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Don’t expect much shuffle

Not many wild-card additions to AFC East

By Greg A. Bedard
May 2, 2011

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With the NFL draft in the books, the question is, will we see any shift in the AFC East next season?

If last season is any indicator, probably not.

The Buffalo Bills, Miami Dolphins, and New York Jets got little to no help out of their 2010 draft classes. Of course, players such as running back C.J. Spiller (Buffalo), defensive end Jared Odrick (Miami), and cornerback Kyle Wilson (New York) very well could make a larger impact in the future.

The Patriots were a different story.

They got a big boost from cornerback Devin McCourty and tight end Rob Gronkowski, and solid contributions Aaron Hernandez, Zoltan Mesko, Brandon Spikes, and Jermaine Cunningham.

Even so, the Patriots ended up with the same result: division title (with a four-game improvement) without a playoff victory.

In short, there was no immediate cosmic shift because of the draft.

Expect the same this year. The Patriots and Jets are still among the AFC’s elite, and the Dolphins and Bills are playing catch-up.

If there was one theme in this draft among the AFC East brethren, they all tried to bolster one of their lines in the first round.

The Patriots took left tackle Nate Solder, a physically gifted player who disappointed at the Senior Bowl but has the tools to be an elite player.

The Jets took defensive lineman Muhammad Wilkerson (and another tackle, Kenrick Ellis, in the third round) to make up for the expected loss of nose tackle Kris Jenkins and the potential free agent departures of Shaun Ellis and Trevor Pryce.

The Dolphins addressed the interior of their offensive line by plucking Mike Pouncey out of Florida to start at center. He should, finally, give Miami a way to somewhat neutralize Patriots nose tackle Vince Wilfork.

And the league’s worst run defense got some help when the Bills took mammoth Alabama tackle Marcell Dareus with the third overall pick. A Dareus pairing with the underrated but exceptional Kyle Williams gives the Bills a solid foundation for their 3-4 defense — if they can find a pass rusher. Second-round pick Aaron Williams from Texas should start at either cornerback or safety.

But as with the Dolphins, the Bills continue to search for a quarterback.

Once Cam Newton, Jake Locker, Blaine Gabbert, and even Christian Ponder went off the board in the top half of the first round, the Bills opted to skip the next tier of quarterbacks. They viewed that group as strictly backups.

The Bills will go with former Harvard quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick as their starter, pending a plunge into free agency.

The Dolphins also will go with the status quo in Chad Henne.

Miami attempted to trade up in the third round to draft Ryan Mallett, according to the Miami Herald.

“We were willing to take him, we just couldn’t get our hands on him,’’ a source with knowledge of the front office’s thinking told the paper. “We tried, but we couldn’t do it. He’s going to be a good quarterback.’’

After leaking their intent to draft Mallett in an attempt to get a team to overpay for the spot, the Patriots ultimately drafted the talented but troubled Arkansas quarterback at No. 74 — perhaps to keep him out of rival hands.

The Dolphins never have been shy about making a splash in free agency so perhaps they’re looking at Matt Hasselbeck or Marc Bulger, or possibly a trade for Carson Palmer.

If not, it will be Henne’s job again. He’ll need to show much better decision-making and a quicker release to swim in the AFC East.

The Dolphins are hoping the additions of running back Daniel Thomas — who the Dolphins insist ran 4.55 in the 40 but most teams had at 4.68 — and receiver Edmond Gates can give Henne immediate help.

Even if the Bills and Dolphins get improved play from their quarterback, no one expects them to compete for the division title.

That again will come down to the Jets and Patriots.

And while New England has won the AFC East in both years since New York hired Rex Ryan as coach, the Jets have won three of the five head-to-head matchups and have four playoff victories and two AFC Championship game appearances. The Patriots don’t have one of either.

The selection of Wilkerson 30th overall could spice up the rivalry. The Patriots had a need for a large and athletic defensive end like the Temple product, who was high on the draft boards of many teams with a 3-4 defense.

Bill Belichick traded out of the 28th spot for essentially two second-round picks, since the 2012 first-rounder the Saints surrendered will be a high number.

If Wilkerson wreaks havoc in the NFL — especially against the Patriots — Ryan is sure to take great and public pleasure in one-upping Belichick.

Of course, if Wilkerson flops, Belichick will say nothing and look wise. Just like he did in taking McCourty (Pro Bowl) over Wilson (buried deep on the bench) late in the first round last year.

That decision helped the Patriots continue their division dominance in the regular season.

It’s the postseason that needs work.

Greg A. Bedard can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @greg_a_bedard.

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