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AFC East projected starters: Bills blessed with depth on offense; Tua Tagovailoa set for second-year leap?

With the 2021 NFL Draft and most of free agency in the rearview, Gregg Rosenthal will project starting lineups for all 32 teams because that's his idea of fun. Check out the AFC East breakdowns below.

Table inside Article
QB Josh Allen DE Jerry Hughes
RB Devin Singletary DT Ed Oliver
WR Stefon Diggs DT Justin Zimmer
WR Cole Beasley DE Mario Addison
WR Gabriel Davis LB Matt Milano
TE Dawson Knox LB Tremaine Edmunds
LT Dion Dawkins CB Tre'Davious White
LG Cody Ford CB Levi Wallace
C Mitch Morse CB Taron Johnson
RG Jon Feliciano S Jordan Poyer
RT Daryl Williams S Micah Hyde
  • Yup, all of the projected offensive starters were on the team in 2020, with Gabe Davis replacing John Brown the only lineup change. Yup, the combination of youth, cohesion and experience rivals any in the NFL.
  • I loved what I saw out of Davis in just over 900 snaps as a rookie speedster a year ago, when he played more than Cole Beasley or Brown. That's why I won't be surprised if Davis winds up playing a tick more than free-agent pickup Emmanuel Sanders. The "starter" moniker matters little, because they will both play plenty, but the 34-year-old Sanders is better off as a role player at this stage of his career.
  • Zack Moss didn't show enough as a rookie to assume he'll displace Devin Singletary atop Buffalo's depth chart. Free-agent acquisition Matt Breida could get in the mix here, as well.
  • I love how Sean McDermott and general manager Brandon Beane have prioritized depth in the weapons department. They didn't just acquire a true No. 1 receiver in Stefon Diggs; they acquired six good pass catchers across positions to spread out defenses and get Josh Allen easy reads.
  • The most underrated portions of the Bills' rebuilding job happened on the offensive line. They essentially built a stable, quality group from scratch. Cody Ford could face competition at guard from free-agent signing Forrest Lamp, while the re-signing of Daryl Williams flew under the radar as one of the best values of the offseason.
  • The key to Buffalo's defense could be the recent first-round picks. Ed Oliver, a top-10 selection in 2019, had a disappointing second season but remains the best hope for an interior pass-rush presence. Middle linebacker Tremaine Edmunds' up-and-down career continued with a poor three-game run in the playoffs. The team showed faith in Edmunds by picking up his fifth-year option for 2022.
  • 2021 first-round pick Greg Rousseau is another X-factor. Buffalo attacked the biggest weakness on its roster by taking Rousseau and another pass rusher (Boogie Basham) in the second round. After ranking in the top seven in Football Outsiders' defensive DVOA in 2018 and '19, the Bills fell to 12th last year, struggling in playoff games against the Colts and Chiefs.
  • This secondary has incredible experience and chemistry together. It's a little surprising that Buffalo still hasn't upgraded from Levi Wallace across from Tre'Davious White; a late veteran addition shouldn't be unexpected.
Table inside Article
QB Tua Tagovailoa DE Christian Wilkins
RB Myles Gaskin DT Raekwon Davis
WR DeVante Parker DE Emmanuel Ogbah
WR Will Fuller OLB Jaelan Phillips
WR Jaylen Waddle LB Benardrick McKinney
TE Mike Gesicki OLB Andrew Van Ginkel
LT Austin Jackson CB Xavien Howard
LG Solomon Kindley CB Byron Jones
C Matt Skura CB Noah Igbinoghene
RG Robert Hunt S Eric Rowe
RT Liam Eichenberg S Jevon Holland
  • 2021 will be Tua Tagovailoa's revenge on everyone who made hasty judgments about a rookie quarterback during a pandemic who had a poor group protecting him and a poorer collection of skill-position talent to lift him. It's hard to say what Tua's ceiling is. But a second-year leap to league-average starter like Eli Manning or Alex Smith accomplished following their rougher rookie seasons is a fair expectation.
  • The Dolphins' young offensive line could be the key to the entire team. Selecting Jaylen Waddle over DeVonta Smith is one thing, but the Dolphins also prioritized another perimeter threat over the draft's top tackle, Penei Sewell. That was a huge vote of confidence in 2020 first-round pick Austin Jackson.
  • Then again, the Dolphins admitted they still had a tackle need by taking Liam Eichenberg in the second round. The starting lineup could go in a lot of directions here, but I have the Dolphins starting Eichenberg at right tackle, with Robert Hunt kicking inside. That'd mean four players on the line would be rookies or second-year players. Veterans D.J. Fluker and Jesse Davis are waiting in the wings if the kids aren't alright.
  • Miami's second-leading wideout last season was Jakeem Grant with 373 yards. Now Grant may be No. 5 in the pecking order -- if he even makes the team -- behind at least DeVante Parker, Waddle and Will Fuller. Even reserves like Preston Williams and Lynn Bowden have some upside in the vastly improved group. I like this receiving corps because it can hold up even if there are injuries, and it can get vertical as well as any group in the league.
  • The Dolphins are like a fantasy football team using the "Zero RB" strategy. While Myles Gaskin showed NFL ability a year ago and Rams import Malcolm Brown provides dependability, another veteran addition to the mix is almost a certainty.
  • The cutting of Kyle Van Noy was one of the offseason's most surprising moves. Andrew Van Ginkel can handle a lot of Van Noy's responsibilities, but the release continued a trend of the Dolphins admitting quick regrets following similar decisions with Shaq Lawson, Ereck Flowers and both offensive coordinators Brian Flores hired.
  • No. 18 overall pick Jaelan Phillips could take this defense to another level. Miami's pass-rush options looked thinner than ideal before the draft, beyond the annually underrated Emmanuel Ogbah, but Phillips could be the best QB hunter in the Class of 2021.
  • Look for Benardrick McKinney to play over Jerome Baker, who led Miami linebackers in snaps last season. McKinney is limited in coverage, but he's the sixth-highest-paid player on the team, and the Dolphins traded for him for a reason.
  • Two position battles to watch: 2020 first-rounder Noah Igbinoghene vs. Justin Coleman at slot cornerback; and second-round rookie Jevon Holland, whom Flores seems to love, against second-year pro Brandon Jones at safety. The team also brought in former Patriot Jason McCourty for more cornerback depth.
  • This is a very different Dolphins defense overall, with at least four starters jettisoned in the offseason. Flores has proven to be an excellent game-day coach, with the Miami defense usually being greater than the sum of its parts.
Table inside Article
QB Cam Newton DE Lawrence Guy
RB Damien Harris DT Davon Godchaux
WR Nelson Agholor OLB Matt Judon
WR Jakobi Meyers OLB Kyle Van Noy
TE Jonnu Smith LB Dont'a Hightower
TE Hunter Henry S/LB Adrian Phillips
LT Isaiah Wynn CB Stephon Gilmore
LG Michael Onwenu CB J.C. Jackson
C David Andrews CB Jonathan Jones
RG Shaq Mason S Devin McCourty
RT Trent Brown S Kyle Dugger
  • The Patriots have so few promising homegrown talents that the development of running back Damien Harris and left tackle Isaiah Wynn is crucial for the 2021 team and the future. There aren't many other offensive players who could be difference-making parts of a long-term core.
  • Wynn and trade (re)acquisition Trent Brown are the biggest boom-or-bust tackle combination in football. They could be among the NFL's best tandems or both be injured by Week 4, and neither outcome would be a surprise.
  • Even without departed free agent Joe Thuney, this can be a top-five offensive line. New England has position flexibility and solid depth on the interior. Mike Onwenu was one of the best rookies in football last season.
  • The Patriots used fewer two-tight end sets than anyone in the NFL last season, by far. This year, they could lead the league. Keeping Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry on the field together plays to this offensive line and Cam Newton's strengths. Expect a lot of up-tempo play, like the Patriots showed in December. If Josh McDaniels sees a mismatch, he'll try to keep the same personnel on the field and play fast, like the 2010-11 Patriots.
  • Jakobi Meyers gets the edge here over free-agent signee Kendrick Bourne as the second starter. Meyers was too productive and efficient down the stretch last season to go away. Bourne will play in the slot, where Nelson Agholor also can excel.
  • Mac Jones is the only rookie first-round quarterback I don't expect to start the majority of his team's games this year. With that said, the Cam Newton era will probably last only as long as New England has a winning record.
  • This starting defense is impossible to project. Chase Winovich, Deatrich Wise and Ja'Whaun Bentley all played more than 550 snaps last season and figure to have important roles, yet I couldn't find a spot for them in the lineup above.
  • Similar story for the Patriots' second- and third-round picks, defensive tackle Christian Barmore and edge rusher Ronnie Perkins. The 2020 Patriots had fewer sacks than any team Bill Belichick has ever coached. New England could desperately use some pass-rush juice from the youngsters.
  • Eight Patriots opted out of the 2020 season. The only major factor returning to the roster is Dont'a Hightower, whose immense value was so obvious in his absence a year ago. Replacing Bentley with Hightower alone should be worth a few points per game.
  • Despite all the options in the front seven, this defense is still built back to front. The unit will probably go as far as its coverage -- led by Stephon Gilmore, J.C. Jackson and the ageless Devin McCourty -- takes it. The Patriots were 26th in defensive DVOA last year, a far bigger disappointment than the Cam-led offense.
Table inside Article
QB Zach Wilson DE Quinnen Williams
RB Tevin Coleman DT Folorunso Fatukasi
WR Corey Davis DE Sheldon Rankins
WR Keelan Cole OLB Carl Lawson
WR Elijah Moore LB Jarrad Davis
TE Chris Herndon LB C.J. Mosley
LT Mekhi Becton CB Bless Austin
LG Alijah Vera-Tucker CB Bryce Hall
C Connor McGovern S Marcus Maye
RG Greg Van Roten S Ashtyn Davis
RT George Fant S Lamarcus Joyner
  • Denzel Mims is one to watch in new coordinator Mike LaFleur's offense. Mims showed promise as a rookie and may have a higher ceiling than any wideout on the roster. With that said, I am giving the slight edge in likely playing time to Jaguars import Keelan Cole, whom the Jets guaranteed $5 million in free agency. The starter designation is overrated here. The Jets, like most smart teams these days, go at least four deep at receiver. They can get away with not having a true No. 1 wideout as long as they go deep in quality with varied skill sets. In the configuration above, wildly productive Ole Miss slot receiver Elijah Moore will have looked ready to play in training camp. If that happens, trusty veteran Jamison Crowder could hit the trade block as part of an effort to find another veteran at a position of greater need.
  • LaFleur, like most Kyle Shanahan acolytes, believes he can generate rushing production regardless of his running backs. He's pushing that theory to the limit with Tevin Coleman atop the depth chart. Coleman's explosiveness doesn't make up for his injury history or inability to get more than what's blocked. Fourth-round pick Michael Carter could play an enormous role in the offense, but another veteran addition at the position would make sense.
  • The offensive line is the key to making any running back work, and this unit's effectiveness will be the clearest reflection of GM Joe Douglas' first two offseasons. Moving up for Alijah Vera-Tucker cost much of the Jamal Adams trade bounty, but it will be worth it he pairs with Mekhi Becton to form the best young left side of an offensive line in the league. The rest of the line is still using players drafted for a different scheme, and right tackle screams for an upgrade. (Free agent Morgan Moses?)
  • The remnants of a 2-14 roster are more clearly seen on defense. New York possesses one of the most talent-poor cornerback groups. The Jets still need another edge rusher or two opposite frisky free-agent signing Carl Lawson. There was no way to spackle over all the roster holes in one offseason.
  • Quinnen Williams quietly played like a star down the stretch last season. This shapes up as a true breakout season.
  • The hope is that Robert Saleh's scheme covers up weaknesses at cornerback. This is similar to what the team is trying to do at running back, just with way more risk at stake.
  • Don't be shocked if safety Lamarcus Joyner has a return to form after some lost seasons in Las Vegas. He's only 30 years old and was too good a player to go out like that.
  • Inside linebacker Jarrad Davis figures to start after being handed one of the most surprisingly generous free-agent contracts of the offseason. The team is talking up C.J. Mosley, the former Raven who was signed before Douglas joined the Jets. Mosley is the embodiment of a boom-or-bust unit that has plenty of legit talent if you look beyond the roster holes.

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