody.

AMONG LAST YEAR’S ALSO-RANS: Beware the Browns?! Not yet.

The Steelers have been teetering for a few years, and without Antonio Brown their 9-6-1 season could well devolve into the first losing year since Mike Tomlin took over. The Broncos were flirting with a playoff run at times last season, and traded for Joe Flacco, but over the past two offseasons their defense has taken some significant hits, and they’re in a good division. The Raiders added Brown, but are also in the West, where they’re slotted as the fourth-best team.

In the South, the Jaguars made a big splash in giving Nick Foles more than $40 million in guaranteed cash to play quarterback, but he’s got little to work with, and the defense isn’t the same group that probably should’ve punched a ticket to face Foles in the Super Bowl a couple years ago. A playoff team two years ago, Mike Vrabel’s Titans are interesting, after adding Tannehill for some Marcus Mariota insurance, signing receiver Adam Humphries before the Patriots could, and being aggressive in efforts to bolster the offensive line. Despite that, though, they still appear a notch below both the Colts and Texans — let alone the Patriots.

The Bengals may be a notch below everybody when all is said and done, but it’s their division’s usual doormat that has the best chance of rattling the order within the conference. The sexiest thing the Browns did this offseason was trading for Odell Beckham Jr. from the Giants, though star receivers don’t always translate to victories, so it was important that the Browns also focus on building stability this offseason. They did that by retaining interim coach Freddy Kitchens and adding veteran pieces like defensive lineman Olivier Vernon, among others.

That should help continue what they’ve begun building around a young core that includes 2018 offensive breakouts Baker Mayfield and Nick Chubb. It’s a good start. They’re certainly on the rise. The pieces are intriguing. The question will be whether Cleveland has done enough to fortify its defense, which ranked 20th in points allowed, but finished on the cusp of the top 10 in terms of yardage. Aside from Vernon, it isn’t obvious where else they’ve made major upgrades on that side. And now there are expectations, too. It was considered an achievement to go 7-8-1.

Still, that’s a long way from truly competing for the top of the AFC — especially with Brady and Belichick still holding the crown.