The Jets’ new quarterback turns 22 years old in August. The Dolphins’ quarterback turned 23 last month. The Patriots’ quarterback turns 23 in September. And the Bills’ quarterback is the grumpy old man of the group, turning 25 on May 21.
Call it AFC East: The new class.
The division was stale and predictable for nearly 20 years — Tom Brady and the Patriots dominated, while the other three teams sputtered and imploded. Now with the Patriots’ Mac Jones and the Jets’ Zach Wilson joining the Dolphins’ Tua Tagovailoa and the Bills’ Josh Allen, the AFC East has four exciting young quarterbacks and revitalized rivalries for the 2020s. For the first time perhaps this century, all four teams enter the season with legitimate optimism and a sense that they are headed in the right direction.
Let’s take a look at where each team stands following last weekend’s NFL Draft:
2020: 13-3, lost AFC Championship Game.
Key free agents: WR Emmanuel Sanders
Key draft picks: DE Greg Rousseau (pick 1-30), DE Carlos Basham (2-61), OT Spencer Brown (3-93).
The Bills spent most of their offseason retaining last year’s players after winning their first division title in 25 years. The Bills have been steadily building since coach Sean McDermott arrived in 2017, and after last year’s trip to the AFC Championship Game, believe they have the pieces in place to compete for a Super Bowl. They have the fourth-best Super Bowl odds in the NFL, behind only the Bucs, Chiefs, and Packers.
Allen, entering his fourth year, is coming off a transcendent 2020 season, and all of his weapons will be back — Stefon Diggs, Cole Beasley, Dawson Knox, Devin Singletary, Zack Moss, and the entire offensive line. The Bills augmented the receiving corps by adding Sanders, who still has plenty of juice at 34.
The entire defense will be back, too, and the Bills seemingly improved their one area of weakness in the draft, doubling up on edge rushers with their first two picks. Rousseau is an especially intriguing pick — a defensive end who fell to 30th in part because he didn’t play in 2020.
The offense will be back, the defense will be back, and, importantly, all of their coaches will be back. The Bills are the heavy favorites to win the AFC East and will be dangerous again.
2020: 10-6, missed playoffs
Key free agents: WR Will Fuller, C Matt Skura, QB Jacoby Brissett.
Key draft picks: WR Jaylen Waddle (1-6), DE Jaelan Phillips (1-18), S Jevon Holland (2-36), OL Liam Eichenberg (2-42), TE Hunter Long (3-81).
The Dolphins seemingly built a lot of momentum in 2020 with a surprising 10-6 finish, and now hope to take the next step in Tagovailoa’s second season. They certainly upgraded his receiving corps by adding the speedy Fuller in free agency and dynamic Waddle in the draft. Long, from Boston College, is also a potentially solid option as the second tight end behind Mike Giesicki.
But the Dolphins still have a few question marks. The first is whether an improved receiving corps can help Tagovailoa improve upon a shaky rookie season. The offensive line also has a lot of young players who are talented but unproven. And the defense has questionable depth at edge rusher, though Phillips, the 18th overall pick, certainly should help. Finally, the Dolphins have had a surprising amount of turnover on the roster and coaching staff this offseason, including a new offensive coordinator for the third straight year.
If Tagovailoa can make a second-year jump, the Dolphins can be dangerous. But they have the most boom-or-bust potential in the AFC East.
2020: 7-9, missed playoffs
Key free agents: TE Jonnu Smith, TE Hunter Henry, WR Nelson Agholor, WR Kendrick Bourne, OT Trent Brown, OLB Matt Judon, OLB Kyle Van Noy, DT Davon Godchaux, DB Jalen Mills.
Key draft picks: QB Mac Jones (1-15), DT Christian Barmore (2-38), OLB Ronnie Perkins (3-96), RB Rhamondre Stevenson (4-120).
The Patriots spent $175 million guaranteed in free agency and drafted a new franchise quarterback following last year’s disappointing season. Last year’s 7-9 record simply wasn’t going to cut it again.
On paper, the Patriots look great. They have all the pieces in place for Jones to be successful — two elite tight ends that will be matchup problems for defenses, a terrific offensive line, speedy new receivers on the outside, and a deep stable of running backs.
A defense that finished 26th against the run last year also looks much improved. The Patriots have two new plugs in the middle with Godchaux and Barmore, and Judon, Van Noy and the return of Dont’a Hightower should shore up the edges. The Patriots have all the pieces to play great defense, efficient offense, and win games like the dynasty teams of 20 years ago.
The problem is, it’s usually quite difficult to build a team through free agency and expect so many new parts to work seamlessly together in a short amount of time. Belichick has a big challenge in front of him.
2020: 2-14, missed playoffs
Key free agents: WR Corey Davis, WR Keelan Cole, OLB Carl Lawson, LB Jarrad Davis, DT Sheldon Rankins, S Lamarcus Joyner
Key draft picks: QB Zach Wilson (1-2), T/G Alijah Vera-Tucker (1-14), WR Elijah Moore (2-34), RB Michael Carter (4-107).
The Jets look to be finally turning a corner and heading in the right direction in 2021 — though of course the same thing was said in 2018 when they drafted Sam Darnold. But they have a new coach with a winning pedigree in Robert Saleh, a proven offensive system that coordinator Mike LaFleur is importing from the 49ers, and exciting new players on offense.
Not only did the Jets draft a potential star quarterback in Wilson, they gave him a lot of weapons — Davis and Cole in free agency, a physical slot receiver in Moore, and an elite offensive lineman in Vera-Tucker. They also beefed up their defense with Lawson, a relentless edge rusher.
The Jets’ future will obviously be determined by Wilson’s development. And they are probably a year or two away from being playoff contenders. But the Jets are punching bags no more, and look as if they have a bright future.