The AFC East got more competitive because of the NFL draft, an event which saw every team in the division acquire talented players that could contribute to a playoff berth and, in one or two cases, perhaps a playoff run.
The grades are good for the four AFC East teams — the Dolphins, New York Jets, Buffalo Bills and New England Patriots. They’re all bunched fairly close to a grade of ‘B,’ meaning no one was especially impressive, but everyone was at least a bit above average.
A quick pause for the official disclaimer: Keep in mind it usually takes three years to fully analyze a draft class and these are first-impression grades.
Now, back to business.
Coincidentally, three of the four AFC East teams selected a defensive player with their top pick, and specifically a defensive player who largely helps defend against the pass — two cornerbacks and an edge rusher. In a division that’s pretty quarterback-heavy among the Dolphins’ Tua Tagovailoa, the Jets’ Aaron Rodgers, the Bills’ Josh Allen and the Patriots’ Mac Jones (hey, he’s been to a Pro Bowl and the playoffs), those are interesting picks.
The other first-round pick was a tight end, in this case a receiving tight end as opposed to a blocking one, meaning it’s someone who helps the passing game and the quarterback.
The grinders, the offensive and defensive linemen, and the linebackers, were selected later among AFC East teams.
Going one more step with the passing game theme, recall two teams in ‘win-now’ mode, the Dolphins and Jets, involved their 2023 first-round picks in trades to acquire veteran Pro Bowl players. The Dolphins gave Denver their first-round pick in the trade to acquire edge rusher Bradley Chubb last season, and the Jets swapped first-rounders with Green Bay in the Rodgers deal and also gave the Packers a second-round pick as part of the deal.
We’ll see whether the passing game focus among top picks provides an immediate payoff for these four AFC East teams.
Now, on to the grades:
Miami Dolphins: B-
True to form, the Dolphins went with the so-called best-player-available approach with their first two picks, South Carolina cornerback Cam Smith in the second round and Texas A&M running back Devon Achane in the third round.
The Dolphins still have starting-caliber questions at right tackle, left guard and receiving tight end. This draft will be more of a wait-and-see proposition than other recent drafts.
Smith, talented and aggressive player, joins a talented group of cornerbacks that includes Pro Bowler Xavien Howard and Jalen Ramsey and nickel Kader Kohou as well as reserves Nik Needham, Keion Crossen and Noah Igbinoghene, among others. If Smith isn’t a major contributor as a rookie the wisdom of this pick will be questioned.
The same goes for Achane, the smallish speedster at 5 foot 8, 188 pounds and 4.32-second 40-yard dash speed. Coach Mike McDaniel will have to carve out a non-traditional role for Achane, who joins veteran running backs Raheem Mostert and Jeff Wilson Jr.
In the sixth and seventh rounds the Dolphins selected Stanford tight end/wide receiver Elijah Higgins and Michigan offensive tackle Ryan Hayes. Both will likely spend their rookie seasons on the practice squad unless they make major moves over veterans in training camp.
The Dolphins added talent, but not necessarily in the areas they needed help so there’s a question of whether the draft made them a better team.
Buffalo Bills: B
The top two picks, Utah tight end Dalton Kincaid in the first round and Florida center-guard O’Cyrus Torrance in the second round, are pretty strong. Kincaid, whose strength is receiving, might have been the best tight end in the draft. The Bills traded up two spots to acquire Kincaid, sending Nos. 27 and 130 to Jacksonville in exchange for No. 25, a spot ahead of Dallas, which presumably would have selected a tight end.
Kincaid will team with veteran tight end Dawson Knox to give quarterback Josh Allen options aside from Pro Bowl wide receiver Stephon Diggs. This was the fourth time in the past six seasons Buffalo general manager Brandon Beane traded up in the first round.
Torrance will team with recently-acquired left guard Connor McGovern (from Dallas) to help protect Allen and perhaps boost their struggling run game.
Inside linebacker Dorian Williams, a high-volume tackle machine from Tulane, is a third-round pick who helps cushion the blow from the loss of Pro Bowl inside linebacker Tremaine Edmunds to Chicago.
How it affects the Dolphins: Kincaid could pose a major matchup problem. Torrance might not be a big concern considering the Dolphins have Christian Wilkins on the interior defensive line.
New England Patriots: B
This is a huge draft class, going 12 deep, but nine were in the fourth round and later. At the top is Oregon cornerback Christian Gonzalez, selected at No. 17 in the first round after New England traded down with Pittsburgh from No. 14, and the Patriots picked up an extra fourth-round pick in the deal.
Gonzalez was regarded by some as the best cornerback in the draft so the ability to land him after trading down is nice. Last year New England did something similar, trading down to No. 29 from No. 21 to select guard Cole Strange from Tennessee-Chattanooga while collecting third- and fourth-round picks from Kansas City.
As an added bonus in the Gonzalez deal, the Patriots delivered offensive tackle Broderick Jones to the Steelers and kept him away from the AFC East rival Jets, who sought an offensive tackle at No. 15.
New England selected Keion White, the Georgia Tech edge rusher in the second round at No. 46, regarded as another solid selection. Inside linebacker Matre Mapu, the third-round pick from Sacramento State, was generally regarded as a fourth- to sixth-round pick so at this point it appears the Patriots reached.
How it affects the Dolphins: Gonzalez matches up directly with the Dolphins’ biggest strength, the passing game, and White could match up with one of their biggest weaknesses, pass protection on Tagovailoa’s blind side.
New York Jets: C+
As mentioned, the Jets were outfoxed by the Patriots, who traded with Pittsburgh, which allowed the Steelers to leapfrog the Jets and select Jones, who the Jets might have been eyeing.
In response, the Jets selected Will McDonald IV, the Iowa State edge rusher, and it was a decent recovery.
McDonald is an athletic, bendy pass rusher who might have been overdrafted considering many had him rated as a low first-round or high second-round pick. He could start out as a pass rush specialist because he’s not considered strong against the run. That could be considered somewhat of a disappointment for a top 15 pick.
Wisconsin center Joe Tippmann is a good pick in the second round because some had him rated as the best center in the draft. The Jets got offensive tackle help in the fourth round with Pitt’s Carter Warren, and they went back to Pitt in the fifth round for running back Israel Abanikanda, an insurance policy in case Breece Hall is slow to return from his knee injury.
How it affects the Dolphins: McDonald could be used to get to Tagovailoa, and Tippmann could help Hall, who rushed for 97 yards against the Dolphins last season, be even more effective. If Warren helps protect Rodgers from the Dolphins’ edge rushers, give credit to the Jets for this draft.