Was the 2020 season really a changing of the guard in the AFC East, or a sign of things to come? That is one of the big questions surrounding the division heading into the offseason, but not the only one worth keeping an eye on. Going from a big picture perspective to each individual team, we find that there are plenty of uncertainties on the horizon.
Before digging deeper, however, one last look at how last season went for the clubs:
- Buffalo Bills: 12-4 (lost AFC Championship Game)
- Miami Dolphins: 10-6
- New England Patriots: 7-9
- New York Jets: 2-14
Whether it is keeping momentum going for another year or bouncing back after a disappointing season, the AFC East’s four teams will be fun to watch this offseason. Along the way, they will try to answer their biggest questions.
Buffalo Bills: Will the offensive line stay intact?
The Bills won the AFC East in large part because of quarterback Josh Allen’s development in his third year in the league. As the Super Bowl between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Kansas City Chiefs showed, however, a QB can only be as good as his offensive line allows him to be: while Tom Brady had seemingly all the time in the world and performed at a high level, Patrick Mahomes struggled with the relentless pressure coming his way.
When it comes to Buffalo, keeping the offensive line intact will be a big task this spring. After all, five of the nine offensive linemen on the Bills’ final roster are in need of a new contract (offensive snaps in 2020 in parentheses):
- G Ike Boettger: Restricted free agent (57.6%)
- G Jon Feliciano: Unrestricted free agent (53.6%)
- OT Ty Nsekhe: Unrestricted free agent (4.3%)
- OT Daryl Williams: Unrestricted free agent (91.0%)
- G Brian Winters: Unrestricted free agent (47.1%)
Winters, who saw regular action during the regular season, and Nsekhe were relegated to backup status by the playoffs. The other three free-agents-to-be, however, started all three of Buffalo’s postseason contests: Boettger and Feliciano lined up at left and right guard, respectively, with Williams starting at right tackle.
There is a chance that the Bills keep parts of their starting lineup together — Boettger being tendered at one of the three restricted levels appears to be all but a formality, for example — but it would not be surprising if Allen would line up behind a different group in 2021.
“Whether we can get them back, I don’t know,” Bills general manager Brandon Beane said earlier this offseason when asked specifically about Feliciano and Williams. “We’ll have to see where their markets are, but if not, we’ll have to try and find some similar replacements at a cost-effective number.”
Miami Dolphins: How will the offense be upgraded?
While the Dolphins’ defense was one of the best in football last year — the unit was tied for fourth in the NFL with just 19.7 points allowed per regular season game — the team’s offense had its fair share of ups and downs: it ranked 16th in scoring, averaging 23.9 points per contest. The unit was particularly inconsistent when led by first-round rookie quarterback Tua Tagovailoa in place of veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick.
With Fitzpatrick a free agent and having lost his starting spot, Tagovailoa is slated to enter the 2021 season as the Dolphins’ QB1. The question therefore is how the team will try to improve its offense behind the youngster.
While Miami could invest in free agency — the team is projected to have around $28 million in salary cap space available — it also would not be a surprise if the team went after top-tier draft prospects such as wide receivers Ja’Marr Chase, Jaylen Waddle or Devonta Smith. Of course, another option is also on the table: trying to upgrade at quarterback instead of investing significant resources in a supporting cast that already features some talent.
Tagovailoa, who was selected fifth overall last year but looked shaky at times as a rookie, is a natural candidate to make a second-year jump and become more steady with a full offseason under his belt. If the team does not feel confident in his development one season in, however, adding another passer to compete against him might also make sense.
The most likely outcome, though, is the team moving forward with the youngster and trying to build its offense around him through free agency investments and draft picks.
New England Patriots: What will be done at quarterback?
Ever since Tom Brady took his talents to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last spring, the Patriots have had some major questions at the most important position on the field. Cam Newton struggled in his first year as the team’s starter, while his backup Jarrett Stidham did not inspire much confidence either.
New England very much appears to be in the market for a quarterback in 2021, but the big question is what a potential investment will look like. While there is a chance the Patriots continue to build around Newton or another veteran by surrounding them with better skill position talent, it would also not be a surprise to see a rookie be brought in via the draft.
Pats Pulpit’s Brian Hines analyzed some potential quarterback candidates on the free agency, trade and draft markets earlier this offseason that might fit the mold:
- Draft targets: Justin Fields (Ohio State), Mac Jones (Alabama), Trey Lance (North Dakota State), Kyle Trask (Florida), Zach Wilson (BYU)
- Free agency targets: Andy Dalton (Dallas Cowboys), Jacoby Brissett (Indianapolis Colts), Ryan Fitzpatrick (Miami Dolphins)
- Trade targets: Derek Carr (Las Vegas Raiders), Sam Darnold (New York Jets), Jimmy Garoppolo (San Francisco 49ers), Marcus Mariota (Las Vegas Raiders), Carson Wentz (Philadelphia Eagles)
While a blockbuster trade could theoretically happen, the best course of action for the Patriots might be to invest a high draft pick into one of the men named above while also bringing in some veteran help — be it Newton or somebody else. Most importantly, however, New England will have to upgrade the skill positions in order to create the best possible environment for a new QB to work in.
Given that the Patriots are projected to have around $64 million in cap space available, they very much are in prime position to do that.
New York Jets: How will Robert Saleh shape the team?
The Adam Gase era was a debacle for the Jets, who went just 9-23 over the last two seasons and bottomed out at 2-14 in 2020. In order to end the league’s longest playoff drought — New York has not made the postseason tournament since 2010 — the team brought one of the most prominent head coaching candidates in the NFL on board: former San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh will be tasked with the turnaround.
Saleh and general manager Joe Douglas are facing a big challenge given how the team performed last season. In turn, everything appears to be on the table in terms of offseason moves: from parting ways with former first-round quarterback Sam Darnold, to trying to upgrade his supporting cast, to rebuilding a defense that is lacking blue-chip talent outside of lineman Quinnen Williams.
New York’s new head coach will likely play a prominent role in this process, especially when it comes to the quarterback position. There has reportedly been some trade interest in Darnold, but if Saleh and Douglas identify him as a player worth holding onto he will not be going anywhere.
If that happens, and he stays put as the Jets’ starting quarterback, the team will likely be aggressive when it comes to pursuing talent on the free agency market: New York is projected to have $68 million to work with, second in the league behind only the Jacksonville Jaguars. Furthermore, the team has two first-round draft picks — including the second overall selections — to bolster one of the weakest rosters in the game today.
In case Saleh tries to follow his roots and history in San Francisco, it would not be surprising to see the Jets build a defense in the 49ers’ mold: from the inside out, capable to put pressure on opposing quarterbacks.