After being the surprise team of last year, the Buffalo Bills are looking to take another step forward this upcoming season. Buffalo emerged from nowhere to make a run all the way to the AFC championship game, falling 38-24 to the eventual champions Kansas City Chiefs.
With quarterback Josh Allen and wide receiver Stephon Diggs being one of the deadliest duos and helping direct one of the best offenses in the league, Buffalo's offense is in more than capable hands moving forward.
But where the Bills will look to make up ground is when it comes to the trenches on the defensive side of the ball.
It's clearly been a point of emphasis in the offseason after drafting two defensive ends in their first two picks in Greg Rousseau (first round, Miami) and Carlos Basham Jr. (second round, Wake Forest). When combined with last year's second round pick AJ Espensa, Buffalo has built a really solid nucleus moving forward.
But last year they were missing a veteran presence on the line, and it was apparent in the postseason and the losses. That's no longer an issue this season as Star Lotulelei is set to return after sitting out last season due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The former Utah star is expected to retain his starting role and tighten Buffalo's interior defense. With the addition of Lotulelei and the three draft picks from the past two classes, Buffalo could be a legitimate contender to challenge Kansas City's reign over the past couple of seasons.
Here's a look at SIX other former Utes who should find themselves starting for their respective teams this upcoming season.
*Tim Patrick, WR
*Garett Bolles, LT
Arguably the two biggest surprises of Denver's season last year were the emergence of both Patrick and Bolles.
With Denver's primary receiver Courtland Sutton out with an injury and rookie Jerry Jeudy struggling to adjust to the speed and physicality of the NFL, the No. 1 receiver role fell into the capable hands of Patrick — and he didn't disappoint.
He finished the season leading the Broncos with 51 catches for 742 yards (14.5 yards per catch) and six touchdowns. With Sutton expected to make a full recovery and the progression of Jeudy — all combined wit the addition of quarterback Teddy Bridgewater — and Denver's offense could be a breakout candidate.
Protecting Bridgewater's — or Drew Lock —blindside will be Bolles, a second-team all-Pro from the previous season.
Bolles struggled massively through his first four seasons in Denver, prompting the Broncos to not pick up his fifth-year option and make him a free agent. But then he turned in one of the best performances of the season and was rewarded wit a new 4-year, $68-million contract.
*Julian Blackmon, S
After overcoming a string of injuries, Blackmon was a potential Rookie Defensive Player of the Year candidate before his production lagged a bit towards the end of the season.
Still, his emergence as a playmaker at the backend of the Colts defense was enough for him to enter the upcoming season as the projected starter after the team moved on from Malik Hooker.
He finished his rookie season with 42 tackles, 3.0 tackles for loss and two interceptions.
*Jaylon Johnson, CB
The first pick of Utah's infamous 2020 draft class, Johnson has been a starter since the day he stepped foot in Chicago.
Despite going through some growing pains — as expected — Johnson has all the makings of a true No. 1 shutdown cornerback and should take a massive leap this upcoming season.
A physical corner who thrives in zone coverage but has improved his man-to-man coverage skills, Johnson finished this past season with 44 tackles, 15 passes defended and 1.0 tackles for loss.
*Eric Rowe, S
One of the most unheralded players in the league, Rowe continues to shine for the Miami Dolphins as the physical presence in the backend of the defense.
The Dolphins drafted former Oregon safety Jevon Holland in the second round to be Rowe's new running mate. So not only will Rowe continue to be the leader of the defense, he will be tasked with mentoring a rookie this upcoming season. He finished last season 91 tackles, two interceptions and 1.0 tackles for loss.
Miami is a sneaky pick to emerge from the crowded AFC East and if they're able to do so, Rowe and the defense will be a large part of the equation.
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS
*Marcus Williams, S
Apart from Rowe's work going largely unnoticed by the rest of the league, Williams is right there as well.
He finished the past season with59 tackles, seven passes defended and three interceptions — two of which came against Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Wit quarterback Drew Brees retired, a lot of New Orleans success will now fall into the hands of the defense — and that's where Williams is expected to shine.