Needless to say, the 2020 off-season has been one like no other in NFL history. The global COVID-19 pandemic essentially led to the shuttering of OTAs and, subsequently, a truncated preseason devoid of the four games for each team most fans are used to. Still, we’re getting the actual regular season despite uncertainty as to whether it would actually happen as scheduled. And the 2020 AFC East is intriguing. For the first time in a generation, the Buffalo Bills appear to be favorites to win the division. But they still need to dethrone the juggernaut that is the New England Patriots, even if they lost future first-ballot Hall of Famer Tom Brady.
2020 AFC East All-Division Team: The Offense
To say that 2020 is the end of an era for the Patriots at the quarterback position is a gross understatement. Six-time Super Bowl winner and future first-ballot Hall of Famer Tom Brady has moved on and signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the off-season. In came Cam Newton who’s coming off a few injury-riddled seasons and is in search of a career revival with New England. Now it is tempting to go with Josh Allen here given that he’s coming off a season in which he led the Bills to the postseason. But the fact remains that Newton is a former league MVP who’s just a few years removed from a Super Bowl appearance. And if there’s any coach that can get the most out of him at this point in his career, it’s Bill Belichick.
For the ninth straight season, the Jets missed the playoffs in 2019. But they weren’t a complete disaster, going 7-9 under first-year head coach Adam Gase. Sam Darnold missed three games during the season, all losses, which meant he actually finished with a winning record as a starter. Bell makes this list primarily as a result of his overall career resume as he didn’t exactly set the world on fire last year. His 3.2 yards per attempt were the lowest of his career and he managed just three rushing touchdowns. But the Jets did make a concerted effort to improve their offensive line in the off-season both via free agency and the draft. So Bell has a huge opportunity to re-establish himself as one of the best backs in this league.
Michel ended his college career by winning the Rose Bowl and being named the game’s MVP. He was subsequently taken by the Patriots in the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft and won a Super Bowl ring as a rookie, rushing for a whopping six touchdowns during the playoffs. Last year, he was the only running back on an AFC East team to finish top-20 in rushing yards. The uncertainty surrounding the Patriots’ pass game in the wake of Tom Brady’s departure will necessitate a vibrant running game. So Michel must continue to perform at a high level.
The Bills made one of the biggest splashes of the off-season by acquiring Diggs in a trade in which they sent their 2020 first-round pick to the Minnesota Vikings. By doing so, they gave Josh Allen the most dynamic vertical threat that he’s ever had as a pro. Diggs is coming off two straight seasons of 1,000+ receiving yards and in 2019, and his 17.9 yards per catch were fourth-best among pass-catchers who eclipsed that 1,000-yard threshold. Combined with another talented deep threat in John Brown as well as a legit weapon on underneath routes in Cole Beasley, it’s no wonder there is a ton of excitement in Buffalo with regard to this team winning the AFC East for the first time in 25 years.
The only player in NFL history with more receptions and receiving yards in the postseason than Edelman: Jerry Rice. That’s pretty elite company. He certainly turned into Tom Brady’s favorite target after Rob Gronkowski retired and there’s every indication that it’ll be more of the same with Cam Newton. The Pats drafted two tight ends (Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene) but, for the most part, they really didn’t do much to improve their receiving corps in the off-season. That’s going to necessitate Edelman remaining the key cog in New England’s pass game.
The retirement of Rob Gronkowski left all four AFC East teams in the proverbial wilderness at the tight end position. That much is certain considering that only one tight end in the division finished with over 500 receiving yards in 2019. The players in question was Mike Gesicki. The former Penn State man was the star of the 2018 Combine as he put up hugely impressive measurables. But he had a quiet rookie season, managing just 202 receiving yards and no touchdown grabs. Last season saw significant improvement, though. He accumulated 570 yards receiving and was one of just 13 tight ends who found the end zone at least five times. Whenever Tua Tagovailoa becomes the starter down in Miami, it’s possible that Gesicki could morph into one of his favorite targets.
Dawkins has emerged as a reliable protector of Josh Allen’s blindside over the past two seasons. It’s for that reason that the Bills rewarded him with a lucrative four-year, $60 million contract this off-season with $34 million guaranteed. Pro Football Focus gave him a grade of 73.1 in 2019 which was the best mark among AFC East tackles. If the Bills are to finally end their division title drought, Dawkins will need to remain a force when it comes to curbing opposing pass rushers.
It didn’t take long for Thuney to become a crucial component at keeping Tom Brady upright. Taken in the third round of the 2016 NFL Draft, his impressive play during his first year in the league resulted in him making the Pro Football Writers Association All-Rookie Team. He took it a step further last season as he earned second-team All-Pro honors. The Patriots subsequently franchise-tagged him this off-season and he agreed to play under the tag in 2020 which will lock him into a fully guaranteed $16.102 million contract. Cam Newton is obviously hoping that his elite play continues.
Morse was the most expensive free agency signing of 2019 for the Bills, signing a four-year, $44 million deal. It made him the highest-paid center in the NFL at the time and was part of a concerted effort to provide protection in front of Josh Allen. As mentioned above, Dion Dawkins now joins him as a highly-compensated cog on Buffalo’s offensive line. If the unit can give Allen time to throw, especially downfield now that Stefon Diggs is a member of the club, they will undoubtedly play a part in the Bills ending their long AFC East title drought.
Only two guards from AFC East teams garnered a Pro Football Focus grade of over 75 in 2019. We’ve already covered one who played for the Patriots and now we have the second here. Much like Thuney, Mason was a mid-round pick who would emerge as a regular starter who Tom Brady relied on heavily prior to him leaving the team for the Buccaneers. And with Cam Newton having battled multiple injuries over the past few years, Mason and the rest of the Pats’ offensive line’s ability to provide consistent pass protection is even more paramount.
Marcus Cannon would’ve occupied this spot but he decided to opt out of the 2020 season due to the pandemic. So it goes to Fant who’s a new arrival with the Jets, having spent the first four years of his NFL career with the Seattle Seahawks. Fant is an interesting story in that he initially played basketball at his alma mater Western Kentucky before shifting to football. It definitely worked out as the Jets gave him a lucrative three-year, $30 million deal in the off-season. This division is definitely up for grabs given developments in New England. And Jets fans are hoping that their offensive line can play a part in allowing Sam Darnold to make a big jump in year three of his pro career.