AFC East - Preview

By Luke O'Brien


For some people, September signals an ending, or at the very least, the beginning of the end.

Leaves fall from the trees, the days get shorter, the sun loses its fastball. For Football fans, this is

just the beginning. Free Agency was the hors d’oeuvre, the Draft was the appetiser, now comes

the main course - the regular season.

If you were to rank the NFL divisions in terms of intrigue and excitement, the AFC East would be

up near the top. There are 3 teams with new, or nearly new Quarterbacks, the Patriots throwing

around money like the Dolphins of old, and a Jets team that might not be a laughing stock.

With all that being taken into account, lets rank the teams based on where they will finish and a few

other categories sprinkled in for fun.

1st - Buffalo Bills

Quarterback - Josh Allen

Head Coach - Sean McDermott

Star Player - Stefon Diggs

Major Additions - Mitchell Trubisky (QB), Emmanuel Sanders (WR), Matt Breida (RB), Matt Haack

(P), Gregory Rousseau (DE), Carlos Basham (DE), Spencer Brown (OT)

Major Losses - Josh Norman (CB), TJ Yeldon (RB), Tyler Kroft (TE), Matt Barkley (QB), Trent

Murphy (DE), Brian Winters (OG), Andre Roberts (KR), John Brown (WR).

Preview - The Buffalo Bills are the clear-cut favourites in the AFC East and one of the top 3 teams

in the AFC as a whole. Many people predict another compelling race to the Super Bowl between

Kansas and Buffalo as both teams have managed to keep their roster mostly intact. The Bills

aren’t exactly star studded, but they have a well-rounded team. If I were to be picky, I think the

Tight End position could be improved upon as Dawson Knox is a solid starter but isn’t at the level

of the other position groups.

The main weakness from last season was the pass-rush, but they have addressed it in the draft

with the additions of Gregory Rousseau and Carlos Basham in the first and second rounds

respectively. That’s the great advantage about having such a strong and deep roster, when you do

have weaknesses you can target specific positions in the draft to the point where it becomes a

strength.

Despite the level of depth they have, like any team, their success will depend upon their

Quarterback - Joshua Patrick Allen. He took a monstrous leap forward last season and looked

every bit like an MVP candidate in waiting. What he needs to do this year is prove that not only

can he mix it with Aaron Rodgers, Patrick Mahomes, and Tom Brady, but show that he is better

than them. If Allen doesn’t continue on his upward trajectory, the Bills could finish with a worse

result than their Conference Championship appearance last season.

An under-the-radar move, or lack of move in this case, is the retention of Offensive Coordinator

Brian Daboll. Seen as a future Head Coach and one of the main reasons why Josh Allen’s game

has grown so much recently, Daboll being a part of the Bills coaching staff for at least another year

is a huge retention for the franchise.


Player to Watch - Emmanuel Sanders - Before I go any further, the easy thing to say for each of

these “Players to Watch” would be the Quarterbacks, so I decided to go in a different direction.

Emmanuel Sanders might be one of the Buffalo Bills elder statesmen, but even at 34, Sanders is

still productive. The veteran was under-utilised in New Orleans last year but still put up over 700

yards and had 5 TD’s. In a wide receiver core of Stefon Diggs, Cole Beasley and Gabriel Davis,

Sanders figures to fit in as the second or third option. His versatility to play inside and outside

mean that he will see plenty of playing time and should pick up his standard 800 yards and 4 TD’s

that he gets most seasons.

I will have to knock some points off as he has changed his jersey number to #1 this year and single

digits on skill players just doesn’t sit right with me.


2nd - New England Patriots

Quarterback - Mac Jones

Head Coach - Bill Belichick

Star Player - Stephon Gilmore

Major Additions - Nelson Agholor (WR), Kendrick Bourne (WR), Hunter Henry (TE), Jonnu Smith

(TE), Trent Brown (OT), Henry Anderson (DE), Mac Jones (QB), Rhamondre Stevenson (RB),

Christian Barmore (DT), Davon Godchaux (DT), Matthew Judon (OLB), Kyle Van Noy (OLB),

Quinn Nordin (K), Jalen Mills (CB).

Major Losses - Cam Newton (QB), Sony Michel (RB), Damiere Byrd (WR), Joe Thuney (OG),

Adam Butler (DT), John Simon (DE), Jason McCourty (CB), Rex Burkhead (RB), Marcus Cannon

(OT), Patrick Chung (SS), Julian Edelman (WR).

Preview - There are off-seasons and then there is the 2021 New England Patriots off-season. Free

agency started with a bang, the Patriots being by far the biggest spenders in the league, bringing in

much needed reinforcements to what was a fairly poor roster by any standards. Long -time

veterans Patrick Chung and Julian Edelman retired and two out of their five Offensive Line starters

were allowed to walk in Joe Thuney and Marcus Cannon. Then the Patriots drafted Mac Jones,

who waddled to greet Roger Goodell in meme-tastic fashion. Sony Michel was traded away….and

then….and then! the Patriots cut starting Quarterback Cam Newton.

Where does this leave them? Quite good actually. The players that left had an average age of 31

years old and the incoming players have an average age of 26. Whilst Cam Newton was a great

leader, he was hamstringing the team offensively with his penchant for throwing the ball at the feet

of receivers from 5 yards away. Under Mac Jones they might not be as consistent, but they have a

much higher ceiling.

Player to Watch - Matthew Judon - I’ll preface this by saying it was pre-season, but Matthew

Judon looked head and shoulders above everyone else in the front seven for the Patriots in the

limited snaps he saw. It was a continuation of what had been reported throughout training camp.

Judon plays with an energy, intensity and an edge that the Patriots have not seen on the line for

quite some time. It will be interesting to see how he will de deployed, and whilst he isn’t a 10 sack

type player, he plays well against the run and should be able to set the edge well.


3rd - Miami Dolphins

Quarterback - Tua Tagovailoa

Head Coach - Brian Flores

Star Player - Xavien Howard

Major Additions - Jacoby Brissett (QB), Malcolm Brown (RB), Adam Butler (DT), Cethan Carter

(TE), Justin Coleman (CB), Will Fuller (WR), John Jenkins (DT), Jaylen Waddle (WR), Duke Riley

(LB), Jaelen Phillips (LB), Jevon Holland (FS).

Major Losses - Matt Breida (RB), Julian Davenport (OT), Ryan Fitzpatrick (QB), Davon Godchaux

(DT), Kamu Grugier-Hill (LB), Matt Haack (P), Ted Karras (C), Shaq Lawson (DE), Kyle Van Noy

(OLB).

Preview - More than any other team in the AFC East, and maybe the NFL, the success of the

Dolphins is tied to a big unknown - their Quarterback. Tua was okay last year but didn’t really

show the dynamism that made him such an exciting player at Alabama. At least with the Patriots

and Jets’ Quarterback situation, there are certain expectations with a rookie and allowances too.

With Tua, despite the fact that he probably only played a cumulative half a season, the expectation

is that he will be in better physical condition after his injury and that he will be ready to perform in

Week 1. I have some doubts.

The rest of the roster is looking solid, if unspectacular. The receiving group has been given a big

boost with the additions of Will Fuller and Jaylen Waddle so Tua should have the weapons to move

the ball at will, (pun intended). The remaining free agency additions are decent depth pieces which

should add some finesse to the Dolphins situational football. Butler is an excellent 3rd down

interior pass rusher, Coleman a more than serviceable Nickel Corner Back. The addition of Jacoby

Brissett means that the Dolphins have two very similar style Quarterbacks.

The big question is; are they good enough to beat the Patriots over the course of the season? I

think not, although in true fence sitting form, I think Tua’s experience from last year should be

enough to get them the win over the Patriots in Week 1. Overall the two Quarterbacks (Tua &

Jones) by the end of the year could be performing quite similarly. The difference will come down to

what I believe is a superior roster for the Patriots.

Player to Watch - Adam Butler - As mentioned earlier, Butler is a 3rd down interior pass rushing

specialist. It’s not a position that too many teams have, and it is quite a niche position to play.

Butler has rare size too at 6ft 5” and 300lbs, he is listed as a Defensive End but he is more of a 4-3

Defensive Tackle or a 3-4 Defensive End. Either way, he will add his considerable size on passing

downs. This should allow the more run stuffing Raekwon Davis and John Jenkins to get off the

field for a rest which should not be understated as both weigh upwards of 330lbs.

In his four years as a member of the New England Patriots, Butler managed to get 15 sacks, 9

passes deflected, and he averages 27 QB pressures per season. He can defend the run but it is

not his strength. Brian Flores will most certainly be excited to be re-united with Butler and the extra

dimension he can add to their line play.


One interesting fact which may give a view into why Butler was recruited to the Dolphins; 5 of his

15 career sacks have come against the Dolphins.


4th - New York Jets

Quarterback - Zach Wilson

Head Coach - Robert Saleh

Star Player - Corey Davis

Major Additions - Carl Lawson (DE), Corey Davis (WR), Tevin Coleman, Keelan Cole (WR),

Sheldon Rankins (DT), Lamarcus Joyner (SS), Dan Feeney (OG), Justin Hardee (CB), Zach

Wilson (QB), Tyler Kroft (TE), Alijah Vera-Tucker (OG), Elijah Moore (WR), Michael Carter (RB).

Major Losses - Sam Darnold (QB), Tarell Basham (DE), Pat Elflein (OG), Joe Flacco (QB), Frank

Gore (RB), Neville Hewitt (MLB), Jordan Jenkins (OLB), Breshad Perriman (WR), Brian Poole (CB)

Preview - Let’s just start by saying; the Jets went 2-14 last year. They will be better this year. The

can’t really get any worse. One of the more surprising moves to me this offseason, was the

addition of Robert Saleh. Not because he isn’t good, on the contrary, he was probably the best

Head Coach in waiting available this year. It is a very un-Jets like move to appoint what seems like

a can’t miss coaching prospect. That alone should buy the Jets a few more wins.

The roster itself was very poor last season. This year the focus seemed to have been on bringing

in older more experienced veterans, with most signings being in their late twenties. The players

that left, on paper don’t really seem like they will be sorely missed. Solid veterans who will most

likely be backups in their new teams. Overall, the roster has improved but there are still some big

gaps that will prevent the Jets from really competing. Running back, Tight End, Pass rush, Corner

Back & Kicker lack real talent. However, this is a re-build, and with how bad the roster was, it

wouldn’t be possible to make so many wholesale changes.


The draft has been a bit kinder to the Jets over the last couple of seasons which is historically

where they have faltered; Quinnen Williams, Chuma Edoga, Blake Cashman, Mekhi Becton,

Denzel Mims, Ashtyn Davis, La’Michal Perine, Bryce Hall and Braden Mann have all turned out to

some degree and look like solid draft choices. Now the Jets have been able to add Quarterback

Zach Wilson to the mix. In typical Jets fashion however Wilson was seen as a bit of a boom or

bust type player, but for now he is the second overall pick and should be given the time and

patience to develop.


Player to Watch - CJ Mosley - One of the unluckiest free agency signings and unfortunately

typical of the Jets luck over the last decade or so, Mosley has a big point to prove in 2021. A Pro-

Bowl selection in 4 out of his 5 years in Baltimore, it was seen as a surprising move to let him walk

by the Ravens. The Jets then gave him an astronomical 5 year $85m contract in 2018 and Mosley

has played just 2 games since then. A groin issue and a decision to opt out of the 2020 season

have meant the once dominant linebacker hasn’t played a game in nearly 2 years. With the

defensive mind of Coach Saleh and a fully operational Mosley, he could be a complete game

changer for the Jets. Or, he could be like so many other Jets free agency signings - a costly

mistake.


Luke O’Brien

@lukeobrienNFL