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AFC East training camp preview: Bills rising; Patriots are in flux

With training camps scheduled to begin this month, it's time to get up to speed on all 32 NFL teams. Below, Jeremy Bergman has the lowdown on position battles, strengths, weaknesses and newcomers in the AFC East:

Buffalo Bills
Buffalo Bills
2019 record: 10-6

Most important position battle: Kicker! Buffalo is returning almost every starter on offense and defense, a testament to general manager Brandon Beane's roster management in his 38 months on the job. But such consistency threatens the health of the What To Watch For industry. Lucky for us, the Bills will boast a very special mano a mano showdown, pitting a Super Bowl champion in his mid-30s against a sixth-round newbie out of Georgia Southern. Stephen Hauschka vs. Tyler Bass, the PK competition we've been pining for all quarantine, will kick off later this month, available on PPV and BBC+. Hauschka, the incumbent veteran with two years left on his pact, is the favorite, according to his special teams coach. But Bass has the younger, stronger leg, one that could boot Hauschka -- who went 1-for-5 from 50-plus last season -- out of town.


Biggest strength on roster: Front seven. I could cheat and list the entire defense, but I'll narrow my focus on a unit that frustrated offenses last season and only got stronger this offseason. The additions of rookie A.J. Epenesa and veterans Mario Addison, Vernon Butler and Quinton Jefferson beef up a lacking pass rush that held back Buffalo's ace secondary last season. Returning are Tremaine Edmunds and Matt Milano, arguably the league's top linebacker duo, with the latter being in a contract year. It was tough to move the ball on Buffalo's secondary in 2019, which added wild-card veteran Josh Norman -- arriving along with fellow ex-Panthers Addison and Butler -- this spring, but in 2020, the front seven figures to be the anchor of head coach Sean McDermott's defense.


Biggest weakness: Running back. Quarterback Josh Allen gets too much grief on these and other web pages, some -- er, most of it -- warranted. For all his faults, Allen is at least a known commodity who has proven himself positively in enough scenarios to deserve a break. The same cannot be said for his similarly promising backfield mates, Devin Singletary and Zack Moss, who, with a combined one NFL season of experience, will be toting most of the carries for the presumed AFC East favorites. Singletary averaged 5.1 yards per carry in his rookie season, flashing veteran instincts and acceleration as Frank Gore's backup before seizing the reins down the back half. But 2020 will be Singletary's first year as a full-time starter, and the cast behind him is deficient in experience and reliability. That a 22-year-old back with a 5-yard YPC average could be seen as a team's greatest weakness reflects highly on Buffalo's roster management. Regardless, the Bills shouldn't take the sophomore Singletary for granted.


Newcomer/player returning from injury to watch: Stefon Diggs, wide receiver. The division's splashiest acquisition -- that is, before Cam came through -- is the best receiver in his prime to join the Bills since Antonio Brown did so for a hot second two springs ago. Diggs, who averaged 17.9 yards per catch in his final season with the Vikings, is the Missing Piece in Buffalo's offense, the weapon who can maximize Allen's potential and keep Bill Bunyan from turning into Captain Checkdown. Unfortunately for Allen and Diggs, on-field work has been at a minimum this offseason due to the pandemic and such, limiting their ability to get to know each other's turf tendencies; the two hooked up in late May, but it's unclear whether they've gotten together since. August should provide the pair with a month-plus to work out the kinks -- and the deep ball.

Miami Dolphins
Miami Dolphins
2019 record: 5-11

Most important position battle: Offensive line. Everywhere you look along Miami's O-line, there are question marks that have lingered since Brian Flores took over as coach last season. Under their third offensive-line coach of the Flores era, the Dolphins could have four new starters along the line this year. Miami drafted three linemen, including first-round tackle Austin Jackson, who will enter camp at 20 years old and should exit as the starter at left tackle over Julie'n Davenport. Ex-Pat Ted Karras is a shoo-in at center, and former Giants first-round pick Ereck Flowers is slated to inherit left guard. But the right side of the line is up for grabs. Jesse Davis, Miami's starting right tackle in 2019, could play either RG or RT, depending on how ex-LG Michael Deiter and rookie tackle Robert Hunt take to those positions, respectively. It won't matter who's under center if the Dolphins don't decide who the right (and left) men are to protect him.


Biggest strength on roster: Secondary. It should come as no surprise that Miami, amid a roster-wide rebuild, is leaning on its secondary under Flores, the defensive-backs whisperer for two Super Bowl-champion Patriots sides. The Dolphins signed Byron Jones to a record-setting deal in order to pair him with Xavien Howard and manufacture arguably the league's top -- and, by far, most expensive -- CB duo. Miami didn't stop there, adding rookie Noah Igbinoghene at the end of the first round and Clayton Fejedelem in free agency. As with all Bill Belichick disciples, Flores is attempting to replicate his Foxborough successes in his current locale. With the help of GM Chris Grier, the head coach is well on his way in South Beach.


Biggest weakness: Linebacker. Aside from the O-line, which was addressed just two grafs ago, the Dolphins' most pressing questions come from the middle of their defense. The LB position is flush with new talent, much of it familiar to Flores. Elandon Roberts and Kyle Van Noy, both Patriots projects, came over in free agency to anchor a defense in need of front-seven savvy. Whether Roberts and Van Noy, chess pieces (pawns?) who have only ever known success under Belichick's grandmastery, can bring their instincts to Miami and apply their flexible know-how alongside Raekwon McMillan, who has yet to "prove it" ahead of what amounts to a prove-it year, will be the indicator as to whether Grier and Flores know what they're doing regarding free agency and the front seven.


Newcomer/player returning from injury to watch: Tua Tagovailoa, quarterback. Get you a man who could be both. The fifth overall pick in April -- the highest-drafted Dolphins quarterback in 53 years -- enters camp with the expectation of seizing the starting job from reigning team rushing leader Ryan Fitzpatrick by August's end. But Miami will be happy just to see Tua make it out of the month in one piece. Tagovailoa passed his physical earlier this summer, but the Dolphins have not yet seen the face of their franchise perform on the field in the flesh, perhaps since the Alabama QB went down in a heap in Starkville last fall. 

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

Most important position battle: Quarterback. Yes, it's still a battle. The privilege to be Tom Brady's successor won't be won on name recognition and self-produced Tony Robbins-inspired Quibis alone. Former league MVP Cam Newton will be New England's presumed QB when camp opens, but that conclusion is discounting the year-plus of experience Jarrett Stidham has had in coordinator Josh McDaniels' offense; just months ago, articles in this space were projecting Stidham as the Pats' deserved 2020 starter. Newton has seemingly taken to New England's playbook like a high schooler crunching for a calculus exam -- his metaphor, not mine -- but there's no substitute for reps. 


Biggest strength on roster: Secondary. Same ol' stuff, just a different year. New England's back end, which held together the league's most suffocating defense last season, returns most of its starters from the 2019 campaign, chief among them reigning Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore. The Brothers McCourty are back, as are Jonathan Jones, J.C. Jackson and Patrick Chung. The only significant change was New England swapping in Adrian Phillips for Duron Harmon, who was shipped out to Patriots Midwest. So the game's top secondary remains largely unchanged ahead of a season during which, unlike any before it, roster consistency will be at a premium. Whoops.


Biggest weakness: Linebacker. Yes, New England's tight ends are anonymous youths, and its rookie kicker once boasted more controversial tattoos (reportedly since removed) than pre-draft profiles. But the Pats' most troubled position is linebacker, where they lost Jamie Collins to, again, Pats Midwest and Kyle Van Noy and Elandon Roberts to Patriots South. New England is left with stalwart Dont'a Hightower and a slew of unprovens, including second-round pick Josh Uche, third-round pick Anfernee Jennings, second-year pro (and Uche's former Michigan teammate) Chase Winovich and third-year pro Ja'Whaun Bentley. So while continuity will work for New England's secondary in this unparalleled offseason, the lack of the same works against its LB corps. Behind a thin defensive line, the Pats' 'backers are greener than the Belichicks have been used to in recent years.


Newcomer/player returning from injury to watch: •whôDÖyöuTH1NK?•

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

Most important position battle: Cornerback. The specter of Trumaine Johnson's doomed deal haunts both this secondary and New York's salary cap; the cornerback remains unsigned after being released as a post-June 1 cut but still counts for $12 million over the next two seasons. Gang Green replaced him by signing Pierre Desir as its No. 1, but did not locate a surefire replacement for last year's No. 2, Darryl Roberts. Enter Blessuan Austin, who shined late last season, Arthur Maulet and another former Colt, Quincy Wilson, to compete for the vacancy across from Desir and next to nickel stud Brian Poole. None of the trio has ever started a full season in the pros, but all will have an opportunity to do so in New York in 2020.


Biggest strength on roster: Jamal Adams ... The Jets don't excel at any position, except wherever Adams is playing. The fourth-year safety is the only sure thing on the roster, a charismatic star to build around and a reigning first-team All-Pro who leads by example on the field and by frequency on your local Twitter feed. Which makes Adams' trade demand, issued last month despite a notable lack of leverage, all the more confusing to Jets fans and management. Adams could hold out this August in search of a record-setting extension, but it's unlikely to affect how the Jets proceed with his demands or how New York's defense develops in the month of training camp. Whether he's present in training camp as a body or a headline, Adams has proven through his play that he will be there when it matters in September. (Hopefully for Jets fans, "there" won't be DFW.)


Biggest weakness: Offensive line. Less a weak unit than an unproven entity, QB Sam Darnold's front line -- and GM Joe Douglas' passion project -- underwent a serious renovation this offseason. With zero on-field reps together since being assembled by the rising sophomore executive, the O-line, constructed of rookie Mekhi Becton, free-agent acquisitions Greg Van Roten, Connor McGovern and George Fant and holdover Alex Lewis, needs time to jell. New York's season, the Le'Veon Bell-Frank Gore experiment and Darnold's future with the Jets depend on Douglas' dudes establishing a rapport in the four-ish weeks allowed in training camp and avoiding last season's disastrous start, when three Jets QBs were sacked 23 times in the team's first four games.


Newcomer/player returning from injury to watch: Chris Herndon, tight end. The third-year pro carries an unhealthy receptions-to-hype pieces ratio. Herndon played in only one game last season, thanks to a suspension and hamstring and rib injuries, after a promising 2018 debut. When on the field, Herndon inspires Darnold to throw, move and anticipate with more confidence, but his absences were so frequent that they threatened to stunt the QB's development. Herndon will be surrounded by Ryan Griffin and Daniel Brown at what is one of New York's stronger positions, but his hopefully healthy return to the lineup remains one of the most anticipated storylines in Florham Park.  

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