Changing of the guard? Or just a COVID-19 fluke? The battle between the Buffalo Bills and New England Patriots for division supremacy tops the 2021 AFC East storylines as NFL training camps near. But don’t count out the Miami Dolphins, who will contend if they figure out their quarterback position. As for the New York Jets, they’re playing the long game.
AFC East training camp storylines
Beginning with the reigning division champions, here are the top storylines for each AFC East team entering the 2021 season.
There is only one question that really matters this year: did Brandon Beane and Sean McDermott do enough in the offseason to not only catch the Kansas City Chiefs but surpass them? Last year, the Bills made huge strides but ran into the Chiefs’ buzz saw in the AFC title game. In two meetings last year, Kansas City outscored Buffalo 64-41.
Through their actions, Beane and McDermott showed they believe the Bills already have enough personnel to take that next step. Buffalo had a very quiet offseason, focusing on continuity instead of making a big splash in free agency.
It feels like this will be their best chance to make a run. Josh Allen, who has a real chance to win the MVP in 2021 after finishing second to Aaron Rodgers last year, counts just $6.9 million against the cap. But that figure jumps to $23 million in 2022, the final year of his contract. The Bills will have to make some tough roster choices once Allen is paid what he deserves.
Additionally, OC Brian Daboll and DC Leslie Frazier might both be gone in six months as they should get strong consideration for head coaching openings.
Tua Tagovailoa is under significant pressure to make a leap forward this year. If Brian Flores proved anything in last year’s impressive 10-6 campaign, it’s that he does not have a ton of patience for quarterbacks.
Flores benched Tagovailoa twice late in the year, and while the Dolphins committed to him in word and deed this offseason, Tua needs to play much better in Year 2. Otherwise, the Dolphins will look to upgrade in 2022.
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The Dolphins have the pieces for Tua to succeed in the AFC East
Tagovailoa should have no excuses next season. He’s stated that his hip feels way better than it did last year. Furthermore, his surrounding talent has similarly improved. The Dolphins added Will Fuller in free agency and Jaylen Waddle in the 2021 NFL Draft, giving co-offensive coordinators Eric Studesville and George Godsey all kinds of options.
That should take the pressure off of a defense that carried Miami in 2020. And that’s good because it would be foolish to expect 10 interceptions again out of Xavien Howard, who is unhappy with his contract situation. The pass rush should be solid with the addition of Jaelan Phillips.
New England Patriots
Bill Belichick and Robert Kraft didn’t like New England’s first losing season since 2000 one bit (watching Tom Brady win a seventh Super Bowl without them didn’t help). Both are determined not to let it happen again.
So determined that they dropped more than $160 million guaranteed in free agency — a staggering sum made even more impressive considering it came in a depressed-cap season. Tight ends Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry, and linebacker Matthew Judon were the biggest ticket items in Belichick’s out-of-character spending spree.
That free agency push allowed New England to focus on their top need in the draft: Quarterback. They took Mac Jones at 15th overall, and unless Cam Newton has a late-career revival, expect Jones to play — perhaps early — this fall.
Will Jones get the protection he needs? That is a reasonable question, considering Joe Thuney and Marcus Cannon are gone.
New York Jets
Sam Darnold and Adam Gase are out. Zach Wilson and Robert Saleh are in. Jets fans could not be more thrilled. But optimism has a very short shelf life in Gotham, so the honeymoon will be quick if 2021 is rough.
Wilson seems on track to start Week 1. The Jets don’t have anyone behind him. Well, they do, but Mike White and James Morgan have thrown the same amount of NFL passes as the rookie out of BYU. Zero.
That’s not the only place the Jets are …groan … green. Saleh is a first-time head coach, and Mike LaFleur is a first-time play-caller. Moreover, Jeff Ulbrich has never entered the season as a defensive coordinator before this year. Expect some growing pains early.
That’s doubly true, considering the incomplete state of the roster. The Jets didn’t have a Pro Bowler in 2020, and there’s a chance history repeats itself in 2021. However, Marcus Maye should be motivated to perform. He’s playing on the franchise tag, putting him in yet another contract year.
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