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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. Fisher College on July 28th ready to turn the page. It was time for a change after another losing season (6-10), so the Bills cleaned house and brought aboard Doug Marrone as head coach. Marrone, a former offensive assistant under Sean Payton, was the Syracuse head coach for four seasons and is viewed by many as one of the innovative, exciting minds in coaching. He's bringing right hand man Nathaniel Hackett with him and hired away Mike Pettine (from the Jets) to run the defense. There is plenty of room for improvement on both sides of the ball, as the Bills ranked 26th in point allowed and 21st in points scored. 

Preseason Game Schedule

  • 8/11 -- @Indianapolis (1:30 ET)
  • 8/16 -- Minnesota (7:00 ET)
  • 8/24 -- @Washington (4:30 ET)
  • 8/29 -- Detroit (7:00 ET)

What We're Watching

  • EJ Manuel vs. Kevin Kolb -- Kevin Kolb struggled in Arizona and probably felt a sense of relief when he landed in Buffalo this offseason. Yet the April draft changed all that when the BIlls used their 1st round pick on quarterback EJ Manuel. It's clear Manuel is the future, but training camp will tell us whether or not Manuel is the present. 
  • Defining Fred Jackson's role -- C.J. Spiller proved last year he's one of the league's best playmakers, and Marrone has every intention of running the offense through Spiller. Fred Jackson may be the second most talented player on offense, but he's aging, oft injured and has taken a back seat to Spiller. Will Jackson be given enough touches to warrant consideration as a fantasy flex option? Or will he be relegated to pure backup duties? 
  • Who lines up opposite Steve Johnson? -- The Bills parted ways with Donald Jones and David Nelson and drafted a pair of playmakers in the 2nd (Robert Woods) and 3rd (Marquise Goodwin) rounds. Which rookie will earn a starting spot, or will 2nd year T.J. Graham seize the opportunity? 
  • Chris Hairston vs. Erik Pears -- Pears entered the 2012 season as the starting right tackle but was placed on injured reserve after seven games, and Hairston stepped in and in many respects outplayed Pears. Now the two will wage an intense camp battle for the starting role, and the loser will give the Bills one of the AFC's better swing tackles. 
  • Installing Mike Pettine's amoeba defense -- The Bills are going to vary their defensive looks more than anyone in the league, and will make frequent use of 3-4 and 4-3 looks, and play both zone and man coverage in the secondary. Pettine's diverse scheme could wreck havoc on opposing quarterbacks but only if the Bills players grasp the complexities quickly.  
  • Lindell vs. Hopkins -- Rian Lindell has been a fixture in Buffalo but the Bills drafted Dustin Hopkins -- the NCAA's all-time leader in points scored to compete for the job. 

Miami Dolphins

Team owner Stephen Ross is desperate to turn around a moribund franchise, and opened up his checkbook this offseason in order to give the coaches the final pieces to the puzzle. Among the offseason additions are a new #1 receiver (Mike Wallace), starting tight end (Dustin Keller), starting right tackle (Tyson Clabo), pass rushing defensive end (Dion Jordan), middle linebacker (Dannell Ellerbe), weakside linebacker (Philip Wheeler), cornerback (Brent Grimes) and place kicker (Caleb Sturgis). Expectations are enormous for head coach Joe Philbin and his assistants to elevate the Dolphins into playoff contention. 

Preseason Game Schedule

  • 8/4 -- @Dallas (8:00 ET)
  • 8/9 -- @Jacksonville (7:30 ET)
  • 8/17 -- @Houston (8:00 ET)
  • 8/24 -- Tampa Bay (7:30 ET)
  • 8/29 -- New Orleans (7:30 ET)

What We're Watching

  • Will Mike Wallace change the tenor of the passing attack? -- Mike Wallace signed for big dollars (5 years, $60mm with $30mm guaranteed) and will be asked to reshape a passing offense that ranked 26th in passing yards and 30th in passing touchdowns last year. Wallace's ability to be the #1 is critical to whether Ryan Tannehill becomes a viable fantasy sleeper and whether Brian Hartline can step into an advantageous role as the #2. 
  • Is Lamar Miller a franchise running back? -- The Dolphins let Reggie Bush go without a fuss, and have committed to 2nd year Lamar Miller, which has fantasy owners salivating at the possibility of a new feature back. Miller didn't play a lot as a rookie, but averaged 4.9 yards per rush. He's been a fixture in the first team during OTAs and mini-camp, and a strong preseason will elevate his fantasy stock possibly into the late 2nd or early 3rd round. 
  • Was Dustin Keller smart to believe in himself? -- Keller opted for a 1-year deal to play with the Dolphins instead of taking a multi-year contract for less than what he believes is fair market. Keller expects his play this year will vault him into the upper echelon of tight ends during next year's free agency. Fantasy owners forget that Keller was a top 10 fantasy TE in 2010 and 2011, and could easily surprise this year if healthy. 
  • A wide open melee at cornerback -- Brent Grimes is the clear cut #1 (but coming off an Achilles injury) but veteran Richard Marshall needs to hold off not one, not two, but three talented rookie corners -- Jamar Taylor, Will Davis and Don Jones. 
  • Is Dannell Ellerbe the next big IDP star? -- Ellerbe parlayed success in Baltimore into a 5-year, $35mm deal ($14mm guaranteed) with the Dolphins, and he looks set to start at middle linebacker and play all three downs. If Ellerbe looks comfortable in that role during the preseason, he may be one of the more compelling breakout IDP candidates this season. 
  • Sturgis vs. Carpenter -- Dan Carpenter missed key field goals last year and the Dolphins drafted Caleb Sturgis in the 5th round to compete for the role. Don't be surprised if Sturgis wins the job. 

New England Patriots

It's generally business as usual for the Patriots entering training camp, but this season brings far more change than we've seen at any point in the Belichick Era. When Tom Brady returns to Foxborough on July 26th, he'll see a lot of new faces in the locker room. Wes Welker is gone. Brandon Lloyd is gone. Aaron Hernandez is -- obviously and tragically -- gone. Rob Gronkowski's timetable is uncertain as he recovers from back surgery. The Patriots led the NFL in points (557) and yards (6,846) last season, but have work to do on defense, ranking 25th in yards allowed. 

Preseason Game Schedule

  • 8/9 -- @Philadelphia (7:30 ET)
  • 8/16 -- Tampa Bay (8:00 ET)
  • 8/22 -- @Detroit (7:30 ET)
  • 8/29 -- New York Giants (7:30 ET)

What We're Watching

  • How is Rob Gronkowski's back? -- We finally got past the arm issues after four surgeries, but then the Patriots most potent offensive weapon opted for back surgery. There's no clarity on his recovery timetable but it seems unlikely we'll see him in action for most of the preseason. Any clues about his prognosis for an early season return will be key to whether he's worth a pick in the 2nd or 3rd round of fantasy drafts. 
  • Rebuilding the receiving corps -- The Patriots have taught us that Tom Brady can make any supporting cast work, but this year may challenge that postulate considering the #1 WR Danny Amendola is a walking injury report, and the rest of the WR stable is full of veteran cast offs (Michael Jenkins, Lavelle Hawkins, Donald Jones) and unproven rookies (Aaron Dobson, Josh Boyce). 
  • Replacing Aaron Hernandez -- Hernandez was set to be a major focal point of the offense this year, particularly early in the season as Rob Gronkowski recovers. Will the Patriots give the likes of Jake Ballard or Zach Sudfeld larger roles? Or will Bill Belichick alter the offense to fit the talent, throwing more to the running backs and using more 3- and 4-WR sets? 
  • Is Shane Vereen an X-factor? -- Stevan Ridley is the clear workhorse but that doesn't mean Vereen should be off the fantasy radar, particularly if the changes in the TE/WR corps push the Patriots into using the RBs more in the passing game.
  • Can the Patriots fix the pass defense? -- The Patriots were an elite team in all respects last year outside of the pass defense, which ranked 29th in yards, 21st in TDs allowed and 27th in yards per attempt. Having Aqib Talib for a full season will help, but Alfonzo Dennard is facing felony charges for assaulting a police officer. Veteran safety Adrian Wilson should help, but will that be enough? 

New York Jets

Rob Ryan is going to be under intense scrutiny this year after surviving the offseason purge that saw his GM and offensive and defensive coordinators depart. This is a make-or-break season for not only Ryan, but a group of seasoned veterans that are trying to secure long-term futures with the franchise. When the Jets descend upon SUNY Cortland on July 26th, they will have unanswered questions up and down the roster, particularly on the offensive side of the ball. New York ranked 30th in yards and 28th in points scored last season, which sets a low bar for new offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg to jump over. 

Preseason Game Schedule

  • 8/9 -- @Detroit (7:30 ET)
  • 8/17 -- Jacksonville (7:30 ET)
  • 8/24 -- @New York Giants (7:00 ET)
  • 8/29 -- Philadelphia (7:00 ET)

What We're Watching

  • Who starts at quarterback? -- The Jets opted to keep Mark Sanchez (due to contractual reasons) and many of his teammates have endorsed him this offseason, but the Jets drafted Geno Smith -- who has the fans excited as he represents unrealized potential and much needed change. This is a wide open situation entering camp, and the 'winner' may ultimately be replaced by the 'loser' just a few games into the season. 
  • Who starts at running back? -- The Jets parted ways with Shonn Greene and have brought in Mike Goodson and Chris Ivory to compete for the job. Both have looked good in limited opportunities, but neither have proven capable of being every down starters at the NFL level. 
  • Should we care who starts at wide receiver? -- Santonio Holmes and Stephen Hill are the likely starters, but Holmes remains hobbled after last year's Lisfranc injury and Hill was wildly inconsistent as a rookie. Yet the Jets did nothing to strengthen the depth at the position, which begs the question of whether the Jets have a Plan B if Holmes and Hill aren't up to snuff? 
  • Is Kellen Winslow a phoenix rising from the ashes? -- Winslow caught one pass last year (for the Patriots) but showed enough in an offseason workout to earn a contract with the Jets. Considering Jeff Cumberland was the odds on favorite to start at tight end, it's not a long shot to think Winslow could earn a significant role. 
  • Kyle Wilson vs. Dee Milliner -- The loss of Darrelle Revis may seem like a major blow, but the Jets were an elite pass defense last year without him, thanks to a monster season from Antonio Cromartie. Kyle Wilson must fend off 9th overall pick Dee Milliner in camp, but the loser of that battle will instantly become an impact nickel back.