The 5 best free-agent signings in the AFC East so far

AFC Divisional Playoffs - Kansas City Chiefs v Buffalo Bills
AFC Divisional Playoffs - Kansas City Chiefs v Buffalo Bills / Al Bello/GettyImages

It was accidental teddy bear namer Theodore Roosevelt who once said, “Comparisonfree-agent is the thief of joy.” And he wasn’t wrong.

There have been some big-name free-agent signings; Saquon Barkley is now an Eagle, Russell Wilson is taking his talents to Pittsburgh, and Kirk Cousins has to somehow move his giant face to Atlanta.

One thing all of those signings have in common is that none of them are in the AFC East. The 2024 NFL season has been a pretty low-key start for the Bills, Dolphins, Jets, and Patriots. But here are the highlights. 

Well, the best free agent signing in the AFC East has to be AJ Epenesa's re-signing with the Bills. He was fantastic for a defense that seemed to lose more players to injury each week. The 6 foot 6 inch, 260 lb. Epenesa grabbed a pick-six in 2023. And he defended eight other passes, too.

That was on top of the stuff defensive ends are supposed to do. He also recorded 6.5 sacks and made 7 tackles for a loss. And he forced a fumble. Quite the season for the Iowa Hawkeye. But since he was already in Buffalo, that’s kind of cheating. 

Shaq Barrett to the Dolphins

Barrett might be 31, but he provides much-needed star power to the Dolphins' defense, which just lost Christian Wilkins to the Raiders. In nine years in the league, Barrett has recorded 59 sacks and 400 total tackles!

How the Dolphins replace Wilkins and refurbish their defensive line will be key to their success in 2024. But with the likes of T’Vondre Sweat and McKinnley Jackson projected to be available in the latter rounds of the draft, they have plenty of opportunity to rebuild.  

Chukwuma Okorafor to the Patriots

Okorafor is the only signal the Patriots might have identified their major problem in 2023. The oversized, powerful, but ponderous offensive tackles are very 2012. Terron Armstead and Lane Johnson have redefined the position since 2013. Tackles now need to be able to move quickly enough to block fast twitch pass rushers. 

Okorafor is 320 lbs. He will presumably replace Trent Brown at left tackle. He’s 50lbs lighter than Brown, so it’s definitely an upgrade in that area. Okorafor has only drawn six penalty flags in the last two seasons.  

But he played only 50% of the Steelers snaps in 2023 after missing only four snaps in the first seven weeks of the season. Okorafor revealed why he had been benched to the press; he said that he’d upset Mike Tomlin with what he said after the Steelers lost to the Jaguars. You’ve got to love the passion, but if he speaks his mind after a loss, there will be fireworks in the Patriots locker room this season. 

Jordan Poyer  to the Dolphins

Poyer is one of the best safeties in the league, but he will be 33 in April. But he only missed one game during the regular season. He’ll bring a calm head and some more experience to a defense that already has Jalen Ramsey in the backfield. 

Plus, he spent the last seven years with the Bills. So, he’ll provide some vital insight into Sean McDermott’s approach before those two crucial divisional games. 

Javon Kinlaw to the Jets

The Jets apparently decided that the defense could use a bit of work, so they signed two defensive tackles and a cornerback. That’s interesting because they ranked 11th for the number of rushing touchdowns they allowed in 2023 and 4th for passing touchdowns.

They were 30th for the number of rushing touchdowns they scored and 32nd for passing touchdowns. And only one outside linebacker has left in the offseason. But sure, bolster the defense, guys. 

Kinlaw recorded a career-high 3.5 sacks last season for a 49ers defense blamed for blowing the Super Bowl. Mahomes gonna Mahomes, though. Kinlaw is very good at collapsing a pocket, so that’s bad news for Josh Allen, Tua, and Jacoby Brissett (maybe?). The Jets' offense might not be any better, but that defense is going to cause everyone even more problems. 

Austin Hooper to the Patriots

It could have been new Dolphins tight end Jonnu Smith, purely based on his 2023 season. In Atlanta, Smith caught 71.4% of his targets and averaged 11.4 yards per touch. These were his best numbers since 2019, and his 582 yards from scrimmage were a career-best for the 28-year-old tight end. 

But it’s Hooper for the exact opposite reason. 29-year-old tight end Hooper arrives in New England fresh off a season in which he only played 53% of the Raiders’ snaps. That follows a season in Tennessee where he only played 51% of the snaps. So, he’s fresh as a daisy.  

But Hooper's signing is smart for the Patriots as it reunites him with new offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt. Van Pelt and Hooper were together in Cleveland in 202o when the Browns finished 11-5 and were knocked out of the playoffs by the Chiefs.

That season, Hooper caught 46 passes and averaged 9.5 yards per touch. He will be a much better foil for Hunter Henry than Mike Gesicki was in 2023. 

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