Training camp is quickly approaching, which means it's time to preview the most exciting part of the summer. With camps opening later this month, Jeremy Bergman, Herbie Teope, Nick Shook and Marc Sessler are examining the key issues for each team in this division-by-division series. Here's the AFC East camp primer:
Training camp report date: rookies and veterans (July 25).
Location: St. John Fisher College in Rochester, New York.
Most important position battle: The entire offense? Where to begin with Buffalo? The Bills celebrated their first postseason berth in nearly two decades this offseason by ... losing nearly every valuable offensive piece, willingly or not. Buffalo traded Cordy Glenn to Cincinnati for draft ammo, and two of the Bills' longest-tenured leaders on the offensive line, Eric Wood and Richie Incognito, retired -- or, in Incognito's case, *retired*. Tyrod Taylor was shipped to Cleveland for a pick. Behind Kelvin Benjamin, the wide receiver room is a smorgasbord of unproven young'uns (Zay Jones, Brandon Reilly) and veteran journeymen (Jeremy Kerley, Andre Holmes). LeSean McCoy is the one true mainstay, and now he's not even assured to start the regular season on the active roster, as the league is reviewing information pertaining to an alleged domestic violence situation. Buffalo is potentially entering the 2018 season with the league's worst position group at three offensive positions (QB, WR, OL), and nearly every slot in the starting XI is up for grabs. Gulp.
Newcomer to watch: LB Tremaine Edmunds. Aside from Josh Allen (more on him in a sec), Edmunds is the most exciting fresh face in Buffalo's locker room. After moving up to snag Allen seventh overall in the draft, Buffalo used its bounty of picks to also trade up for Edmunds at No. 16 overall, a sign the front office was smitten with his talent during the draft process. Those good feelings have bled into the preseason. Early indications are that Edmunds will start at middle linebacker come Week 1, flanked by Lorenzo Alexander and Matt Milano. Edmunds will be replacing Preston Brown, who, after four fruitful seasons with Buffalo, joined Glenn with the Bengals. In replacing Brown, who never missed a game, Edmunds will have to establish himself quickly as a young leader and volume tackler in the middle of Sean McDermott's defense, akin to what the second-year coach had in Carolina with Luke Kuechly. According to one fellow defender, Edmunds is already there.
Looming camp question: Who is the starting quarterback in Week 1 -- and does it matter? Presenting: AJ McCarron, Nathan Peterman and Josh Allen, in the most lukewarm quarterback competition in recent NFL history! Angling to replace the departed Taylor, the members of the trio have six combined career starts (including the postseason), nine touchdowns and eight interceptions between them -- and no one has the upper hand heading into camp. With the most experience and a shiny new contract under his belt, McCarron was thought to be the favorite to win the job. But reports from OTAs and minicamp pegged Peterman -- he of five first-start-first-half interceptions -- to be the most serious contender to begin the season under center. Buffalo appears to be slow-playing Allen's development, but it's not out of the realm of possibility that the Bills give their first-round pick a shot to start early on, or, at the very least, a preseason game. But in what is likely a rebuilding year for the Bills, what does it mean for a quarterback to be named the Week 1 starter? Buffalo's long-term QB situation will likely remain unresolved even heading into September. Plus, the Bills aren't playing to win two months from now; given the structural state of their offense, they're playing to win two years from now. This battle could last all season, and then some.
Training camp report dates: rookies (July 18) and veterans (July 25).
Location: Baptist Health Training Facility in Davie, Florida.
**Most important position battle: Minkah Fitzpatrick vs. insert fellow corner or safety, depending on where the rookie plays].** Part of the appeal of selecting Fitzpatrick 11th overall in April's draft was that the Alabama prospect could play safety, slot corner or nickel linebacker, depending on how you wanted to use him, a la [Su'a Cravens. The Dolphins intend to utilize Fitz's versatility in that manner, and the defensive back, still in pre-draft mode, has sounded willing to play wherever Miami needs him to play. The Swiss Army Knife should contend with T.J. McDonald and Reshad Jones for safety snaps and with Cordrea Tankersley or Bobby McCain for slot-corner snaps, but it's difficult at this point to peg exactly which position Fitzpatrick will end up in. That is, if such a hybrid position even exists in Miami's current formation.
Newcomer to watch: RB Kalen Ballage. With Jay Ajayi long gone and Damien Williams in Kansas City, Kenyan Drake should be due for an uptick in carries in Miami. That's if veteran Frank Gore and Ballage, a fourth-round rookie, don't steal his touches. While the former is a well-established known quantity, the latter's performance in OTAs pleasantly surprised Miami teammates and coaches. According to Adam Gase, Ballage is "progressing quickly." To Dolphins OC Dowell Loggains, Ballage is how "you draw them up." The first-year runner has been described by our Daniel Jeremiah as the pass-catching Tevin Coleman to Drake's hard-running Devonta Freeman. If Ballage continues to shine in training camp, Miami could enter September with a multi-dimensional, three-headed ground attack.
Looming camp question: Can Gase's reshaped offense, with a healthy Ryan Tannehill, put it all together? The Dolphins' offseason was brought to you by "Turnover: The Good Kind." Gase got his wish when Miami shipped Ajayi, Jarvis Landry, Julius Thomas and Mike Pouncey out of town and replaced the departed with Gore, Danny Amendola, Albert Wilson, Mike Gesicki and Daniel Kilgore. Now that the third-year coach has his guys in the building and his quarterback back from injury after more than a season on the mend, what will Miami's attack look like? Last season's offense, piloted by Jay Cutler, was slow to get off the ground and one of the league's least efficient -- fourth-worst in scoring percentage (25.8) and dead last in third-down conversion rate (31.7). But reports out of camp are that the Fins intend to use more hurry-up this time around, a strategy that, with an improved RB room and newfangled slot threats Amendola and Wilson, could be effective. Loggains also intimated that Miami could use more 13 personnel (1 RB, 3 TE). Whether these play-calling and roster alterations help the Dolphins develop into a top-tier offense with production worthy of its depth remains to be seen.
New England Patriots
Training camp report dates: rookies (July 22) and veterans (July 25).
Location: Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts.
Most important position battle: Wide receiver.Brandin Cooks? In La La Land. Danny Amendola? In South Beach. Julian Edelman? In timeout. Two of New England's leading receivers from 2017 won't be on the Week 1 starting roster -- nor will Edelman, who was sidelined all of last season -- meaning auditions to be Tom Brady's new favorite target are underway, and it's an open casting call. Chris Hogan, the lone holdover from last year, will secure one of the starting roles without a fight. The rest of the depth chart includes Jordan Matthews, Malcolm Mitchell (who missed 2017 with a knee injury), Cordarrelle Patterson, Phillip Dorsett (two starts in 2017), Kenny Britt and Braxton Berrios -- for now. There's no telling yet who will emerge from that cavalcade as Brady's preferred preseason option, or who has yet to make a name for himself. (Remember Austin Carr?)
Newcomers to watch: DLs Danny Shelton and Adrian Clayborn. The Patriots weren't quite undone by a lack of pass rush last season -- ask Malcolm Butlerwhat he thinks the problem was -- but New England's quarterback pressure hasn't been up to snuff for some time now. The Patriots have struggled to replace Chandler Jones, who has tallied 28 sacks with Arizona since Bill Belichick traded him in 2016; meanwhile, Trey Flowers has led the Pats with 13.5 total sacks over the last two campaigns. New England needed an infusion of pass-rushing pop this offseason, and the Pats might have gotten it with Shelton and Clayborn. Sure, Shelton is a defensive tackle, but the Eagles and Jaguars proved last season that consistent, disruptive pressure up the middle is almost as effective in forcing bad offensive decisions as having an All-Pro edge rusher in your arsenal. Clayborn's stats were inflated by a six-sack performance against Dallas' backup left tackles, but he remains a proven threat on the edge. The Pats' summertime transactions don't always pan out, and Belichick makes his bones as an excellent midseason bargain hunter, especially for defensive sleepers. But that won't be necessary if Shelton and Clayborn can make an impact early.
Looming camp question: Have the Patriots done enough to take advantage of Tom Brady's final years? If Brady's offseason musings about retirement coming "sooner rather than later" and his wife's hints that the boyish quarterback is no longer having fun are any indication, then Patriots fans should stop taking Brady for granted. Entering his age-41 season, the reigning MVP is in a league of his own in terms of sustained production over time. However, the warning signs are there -- they've been blaring this offseason -- that the future Hall of Fame signal-caller is circling the close of his football career. Injuries aren't his issue; aside from that nasty hand wound ahead of the AFC title game, Brady has no ailments to speak of heading into training camp. But with no succession plan currently in place at QB, the Patriots must be careful with Brady this season. All quarterbacks eventually age out of the game, and it's foolish to think Brady won't soon drop off in one area or another. His decline may not come in 2018, but it's New England's job from here on out to play to Brady's remaining strengths -- of which there are still many -- while preparing for the inevitable post-Brady era.
New York Jets
Training camp report dates: rookies (July 24) and veterans (July 26).
Most important position battle: Quarterback. The Jets enter 2018 with their most skilled quarterback room since at least 2002 and possibly even since 1968. After striking out on Kirk Cousins, the franchise forever mired in QB purgatory dedicated the rest of its offseason to building a competitive corps, re-signing Josh McCown, snagging Teddy Bridgewater for pennies on the dollar and drafting its supposed signal-caller of the future, Sam Darnold. Now, after OTAs and minicamp, during which each quarterback impressed reporters and coaches to some extent, New York enters training camp in familiar territory: bracing for a QB competition. But the mood is different. Battles of years past featured the likes of Sanchez, Tebow and McElroy (yuck). This time around, Gang Green is comfortably three deep. But the Jets' depth at quarterback presents more questions than answers. Can McCown's deep game pick up where it left off? Will Teddy return to pre-injury form, or could he be traded to a QB-needy contender mid-preseason? Is Darnold ready -- and if so, should the Jets start a 21-year-old rookie out of the gate?
Newcomer to watch: CB Trumaine Johnson. Burdened by the most cap space in the league entering free agency, general manager Mike Maccagnan and Co. went on a spending spree in March, signing players coming off their rookie deals like Bridgewater, Isaiah Crowell and Avery Williamson. But no non-QB free agent was paid more -- by the Jets or any other team, for that matter -- this offseason than Johnson (five years, $72.5 million, with $45 million guaranteed). The ex-Rams cornerback joins a promising starting secondary populated by hot-shot safeties Jamal Adams and Marcus Maye and veteran corners Morris Claiborne and Buster Skrine -- but they all have work to do. New York allowed 30 passing TDs (second-most in league) and recorded just 28 sacks (fifth-least) in 2017, and it was often hard to tell whether the front seven's lack of pressure or the secondary's lax late-down coverage was to blame. Enter Johnson, whose contract comes with a heavy price tag, but also with the weight of expectation to help solidify Gang Green's defense from the back, not the front -- *and *in doing so, save Maccagnan's and coach Todd Bowles' hides.
Looming camp question: Which offensive skill players will stand out? While the sports media take-o-sphere debates which Jets quarterback should win the starting job, I'll be watching the fluctuating hierarchies at New York's skill positions. Esteemed football scribe Bill Barnwell wasn't wrong last week when he ranked the Jets' offensive arsenal as the worst in the league, behind the aforementioned Dolphins and the receiver-poor Cowboys. New York employs almost exclusively unproven characters at running back (Isaiah Crowell, Bilal Powell, Thomas Rawls, Eli McGuire) and tight end (Clive Walford, Chris Herndon). But at wide receiver, New York has four arguably starting-caliber options in Robby Anderson, Jermaine Kearse, Quincy Enunwa and Terrelle Pryor. The problem is figuring out how to use all of them. Anderson and Kearse have the potential to be game-breakers, as illustrated by a three-week stretch in 2017 before McCown got injured. Enunwa, when healthy, is a hybrid threat who can be physical in the slot or outside. But it's open season for all pass catchers in Jets camp, not just the favorites. Receivers down the depth chart, like Chad Hansen and ArDarius Stewart, will have an opportunity to establish a rapport with Bridgewater or Darnold, both of whom could end up starting games during the season -- and bringing those receivers with them.