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ORCHARD PARK, NEW YORK - JANUARY 16: Josh Allen #17 of the Buffalo Bills celebrates after defeating the Baltimore Ravens 17-3 in an AFC Divisional Playoff game at Bills Stadium on January 16, 2021 in Orchard Park, New York. (Photo by Bryan Bennett/Getty Images)

Editorials

2021 NFL AFC East Preview

It feels good to be back.

After a summer and season full of COVID-19 in 2020, couch tweeting, and a sleep deprivation problem that developed over the last 12 months or so, my lowly — yet special — division previews are back to kick off the countdown to training camp.

The previews I did last summer were basic in terms of structure and detail. But I don’t want to side with that this time around, in fact I want to add and change a couple of things.

Let’s bring more talking points, more topics, and more information for you readers to divulge into. Let’s do away with the safe ways of writing and bring more personality, energy, and insight for these ever important summer time NFL nuggets that help us pass the time.

In other words, let’s have some fun.

Like last season, I’m going to start with the AFC East, which has added a lot more in terms of excitement and intrigue since the last time we scavenged the division.

2020 Standings

1. Buffalo Bills (13-3)

2. Miami Dolphins (10-6)

3. New England Patriots (7-9)

4. New York Jets (2-14)

Overview of 2020 for the AFC East

Over the past 20 years or so, we’ve seen Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots absolutely dominate the AFC East. But with Tom Brady gone, and Belichick’s vaunted defense missing a number of starters because of COVID-19 opt outs, the dominance we’ve come to expect from New England didn’t make an appearance in 2020.

Instead, we saw two rather young football teams arise from the ashes and make their mark on this division for the first time in years.

Josh Allen and the Buffalo Bills shocked many in 2020, with Allen finally tapping into the limitless potential he had as a prospect during the 2018 NFL Draft process. The addition of Stefon Diggs helped in Allen’s development as well, helping Allen making the jump from a talented, but raw prospect into a poised, confident, quarterback. . Diggs was traded from Minnesota to Buffalo due to him being frustrated with the lack of pass catching opportunities in Minnesota’s run first offense. With him being the number one option again, but this time in more of a pass heavy scheme in Buffalo, Diggs saw his numbers take a gigantic leap compared to the career lows he posted during his last season as a Viking.

The connection between these two superstars catapulted Buffalo to a 13-3 record, the second overall seed in the AFC playoffs, and the franchise’s first playoff win since 1995. With such a successful season in the books, and more young talent being infused into this team, the franchise is expecting bigger things in 2021 and beyond. They’ll have to get on the level of the Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs first, something that’s easier said than done.

Further down south, the Miami Dolphins underwent a bit of a resurgence of their own. In comparison to 2019, Brian Flores saw his defense take a big step forward in 2020 in terms of physicality, toughness, and overall efficiency. But the bigger story resided at quarterback, an area Flores would’ve wanted a bit more consistency and effectiveness.

Tua Tagovailoa struggled mightily during his rookie season. It was a season full of inconsistency, turnovers, and struggles that made you question if he was worthy of being taken with the third overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft. Whenever Tagovailoa did struggle though, Flores didn’t hesitate to throw in his handy dandy experienced backup option in Ryan Fitzpatrick.

That relief pitcher approach Flores leaned on quite a bit during the 2020 season helped keep this team afloat. Not just in week to week operations either, but the team’s then heated push for a playoff spot in a congested AFC playoff field. With Ryan Fitzpatrick gone, the Dolphins really need Tagovailoa to get his act together and develop into the player the organization thinks he can be.

Pushing for a playoff spot, but still prioritizing development for their young talent. It’s a slippery slope, but I’m a big believer in Flores, so if the best case scenario were to occur for any team, I’d put a healthy amount of cash on the Dolphins to pull it off.

If Tagovailoa can put his rookie struggles behind him, and if the defense can continue their stellar ascension into one of the league’s best, then Miami might be a sneaky pick to potentially give Buffalo a run for its money.

New England was hit by COVID-19 opt outs defensively and severe roster limitations offensively. That led to a lot inconsistency on both sides of the ball, and ultimately led to New England missing the playoffs for the first time since 2008. Cam Newton was a bit of a mess for the most part, mostly due to his saddening shortcomings as a passers, and his lack of full understanding of Josh McDaniels’ offense, which could’ve been caused in part to Newton’s early season stint on the COVID-19 list. It wasn’t all bad though, as McDaniels spearheaded a Patriots run game that saw a great deal of success compared to previous seasons.

The Jets were….the Jets. Adam Gase was a disaster once again, Sam Darnold looked lost…..again, and the feeling surrounding the team was simply depressing. They did get some good play out of Mekhi Becton though, so it wasn’t totally a lost season.

Best Offense for 2021

Buffalo Bills- After the season Josh Allen and company had, there’s no way this offense wouldn’t be ranked as my top unit in the division. A good bit of the offense’s contributors return this season. That includes offensive coordinator Brian Daboll, who was linked to a number of head coaching openings during the hiring cycle.

I think the one weakness that was somewhat exposed in the midst of all the success was the lack of a true WR2. But Buffalo addressed that with the signing of Emmanuel Sanders, who still has some juice left in the tank to give this Bills offense another threat aside from Stefon Diggs.

The running game is still a bit of a question mark though, so that’ll have to be monitored as the season goes along.

This unit is poised to continue dominating defenses across the league and they’ll continue to do so, unless Josh Allen falls off the face of the earth, or the injury bug bites this team in the worst way.

Best Defense for 2021

Miami Dolphins- This was a bit of a tough call.

Bill Belichick’s defense is getting back Dont’a Hightower, a key staple in this Patriots defense. With Hightower back in the fold, along with some unexpected young talent ready to contribute even more, it’s easy to assume Belichick and his staff could get this defense back to its historically dominant 2019 level.

But that isn’t a given at this point, so it’s probably wiser to roll with Miami as the safer option as the best defense in the AFC East. Brian Flores had this unit flying around the field last season. Jerome Baker, Christian Wilkins, Byron Jones, Xavien Howard, Emmanuel Ogbah, those were just a few of the names that stood out during the Dolphins’ incredible run of play.

However, even after all the improvements this unit made defensively last season, it was still subject to change this off-season. Out went Shaq Lawson, in came talented rookie Jaelan Phillips. Benardrick McKinney was brought in via trade as well to shore up the team’s linebacker group after the departure of Kyle Van Noy.

This defense still has so much room to grow, which makes the realization of their potential so scary.

If they can tap into that extra potential, this unit might turn into one of the league’s best by seasons end.

Best Head Coach for 2021

Bill Belichick- Come on now.

Until Belichick retires or shows he can do his job anymore, then he’ll always stand at the top of the Best Head Coach list not only for the AFC East, but for the entire league as well.

End of story.

Potential Breakout Player to Watch for Each Team in 2021

Buffalo Bills- DE A.J. Epenesa

It’s been no secret that the Bills —aside from Jerry Hughes — have lacked the necessary amount of pass rushing prowess to not only feel comfortable over the last couple of seasons, but to put a consistent winning product on the field. The team found a way to do so in 2020, mostly due to the phenomenal job done by Sean McDermott and his staff, along with an explosive breakout season from Brian Daboll’s offense.

But McDermott probably knows his defense can’t continue on like this.

Sooner or later, he’s going to need his unit to truly step up and return to the form that he had the unit at during the early years of his tenure in upstate New York. Third year pass rusher A.J. Epenesa won’t drastically change the Bills’ current pass rushing worries, but he’s in a good spot to at least improve it.

Epenesa fits the bill of what McDermott wants from his defense ends. Big, tall, strong, and very physical. But he hasn’t really put it all together on the field as a complete football player just yet.

He’ll be in line to get an uptick in snaps this fall, since the roster situation behind him is talented, but full of youth and inexperience. As well as Hughes getting a bit older in age. Mario Addison is there as well, so all the responsibility won’t 100% fall on Epenesa’s shoulders early on from what I believe.

But with whatever responsibilities he’ll still have, he should be set to handle them with ease.

Miami Dolphins- RB Myles Gaskin

Gaskin split a lot of the running back duties with Salvon Ahmed down the stretch in 2020 as a way to seemingly jump start the Dolphins’ dead running game. But what set Gaskin apart from his counterpart was the fact that he turned into a bit of a big play machine. That’s why it seems like the Dolphins are intent on Gaskin being the top dog in the running back room leading into training camp.

I personally didn’t see a whole lot of Gaskin last season, but I saw a enough to get an idea of what he can bring to the table. He’s a bit undersized at 5’9, but his pass catching ability and shiftiness makes him an ideal fit for today’s offensive friendly game.

With Tagovailoa’s progression in the Dolphins’ new offense unclear, Gaskin could be in line to develop as a bit of a security blanket for the second year quarterback. You could also see him improve his standing as a runner as well, but only if the Dolphins’ offensive line takes a step forward this season after a forgettable year in 2020.

New England Patriots- S Kyle Dugger

If you aren’t familiar with the Patriots, you probably don’t know who Kyle Dugger is. The second year player out of Lenoir-Rhyne — a division two school located in North Carolina — was met with a lot of hype during the pre-draft process last spring.

His “outstanding film” made some question if he could slide his way into the first round. But ultimately he was selected in the second round and by Bill Belichick no less. He received rave reviews from his peers during his first year in the league as he showcased his abilities on a defense that was stricken by opt outs due to COVID-19. With that first year now in the rear-view mirror, and longtime starter Patrick Chung retiring, it seems Dugger is slated for a big time breakout second year.

That sort of uptick in play will be a welcome sight for a Patriots defense that’s expected to return to its expected level of excellence.

New York Jets- OT Mekhi Becton

How can an already hyped young tackle still qualify as a break out player? Simple. Only if that young tackle has a lot of room to grow. Mekhi Becton had an extra set of eyes on him during his rookie year due to his ridiculous pre-draft showing as a prospect. He took that hype, translated it onto the field, and found himself being labeled as a precious building block for the Jets’ rebuild.

But the one thing that stopped him from turning into a true, dominant force at left tackle was the fact that he still had some issues in pass protection.

Now whether those issues are tied to footwork, mechanics, or whatever extra set of tools any tackle needs to have in order to consistently succeed, the fact of the matter still remains.

If Becton can clean up some of the flaws in his game that prevented him from rounding out into a lethal presence at tackle, then he’s going to get some serious All-Pro consideration.

Who Wins the Division in 2021?

The Buffalo Bills haven’t show any indication that they’re ready to loosen their grip on the AFC East. They still have way too much talent — both young and experienced — and their coaching staff has somehow remained relatively intact.

Combine those factors and you have yourself a potential juggernaut of a football team.

Now a lot of their future success will depend on the development of the young pieces on defense, especially Epenesa and 2021 first round pick Gregory Rousseau. But even with those two promising players still trying to find their way, this team isn’t poised to lose a step whatsoever.

Sure, the revamped roster of the New England Patriots and the also young, but inconsistent Miami Dolphins might have something to say, but I very much doubt they’ll make enough noise to threaten the Bills’ throne.

Give me all the bets predicting the Bills as repeat champions of the AFC East.



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