NEW YORK — This could be the year.
You know, when Buffalo, Miami or the New York Jets (finally) step up and (finally) overtake New England for supremacy in the AFC East — something the Patriots have had for most of the last two decades.
Tom Brady has brought his six Super Bowl rings to Tampa Bay. The suddenly unretired Rob Gronkowski has joined him. Stephen Gostkowski, James Develin, Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins also are gone.
So, this is the perfect time for the Patriots’ division rivals to pounce, right?
Well, yeah. But not so fast.
Bill Belichick is still running things in New England. As long as that’s the case, the Bills, Dolphins and Jets take nothing for granted.
“I think it’s funny and comical that people are writing them off,” Buffalo general manager Brandon Beane said last week. “So, until we beat them, we’ve done nothing. And we’ve got our work cut out for us.”
That has been the theme for New England’s AFC East rivals over the past 19 years, when the Patriots won 17 division titles, including the last 11. The two times they didn’t take the top spot were 2002, when the 9-7 Jets won a three-way tiebreaker with the Patriots and Dolphins, and 2008, when Brady was lost for the season after injuring a knee in the opener.
So, forgive those in Buffalo, Miami and New York if they’re not necessarily having visions of New England sinking below them in the standings.
Belichick will have his work cut out for him, for sure. It isn’t even clear — well, to the rest of us, that is — who the starting quarterback will be post-Brady. Jarrett Stidham? Brian Hoyer? Someone not on the roster yet?
Belichick certainly has a plan. And that’s what makes everyone else wary.
“The team to beat in the East,” Beane said, “is the Patriots.”
NEW-LOOK NEW ENGLAND
No, the Patriots didn’t draft a QB. Nor a wide receiver, for that matter. But, they were busy shoring up other roster areas.
And, as the rest of the league knows, Belichick has a knack for finding players who become key contributors. That’s the hope, especially, for Kyle Dugger, New England’s surprise first pick in the second round. The safety from Division II Lenoir-Rhyne was one of four defensive players selected, along with linebackers John Uche (Michigan), Anfernee Jennings (Alabama) and Cassh Maluia (Wyoming).
Belichick added three offensive linemen, two tight ends and a kicker last week. The Patriots will also be wearing new uniforms, so there's a different look for New England. Except the guy running it all, of course.
“I think with all these players, the expectations are the same,” Director of Player Personnel Nick Caserio said. “It’s just really to come in and assimilate with the program."
Buffalo took an efficient approach to the draft in shoring up needs in the secondary and adding depth to other positions. That came after Beane and the Bills addressed many of their most pressing needs in free agency. They sent four draft picks – including this year’s first-rounder (No. 22) – to acquire receiver Stefon Diggs from Minnesota to give promising young quarterback Josh Allen a No. 1 target.
Buffalo’s first two selections, Iowa defensive end A.J. Epenesa and Utah running back Zack Moss, could contribute immediately in complementary roles.
WAVE OF NEWCOMERS
With an eye on the future, the Dolphins loaded up in the draft with 11 picks -- highlighted by quarterback Tua Tagovailoa.
The former Alabama star is still recovering from a hip injury that ended his college career and he could sit all season behind Ryan Fitzpatrick. The long-term health of Tagovailoa is key, of course, so the Dolphins selected a franchise-record three offensive lineman in the first four rounds, including USC tackle Austin Jackson 18th overall.
“That’s how you win in this league, with O-lines and D-lines, so we saw great value,” GM Chris Grier said.
New York GM Joe Douglas promised quarterback Sam Darnold’s parents he’d add playmakers and offensive line protectors for their son -- and he certainly gave it a shot.
The Jets drafted massive Louisville offensive tackle Mekhi Becton No. 11 overall and took Baylor speedy wide receiver Denzel Mims in the second round. They added Florida running back La’Mical Perine and Charlotte offensive lineman Cameron Clark, both in the fourth round. Third-round safety Ashtyn Davis from Cal could be an immediate contributor on defense and special teams.
“Roster-wise, I think Joe and the personnel department have done a great job as far as lining this thing up the right way,” coach Adam Gase said, “and finding the right type of guys and really the right fit for what we’re trying to do.”
AP Sports Writers Kyle Hightower, John Wawrow and Steven Wine contributed.