- James Walker, ESPN Staff Writer
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The AFC East struggled mightily last year. Only the New England Patriots finished with a winning record. The New York Jets (8-8), Miami Dolphins (6-10) and Buffalo Bills (6-10) are all playing catch up this season.
The draft is the best way for the Jets, Dolphins and Bills to close the gap with the reigning AFC champs. It's also an opportunity for New England to get better, particularly on defense, in order to make another Super Bowl run.
Here are the highlights of the AFC East draft:
The best move was actually a series of moves by the Patriots. It was clear New England needed defensive help. The Patriots' defense was ranked 31st overall, and it was an issue on the final drive of the Super Bowl.
New England drafted six straight defensive players. Defensive end Chandler Jones and linebacker Dont'a Hightower, both first-rounder, have a chance to make an immediate impact. New England moved up twice in the first round to pick Jones and Hightower.
"I felt like we got good value for them," coach Bill Belichick said. "[We] took Dont'a and Chandler, probably could have been in either order. But we felt like we would have a better chance to end up with both players if it went that way, not that we were sure we would get the second one, but we thought we might have a shot at it. Looking forward to working with both guys."
New England also took pass-rushing defensive end Jake Bequette in the third round. He could be a sleeper. The Patriots made one curious pick on defense in the second round that we will get to later.
The Patriots did a good job overall, but an individual move I really like is Miami's pick of former Stanford offensive tackle Jonathan Martin. I had the chance to watch Stanford several times, and I was really impressed. He moves well, has a good frame and is intelligent.
"He's used to playing with a very demanding quarterback with Andrew (Luck), and they trusted him to protect Andrew for three years," Dolphins general manager Jeff Ireland said of Martin. "We're very happy with the pick."
Martin has to move from left tackle to right tackle, because Pro Bowler Jake Long is on Miami's roster. But that's an easier transition to make than going from right to left tackle.
The Buffalo Bills also made some solid picks, particularly first-round corner Stephon Gilmore and second-round offensive tackle Cordy Glenn. Buffalo had a safe draft that should help the team immediately next season.
The New York Jets entered the offseason with a lot of questions. Can they fix their locker room issues? Can they handle the Tim Tebow phenomenon?
Instead of going safe, the Jets continued to roll the dice by taking risky prospects with their top two picks: defensive end Quinton Coples and receiver Stephen Hill. Both are boom-or-bust prospects the Jets plan to rely on next season.
New York needs help rushing the passer and hope Coples can provide it. He has all the physical tools, but there are big questions about his motivation. The Jets also need a big-play receiver, and Hill could be that player. He has all the measurables but wasn’t productive at Georgia Tech, which ran a triple-option offense. Hill caught just 28 passes last season but averaged an astounding 29.3 yards per reception.
"I feel great. Especially now, I'm in more of an offense where I can catch the ball a little bit more," Hill said. "And you know, catching the ball from [quarterback] Mark Sanchez is great. I'm going to make sure I get with him as soon as possible and we both try to get this roll on."
Both players have the potential to start as soon as next season.
MOST SURPRISING MOVE
Belichick has some explaining to do. The Patriots took a player in the second round who wasn’t invited to the NFL combine or any pre-draft all-star games.
Patriots second-round pick Tavon Wilson caught everyone completely by surprise. The defensive back wasn’t on anyone’s radar, especially in the second round. But New England liked him enough to take Wilson No. 48 overall.
"He played plenty. You can see him plenty at Illinois," Belichick said. "You can see him against whoever you want to see him against: All the Big Ten schools, Arizona State, teams that throw the ball. He’s playing corner, he’s playing safety, he’s playing the inside positions, the nickel position, the dime position."
Belichick is known to go off the radar in the draft at times. He continues to defend the Wilson pick.
"Similar situation with [Sebastian] Vollmer a couple of years ago. We drafted guys -- I think one year, didn't we draft like three of four guys that were non-combine guys?" Belichick said. "Some guys play in all-star games, some guys don't. I don't know who picks all those all-star teams. In all honesty, I don't know who picks the combine for that matter."
New England needs immediate help in the secondary. Wilson has experience in college at cornerback and safety and will get a chance to show what he can do in New England.
FILE IT AWAY
This is the perfect category for Miami first-round selection and rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill. You can probably file this pick away until 2013.
Tannehill will begin the season third on Miami's depth chart behind incumbent starter Matt Moore and free-agent signing David Garrard. The odds that the rookie will jump two veteran quarterbacks before Week 1 are long. But Tannehill isn't resigning himself to holding a clipboard.
"I'm a football player and I'm a competitor," Tannehill said Saturday. "I want to be on the field and I want to compete. But I also realize that I'm coming in and there's veteran quarterbacks on this team that I can learn from."
The race for the No. 2 quarterback in the AFC East behind Tom Brady is wide open. Tannehill has the potential to fill that void in two or three years. But the Dolphins have to do the right things to nurture the young quarterback, despite very high expectations.
Tannehill is the first quarterback taken in the first round by Miami since Hall of Famer Dan Marino in 1983.
"I didn't take him as the eighth pick in the draft to be a backup quarterback," Ireland said. "I picked him to be a starting quarterback in this league at some point, to have an impact on this football team, to help us win football games and championships. That's the expectation that I have going down the line."