AFC East inside intel: Vital rookies, key position battles, juicy subplots

Charley Casserly spent three decades in the NFL, starting as an unpaid intern and ultimately serving as general manager of the Washington Redskins and Houston Texans, snagging three Super Bowl rings along the way. During his rise up the scouting ranks and eventual entry into the front office, Casserly made connections across the league -- lasting connections that extend to this day and provide rare access to the team-building process.

In the Inside Intel series, our resident GM mines his sources across the league to relay the inside word on impact rookies, prominent position battles and remaining questions. You'll find the AFC East intel below.

Buffalo Bills
Buffalo Bills
2019 season · 10-6

IMPACT ROOKIES


A.J. Epenesa, defensive end: With good size and long arms, Epenesa was a productive pass rusher at Iowa. He will compete for a starting DE position and will be best used as an end on run downs and DT on passing downs.


Zack Moss, running back: A physical inside runner with competitive speed, Moss will be a good complementary back to Devin Singletary, who is best used as a change-of-pace back and doubles as a receiver.

KEY POSITION BATTLES

Table inside Article
Position
LG/RG Jon Feliciano Quinton Spain Cody Ford Daryl Williams
RT Cody Ford Daryl Williams
DE Mario Addison A.J. Epenesa Trent Murphy
CB2 Josh Norman Levi Wallace

Jerry Hughes will start on one side of the defensive line, but who starts opposite him is yet to be decided.

ONE ADDITIONAL STORYLINE

Will Josh Allen continue to improve? He's done so each season, but the Bills would like him to refine his deep accuracy and stay within the offense. The Bills brought in surrounding talent this offseason in an effort to help Allen, who tends to try to do too much. Playmakers like Stefon Diggs should help take pressure off the third-year passer.

Miami Dolphins
Miami Dolphins
2019 record · 5-11

IMPACT ROOKIES


Tua Tagovailoa, quarterback: Tua is recovering "miraculously" from his hip injury. Once he is 100 percent, the question remains: Can Tua be the same strong player he was in college, one who played fast and showed good anticipation in his decision-making and throws? Tua is a great fit for Chan Gailey's spread offense but will need to carefully calculate when it's appropriate to be a risk-taker as a runner, especially in the middle of the field. The 6-foot passer will also need to learn to adjust to NFL pass rushers when he gets on the field, which won't be right away. There's no need to thrust Tua into the starting role Week 1.  


Austin Jackson, left tackle: The athletic rookie will be given a shot to be the team's starting left tackle; he could use a year of seasoning but might not have that luxury. Jackson's biggest deficiencies at this point are his strength and hand techniques, which could take time to develop. The loss of spring workouts with the Dolphins has not helped him. 


Robert Hunt, offensive tackle: Hunt is a powerful, nasty blocker who will get a chance to play right tackle. There are questions as to whether he can handle speed rushers on the outside, and he needs to improve his hand use. His hands are too wide at times, exposing his chest to defenders. If he doesn't work at right tackle, the Dolphins might move him in to guard.

KEY POSITION BATTLES

Table inside Article
Position
WR3 Allen Hurns Albert Wilson Isaiah Ford Jakeem Grant
RG Jesse Davis Mike Deiter
RT Robert Hunt Jesse Davis
DT Davon Godchaux Christian Wilkins Raekwon Davis
DE1/DE2 Shaq Lawson Emmanuel Ogbah Kyle Van Noy
ILB Jerome Baker Kamu Grugier-Hill
MIKE Elandon Roberts Raekwon McMillan
NCB Noah Igbinoghene Nik Needham Jamal Perry
FS/SS Eric Rowe Brandon Jones Bobby McCain

There are still a lot of questions surrounding the safety position. Who are the starters? How is playing time broken up? Player roles must also be determined.

ONE ADDITIONAL STORYLINE

Will the revamped O-line come together? The Dolphins will have four new starters, so it could take some time for this unit to jell. Can Jackson hold up at left tackle vs. power rushers? And Hunt against speed rushers? Who will emerge as the starting right guard? Will it be Jesse Davis, who is a good athlete with strength but is a converted D-lineman, or second-year pro Mike Deiter, who needs to improve his handling of quick rushers and tends to play too high and with his hands too wide? Davis could end up as the right tackle if Hunt is unable to handle fending off pass rushers. The only two sure starters in this lineup are LG Erik Flowers and C Ted Karras. Otherwise, there are a lot of unanswered questions.

New England Patriots
New England Patriots
2019 record · 12-4

IMPACT ROOKIES


Devin Asiasi, tight end: The rookie will compete for a starting spot, as he has the physical talent to be both a blocker and receiver. He must show he has the maturity on and off the field to be a consistently good player (he had one productive season at UCLA). 


Josh Uche, linebacker: Uche was drafted to fill the role of Kyle Van Noy, who now resides in Miami with Brian Flores. Uche showed he can play the run well, that he can cover and rush the passer at Michigan. He should help as a blitzer as well, but is he strong enough to set the edge vs. the run the way Van Noy did? 

KEY POSITION BATTLES

Table inside Article
Position
QB Jarrett Stidham Cam Newton Brian Hoyer
TE Matt LaCosse Devin Asiasi Dalton Keene
SAM Ja'Whaun Bentley Josh Uche

ONE ADDITIONAL STORYLINE

A deeper dive into the new QB room. The Patriots' QB room got a whole lot better over the weekend when they signed Cam Newton to a one-year deal. Where he fits in is still unknown. Newton, if healthy (my sources tell me he is, but he still must pass his physical), can elevate the offense significantly as a dual-threat QB. Per NFL Research, the Panthers won nearly 70 percent of the games in which Newton rushed the ball eight or more times. There's upside, but having missed the offseason while waiting for a new deal on the free agent market, he'll have to catch up to whatever offensive system Josh McDaniels has in place. Newton is a total wild card.

In Carolina, Newton was at his best on deep passes, deep-out cuts, RPOs, QB keepers and when running a no-huddle offense. He likes to throw to tight ends, so Asiasi will be an important player if Cam is the guy in New England. Another player to watch is receiver Damiere Byrd, who played with Newton in Carolina and has deep speed.

That said, the Patriots are still high on Jarrett Stidham. He has first-round throwing talent but must make good decisions and protect the ball to gain the confidence of the coaches and win the starting job. Look for McDaniels to implement more deep passes and move the pocket more with Stidham.

New York Jets
New York Jets
2019 record · 7-9

IMPACT ROOKIES


Mekhi Becton, offensive tackle: A starter most likely at left tackle (George Fant will start at RT), Becton will be a big asset for Sam Darnold as the quarterback aims to improve in Year 3. As a run blocker, Becton is physical and can create movement, which should allow Le'Veon Bell more opportunities for success. 


Denzel Mims, wide receiver: He is another deep threat to pair with free-agent acquisition Breshad Perriman. Look for him to not only get targets downfield but on screen passes and hitches that will allow him to show his run-after-catch ability. He could see time as a starter in three-receiver sets.

KEY POSITION BATTLES

Table inside Article
Position
OLB/Edge Jordan Jenkins Tarell Basham Jordan Willis
ILB2 Blake Cashman Avery Williamson Neville Hewitt Patrick Onwuasor
CB2 Blessuan Austin Nate Hairston

At corner, Pierre Desir will occupy one outside spot, while Brian Poole will be the nickel, leaving Austin and Hairston to compete for the remaining role. Jenkins, Basham and Willis will battle for a spot opposite OLB Harvey Langi.

ONE ADDITIONAL STORYLINE

How will the Jets' offense generate more explosive plays? The Jets feel like they've made progress this offseason in achieving more explosive plays. Perriman gives them a big-play threat downfield, as Jameis Winston had a 106.4 passer rating when targeting Perriman on passes of 20-plus air yards last season. Mims has size, speed and the catch radius to be an effective deep receiver and on short passes, providing the offense with a strong run-after-the-catch presence. Perriman and Mims should open things up for slot receiver Jamison Crowder and TE Chris Herndon, who was injured last season. Expect Herndon, who made 12 starts for the Jets in 2018, to be a big-play threat in Adam Gase's offense this season.

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