In 2020, we witnessed a shift in the balance of power in the AFC East. Heading into the 2021 season, the question is less “are the Buffalo Bills for real?”, and more “how far will the once-mighty Patriots fall?”
The 2021 NFL season is quickly approaching, We’re here to make sure you’re prepared.
We’re breaking down the teams that make up each of the league’s eight divisions. In this instalment, we take a look at the AFC East, where Josh Allen’s meteoric rise (and Tom Brady’s departure) snapped the New England Patriot’s stranglehold. If he can keep it up, we may look back at 2020 as a true sea change.
Elsewhere, though the Dolphins and the Jets are at very stages of their rebuilds, each has got an awful lot riding on a young quarterback.
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- 2020 regular-season/playoff finish: 13-3; Lost AFC Championship game to the Kansas City Chiefs
- Head coach: Sean McDermott
- Starting quarterback: Josh Allen
- Predicted 2021 finish: over 12 wins, another division title, and probably a return trip to the AFC Championship Game… possibly more!
Assuming the freshly-minted Josh Allen can maintain his awe-inspiring developmental progress, the makings of a sustained contender are in place in Buffalo. After all, Allen’s six-year, $258 million extension all but ensures that he’ll be the Bills’ signal caller for at least another eight years.
Outside of extending Allen, the 2021 offseason – on the heels of a season that ended a single victory shy of a Super Bowl appearance – was one of consolidation. The Bills focused on under-the-radar moves, like bringing back their own free agents along a solid offensive line, and at linebacker. Otherwise, an offense built around the explosive talents of Allen and superstar wide receiver Stefon Diggs returns six of 2020’s top seven pass-catchers. The one who has gone – talented but frequently injured John Brown – was replaced with still-excellent veteran Emmanuel Sanders.
Meanwhile, a defense that struggled terribly to create big plays, particularly via the pass rush (only one Bill, Jerry Hughes, had more than 3.5 sacks; he had 4.5), should get a boost from the incoming draft class. The Bills spent first- and second-round picks on defensive ends – Gregory Rousseau from Miami, and Carlos Basham Jr. from Wake Forest – in the hope of creating more chaos up front.
In the secondary, superstar cornerback Tre’Davious White is the anchor. He will once again line up opposite Levi Wallace, who’s back on a one-year deal. Wallace is talented, but has struggled to put together a sustained run in the NFL. However, though his 2020 numbers (48 tackles, 8 passes defended) don’t jump off the screen, it’s worth noting that they came in a season in which he lost three games to injury, and another to COVID. Also, in 2020, he was a much-improved tackler, missing on just three tackles all season, after having missing on over 13% of his 2019 opportunities. Though not a star, Wallace is carving out a niche.
The Bottom Line: As long as Allen is healthy and anything close to his MVP-calibre 2020 self, the Bills will remain in the upper tiers of the AFC. In 2021, regular season wins won’t be tough to come by, and the path to another AFC East title ought to be fairly straightforward.
However, to take that final step, and overcome the likes of Patrick Mahomes, Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady, the Bills need far more disruption from their defense. They’ve taken steps to address the issue. Whether they’ve done so effectively will be borne out on the field. If they’ve misfired, this is merely one of the NFL’s top half-dozen teams. If they’ve gotten it right, these guys could be downright terrifying.
- 2020 regular-season/playoff finish: 10-6, missed playoffs
- Head coach: Brian Flores
- Starting quarterback: Tua Tagovailoa
- Predicted 2021 finish: 10-11 wins, and a playoff berth
Ryan Fitzpatrick is a member of the Washington Football Team. For better or for worse, the Dolphins are now Tua Tagovailoa’s team. As such, the franchise must build an environment in which their second-year QB can thrive.
The offensive line remains a question, but seems to be moving in the right direction. After ranking dead-last in the NFL in 2019, the Dolphins’ line jumped a few spots in 2020. They still ranked in the bottom fourth of the league, but three rookies each logged at least 700 snaps. They’ll bring that experience into 2021. The team also used a second round draft pick on All-American offensive tackle Liam Eichenberg. It wouldn’t be surprising if the line shows significant progress this season.
Miami used their top draft choice (#6 overall) on Alabama wide receiver Jaylen Waddle, with whom Tagovailoa had an outstanding connection in college. Miami also added to the receiving corps in free agency, signing former Houston Texan Will Fuller.
That Fuller, second-year WR Lynn Bowden and 2020’s leading receiver, DeVante Parker, are dealing with preseason injuries is less than ideal. However, there’s not much concern about them missing regular season action. (It’s worth noting that, healthy or not, Fuller is unavailable until Week 2, due to a performance-enhancing drugs suspension.) Another piece of good news is that third-year WR (and big play threat) Preston Williams is progressing in his return from a foot injury that cost him much of last season.
Also less than ideal was the sudden resignation of offensive coordinator Chan Gailey following the 2020 season. In his place head coach Brian Flores named tight ends coach George Godsey and running backs coach Eric Studesville co-offensive coordinators. Whether the pair (or any duo, really) can successfully share this role is a huge question. On the bright side, Godsey has previous coordinator experience and has worked quite a bit with Tagovailoa in Miami, and both are very familiar with the system.
There are questions to answer, but the defense should once again be a strength. The numbers suggest that the Dolphins are unlikely to be as lucky with injuries and (especially) turnovers as they were in 2020. Perhaps, but there’s no guarantee that regression on either front will be immediate or extreme.
Plus, the Dolphins already sidestepped their biggest pitfall by restructuring superstar CB Xavien Howard’s contract. That he’s happy and will be around for the foreseeable future is a massive win. In Howard, along with Byron Jones, Nik Needham, Justin Coleman and 2020 first-round pick Noah Igbinoghene, the Dolphins boast not only one the NFL’s best CB groups, but an hilariously deep one.
This is perfectly suited to Flores’ preferred aggressive approach on defense, which relies more heavily than any other in the NFL on man-to-man coverage. Of course, such a scheme relies on pressuring the opposing QB. Despite the line combining for over 30 sacks in 2020, Miami’s ability to pressure the quarterback was mediocre.
To this end, the Dolphins used another first-round pick on edge rusher Jaelan Phillips, an All-American from the University of Miami. An immediate impact from Phillips (which is being counted on), combined with a greater contribution from the incumbents, could have this unit approaching a top-ten ranking in 2021.
The Bottom Line: The Dolphins have one of the NFL’s widest ranges of potential 2021 outcomes.
If you think Tagovailoa will struggle with accuracy and decision-making, and his receivers will keep getting bitten by the injury bug, and the offensive line will make no meaningful progress, this season could be a disaster.
I’m a good bit more bullish.
Given the talent on hand and Flores’ strengths as a coach, the defense should be no worse than “decent”. With a couple of breaks, it could be a huge strength.
On offense, I’m trusting in continuity and top-end talent. The constant chatter about whether Tagovailoa can succeed as an NFL QB ignores the fact he was hardly terrible as a rookie. In 2020, he completed over 64% of his passes, and threw fewer interceptions than Fitzpatrick (5 vs 8) in more pass attempts. Of course, there’s room for improvement, namely with increased aggressiveness downfield while limiting turnovers, but there is an awful lot of potential here.
With an offensive line that’s a safe bet to improve, and a potentially excellent WR trio in Parker, Waddle and Fuller, I’m trusting talent, and what I’ve seen from Tagovailoa in the past.
Mark me down as a Dolphins believer.
New England Patriots
- 2020 regular-season/playoff finish: 7-9, missed playoffs
- Head coach: Bill Belichick
- Starting quarterback: Mac Jones
- Predicted 2021 finish: 6-7 wins, and without a spot in the playoffs
Let’s get the easy bit out of the way first: the Patriots’ offensive line was excellent in 2020. All five starters return, as does ex-Patriot Trent Brown, after a two-year stint with the Raiders, during which he made his first Pro Bowl. In 2021, the Patriots’ offensive line will, once again, be excellent.
Now, to the dramatics.
That head coach Bill Belichick is not one for splashing cash in free agency has long been a given. In fact, over the past two decades, Belichick is far better known for cold moves that ease financial commitments than he is for big-money signings.
And then came March 2021.
Prior to this past spring, the mere thought of Belichick spending big in free agency was disorienting. To see him, in a nine-day span, hand out more guaranteed money than literally anyone had in history of NFL free agency was downright flabbergasting.
In hyper-aggressively attacking the market, Belichick acknowledged that not only was his first post-Brady season simply unacceptable (a 7-9 record and playoff absence also did this), but that bolstering that roster with only draft picks and bargain free agents wouldn’t suffice.
For starters, the Patriots’ wide receivers and tight ends have ranked among the NFL’s worst over the past two years. They were overhauled, with additions of receivers Kendrick Bourne and Nelson Agholor, and tight ends Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry. Bourne, a solid possession receiver, should complement third-year man Jakobi Meyers, while Agholor, who averaged 18.7 yards per catch in 2020, is a nice big-play option. We should note, though, that Agholor has never sustained a run of excellent play in the NFL, and struggles with dropped passes.
Henry and Smith, meanwhile, were the top tight ends available. Landing both allows fans to harken back to elite tight end duos of years past. The Pats had a league-low 18 catches by tight ends last season, so a return to this philosophy will be welcome.
Smith is productive on a per-catch basis, but hasn’t caught more than 41 passes in a season. Henry, meanwhile, is an elite talent and productive when healthy – which is the issue. He missed six games over the past two seasons, after missing the entire 2018 campaign with a knee injury, and has already suffered a shoulder injury during preseason that sidelined him for about ten days.
Then, of course, there’s the QB position. When we started this exercise, Cam Newton was looking at his last shot to regain a semblance of his past MVP form as a member of the Patriots. As it turns out, that moment had already passed. In 2020, he was a huge running threat, with 592 rushing yards and 12 TDs. Unfortunately, he didn’t pose the same threat as a passer. Despite a near-66% completion percentage, he managed just eight TD passes in 368 attempts, while throwing 10 interceptions. Newton’s play in 2020 tails off terribly, as arm and abdominal injuries, and residual effects of COVID-19 in October put a huge damper on a strong start. Additionally, though Belichick has insisted numerous times that Newton’s vaccination status was not a factor in his decision, the risks of keeping a non-franchise quarterback, who is widely presumed to not be vaccinated, in light of the NFL’s new penalties for teams at the centre of any COVID outbreak, probably came into play.
Rather than keep Newton on the roster, looking over his shoulder, with the organisation praying that he didn’t once again contract COVID, Belichick elected to cut ties, and cast his lot with first-round-pick Mac Jones (who’s had an excellent preseason).
On defense, the front seven, which struggled terribly a year ago, is retooled. For starters, Pro Bowl middle linebacker Dont’a Hightower is back, after opting out of the 2020 season. Also back is linebacker Kyle Van Noy, who was released by the Dolphins, one year into four-year contract. Joining them are a trio of newcomers: ex-Baltimore Raven Matt Judon, a big, physical edge player who’s effective as both a pass rusher and a tackler, and second-round pick, Alabama defensive tackle Christian Barmore. Given Belichick’s preference for man coverage, this group needs to gel quickly.
Of course, that scheme may also have issues at the back, as questions surround the Pats’ star DBs, Stephon Gilmore (CB) and Devin McCourty (FS). Gilmore is nearly 31 years of age, and coming off both his worse season since 2013 and a quadriceps injury that prematurely ended it. McCourty, meanwhile, just turned 34 and is coming off of his worst season in nearly a decade, during which he battled injuries and COVID.
There is some young talent waiting in the wings, but if the Patriots are to have anything close to a top-10 defense, they’ll need vintage performances from Gilmore and McCourty.
The Bottom Line: Bill Belichick’s gift for diagnosing his team, spotting weaknesses, and taking corrective action is unrivalled. That he took such an uncharacteristic approach to revamping the roster was startling, but reflects the challenges in maintaining success in the absence of stable and productive QB play. The problem is, there wasn’t a compelling reason to believe that late-period Cam Newton would provide that.
At the same time, while Mac Jones has looked good in the preseason, it’s a whole new ballgame once the games count. Plus, as is the case with any rookie QB, there will be some growing pains. In the event of ineffectiveness or injury, the Patriots can now only turn to Brian Hoyer or Jarrett Stidham.
Elsewhere, though the Patriots added talent on both sides of the ball, almost every position group faces questions. Can the receivers deliver explosiveness and consistency (or either, really)? Can Hunter Henry stay healthy? How much improvement can we expect from a defensive front with so many new faces? Particularly when the mainstays of the secondary are ageing and injured.
There’s too much talent here to truly bottom out, and we will likely get a glimpse of the next era of Patriots football. From a wins and losses perspective, however, this could be a bit of a long season in Foxboro.
New York Jets
- 2020 regular-season/playoff finish: 2-14, missed playoffs
- Head coach: Robert Saleh
- Starting quarterback: Zach Wilson
- Predicted 2021 finish: 2-3 win, and another top-five draft pick
Of course, rookie Jets QB, Zack Wilson isn’t wrong. The #2 overall pick, while talented, is raw. He is also the Jets’ unquestioned Day One starter under center.
Wilson looked solid in limited action in the Jets’ preseason opener. He was also executing an extremely basic game plan. If it’s any indication, the Jets want to bring their prized rookie along at a measured pace, while exposing him to the speed and intensity of real NFL games.
From a player development perspective, that’s not the worst strategy. It’s also not a recipe for winning games. This, of course, isn’t really a problem for a team in the throes of a full rebuild, as the Jets very much are.
Former San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator, Robert Saleh, is now a first-time head coach. Similarly, this is offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur’s first go as an NFL coordinator.
LaFleur’s transition was to be eased by the presence of veteran assistant Greg Knapp, who was hired as a passing game specialist in January. Knapp had served as either a QB coach or an offensive coordinator in the NFL for 26 years. Tragically, in July, he was struck by a motorist while riding his bicycle, and died five days later. In addition to obvious human loss for Knapp’s family and the Jets, both LeFleur and Wilson lost an invaluable mentor.
The terrible loss means that rookie head coach, rookie OC and rookie franchise QB have less guidance as they try to grow into their roles together.
The Bottom Line: In discussing the Jets’ 2021 season, there’s only so much meat on the bone.
A 2-14 team pinning their hopes on the arm of strong-armed but raw rookie quarterback, are handing the reins to a first-time NFL head coach and a first-time NFL offensive coordinator. This is not a microwave-ready situation. That LaFleur and Wilson are able to build a strong relationship is, strictly speaking, not the Jets’ ONLY priority this season – but it’s the only one that truly matters.
Sure, there’s talent elsewhere, namely along the offensive and defensive lines, and at wide receiver, where the talented Corey Davis signed as a free agent from Tennessee. However, this is not a playoff-calibre roster. If the 2021 season ends with Zach Wilson healthy and holding his own against NFL defenses, it will have been a rousing success for Gang Green.