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AFC East rookie grades: Bills get a boost; Pats swing and miss

With Super Bowl LIV in the books, the offseason is upon us. To get ready for the NFL Scouting Combine, free agency and the 2020 NFL Draft, Nick Shook and Gennaro Filice are taking a division-by-division look backward to evaluate each team's crop of 2019 rookies, weighing hits and misses -- then looking forward at areas for each squad to focus on in the coming months. Filice examines the AFC East below.

Round 1: (No. 9 overall) Ed Oliver, DT, 16 games/7 starts.

 **Round 2:** (38) 
 Cody Ford, OT, 16 games/15 starts. 
 **Round 3:** (74) 
 Devin Singletary, RB, 12 games/8 starts; (96) 
 Dawson Knox, TE, 15 games/11 starts. 
 **Round 5:** (147) 
 Vosean Joseph, LB, 0 games/0 starts. 
 **Round 6:** (181) 
 Jaquan Johnson, S, 13 games/0 starts. 
 **Round 7:** (225) 
 Darryl Johnson, DE, 16 games/0 starts; (228) 
 Tommy Sweeney, TE, 6 games/1 start. 

Falling into the Bills' lap at No. 9 overall, Oliver was widely regarded on draft night as the steal of the first round. And in the season-opening win over the Jets, he provided the type of interior disruption that validated the hype, recording five pressures and a QB hit. But he struggled over the next couple months and lost his starting job at midseason. To his credit, Oliver offered his most consistent play as a rotational piece in the second half of the season -- racking up four sacks during one three-game stretch -- and it's not hard to imagine a breakthrough Year 2. Thus far, Singletary has actually proven to be the biggest steal of Buffalo's rookie class. After dealing with a hamstring injury in September and splitting carries with the ageless Frank Gore in the first half of the season, the elusive rookie really came on down the stretch, eclipsing 600 yards rushing in his final eight regular-season games. Ford started 15 games, spending the vast majority of his time at right tackle, but the results were underwhelming, rekindling the question that plagued him prior to the 2019 draft: Would he be better served playing guard? Knox wasn't the steadiest producer over the course of the season -- which is nothing to be alarmed about, as tight end is one of the NFL's slowest-developing positions -- but he flashed enticing playmaking ability, most notably on a beastly 49-yard catch-and-run against the Bengals at a key point in the Week 3 win.

 **Combine/free agency focus:** Free-agent additions 
 John Brown and 
 Cole Beasley gave Buffalo's passing game some much-needed juice in 2019, but 
 Josh Allen could really benefit from having a true WR1 at his disposal. And seeing how the Buffalo quarterback isn't known for precision passing, he could use either a big-bodied contested-catch specialist or a savvy separator -- basically, someone who can atone for broad-spectrum ball location. Fortunately, this is a spectacularly deep and talented draft class at receiver, offering alluring prospects in all shapes, sizes and stylings, so the 
 Bills should be able to find whatever they're looking for. On the other side of the ball, Buffalo's stout defense has one glaring area of concern: With 
 Shaq Lawson set to hit the open market and versatile stalwart 
 Lorenzo Alexander retiring, the 
 Bills must net an impact edge rusher. General manager Brandon Beane 
 fully acknowledged this need shortly after the 
 Bills' playoff loss, but he also pointed out that finding a dominant edge force is much easier said than done. The 
 Bills' No. 22 overall draft slot could actually be a sweet spot for edge prospects not named Chase Young, so players like LSU's K'Lavon Chaisson, Iowa's A.J. Epenesa and Penn State's Yetur Gross-Matos will be of interest at the NFL 
 Scouting Combine. In theory, the free-agent class 
 *could* be strong in this area, with 
 Jadeveon Clowney, Shaq Barrett, 
 Yannick Ngakoue, 
 Matt Judon, 
 Bud Dupree and 
 Arik Armstead on expiring contracts, but we'll have to see who actually makes it to the open market. The 
 Bills will be spenders, though, with upwards of $80 million of cap space, 
 per Over The Cap. 

Round 1: (No. 13 overall) Christian Wilkins, DE, 16 games/14 starts.

 **Round 3:** (78) 
 Michael Deiter, OG, 16 games/15 starts. 
 **Round 5:** (151) 
 Andrew Van Ginkel, OLB, 6 games/1 starts. 
 **Round 6:** (202) 
 Isaiah Prince, OT, 4 games/2 starts (finished season on Bengals). 
 **Round 7:** (233) 
 Chandler Cox, FB, 13 games/3 starts; (234) 
 Myles Gaskin, RB, 7 games/0 starts. 
 **Notable rookie FA signings:** 
 Nate Brooks, CB, 3 games/2 starts; 
 Shaq Calhoun, OG, 10 games/ 7 starts; 
 Nik Needham, CB, 12 games/11 starts; 
 Preston Williams, WR, 8 games/7 starts. 

The Dolphins' first two selections produced a pair of Year 1 starters, but they experienced varying degrees of success. Wilkins' most impressive trait might be his unrelenting motor, which allowed him to rack up an impressive 56 tackles despite lining up primarily on the defensive interior. He also flashed athleticism, versatility, infectious energy and a unique approach to trash talking ( "I'm not scared of you!"), but he didn't routinely disrupt opposing quarterbacks, which is the name of the game in 2020. (He did, however, boost the Dolphins' aerial attack with a one-handed touchdown grab in December.) Deiter led Miami's offense in snaps and probably has the most upside of any Dolphins O-lineman -- a low bar, to be certain -- but he was benched in favor of an undrafted rookie in December. GM Chris Grier's most impressive work might have actually come after the draft concluded, when he unearthed an undrafted gem on each side of the ball. Williams tied for the most catches among rookies (32) before suffering a torn ACL in Week 9. The 6-foot-5, 218-pounder put together quite a highlight reel in half a season. Meanwhile, Needham was pulled up from the practice squad in Week 6 and immediately tossed into the starting-lineup fire. He survived! And, at times, thrived, finishing the season with a team-high 11 pass breakups and two picks.

 **Combine/free agency focus:** Throughout this rebuilding process, two words have been top of mind for Fin fans: Tuanigamanuolepola Tagovailoa. OK, maybe one word -- Tua -- because we're a simple-minded species. The prolific Alabama quarterback has 
 reportedly been the apple of Miami owner Stephen Ross' eye basically since the southpaw slinger burst on the scene with a national title-winning relief effort back in January of 2018. And while his season-ending hip dislocation this past November has A) only added to an extensive injury history and B) placed his draft stock in flux, Tagovailoa decided to enter the draft following his junior campaign. Will the 
 Dolphins look to target him at No. 5 overall? Might they move up or down before securing his services? With extensive draft currency at their disposal -- including five picks in the first 56 selections of this April's event -- Miami will be able to work the board. The question is: How compromised is Tua's body at this point? While he'll miss physical activities at the NFL 
 Scouting Combine, the plan is 
 to have him work out for teams before the draft. All medical check-ups will be the subject of breathless reporting between now and then. Whoever's quarterbacking the 
 Dolphins -- in 2020 and beyond -- needs far better protection from his offensive line. One of the most amazing aspects of 
 Ryan Fitzpatrick's inspired play in 2019 is that he was continually able to overcome the worst offensive line in football. (That's not hyperbole: Pro Football Focus ranked Miami 32nd in OL pass blocking efficiency.) Grier needs to address that sieve in free agency 
 *and* the draft. Fortunately, the 
 Dolphins are flush with cash, as a highly publicized roster turnover has left them with a gargantuan chunk of cap space. 

Round 1: (No. 32 overall) N'Keal Harry, WR, 7 games/5 starts.

 **Round 2:** (45) 
 Joejuan Williams, CB, 9 games/0 starts. 
 **Round 3:** (77) 
 Chase Winovich, DE, 16 games/0 starts; (87) 
 Damien Harris, RB, 2 games/0 starts; (101) 
 Yodny Cajuste, OT, 0 games/0 starts. 
 **Round 4:** (118) 
 Hjalte Froholdt, OG, 0 games/0 starts; (133) 
 Jarrett Stidham, QB, 3 games/0 starts. 
 **Round 5:** (159) 
 Byron Cowart, DT, 5 games/0 starts; (163) 
 Jake Bailey, P, 16 games/0 starts. 
 **Round 7:** (252) 
 Ken Webster, CB, 8 games/5 starts (on Dolphins). 
 **Notable rookie FA signings:** 
 Jakobi Meyers, WR, 15 games/1 start; 
 Gunner Olszewski, PR, 8 games/0 starts. 

As the first receiver ever selected in Round 1 by the Bill Belichick Patriots, Harry was supposed to provide a boost to a receiving corps that desperately needed some youthful exuberance. That did not occur. After spending the first half of the season on injured reserve with an ankle injury sustained in training camp, Harry returned to log just 14 grabs in eight games (including New England's wild-card loss). With a famously demanding quarterback at the controls, the rookie caught more of Tom Brady's ire than his passes. Patriots fans weren't too pleased seeing a number of receivers selected after Harry -- including A.J. Brown, DK Metcalf, Terry McLaurin, Deebo Samuel, Diontae Johnson, Mecole Hardman and Darius Slayton -- immediately impacting their respective teams. On the plus side, Winovich played like the third-round steal everyone knew he'd be the moment New England nabbed him at No. 77 overall, efficiently racking up 5.5 sacks and 10 QB hits in just 293 defensive snaps. Pro Football Focus ranked him as the No. 14 rookie in the entire class. Stidham showed promise in the preseason, but anyone talking about him as the clear heir to the Tom Brady's throne is highly overcaffeinated. And probably drunk. Cajuste and Froholdt were essentially medical redshirts, but they will have ample opportunity to patch up the Pats' line in 2020. Bailey was pretty solid punting the football, though a poor effort on Wild Card Weekend left a bad taste in New Englanders' mouths.

 **Combine/free agency focus:** With 
 Tom Brady, 
 Devin McCourty, 
 Kyle Van Noy, 
 Jamie Collins, 
 Joe Thuney, 
 Ted Karras and 
 Danny Shelton among the flock of prized Pats set to hit free agency, New England is clearly at a crossroads. And let's be honest: Everything starts with the first name on that list. What's next for TB12? The 42-year-old has repeatedly stated that he's not done playing, but are the Pats done with him? Plugged-in reporter Tom Curran recently laid out 
 the complications surrounding any potential re-upping in this prolific, 20-year pact. Will New England look to put the band back together for one last title push? Or is now the time when Belichick truly turns over the roster, Brady included? Until we know the answer to that, it's pretty impossible to gauge which areas this team will look to address in the coming months. Though one spot merits attention regardless of which road is taken: tight end. Life after Gronk was 
 *not* fun in 2019. 

Round 1: (No. 3 overall) Quinnen Williams, DE, 13 games/9 starts.

 **Round 3:** (68) 
 Jachai Polite, DE, 0 games/0 starts (finished season on Rams); (92) 
 Chuma Edoga, OT, 8 games/8 starts. 
 **Round 4:** (121) 
 Trevon Wesco, TE, 16 games/1 starts. 
 **Round 5:** (157) 
 Blake Cashman, LB, 7 games/5 starts. 
 **Round 6:** (196) 
 Blessuan Austin, CB, 7 games/6 starts. 
 **Notable rookie FA signings:** 
 Kyle Phillips, DE, 15 games/4 starts. 

Fresh off a breakout redshirt sophomore season at Alabama, Williams was viewed as a slam-dunk selection when the Jets came on the clock at No. 3 overall. But his first campaign with New York was quite underwhelming. A penetrating, game-wrecking force of nature with the Tide, Williams was reduced to a block-eating space-filler on the Jets. Now, Gang Green didn't exactly put the rookie in a position to put up numbers -- routinely deploying him as more of a two-gapping defensive tackle, as opposed to putting him in a playmaking role -- but you can bet that everyone will expect more than 2.5 sacks and six QB hits in 2020. Sadly, the Jets' second selection went far worse. Polite, who had first-round buzz before completely bombing the pre-draft process, was released before the regular season even began. That's an unmitigated disaster for a Day 2 selection. Honestly, the Jets' last two picks were their best two picks, at least in terms of 2019 returns. Cashman was a sideline-to-sideline playmaker -- against both the run and pass -- before a shoulder injury in late October sidelined him for the season. (This is concerning, as the former Minnesota Golden Gopher had multiple shoulder surgeries in college.) Austin got a late start on the season, as he was recovering from a torn ACL, but he acquitted himself quite well when he hit the field. That is, before he gave up a bad touchdown pass against the Steelers in Week 16 and was banished to Gregg Williams' doghouse, never to be seen again. The lengthy cover man should get a chance to prove himself again in 2020.

 **Combine/free agency focus:** GM Joe Douglas was hired last June, so he missed the entire draft process and the free agency frenzy. How will he look to build this team in his first real offseason at the helm? First things first: PROTECT SAM DARNOLD. New York's injury-ravaged O-line struggled to protect the young passer -- or create openings for big-ticket free-agent signee 
 Le'Veon Bell, for that matter -- and now both primary bookends ( 
 Kelvin Beachum and Brandon Shell) are ticketed for free agency. Picking 11th in the first round, Gang Green could be in prime position to pounce on one of this draft class' top tackles. Four such prospects to keep a close eye on in Indy: Georgia's Andrew Thomas, Alabama's Jedrick Wills, Louisville's Mekhi Becton and Iowa's Tristan Wirfs. For Darnold to take a step forward in Year 3, he'll need a better foundation up front -- and also, quite possibly, a new field stretcher. 
 Robby Anderson's contract is expiring, and the former undrafted free-agent signee is 
 ready to cash in on the open market. Despite some off-field issues during his NFL tenure, the 6-foot-3 burner finished the 2019 campaign strong and figures to have many suitors. 

Follow Gennaro Filice on Twitter @GennaroFilice.

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