- James Walker, ESPN Staff Writer
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Simply put, 2011 was an awful year for the once-proud AFC East.
Rex Ryan and the New York Jets (8-7) -- coming off back-to-back AFC Championship Game appearances -- bragged and boasted all year until they were embarrassed and virtually knocked out of the playoffs by the cross-town rival New York Giants.
The Miami Dolphins (5-10) got off to an awful 0-7 start, fired former head coach Tony Sparano and will finish with double-digit losses. The Buffalo Bills (6-9) also had a seven-game losing streak from Weeks 9 through Week 15. That caused the Bills to miss the playoffs for a 12th consecutive season, which is the longest active streak in the NFL.
Even the division-champion New England Patriots (12-3) have their flaws. New England has the NFL's worst-rated defense, and some pundits think the Patriots could be one-and-done in the playoffs for the third year in a row. (We disagree, by the way.)
There are a ton of issues facing the AFC East this offseason. This division will be very much under construction in 2012.
Because we care, here are five steps from the AFC East blog on how to fix the division:
Step No. 1: Overhaul the Jets' offense
This will be one of the toughest reconstructions in the AFC East this offseason. The Jets' offense has a bevy of issues. There are so many leaks, it's difficult to know where to start.
We think New York needs to start with the offensive line. That's been the biggest issue affecting the Jets' running and passing game. The Jets should use their mid-first rounder on a right tackle. We don't want to see Wayne Hunter getting quarterback Mark Sanchez drilled multiple times next season. There are several good right tackles available such as Zebrie Sanders of Florida State and maybe Riley Reiff of Iowa. The Jets should also consider drafting a starting-caliber guard or adding depth and competition in free agency.
The Jets have a tough decision to make at receiver. Plaxico Burress is a free agent and will be looking for a long-term extension. The Jets should spend their money on a deep threat first to complement Santonio Holmes. If they have money leftover for Burress, then re-sign the veteran to a reasonable contract. If not, let Burress sign elsewhere.
Jets fans want Brian Schottenheimer out. New York is ranked No. 27 offensively and usually the blame falls on the offensive coordinator. At the very least, the Jets should expand the responsibilities of Tom Moore and/or Bill Callahan if they decide to keep Schottenheimer for the final year of his contract.
Step No. 2: Work with QB Mark Sanchez
First let me start by saying Sanchez deserves another year. He's a 25-year-old quarterback who has already been to back-to-back AFC title games. His numbers -- albeit slightly -- have improved in his third season.
But the Jets need to be proactive in helping Sanchez make bigger strides. With the lockout last year, players were forced to do everything on their own. The Jets initially thought Sanchez could carry the load on offense, but he wasn't ready. The Jets should be very hands-on this offseason to see how much Sanchez can grow.
If it takes spending most of the offseason at the facility, Sanchez should be there. If it takes working with a quarterback specialist, maybe Sanchez could go that route. But there are several things mechanically Sanchez can do to improve his accuracy and ability to throw deep.
Sanchez may or may not have a higher ceiling than what we’ve seen. But the Jets need to find out in 2012.
Step No. 3: Build Patriots' defense around Jerod Mayo
The Patriots signed Mayo to a five-year extension, making him the long-term cornerstone of the defense. But the signing will get lost in the shuffle if New England can't get enough good players around the linebacker.
Mayo is solid, but he still plays on the NFL's worst-rated defense. The Patriots could use help on the front seven and secondary. That should be the sole focus of the Patriots this offseason.
New England has plenty of resources to help its defense in the draft. The Patriots have two first-round picks and two second-round picks next April, courtesy of trades with the New Orleans Saints and Oakland Raiders.
Head coach Bill Belichick should avoid drafting offensive tackles and running backs in the first three rounds this year. The Patriots have enough of those. The offense is fine and will be one of the elite units next year. It's the defense that is five steps behind.
New England should spend at least three of its top four picks on defense. A safety, a pass-rusher and an extra cornerback would be nice in the first two rounds.
The Patriots will try to win the Super Bowl without defense this year. Luckily, they probably will have home-field advantage and as good a shot as anyone in a flawed AFC.
Step No. 4: Dolphins should hire Jeff Fisher
Let's be honest. The Dolphins are not landing an "A-list" coach such as Bill Cowher or Jon Gruden. But there is nothing wrong with Miami getting a "B-plus" coach like Jeff Fisher.
Fisher has been to a Super Bowl and built a winning program with the Tennessee Titans. He wants back in next year, and Fisher should be the Dolphins' top target after Cowher and Gruden turn them down.
But Miami has some question marks that could scare Fisher and other top candidates.
Is Fisher willing to work under general manager Jeff Ireland, who will be calling the shots in Miami? Many in the coaching fraternity are aware of the way Tony Sparano was treated by Ireland and owner Stephen Ross in his final year. Would Fisher be willing to team up with that pair? Also, is Miami's job attractive enough to beat out other openings like San Diego, Kansas City and St. Louis?
If not Jeff Fisher, then Miami most likely has to go the assistant route. In that case, our pick would be Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator Rob Ryan. But the Dolphins organization would be better off with an experienced head coach like Fisher.
Step No. 5: Bills need to spend in free agency
Buffalo got lucky in the first half of the season. The Bills had a surprising amount of production from their unheralded players, most of whom were late-round picks or undrafted.
But eventually the rest of the league caught up to the Bills, who couldn't get away with relying on seventh-round picks to dominate the NFL over the course of a 16-game season. Buffalo suffered through a seven-game losing streak in November and December. Now, the Bills (6-9) are trying to avoid their third consecutive double-digit losing season with a road game against New England on Sunday.
Draft picks will help. But Buffalo needs to make a splash in free agency. The Bills took a risk on big names in recent years that they can land at a bargain price due to injuries or performance. In some cases, such as linebacker Nick Barnett, it worked. In other cases, such as fellow linebacker Shawne Merriman, it didn't work.
The Bills have plenty of cap space at its disposal, and this is a great year to use it. There will be tons of good players available because of last year's NFL lockout.
Some offensive playmakers include DeSean Jackson, Vincent Jackson, Marcedes Lewis, Marques Colston, Robert Meachem, Reggie Wayne, Brandon Lloyd and Pierre Garcon. The Bills also have to decide what to do with their own free-agent receiver: Steve Johnson. Buffalo has the money and should be in the mix if the team is serious about making a playoff run.
It is now time to turn the page on a bad 2011 in the AFC East. If the division follows these five easy steps, it will return to being one of the best in the NFL in 2012.