For the first time in a long time, there was a new team at the top of the AFC East in 2020. The Buffalo Bills successfully took their first division title in 25 seasons, as they swept the field with a perfect 6-0 mark and advanced to the AFC title game in the playoffs.
Now in 2021, Buffalo goes from being the hunter to the hunted. Although their closest pursuer was the 10-win Miami Dolphins, the Bills blew them off the field in and 'win-and-in' game in Week 17 using mostly reserves in the second half of a 30-point beatdown.
Nevertheless, head coach Sean McDermott will be quick to remind his players that every year is different and some of Buffalo's division rivals have already gone to great lengths in free agency to close the gap between themselves and the defending AFC East champs.
Here's a look at what each of the Bills division opponents could be looking to accomplish come draft day as they try to draw another step closer to Buffalo.
Will New England make a move for quarterback in the draft?
The New England Patriots spent the second-most money in free agent history this offseason accumulating a bounty of veteran talent to supplement a roster that will also be returning a handful of player opt outs from 2020.
Armed with two-playmaking tight ends in Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry and receivers Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne, the Patriots have tried to surround re-signed quarterback Cam Newton with more reliable weapons while also bolstering the offensive line with the return of Trent Brown via trade.
Defensively, the Pats fortified their defensive front signing pass rusher Matthew Judon, NT Davon Godchaux and DE Henry Anderson. Add in the return of LB Kyle Van Noy along with fellow free agent linebackers Raekwon McMillan and LaRoy Reynolds and New England's defense could make a quick return to the form of 2019 when that unit led the league.
The question is do they consider a quarterback of the future in round one at 15?
"With all the money that New England spent in free agency at tight end and wide receiver it feels like they have the opportunity to package some picks to go up and get a quarterback," said ESPN NFL draft analyst Todd McShay.
McShay believes even if the Patriots can't create an opportunity to get one of the top five quarterbacks in the draft in round one, that they still might look to land one in the second round with their pick at 46.
"If it's not in the first round where they get into the top 10 to get Justin Fields or Trey Lance, after that Kellen Mond out of Texas A&M is the highest rated quarterback," McShay said. "He made a lot of improvement this past year and was the Senior Bowl MVP and then Kyle Trask would be the next QB from Florida, who had great weapons around him. But he really developed the last two years."
New England doesn't appear to have enough draft capital to make the kind of move needed to get into the top 10 for one of the top five QBs, but what about packaging a veteran player with their pick at 15, like CB Stephon Gilmore, who is in the final year of his contract? It's likely to at least be a consideration, especially if Newton is only a bridge quarterback.
"At his present stage he's still an incredible weapon where you could have him on the field at times and then use another quarterback," said SI.com NFL columnist Connor Orr of Newton. "They're paying him as a hybrid backup, so the idea might be to add another piece at the position and diversify their offense."
"Offensively, they have to figure out who they are from an identity standpoint," said NFL Network draft analyst Bucky Brooks. "Cam Newton came in and gave them some good work early. With the COVID situation he didn't play quite the same afterwards, but he still gave them 12 rushing touchdowns. So how do you take advantage of Cam Newton's skills with a full offseason?"
As Brooks sees it more weapons are needed outside, especially with Julian Edelman now retired. So he believes if a receiver talent makes sense at 15, one could come off the board to the Patriots there. Either way, the free agent receiving talent added at the tight end position alone is enough to present issues for Buffalo and every other defense going forward.
"The two tight ends they signed in free agency in Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith they're problematic for opponents," Brooks said. "So I think they will be a team that will be a thorn in the side of the Bills. I think Buffalo took over the division, but they'll have to fend off the Patriots and the rest of the division to hold onto the division crown."
Will Miami keep adding weapons for their second-year quarterback?
The Dolphins are armed with a plethora of draft capital with four picks in the top 50 selections, including a pair of first rounders at six and 18. Relatively quiet in free agency, Miami acquired LB Bernardrick McKinney from Houston in the Shaq Lawson trade and signed DT Adam Butler and CB Justin Coleman on defense and deep threat WR Will Fuller to provide Tua Tagovailoa with another viable threat in the passing game.
"The Miami Dolphins took their quarterback last year with Tua Tagovailoa," said Brooks. "This year it's about putting weapons around him to see if they can get him to play up to expectations."
But what do they do with their picks at six and 18 to gain ground on the Bills?
NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah is convinced the move down to 12 and then back up to six is for one purpose only, to land one of the premier pass catchers in the draft.
"To me, Kyle Pitts, if he was there, would be my first choice because he'll give Tua all those easy throws," Jeremiah said. "In terms of the wide outs, Ja'Marr Chase would be the best fit in my opinion. I know Tua has history with the Alabama guys (Devonta Smith, Jaylen Waddle), but Chase with his strength to be able to run after the catch, to break tackles and his ability to kind of play above the rim even as a six-foot guy, he's just an all-around complete dude. I think he's got to be 30 pounds heavier than Devonta Smith, and he's a more complete route runner at this time than Waddle is. That has to be what they're thinking is to get one of those dudes."
NFL draft analyst Jon Ledyard from the Pewter Report believes Miami will address offense with both selections.
"It's one of two approaches. They can go offensive line early and get a weapon later in the first round," Ledyard said. "Or it's receiver early on, Ja'Marr Chase, Devonta Smith, Kyle Pitts, Jaylen Waddle one of those guys. Then you come back later in the first round and the board probably still has a tackle like Teven Jenkins on it or a Christian Darrisaw from Virginia Tech."
Such moves would provide the Dolphins second-year quarterback with a solid line of protection and a multitude of weapons to exploit in the passing game.
"Tua is also going to need to have more willingness to pull the trigger quicker in his progressions on some of those vertical, downfield options," said Ledyard. "Of course he also needs some better pass protection so it all goes hand in hand."
Adding a couple of defensive pieces with two picks in round two could put Miami on the fast track to competing more effectively with Buffalo.
How much can the Jets improve with their two first round picks in 2021?
It's no secret the Jets are in full rebuild mode after they traded QB Sam Darnold to Carolina for a sixth-round pick this year and a second and fourth in 2022. Active in free agency, the Jets worked to shore up their defensive front adding DT Sheldon Rankins, OLB Carl Lawson, DE Vinny Curry and LB Jarrad Davis.
Offensively, they added a high-priced wideout in Corey Davis and a more affordable option in Keelan Cole.
But the New York roster is devoid of a starting quarterback, which is where GM Joe Douglas will begin with their second overall pick.
"I would expect the Jets to identify their quarterback which we assume is going to be Zach Wilson and then two put weapons around him to allow him to play at a higher level," said Brooks.
In possession of a second first-round pick at 23rd overall, there is a difference of opinion as to the direction they'll take later in the draft's opening round.
"We can lock in the fact that they're going quarterback at two and pass rusher with their second first-round pick," said Orr. "I think Robert Saleh wants to round out that defensive front with Sheldon Rankins, Quinnen Williams, Carl Lawson and add that final piece to that defensive line. So I think they go quarterback and pass rusher."
The Jets are also likely to consider cornerback, a position that is devoid of viable talent on their roster right now. Offensive line could be another consideration to get more protection for the new franchise signal caller.
"I think you could say (cornerback) Greg Newsome would make some sense there at 23 out of Northwestern, who's somebody that's just long and rangy and can really play the football, which is going to help pretty much any scheme," said Jeremiah. "But that is what Saleh is accustomed to, having those bigger guys. So he would make sense there. You've got the edge rushers, which I think that's a pretty good spot for an edge rusher if you're interested in one, whether that's a guy like (Azeez) Ojulari, Greg Rousseau, see what happens with (Jaelen) Phillips. Those would be opportunities there."
The Jets also have three more picks in the top 86, with a pair in round three.
Are the Bills still the AFC East favorite in 2021?
But will any of these division opponents really be able to pull even with a Buffalo team that kept their 13-regular season win roster largely intact and have seven draft choices of their own?
"I think it's really the Bills time right now," said Ledyard. "The Patriots are trying to surge back. As much as they've tried to spend in free agency and they're certainly better than they were last season, it's not enough to close the gap on Buffalo. Miami is trying to figure things out for sure. There are some good things about the direction that Miami is headed in. We all know it comes down to the quarterback and we'll see how that unfolds for him as Tua moves forward. The Jets might be moving in the right direction, but the Bills got to the top first in this post-Tom Brady world in the AFC East."
And while GM Brandon Beane currently sits way back in round one at 30, some are convinced he's got plans to make an aggressive move if the right opportunity presents itself.
"I don't think the Bills are done this offseason," said Orr. "I think they're still going to make another move here and surprise some people. Whether it's trading for somebody before the draft starts and going up there and getting another weapon for Josh Allen. I think they're going for it.
"I don't think they're done on the veteran front and I think they've been drafting well, so they could end up as a top three or top four team in the league easily."