Skip to main content

The state of the AFC East post-free agency — and where the Bills fit in

Buffalo Bills vs Miami Dolphins, Wild Card Game, January 15, 2023 at Highmark Stadium.
Buffalo Bills vs Miami Dolphins, Wild Card Game, January 15, 2023 at Highmark Stadium.

As the 2023 NFL season starts to get closer, teams are making constant tweaks and improvements to their rosters.

One stage of the offseason that everyone circles on their calendar is free agency. Since free agency started, significant moves have been made around the league — most notably in the AFC East. This year, the outlook heading into 2023 is that the AFC East is set to be a gauntlet — at least on paper.

The Bills have won the division three consecutive seasons, but every team in the AFC East has made moves to improve which means Buffalo will face quite a challenge to win it a fourth year in a row. The Dolphins made the playoffs as a Wild Card team, while both the Patriots and Jets were also in playoff contention late in the season.

All four teams in the division have gotten better this offseason — some more than others.

"I just think the AFC East is a nightmare," NFL Network's Cynthia Frelund told One Bills Live.

"There are very few Aaron Rodgers in the world and there are a lot more guys who are average.” Cynthia Frelund — NFL Network

First and foremost, the move that has the biggest potential impact is the expected trade of Aaron Rodgers to the New York Jets. On March 15, Rodgers announced on the Pat McAfee Show that his intention is to play for the Jets in 2023, which will require the Packers and Jets agreeing on a trade.

While the deal is yet to be completed at the start of April, all signs point toward Rodgers being a new division foe for the Bills come September. The Jets were in AFC Wild Card contention all the way through Week 17 and if they are able to add the four-time league MVP, it could spell trouble for the rest of the AFC East.

"At the end of the day, he is a needle mover," Frelund said. "There are very few Aaron Rodgers in the world and there are a lot more guys who are average."

Last season, the Jets ranked fourth in the league in yards allowed (311.1) and second in points allowed (18.6). They scored just 17.4 points per game on offense, ranking 29th in the NFL. An upgrade at QB would give the Jets the jolt they need to compete for a playoff spot again in 2023.

"They will have a very good offense (with Rodgers)," NFL Films Senior Producer Greg Cosell said. "He is still clearly a very darn good quarterback, he would make the Jets significantly better."

“More and more of these superteams appear to be manifesting in the AFC… it’s starting to look like the haves and have nots." Sam Monson — PFF lead NFL analyst

As the Jets negotiate a deal for Rodgers, the team has made several additions to their wide receiving core which already features Offensive Rookie of the Year in Garrett Wilson. They signed former Packers WR Allen Lazard to a four-year deal and former Chiefs WR Mecole Hardman to a one-year contract.

"In (the Jets') minds, Hardman was an important add because they wanted that vertical threat," Cosell said.

Over in Miami, the Dolphins have made defensive additions their priority in free agency after loading up on offense last offseason. Once the postseason wrapped up in February, Miami hired former NFL head coach and longtime defensive coach Vic Fangio to be their defensive coordinator.

"Going to Vic Fangio is a huge thing here, like that cannot be overstated the kind of impact he can have on this defense," said Sam Monson, Pro Football Focus Lead NFL Analyst.

The Dolphins then made a splash by trading for Rams All-Pro CB Jalen Ramsey to pair with CB Xavien Howard in the secondary. Miami also fortified their linebacker group with the signings of David Long Jr. and Malik Reed.

Monson described the AFC as a whole — not just the AFC East — as one big 'arms race' with teams in the conference loading up with star power. 

"More and more of these superteams appear to be manifesting in the AFC… it's starting to look like the haves and have nots," Monsoon shared.

One warning sign the PFF analyst did give about the Dolphins is that their secondary is older in age and could be susceptible to injuries. Ramsey, who will turn 29 in October, had shoulder surgery in June 2022 and Howard did not play a full season in 2022 and dealt with both hip and other injuries.

Still, Monson called both players 'great' fits for Fangio's scheme in Miami for 2023.

Added Frelund, "Now, (the Dolphins) have the front and back aligned. It is absolutely key in the AFC."

As the Jets and Dolphins have both made aggressive moves, the Patriots have kept status-quo for the most part. Their top WR Jakobi Myers signed with the Raiders but New England was able to sign former Chiefs wide out JuJu Smith-Schuster to a three-year deal in addition to TE Mike Gesicki and RB James Robinson.

"All these teams are making moves to compete with Buffalo, Kansas City and Cincinnati… and the Patriots are sitting there doing just business as usual," Monson said.

Now, it's important to distinguish that 'business as usual' does not mean the signings lack significance. It's more a statement to illustrate that the Patriots haven't done enough — at least initially in 2023 — to be true AFC East contenders, according to Monson.

"They aren't bad moves but it's difficult to see how that propels them to be in that conversation of teams we expect to be at the sharp end of the AFC Playoffs," he said.

There was however, one non-player addition that makes the Patriots more intriguing to watch in 2023.

"The bigger get is Bill O'Brien," Cosell explained.

O'Brien is back in Foxborough as the Patriots offensive coordinator after being an offensive assistant in the organization from 2007-2011. O'Brien was most recently the offensive coordinator for the Alabama Crimson Tide. 

"You need an offense that is well schemed and well-designed and we know Bill O'Brien can do that in the National Football League," Cosell added.

So, where do the Bills stand in the AFC arms race?

According to Mike Sando from The Athletic, one NFL executive thinks the Jets and Dolphins are “closing the gap” on the Bills, while another executive still feels comfortable with Buffalo's window of Super Bowl contention due to their QB.

"With Josh Allen there, they will always have a window. But their best chance is going to be in the next year or two. And if Aaron Rodgers comes into the division and the Dolphins are better, the degree of difficulty is getting harder," the exec told The Athletic.

Buffalo is still "the team to beat" in the AFC East according to The Athletic and a few under-the-radar moves have given the team depth heading into 2023. Much of the praise so far been directed at the Bills' re-signing of Jordan Poyer — and for good reason — but he's not the only move where the team got better.

Newly-signed wide receivers Trent Sherfield and Deonte Harty give the Bills two different styles of pass-catchers.

"Harty can really get over the top and he's really, really good on run after catch," Cosell said, while adding that Sherfield's value will be in the short to intermediate passing game.

The Bills went on to sign two offensive lineman in guards David Edwards and Conner McGovern that have the potential to push for a starting role.

"One of those guys is going to start, if not both, barring anything unforeseen," Cosell stated.

The NFL free agency frenzy is just one step of Buffalo's roster building each season and the team has six picks in the NFL Draft from April 27-29 to address remaining roster concerns. On paper, the AFC East is shaping up to be a competitive race from top to bottom and the Bills know they have more opportunities between now and the start of the season to continue to bolster their roster.

Check out the best photos from Buffalo Bills Free Agency 2023 as players sign their contracts, meet with the media and tour the Bills facility.

Related Content