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AFC East rookie grades: Defensive pieces impact all squads

With the 2017 NFL campaign in the rearview, draft season's about to kick into high gear. But before we completely shift over to the Class of 2018, let's review the returns from this past season's crop of rookies. Division-by-division, we're providing grades on each team's 2017 draft class, as well as identifying areas that must be upgraded this offseason. Nick Shook examines the AFC East below.

Buffalo Bills

Round 1: (No. 27 overall) Tre'Davious White, CB, 16 games/16 starts.
Round 2: (37) Zay Jones, WR, 15 games/10 starts; (63) Dion Dawkins, OT, 16 games/11 starts.
Round 5: (163) Matt Milano, LB, 16 games/5 starts; (171) Nathan Peterman, QB, 4 games/2 starts.
Round 6: (195) Tanner Vallejo, LB, 15 games/0 starts.

Buffalo found a pair of immediate contributors in White and Jones, with the former playing so well that he built a strong case for Defensive Rookie of the Year. Jones showed flashes of potential while popping in and out of Buffalo's offense. Dawkins found himself in the starting lineup for much of the season, making that second-round pick worthwhile. Milano was a surprise impact player, starting at Will linebacker with solid play. Peterman was a disaster in his first start, which felt forced in the midst of a playoff season. He seems to be in line to start whenever Buffalo finally cuts ties with Tyrod Taylor (whether it's warranted is another discussion), but he doesn't excite many folks. GRADE: B

Combine/free agency focus:Lorenzo Alexander isn't getting any younger, and a more youthful on-ball linebacker would be a wise addition. Buffalo also desperately needs some depth at running back behind LeSean McCoy, who does an admirable and excellent job of carrying the offense on his back, but deserves a quality spell back. With the news of Eric Wood's retirement, the Bills are also immediately in the market for a center, which should be a top priority. Oh, and there's that quarterback conundrum. We aren't sure Bills management won't trip over itself with the Taylor/Peterman situation. A better option probably exists outside Orchard Park, but that might not arrive in 2018.

Miami Dolphins

Round 1: (No. 22 overall) Charles Harris, DE, 16 games/2 starts.
Round 2: (54) Raekwon McMillan, LB, 0 games/0 starts.
Round 3: (97) Cordrea Tankersley, CB, 11 games/11 starts.
Round 5: (164) Isaac Asiata, OG, 1 game/0 starts; (178) Davon Godchaux, DT, 15 games/5 starts.
Round 6: (194) Vincent Taylor, DT, 13 games/0 starts.
Round 7: (237) Isaiah Ford, WR, 0 games/0 starts.

The jewel of this class could end up being McMillan, who looked good in preseason before suffering a torn ACL that ended his rookie campaign in August. In the meantime, that honor belongs to Godchaux, who was an important and productive part of Miami's defensive interior, recording 40 tackles and a forced fumble. Tankersley also exceeded expectations, stepping into a starting role and excelling in Miami's young -- but promising -- secondary. There's hope for Harris, who recorded 19 tackles and two sacks in spot appearances behind veteran Andre Branch, but didn't seem to validate his first-round selection. We still don't know what Miami will get out of Asiata, who didn't take advantage of the Dolphins' interior-line issues during his rookie campaign. GRADE: C

Combine/free agency focus: Miami stands to potentially lose slot receiver Jarvis Landry, who's one-third of its ever-important receiving corps, especially with Ryan Tannehill returning from a knee injury. Speaking of that injury, the Dolphins need to shore up their offensive line (right tackle, left guard), which regressed significantly in 2017. The linebacking corps could use some young talent to eventually replace Lawrence Timmons, who is set to become a free agent in 2019, and Koa Misi, who is dealing with a serious neck injury that landed him on IR in October.

New England Patriots

Round 3: (83) Derek Rivers, OLB, 0 games/0 starts; (85) Antonio Garcia, OT, 0 games/0 starts.
Round 4: (131) Deatrich Wise, DE, 16 games/3 starts.
Round 6: (211) Conor McDermott, OT, 3 games/0 starts.
Notable rookie FA signings:Adam Butler, DT, 16 games/6 starts; Jacob Hollister, TE/FB, 15 games/1 start.

Leave it to Bill Belichick to spend just four draft picks in an offseason and watch the top two of that group fail to reach the fielddue to injury/illness ... then pull two contributors out of the undrafted pool. After all, some of his best contributors this season -- Dion Lewis and Danny Amendola -- took similar paths to New England. This time around, he snagged Butler and Hollister to add depth and competition, and found both were worthy of keeping around. We also shouldn't overlook Wise, who really came on in the final quarter of the regular season. It's tantalizing to consider how much better the AFC champions might be in the pass-rushing department had Rivers not torn his ACL in August. It's a small but productive group. GRADE: B-

Combine/free agency focus: Time to find the next Jimmy Garoppolo. New England's succession plan didn't come to fruition, thanks to Tom Brady attempting to defy Father Time, but in a quarterback-rich class, Belichick and Co. would be wise to find a true successor to plant behind him for a few more seasons. Pass rush was New England's biggest in-season need, partially alleviated by the arrival of James Harrison, and it should improve if Rivers can contribute next season. It wouldn't hurt to look in that direction in the draft again. Cornerback will need a boost too, with Malcolm Butler heading for free agency and the end of his time as a Patriot.

New York Jets

Round 1: (No. 6 overall) Jamal Adams, S, 16 games/16 starts.
Round 2: (39) Marcus Maye, S, 16 games/16 starts.
Round 3: (79) ArDarius Stewart, WR, 15 games/2 starts.
Round 4: (141) Chad Hansen, WR, 15 games/1 start.
Round 5: (150) Jordan Leggett, TE, 0 games/0 starts; (181) Dylan Donahue, DL, 4 games/0 starts
Round 6: (188) Elijah McGuire, RB, 16 games/2 starts; (197) Jeremy Clark, CB, 1 games/0 starts; (204) Derrick Jones, CB, 3 games/0 starts.

For the amount of picks spent, this draft didn't yield much in Year 1 beyond Adams (and Maye, which incensed Jets fans were quick to point out this week). The playmaking safety stepped into a leadership role rather quickly, but he also took lumps typical of a rookie seeing a starting role immediately. New York whiffed on both receivers, and Leggett didn't play a game, ending the season on IR. Silver lining from this class: McGuire contributed in the running and passing games. As is the case for many young, inexperienced and talent-thin teams, these guys could see jumps in performance in Years 2 and 3. As of now, though, this draft didn't bring much quality to Gotham. GRADE: C-

Combine/free agency focus: One word: Quarterback. We don't have to cycle through the Jets' signal-callers in 2017 to show how much this franchise needs a savior under center. Beyond that, there's room for improvement at plenty of positions, including receiver, especially since Robby Anderson can't seem to stay out of trouble. Additions to the offensive line would help (New York ranked 26th in pass-blocking efficiency, per Pro Football Focus), and the Jets should seriously explore replacing problem child Muhammad Wilkerson.

Follow Nick Shook on Twitter @TheNickShook.

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