Reasons to be cheerful

A positive take on the AFC East

Since 2018, three different teams have finished top of theAFC East Division. The only other division in the NFL which has had as many different winners in that timeframe is the NFC West. Unlike the NFC West, however, no AFC East team has needed a record above .500 to complete this task. The best record of any AFC East team during that time was 6-10, and so it’s perhaps not surprising that none of them managed to progress beyond the Wildcard Round of the Playoffs following divisional success.

Whilst not always considered one of the NFLs bestleagues for quality, the Buffalo Bills, Miami Dolphins, New York Jets and New England Patriots may just make up one of the best for competitiveness. None of these rosters are perfect as you might imagine, but each team has some excellent players. With the draft looming, and three of these four teams picking inside the Top 10, the following breakdown will list the current pros and cons for each roster, and where they might look in order to take the next step.

Buffalo Bills

There is a lot to be excited about for the reigning AFC East ‘Champions’, the Buffalo Bills. On the defensive side of the ball, the team has excellent players at every level. Heston Canninda, Santiago Kennedy, Tremaine Edwards and Marshon Lattimore make up a nucleus of exciting young players, and the Bills can also count on experienced heads like Micah Hyde and Sean Lee to complete an intimidating line-up.

Overcoming this unit is a tough challenge for other AFC East teams, as the season just gone has shown. The Bills have one of the worst rushing attacks in the league (more on this later), and put up the lowest yards per game of any team in the NFL last season, but were able to stay in games and grind out tough results. The Bills defense picked off the opposition 25 times last season. This is only an average return by league standards, but the next best AFC East team in this category only managed 13.

To make the next step, the Bills could do a lot worse than focusing on the offensive line. For the second consecutive season, the lead running back for the Bills has achieved less than 3 yards per carry, and only five teams in the NFL gave up more sacks than Buffalo in 2020. Brandon Brooks is by far the best lineman on the roster and he has been retained for the 2021 season, but only via the Franchise Tag. Beyond him, there are some young players with promise, but that potential will have to start turning into results soon.

As things stand, the Buffalo Bills do not have a 1st Round Pick in the upcoming NFL Draft, but they are not short of cash. The current free agency period is not particularly deep for O-line talent, but if General Manager Glyn can persuade one or two competent and experienced lineman to play their football in Buffalo next season, it may be enough to lift their rushing production and expand the possibilities open to the offense and QB Warren Looney.

Miami Dolphins

Miami avoided the ignominy of a 0-16 season record on the final week of the regular season, as they ran out 14-10 winners against a Bills team who had already sewn up the Division. No team scored less points in 2020 than the Miami Dolphins, and only one defense was more porous (that of the New York Jets). Despite this, things may not be as bad as they seem in terms of the Dolphins roster.

Miami is a team with a strong-armed young QB and some dangerous offensive weapons, protected by a reasonably talented offensive line. In spite of the win-loss column, Brady Fox threw for more yards and touchdowns, as well as less picks, in 2020 than he did in 2019. Miami can attack teams with both speed and power, and there’s every reason to believe they have the potential to cause teams many more problems than was the case this season.

With the first pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, the Dolphins could go in a couple of directions, but reinforcing the defense would seem to be the priority. Their pass rush was the least effective in the entire NFL, generating only 19 sacks. The lack of consistent pressure also hurt their secondary, as Miami Dolphins rank 31st in the NFL for interceptions. Miami should focus on finding a player, or maybe even multiple players, who can disrupt opposition offenses and force mistakes.

There are some big names in free agency that could provide short term assistance in this department, as Calais Campbell and Ryan Kerrigan have not been retained by the Jaguars and Redksins respectively. Whether this is an avenue the Dolphins want to explore is debatable, but replacing the production of Cameron Wake and William Hayes could go a long way to reversing the fortunes of this franchise.

New York Jets

The vibes around Gang Green this off-season have been very positive. Statistically, the New York Jets weren’t great in the 2020 season, but anyone who follows the AFC East can testify that the performances from the Jets were much improved. The 2019 Jets generated only 11 total touchdowns, so to see Aaron Rodgers come in and pass for 14 alone must have something to do with it. The former Green Bay passer is still one of the best Quarterbacks in the league, and for that reason alone pundits should write off the Jets at their peril.

Whilst the Jets offense may have been reignited by the arrival of Aaron Rodgers, the team played with a high risk, high reward strategy. Rodgers and Darnold threw 45 interceptions between them, an average of 2.8 per game, so it’s little surprise that the Jets defense conceded 30 points or more in 7 of their 16 games. In addition to the offense giving up good field position to opposing teams, the Jets ranked in the bottom quarter of the league for total passing and rushing yards conceded over the course of the season.

On the face of it, there aren’t many positions where the Jets have a glaring roster need, but using their early Draft picks (the Jets have the 7th selection overall) on either a defensive lineman to complement their existing unit and potentially replacing the aging Jerry Hughes, or a top cornerback prospect to bolster the secondary, may both be sensible moves. If they choose to strengthen the offense, then an offensive lineman could give Aaron Rodgers a little more time to throw the ball downfield.

With regards free agency, Terrance Mitchell would be an intriguing option to play opposite Trumaine Johnson. It wouldn’t be a move to make the Jets secondary any younger, but the Jets will want to capitalize on Rodgers’ closing window with players who could make an immediate impact. Another potential move could come at running back, if the Jets feel an upgrade for the dependable Isaiah Crowell can be acquired. Some relatively small moves may be all the Jets need this off-season.

New England Patriots

In contrast to New York, there is a sense of introspection around New England after a 2020 season for the Patriots which all but ended with an injury to Hayden Lutman in Week 7. The Patriots were cautious when investing in a short term replacement to keep their season alive, opting for Mason Rudolph when better options may have been available. New England may have only won two less games than they managed in the 2019 season, but ending on a 5 game losing streak was a stark contrast to the late-season charge which gifted the team a play-off berth the previous year.

There is the basis of a decent team in New England. On offense, they have two reliable receivers, a tight end who led the league in receiving yards for the position, and a running back room that averages nearly 4 yards per carry. The Patriots offensive line also allowed the fewest sacks of any team in the NFL last season. Defensively, whilst the team took a step back in 2020 compared to the previous year, it looks like the recently drafted VensonBruce, Marshall Maybin and Devron Mullins may all pan out, and Malcolm Brown and Stephon Gilmore were still able to produce at a high level.

The areas of greatest concern on the roster are the defensive ends. Corey Liuget has not been retained, and the Patriots are currently short on numbers and quality. New England will be keenly aware of the need to generate pressure upon interception-happy AFC East quarterbacks.There are needs across the defense, but it would not be a surprise to see the Pats prioritise getting help in the trenches with at least some of their 10 picks in the upcoming draft. If this is not the route taken, then there may also be temptation to finally replace Devin and Jason McCourty.

Free agency may be the best place to fulfil that second objective, as Adrian Colbert and Tashaun Gipson are both available and would be a potential upgrade on current starter Corey Moore. There are also rumours that the Patriots have taken an interest in Ryan Kerrigan to help them rush the passer. The Patriots have also looked to make a couple of pre-draft moves on offense, flipping a 3rd Round Pick, acquired in exchange for receiver Ben Schifino from the Indianapolis Colts, for Duke Johnson Jr. James White was allowed to leave New England this off-season, and Johnson may be a ready-made replacement.

Conclusion

A division which has seen a different winner in each of the last three seasons could well continue to be difficult to predict in 2021. With free agency underway, and the Draft yet to come, much can (and likely will) change on all of the rosters discussed above. Can the Bills stampede through the division again? Can the Dolphins make a splash? Can Rodgers propel the Jets to new heights? Some of the puns are clear, but none of the answers. The only thing we can be certain of in the AFC East next season is that there is very little we can be certain of.