If there was one division worth paying special attention to during Saturday's NFL draft, it was the AFC East.
You had NFL commissioner Roger Goodell formally announcing left tackle Jake Long as the Miami Dolphins' first pick of the day. You had three other teams making picks within the top 11 selections. You also had the New England Patriots doing what they always do at this time of year: find a way to make the most of their options.
The end result was yet another intriguing chapter in what's been an intriguing offseason for the AFC East. Seriously, has any other division made as many headlines as this one? From all the Spygate controversy still surrounding the Patriots to the hiring of Bill Parcells as the Dolphins new executive vice president of football operations, these teams have been in the spotlight. And that's before you start talking about how heightened the competition has become among these franchises this offseason.
Just look at the list of notable moves thus far. The New York Jets, for one, went on a big-time spending spree that resulted in the addition of Pro Bowl guard
Alan Faneca, outside linebacker Calvin Pace and right tackle Damien Woody, among others. The Dolphins also acted quickly when they had opportunities, especially when they parted ways with star middle linebacker Zach Thomas while also finalizing a deal with Long four days before the draft. Even the Buffalo Bills made some news when they acquired massive defensive tackle Marcus Stroud in a trade with Jacksonville.
The point to be made here is that everybody in the AFC East has been hustling this offseason. And that's not solely because this division houses a Patriots team that came within two minutes of winning their fourth Super Bowl in seven seasons last year. It's also because the Jets and Bills are hungry and well-coached and the Dolphins now have Parcells running their franchise. As Jets head coach Eric Mangini said, "You know [Miami] is going to keep getting better for as long as he's a part of that team."
With so much heightened competition, it's been vital that all these teams make smart moves at this of time of year. After all, the Patriots have stayed on top for so long because of their collective intelligence. Head coach Bill Belichick and vice president of player personnel Scott Pioli know what they're looking for and they usually find a way to get it, with Saturday being yet another example.
Instead of standing pat with the seventh overall selection, they traded down with the New Orleans Saints for the 10th pick in order to select Tennessee stud linebacker Jerod Mayo and acquired another third-round pick (in exchange for New England's fifth-round pick).
But the Patriots weren't the only AFC East team that had to be pleased with how the first round went. The Dolphins obviously were excited about adding Long to an offensive line that desperately needed a talented left tackle, while the Jets (who drafted pass-rushing outside linebacker Vernon Gholston) and the Bills (cornerback Leodis McKelvin) also landed the players they most coveted. The Jets also managed to work a trade with the Green Bay Packers that gave New York the 30th overall pick, which they used to select tight end Dustin Keller.
What the Jets proved is that they're not going to spend years rebuilding their franchise. They're going to improve as quickly as they can, while reminding people that it was only two years ago when they made a stunning run to a 10-win season and an AFC wild-card spot. They obviously aren't going to win the division just yet, but they also know how quickly fortunes can change in the NFL. Just a few good moves and an abundance of confidence can take a bottom-dwelling team back to the good life of postseason participation.
That same attitude is certain to be apparent in the way AFC East teams operate throughout the remainder of the offseason. This isn't to say that that there aren't other teams in the NFL that are making as much noise with their own moves. It's just that it's difficult to find an entire division that has this level of competitiveness and familiarity. Since Belichick, Parcells and Mangini all know each other well, those relationships only add to the intensity that has heated up in recent months.
Here's something else to consider: The Bills, Dolphins and Jets have to work harder during the offseason because they still aren't capable of competing consistently with the Patriots during the regular season. As Bills head coach Dick Jauron said, "We're all obviously chasing a team that has really dominated for a long time now. They've won three of the last seven Super Bowls, so we all have a challenge ahead of us."
While that's true, it's hard to criticize the AFC East teams for how they've accepted that challenge. Even in a division that has been ruled by one team for so long, there is a strong indication that those other franchises will keep pecking away at the Patriots until they finally level the playing field.
It's probably not going to happen in the next year or two, this much we know. But based on the way this offseason is playing out, this division could become more competitive in far less time than anybody ever imagined.
Jeffri Chadiha covers the NFL for ESPN.com.