By the end of this month, training camps will open across the NFL. What are the looming position battles to keep taps on? Who are the critical players to watch? We’ll provide each team’s keys in this division-by-division series. Today, Jeremy Bergman digs into the AFC East:
Training camp report dates: rookies (July 22) and veterans (July 24).
Location: St. John Fisher College in Rochester, New York.
Most important position battle: running back. After a season in which their leading rusher was a 6-foot-5 quarterback from Wyoming, the Bills are trying something a little different at running back. Buffalo bolstered its backfield behind LeSean McCoy, who’s coming off the worst statistical season of his career. The Bills added youth (third-round pick Devin Singletary), experience (Frank Gore) and everything in between (T.J. Yeldon, rugby union player Christian Wade) to relieve Shady. Reports from minicamp suggest McCoy, Gore and Singletary will be battling for starting snaps during August, and Yeldon has expressed excitement about the notion of “a heated competition” in Buffalo’s backfield. But there are only so many regular-season snaps. Will every back still be on the roster when the real campaign kicks off in September? Is there a scenario where one of the immortal veterans (McCoy or Gore) gets cut? Will Josh Allen lead the team in rushing again and prove all of this offseason speculation ineffectual?
Newcomer/player returning from injury to watch: Matt Milano, linebacker. Buffalo’s offense is chock full o’ newcomers to monitor, so it’s hard to pick one on that side of the ball. On defense, though, the answer is easier. Milano, before breaking his leg in December, was in the midst of a standout sophomore season. The well-rounded 2017 fifth-rounder had 78 tackles, 12 for loss, seven passes defensed and three picks at the time of his injury and was inarguably Buffalo’s best defender. Sharing the inside linebacker position with first-rounder Tremaine Edmunds, Milano looked to be one of a prodigious pair. But the leg injury briefly changed that expectation. If Milano can return to form alongside Edmunds, Sean McDermott could have in Buffalo what he had for many years in Carolina: a Pro Bowl-caliber linebacking tandem, a la Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis. However, physical players like Milano don’t always come back from leg injuries with the same energy. Training camp will be a proving ground for the soon-to-be 25-year-old LB.
Looming camp question: Will Josh Allen take One Giant Leap for Billskind? There’s no more obvious pressing issue in Buffalo than figuring out whether the man-child drafted to be the quarterback of the future is actually the quarterback of the future. Allen had a scattershot rookie year, filled with wild throws, wilder runs and one memeable leapfrog, but ultimately played as scouts had expected. Accuracy was an issue; Allen completed 52.8 percent of his passes. He can throw it over them there mountains; try watching his 75-yard TD pass to Robert Foster from Week 12 with your mouth not wide in awe. Flashes of brilliance and nonsense in equal measure. Buffalo is hoping that an improved arsenal of weapons and offensive linemen will help Allen — and by virtue, the offense — come into their own in 2019. Allen might even call his own plays at points this season. If improvement isn’t seen in Allen, while his fellow draftees (and AFC East rivals), Sam Darnold and Josh Rosen, make strides in their sophomore efforts, then Buffalo will have to reconsider Allen’s future with the club. The Bills have built around the QB. Can Allen take them higher?
Training camp report dates: rookies (July 21) and veterans (July 24).
Location: Baptist Health Training Facility in Davie, Florida.
Most important position battle: quarterback. Ryan Fitzpatrick vs. Josh Rosen is why we love training camp. On an otherwise-nondescript Miami roster, Fitz-Rosen will provide the dramatic heft that the first year of the Brian Flores era surely needs. The quirky, bearded journeyman staving off extinction at the hands of the wry, wronged youngster? Shoot this trope into my veins. Through offseason activities, the battle has not gone quite as expected. After Miami traded a second-rounder for Rosen’s services, the former No. 10 pick didn’t light up Dolphins practice. Most Miami beat writers had the 36-year-old Fitzpatrick in the lead heading into training camp. There is no rush to start Rosen if he’s not ready, but having the 22-year-old sophomore not begin the season under center would be a slight indictment of the trade, and even his viability as Miami’s QB of the future.
Newcomer/player returning from injury to watch: Albert Wilson, wide receiver. Before he suffered a season-ending hip injury, Wilson was one of the NFL’s most devastating players in space last season. Former Fins coach Adam Gase weaponized Wilson into a do-everything skill player with exceptional YAC ability; Wilson’s 74.3 catch percentage and 11.2 yards per target were career highs, the latter ranking in the top five among receivers with at least 20 targets. Whether Wilson will have a similar role under new Dolphins offensive coordinator Chad O’Shea will be something to monitor in August. That is, if he is available in August. Wilson expects to be back on the sidelines by Week 1, but could start camp on the PUP list.
Looming camp question: What’s going on with Reshad Jones and Miami’s secondary? On this roster, there may be no more unsettled position group than the one once coached by Flores in New England. Outside of the recently reimbursed Xavien Howard, the status of Dolphins defensive backs is in flux. Longtime Miami stalwart and two-time Pro Bowler Reshad Jones is thought to be the odd man out in a crowded safety room that features Minkah Fitzpatrick and T.J. McDonald; the 31-year-old vet skipped OTAs amid reports Miami was seeking to trade him and his $17 million cap hit. Adding to his frustration could be that cornerback Bobby McCain was working out at safety during offseason workouts and Eric Rowe was signed away from the Patriots to play in nickel packages and potentially start. Plus, the Dolphins front office reportedly likes the depth in the defensive backfield, especially youngsters Jalen Davis, Cornell Armstrong and Montre Hartage. Will Miami’s green DBs impress in August and help catalyze a trade of Jones?
New England Patriots
Training camp report dates: rookies (July 21) and veterans (July 24).
Location: Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts.
Most important position battle: tight end. Rob Gronkowski retired this offseason, you might have heard. He was good. The Patriots will miss him. Who’s up next in Bill Belichick’s ranks? There was Austin Seferian-Jenkins, whom New England signed and then released after he chose to take a step away from football for “personal reasons.” There is Ben Watson, whom the Pats coaxed out of retirement … only to be suspended for the first four games of the season. No longer is there Dwayne Allen, who followed Brian Flores to South Beach. So, who’s left over in the tight end room and eligible to play in the first month of the season? Matt LaCosse, Stephen Anderson, Andrew Beck and Ryan Izzo. Combined career receptions: 63. Gronk had 47 in 13 games last season. LaCosse figures to be the starter going into camp, but will New England have to reassess the position before the season gets underway?
Newcomer/player returning from injury to watch: N’Keal Harry, wide receiver. One big body expected to soak up Gronk’s vacated targets is New England’s first-round pick. Harry, the No. 32 overall selection, was the first Pats receiver taken in the first round during the Belichick era and the highest receiver taken in New England since Terry Glenn went seventh overall in 1996. Patriots fans aren’t used to a prospect like Harry. The great New England wideouts of the last 20 years have mostly come cheap: Wes Welker averaged less than $3 million a year with the Pats; Julian Edelman was a seventh-round converted quarterback; even Randy Moss was acquired from Oakland for the price of just a fourth-rounder. But Harry carries the weight of expectations and the attention that comes with being drafted in the first round (albeit at the VERY end). His addition — along with the free-agent signings of Demaryius Thomas and Dontrelle Inman — spurred conversation this offseason that the Patriots were doubling down on bigger receivers, in a way going against type to achieve a competitive advantage in the slot. Harry’s progression in camp will prove pivotal to ensuring that advantage come September.
Looming camp question: Is this the year? The footballing world is waiting on New England’s downfall, as the Patriots’ reign of terror and Tom Brady’s career have lasted far beyond their expected expiration date. And yet the machine marches on, with new, cheaper pieces in place every coming year. But nothing lasts forever. And before things end, there are warning signs. Was Gronk’s retirement a death knell? What about the exodus of nearly all of Belichick’s defensive staff and the abrupt abandonment of supposed DC Greg Schiano, leaving just Belichick and his offspring listed as defensive coaches on New England’s website? Houston’s pursuit of Nick Caserio was a wee scare, too, before the Patriots bested the Texans on technicalities and retained their de facto GM for at least one more draft. That’s the rub, isn’t it? Until Tom Brady’s arm falls well out of its socket, there’s no guarantee the Patriots will ever fall off, though their detractors hope and pray each offseason, each training camp, each NFL Kickoff Game that this is finally the year. And every year, we eventually rediscover that to even entertain the thought was a fool’s errand.
New York Jets
Training camp report dates: rookies (July 19) and veterans (July 24).
Location: Atlantic Health Jets Training Center in Florham Park, New Jersey.
Most important position battle: cornerback. New York attacked nearly every hole on its roster in the offseason, from running back to guard to edge rusher, yet curiously did not add a legitimate starter to the cornerback room across from Trumaine Johnson. This point could be moot in short order if the Jets do re-sign Morris Claiborne, a possibility recently discussed by NFL.com’s Gil Brandt. Still, while New York boasts two rising stars at safety in Jamal Adams and Marcus Maye, the Jets’ cornerbacks have struggled to find their footing since the departure of Darrelle Revis; during Todd Bowles’ reign, New York’s pass-defense ranking steadily declined, finishing at 24th last season. Behind Johnson on the depth chart are Brian Poole, Darryl Roberts, Parry Nickerson, Blessuan Austin and assorted others. Sorting out the rest of that room will be critical this summer for Gregg Williams and his defensive staff, whose dialed-up pressure won’t mean jack without adequate back-end coverage.
Newcomer/player returning from injury to watch: Le’Veon Bell, running back. Gang Green got but a glimpse of their prized acquisition this offseason, when Bell, who had not been seen on a football field in well over a year, showed up and participated in mandatory minicamp. That, before skipping voluntary OTAs a week later. No matter: Reports from New York’s New Jersey facility said Bell looked in shape, albeit a bit rusty, and ran in a manner vaguely reminiscent of his time in Pittsburgh. With an exaggeratedly dramatic offseason — one that involved questions about his weight and a bizarre bare-naked jewelry heist — behind him, Bell can report to training camp ready to hold nothing back and remind the league of his pedigree. New York is depending on Bell to shoulder the load in the running and receiving game. The two-time All-Pro is the Jets’ only expected offensive starter, aside from Kelechi Osemele, to have been named to a Pro Bowl. The Jets need Bell to establish himself as the focal point of Adam Gase’s offense out of the gate in training camp.
Looming camp question: How will Adam Gase and Sam Darnold get on? No one would mistake the Jets for trendsetters after their hire of Adam Gase. Replacing a tired defense-centric head coach with an offensive mind to pair with a young quarterback and then hiring a notable veteran defensive coordinator to handle the other side of the ball? That’s so last year (Bears), and the year before that (Rams). But the Gase-Darnold dynamic is vital to Gang Green’s success. Gase might appear adversarial with the media and stingy with his star running back, but by all indications the Jets players have taken to him, including Darnold, whose serious but wide-eyed and creative approach to playing quarterback squares nicely with Gase’s demeanor. In a better, more diverse scheme than Jeremy Bates ran — and with a better supporting cast than he had in 2018 — Darnold will be expected to improve upon his inconsistent but crescendoed rookie performance. Creating a mind-meld in camp with Gase wouldn’t hurt.
Follow Jeremy Bergman on Twitter @JABergman.