Training Camp

AFC training camp battles to watch: Patriots QB, Bills RB, more

Training camp battles will look a little different this season, like most everything else amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Gregg Rosenthal will break down the most compelling jobs up for grabs in each conference, with the AFC below. Click here for the top battles to watch in the NFC.

Miami Dolphins
QB · Ryan Fitzpatrick vs. Tua Tagovailoa

The lack of practice time during the pandemic could be uniquely difficult for the Dolphins to overcome. They have a prized rookie quarterback, new coordinators on both sides of the ball and roughly half of their starting jobs open during a dramatically shortened training camp that allows a maximum of 14 padded practices beginning in mid-August. No matter how little practice time Tua gets, the focus next month should be on preparing him to play in Chan Gailey's offense.

Fitzpatrick can fall back on his playing experience in Gailey's Buffalo offense. Even if it's unlikely that Tagovailoa will be playing in Week 1 -- Fitzpatrick was the best QB in the AFC East last year, after all! -- it feels inevitable that Tua will play eventually in 2020. The Dolphins should be playing the long game here by prioritizing his development. 

New England Patriots
QB · Cam Newton vs. Jarrett Stidham

This battle could also be read as Cam Newton vs. Cam Newton's body. If Newton comes out of training camp healthy, he is nearly certain to earn the Patriots' starting job. Bill Belichick is unlikely to indicate the likely starter in August, but Newton and Stidham's stylistic differences present a challenge for offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. Surely the Patriots will build a playbook that takes advantage of Newton's mobility. Will Stidham be running those plays in practice, too?

It's worth remembering that Newton's arm looked plenty strong in camp last year before he hurt his foot in the preseason against the Patriots. Newton's primary goal this August should be showing his new bosses that he's healthy enough to exact revenge on all those who left him "to die."

Los Angeles Chargers
QB · Justin Herbert vs. Tyrod Taylor

I can't remember a quarterback drafted in the top 10 who engendered less buzz heading into his rookie season than Herbert. Perhaps that's because the shortened offseason has likely short-circuited his chances to take a starting job that many assumed was Taylor's all along. 

After 46 career starts, the book is out on Taylor. It's a solid read. He is an incredible runner and a too-careful passer whose style leads to a lot of sacks, a handful of wow throws, very few interceptions and close games. Approaching league average may be just what coach Anthony Lynn is looking for. Herbert is a similar player to Taylor in many ways, but this battle isn't like the one Taylor waged against Baker Mayfield in 2018. Herbert figures to be more raw, with less time to impress. If Tyrod can keep the Chargers at .500 or above, he may well play the whole season. 

Pittsburgh Steelers
WR · Diontae Johnson vs. James Washington vs. Chase Claypool

Johnson is one of my favorite breakout candidates, a route-running wizard who could challenge JuJu Smith-Schuster as Pittsburgh's top option if everything breaks right. Then again, the Steelers didn't draft massive second-round pick Chase Claypool to sit on the bench, and James Washington quietly led the team in receiving as a 23-year-old. This is a good problem to have.

Houston Texans
RB · Duke Johnson vs. David Johnson

Texans coach Bill O'Brien will be motivated to prove that David Johnson was a valuable part of the DeAndre Hopkins trade, but it's been a while since the former Cardinal was a difference-maker. Duke Johnson, meanwhile, remains the Rodney Dangerfield of running backs despite being one of the most valuable Texans in their playoff win over the Bills last season.

Buffalo Bills
CB · Josh Norman vs. Levi Wallace

Norman is the heavy favorite here because of his relationship with coach Sean McDermott and his $6 million contract. But he's now 32 years old, deep into his decline phase. McDermott's magic touch with the secondary will be tested. 

Baltimore Ravens
RB · Mark Ingram vs. J.K. Dobbins vs. Gus Edwards

Running back appeared low on the list of needs for the most prolific rushing attack in NFL history, but general manager Eric DeCosta added Dobbins anyway. A complete back with great subtlety to his skill set, Dobbins projects to transition quickly to the pros. Ingram hopes to hold off Dobbins for another year, while Edwards hopes to hold on to his roster spot. 

Jacksonville Jaguars
WR · Chris Conley vs. Laviska Shenault Jr. vs. Dede Westbrook vs. Keelan Cole

This is yet another group where big plans for a rookie (Shenault) could be delayed by the pandemic. The Jaguars know that wideouts can take time to develop, including underrated No. 1 option DJ Chark.

Indianapolis Colts
MLB · Bobby Okereke vs. Anthony Walker

Okereke made so many plays as a rookie that the Colts might have to find more snaps for him at the expense of Walker, a solid fourth-year veteran who started all but two games in the past two seasons.

Indianapolis Colts
WR · Michael Pittman Jr. vs. Zach Pascal vs. Parris Campbell

The assumption coming out of the draft was that Pittman, a second-round pick, would start, but don't discount the excellent reps Pascal put together in Frank Reich's offense last year when everyone else was hurt. That includes Campbell, who would give the offense an added dimension with his speed. 

Buffalo Bills
DE · Trent Murphy vs. Mario Addison vs. A.J. Epenesa

Buffalo's pass rush was a quiet weakness last season, so GM Brandon Beane added an old friend from Carolina (Addison) and a high pick (second-rounder Epenesa) to compete for the spot opposite Jerry Hughes. Murphy, an expensive free agent signing in 2018, could wind up anywhere from the starting lineup to off the roster.

Buffalo Bills
RB · Devin Singletary vs. Zack Moss

Singletary has already proven himself, ranking among the 10 most elusive backs last season (minimum 100 carries), according to PFF. Moss is a similarly slashing runner who, like Singletary, was a third-round pick brought in to share the load and possibly steal goal-line work. Moss will have to prove himself quickly, because Singletary is too legit to sit for long.

Cincinnati Bengals
WR · Auden Tate vs. Tee Higgins vs. John Ross III

The Bengals' receiver depth is ideal for 2020 because these three guys are options 3-5 behind A.J. Green and Tyler Boyd. Higgins is a rookie who resembles Green in style, Tate made weekly outrageous catches down the stretch last year and Ross could wind up with a Ted Ginn-like career trajectory if he stays healthy. All this talent is a good problem to have.

New England Patriots
TE · Devin Asiasi vs. Dalton Keene vs. Matt LaCosse

The Patriots didn't draft two tight ends in the third round to sit them. Asiasi is easily the most talented pass catcher at the position already. Keene's blocking and athleticism might be used in an H-back role. This Pats offense needs a pleasant surprise or two to stay afloat, and the tight ends are one place to look.

New England Patriots
OLB · Chase Winovich vs. Josh Uche vs. Anfernee Jennings vs. Brandon Copeland vs. Shilique Calhoun vs. Derek Rivers

Belichick prioritizes his secondary first and then schemes up a pass rush, but this extremely young group of edge rushers is about as unproven as any in football. The loss of inside linebacker Dont'a Hightower, who opted out of playing this season, erodes the group's versatility because he can also line up on the edge. 

Miami Dolphins
RB · Matt Breida vs. Jordan Howard

Breida is more of an every-down option because of his receiving skills, if not his durability. Howard is evolving into a "pounder for hire" best used as a backup. 

Miami Dolphins
LT · Julien Davenport vs. Austin Jackson

This battle is emblematic of the challenge for coach Brian Flores this season. The Dolphins were counting on rookies and new acquisitions to play immediate roles, including Jackson, who was one of their three first-round picks. Up to 10 starting jobs may be up for grabs! 

New York Jets
CB · Bryce Hall vs. Bless Austin vs. Arthur Maulet vs. Quincy Wilson

Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams coaches up the secondary well, but this is one of the thinnest groups in the league behind "No. 1" corner Pierre Desir. Their edge-rushing options aren't much better.

Los Angeles Chargers
No. 3 WR · Joe Reed vs. Andre Patton vs. KJ Hill vs. Darius Jennings

I included this one to note how thin the Chargers' pass-catching options are if Keenan Allen or Mike Williams suffer an injury. Then again, coach Anthony Lynn might not be looking to throw the ball much. 

Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter @GreggRosenthal.

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