Make no mistake about it, NFL teams make draft picks with their division in mind. The most natural path to the playoffs is by winning the division and building a team designed to do so weighs heavily on the mind of decision-makers.
With Tom Brady now out of the Division, the AFC East is finally up for grabs. Brady and the New England Patriots have claimed the last 11 division crowns and 16 of the last 17. The last time New England wasn’t the AFC East champions was in 2008, a season Brady missed due to injury. The Miami Dolphins swooped in and claimed the division that year.
The Buffalo Bills haven’t won it since 1995 and the New York Jets last hung a division championship banner in 2002.
With the door now open, let’s examine the one player each team could draft that would make the biggest difference in their quest to become the kings of the AFC East.
Miami Dolphins: Joe Burrow, QB, LSU
The Dolphins currently hold three first-round picks this year and two in 2021. The most impactful thing Miami can do with that draft capital is to make sure it gets a new franchise quarterback. The Dolphins, picking fifth overall, aren’t in a position to get the best quarterback in the draft and the fallback options all come with significant question marks. Justin Herbert is physically gifted but lacks polish reading defense and struggles under pressure. Tua Tagovailoa has considerable injury question marks. Jordan Love has major work to do reading defenses and making sound decisions.
But Joe Burrow? He’s the most exciting quarterback prospect to enter the league since Andrew Luck. Burrow’s accuracy, ability to handle pressure, decision making, football intelligence and intangibles are all top-shelf traits. His skill set translates wonderfully to the next level and he has the proven ability to lead a team to championship wins after LSU’s historic run in 2019.
Will it cost Miami a lot to get to No. 1? Absolutely; it would be a sum of three first-round picks and more. Losing that draft capital stings, but not as much as not seizing the opportunity to get a quarterback like Burrow and settle for who is available at No. 5. Miami has done way too much to position itself to get a premiere talent at quarterback to not do everything it can to land Burrow.
Cincinnati isn’t going to move away from Burrow easily, but Miami has what it takes to offer a package the Bengals can’t refuse. Burrow plus whatever draft capital remains in addition to what general manager Chris Grier has already accomplished in free agency is better than a lesser quarterback that has question marks plus the hope of more rookies developing into meaningful starters. Want to become kings of the East? Go get Burrow. The Patriots, Bills and Jets hope you don’t and that says it all.
New York Jets: Henry Ruggs III, WR, Alabama
The Jets can go in a number of different directions with the 11th-overall pick. New York has needs at offensive line, wide receiver, edge rusher and cornerback but the most meaningful way to gain ground in the divisional race is to select Alabama’s Henry Ruggs III.
There are some terrible misconceptions about Ruggs’ game. His impact would be significant. New York doesn’t have an offensive weapon at Sam Darnold’s disposal with the dynamic big-play ability of Ruggs that can help the offense score in bunches.
With Byron Jones and Xavien Howard as the cornerback duo in Miami, the Dolphins promise to run plenty of man coverage. Neither have the athletic profile to run with Ruggs, which opens up the field vertically and improves the spacing for Darnold to work underneath.
Buffalo’s pass defense has been tremendous in recent years, but the secondary is far from the most athletic in the league. Ruggs would put stress on its defensive backfield, forcing the Bills to bracket Ruggs to account for his speed which takes away from defenders available to cover the rest of the field and makes life easier for Darnold to find favorable space in the secondary.
The quick score ability of Ruggs puts stress on a New England offense that is severely lacking at quarterback and offensive skill players to keep pace.
The Jets can find answers at other spots later in the draft, but they won’t find a weapon as dangerous as Ruggs who presents a nightmare matchup for the defenses within the AFC East.
New England Patriots: New Quarterback
It’s difficult to project what options will be available for the Patriots at No. 23 but a new course has to be identified. Jarrett Stidham and Brian Hoyer combine for arguably the worst quarterback situation in the NFL and it needs to be improved. The Patriots haven’t been in search of a quarterback since 1993 but the time has come.
Perhaps it’s a trade up the order, but the Patriots aren’t likely to be contenders until a new franchise passer is secured. Nothing else the team does with its roster will matter if it can’t find a legitimate triggerman for the offense.
Buffalo Bills: Jonathan Taylor, RB, Wisconsin
General manager Brandon Beane has built an impressive roster and Buffalo is coming off a 10-win season, leading many to believe the division is there for the taking. The Bills are already armed with an elite defense but offensive inconsistency is what can hold them back from making that a reality.
Buffalo traded for Stefon Diggs to make its most significant investment to add a playmaker to the offense but the work can be continued in the draft despite no longer having a first-round pick.
The Bills’ top-nine offensive linemen are scheduled to return from 2019; they have a dynamic young tight end in Dawson Knox, Devin Singletary at running back and of course Diggs adds to the mix of John Brown and Cole Beasley, who are both coming off career years.
Josh Allen is entering Year 3 of his career, offensive coordinator Brian Daboll is back for a third season and the entire offensive coaching staff from 2019 remains intact. Where does the offense have room to upgrade? A complement to Singletary at running back.
As it stands, T.J. Yeldon is the complement to Singletary in a role that is likely to command 150-200 touches. That’s where the unit can be improved and Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor would be absolutely perfect. He’s a downhill runner with tremendous power and speed and provides the ideal change-of-pace to Singletary. Taylor will help ensure Buffalo has a dynamic ball carrier on the field at all times.
Taylor enters the NFL after leading the Big Ten in rushing for three consecutive seasons and scoring 55 touchdowns. His consistency and big-play potential would be ideal for the Bills offense to create a more dynamic unit to complement what they offer on defense.