Let’s just get this out of the way: 2016 will not be the season that the Bills, Jets, or Dolphins overtake the Patriots in the AFC East.
That question gets asked every offseason in some variation, and we’ll probably hear plenty of it between now and Week 1. Tom Brady is facing a four-game suspension, the Patriots still don’t seem to have much of a running game, and their AFC rivals all made some good moves during NFL Draft weekend.
Of course, 12 games of Brady and four of Jimmy Garoppolo is still better than the other quarterback situations around the division. The Patriots still have the best coach in the game in Bill Belichick, and have a championship-caliber roster on both sides of the football, with Martellus Bennett joining Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman and young defenders Jamie Collins, Dont’a Hightower, and Malcolm Butler entering their prime.
So, no, we’re not going there yet. The Patriots’ reign is not going to end in 2016.
But their rivals did make some interesting moves last week. With 3 days, 7 rounds, 15 hours, and 253 draft picks in the books, let’s take a spin around the NFL and review the biggest developments from the draft, starting with the AFC East:
■ The Jets finished 10-6 last year, gave the Patriots fits in both games, and have a good thing going with Todd Bowles and GM Mike Maccagnan. And when the Jets avoided temptation at pick No. 20, taking talented Ohio State linebacker Darron Lee instead of overdrafting a quarterback, I thought it was a sure sign that the Jets deserve to be taken seriously.
And then in one fell swoop, they became the Same Old Jets again.
They succumbed to temptation in the second round, taking Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg 51st overall.
He may turn out to be a solid pro. He’s 6 feet 4 inches, 235 pounds, has a big arm, and comes from a pro-style offense. Hackenberg also never completed 60 percent of his passes in college, got worse throughout his three years in Happy Valley, and had some significant mechanical flaws. He needs to sit and develop for a few years to have a shot at a good NFL career.
The problem is the Jets took him in the second round, but Hackenberg will still carry first-round, “franchise quarterback” expectations. As soon as Ryan Fitzpatrick throws an interception, we foresee Jets fans clamoring for Hackenberg and a schism within the organization, causing a potential quarterback distraction or forcing Hackenberg to play too early.
The Jets just went through this with their last second-round quarterback, Geno Smith, and it hasn’t turned out so well. The second round has also been a graveyard for quarterbacks over the last decade. Other than Derek Carr and Andy Dalton, the round is littered with busts such as Smith, Pat White, Brian Brohm, Chad Henne, John Beck, Kevin Kolb, and Jimmy Clausen.
Good luck, Jets.
■ Rex Ryan was a bit like a fish out of water last year, given the reins of a 4-3 defense that he doesn’t normally run. That led to players such as Mario Williams dropping into coverage on certain downs, and not being too happy about it.
So the Bills used the draft to get Ryan defensive players who are better suited to his preferred 3-4 scheme — an excellent rush linebacker in Clemson’s Shaq Lawson at 19th overall, a physical, three-down inside linebacker in Alabama’s Reggie Ragland, and a stout 3-4 end in Ohio State’s Adolphus Washington, who can take on double teams.
But the Bills will keep spinning their wheels until they find a franchise quarterback, and it’s probably not Tyrod Taylor or fourth-round pick Cardale Jones.
■ The Dolphins look like they had a productive draft, the first one with Mike Tannenbaum and new GM Chris Grier running the show. Laremy Tunsil had a horrible draft night, but the Dolphins always need offensive line help, Tunsil was considered by many scouts to be the best lineman in the draft, and the Dolphins got the same player at No. 13 that they could’ve had at No. 8, the pick they originally had.
They then used their next three picks to fill voids — Baylor CB Xavien Howard replaces Brent Grimes, Alabama RB Kenyan Drake replaces Lamar Miller, and Rutgers WR Leonte Carroo replaces Rishard Matthews.
Our only issue with the Dolphins is we don’t love their cornerback depth. They took only one cornerback among eight picks and enter the season with Byron Maxwell, Bobby McCain, Howard, and not much else.
■ The Patriots should face at least two rookie quarterbacks this year. No. 1 pick Jared Goff and the L.A. Rams come to Foxborough in Week 13, and the Patriots travel to Denver to face Paxton Lynch and the Broncos in Week 15. They could also face Hackenberg in Weeks 12 or 16.
■ According to the NFL, 30 of 107 underclassmen — those with at least one year of eligibility remaining — went undrafted. Twenty of the 101 Senior Bowl participants went undrafted, and 37 Scouting Combine non-invitees were drafted, meaning that only 64.9 percent of Combine invitees (216 of 333) were selected.
■ The Bengals and Giants were the only teams to make all of their allotted draft picks without making any trades (although the Giants did give up a seventh-rounder last September for punter Brad Wing). Borrrring.
■ Interesting draft for Panthers GM and Mattapan native Dave Gettleman. He took yet another defensive tackle (Louisiana Tech’s Vernon Butler) with the 30th overall pick, despite already having Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short, then used his next three picks on cornerbacks to replace the departed Josh Norman.
Butler caused a bit of a stir before and after the draft, telling reporters that Lions GM Bob Quinn (formerly of the Patriots) promised that he would draft Butler with the 16th pick. Quinn instead took offensive tackle Taylor Decker.
“No one from my staff or our coaching staff has ever promised a player that we’re going to take him at any position,” Quinn said Saturday night.
■ The Browns emerged from the weekend with 14 draftees, including four wide receivers (Corey Coleman, the 15th overall pick, was a great choice). Interestingly, they didn’t bite on a quarterback until the third round, then went off script and took Southern Cal’s Cody Kessler, whose lack of arm strength doesn’t seem to make him an ideal fit in cold, blustery Cleveland. We’ll see if those Harvard guys know what they’re doing.
■ The Steelers used five of seven draft picks to shore up a leaky defense, and addressed their biggest need by taking cornerback Artie Burns in the first round and versatile CB/S Sean Davis in the second. The Steelers had grown too loyal to players such as Troy Polamalu and Ike Taylor in recent years, and their secondary became a mess.
■ The Texans are doing whatever they can to put talent around Brock Osweiler. After signing Lamar Miller, they drafted a ton of speed — receivers Will Fuller and Braxton Miller, and running back Tyler Ervin — then fortified their offensive line with second-round center Nick Martin.
■ The Colts know they have to do a better job of protecting Andrew Luck this year, and used two of their top three picks on a center (Ryan Kelly) and an offensive tackle (Le’Raven Clark).
■ Gotta love the Cowboys. Take a running back No. 4 overall (Ezekiel Elliott)? Sure! Take Jaylon Smith, who probably won’t play in 2016 and whose career is in question, in the second round? Why not! Jerry Jones never met a risk he wasn’t willing to take.
■ Glenn Gronkowski, younger brother of Rob, went undrafted. But the fullback did get one of the highest signing bonuses for an undrafted rookie, getting $15,000 to sign with his hometown Bills. TCU quarterback Trevone Boykin also got a $15,000 signing bonus from the Seahawks. The Patriots gave $17,500 guaranteed ($10,000 in signing bonus and $7,500 in salary) to cornerbacks Cre’von LeBlanc and V’Angelo Bentley.
And the Eagles took the rare step of guaranteeing $100,000 in base salary for undrafted guard Darrell Greene and $90,000 for undrafted linebacker Myke Tavarres, all but ensuring them at least a spot on the practice squad this year, if not the 53-man roster.