Training camp is quickly approaching, which means it's time to preview the most exciting part of the summer. Over the next month, Around The NFL's Conor Orr will break down all 32 teams and give us something to look for in late July.
New England Patriots
Training camp report dates:Rookies July 24, veterans July 27
Training camp location: Gillette Stadium; Foxborough, Massachusetts.
Offseason in a nutshell: The Patriots will be fascinating to watch after they scoured the second-tier of free agency and picked up a boatload of potential talent. Former first-round picks Chris Long and Shea McClellin should add another dimension to this defense along with Terrance Knighton. Martellus Bennett could end up being the best offseason move made by any team, giving the Patriots a reliable and often dominant set of red-zone hands alongside a willing blocker off the line. While the moves were praised in part because they were "name brand" signings (no one freaked out this hard when the team inked Jabaal Sheard) they're also the type of depth-first maneuvers that will keep New England on auto pilot without Tom Brady.
Player to watch: Wide receiver Chris Hogan. Hogan was a consistently reliable target in Buffalo and always seems to find himself open. Doing this in New England's system -- and with Brady as the quarterback -- will get one noticed rather quickly. Hogan was the star of New England's minicamp (receivers and running backs tend to stand out more to fans and media during a time when no one can hit) and the Boston Herald reported he "caught more passes from Brady" than any other receiver on the field. With Julian Edelman sidelined, Hogan has a chance to slip into that move-the-chains role.
Three burning questions
This would seem to be inevitable, and according to Mike Reiss of ESPN.com, Cooper lined up at right guard with the 1's during the spring. New England dealt Chandler Jones for Cooper and a second-round pick in the hopes that the former top-10 pick can find the form he hasn't discovered yet at the NFL level. Cooper broke his leg a few weeks after being drafted back in 2013, which significantly hampered his ability to stay on the traditional learning curve. Some might argue that Cooper is still not close to where he needs to be and that a strong camp from rookie Joe Thuney or second-year guard Tre' Jackson could derail Cooper's hopes of being a Day One starter.
Together, the tandem could be frightening. Brown, the team's 2015 first-round pick, and Knighton both fit the ideal Patriot two-gap defensive tackle mold. It's not unheard of to see two players of this size on the field at the same time, especially considering the way many teams are working back to a run-first offense. Belichick is loaded with athletic linebackers and pass rushers, and could have a historic defense on his hands if he fits the pieces together.
Belichick always started drills off with Brady before working Garoppolo in. That's been his philosophy this spring after almost completely ignoring Brady's pending suspension last year. Patriots training camp will be boring because the team is self-sustaining and will always be perennial favorites to win the division as long as Brady and Belichick are there. However, Garoppolo adds a new dynamic. Last year, there was still a prevailing feeling around this time that Brady could get his suspension overturned. This year, the scenario is bleak. Does that mean Garoppolo will need more time or is it still important for Belichick to assert Brady as the face of this franchise?
Way-too-early season prediction: Garoppolo starts hot, winning three of his first four games. From there, Brady takes over, the machine churns and New England slides into the playoffs at 13-3.
New York Jets
Training camp report dates:Rookies and veterans, July 27.
Offseason in a nutshell: Former Jets general manager John Idzik was famously chided for his penchant for slow-playing situations. His pragmatism amid tons of salary-cap space drove the fan base crazy and eventually led to an early departure. What would they have said about him if, on July 6, his starting quarterback was still unsigned (and not in minicamp) and his star defensive player was miserable having to play on the franchise tag? The NFL is full of tough decisions, and perhaps Mike Maccagnan will score a coup with his slow playing this offseason. No one is blaming him for resisting Ryan Fitzpatrick's contract demands, but Muhammad Wilkerson should have been under contract a year ago. So much of the equity Maccagnan built up over the last year is on the line, and he knows it.
Player to watch: Wide receiver Brandon Marshall. Watching Marshall play last year was a joy, and there were games when he single-handedly willed the Jets to victory. In 11 games, he was targeted double-digit times and got better as the season progressed. Over the final six games, Marshall caught 47 balls for 702 yards and seven touchdowns. Despite initial questions about how he would fit into Chan Gailey's quick-cut offense, Marshall has been the consummate receiver for this system and rolls into his age-32 season in the best shape of his life. Players can defy father time for various reasons and we hope that Marshall can stave off a drop in production for another year. Training camp is a tough time to gauge these things, but perhaps the Jets' usage of other budding receivers like Devin Smith will be telling.
Three burning questions
Harrison hinted to Around The NFL around this time last year that he was about to get paid, and after another stellar season at nose tackle, the Giants jumped on the opportunity to make him an every-down player. The Jets opted for 280-pound Steve McLendon to replace Harrison despite the fact that they are different players. Harrison was a classic two-gap controller who could also bump down and rush the passer. McLendon is much more of a technician, which is fine, but doesn't the Jets' defensive line work better when Wilkerson, Sheldon Richardson and Leonard Williams have more one-on-one opportunities? Richardson can also bump down in odd fronts, which might end up being the most productive scenario.
Boy, do the Jets hope so. It's not Milliner's fault that we're in this position right now. The Jets selected a player with five previous surgeries and expected him to glide through an NFL career without any setbacks. That just doesn't happen. But Milliner is on a yoga kick and is finally healthy now, which is the mother of all tropes. Let's give him a chance to prove it, though. Good cover skills don't vanish and maybe the overwhelming confidence needed to be a defender out on an island develops a bit during camp. It is a big if, but with Darrelle Revis on the mend and getting older, the Jets could be in the similar pickle they were in back in 2014.
If I were Wilkerson, I wouldn't. The former first-round pick has been promised a new contract by three different general managers and two head coaches over the course of his career. He's thrived under three different coordinators, two different systems and three different positions and there is no reason why he shouldn't be locked into a deal right now. Von Miller could pave the way for more players to lose a year in their prime in order to cash in during free agency (if he doesn't accept franchise tender) and Wilkerson would be wise to follow him. He's just as good, if not better, than Fletcher Cox, and the Jets understand exactly how much it will take to sign him.
Way-too-early season prediction: Even with Fitzpatrick, it's hard to view this as a playoff-bound club. At the moment, we have them projected for six or seven wins depending on how a much more difficult schedule shakes out.
Training camp report dates: Rookies July 28, veterans July 29.
Training camp location: St. John Fisher College, Pittsford, New York.
Offseason in a nutshell: For the first time, Rex Ryan enters a season in Buffalo with a presumptive -- and productive -- starting quarterback boasting NFL experience. He's had a year to shave his system of the nonbelievers (former defensive end Mario Williams is now with the Dolphins) and financially reward the ones who are willing to take a bigger role, or at least not complain about it as loudly (Marcell Dareussigned an extension last September that carries him through the 2021 season and could be worth more than $100 million). So here we are with Ryan, perennially wedged between a rock and a hard place. The prevailing offseason rumor was that the Bills wanted to cut bait after one season despite the fact that Ryan is really the only coach to have legitimately challenged Bill Belichick in the AFC East over the last seven years. Ryan, after resisting the possibility for years, added his twin brother, Rob, to his staff in what seems like a last-ditch effort to reclaim his status as the best defensive mind in the NFL. (I, for one, still think he is, even if his persona gets in the way at times.) The Bills are loaded with excellent coaches, including soon-to-be head men Anthony Lynn and Greg Roman. They also have several star-caliber players and a new first-round pick on defense who -- if healthy -- could ramp up Buffalo's lackluster pass rush.
Player to watch: Quarterback Tyrod Taylor. The Bills' offense will be interesting to watch this summer for two reasons. One, they presumably want to keep the motion-oriented, next-gen run game aspect -- but reduce Taylor's open-field carries. Taylor is not Cam Newton; he cannot absorb the type of hits to make him an every-down dual-threat quarterback. Two, they want to recapture the magic that Taylor and wide receiver Sammy Watkins discovered late in the season. Taylor was good enough to feed his only downfield weapon consistently, and after Watkins publicly demanded Odell Beckham-style target numbers. Taylor has a unique way of keeping his teammates happy and is doing so at a bargain-basement price.
Three burning questions:
The smart money is on no. Watkins (broken foot) has been walking back a proclamation that he'll be ready for the start of training camp, but really, this shouldn't matter. The Bills are in Year 2 of this offense, and Watkins is good enough to negate the lack of time spent with Taylor while he recovers. Their main concern needs to be developing dependable weapons around him. Percy Harvinisn't coming back. Chris Hogan, who signed with the Patriots, is gone, which will be a bigger blow than many people realize. In true Rex Ryan fashion, he used his first three picks in this year's draft on defense and then took a project quarterback who is still at least a year from being game-ready in the fourth round, so reinforcements are slim. Ryan is hoping that a reliable set of hands emerges from the platoon of speedster Marquise Goodwin, Greg Salas and sixth-round pick Kolby Listenbee.
2. Can the Ryan brothers team up and build a winner?
This is a meaningful season for Rex for a lot of reasons. His legendary father, Buddy, passed away at 85 last month, and I don't think it is out of line to suggest that Rex will dedicate this season, and any season after (along with all previous seasons, too, for that matter), to his idol. Ryan is easily motivated, but this is something that can change a man in significant ways. In smaller aspects, Ryan has made other ancillary changes to lighten his load and surround himself with friendly faces. He added Ravens legend Ed Reed to the coaching staff in addition to his twin brother, Rob. He retained loyal lieutenants like defensive coordinator Dennis Thurman, receivers coach Sanjay Lal and quarterbacks coach David Lee. If Ryan is truly up against it, he is going to go out coaching his way with his philosophy -- an understandable route to take after the Jets tried to re-brand and silence him on the way out in 2014.
The opportunities provided to Manuel as a backup this offseason will probably allow him to fly the coop in March and compete for a starting job (or backup job) elsewhere. A former first-round pick, Manuel was the victim of impatient coaching from one regime and the need to post a winning record from the next. Believe it or not, he'll be a major storyline this offseason -- as camp wanes, backups take center stage once every sexy storyline has expired. Manuel could potentially get two quarters worth of work in every preseason game.
Way-too-early season prediction: I've seen two very good Rex Ryan seasons first-hand, and a few not so good. I've learned to never count him out, especially when his back is against the wall. I count 10 winnable games on Buffalo's schedule this season, and I expect the Bills to take sole position of second place in the AFC East with a nine-win season.
Training camp report dates: Rookies and veterans on July 28.
Training camp location: Baptist Health Training Facility at Nova Southeastern University, Davie, Florida.
Offseason in a nutshell: This is a team in transition, masquerading as a playoff-caliber team after another aggressive free agency period. Around the league, the belief is that new coach Adam Gase is worth at least a few more wins for the culture-starved Dolphins on presence alone. The team went from the timid Joe Philbin to powder keg Dan Campbell all within a few weeks. Their franchise quarterback allegedly didn't get along with practice squad players. Their star defensive tackle, Ndamukong Suh, told his fellow defensive teammates that only a certain number of them were good enough to play with. Gase, who could be considered a member of the Nick Saban and John Fox coaching trees, immediately brought a sense of unity and stern calmness to the Dolphins. Will that be enough? The team added Mario Williams this offseason and plans on pairing him with the 34-year-old Cam Wake off the edge. They let go of Olivier Vernon after he was offered an absurd amount of money by the Giants and took discount fliers on former cornerstone-type players like Kiko Alonso and Byron Maxwell, who could produce but might end up as big-named place holders.
Player to watch: Running back Jay Ajayi. Refusing to over spend on a running back in free agency is typically a great decision and for the Dolphins, sticking by Ajayi might end up paying off. We'll find out early on in training camp just how badly Ajayi wants to be an every-down back seeing as he had a clear offseason assignment: Learn the passing section of the playbook and become a more capable receiver out of the backfield. At one point in his collegiate career, he was nabbing 50 balls a season. Gase's playbook is a little different and demands more than carrying the football from a running back. If he's not getting heavy reps across all downs, it might be a sign of changes to come.
Three burning questions:
After watching Alonso in Eagles camp last summer, I can say my interest level was high. He looked every bit the star hybrid linebacker Chip Kelly was looking for -- the type that is currently in high demand across the board in the nickel-dominant NFL. He was overmatched physically that season, though, and is looking for a way to spark his career with the Dolphins. Presumably, Zach Vigil and Mike Hull are the only players standing in his way, but with a new defensive coordinator in town, anything is possible. Vance Joseph will be in a base 4-3, but Alonso will earn his stripes in the nickel just like every true linebacker in the league.
2. Do the receivers make a leap in their first training camp under Gase?
It's an interesting position to watch not only because of Gase, but because the Dolphins are soaking up knowledge wherever they can get it. Wideouts Reggie Wayne and Wes Welker were both hanging around minicamp and offering some tips and insight. Offensive coordinator Clyde Christensen is also an underrated football mind and has been associated with the elevation of some notable receivers over the past 15 years. While we know that Jarvis Landry is a valuable No. 2 or No. 3, the hope is that real progress is made by DeVante Parker. A name to watch: third-round pick Leonte Carroo. Carroo was Gase's first hand-selected wideout and is drawing comparisons to a young Anquan Boldin. He ran with the first team during minicamp, according to The Palm Beach Post, but does that change in late July?
3. Will the team make another splash before the end of camp?
Once the preseason muddle clears, the Dolphins should be in decent shape in terms of cap space, though they may wait until after the first game of the regular season to sign someone like Arian Foster, in order to avoid being locked in for the entire season. VP Mike Tannenbaum has been knocked around for his cap management in the past (even though his "salary cap hell" season was easily solved with three quick moves), but his personnel department has had a pretty good track record of finding veteran free agent contributors throughout the years. In fact, a lot of those findings were the building blocks of the team's two AFC championship runs with Rex Ryan. This team could use experience at running back and guard, especially if Laremy Tunsil doesn't catch on right away or Billy Turner doesn't hit his marks.
Way-too-early season prediction: I currently see the AFC East pecking order as Patriots, Bills and then a complete wild card. The pairing of Tannehill and Gase is enticing given Gase's track record with quarterbacks. If that improved relationship is worth another two wins to the Dolphins, then they end up at a not surprising, but not bad 8-8 on the season.