Last year at this time, the question was if the Buffalo Bills were primed to snap the New England Patriots’ hold on the AFC East. The Bills answered that decisively.
In fact, the Bills didn’t just prove to be the new kings of the division the Patriots had dominated for nearly two decades when they won 17 of 19 titles. Coach Sean McDermott’s Buffalo squad also showed it is a force to contend with in the AFC, advancing to the conference title game against the Kansas City Chiefs.
So it’s the Bills who enter 2021 as the favorite in the AFC East, and now there are different types of questions being asked. Coach Brian Flores’ Miami Dolphins are all-in on second-year quarterback Tua Tagovailoa — for better or worse — as they hope to build on last year’s second-place divisional finish. Coach Bill Belichick’s Patriots aim to return to prominence, spending big in the offseason in hopes of 2020 representing a one-year blip.
And the New York Jets, who at 10 seasons have the longest playoff drought in the NFL, have breathed new life into the franchise with the hire of upbeat coach Robert Saleh and the selection of BYU quarterback Zach Wilson at No. 2 overall in the 2021 NFL draft.
Here are three of the more compelling questions facing the AFC East, with ESPN NFL Nation reporters Marcel Louis-Jacques (Bills), Cameron Wolfe (Dolphins), Mike Reiss (Patriots) and Rich Cimini (Jets) providing answers:
How far ahead of the pack are the Bills?
Louis-Jacques: Asking this question in western New York might bring tears to the eyes of a Bills fan. The AFC East belongs to Buffalo. Josh Allen became the quarterback he had shown flashes of during his first two seasons, and the offense dominated to a point that the defense’s drop from elite to mediocre nearly went unpunished. With the same key pieces in place on both sides of the ball, and a rare fourth straight season with the same coach, offensive coordinator and defensive coordinator, there’s little on paper to suggest Buffalo won’t win its second straight division title in 2021. Miami should be the betting favorite to dethrone the Bills, but even that scenario is dependent on Tagovailoa’s development. Neither the Jets nor the Patriots can keep up with Buffalo offensively, and they appear at least a year or two away from competing for the division crown.
Wolfe: It’s still the Bills’ division to lose. The Bills finished three games ahead of the Dolphins, the second-place team in the AFC East, and there was little done by any teams this offseason that should convince us they have closed the gap. The Bills have the best quarterback (Allen) in the division, the best offensive skill player (wide receiver Stefon Diggs) and are the most complete team. Keep eyes on Miami to contend, though. The pressure is on Tagovailoa to perform, but Miami’s defense is arguably the division’s best and the additions of wide receivers William Fuller V and Jaylen Waddle should insert much-needed explosion to the offense. But as of now, Buffalo has the advantage.
Reiss: When linebacker Matt Milano re-signed on a four-year, $44 million deal right before the start of free agency, it was a sign to me that the Bills are decisively ahead of the pack. The teams that draft (Milano was a fifth-round pick in 2017), develop and retain are usually positioned for the most success. That Milano chose to stay, instead of testing the open market, was a sign the Bills’ program has reached the desired point in McDermott’s fifth season. I do think the gap will close a bit this season in the division — the Bills (13-3) were three games better than the Dolphins (10-6), and significantly better than the Patriots (7-9) and Jets (2-14) — but Buffalo is still a game or two better than the next team.
Rob Ninkovich sees the Patriots’ pro-style system being a better fit for Mac Jones than Cam Newton.
Cimini: I’m a big believer in the coach-quarterback dynamic, and no tandem in the division does it better than McDermott and Allen. The Dolphins are due for a market correction, so to speak. They capitalized on an easy schedule last season — only one victory against a team that finished with a winning record. I can see a drop-off, especially as they ride out Tagavailoa’s growing pains. The Patriots won’t be as mediocre as last season because they’re the Patriots, but I see this as a transition year for them. They’ll get stuck in traffic on the Cam Newton-to-Mac Jones bridge at QB. The Jets? They’re headed in the right direction after two brutal years under former coach Adam Gase, but they simply don’t measure up in terms of talent.
Which player faces the most pressure this season?
Wolfe: It has to be Tagovailoa. No young player in the NFL has been under more scrutiny over the past eight months. From being replaced by Ryan Fitzpatrick twice in fourth quarters last season, to the rumors of a trade fit with the Houston Texans for quarterback Deshaun Watson, to the five-interception minicamp practice this offseason, most of the talk about Tagovailoa has been negative. Some of it is deserved, but much of it is overblown. Ultimately, he is the only one who can quiet the noise. A bounce-back season in which he leads Miami to the playoffs will spark belief he can still be the Dolphins’ franchise quarterback — the guy the franchise has been desperately searching for since Dan Marino retired 21 years ago. Another shaky season that leaves the Dolphins at home in January could mean an offseason QB search. It doesn’t get more pressurized than that.
Jeff Saturday reacts to Tua Tagovailoa throwing five interceptions during Dolphins minicamp.
Louis-Jacques: Although there are high expectations for the Patriots’ Jones and the Jets’ Wilson, both will likely get at least two years to show their value. Tagovailoa, on the other hand, is in his second year and leads an otherwise playoff-caliber team. The hype surrounding him entering the league and his collegiate success didn’t grant him any leniency for a slow start to his NFL career, but fans — Bills fans, in particular — should be hesitant to write off a struggling quarterback after his rookie season.
Reiss: Remember the whole “Tank for Tua” discussion? It’s different now. More like, “Is this too much for Tua?” The Dolphins were on the cusp of the playoffs last season, and the contributions of Fitzpatrick were a significant reason why. But with Tagovailoa at the controls by the end of the season, Miami fell short, and now it’s unquestionably his show in 2021. With the Dolphins looking to build on a 10-win season sparked in large part by FitzMagic, how could anyone have more pressure on him than Tagovailoa in the AFC East?
Cimini: My first inclination was to agree with my good friends Cameron, Marcel and Mike — Tagovailoa is under a lot of pressure — but I’m going to stay close to home and pick Wilson. He was the No. 2 overall pick in the draft, which automatically brings a ton of pressure — especially in the New York market. Instead of putting him in a competitive situation, the Jets all but anointed him The One by not adding a veteran to the quarterback room. They’re prepared to ride the rookie roller-coaster without an emergency “stop” switch. The clincher: The Jets open the 2021 season against the Carolina Panthers, which means Wilson will face his predecessor, Sam Darnold. Don’t mess up, kid.
Which franchise has the best three-year outlook?
Cimini: I can’t believe I’m not picking the Patriots out of pure habit, but will Belichick even be around in three years? Is Jones the answer at quarterback? Is Wilson the answer for the Jets? Tagovailoa for Miami? The Bills have a known quantity at quarterback (and coach), which makes this an easy choice. They also have a good nucleus of young players, which means they should sustain their momentum. I like what the Jets are building with Saleh, who has the traits to be a really good coach, but the roster still has a ways to go. We’ll see. If Saleh and Wilson crush their honeymoon season, I might have a different answer in 2022.
Reiss: Once the Bills re-sign quarterback Allen and linebacker Tremaine Edmunds — and I view those moves as more of “when” than “if” — it will further solidify them as the franchise with the best three-year outlook. Put me down for the Bills, but with this caveat: I believe the Patriots will be sending a big thank-you note to the San Francisco 49ers for passing on Jones with the No. 3 overall draft pick. He slid all the way to New England at No. 15 and has made a strong first impression on coaches and players. If he emerges as the quarterback of the future as the Patriots believe he can, New England’s three-year outlook could threaten Buffalo’s.
Louis-Jacques: The Bills are the kings of the AFC East, and here’s the thing: Most of their cornerstones have either been drafted over the past few years or are in their athletic prime. Allen might get an extension that rivals Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes’ in length. Diggs, cornerback Tre’Davious White, left tackle Dion Dawkins and Milano are all signed for the foreseeable future, and Edmunds will be, too — maybe as early as this summer. General manager Brandon Beane has a strong track record in the NFL draft, and word is spreading that Buffalo is a place to be for veterans who want to win. Now, that pendulum can swing south if the Dolphins and Tagovailoa take the next step, but as long as Allen is throwing passes in Orchard Park, New York, the Bills will be a force.
Wolfe: Miami will be the team to beat in 2024. There’s little doubt the Bills reign right now, but I’m betting on Tagovailoa to ascend to being the quarterback the Dolphins drafted him to be last year. The Dolphins have a higher ceiling and better championship potential than any team in this division. Miami has drafted nine players in the top two rounds over the past two drafts, with extra picks coming in 2022 and 2023. That young core, pairing with an already talented roster, will rise above Buffalo within the next three seasons.