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AFC East 2021: One player on a rookie contract who is key to each team’s success

While free agent spending oftentimes makes headlines over the course of an offseason, true Super Bowl contenders know that you can’t buy a title. The best chance at hoisting a Lombardi Trophy is building a championship core through the draft. Take last year’s Super Bowl winner as the prime example: Outside of Super Bowl MVP Tom Brady, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ title-winning roster was largely built in-house through savvy drafting, particularly on the defensive side of the ball (Devin White, Antoine Winfield Jr., Vita Vea, etc.). Not only is building a championship contender more efficient via the draft, but it’s also the cheapest option, especially when youngsters bloom earlier than expected and vastly outplay their rookie contracts. 

For the purpose of our conversation here today, we’ll be looking into the AFC East and highlighting one player that is still on his rookie contract who will be pivotal to his team’s chances of contending either as soon as 2021 or somewhere down the line. As you’d likely expect, the quarterback position takes central focus with these teams, but there are some other key talents worth bringing into the limelight as well. 

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Player experience: Fourth season
How acquired: 2018 draft (No. 7 overall)

This will likely be one of the last times that we’ll be able to talk about Allen in this regard as he’s now eligible for an extension. Allen and GM Brandon Beane have gone on the record stating that they’d like to get a long-term deal done, so it seems safe to assume that the young quarterback will be in Buffalo for the foreseeable future. 

Naturally, Allen is the clear difference-maker in Buffalo’s bid to a possible Super Bowl run this coming season. During his third season in the league in 2020, the former first-round pick took a significant leap in his development and was in the thick of MVP conversations by the time the regular season was coming to a close. Allen’s completion percentage was up over 10 points to 69.2% last year and also notched career-highs in passing yards (4,544) and passing touchdowns (37). If he can continue on this positive track heading into 2021, there’s no reason to doubt Buffalo’s chances of winning the AFC East for the second year in a row and making some significant noise in the playoffs after an AFC Championship Game appearance last season. 

Player experience: Second season
How acquired: 2020 draft (No. 5 overall)

The optimism surrounding Tua Tagovailoa and his pairing with the Miami Dolphins was palpable on draft night a year ago. However, you’ll now have to throw the word “cautious” in front of that optimism after the former Alabama product’s rookie season didn’t go as smoothly as most hoped. While Tagovailoa wasn’t bad, he also wasn’t particularly prolific either, especially compared to some of his other quarterback draft classmates during their rookie campaigns. Tagovailoa saw nine starts and went 6-3 over that stretch with a 64.1 completion percentage, but had a passer rating of just 87.1. He even admitted this offseason that he wasn’t as well-versed in the Dolphins playbook as he would have hoped to be. 

The good news for Tagovailoa is that not only did the Dolphins firmly stick by him this offseason even as they once owned the No. 3 overall pick in a deep quarterback class, but they also doubled-down with him by adding weapons to the offense. Miami brought in veteran receiver Will Fuller and drafted Tagovailoa’s former Alabama teammate in speedy receiver Jaylen Waddle. Those additions should create more opportunities to throw the deep ball, which was something the team seemed reluctant on doing with him a year ago. 

Given the nature of his position and the heavy draft investment they’ve put in him, the continued development of Tagovailoa heading into Year 2 is paramount in Miami’s hopes of becoming a perennial playoff contender. If he can take a sophomore leap, the Dolphins are on a promising trajectory. 

Player experience: Fourth season
How acquired: 2018 draft (No. 23 overall)

You could easily put 2021 first-round pick Mac Jones on this list as the key piece for New England to return toward being a contender again, but there’s no guarantee that he even sees the field this year with Cam Newton still on the roster. Putting Jones off the side also allows us to look a little deeper at New England’s roster and identify starting left tackle Isaiah Wynn as another key player on Bill Belichick’s depth chart still on his rookie contract. After all, whomever is set to be under center needs to be protected and Wynn is a central figure in ensuring the quarterback isn’t running for his life out there. 

The former first-round selection just had his fifth-year option picked up this offseason and will be under team control throughout the 2022 season. When healthy, Wynn is as solid of a left tackle as they come and has lived up to his first-round billing from a production standpoint. According to Pro Football Focus, Wynn had an overall grade of 82.6 in 2020, which ranked 11th among all offensive tackles. The only thing holding Wynn back from being a bona fide star at the tackle position thus far has been his health. He missed his entire rookie season due to a torn Achilles and has yet to play a full season in the league. Last year, he appeared in 10 games (all starts), missing six contests due to a knee injury. 

If he can stay healthy, he helps create a sturdy offensive line for the Patriots, which will not only help Newton/Jones under center but also the running backs as well. 

Player experience: First season
How acquired: 2021 draft (No. 2 overall)

Kind of a no-brainer here with New York. After trading away former first-round quarterback Sam Darnold prior to the draft, the organization has put its full weight behind the No. 2 overall pick heading into this new era. While it’s almost unfair to place this amount of pressure on a rookie out of the gate, the Jets are asking the BYU product to help resurrect the franchise. Of course, that won’t happen over the course of a single season, but New York will likely be looking for some flashes of Wilson’s potential that solidifies that he is, in fact, the clear-cut quarterback of the future. It’s quite clear that New York is still a few years away from contending in the AFC East, so the most pressing obligation in front of the franchise is to develop the young quarterback. The sooner he is able to elevate his game to compete at the NFL level, the better off the Jets will be.