Though the New England Patriots have an excellent chance of returning to the playoffs next season, nothing is guaranteed in the loaded AFC, which saw half of its teams post double-digit wins in 2020 and one of them (the 10-6 Dolphins) fail to make the postseason.
Speaking of the Dolphins, the Patriots will have their work cut out for them to reclaim their division crown in 2021.
While Miami has questions at quarterback, they’re well-coached, revamped their receiving corps, and have a defense that loves forcing turnovers.
The Bills, meanwhile, figure to be one of the best teams in the NFL after they racked up 13 victories last season and advanced to the AFC Championship Game. GM Brandon Beane only improved the roster this offseason, so Buffalo will once again be a handful for the Patriots.
Even the Jets, who are a shoe-in to finish last in the division, should be more competitive after they overhauled their coaching staff and made quality signings in free agency.
With all this in mind, let’s attempt to highlight three breakout players in the AFC East that could give the Patriots and head coach Bill Belichick fits this season.
These surprise AFC East rivals could give the Patriots headaches in 2021.
3. Carl Lawson
As we just mentioned, the Jets made a handful of promising signings on the open market, including edge rusher Carl Lawson, who, despite not posting big sack numbers with the Bengals, owns some of the best pass-rushing win rates among defensive ends over the last few years.
In fact according to Pro Football Focus, Lawson ranked fourth among edge defenders in both pressures (64) and win percentage (20%), as well as second in QB hits (24) last season. If your counter argument is that the Patriots will just double Lawson and let somebody else on the Jets’ beat them, let’s not forget he wasn’t exactly playing on a loaded Bengals DL and still got busy.
Carl Lawson is someone who should scare the Patriots.
On top of that, the Jets hired Robert Saleh, one of the best defensive minds in the NFL, as their head coach this offseason. The former 49ers defensive coordinator clearly had a say in the Lawson signing, so you can bet he has big plans for the former fourth-round pick.
While the Patriots’ revamped offensive line should be equipped to contain Lawson’s power and burst off the edge, don’t be surprised if he’s a thorn in New England’s side in 2021. Let’s hope Belichick and Co. have something special planned for the budding 26-year-old.