NFL 2021 Division Previews/Predictions: AFC East
Updated: Nov 13
With training camps and pre-season football officially commencing, we've reached the end of the NFL off-season. All 32 teams will report to camp with one goal, hoisting the Lombardi Trophy (at least that's what they tell us). In a league that emphasizes parity, each year is a new opportunity for new teams, new story lines, and new superstars to make a name for themselves within the NFL landscape. Last year alone, more than half of the playoff field was made up of teams that weren't there the year prior, and with the addition of an extra playoff spot in each conference, it has never been easier to make the post season. All that being said, more than half of the teams in the NFL won't make the playoffs and only one will be hoisting the trophy in February. In this series I'll take you around the NFL, division by division, and not only preview what each team looks like but also attempt to predict where they finish at season's end. Be sure to stay locked in at bluecollarmg.com to see where your team lands within their respective division!
For nearly two decades the AFC East was utterly dominated by one team. Since Tom Brady took over as starter in 2001 the Patriots won the East 17 of 19 years. However, in 2020 Tommy and his Super Bowl winning ways moved to Florida and the AFC East got a much needed face lift. A new team, the Buffalo Bills, stormed onto the scene and captured the division title for the first time since 1995. In 2021, this division looks to be much more competitive than in years past. The Bills return one of the best rosters in the NFL, fresh off an appearance in the AFC championship game. The Dolphins seem to be building a winning culture under head coach Brian Flores. The Patriots reloaded their roster by spending big time money on prize free agents. And the Jets seem to be headed in the right direction under new head man Robert Saleh. However, will all of theses changes be enough to restore competitiveness into this division? Or have the Bills merely taken over as the new team to dominate the East for years to come?
13-3 in 2020 (1st in the AFC East)
Biggest Addition: WR Emmanuel Sanders (Signed 1-year $6 million contract)
With a catch percentage of 74.4 last year in New Orleans, Sanders is a solid reliable receiver and has been all eleven of his seasons in the NFL.
Biggest Loss: WR John Brown (Signed 1-year deal with the Las Vegas Raiders)
The Bills honestly didn't lose much this off-season.... Despite a injury plagued 2020, Brown has established himself as a legit deep threat and that could be missed.
Biggest Strength: Quarterback
Josh Allen's jump from year one to year two might be the single greatest season to season improvement we've ever seen. He's a real candidate for league MVP in 2021.
Biggest Weakness: Defensive Line
With no pass rusher eclipsing more than 5 sacks in 2020, the Bills will be hoping that rookie first round pick Gregory Rousseau can make an immediate impact.
2020 was a fun year for the Buffalo Bills franchise. After years of rebuilding this roster from the ground up, all the hard work that head coach Sean McDermott and GM Brandon Beane put in was on full display. This team didn't happen over night. When Sean McDermott took over the job in 2017 the Bills were coming off a 7-9 season and hadn't made the playoffs since 1999. Since then Coach McDermott has led the team to the post-season 3 of his 4 seasons in Buffalo. Buffalo now looks primed to not only be in contention for the playoffs for years to come but contend for championships.
2020 showed just how special this team can be. The Bills took full advantage of of the vacant spot at the top of the division and exploded into one of the most dominant teams in football. The biggest reason for the sudden dominance? Josh Allen, the quarterback who was taken with the 7th pick in the 2018 NFL draft shocked most of the football world by improving more than even the most optimistic Bills fans could've imagined. Allen improved his passing yards from 3089 in 2019 to 4544 in 2020. His touchdown total went from 29 to a whopping 45 in 2020. Maybe most impressive, the third year QB improved his completion percentage to 69% after never having a percentage above even 60% in his years as a starter in college and the NFL.
The Bills will not only return their MVP caliber QB but they'll return most of the team that was one game away from the Super Bowl. Back is an offense that ranked 2nd in the league in total yards, an offense that features wide receiver Stefon Diggs who is coming off a career year where he led the NFL in receiving yards. Diggs was a big reason for his quarterbacks impressive season.
Defensively the secondary is one of the more impressive units in football. Cornerback Tre'Davious is one of the premier lockdown corners in the NFL and you'll be hard pressed to find a safety tandem as impressive as Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer. If there are any concerns for this roster, which is one of the most talented in football, it is the lack of consistent pass rushing. They'll need young players like Ed Oliver, AJ Epenesa and Gregory Rousseau to step up big.
There is no reason to believe that the Bills wont be successful in 2021. Even if their offense does regress slightly the roster is strong enough and well coached enough to win the division and make a deep playoff run.
Record Prediction: 12-5 (1st in the AFC East - Playoff berth)
10-6 in 2020 (2nd in the AFC East)
Biggest Addition: WR Will Fuller (Signed 1-year $10.6 million contract)
One of the leagues premier deep threats, Fuller will look to add an explosive element that the Dolphins receiving corps sorely lacked in 2020.
Biggest Loss: C Ted Karras (Signed 1-year deal with the New England Patriots)
Karras is an average center at best, however, average would be a major upgrade on what the team currently fields at the center position.
Biggest Strength: Wide Reciever
The front office did a fantastic job in the off-season at turning one of the biggest weaknesses on the team into the biggest strength. The speed added with Waddle and Fuller is undeniable.
Biggest Weakness: Offensive Line
This team is relying on three or four rookie or second year players to be starters on the line this season. Expecting all of them to be a success would be ambitious.
The Miami Dolphins are approaching a crucial part of the rebuilding process in 2021. The winning part. Gone are the days of receiving flowers for five win seasons. Brian Flores' squad surprised everyone in 2020 by winning 10 games. It's one thing to win when the expectations are low but it's a whole other challenge to win when wins are expected. “I hope to be here hoisting a Super Bowl trophy in a short period of time... With the emphasis on short". These were the words of Dolphins owner Stephen Ross at the ribbon cutting ceremony for the Dolphins new state of the art training facility back in July. The pressure is on.
Last year the Dolphins won the majority of their games on the back of their defense. Brian Flores' defense had a knack for making plays last year, leading the league in takeaways with 29. Star cornerback Xavien Howard lead the way with 10 interceptions on his own. The all-pro corner will return in 2021 despite demanding a trade amid a contract dispute early in training camp. Miami is lucky to have smoothed things over with Howard. In order for Coach Flores to call the various exotic blitzes that made the defense so successful last season you need to have corners that can excel in man to man coverage, Howard and Byron Jones showed last year that they are more than capable of doing just that.
Moving over to the offensive side of the football, this is a unit that will look to improve drastically this season. Despite the talent on defense it is always very hard to duplicate elite level defense from year to year, meaning the offense will need to carry a much heavier load. All eyes will be on second year QB Tua Tagovailoa to lead any improvements. Tua had flashes in his rookie season that showed just what he could become but for the most part his rookie season, coming off a brutal hip injury that ended his college career early, was disappointing. The offense under Tua lacked any explosive plays, they struggled to move the ball for halves at times and on more than one occasion the 'Phins turned to veteran signal caller Ryan Fitzpatrick to come into the game and replace an ineffective Tua. The front office no doubt realized changes needed to be made to improve the offense and major changes were made. Offensive coordinator Chan Gailey was shown the door and replaced by co-offensive coordinators Eric Studesville and George Godsey. Speedsters Will Fuller, in free agency and Jaylen Waddle, via the draft, were added to create the dynamic aspect of the offense that was missing last season.
With a defense that should still be one of the better units in football, even with potential regression and a much improved offense, the Dolphins are one of the more intriguing teams in football in 2021. I expect the new weapons and new offense around Tua to help him improve enough to give the Dolphins their first playoff berth since 2016.
Record Prediction: 9-8 (2nd in the AFC East - Playoff berth)
New England Patriots:
7-9 in 2020 (3rd in the AFC East)
Biggest Addition: TE Hunter Henry (Signed 3-year $37.5 million contract)
The Pats had the worst Tight End group in the NFL last season. The signings of both Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith changes that dramatically.
Biggest Loss: G Joe Thuney (Signed 5-year deal with the Kansas City Chiefs)
Pro Football Focus has ranked Thuney as a top ten guard in the NFL for three years straight. Despite having a strong line, it never hurts to keep a guy like that around.
Biggest Strength: Offensive Line
Thanks to long-time offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia New England seems to always field a great o-line. Even with Scarnecchia having retired, the line looks to be stacked.
Biggest Weakness: Defensive Line
The signing of edge-rusher Matt Judon should certainly help but the defensive line has never been the focal point of Bill Belichick's defense.
In 2020, the New England Patriots experienced something that they are not used to. Bill Belichick experienced his first losing season as the head coach of the Patriots since the year 2000. For some perspective, there are players currently in the NFL that were not yet born the last time this team had a record below .500! It was quite apparent early on in the off-season that coach (and GM) Belichick was not very pleased with last season. The Patriots spent money like it was going out of style very early on in free agency showing that they were not going to sit around and be complacent after a disappointing season.
No team was hit harder by COVID opt-outs last year than New England, according to Football Outsiders the Patriots led the league in games lost via opt-outs with 69, the next closest team was the Giants with 27. One of the biggest losses was their defensive leader Dont'a Hightower. With Hightower returning this season, they get back their quarterback of the defense, the man who will call the shots pre-snap and be a leader for the young players on the defense. They also added a bunch to the defense via free agency. Veteran edge rusher Matt Judon immediately becomes the best pass rusher on the team and smaller signings like DT Davon Godchaux and S/CB Jalen Mills should have big roles from the jump.
With quarterback Cam Newton returning for another year this offense will look to take a major step forward in 2021. Despite being a force as a runner last year when it came to passing the football Newton just wasn't good enough last season. The front office has attempted to help that by signing loads of weapons for Cam in free agency. They brought in not one but two highly payed tight ends in Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith to improve what was a disastrous group last season. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels will attempt to rekindle the success that we saw the last time the Patriots fielded two young studs at tight ends in Rob Gronkowski and uh... someone else...
The team also added another exciting prospect during the off-season. With the 15th pick in the 2021 NFL draft the Patriots selected Alabama Quarterback Mac Jones making him the highest drafted QB by the team since they selected Drew Bledsoe first overall in 1993. If the cheers that Jones received during his first pre-season appearance is any indication, the pressure to start him could reach a fever pitch this season especially if Cam doesn't improve from last year.
The Patriots will likely be a much more competitive team in 2021 and should see an improvement in the win column. The off-season champs will field a much more talented roster in 2021 than the one we saw last season. However, the major question mark at the quarterback position will be what ultimately causes them to miss the playoffs.
Record Prediction: 9-8 (3rd in the AFC East - Miss playoffs)
New York Jets:
2-14 in 2020 (4th in the AFC East)
Biggest Addition: QB Zach Wilson (Drafted with the 2nd pick in the 2021 NFL Draft)
The Jets have once again decided to start fresh at QB. Wilson has special tools and an incredible arm, if he is surrounded with proper supporting cast he could be dynamic.
Biggest Loss: DT Henry Anderson (Signed 1-year deal with the New England Patriots)
Anderson is a solid player who flashes from time to time. Losing him to a division rival could end up stinging a little bit.
Biggest Strength: Wide Receiver
If rookie wide-out Elijah Moore can live up to his lofty training camp hype, the combination of him and new free agent addition Corey Davis could make life much easier on their rookie QB.
Biggest Weakness: Cornerback
Opposing quarterbacks had their way with this young inexperienced secondary last season. They'll need substantial leaps from Bless Austin and Bryce Hall for that to change in 2021.
It's a fresh start for the New York Jets in 2021. The Adam Gase era is mercifully over after a tumultuous two year run. In comes new head coach Robert Saleh, the former 49ers defensive coordinator was highly sought after during the hiring process. He is the type of coach that will not only be a presence on the sideline but he'll be expected to establish a culture after it was destroyed by Gase last season.
The Jets also started fresh at quarterback, shipping former first-round QB Sam Darnold to Carolina after a disappointing tenure where he failed to live up to lofty expectations. The replacement for Darnold is the #2 selection in the 2021 NFL Draft, Zach Wilson. Coming out of BYU, Wilson has all of the tools to be a very special passer at the next level. A Mahomes-level arm and off platform throwing ability could be explosive if surrounded by the right talent. The Jets front office attempted to do just that, signing Corey Davis in free agency and drafting training camp star Elijah Moore in the second round. They have also done a great job at improving the offensive line adding first-round guard Alijah Vera-Tucker to play along side last year's first round pick Mekhi Becton. GM Joe Douglas also brought in veteran tackle Morgan Moses to sure up the other tackle spot. The front office is doing a much better job at adding talent around their rookie QB than the previous regime did with Darnold.
On the other side of the football they also brought in some talent via free agency. Carl Lawson will look to become the dominant edge rusher that the Jets have been missing for nearly two decades. His 84.9 pass rush grade last season was good enough for 8th in the league according to Pro Football Focus. Lawson, Quinnen Williams and free agent signing Vinny Curry could prove to be a quietly good d-line. The weaknesses on defense are also very apparent. Last years secondary was one of the worst units in football and not much was done to improve that.
2021 will not be a year to expect a lot of wins from the New York Jets. They are still in the midst of a rebuild. The more important things to look for will be the development of the young players on the roster, especially at the quarterback position. If Zach Wilson can show signs of being the franchise QB he was drafted to be and a clear culture is being established in year one under Robert Saleh, 2021 can be looked at as a success.
Record Prediction: 5-12 (4th in the AFC East - Miss playoffs)