Patriots & the wide gap in AFC East

INDIANAPOLIS -- One of the biggest takeaways from the first day of the NFL combine is related to the competition facing the Patriots in the AFC East.

They're not yet close to being in the same class.

When looking at the NFL's eight divisions and the imbalance between the top team and the next clubs, the AFC East and AFC West have the widest gap. The Patriots (12-4) won the division by five games, while the Broncos won the West by six.

The Dolphins, who at 7-9 finished in second place in the AFC East, appear best positioned to potentially narrow the gap on the Patriots. General manager Jeff Ireland noted the team has an abundance of salary-cap space (around $45 million) and also five of the first 82 picks in the draft. The Dolphins landed what they hope is a franchise quarterback in Ryan Tannehill last year, and now they have the flexibility to add pieces around him.

The idea is to first catch the Patriots.

"It's a very, very important time period," said Ireland, whose team enters the second year under coach Joe Philbin. "We've put a lot into getting into this position, so we obviously are in this position by design. We plan to use some of our money and plan to obviously draft the best players available if we can and try to address some of the needs and musts we have on our football team."

While the Dolphins have some hope, the Jets are attempting to reshape their approach under first-year general manager John Idzik and head coach Rex Ryan, who enters his fifth season with the franchise.

Ryan turned to a baseball analogy when asked about the gap between the Patriots and the next team in the division.

"Each year's different. I can honestly say we're going to get our shots. We're going to get our swings ... we're stepping up to the plate and we have a bat in our hand. We're not going to let any strikes go by without swinging. We are going to take our cuts. We may take a cut at a ball in the ground, but we're going to definitely take our cuts," he said.

"When we talk about being aggressive, I don't know if we really know what that looks like. To me, I have that vision. Some may say, 'You're aggressive on defense.' I don't think we're close to being as aggressive as we're going to be this year, in all three phases of the game. How many wins? I can't tell you that. But I know one thing: We're going to take our shot."

Perhaps Ryan might revamp the defense into his father's old "46" defense, thinking that's the best way to beat the Patriots. Still, the Jets have a major issue at quarterback.

Meanwhile we'll hear more from the Bills, who have a fresh start under first-year head coach Doug Marrone, on Friday. Like the Jets, they have their own big questions at quarterback.

At this point, the Patriots' decade-plus dominance in the division doesn't look close to being threatened.