Are Patriots still the team to beat in the AFC East?

Rob Gronkowski and Tom Brady will be looking to lead the Patriots to their 10th straight AFC East title. Getty Images

The New England Patriots have won the AFC East championship in each of the past nine seasons, which is the longest streak of division titles in NFL history. The Los Angeles Rams, with seven division crowns from 1973 to 1979, are next in line.

The Patriots’ division dominance goes even deeper, as the franchise has won 15 of the past 17 division titles. And since owner Robert Kraft purchased the team in 1994, the Patriots have won 17 division titles in 24 seasons.

“Everybody is trying to knock off the big dog, and they’re the big dog until they get knocked off,” New York Jets coach Todd Bowles said at the NFL’s annual meeting.

In 2018, which team has done the most to close the gap with the Patriots through free agency and trade acquisitions? Our roundtable of experts chimes in:

Mike Rodak, ESPN Bills reporter: The Bills were able to fill some holes, mostly on the defensive side of the football, through free agency. Their most significant spending was on defensive tackles Star Lotulelei (five years, $50 million) and Kyle Williams (one year, $5.5 million), as well as defensive end Trent Murphy (three years, $22.5 million). They also signed cornerback Vontae Davis to a one-year, $5 million deal to replace E.J. Gaines, but they have yet to fill the middle linebacker spot occupied the past four seasons by Preston Brown, who signed with Cincinnati.

If there are questions about how much the Bills have closed the gap with the Patriots, they would start with quarterback. Trading Tyrod Taylor to Cleveland for a third-round pick helped Buffalo set itself up to draft a quarterback, but the Bills reached deeper into the free-agent market to sign AJ McCarron at a bargain price. While McCarron offers more upside, and the Bills are likely to add a potential top-tier quarterback through the draft, the position right now seems weaker than last season. Had the Bills signed Josh McCown, whom they were reportedly interested in adding, the gap with New England might be smaller in the short term.

Mike Reiss, ESPN NFL reporter: While the Dolphins have lost more talent than they have imported, it’s been a calculated approach with hope that a stronger culture will yield better results. Culture can be hard to quantify and analyze, but championship teams often have strong leadership and a one-for-all mindset, which best defines the 2001 Patriots team that sparked New England’s run of dominance in the AFC East.

So trading receiver Jarvis Landry; releasing defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, center Mike Pouncey, tight end Julius Thomas and linebacker Lawrence Timmons; and bringing in players like defensive end Robert Quinn (via trade), receivers Albert Wilson and Danny Amendola, guard Josh Sitton and running back Frank Gore certainly alters the culture and gives the Dolphins a better chance to achieve that in the eyes of coach Adam Gase. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill’s return from a torn ACL could also be viewed as an addition because he missed all of last year.

Will it be enough to close the gap with the Patriots? I don’t see it right now, but the effects of a changing culture usually aren’t seen for a few months down the road. After all, that culture needs some time to evolve.

Mike Reiss, ESPN Patriots reporter: Losing starting left tackle Nate Solder in free agency could hurt most, while cornerback Malcolm Butler, running back Dion Lewis and receiver Danny Amendola also have departed. But the cupboard is far from bare, as two trade acquisitions have the potential to make the biggest impact -- defensive tackle Danny Shelton and cornerback Jason McCourty. Pass-rusher Adrian Clayborn could also help address a trouble area after signing a two-year, $10 million deal in free agency.

The Patriots also are in better position to add some talent in the draft, with picks in the first round (31), second round (43, 63), third round (95) and fourth round (136) to lead things off.

In the end, as long as quarterback Tom Brady and tight end Rob Gronkowski are locked in, the Patriots still look as if they’ll be in the lead position. -- Mike Reiss

Rich Cimini, ESPN Jets reporter: I’m with Todd Bowles on this one. At the NFL meetings last week, the Jets coach was asked the same question about the Patriots. His response: “Until somebody beats them and wins the division, nobody really closes the gap.”

I don’t foresee anyone overtaking the Patriots as long as Tom Brady is on the roster, but if you force me to give an answer: I’ll go with the Dolphins, slightly ahead of the Jets. The Dolphins added a handful of likely starters and then they cleansed the locker room of their “me” guys. The Jets improved their secondary by signing Trumaine Johnson, but they made only modest improvements in other areas.

The Jets, Dolphins and Bills are faced with the same challenge: upgrading at quarterback. Josh McCown, Ryan Tannehill and AJ McCarron aren’t “close-the-gap” kind of quarterbacks, so the answer to this question ultimately will be determined by which team wins the QB derby in the draft.