It might feel like the dog days of summer for football fans, but the 2017 campaign is rapidly coming down the pike. With training camps opening later this month, Around The NFL's Conor Orr, Kevin Patra 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 dates: rookies and veterans (July 26).
Location: St. John Fisher College, Rochester, New York.
Most important position battle: Linebacker. If I were a Bills fan attending camp, I wouldn't take my eyes off the linebacking corps. This position will be fascinating for several reasons. Theoretically, under new head coach Sean McDermott, the number of 'backers on the field in a base defense decreases by one (former head coach Rex Ryan ran a 3-4 base, while McDermott will bring his 4-3 from Carolina). And the competition will be bustling for a smaller number of spots. Reggie Ragland, a 2016 second-round pick, returns after tearing his ACL in camp last year. Preston Brown is insisting he won't give up a spot. The Bills also drafted two linebackers/potential hybrid players in Matt Milano and Tanner Vallejo.
Newcomer to watch: CB Tre'Davious White. The team's 2017 first-round pick represents McDermott's first shot at developing a shutdown corner from scratch in Buffalo. White is worth watching because if he's able to play at an intermediate level, this defense won't be as ho-hum as projected. Like any coach inheriting a Rex Ryan team, McDermott has a defense that has been heavily invested in. After losing Stephon Gilmore to the rival Patriots via free agency, the Bills' secondary needs someone with White's thumper instincts to come in and energize the unit.
Looming camp question: What kind of Sammy Watkins are the Bills getting?As I wrote during Watkins' rookie year, there were some graduate-level plays made by the wide receiver that led some to believe he was going to quickly validate the hefty price the Bills paid to draft him. Injuries and a lingering unhappiness with the way his role developed have sidetracked those expectations. Buffalo did not pick up his fifth-year option. It was just less than a month ago that he started taking significant team reps following offseason foot surgery. Still, the potential is there for an explosive comeback season. Even after everything, Watkins represents the team's grandest hopes.
Training camp report dates: rookies (July 20) and veterans (July 26).
Location: Baptist Health Training Facility, Davie, Florida.
Most important position battle: Linebacker. The Dolphins seem oddly settled for this time of year, but as The Phinsider pointed out, this linebacking unit is undergoing a serious remake. I once thought the courtship and signing of Lawrence Timmons was about injecting some attitude into a group that didn't stand up to its counterparts on the defensive line. However, the selection of Raekwon McMillan in the 2017 NFL Draft could point to a tactical change, as well. In cases like this, no one's job is guaranteed, with a few capable bodies floating around.
Newcomer to watch: DE Charles Harris. The first-round pick has Dolphins fans dreaming of an outright swarm on defense. This might be a year away from materializing, though Harris will have a lot of protection across the line and could see more than his fair share of one-on-one matchups. Given the attention paid by opponents to Ndamukong Suh alone, Harris could be an early favorite to win the rookie sack race. Early reports from spring practices suggest he's a regular presence in the backfield, though everything changes when the offensive linemen are encouraged to hit back.
Looming camp question: Does Ryan Tannehill hit the ground running? This is a playoff team. Despite having the look and feel of an upstart, this is a veteran-laden, top-heavy roster built to at least nag the Patriots. Tannehill grew under first-year head coach Adam Gase last season, momentarily fending off questions about his ability to become a franchise quarterback. However, this year -- Tannehill's sixth in the NFL -- needs to see Tannehill break away from his modest reputation and take a crack at the Pro Bowl.
New England Patriots
Training camp report dates: rookies (July 24) and veterans (July 26).
Location: Gillette Stadium, Foxborough, Massachusetts.
Most important position battle: Tom Brady target. The Patriots utilize their personnel so seamlessly that a positional battle isn't really a highlight of their training camp (even some of their offensive linemen get rotated during the season). Instead, consider the race for Tom Brady's affection. With Danny Amendola, Julian Edelman, Brandin Cooks, Chris Hogan and Malcolm Mitchell all making a play for snaps, the early weeks of camp could bear out what type of personnel New England typically rolls with in its most frequently used sets.
Newcomer to watch: WR Brandin Cooks. Cooks is quite possibly the most dynamic receiver Brady has worked with since Randy Moss. With training camp providing more of a focus on play execution and individual battles, Cooks' speed will be on full display. Assuming he stays healthy, we might come out of camp with more hype surrounding this Patriots offense than we entered with.
Looming camp question: Is this the year? Obviously, this Patriots team is good enough to win the Super Bowl. But after loading up this offseason, they are drawing comparisons to the 2007 team that finished one Super Bowl win away from a perfect season. The weight of those comparisons has to be unbelievable, but the combination of best coach, GM and quarterback in NFL history might be able to get them there. While this is a heady question not solely related to camp, this will be our first real window into how the pieces are coming together.
New York Jets
Training camp report dates: rookies and veterans (July 28).
Location: Atlantic Health Jets Training Center, Florham Park, New Jersey.
Most important position battle: Quarterback. There are two perfectly reasonable arguments to be made at the quarterback position. One is to start veteran Josh McCown because he gives you the best chance to win games this year. The other is that you probably aren't trying to win games this year, so start youngster Christian Hackenberg. Todd Bowles told NFL.com's Kimberly Jones ahead of camp that there is no current favorite among his potential starters. However, the safe money would be on the Jets not hurling Hackenberg into the fire right away, seeing as he wasn't ready to take the field with far better players around him a year ago.
Newcomers to watch: S Jamal Adams and S Marcus Maye. The savvy Jets fan looking to tomorrow will studiously track the budding relationship between these first- and second-round picks. Adams might have been the best player in the draft, and thanks to a risky move by the Bears to select Mitchell Trubisky with the second pick, Adams fell into the Jets' lap at sixth overall. General manager Mike Maccagnan is searching for elite, young, controllable talent wherever he can get it right now, and if the Jets emerge from 2017 with a pair of playmaking safeties, they cannot count the season as a total loss.
Looming camp question: How will Todd Bowles energize the team? There is no person more challenged right now than the Jets' head coach. The team clearly has an eye on the future, but he must keep an eye on the present. There will be 53 players, some on expiring contracts, some just starting their careers, who have no interest in being part of a rebuild. Bowles must prevent a mutiny, given how ugly a losing season can get in New York.