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Having covered both the the NFC and AFC West last week, we now head cross-country to the AFC East. This division features 2000s & 2010s mega powers, The New England Patriots, the historic chokers, the Buffalo Bills, the up-and-coming Miami Dolphins and arguably worst run team in the league, The New York Jets.
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New England Patriots
The Patriots present the most straightforward comparison as their similarity with Manchester United is quite eerie. Both Bill Bellichick and Sir Alex Ferguson are Hall of Fame coaches who have constructed multiple title-winning squads whilst maintaining a robust and consistent nucleus. It was Brady, Gronkowski and Edelman for the Pats, whilst Giggs, Scholes and Neville for United.
Both clubs tend to be universally disliked by the rest of the league due to their success, and while Man United look to be coming out of their post-Fergie slump, the Patriots’ (post-Brady slump) looks to be ongoing. This has led to some serious moves in the trade/transfer window, with the six times Super Bowl champs bringing in some upgrades at TE, WR and LB.
The QB situation is the Pats most exciting problem as the battle between Cam Newton and Mac Jones begins to play out.
Star Player – Stefon Gilmore
Cornerbacks have to be like limpets to wide receivers. Gilmore can read offensive plays exceptionally well. His football IQ, combined with his speed and agility, helped him win defensive player of the year in 2019. He was not quite at that level last season, but he is still one of the top players in this crucial position. He is similar to Ashley Cole. A dynamic athlete who rarely has a bad game and could consistently stand out in the position for a long time.
One to watch – Cam Newton vs Mac Jones
This will become one of the stories of pre-season. Who will be the starting QB for the Patriots? Will it be the former MVP QB, who looks slightly over the hill having suffered from injuries, or the somewhat goofy new kid on the block Mac Jones, fresh from leading Alabama to the National College Championships.
It is like the old Victory Shield. Bright young prospects look destined for the big time, but can they break into the first team squads and get minutes on the pitch? Time will tell whether Mac Jones turns out to be Michael Owen or Michael Branch.
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The Bills are the new sheriffs in town when it comes to the AFC East. They seemingly have added well in the draft. They picked up a good edge rusher from the College ranks to hopefully immediately impact their team. However, they have one of the most settled squads in the whole NFL with minimal movement in the offseason and have retained all elements of their already successful coaching unit. As a result, they look primed for another big season.
In 2018/19, Liverpool was pipped to the title by Man City by 1 point despite a stellar season. However, the Anfield side came back stronger the following year to win their first league trophy in thirty years with a few minor tweaks. Can Buffalo emulate the Reds by going one step further this season and make the Super Bowl?
Star Player – Josh Allen
The Bills star QB was written off coming out of college. He had some real potential but lacked accuracy as a thrower, needing polishing, improving and coaching. However, last season he was one of the best QBs in the whole league.
He reminds me of Harry Kane, who himself worked through some early career adversity on loan at Leyton Orient, Millwall, Norwich and Leicester. Now, they are both considered challengers for the best players in their position anywhere in the world and look likely to land huge new contracts. Just maybe, however, Allen’s contract is the only one of the two with his current team.
One to Watch – Stefon Diggs
Barring possibly the Chiefs, there is not a more electric QB / WR combo than Josh Allen and Stefan Diggs.
He was drafted a long way down the board and not considered one of the top prospects, but he has developed into an outstanding receiver over time.
Last season, he took things to a new level, leading the whole NFL in total receptions and receiving yards. All of this off the back of him essentially forcing a trade from the Minnesota Vikings, which went down badly with the Vikings fanbase. His talent is vast, and his production is top drawer. His trade scenario and mazy runs fit well with Riyadh Mahrez; the Algerian repeatedly downed tools at Leicester City to move to Manchester City. Whilst not as productive as Diggs, he has enjoyed winning some trophies after the move. Will Diggs be able to get his league-leading hands on a trophy come 2022…he just might, you know.
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Miami has been a team in transition for a few seasons now and seems to be making pretty rapid steps towards being very competitive.
Last season, despite QB chopping and changing, they only narrowly missed out on the playoffs, so they should, in theory, have a great chance of kicking on this season. The draft has seen them add to their attacking weapons in a bid to help young QB Tua Tagovailoa. They have paired him with Alabama team-mate Jaylon Waddle to help expand his passing game, which looks clever. However, I still think they benefitted from an over-performing defence last season. They have a remarkable interception streak that spans 22 matches, the longest streak currently in the NFL, but they will need to have improved as all the teams in their division have improved too! Over performing defence, tiki-taka style of attack, a coach who has an edge and takes no-nonsense. I think Bryan Flores and Diego Simeone would get on like a house on fire, and it would be on fire!
Star Player – Xavien Howard
This cornerback had an outstanding ten interceptions last season. His performances for the Dolphins saw him get him in the team of the year at this prized position. He’s another in the mould of one of the worlds top fullbacks, though he is probably more of a Roberto Carlos type. A capable defender who will produce some memorable and top-class moments that can win you matches.
One to watch – Mike Gesicki
Gesicki scored six TD and had over 700 yards receiving last season, which is easily his most productive season yet. He seems to be improving, and he is a real presence in the red zone (the final 20 yards of the pitch sort of equivalent to a penalty box). With upgrades at WR, I expect Gesicki to be a real asset to Tua this year, allowing him to get some easy receptions to support his Tiki-Taka style attack. Last season Gesicki gained over eight yards per target, and that’s very handy for a young QB. He’s 6ft 6 and 18 stone, yet agile and great in the air. He’s Miami’s answer to Jan Kohler.
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New York Jets
A new coach, a new QB, new hope?
The NY Jets could not have had a much worse season than their shambolic effort last year, but they arrive in 2021 with renewed hope. Robert Salah, another Shanahan disciple, is an inspiring young coach who has surrounded himself with other exciting young coaches in a bid to bring some buzz to Jets fans. Zak Wilson is the fresh face at QB, and I will be interested to see if he can continue the recent trend of QB’s drafted in the top 10 who hit the ground running. The thinking seems to be more joined-up at Jets HQ finally, and whilst their division looks tough, they can be expected to make their first positive steps on what is clearly a long term plan for Salah and Co.
Star Player – Mekhi Becton
He is nearly 6ft 8 inches tall, weighs 26 stone (165kg), and can run 40 yards in 5.10 seconds! In some sort of context, Tom Brady ran it in 5.28 secs. When Becton came into the league, he carried some hype, but he really delivered.
As a left tackle, your job is to protect the QB from being tackled or pressured, and Becton ranked 5th overall in sacks allowed. This season with a rookie QB, he is going to be crucial. When I watched Neville Southall, I used to think, “he really should not be that athletic” That is precisely how I feel about Becton, although times that by 100.
One to watch- Elijah Moore
This is one of the more left-field suggestions as he is a rookie drafted in the second round. However, there has been a lot of buzz about his pre-season performances, and it will be fascinating if he can live up to the rave reviews. Hopefully, for the young jets Wide Receiver, he’s less like Freddy Adu and more like Wayne Rooney.
Three Key Terms
Left Tackle (LT)
Located, unsurprisingly, on the left-hand side of the Offensive Line (the big lads in front of the QB), their job is to protect opponents most potent rushers. The left tackle position is so crucial because he protects the blindside for a right-handed QB. If the rush beats the right tackle, the QB can see it happening before him, but a big unexpected hit is imminent if the left tackle lets someone through. Therefore, having an excellent left tackle is crucial for the success of any team, and they are paid as one of the most critical team members.
The Red Zone is the area between the 20-yard line and the End Zone, similar to the space inside the 22-metre line in Rugby. It essentially symbolises a point when the attacking team is very close to scoring. A team’s ability to score once reaching the Red Zone is a regular statistic rolled out on the TV coverage.
Tight End (TE)
One of the more unique positions is the multi-tasking Tight Ends. They stand at the end of the Offensive Line (the same big lads in front of the QB) and are big and robust enough that they can block rushers, defend the QB and create space for Running Backs to surge in to. Not only that, but they are quick and agile enough to be receivers, breaking the line to make a catch and gain vital yards. Some of the best players in the league are Tight Ends primarily because their versatility and size make them formidable in defence and a nightmare to cover and mark in the attack.