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Preseason Watch List: AFC East

A detailed look at the key questions facing each team in the preseason

BUFFALO BILLS

The Bills return to St. John Fisher College under the watch of new head coach Sean McDermott. The first-time head coach brings an experienced coaching staff with him, led by offensive coordinator Rick Dennison and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier. It's difficult to believe the once proud Bills -- who made four consecutive Super Bowl appearances -- are currently enduring a 17-year playoff drought, and the team only has two winning seasons over that span. Luckily for Bills fans, and McDermott, the cupboard isn't entirely bare as the Bills went 7-9 last season and had the league's best rushing offense (2,630 yards and 29 touchdowns). Where the team needs help is improving a passing offense that finished with just 3,036 yards and seven touchdowns, and with a defense that gave up 2,130 yards rushing and 21 rushing touchdowns.

Camp Details:

  • When: 7/26 (Rookies and Veterans)
  • Where: St. John Fisher College (Rochester, NY)
  • Open to Public: Yes (See Website)

Preseason Game Schedule:

  • Aug 10 -- Minnesota 7:00 pm EDT
  • Aug 17 -- @Philadelphia 7:00 pm
  • Aug 26 -- @Baltimore 7:00 pm
  • Aug 31 -- Detroit 7:00 pm

What We're Watching:

  • Establishing the Sean McDermott Era -- McDermott and new general manager Brandon Beane are first-timers, but they've seemed at ease in their new roles. McDermott has set a more serious tone after former head coach Rex Ryan tried too hard to be everyone's best friend. He's preached accountability and believes the key to returning to the playoffs is through teaching and repetition. Anytime a team embarks on a coaching overhaul; there's the potential current personnel won't accept the new rules. Camp will go a long way in illustrating how far away the Bills are from turning things around. 
  • Does the new system fit LeSean McCoy well? -- The Bills are abiding by the adage, "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" concerning the rushing offense. New offensive coordinator Rick Dennison and offensive line coach Juan Castillo were impressed with the system they've inherited (the Bills led the league in rushing in consecutive seasons) and are planning only minor tweaks. The biggest difference will be utilizing the fullbacks more as receivers out of the backfield. 
  • Is Sammy Watkins healthy? -- Watkins dealt with a foot injury last season and lost his effectiveness.  Watkins opted for surgery in January after rehabilitation and rest failed to correct the problem. The Bills chose not to exercise Watkins' 5th-year option, making this season a make-or-break for the talented pass catcher.
  • Andre Holmes versus Zay Jones -- Veteran Andre Holmes is the odds on replacement for Robert Woods in the starting lineup, but Zay Jones -- a 2nd round rookie -- has looked sharp in early practices and has a much higher ceiling. 
  • Jordan Mills versus Dion Dawkins at right tackle -- Jordan Mills is the incumbent and has earned the coaches praises in the offseason, but Dion Dawkins is a road-grader rookie selected in the 2nd round. The two will compete to solidify the lone question mark on an otherwise stellar offensive line.
  • Finding starting linebackers -- Ramon Humber, Preston Brown and Lorenzo Alexander will open camp as starters, but 2nd year Reggie Ragland and veteran Gerald Hodges will have ample opportunity to win roles.

MIAMI DOLPHINS

When the Dolphins hired Adam Gase last season, most expected a multi-year rebuilding process. The team struggled to an early 1-4 record but clicked over the last three months of the season. Miami was 9-2 in the final eleven games in spite of a late season injury to Ryan Tannehill. The excitement is palpable as the team returns to Davie, Florida for its second camp under Gase's watch. Last year's 10-6 record belies a need for improvement in all facets. Neither the offense (17th) nor defense (18th) finished in the top half of the standings, but key personnel additions and the natural progression of playing in the same system for a second-year bode well.

Camp Details:

  • When: 7/20 (Rookies) / 7/26 (Veterans)
  • Where: Baptist Health Training Facility (Davie, FL) 
  • Open to Public: Yes (See Website)

Preseason Game Schedule:

  • Aug 10 -- Atlanta 7:00 pm EDT
  • Aug 17 -- Baltimore 7:00 pm
  • Aug 24 -- @Philadelphia 7:00 pm
  • Aug 31 -- @Minnesota 8:00 pm

What We're Watching:

  • Ryan Tannehill's health -- Tannehill was on pace for a career year before partially tearing his ACL and missing the final three games. Tannehill opted against surgery -- a risky bet -- but has looked healthy in OTAs. If he's healthy, the Dolphins offense should compete for Top 10 honors.
  • Who backs up Jay Ajayi? -- Jay Ajayi is the clear bell cow, but the Dolphins would do well to spell him a bit more in 2017. The question is whether Damien Williams or Kenyan Drake are up to the task. 
  • DeVante Parker versus Kenny Stills -- Most expected the Dolphins to commit to Devante Parker opposite Jarvis Landry, but the team surprised everyone by re-signing Kenny Stills to a 4-year, $32 million contract with $20 million guaranteed. That's not a contract given to a role player. There aren't enough targets to make Landry, Stills and Parker fantasy stars; all eyes will be on the camp competition.
  • Is Julius Thomas an X-factor? -- Julius Thomas flamed out in Jacksonville mainly because he couldn't shake nagging injuries. Adam Gase was eager to reunite with the athletic pass catcher because Thomas caught 24 touchdowns in two seasons with Gase calling the plays in Denver. Thomas is a perfect fit in Gase's offense, and a healthy camp will skyrocket Thomas' ADP.
  • Can DC Matt Burke revamp the defense? -- Vance Joseph landed the Broncos head coaching job, and the Dolphins promoted linebackers coach Matt Burke to coordinator. A logical promotion, but it will be Burke's first turn as an NFL defensive play caller. Burke is maintaining the same scheme but intends to simplify the playbook and focus on attention to detail. Can he take essentially the same unit (eight returning starters) and fix a unit that finished 29th last season?  

NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS

At this point, the Patriots are playing against history. Bill Belichick and Tom Brady both won their fifth Super Bowls last season in unprecedented fashion, and will attempt to repeat as champions and further cement their cases for "all-time great status." The Patriots never sit idly by in the preseason, and training camp will be about integrating newcomers Brandin Cooks, Duane Allen, Mike Gillislee, Rex Burkhead, Kony Ealy, David Harris and Stephon Gilmore. 

Camp Details:

  • When: 7/24 (Rookies) / 7/26 (Veterans)
  • Where: Gillette Stadium (Foxboro, MA) 
  • Open to Public: Limited (See Website)

Preseason Game Schedule:

  • Aug 10 -- Jacksonville 7:30 pm EDT
  • Aug 19 -- @Houston 8:00 pm
  • Aug 25 -- @Detroit 7:00 pm
  • Aug 31 -- N.Y. Giants 7:30 pm

What We're Watching:

  • Sorting out the running back situation -- LeGarrette Blount ran for 1,161 yards and 18 touchdowns last year but wasn't prioritized in the Patriots offseason plans. Instead, they brought in Rex Burkhead and Mike Gillislee and gave Super Bowl hero James White a hefty extension. It's anyone's guess how the touches will be divvied up, but fantasy owners will be clamoring for clues throughout the preseason.
  • Will Brandin Cooks be the new target hog? -- In the last five years, only five players have had 100+ target seasons in New England. Julian Edelman (three times), Rob Gronkowski (twice), Wes Welker, Brandon Lloyd and Brandon LaFell (once each). Brandin Cooks is the best receiver in New England since Randy Moss, so the question becomes whether he immediately pushes for the 150+ target mark previously reserved for Edelman, or if the Patriots spread the ball around with a balance the frustrates fantasy owners. 
  • Rob Gronkowski's health -- Fantasy owners are more forgiving of Gronkowski's injuries than others because we've seen what a healthy Gronkowski can mean for your fantasy lineup. The good news is Gronkowski has participated throughout the offseason and was allowed to partake in a WWE event; meaning his back is no longer a concern. 
  • Who plays nickel back? -- The Patriots signed Stephon Gilmore to pair with Malcolm Butler, Devin McCourty, and Patrick Chung to create one of the AFC's top secondaries. But in a league that uses nickel formations more than ever, a quartet of defensive backs will compete in the preseason for the key role. Eric Rowe, Jonathan Jones, Cyrus Jones and Justin Coleman all have legitimate shots at the job. 

NEW YORK JETS

Todd Bowles won 10 games in his first season as Jets head coach, but the wheels fell off in 2016. The Jets won five games and finished 30th offensively and 28th defensively. Although the team won't admit it, it seems the Jets have resigned themselves to losing a lot of games again in 2017 in the hopes of landing a franchise quarterback in next year's draft. In a season of low expectations, all eyes will be on which young players become fantasy relevant simply by virtue of an inordinately high snap count. 

Camp Details:

  • When: 7/28 (Rookies and Veterans)
  • Where: Atlantic Health Jets Training Center (Florham Park, NJ) 
  • Open to Public: Yes (See Website)

Preseason Game Schedule:

  • Aug 12 -- Tennessee 7:30 pm EDT
  • Aug 19 -- @Detroit 7:30 pm
  • Aug 26 -- @New York Giants 7:00 pm
  • Aug 31 -- Philadelphia 7:00 pm

What We're Watching:

  • Implementing John Morton's system -- New offensive coordinator John Morton is implementing the West Coast offense he learned while coaching in San Francisco and New Orleans. Morton plans to run an uptempo offense and, given the team's youth and low expectations, has hinted he'll be aggressive as a play-caller. 
  • Who wins the quarterback battle? -- Josh McCown is the veteran free agent. Christian Hackenberg is last year's 2nd round project. Bryce Petty is the 3rd year veteran with a low ceiling. McCown is the odds on favorite to start Week One, but there's no doubt all three will have the chance to earn the role throughout the preseason. 
  • Matt Forte versus Bilal Powell -- Matt Forte (467) and Bilal Powell (492) were in a time share last season, and both had their ups and downs, but the consensus believes Powell is the superior player. To his credit, Powell averaged 5.5 yards per rush versus Forte's paltry 3.7-yard average. On the other hand, Forte was the more prolific scorer and remains the better receiver, particularly running routes beyond the line of scrimmage. 
  • Figuring out the receiving corps -- The Jets cleaned house this offseason, letting both Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker walk. Quincy Enunwa is assured of a starting role, but Robby Anderson, ArDarius Stewart, Chad Hansen and Charone Peake all have shots at major snaps with as strong preseason. 
  • Can Austin Sefarian-Jenkins fill the gaping hole at tight end? -- Austin Sefarian-Jenkins' athleticism has never been questioned, it's his maturity and attention to detail that leaves much to be desired. Sefarian-Jenkins will serve a two-game suspension to open the season, but the Jets are starved for offensive options, and he could be in line for a major target load with a strong (and mature) preseason.