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Teams in the AFC East are loading up in free agency, and that’s a bad sign for the Patriots

Dynamic receiver Tyreek Hill was introduced as a Dolphin on Thursday.Mark Brown/Getty

Linebacker Matthew Judon has been trying to recruit for the Patriots since NFL free agency began March 16.

He tweeted at Jarvis Landry: “I’ll take the pay cut.” He told Odell Beckham Jr.: “Foxborough will love you my G.” Judon also tweeted at receiver Josh Gordon and cornerbacks Joe Haden, Kevin King, and Stephon Gilmore.

Wednesday night, Judon tweeted again. It was a GIF of Woody Woodpecker taking three big cuts at a baseball — and whiffing each time.

“You’re TERRIBLE at this,” Patriots safety Devin McCourty chided Judon. “Don’t quit your day job.”

The start of free agency hasn’t been easy for Patriots players or fans. The AFC is loading up, and the Patriots are shopping in the bargain bin. Or, in some cases, not shopping at all.


Most alarmingly, the team’s rivals in the AFC East are making big improvements. The Bills added future Hall of Fame pass rusher Von Miller. The Dolphins got Tyreek Hill from the Chiefs and have shattered the spending record the Patriots set last year. Even the Jets are quietly adding nice pieces around quarterback Zach Wilson.

The AFC East was close on paper last year; the Bills won the division at 11-6, followed by the 10-7 Patriots and 9-8 Dolphins. But the Patriots went 1-4 head-to-head against the Bills and Dolphins, and were handled easily by both teams at the end of the year. Winning the division is the clearest path to the playoffs, and the Patriots look as if they have fallen significantly behind those two rivals.

Let’s take a closer look at the moves made by the other AFC East teams.


The Bills aren’t making many major changes after losing in heartbreaking fashion to the Chiefs in the divisional round. They lost offensive coordinator Brian Daboll, but should still have an explosive offense with Josh Allen throwing to Stefon Diggs, Gabriel Davis, and Dawson Knox.


The Bills are mostly tinkering — adding new defensive tackles in DaQuan Jones and Tim Settle and a new guard in Rodger Saffold; swapping out slot receiver Cole Beasley for the Jets’ Jamison Crowder; signing tight end O.J. Howard to a modest contract.

But they made sure to take one home run swing, and they connected with Miller, stealing him away from the Rams, Broncos, and other suitors. They got him on a six-year, $120 million pact, but there’s a lot of window dressing. It’s really a three-year commitment that will pay Miller between $45 million and $53 million.

New Bills linebacker Von Miller turns 33 Sunday.Mark Ludwiczak/Associated Press

There’s certainly some risk in this contract. Miller turns 33 Sunday, he missed all of 2020 with an ankle injury, and he was hobbled by an ankle injury for parts of 2021.

But Miller got healthy down the stretch for the Rams, was a dominant force with nine sacks in his last eight games, and was nearly unblockable in the Super Bowl win over the Bengals. Paired with veteran pass rusher Shaq Lawson, who also signed with Buffalo this offseason, Miller could be the piece that finally puts Buffalo over the top.


Remember last year when the Patriots set an NFL record by spending a little more than $175 million fully guaranteed in free agency? The Dolphins blew that mark out of the water in the first week of 2022.


The unofficial tally as of Thursday evening was $199.186 million fully guaranteed, and that doesn’t even account for every signing.

Owner Stephen Ross seemed determined to make a splash this offseason, one way or another. His plan to land Sean Payton and Tom Brady fizzled, so instead he hired offensive whiz kid Mike McDaniel from the 49ers and opened his wallet in free agency.

Almost all of the Dolphins’ big moves came on offense. They sent their first-, second-, and fourth-round picks to the Chiefs for Hill, then signed him for $72.5 million guaranteed over the next three seasons.

They added the best offensive lineman in free agency by giving Saints left tackle Terron Armstead $43.37 million guaranteed. They re-signed pass rusher Emmanuel Ogbah for $32 million guaranteed. Former Cowboys receiver Cedrick Wilson got $12.75 million.

Tight end Mike Gesicki got the franchise tag at $10.931 million. Guard Connor Williams got $7.5 million. Speedy running backs Chase Edmonds and Raheem Mostert got $7.1 million combined. Backup QB Teddy Bridgewater got $6.5 million.

And this list doesn’t include some of the lesser Dolphins deals.

Terron Armstead wore a Dan Marino jersey to his introductory press conference with the Dolphins.Mark Brown/Getty

The Dolphins brought back defensive coordinator Josh Boyer and are hoping to build off last year’s defense, which finished No. 2 in points allowed over the second half of the season. But now they have one of the fastest offenses in the NFL, with receiver Jaylen Waddle, Hill, Gesicki, Edmonds, and Mostert. Good luck, Patriots secondary.

Of course, it all hinges upon quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, who has underwhelmed in his first two NFL seasons. There are no excuses for him anymore now that the Dolphins have given him every weapon he could dream of.


Tagovailoa is an accurate passer who has shown he can get the ball out of his hands quickly. McDaniel comes from an offense in San Francisco that was effective in creating space for Deebo Samuel and George Kittle, who finished second and 12th in the NFL in yards after catch in 2021. Hill and Waddle could be scary in this scheme.

The Dolphins finished just one game behind the Patriots in 2021, and they have beaten New England in four of the past five matchups. Unless the Patriots make some major additions on both sides of the ball, it looks as if the Dolphins have passed them as the second-best team in the AFC East.


You will be hard-pressed to find anyone who thinks the 4-13 Jets will be ready to compete in 2022. But unlike the Patriots, the Jets are spending money and have added some nice pieces around Wilson, their second-year quarterback.

The Jets took a page out of the Patriots playbook by signing two tight ends — the Bengals’ C.J. Uzomah and Vikings’ Tyler Conklin, who combined for 1,086 yards and eight touchdowns last year. Uzomah got $15 million guaranteed, Conklin $10 million.

C.J. Uzomah should be a nice weapon for Jets QB Zach Wilson.Kevin C. Cox/Getty

Slot receiver Braxton Berrios developed a nice rapport with Wilson at the end of the year, and the Jets brought him back on a reasonable two-year, $12 million deal. They also beefed up their offensive line by giving $26 million guaranteed to 49ers guard Laken Tomlinson.


The Jets are still in the early stages of their rebuild, but at least you can see the team coming together.

Ben Volin can be reached at ben.volin@globe.com.