With the unified start to training camp right around the corner on Tuesday, July 27, it's time to get up to speed on all 32 NFL teams. Below, Jeremy Bergman has the lowdown on position battles, key players and notable subplots across the AFC East.
Most important position battle: Guard. Buffalo shuffled its offensive line last spring after signing former Panthers tackle Daryl Williams as a one-year rental. The move pushed Cody Ford, now a third-year lineman, inside to right and left guard, where he started seven games before suffering a season-ending torn meniscus. Now Ford is back in the fold, likely to stay at LG. So Williams is at RT, this time on a multi-year deal, Jon Feliciano, who started nine games, is at RG and Ike Boettger, who logged seven starts, is also in the mix. Add to this group a former second-round pick -- and All-Pro lamp salesman -- Forrest Lamp and two mid-round tackle selections, and it's pretty crowded in the trenches. Protecting Josh Allen is no small task, and Buffalo did a fine job of it last year (ranking ninth in sacks allowed and 10th overall according to Pro Football Focus) despite the inconsistency in the middle of the line. But Ford and Feliciano could be at risk. Buffalo didn't focus on depth at guard this offseason for no reason.
Newcomer to know/key player returning from injury: Emmanuel Sanders, wide receiver. What was one of Buffalo's crippling weaknesses just two years ago is now a strength. The Bills boast a bounty of pass catchers for Allen, with Sanders, the most recent addition, becoming the immediate elder statesman. Where the 34-year-old fits in Buffalo's four-man receiver rotation will be worked out in August and throughout the season. A reliable chain-mover when on the field, Sanders will have to contend with fellow veteran slot man Cole Beasley and less-heralded sophomore Gabriel Davis for playing time. Buffalo has 33 receptions and 458 yards, vacated by the departed John Brown, to replace in 2021, and each receiver (even Beasley) will have his shot to stake a claim to those reps and targets. Sanders publicly fancied Buffalo a Super Bowl title contender this offseason when sizing up his options. His addition could prove his own prognostication correct.
Other subplots to track:
- Three offseasons into the Devin Singletary experience, the Bills still don't have a surefire strategy at running back. Buffalo's offensive stability fell off in the postseason after then-rookie Zack Moss was lost to injury and Singletary failed to live up to starter status. This August, it will be interesting to see how much of Singletary's snaps are ceded to the late-charging Moss and late-arriving Matt Breida, whose down lone year in Miami may have been an aberration.
- Zach Ertz to Bills: An "Around The NFL" headline Buffalo natives have been waiting on all summer long, but one that until now has been worn out by the weary Redditters of Western New York. Brandon Beane's potential acquisition of the disgruntled Eagles TE is not imminent. However, its popularity underscores the fan base's dissatisfaction with the Bills' current crop of TEs: Dawson Knox, Tommy Sweeney and Jacob Hollister. Point taken.
- The NFL's COVID-19 vaccination effort has included as an incentive significantly reduced restrictions for those who are vaccinated. Bills players like Beasley and Allen have openly expressed doubt about receiving the vaccine. Meanwhile, coach Sean McDermott has publicly worried about his team's vaccination rates, though the coach also said "individuals have to make their own decisions." How and whether this issue affects the club will play out in real time in camp.
Most important position battle: Running back. Odds are, most NFL fans can recall Miami's leading rusher in 2019 (Ryan Fitzpatrick) faster than they can name the Dolphins' top back in 2020 (Myles Gaskin). Who paces play in 2021 is anyone's guess, though Gaskin is slotted as Miami's main man in the backfield entering late July. The Dolphins poured resources into improving receiving and blocking talent around Tua Tagovailoa (SEE: Will Fuller, Jaylen Waddle, Liam Eichenberg) but added only former Rams runner Malcolm Brown to a backfield lacking in star power. If Gaskin (1,156 total yards over two years) truly has the starting back gig wrapped up before camp even begins, then the league's curiosity at the position will turn to who's backing him up (Brown? Salvon Ahmed? Patrick Laird?!). But on a Brian Flores-coached team, every position is up for grabs, especially the one that hasn't produced even a 750-yard rusher since Jay Ajayi in 2016.
Newcomer to know/key player returning from injury: Jaelan Phillips, pass rusher. In its second year under Flores, Miami's defense ranked among the top 10 units in sacks and sack percentage and 12th in quarterback pressure rate. It was a marked improvement from Flores' first campaign, when the Fins flopped in the pass-rush department. Key to continuing their sack-sess will be the addition of Phillips, Miami's first-round homegrown talent. The No. 18 overall pick should start right away for the Dolphins, across from their reigning sack leader, Emmanuel Ogbah. The outside 'backer will be responsible for picking up where Kyle Van Noy, Miami's expensive (and unexpected) one-year rental, left off. The then-ex-Pat recorded a six-sack and career-high 10-TFL season in 2020 before being unceremoniously released. Phillips should look to match that total off the bat before establishing himself, unlike Van Noy, as a Dolphins icon with Jason Taylor's longevity.
Other subplots to track:
- If you thought monitoring Tua's each pass, and every one of his five -- count 'em, five -- interceptions during mandatory minicamp drills was overkill, please enjoy whatever en masse analysis is coming our way via the beat-writer pipeline, likely as overwhelming as South Florida hurricane season. The second-year QB enjoyed his share of press this offseason after expressing his discomfort as a rookie, especially with the playbook. With more weapons at his disposal, all eyes will be on the southpaw to see if he can reverse course with gale force in Year 2.
- Was Waddle the right selection at No. 6 overall? In a top-heavy receiver class, Waddle was the second wideout taken and the first from 'Bama, ahead of Heisman Trophy winner DeVonta Smith. Miami, originally slated to pick No. 3, had its pick of the skill-player litter in March, but instead executed two trades to land at No. 6, where they were subject to the whims of other teams, like the Falcons and Bengals, who each landed premier pass catchers ahead of them. Waddle's first impression, weighed against his fellow draftees, could be a lasting one.
- Miami's secondary is a primary concern entering August. Xavien Howard, the reigning NFL interception leader, has been bartered in online circles as trade bait since the draft and inflamed tensions with the club this summer by not attending mandatory minicamp. Howard and fellow corner Byron Jones are the two highest-paid players on Miami's roster (counting for $29.6 million against the cap combined). If the likes of Noah Igbinoghene, Justin Coleman and Jason McCourty impress in camp, could the Fins send an expendable and unhappy Howard, one of their longest tenured stars, packing? Chris Grier's done crazier things, even this offseason.
Most important position battle: Quarterback. Of the five first-round quarterbacks taken in this year's draft, Mac Jones is the third-least likely (and third-most likely) to start Week 1, edging out Chicago's Justin Fields just barely. That doesn't mean the Alabama rookie's performance and development in camp isn't worth monitoring daily and with great fervor. Cam Newton, a winning veteran who assimilated and ingratiated himself well in his first year in Foxborough, returns, after a flirt with free agency, as the likely starter; Bill Belichick gave that assurance the night Jones was drafted. With a full year of playing in Josh McDaniels' system under his babushka and returning from a COVID-ailed 2020 season, Newton said recently he sees this year as a "put up or shut up" campaign for himself. New England did all it could this offseason to bolster the QB's prospects by adding weapons (see below), and Newton should benefit from that right away in camp. But the veteran's salary -- around $5.1 million, sans playing time and achievement incentives -- is not so significant that his starter status is ensured. Our Mike Giardi reported this summer that Jones, a Nick Saban product, is earning raves from teammates, including Newton, talking up his preparedness and his ease with McDaniels' vision. Whether New England's decision-makers can see a September with the rookie under center is up to Cam and Mac, the Patriots' palindromic pair of potential passers.
Newcomer to know/key player returning from injury: All of the pass catchers. Excuse me for cheating the category here, but it's not often that there are so many notable new faces in New England, especially in a single facet of Bill Belichick's opaque operation. After years of struggling to develop and locate reliable pass catchers outside Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman, Belichick threw caution/cash to the wind/wideouts this summer. Nelson Agholor, Kendrick Bourne, Marvin Hall, Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith bring with them 216 receptions, 2,926 receiving yards and 35 total touchdowns from last year alone to a WR/TE group that logged just five TD catches in 2020. N'Keal Harry, who contributed two of those scores along with 33 catches and 309 yards, doesn't figure to be a part of the reconfigured receiver room; the agent of the third-year former first-round WR requested a trade from New England at the beginning of the month. With Harry out of the picture, the Patriots will likely float an entirely fresh flock of pass catchers for Newton and Jones to try out. Who will stand out and impress coach and QB alike to warrant starting snaps in New England's new normal?
Other subplots to track:
- Don't disregard New England's defensive additions/returns. Dont'a Hightower (COVID opt-out) and Kyle Van Noy (Dolphins/pink-pony operation) are back in the linebacking corps. Joining them in the front seven are signings Matt Judon, Davon Godchaux and Henry Anderson, the extended Lawrence Guy and Deatrich Wise Jr. and rookies Christian Barmore and Ronnie Perkins. This on-the-fly recalibration in the trenches is an attempt to improve a unit that has lacked teeth in recent years and reframe a weakness as a classic Belichickian strength.
- How will Trent Brown fare in his return to New England? Sent back to the Pats in a late-round pick swap, the tackle returns from Vegas two years older and, this time, slated to play on the right side of the line. Brown was Tom Brady's blindside blocker on the 2018 champion squad, but this go-around, Isaiah Wynn will play LT for QB1 TBD. Brown said playing RT for the Raiders "wasn't a good fit." Now that he's back in Boston, we'll see if he was referring to just the organization or also the position.
- Will Stephon Gilmore show up? Stay tuned! The 2019 Defensive Player of the Year didn't last month during mandatory minicamp, citing a desire for a new deal. Gilmore recently reiterated he wants to be paid what he's worth. His current salary this season -- $7 million, 24th among CBs -- is apparently not that; Gilmore does carry a position-high $16.3 million cap number. New England moved money around last year to appease the All-Pro CB. That might not be enough to gratify Gilmore this time around.
Most important position battle: Running back. The cursed Frank Gore-Le'Veon Bell tandem of yesteryear -- the latest failed attempt in New York to muster up an identity on the ground since the halcyon days of Chris Ivory -- is no more. New York has not boasted a 1,000-yard rusher since 2015, cycling through washed veterans and late-round picks looking for the right combo. The Jets might've found it this year with their newest additions: Tevin Coleman, rookie Michael Carter and, perhaps most importantly, offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur. The latter brings with him the Shanahan ground game that took Coleman's 2016 Falcons and 2019 49ers to the Super Bowl. The system also doesn't rely on one star runner (ask Raheem Mostert and Jeff Wilson Jr.). Jets fans expect a marked improvement, thanks to these arrivals -- the hype train for Carter left the station after minicamp -- but through which ball-carrier will the change come? Coleman has senior status, and Carter is the touted frosh, but La'Mical Perine and Ty Johnson were here first. Each could play a role on the 2021 Jets, but who gets top billing coming out of camp is a decision New Yorkers and fantasy owners will be monitoring.
Newcomer to know/key player returning from injury: Carl Lawson, pass rusher. New York's big-ticket item (no, not you, Mekhi Becton) this offseason came in the form of a nationally unheralded pass rusher from Cincinnati. The Jets guaranteed Lawson $30 million, signing him for three years to be their long-sought-after sack-master. Not since the Sons of Anarchy (Muhammad Wilkerson, Sheldon Richardson and Damon Harrison in 2015) has New York struck fear into any opposing offensive line, and not since John Abraham in 2005 have the Jets had a standalone game-wrecker on the edge. (Pay no attention to the Calvin Pace truthers.) Lawson promises to be that man. But he's not alone on a revitalized defensive line. He's joining rising star Quinnen Williams and arrives in New York alongside former first-rounder Sheldon Rankins and Vinny Curry. Led by Lawson, the Jets' pass-rush equivalent isn't quite equal in ferocity to Robert Saleh's 2019 49ers (featuring the firm of Armstead, Bosa, Buckner and Ford), but they're building quite a replica.
Other subplots to track:
- If Lawson is this offseason's inspired D-line addition in Florham Park, Morgan Moses is the one Jets offensive acquisition that has flown under the radar. The former Washington lineman was imported in June to join a Jets O-line in desperate need of a reliable RT. Moses, 30, will be tasked with leading a still-gelling unit, anchored by Mekhi Becton at LT, to the promised land. But given that he's only on a one-year deal, he could be subject to a quick exodus if things don't work out.
- For all the capital that was spent in the trenches this offseason, general manager Joe Douglas and Co. neglected, for yet another offseason, the secondary, the Achilles' heel on what was already a weak defense last season (see: Ruggs, Henry). New York's starting cornerbacks, Bless Austin and Bryce Hall, flash in spurts, but they are among the least established pairs in the sport. The Jets are relying on journeyman Lamarcus Joyner to do yeoman's work in the nickel. Team MVP Marcus Maye is playing on the tag and entering camp in a contract dispute with the club. Help wanted.
- My plea to giddy tri-staters completely won over by 1) the rapid reversal in attitude from the failed Adam Gase administration to the Saleh regime, 2) the fresh-faced additions and 3) the club's well-produced offseason docuseries: Take a step away from the hype blogs and wait to pass judgment on Zach Wilson and this roster until after training camp. It wasn't long ago that fans were so smitten with a top-three QB hauled in from the west to play second coming to Joe Willie, only to be cruelly disappointed. Sam Darnold was drafted and discarded almost as quickly as Christian Hackenberg.