AFC East combine story lines

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Graham
The annual Indianapolis poke-and-ogle known as the NFL scouting combine begins Wednesday.

I'll be headed to Lucas Oil Stadium for the job fair/meat market, where I'll try to provide as many AFC East angles as humanly possible.

With that in mind, here are the top story lines for each AFC East club heading into the combine:

Miami Dolphins' free-agency decisions

The Dolphins have several significant free agents to address and could place the franchise tag on one of them before Thursday's deadline. More than any other AFC East team, how the Dolphins' free-agency moves shake out will affect what it does in the draft.

Dolphins who could hit the open market Feb. 27 include right tackle Vernon Carey, inside linebacker Channing Crowder and three-quarters of the starting secondary: Safeties Yeremiah Bell, Renaldo Hill and cornerback Andre Goodman.

Scouts Inc. ranks all the free agents. Carey rates as the second-best free-agent tackle, Bell the second-best safety and Crowder the eighth-best linebacker (inside or outside).

Carey and Bell are candidates for the franchise tag at $8.45 million and $6.34 million, respectively.

Bell's franchise tag is more palatable not only because it's cheaper, but also because he played up to that standard last year. Bell led the Dolphins with 120 tackles. He also had a sack, three forced fumbles and 10 passes defensed.

Although Carey played well after being switched from the left side to make way for No. 1 pick Jake Long, there are plenty of quality tackles in this year's draft class.

All reports suggest the Dolphins are through with Crowder. Contract negotiations haven't gone well. The Dolphins aren't all that eager to re-sign a player with zero sacks, zero interceptions and one forced fumble last season from such a critical position.

Given football operations boss Bill Parcells' affinity for linebackers, Miami's reluctance to re-sign a 25-year-old with 50 NFL starts probably means they already have a decent idea who Crowder's replacement will be. Perhaps they have their eyes on Ohio State's James Laurinaitis with the No. 25 selection.

New England Patriots' quarterback situation

Cassel Brady
Until something is done with Matt Cassel and his guaranteed, one-year contract for $14.65 million, his presence will eclipse New England's offseason.

The Patriots have roughly $29 million of salary-cap space dedicated to quarterbacks, one of whom they hope doesn't take a live snap. But the Patriots are stuck until they know whether Tom Brady's knitted left knee is sound enough for the regular season.

The combine is a sprawling congregation of executives, coaches, scouts and agents ready to talk business. It's a place where deals can be struck.

The Patriots, however, won't have as much freedom to do business -- not while a quarter of their salary cap is occupied by two players.

Because it's too soon to commit to Brady with any conviction, New England's front office won't have many answers for teams interested in obtaining Cassel, or agents of Patriots looking for contract extensions.

Twenty-two Patriots have contracts that expire after next season. Among them are guard Logan Mankins, defensive linemen Vince Wilfork and Richard Seymour, linebacker Mike Vrabel, cornerback Ellis Hobbs and kicker Stephen Gostkowski.

But if history is any indicator, the hamstrung Patriots still will find a way to get more work done in Indianapolis than most teams.

Former vice president of football operations Scott Pioli will be calling shots for the Kansas City Chiefs, but new senior advisor Floyd Reese and player personnel director Nick Caserio will be on hand to help head coach Bill Belichick maintain the organization's evaluation mastery.

Rex Ryan's first draft with the New York Jets

Brett Favre did the Jets a colossal favor by announcing his retirement a week before the combine. Had the infamously indecisive quarterback delayed his verdict, the Jets would have been forced to cut him or faced a titanic distraction in Indianapolis.

Now rookie head coach Rex Ryan can make his maiden combine voyage without Favre's status weighing on the operation. The Jets will know they're not wasting their time by interviewing such top quarterback prospects as Mark Sanchez and Josh Freeman.

Favre's decision also better prepares the Jets for free agency. They can formulate a strategy at quarterback and other targeted positions without worrying about a Favre bombshell blowing their plans to smithereens.

The Jets need to rebound from last year's unproductive draft. Indianapolis is the scene where pass-rush specialist Vernon Gholston first showed he was a workout megastar. He followed up with another sensational demonstration at his Ohio State pro day, wowing the Jets enough they selected him with the sixth overall pick, their reward for a 4-12 record in 2007.

Gholston was imperceptible throughout his rookie campaign and was deactivated in December. The Jets own the No. 17 pick in April's draft, but it would be difficult to choose a player who contributes less than Gholston.

Buffalo Bills need a good three months

The Bills are a hurting franchise. They desperately need a high success rate on the decisions they make in free agency and the upcoming draft.

The only positive developments that have happened to the Bills since Week 7 were the selections of owner Ralph Wilson and defensive end Bruce Smith for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Even so, Bills fans haven't been this down on their team in a long time. One of the greatest organizations of the 1990s hasn't been to the playoffs in nine years.

Wilson never has been more out of favor. His preference to operate without a traditional general manager has frustrated the fan base, but not nearly as much as his decision to sell home games to a Toronto promoter.

The way the Bills handled unpopular head coach Dick Jauron's three-year contract extension -- refusing to acknowledge the in-season agreement while they circled the drain and then announcing after the season he would be back -- made tensions worse. The Bills have gone 7-9 in each of Jauron's three seasons.

On the field, the Bills don't have anyone to embrace. Pro Bowl running back Marshawn Lynch was arrested last week for possession of a concealed, loaded firearm. Pro Bowl left tackle Jason Peters held out last season and somehow returned to Honolulu despite a lousy season.

The Bills' scouting department needs to be extra perceptive in Indianapolis. An array of talented players will be available at No. 11. The Bills better not blow it. They'll need to hit on most of their other picks, too.