NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS (15-4)
New faces: : WR Brandon Lloyd, TE Daniel Fells, S Steve Gregory, CB Marquice Cole, DE Chandler Jones (first-round pick, No. 21), LB Dont’a Hightower (first-round pick, No. 25).
Key losses: : T Matt Light, RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis, RB Kevin Faulk.
Strengths: As always, coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady are among best in game. Patriots upgraded wide receiver corps by adding Brandon Lloyd to join Wes Welker and Deion Branch. Defense, which allowed second most yards in NFL last year, picked up two first-round draft choices in Jones and Hightower. New S Steve Gregory improves starting secondary, while second-year running backs Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen provide more shiftiness and breakaway speed than Green-Ellis. Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez are NFL’s best tight-end tandem. PK Stephen Gostkowski and P Zoltan Mesko among league’s best.
Weaknesses: Offensive line with retirement of Light, who spent 11 seasons protecting Tom Brady’s blindside, is a concern. His replacement, 2011 first-round draft pick Nate Solder, was inconsistent during preseason. RT Sebastian Vollmer has been slowed by back problems, so position could be another problem, and standout RG Brian Waters hasn’t reported but could be ready for regular season. Defense has potential to vastly improve but several players being counted on are young, unproven. Pass rushing also could be issue with departure of DEs Andre Carter and Mark Anderson, who each had 10 of the team’s 32 sacks last year.
Expectations: Hopes high for second straight Super Bowl after team addressed offseason needs for deep receiving threat and improved defense from front line to the secondary. Of seven draft picks, first six play defense. They also have one of the weakest schedules with only four games against teams that had winning record last year.
NEW YORK JETS (8-8)
New faces: : QB Tim Tebow, offensive coordinator Tony Sparano, S LaRon Landry, S Yeremiah Bell, DE Quinton Coples (first-round pick), WR Stephen Hill, WR Chaz Schilens, RT Jason Smith.
Key losses: : RB LaDainian Tomlinson, S Jim Leonhard, WR Plaxico Burress, S Brodney Pool, RT Wayne Hunter, offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer.
Strengths: Rex Ryan’s defensive line has terrific depth with addition of Coples, to go along with last year’s top pick, Muhammad Wilkerson, and veterans Mike DeVito and Sione Pouha. Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie form one of league’s top 1-2 cornerback tandems. As long as Landry can avoid injuries, he and Bell provide physical presence at safety.
Weaknesses: Offensive line, once one of team’s strengths, has become shaky after giving up 39 sacks last season. Austin Howard replaces Wayne Hunter at RT — unless team signs veteran before season. Other than Santonio Holmes, Jets have very little experience at WR. Holmes, second-year WR Jeremy Kerley and Schilens all were limited in training camp while dealing with injuries. Running game is led by Shonn Greene, coming off 1,000-yard season, but depth behind unproven with Joe McKnight, Bilal Powell and Terrance Ganaway.
Expectations: Jets hoping lack of TDs in preseason — none through first three games — was nothing to be concerned about. But QB Mark Sanchez must take next step in fourth year — and try to coexist with Tebow, who will play major role on offense in wildcat packages and more. If Sanchez struggles, many fans and media will be calling for Tebow to take over. How Sanchez handles pressure could be key to season. Despite several weaknesses, Jets have return to playoffs in plans. Anything less could put lots of heat on Sanchez, Ryan and general manager Mike Tannenbaum.
MIAMI DOLPHINS (6-10)
New faces: : QB Ryan Tannehill (first-round pick), QB David Garrard, DB Richard Marshall, WR Legedu Naanee, OL Artis Hicks, LB Gary Guyton, S Tyrell Johnson, LB Jamaal Westerman.
Key losses: : WR Brandon Marshall, LB Jason Taylor, S Yeremiah Bell, QB Chad Henne, CB Vontae Davis, DE Kendall Langford, T Marc Colombo, DE Phillip Merling, CB Will Allen.
Strengths: Joe Philbin is new coach, but formula for winning hasn’t changed much from Tony Sparano era. Dolphins will still rely heavily on strong kicking game and defense that ranked eighth in NFL each of past two seasons in points allowed. New coordinator Kevin Coyle switched to a 4-3 scheme, and Miami especially stout up front, where charge is led by end Cameron Wake and tackles Paul Soliai and Randy Starks. Each has been a Pro Bowl selection. Kicker Dan Carpenter and punter Brandon Fields are among NFL’s best, which means Philbin may find himself counting on field position to win field goal contests — as Sparano often did.
Weaknesses: Tannehill won No. 1 job in training camp, and he’s 17th starting QB for Miami since Dan Marino retired following 1999 season. His cast of potential targets is less than stellar following departure of Marshall and failed Chad Johnson experiment. RB Reggie Bush is coming off first 1,000-yard season, but he’ll be targeted by defenses because he’s Miami’s lone playmaker, and offensive line looks so-so at best.
Expectations: Dolphins desperate to end coach and quarterback carousels, but they’ll likely extend streak of three consecutive losing seasons, franchise’s worst stretch since 1960s. Offense needs at least one more offseason of rebuilding before Miami can have shot at first playoff win since January 2000. Philbin will do well to avoid of Cam Cameron, who lost first 13 games and lasted one season with Miami in 2007.
BUFFALO BILLS (6-10)
New faces: : DE Mario Williams, DE Mark Anderson, QB Tarvaris Jackson, CB Stephon Gilmore (first-round pick), LT Cordy Glenn.
Key losses: : CB Drayton Florence, LB/DE Shawne Merriman, LT Demetress Bell, WR Roscoe Parrish.
Strengths: Revamped defensive line built to apply pressure opposing quarterbacks after managing just 29 sacks (including 10 in one game) last season. Aside from adding Williams and Anderson, DT Kyle Williams QBs returns after having season-ending foot surgery. Bills have 1-2 punch at RB with Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller, and most of Ryan Fitzpatrick-led offense returns intact. Special teams solid, especially with addition of rookie PK John Potter, who has chance to specialize in kickoffs because of ability to boom balls out of end zone.
Weaknesses: Question marks remain at WR, as in whether Donald Jones can step in No. 2 spot opposite starter Stevie Johnson. Glenn big but raw in taking over at left tackle. Linebackers have struggled against run in preseason, and questions of depth remain at safety behind starters Jairus Byrd and George Wilson. Projected starting CBs — Gilmore, second-year player Aaron Williams — lack experience. Backup QB suddenly an issue after team acquired Tarvaris Jackson in trade with Seattle and cut Vince Young.
Expectations: Bills front office and players maintain expectations are high in bid to end 12-season playoff drought despite concerns raised — inconsistent offense and defense — in three preseason losses. Should be competitive but need to jell and avoid injury trouble that plagued them last season.