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AFC East projected starters: Jets set to fly; Patriots' roster hole

Gregg Rosenthal will project post-draft starting lineups for all 32 teams, because there's no better way to celebrate the arrival of spring.


» It was hard to leave Robert Foster -- last year's undrafted find at wide receiver -- out of the starting lineup. He's already shown more raw ability than third-year pro Zay Jones, who is still the more logical complement (because of playing style) to surefire starter John Brown. No matter how the group shakes out, Josh Allen has far more weapons than he did a year ago.

» The upgrade in offensive depth extends to running back. General manager Brandon Beane swears that LeSean McCoy remains the starter at running back, although the veteran combination of Frank Gore and T.J. Yeldon could ultimately make Shady expendable.

» I spent way too much time (which is any time at all) on a spring afternoon day debating where to insert free-agent pickup Ty Nsekhe in the starting lineup. The Bills have a lot of options, because their top three tackles (Dion Dawkins, rookie Cody Ford and Nsekhe) all have flexibility to move inside to guard. If Dawkins is displaced, which is possible after a rough second season, the Bills could have five new starters up front.

» The previous line got me thinking ... It's not that impossible to think the Bills will have 11 new Week 1 starters compared to a year ago. McCoy could be cut, Foster might replace Jones and Dawkins may lose his starting job.

» The long-term vision of Beane and coach Sean McDermott can best be seen on defense, where they finished second in DVOA a year ago. After Buffalo's addition of a premier talent in No. 9 overall pick Ed Oliver, there is an encouraging number of solid players coming off the bench, Shaq Lawson and Harrison Phillips among them.

» Cornerback could be the weakness of the defense. Tre'Davious White was one of the few true No. 1 corners last season who traveled with the opposition's best wideout, although that might have been necessary because there was such a steep drop-off to No. 2. Former Texans first-rounder Kevin Johnson is listed as a starter for now, but E.J. Gaines and Levi Wallace are other options. McDermott has done a nice job coaching up secondary production throughout his career.

» Middle linebacker Tremaine Edmunds' development is a big key to the defense. After a rough start to his rookie campaign, he made strides as a 20-year-old 15-game starter. If Edmunds takes a big leap in Year 2, he and Matt Milano will be an excellent duo.

Biggest change from a year ago: The offensive talent around Allen has been upgraded across the board, from the line to each skill position.


» Ryan Fitzpatrick's contract and experience make him a slight favorite to start Week 1, but I'm going with Rosen as the underdog making a second-year leap in new surroundings. While the Dolphins didn't draft Rosen, they used the second pick of the Chris Grier/Brian Flores era to acquire him. If the quarterback battle is close in camp, tie goes to the kid.

» I gave Dwayne Allen, a blocking specialist, the edge at tight end over last year's second-round pick, Mike Gesicki. Perhaps the new staff will find a way to use Gesicki's straight-line speed, but he had a long way to go last season.

» Albert Wilson was crucial to the Dolphins' offense a year ago before suffering a season-ending hip injury in late October. If he and Drake can increase their usage without getting hurt, this offense has some explosive elements. Drake will be battling second-year pro Kalen Ballage for snaps.

» Three spots appear open on the offensive line, with only LT Laremy Tunsil and C Daniel Kilgore locked in. Recent pickup Jordan Mills is the favorite at right tackle, although Jesse Davis and Michael Dieter could be candidates there if they don't stick at guard. Getting this group competent could be the most significant challenge of the new offensive coaching staff.

» While there are many questions about the Dolphins' offense, the defensive roster is even more unsettled. I only listed one defensive end (Charles Harris) because there are practically no other players to choose from. It's quite possible they move Harris, an unproductive 2017 first-round pick, to outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense, but the team looks at least a year away from making a successful transition there. Kiko Alonso may not be a fit for the new scheme.

» It appears Reshad Jones will be on the roster, at least for one more season, unless the Dolphins can somehow find a trade partner. The secondary, led by Xavien Howard, can be a strength of the team if Minkah Fitzpatrick makes progress in his second year.

» The Dolphins should be the most active team in football in late August, snapping up veterans from other rosters to play meaningful roles. This is what happens when a new regime takes over a talent-poor organization.

Biggest change from a year ago: The Dolphins are no longer trying to fool anyone. They know they aren't ready to win big right now.


» Josh Gordon, currently on an indefinite suspension for violating the league's substance-abuse policy, will beef up the receiver group as the team's top option, if the league reinstates him again. He ranked in the top 15 among wide receivers in yards between Weeks 8 and 14 last season (once he was up to speed in the Patriots' offense). Gordon and N'Keal Harry, the team's first-round pick, would comprise the biggest outside-receiver duo of the Belichick era by far.

» No tight end is listed above because I doubt anyone on the roster will wind up with more snaps than James White or a third wide receiver. Old friend Ben Watson and blocking tight end Matt LaCosse would be atop my depth chart together, but the position doesn't figure to remain as central to the team's offense.

» Running back is so deep that it's hard to see Rex Burkhead making the roster if everyone is healthy.

» One of the best offensive lines in Patriots history returns four of its five starters, with last year's No. 23 overall pick, Isaiah Wynn, sliding in for Trent Brown at left tackle. Wynn is a non-traditional (shorter than standard) blind-side option with no NFL games under his belt, coming off a torn Achilles tendon in last year's preseason. A veteran addition at the position -- or third-round pick Yodny Cajuste -- could also compete to start.

» The front seven is notably lacking in game-breaking talent -- especially at defensive tackle, where free-agent pickup Mike Pennel is my best guess as second in line for snaps.

» The Super Bowl was a showcase for the Patriots' secondary depth, and the depth chart looks even better now. The nickel package above doesn't even have room for Super Bowl starter Jonathan Jones, safety Duron Harmon, undrafted find J.C. Jackson or last year's second-round pick, Duke Dawson. Few teams will be able to match up to specific receivers and handle spread offenses better than Bill Belichick's crew.

Biggest change from a year ago: The Patriots had the greatest tight end of all time. Now they have one of the thinnest TE depth charts in football, easily the worst in Belichick's tenure.


» Darnold has the best skill-position supporting cast in the division, and it's not particularly close. From perhaps the best three-down back in football to deep speed and a surplus of options between the hashmarks, new coach Adam Gase has a little bit of everything.

» The Jets are understandably excited about tight end Chris Herndon. With all the defensive attention paid to free-agent pickups like Le'Veon Bell and Jamison Crowder, the second-year tight end has a chance to be the offense's breakout player. He skipped right past the usual rookie TE learning curve.

» This is the most talented Jets roster in years. If there's a flaw, it's that the remaining roster holes appear particularly vacant. They should still be looking for a center. They haven't had a proven edge rusher this decade, which is why Jordan Jenkins is the only one listed above. (Third-rounder Jachai Polite has a shot to make an impact.) And the team's cornerback group is among the NFL's worst, especially if the league's most expensive free agent last offseason, Trumaine Johnson, can't bounce back after a rough 2018.

» New defensive coordinator Gregg Williams will have to decide how best to deploy Quinnen Williams' and Leonard Williams' considerable skills together, but that's a good problem to have. There will probably be too much focus on whether the Jets use a three- or four-man front, when the team is bound to have multiple fronts (like every team), with a focus on getting its best players on the field.

» It's pretty rare nowadays for a franchise to pay two inside linebackers significant money. Avery Williamson and C.J. Mosley will be tested as pass defenders, assuming they line up next to one another on most snaps.

Biggest change from a year ago: Darnold has experience, a better offensive coaching staff and far better weapons. Time to fly.

Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter @greggrosenthal.


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