In this series, the Last Word on Sports NFL department will be selecting the best players in each division by position. Taking a look at the AFC East defense, let’s take a look at the best of the best in the division…
2021 AFC East All-Division Team: The Defense
Edge Defender: Carl Lawson, Jets
For a few years now, the AFC East has lacked an elite pass rusher. The last time anyone consistently totaled over 10.0 sacks a year was the Miami Dolphins Cameron Wake, who last did so in 2017. In other words, it is time for someone in this division to take that next step.
Do not be surprised if it is none other than New York Jets Carl Lawson. Coming from the Cincinnati Bengals on a three-year, $45-million deal, Gang Green hopes he will turn pressures into sacks under new Head Coach Robert Saleh. The 26-year-old will take on the Nick Bosa role in their 4-3 defense and get every opportunity to turn into a star this season.
Edge Defender: Emmanuel Ogbah, Dolphins
Prior to the 2020 season, Emmanuel Ogbah was widely considered a bust. Taken in the second round of the 2016 NFL Draft by the Cleveland Browns, the Dolphins took a chance on Ogbah in free agency. And it certainly paid off. In 16 games, (12 starts), Ogbah totaled nine sacks, 21 quarterback hits and was easily their top pass rusher last season. As he enters his second season in Miami, Ogbah will only get better as he gets more comfortable in their defense.
Defensive Lineman: Quinnen Williams, Jets
As previously mentioned, the Jets are switching to a 4-3 defense under Saleh. A scheme that will allow Quinnen Williams to thrive because of his athleticism. After a mediocre rookie season, Williams played at a Pro Bowl level in 2020, constantly wreaking havoc behind the line of scrimmage. Doing so in a 3-4 scheme that was not a perfect fit is one thing. Just imagine what he can do in 2021 in the 4-3 with Lawson attacking from the edge…
Defensive Lineman: Raekwon Davis, Dolphins
Like Williams, Raekwon Davis is yet another stud defensive lineman to come out of Alabama. As a rookie, Davis started out slow with five tackles in his first five games before finishing the year strong. As a matter of fact, Davis finished the year as a selection to Pro Football Writers of America’s 2020 All-Rookie Team. He may not be a pass rusher, as he never recorded a sack and only had one quarterback hit. However, Davis was great at moving the pocket from the inside and is due for a breakout in his second year.
Linebacker: C.J. Mosley, Jets
Since 2019, C.J. Mosley has played in two games, due to a groin injury and 2020 opt-out. Because of that, people seem to have forgotten just how dominant Mosley is when on the field. Going back to his lone game fully healthy with the Jets, Mosley recorded six tackles, two pass deflections, a fumble recovery, and a pick-6. Yes, two years is a very long time. Even so, one cannot underestimate the hunger four-time Pro Bowl linebacker looking to remind people why he got a five-year, $85-million deal in 2019.
Linebacker: Dont’a Hightower, Patriots
Dont’a Hightower finds himself in almost the exact same situation as Mosley. He opted out of the 2020 season due to COVID-19 concerns. The former first-round pick out of Alabama has made two Pro Bowls and is the undisputed leader of that defense. And now, entering his age 30 season, he is going to have a big chip on his shoulder. If the New England Patriots have any chance of making the playoffs, it will be in large part because of his return to the club.
Cornerback: Xavien Howard, Dolphins
Without a doubt, the most talented position group in the entire AFC East is cornerback. Moreover, Miami’s Xavien Howard is the best of the bunch entering 2021… even if he does not spend the entire year as a Dolphin due to a contract dispute. This past season, Howard did the unthinkable, picking off 10 passes, while also deflecting another 20 on his way to his second Pro Bowl and first All-Pro selection. Replicating that production is near impossible, but if any cornerback in this division could do it, it is Howard.
Cornerback: Stephon Gilmore, Patriots
This off-season, Stephon Gilmore is in a similar boat as Howard. He is an elite cornerback, arguably the best in the game, and he wants a new deal. Whether or not he is a Patriot the entire season, he is the second-best cornerback entering the 2021 season in the AFC East. Over the past three seasons, Gilmore has made two All-Pro appearances and the Pro Bowl every year. Gilmore may be coming off an injury-riddled season and be on the wrong side of 30, but he has plenty more left in the tank.
Cornerback: Tre’Davious White, Bills
At only 26-years-old, Tre’Davious White is an elite cornerback, simple as that. Over the last two seasons, White has finally been recognized as such, making two Pro Bowl and one All-Pro appearance. He is the Buffalo Bills best defensive player, and even with his struggles against the run last season, he will soon show why his four-year, $69-million deal is an absolute steal.
Safety: Marcus Maye, Jets
The fact of the matter is the AFC East is filled with very good safeties. Marcus Maye though sits atop of the throne as the division’s best, at least while playing on the franchise tag in 2021. The 28-year-old had a career year in 2020, posting career-highs in tackles, pass deflections, sacks, tackles for loss, and forced fumbles. How will he fit into Saleh’s defense? Well, Maye will align as the strong safety but expect to see the number 26 making plays all over the field this season.
Safety: Micah Hyde, Bills
After Maye, the number two safety discussion becomes very debatable. New England’s Kyle Dugger looks like a future star after a strong rookie year, and nobody can forget about the ageless Devin McCourty. Buffalo’s Jordan Poyer continues to be one of the more underrated players at the position.
But for the final spot, look no further than Micah Hyde of the Bills. From 2017-2019 he ranked within the top 11 safeties according to Pro Football Focus and had another good year in 2020. Hyde is a reliable piece too, only having missed two games since signing with Buffalo in 2017. Between Hyde and Poyer, the Bills safety duo is going to be a huge factor in how far this team can go in 2021.
Be sure to check out the AFC East All-Divison Offensive Team.
Main Photo: Embed from Getty Images