The pendulum of power violently swung in the AFC East last season. After so much torment and heartbreak, the Buffalo Bills drove the wagon to a divisional title. New York’s home team wrestled it away from a Tom Brady-less Patriots side that floundered to finish third. Speaking of flounder, the Miami Dolphins sandwiched themselves between New England and Buffalo as Brian Flores’ rebuilding job gathered momentum. Bottom of the pile and nearly bottom of everything came the hapless, hopeless Jets. Gang Green finished 2-14. That record resulted in massive fumigation in the New Jersey swamp as Adam Gase and company left.
The Jets welcome a new head coach as Robert Saleh steps into the hot seat. The Patriots attacked free agency with unusual vigor; Belichick usually saves that boldness for a local journalist. Miami is ready to embrace a full year of the Tua experience, and Buffalo is now the hunted. The AFC East promises plenty of spills and thrills. Therefore, with training camp and preseason work well underway, it’s time to examine some storylines and camp battles from the AFC East.
Buffalo Bills – John Feliciano and Cordy Glenn vs Forrest Lamp and Jamil Douglas
The Buffalo Bills enjoyed an incredible 2020 season. It was a year dominated by positive storylines. Only one negative issue blighted Buffalo, the interior portion of the offensive line. Now it must get said; Buffalo did field five different combinations on the offensive line during the 2020 season. That level of flux does cause problems. Per Football Outsiders, Buffalo’s blown-block percentage came in at 12.1%, increasing 8.6% in 2019. Buffalo was hesitant in the running game, especially behind their Guard’s and Center. As much as the analytics community loves to shun the running game, running the ball and killing the clock in tight playoff contests is essential. Subsequently, it surprised no one that the Bills added two veteran interior linemen in the offseason. Forrest Lamp and Jamil Douglas now wear the deep blue of Buffalo.
Sean McDermott knows that they must get better at running the ball to beat the Chiefs. Lamp is a rugged blocker with an appetite to feed; Douglas arrives from Tennessee with plenty of experience in run-blocking. These two players will wish to take the starting jobs away from Glenn and Feliciano. The latter is struggling with injuries during camp, while Lamp is impressing onlookers with his tenacious approach. While Guard is a position that gets ignored a lot of the time, it is vital to success. When a team is searching for the last pieces of the puzzle, a marginal gain can help them. A marginal increase here might just help Zack Moss rush for two yards to get the first down and win a game in December.
New England Patriots – Who Emerges on Top of the Receiver Room
You don’t need to own a degree in rocket science to comprehend that the Patriots’ wide receiver room was abysmal. One could argue that New England’s neglect of the position led to Tom Brady’s exit; it certainly didn’t help Cam Newton last year. And while the Patriots spent money in free agency, they didn’t overhaul their wideout ranks. Nelson Agholor joined during the offseason; aside from him, the usual suspects are back for 2021. Kendrick Bourne, N’Keal Harry, and Jakobi Meyers return for another tilt at an AFC East title.
One of the critical issues with this group is that there is no standout player. Agholor still doesn’t excel at running a full route tree, Harry can’t get separation from anyone, Bourne is undersized, and Meyers is still learning the game. Regardless of who wins the number one role, the Patriots will still embrace a power-run game with their two tight-end formations and heavy backfields. Nevertheless, a good receiver is still necessary if the Patriots wish to challenge for the AFC East title. Agholor is impressing Coach Belichick during camp; “He’s good to work with, he works hard. He’s very detailed and wants to be detailed. He wants to do things the way they need to get done, be where the quarterback needs him to be, have the right timing, and so forth. However, the great coach is known for throwing curveballs; there isn’t a silver-bullet solution to New England’s wideout issues. It could rumble on for a while.
Miami Dolphins – Liam Eichenberg vs Michael Deiter
After opting not to draft Penei Sewell, the Miami Dolphins addressed their needs on the offensive line by selecting Notre Dame lineman Liam Eichenberg. At South Bend, Eichenberg primarily played as a Tackle. Conventional wisdom suggested he’d fight for a spot at Tackle. Instead, the Dolphins are sliding him into Left Guard to fortify the interior portion of the offensive line.
That placed Eichenberg into direct competition against serviceable veteran Michale Dieter. With franchise quarterback Tua Tagovailoa in his second year, the Dolphins offensive line must improve. They ranked a lowly 27th in ESPN’s pass-block success rate, and the worldwide leader is predicting another challenging year for Miami in the trenches. Eichenberg is showing potential within the camp; he must win the starting job. Otherwise, hard questions will get asked of him and the Miami front office about the pick.
New York Jets – Jarrad Davis vs Jamien Sherwood
After spending three miserable seasons with Matt Patricia, Jarrad Davis said it almost made him walk away from the game. Once billed as a mini Ray Lewis, Davis’ career never came to life in the Motor City. Despite his plus-plus athleticism, Davis seems to lack the intelligence and competency that comes with playing at Linebacker. A new start came courtesy of Robert Saleh as the Jets offered Davis a way out of Detroit. The Jets front office recognized that they needed to re-tool their defense for a new head coach. Therefore it surprised no one that New York used some of their considerable draft capital to choose Auburn’s, Jamien Sherwood.
Sherwood is one of the new hybrid styles of a defender as he can line up at Safety and Linebacker. The current depth chart lists Sherwood as a Linebacker; however, so much of the league operates in sub-packages, Sherwood will get used all over the field. Both players excel when lined up in the box in run-defense; Sherwood should hold the edge in pass coverage. His experience of playing in the backfield should aid him, whereas Davis struggled when dropping into coverage for Detroit. Hard-hitting and physicality feature in their games. It is one of the more intriguing battles in the AFC East. Robert Saleh is a renowned defensive coordinator; the allure of using a versatile, wildly athletic player is incredibly tempting.
Defenses are getting faster and more athletic, while coaches covet the idea of being multiple. Davis is an old-school physical grinder who lacks the IQ; if Saleh can work his wonders with one of these players, the Jets could get another foundational piece at the second level.
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