For the majority of the 2000s, the New England Patriots have been the cream of the crop in the NFL. They have dominated the AFC East, winning the division 14 of the last 16 seasons and taking home five Lombardi Trophies during that stretch.
Even when there was another good team in the AFC East, it could never dethrone the empire Tom Brady and Bill Belichick created. The 2009-10 New York Jets made two AFC Championships, but could never capture that elusive division title. Even last year’s Miami Dolphins made the playoffs by virtue of the wild card, but still finished the season four games behind the first-place Patriots.
Despite Miami’s best effort to build from a 2016 playoff appearance, the best race in the AFC East is not the battle for first that has been seemingly over for months now (and of course, it didn’t help that Miami had to sign Jay Cutler to replace the injured Ryan Tannehill).
In 2017, the race to stay out of the cellar of the division between the New York Jets and Buffalo Bills is undoubtedly the more intriguing competition.
That race got quite a bit more interesting on Friday, when the Bills announced they were trading 2014 first-round wide receiver Sammy Watkins to the Rams and 2015 second-round cornerback Ronald Darby to the Eagles.
Now, the Bills still have a better roster than the Jets. They still have the second-best quarterback in the AFC East, Tyrod Taylor, and arguably the best running back, LeSean McCoy. They also have a new head coach and a decent defense.
But while the Bills aren’t tanking — whatever that word means nowadays — they certainly must be looking toward the future, as are the Jets. Buffalo currently possesses two picks in each of the first three rounds.
A quarterback is definitely in play, as the Bills have an “out” on Tyrod Taylor’s contract after the 2017 season. ESPN’s Mike Clay predicted on Twitter that Buffalo would hold a top 5 pick in the 2018 draft. It may have the assets to move up in the draft if they want, but it also may get its top quarterback at No. 5. The 2018 draft class is expected to be one of the best quarterback classes in recent memory. USC’s Sam Darnold, Wyoming’s Josh Allen and UCLA’s Josh Rosen could be the first three selections in the draft, and there are more than just those three talented prospects.
The Jets could also use a quarterback and have reportedly had a scout attend a Wyoming practice, presumably to look at Allen. The success of the Jets’ 2017 season may not rely on wins and losses, but rather the performance of Christian Hackenberg, the second-year quarterback who was essentially “redshirted” in his rookie year.
Both of these teams might deploy young quarterbacks to make their debuts later in the season. If Taylor fails to prove his worth to the Bills’ organization, head coach Sean McDermott has 23-year-old Nathan Peterman at his disposal to wrap up the season. Peterman was Buffalo’s fifth-round pick in 2017. Likewise, if the Jets elect to start journeyman Josh McCown under center, Hackenberg’s opportunity will come in relief. He will likely get his shot at some point this season.
Neither of these two teams are expected to be good. Both could be in play for a quarterback at the top of the 2018 NFL Draft and going head-to-head twice will only add to the intrigue.
It’s set up perfectly that these two lowly teams open the season against one another at New Era Field in Buffalo. Then, less than two months later, the teams will meet again for a Thursday night matchup in New Jersey. The teams could look totally different in that game, but one thing could be true: It might be the start of a critical ‘battle’ down the stretch for the best quarterback in the draft.