The Patriots won the AFC East every year from 2009 to 2019. They did it while the Bills, Dolphins and Jets all went through varying degrees of mediocrity, and that’s putting it kindly. New England’s only year not winning the division since 2003 was the year Tom Brady suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week 1.
Things have changed in 2020, though. The Patriots were eliminated from the postseason with two games left to play. The Bills and Dolphins are both aligned to make the playoffs. The Jets are at least staring at a potential franchise-changing player with a high draft pick. New England’s next reign in the AFC East could be a long way off.
It was fair to expect struggles for the Patriots after Brady left. They didn’t have a great answer at quarterback, choosing between an over-the-hill Cam Newton and a not-ready Jarrett Stidham. A handful of defensive players opted out of the season due to COVID-19 concerns. New England hasn’t drafted offensive players very well in years, leaving the receiving corps for a poor quarterback to feature an underwhelming first-round pick in N’Keal Harry and a converted quarterback in Jakobi Meyers next to Julian Edelman.
How does it get better for the Pats? They were just competitive enough to avoid picking in the top-10, which for a franchise in need of a rebuild might not be good enough (especially when you consider a questionable drafting record). There’s no obvious QB answer, with Stidham underwhelming in limited opportunities and the free-agent pool being less than a sure fix. Bill Belichick, 68, proved he could win with Brady and some unique strategies but could be approaching a career crossroads, at least.
All the issues have arisen at the same time Josh Allen has ascended in Buffalo and Tua Tagovailoa has taken the reins of a strong all-around team in Miami. With good quarterbacks and talented skill players around them, the Bills and Dolphins should compete for the AFC East crown for years to come. New England’s path to contention is less clear, and to break it down further, we’ve laid out each Buffalo, Miami and New York’s futures and why they might be brighter than the Patriots’.
Buffalo Bills’ future outlook
The Patriots painted a picture for their competitors of how to dominate a division: Have the best quarterback. Buffalo is now in possession of that said best quarterback in the form of Josh Allen.
Allen’s taken major strides in his third NFL season, turning from an inaccurate passer with a rocket arm to a pinpoint thrower who knows when to use his legs, too. Even in tough defensive matchups, Allen finds a way to win games, just like Brady did for so many years.
Buffalo also has the perfect partner for Allen in Stefon Diggs, whose contract doesn’t expire until 2024. They’ve got a Stephon Gilmore-equivalent in cornerback Tre’Davious White, who the Bills just locked up to a long-term deal, too. Add in talented skill players like Devin Singletary, Zack Moss and Gabriel Davis, a signed-on left tackle in Dion Dawkins, along with future defensive stalwarts Ed Oliver and Tremaine Edmunds. That’s a group Buffalo can contend with for years to come.
The Bills also have a young head coach in Sean McDermott, someone who can grow with his team much like Belichick did in New England. Buffalo’s draft record has also been strong in recent years, which should allow it to supplement its roster even once it gives Allen his inevitable huge contract.
Brady was 32-3 in his New England career against the Bills, but it looks like the tables have turned on this matchup.
Miami Dolphins’ future outlook
Miami is a year or two behind the Bills in its progression, having just taken Tua Tagovailoa with the fifth overall pick to be its franchise quarterback. But like Buffalo did in 2019, the Dolphins look to be finding their way to the postseason in 2020.
That’s in large part thanks to a strong defense which may be the division’s best for years to come. Defensive backs Xavien Howard and Byron Jones are locked in until 2025. Former Patriot linebacker Kyle Van Noy is signed until 2024. And young players like Christian Wilkins and Jerome Baker should be anchors in the front seven.
Tagovailoa’s got plenty of weapons around him, including DeVante Parker, Preston Williams, Jakeem Grant and Myles Gaskin. The Dolphins could choose to extend tight end Mike Gesicki, too, as he’s blossomed in the last season and a half.
Miami has proven it can overcome shaky personnel moves, too, having signed both Jordan Howard and Matt Breida as running back answers in the offseason but instead using seventh-round pick Gaskin and undrafted back Salvon Ahmed instead to great impact. That’ll be key as the Dolphins stop picking as high up in the first round — but in players like Gaskin, Ahmed and Williams, Miami has shown it can unearth hidden gems to keep boosting Tagovailoa for the next decade.
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New York Jets’ future outlook
Admittedly, this section would’ve been better before the Jets went on a mini winning streak and blew their chance at the No. 1 pick and Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence. But picking No. 2 in 2021 will still provide plenty of opportunity.
New York could go with Justin Fields (Ohio State) or Zach Wilson (BYU) if it wants a quarterback to replace Sam Darnold. The Jets could also choose to trade down, pick up additional assets and build their roster out that way.
There are a lot of unanswered questions with the Jets, of course, starting with Darnold and head coach Adam Gase. But Gase is almost surely a goner, meaning New York has control over its next steps. The Jets can find a head coach they want to lead them into the future, and then they’ll either have a former top-five QB in Darnold or a new top-five quarterback instead.
New York’s biggest future benefit relative to New England is this upcoming offseason, which provides the Jets with the chance to move forward. They aren’t tied to an aging head coach like Belichick. They can get any player they want in the draft (outside of Lawrence, seemingly). They’ve even got the receivers New England seems to lack, with Jamison Crowder and Denzel Mims both under contract to help whoever the 2021 quarterback might be.
These Jets are the hardest sell as having a brighter future than New England, but it’s not impossible to see. If they make the right moves, even the Jets are positioned to slide by the mighty Patriots.