AFC East training camp capsules
CAMP CALENDAR: Full team reports July 28; conditioning day on July 29; first practice morning of July 30; camp breaks Aug. 22.
TRAINING CAMP GOALS
--Quarterback Tyrod Taylor's continued development. The Bills have a big decision to make on Taylor as he enters the final season of his contract. They have resisted giving him a rich, long-term contract extension because they want to see how he progresses in this, his second year as a full-time starter. There was a lot to like about Taylor in 2015, but there are still flaws that need to be ironed out, and training camp will be vitally important for Taylor.
--Getting the defense on track. Coach Rex Ryan was flat-out embarrassed by how poorly his defense played in 2015. Never in his time as a head coach or coordinator had one of his defenses finished as low as his first Buffalo team, 19th in total yards against. He is adamant about the fact that unlike last year, this year he will play the true Rex Ryan style defense. He tried to manipulate things last season when the Bills were converting from a 4-3 to his 3-4, and he believes that was a major mistake. Not this year. This will be the Ryan style, and with one year adapting to Ryan, the players should be better-equipped to play the scheme.
QUARTERBACKS: Starter -- Tyrod Taylor. Backups -- EJ Manuel, Cardale Jones.
Taylor made tremendous strides in his first year as an NFL starter, but before the Bills lavish him with a long-term contract, there's still much to prove. Primarily, he has to find a way to start utilizing the middle of the field, and he has to do a better job of avoiding contact on his scrambles. That said, Taylor has the Bills in a better quarterback situation than they've had in recent memory if he continues to grow as a player. Manuel is in his last year as a Bill and will only play if Taylor gets hurt. If Jones gets on the field this year, that means you may as well kiss the season goodbye because he's not ready to play in the NFL.
Injuries sabotaged McCoy's first season in Buffalo, and they also sent up a warning flare that the rich contract extension the Bills gave him may very well prove to be a mistake. He's the best back on the team, but he's clearly lost some traction from his great Eagles years. Karlos Williams first needs to get in shape, and then he has to stay in shape because he won't be playing the first four games. He was suspended for violating the NFL's substance abuse policy. Jonathan Williams, who was arrested on suspicion of DWI in mid-July, seems ready to take Karlos' reps, and the same goes for Gillislee who was somewhat impressive late last year when he was pressed into duty. The Bills led the NFL in rushing in 2015, and that will be the goal again in 2016.
WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters -- Sammy Watkins, Robert Woods. Backups -- Leonard Hankerson, Greg Little, Greg Salas, Walter Powell, Marcus Easley, Marquise Goodwin, Dezmin Lewis, Kolby Listenbee, Jarrett Boykin, Gary Chambers, Davonte Allen.
Watkins' health has become a perpetual issue, and there's a chance he could miss significant training camp time. As long as he's ready for the regular season, that shouldn't be much of a worry, but whether he can stay healthy for 16 games certainly is. Woods is a solid No. 2, but he lacks explosiveness. Behind those two, the Bills have a dark hole of mediocrity, so they hope veterans like Hankerson, Little, or Salas can step up, or perhaps Lewis -- a seventh-round draft pick in 2015. Rookie sixth-rounder Listenbee might make a push. This is not a strength of the roster, and the Bills could struggle to move the ball in the air.
TIGHT ENDS: Starter -- Charles Clay. Backups -- Chris Gragg, Nick O'Leary, Jim Dray, Blake Annen.
Of course, what would take the pressure off the receiving corps is for Clay to emerge as the downfield threat the Bills thought they were getting when they overpaid for him in free agency last year. He was slowed by injuries and Tyrod Taylor's unwillingness to throw over the middle, but Clay needs to help his quarterback and become more of a weapon. Depth is weak here, too. Gragg and O'Leary are average at best, and Dray is nothing more than a blocker, this year's version of Matthew Mulligan. Greg Roman loves utilizing tight ends, but there's not much to work with here.
OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- LT Cordy Glenn, LG John Miller, C Eric Wood, RG Richie Incognito, RT Jordan Mill. Backups -- T Cyrus Kouandjio, G Cyril Richardson, T Seantrel Henderson, T Marquis Lucas, T Chris Martin, T Justin Renfrow, C Fernando Velasco, C Robert Kugler, G Ryan Groy and G Jamison Lalk.
The play of Glenn, Incognito, and Wood was the key to Buffalo leading the NFL in rushing last season. Now, that trio has to keep it going and not regress, and it will be interesting to see how that goes now that Glenn and Incognito have been given shiny new contracts. It might be tough for Incognito, at 33 years old, to be better than he was last year.
The right side is where the concern comes. Line coach Aaron Kromer is confident that Miller will only get better the more he plays, and that may be the case, but right tackle is a mess. Mills will begin as the starter by default, with Henderson and Kouandjio in backup roles. All three would be the weakest link on this line. In reserve, there doesn't appear to be anyone who will push any of the first seven guys on the depth chart.
DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- NT Marcell Dareus, DT Kyle Williams, DT Corbin Bryant. Backups -- DE Adolphus Washington, DT Jerel Worthy, DT Justin Zimmer, DT T.J. Barnes, DT Lavar Edwards, DE Leger Douzable and DE Cedric Reed.
Dareus needs to have a bounce-back season after struggling with the concepts of Rex Ryan's defense, and the expectation is that he will. Williams has to prove he still has something left after sitting out the final 10 games because of a knee injury. And Bryant has to prove that he can be a solid starter rather than a reliable backup. The guy to watch, of course, is Washington, the rookie third-round pick who could supplant Bryant as the starter by the end of camp if he stays healthy and proves to be a quick study. Beyond those four, the depth is sketchy, though Worthy has potential as a 2012 second-round pick of the Packers, and Barnes has ties to Ryan from their days together in New York.
LINEBACKERS: Starters -- ILB Reggie Ragland, ILB Preston Brown, OLB Jerry Hughes, OLB Manny Lawson. Backups -- ILB Zach Brown, ILB Randell Johnson, 0LB IK Enemkpali, OLB Bryson Albright, OLB Lorenzo Alexander, OLB Max Valles, ILB Jamari Lattimore, ILB Kevin Reddick, ILB Eric Striker, DE Shaq Lawson.
The loss of Shaq Lawson to injury for the first half of the season was a disappointing blow for the Bills, and it looks like Manny Lawson will have to fill that void, a tough task for a 32-year-old. Hughes should have a big year now that he's used to the defense, and coach Rex Ryan thinks Preston Brown is ready to become the true quarterback of the defense. Ragland, the Bills' second-round pick, has all the tools to become a long-time starter in the NFL, especially if he proves he can cover on passing downs. Free agent signee Zach Brown will provide solid depth on the inside, and Enemkpali and Alexander will have chances to stick as outside depth players.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters -- LCB Stephon Gilmore, RCB Ronald Darby, SS Aaron Williams, FS Corey Graham. Backups -- CB Nickell Robey, CB Kevon Seymour, CB Mario Butler, CB Sterling Moore, CB Sammy Seamster, CB Corey White, CB Javier Arenas, FS Robert Blanton, SS Duke Williams, FS Jonathan Meeks, DS Colt Anderson, DS Jonathan Dowling.
Assuming Gilmore doesn't sit out the season in protest, he will be playing to prove he's worthy of the huge money he wants in impending free agency. There's no reason to think he won't have a big season, unless he gets hurt, which is always a possibility. Darby had a great rookie year, and now he has to keep going, something Ryan expects from him. Aaron Williams has to prove to himself that his neck injury will not be a lingering worry. Mentally, that will be a tough hurdle to get over, but he has confidence that he can do it. Graham gets the nod as the other starter, but his best days are certainly behind him.
Robey has been an effective slot corner, but his spot isn't a given. Seymour, the sixth-round rookie, got a lot of time in mini-camp with Gilmore away, and Moore and White are both NFL vets who weigh more than 200 pounds, nice size to have for the sub packages. The Bills signed Blanton and Anderson as free agents, and Duke Williams and Meeks have been loitering in backup roles in Buffalo for several years without ever doing much to warrant major playing time.
SPECIAL TEAMS: K Dan Carpenter. P Colton Schmidt, LS Garrison Sanborn, K Jordan Gay, K Marshall Morgan, LS Reid Ferguson, KOR Marquise Goodwin and PR, Javier Arenas.
Carpenter's job is probably safe, but you never know. If Morgan has a big camp, don't rule out the Bills saving some money and getting rid of Carpenter after his puzzling 2015 season, when he missed six extra points. Gay's job is also tenuous as a kickoff specialist because Ryan isn't overly thrilled having to use two spots at kicker. Schmidt is a solid punter who will not be challenged in training camp, nor will Sanborn as the long snapper. One of the big things that will have to be determined is who the return men will be. Now that Goodwin did not make the Olympics, he'll be in camp from the start and could earn the kickoff job. Arenas could make the team solely on his return ability.
CAMP CALENDAR: Rookies and veterans report to Baptist Health Training Facility in Davie, Fla., on July 28. Training camp opens on July 29.
TRAINING CAMP GOALS
--Find a starting cornerback opposite Byron Maxwell: It appears Tony Lippett, the 2015 fifth-round pick from Michigan State, will compete with Xavien Howard, the 2016 second-round pick from Baylor, for the starting left cornerback job, the spot vacated by Brent Grimes (Tampa Bay via free agency). Lippett and Howard are young and will experience growing pains. The hope is that won't become a weakness. Miami has veterans at right cornerback (Maxwell), strong safety (Reshad Jones), and free safety (Isa Abdul-Quddus), but will be young at right cornerback (Lippett or Howard) and nickel back n(Bobby McCain). It could be dicey in the secondary.
--Determine capabilities of RB position: Among Jay Ajayi, Damien Williams and rookie Kenyan Drake, Miami has a nice collection of potentially good running backs but none is proven at the NFL level. That's a problem. The other problem is none has proven adapt at the overall game (running the ball, receiving and pass protection). Ajayi comes closest. Williams is almost exclusively a third-down back and Drake, the 2016 third-round pick from Alabama, hasn't yet played but might be a speedy back in the mold of Lamar Miller.
QUARTERBACKS: Starter -- Ryan Tannehill. Backups -- Matt Moore, Zac Dysert, Brandon Doughty.
Tannehill (24 touchdown passes, 12 interceptions, 88.7 passer rating) is the undisputed starter, but needs to show he has something special, an extra gear of leadership or playing ability. If Tannehill can't get the job done, he's likely done with Miami because his contract is team-friendly in the event Miami wants to release Tannehill after this season. Tannehill needs to improve his play on third down, in the red zone and in fourth quarters. He also needs to learn how to wring the most talent out of every player. Tannehill remains a middle-of-the-pack player.
RUNNING BACKS: Starter -- Jay Ajayi. Backups - Arian Foster, Damien Williams, Kenyan Drake, Isaiah Pead, Daniel Thomas.
Ajayi (49 carries, 187 yards, one touchdown) is the starter, for now. But that might not be permanent. Ajayi could also end up sharing duties, which is the most likely scenario, with Foster if he proves he can stay healthy. Williams and Drake will also be in the mix. Either way, it appears right now Miami has lots of uncertainty when it comes to replacing Lamar Miller, who went to Houston via free agency. Finding a back comfortable with pass protection is a priority. This group might not combine to be as productive as Miller.
TIGHT ENDS: Starters -- Jordan Cameron, Dion Sims. Backups -- Jake Stoneburner, Thomas Duarte, MarQueis Gray, Dominique Jones.
Cameron (35 receptions, 386 yards, three touchdowns) is the leader but he's coming off a disappointing season. Sims (18 receptions, 127 yards, one touchdown) was expected to blossom last season as a receiver but he was slowed by a concussion. Stoneburner shows promise but he must stay healthy. Overall, this crew is slightly above average but not much more.
WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters -- Jarvis Landry, DeVante Parker, Kenny Stills. Backups -- Leonte Carroo, Matt Hazel, Griff Whalen, Jakeem Grant.
Landry (110 reception, 1157 yards, four touchdowns), Parker (26 receptions, 494 yards, touchdowns) and Stills (27 receptions, 440 yards, three touchdowns) are the ones expected to move the needle. Landry is money, but Parker and Stills have to prove they can be consistently effective. Beyond them there isn't much so quality depth is a concern. If the top trio comes through this could be a dynamic group. If not, they might be pedestrian.
OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- LT Branden Albert, LG Laremy Tunsil, C Mike Pouncey, RG Jermon Bushrod, RT Ja'Wuan James. Backups -- C Jamil Douglas, G-T Dallas Thomas, G Billy Turner, LT Sam Young, C-G Kraig Urbik, C-G Jacques McClendon.
If Pouncey, Albert and James stay healthy, this could be the most talented unit on the offense. Seriously. Pouncey and Albert are coming off Pro Bowl seasons and Tunsil, the first-round pick from Mississippi, is enticing. James is solid and Bushrod is a veteran, although, such as Tunsil, he's transitioning from left tackle to right guard. Depth also should be improved, which could be a huge factor. The outlook is good for this crew, unlike in recent years.
DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- DLE Cam Wake, DT Ndamukong Suh, DT Jordan Phillips, DRE Mario Williams. Backups -- DT Earl Mitchell, DT Chris Jones, DT Deandre Coleman, DE Jason Jones, DE Andre Branch, DE Terrence Fede, DE Chris McCain, DE Cleyon Laing.
The success of the defensive line relies mostly on Suh (61 tackles, 6.0 sacks), Wake (7.0 sacks) and Williams (5.0 sacks). Wake must recover from the Achilles injury that ended his 2015 season, and Suh and Williams need to return to form as All-Pros. This is vital to the overall success of the defense. Depth is OK, but that notable trio of Suh, Wake and Williams must be good. Otherwise, this is the second consecutive season the defensive line becomes a disappointment.
LINEBACKERS: Starters -- WLB Koa Misi, MLB Kiko Alonso, SLB Jelani Jenkins. Backups -- OLB Spencer Paysinger, OLB Mike Hull, MLB Zach Vigil, OLB Neville Hewitt, OLB James-Michael Johnson.
This is an unimpressive crew on paper. Alonso (43 tackles, one interception) must stay healthy, something that hasn't happened the last two years. And Misi (78 tackles) and Jenkins (71 tackles) must make more plays at or behind the line of scrimmage. Pass coverage is a question in addition to run defense. Depth ranges from so-so to questionable. Overall the starters are good veterans but they must be better for the defense to excel.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters -- LCB Tony Lippett, RCB Byron Maxwell, FS Isa Abdul-Quddus, SS Reshad Jones. Backups -- CB Bobby McCain, CB Xavien Howard, CB Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, S Walt Aikens, S Michael Thomas, S Shamiel Gary, S Jordan Lucas, CB Chimdi Chekwa.
Jones (135 tackles, five interceptions) is a Pro Bowl player and is the only sure thing. Abdul-Quddus (57 tackles) is a veteran, as is Maxwell (64 tackles, two interceptions) but neither has a reputation as a playmaker, which is what Miami needs. Lippett is unproven as is Howard. McCain (28 tackles) also is a bit concerning because of his youth. Depth is decent among players such as Thomas (85 tackles) and Aikens (29 tackles), but there are more questions than answers. The jury is out on this group.
SPECIAL TEAMS: K Andrew Franks, K Marshall Koehn, P Matt Darr, LS John Denney, KOR Jarvis Landry, PR Jakeem Grant.
Darr (47.6 yards per punt, third in NFL) is the star. Franks (13-for-16 on field goal attempts and 33-for-36 on extra points) will get competition from Koehn. Miami is hoping it doesn't have to use Landry on kickoff or punt returns. But if no one else emerges, he's a solid choice. Grant should get a good look at return duties along with CB Bobby McCain, WR Griff Whalen, RB Kenyan Drake and RB Damien Williams. This is a decent crew but they haven't proven to be game-changers save for Darr.
NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS
CAMP CALENDAR: Rookies report July 24; veterans report July 27; public practice opens July 28; practice with Saints, Aug. 8-9; practice with Bears, Aug. 15-16; camp breaks/public practice ends Aug. 16
TRAINING CAMP GOALS
--Prepare quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo to lead the offense through the first four games. The third-year backup has never had a significant NFL snap. That will change in the opener in Arizona against a tough, aggressive defense. Garoppolo will probably have the offense tailored to his skills and athleticism a bit, but beyond that he needs to make use of a talented crop of receiving options while working behind what will be a work-in-progress offensive line. The bulk of the summer will be focused on making Garoppolo is ready to look the part of a Patriots starting quarterback, even if he has little chance of truly filling Tom Brady's big shoes.
--Retool the pass rush. Pro Bowl defensive end Chandler Jones was traded to the Cardinals, taking his team-best 12.5 sacks with him to Arizona. Disruptive defensive tackle Akiem Hicks signed with the Chicago Bears, while former first-round athletic tackle Dominique Easley was released. Jabaal Sheard will be expected to take on a bigger role in his second season in New England. Rob Ninkovich was taking off-the-line linebacker reps this spring for the first time in his career in Foxborough. There is a lot going on for a new look defensive front that will hope to get back to the level the group played at a year ago with 49 sacks while ranking No. 2 in the league in sacks per pass play. The talent is available to have another impressive group, but how the roles will play out will be decided throughout the summer and preseason.
QUARTERBACKS: Starter -- Tom Brady. Backups -- Jimmy Garoppolo, Jacoby Brissett.
Technically Brady will not take the field to start a game this fall until he serves his four-game Deflategate suspension. He is expected to return Oct. 9 in Cleveland to release holy hell on the poor Browns. Set to turn 39 during training camp, Brady has shown no signs of aging. He led the NFL with 36 touchdowns last fall while ranking in the top five in the league in attempts, completions, yards and passer rating. That production came despite working behind a banged-up, makeshift offensive line that allowed 38 sacks and with Julien Edelman and Dion Lewis each missing more than half the season to injury.
While there are few questions what Brady brings when he finally gets on the field this fall, the same cannot be said for third-year backup and four-game fill-in starter Garoppolo. The former second-round pick has never played a significant snap and threw only four passes a year ago. He'll obviously be groomed this summer for the job and brings more athleticism to the position, but he still must overcome the happy-feet and slow reads that befall so many young passers. His debut will certainly not be easy, on the road in Arizona against a talented Cardinals defense that blitzes more than any in the game. Brissett will be the developmental third camp body this summer as a surprise, raw third-round pick. He'll then back up Garoppolo to open the season, although it's highly unlikely the N.C. State product will be anywhere near ready for NFL game action at that early point in his career.
There are far more questions than definitive answers and defined roles in the New England backfield. That begins with Lewis as the veteran returns from a torn ACL a year after he evolved from camp body to star playmaker in mere months last summer. In six-plus games last season, he was an electric playmaker with a 4.8-yard average as a runner while hauling in 36 passes for nearly an 11-yard average as a receiver. He's the ideal fit for the Patriots preferred spread, one-back attack when healthy, but must prove this summer he's regained his full lateral movement and elusiveness to be counted on early in the regular season.
White was impressive filling in for Lewis as the passing back over the second half of last season with 40 catches and four touchdowns, although he's not nearly as impactful as a runner, a role the former 2014 fourth-round pick carried to only a 2.5-yard average last fall. Still, if Lewis isn't ready to open the season, White is a more than capable target out of the backfield in a key role in the New England offense.
The real question in the backfield comes when the Patriots -- as infrequently as it happens -- choose to try to establish the run with more traditional formations and carries. Blount was up-and-down last fall before landing on injured reserve. His numbers -- including a 4.3-yard average and six touchdowns -- look better than his actual consistent on-field production. He re-signed as a free agent this spring but is far from a roster lock, never mind to have a key role on the offense as he works back from his hip issue.
Bolden and fullback Develin are key special teams players and versatile if limited offensive options. Bolden can run and catch on a limited basis. He had 63 carries and 19 catches last fall, but doesn't do either job at a real impactful level. Develin is a hard-nosed fullback who missed last season because of a broken leg and might bring more physicality to the offense when it occasionally looks to establish a power running game.
Brown joined New England as a free agent after two disappointing seasons in San Diego. The former Colts first-round pick averaged less than four yards per carry in his two seasons (22 games) as a Charger, though he did notch a career-best 29 receptions in 2014. Brown worked with the passing backs in OTA action this spring and could push Bolden as a versatile backup.
Foster is an intriguing undrafted rookie who worked as both a receiver and running back at Arizona State. He practiced in a variety of offensive and special teams roles this spring and could be a youngster to keep an eye on. While Gaffney and Iosefa have been in the Patriots program for at least a year, neither seems to have much upside or chance for a significant role.
Gronkowski is the best tight end in football coming off another All-Pro campaign in which he notched double-digit touchdowns for a record fifth time in his six seasons. He's easily one of the most important non-QBs in the game today. Although he was absent from the spring practice field at times, Gronkowski had another healthy offseason and is poised for another fall as the centerpiece of the Patriots passing attack as he looks for his third-straight 1,100-yard season. This year, though, Gronkowski will be paired with the best tight end sidekick of his career with the trade addition of Pro Bowl veteran Bennett.
Though things went south in Chicago last fall, Bennett is only one year removed from a 90-catch season and has caught at least 53 passes in four straight seasons. Paired up, the big, athletic targets will test opposing defenses and unique ways and add to the versatile unpredictability of the Patriots' high-powered passing attack. After the top two, there is a competition to fill out the depth chart.
Clay Harbor is an experienced veteran aboard from the Jaguars who has three 35-plus catch seasons on his resume in Jacksonville and Philadelphia. Harbor could also see his role and competition overlap with that of fullback James Develin. Derby is a former college quarterback who missed his rookie season on injured reserve but looked athletic and displayed solid hands this spring. Scheu and Williams are undrafted rookies, the former a smooth athletic pass catcher and the latter a bigger-bodied prospect.
WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters -- Julian Edelman, Chris Hogan. Backups -- Danny Amendola, Keshawn Martin, Matthew Slater, Nate Washington, Malcolm Mitchell, Aaron Dobson, Chris Harper, DeAndre Carter, Devin Lucien.
Even with Edelman and Amendola returning as trusted options at the receiver position, New England went out and invested in Hogan as a restricted free agent. Edelman missed seven games last fall because of a broken foot, limiting him to 61 catches, although he did have a career-high seven touchdown receptions. Edelman had to have a second surgery on the foot during the offseason and did not take part in spring workouts. Amendola had offseason procedures on his knee and ankle. He finished second on the Patriots with 65 catches, his most in New England and personal high since he tallied 85 with the Rams in 2010. Although both players see time all over the formation, they primarily work out of the slot. Hogan can play inside as well, but at 6-1, 220 pounds he has the size to do more work on the outside. He played in all 16 games in each of his three seasons in Buffalo, but Hogan has never started more than four games in a year during his career, opening six in his entire career. He had a career-best 41 catches in 2014 and has only six career touchdowns. Still, New England gave Hogan a three-year, $12 million deal that includes a $5.5 million cap charge that makes him the Patriots highest-paid receiver this season. That paycheck will bring expectations, especially considering the proven playmakers he's surrounded by.
Martin is a versatile veteran added in a trade from Houston during last season, finishing with 24 catches, two touchdowns and a role as a return man at times. Washington is another former Texan who signed this offseason after catching 47 passes last fall in Houston, his eighth-straight season with at least 40 receptions. Washington didn't look great this spring, but he'll battle Martin, Dobson and Mitchell for reps on the outside this summer. Dobson is a fourth-year former second-round pick who's dealt with injuries the last two years that derailed his progression and have him hanging by a thread on the roster. Mitchell is a fourth-round pick out of Georgia, where he finished with 174 catches over four seasons. It's likely that only two of the four will make the roster come September, especially considering the spot that Slater takes up as a Pro Bowl special teamer and team captain.
OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- LT Nate Solder, LG Shaq Mason, C David Andrews, RG Jonathan Cooper, RT Sebastian Vollmer. Backups -- C/G Bryan Stork, G Tre' Jackson, C/G Joe Thuney, T LaAdrian Waddle, T Marcus Cannon, G Josh Kline, G Ted Karras, T Cameron Fleming, G Chris Barker, T Keavon Milton.
The Patriots' offensive line is hoping for a major turnaround in 2016 after a dismal performance last fall pretty much from start to finish. The unit was overmatched in the AFC title game loss in Denver, but that was just the last, most glaring example of its overall struggles. As a result, Bill Belichick lured legendary offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia out of a two-year retirement to return to a New England sideline he's worked for three decades. Scarnecchia is as respected a line coach as there is in the game and he has shown a knack for maximizing the talent at his disposal and developing young players.
Solder missed all but the first four games with a torn bicep. He should be back in full form to open the year and that in itself will help settle the unit. Vollmer slid over to the left side at times last fall but is significantly better when he can stay in his more comfortable spot. The interior is a very young, competitive mix. At times in 2015 the starting lineup included three rookies in fourth-round picks Mason and Jackson as well as the undrafted rookie Andrews. Stork, who started as a rookie in 2014, and Andrew appear to be in a strong battle for the center job. Cooper arrived in a trade from the Cardinals with the hope that he will live up to the potential that made him the No. 7 overall pick in the 2013 draft.
Cooper is a wild card in that if he doesn't earn a starting job he might not secure a roster spot in his new home. Jackson is coming back from an offseason knee procedure and may not be ready to open the year. Waddle was claimed on waivers last December and will compete with Cannon, who's seemingly regressed the last year-plus, for the swing tackle job. Thuney was an All-ACC left tackle in college but the third-round pick is already competing for interior reps as a rookie in New England. Kline remains a solid veteran, but he might have topped out his talent while starting 13 games last fall and could be pushed either to the bench or off the roster by the influx of young talent. Karras is a sixth-round pick with a chance to vie for a developmental role.
DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- LDE Rob Ninkovich, DT Malcom Brown, DT Alan Branch, RDE Jabaal Sheard. Backups -- DE Chris Long, DT Terrance Knighton, DE Trey Flowers, DT Vincent Valentine, DT Frank Kearse, DT Markus Kuhn, DE Geneo Grissom, DT Joe Vellano, DT Anthony Johnson, DT Woodrow Hamilton.
The Patriots tallied 49 sacks in 2015, most for a Belichick-coached team in New England and most by the team since 1985. But more than a quarter of that production is gone after the team traded Pro Bowl defensive end Chandler Jones to the Cardinals this offseason. While that's the biggest change up front, there will be other issues to work on heading toward the new season. Brown looks like he's going to be a mainstay in the middle for a while after an impressive rookie season by the 2015 top pick who started 12 of 16 games played. Brown is already impressing teammates and coaches with his maturity as he continues to fill the job held by Vince Wilfork for so long in Foxborough. Branch is back as a rotational veteran big body, but he'll be pushed by the addition of the free agent Knighton. The veteran started all 15 games he played last fall in Washington and every game in each of the prior to seasons in Denver, so he'll likely be looking to vie for a similar role for Matt Patricia's defense.
The rest of the depth on the inside comes from third-round pick Vincent Valentine as well as free agent depth additions Kearse and Kuhn, although the latter two will have to prove something to make the roster. With Jones out of the picture, Sheard may take on a starting role and more reps in his second season in New England. He impressed last fall with eight sacks and four forced fumbles despite starting only one of the 13 games he played in. Ninkovich has been maybe the most consistent, reliable player on the New England defense for the last five seasons. Over that span he's started all 16 games each year and had at least 6.5 sacks each season, including three years with exactly eight sacks. Interestingly, Ninkovich actually spent the spring taking reps at off-the-line linebacker as Belichick might look to tap into the veteran's impressive athletic versatility.
Long arrives in New England after the former No. 2 overall pick dealt with a couple down years in St. Louis. Long played only 18 games the last two seasons while tallying four sacks, that after opening his career with six straight seasons with 16 games and a total of 50.5 sacks. If Long can stay healthy and get back even a portion of that production level it will go a long way toward shaping the New England front. Flowers showed flashes of promise as a rookie fourth-round pick last preseason but played in only one game and eventually landed on Injured Reserve. He and 2015 third-round pick Grissom will be looking to carve out at least rotational roles for themselves after seeing very little defensive action as rookies. Vellano has been on and off the roster and practice squad the last couple years but may be coming to the end of the road with his role in New England, while Johnson and Hamilton are long shots at best.
LINEBACKERS: Starters -- MLB Dont'a Hightower, OLB Jamie Collins, OLB Shea McClellin. Backups -- Jonathan Freeny, Rufus Johnson, Kamu Grugier-Hill, Ramon Humber, Elandon Roberts, Kevin Snyder, C.J. Johnson.
The only question about the Patriots linebackers is whether the team can keep together its young, versatile duo of Hightower and Collins, with each set to be a free agent after this season. With the offseason retirement of former All-Pro Jerod Mayo, Hightower is now the leader and man in the middle of the unit. Although he missed four games last fall because of a knee injury, there is little doubt that he's a key cog, especially for a run defense that is significantly better when Hightower is in the mix. The injury slowed him to only 62 tackles last fall, although he added 3.5 sacks, six quarterback hits, two passes defensed and a fumble recovery as the former first-round pick continued to display the versatility that made him so appealing coming out of Alabama.
Collins simply is an athletic freak who can do pretty much anything the coaches ask of him on defense. He, too, missed a month of action to an unknown illness last fall but still paced the Patriots defense with 90 tackles and five forced fumbles, while also notching 5.5 sacks, an interception, six passes defensed and a fumble recovery in his first Pro Bowl season. Collins' ability to rush the quarterback, stop the run and cover down the field make him the potential biggest game changers on the New England defense and will make him a lot of money moving forward, either in Foxborough or elsewhere. While the top pair of linebackers is unquestioned -- and New England utilizes a lot of sub looks with just the two on the field -- the depth of the position must prove itself out.
McClellin was a first-round pick as a defensive end for the Bears, but last fall in Chicago showed more production as an off-the-line linebacker. Although he might be asked to fill both roles in New England as a free agent addition, he certainly brings potential depth. Freeny was a career special teamer and backup until his first season in Foxborough last fall that saw him start seven of the 13 games he played. Although he logged significant minutes on defense, he also was targeted by opposing offenses, especially in pass coverage. Johnson is a big-bodied backup who showed some upside last preseason but only played in one game before landing on injured reserve a year ago. Grugier-Hill is a hybrid safety/linebacker taken in the sixth round, the type of modern, versatile defender to play in the box that coach Bill Belichick has dabbled with at times over the years. Humber has been mostly a backup and special teams guy over the previous five years with the Saints, brought on in free agency to add depth in both roles in New England. Roberts is an undersized sixth-round rookie who plays an aggressive, physical style that might be difficult to translate to the NFL.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters -- LCB Malcolm Butler, RCB Logan Ryan, FS Devin McCourty, SS Patrick Chung. Backups -- CB Cyrus Jones, FS Duron Harmon, CB Justin Coleman, S Jordan Richards, S Nate Ebner, S Brandon King, CB Darryl Roberts, CB Cre'Von LeBlanc, CB E.J. Biggers, DB Brock Vereen, CB Jonathan Jones, S Cedric Thompson, CB V'Angelo Bentley.
No player made bigger leaps in playmaking and notoriety in a shorter time that Butler. After his Super Bowl-clinching interception against the Seahawks in February 2015, the former undrafted rookie was asked to replace the departed Darrelle Revis as New England's No. 1 cornerback. All Butler did was go out and earn a trip to the Pro Bowl as the key man in the back end of a competitive Patriots pass defense. Butler plays a physical, feisty style that should continue to evolve as he gains more experience moving forward. He will be a restricted free agent after this season and his contract situation has already been an issue/talking point this offseason that's worth watching.
Statistically Ryan looks like a high level No. 2 cornerback. The former third-round pick has played in all 16 games in each of his three seasons, including 14 starts last fall. He has 11 career interceptions, including four as a full-time starter a year ago. But Ryan often seems to leave too much space between himself and opposing targets. At times he has benefited from dropped balls and missed throws by inconsistent quarterbacks. He probably will remain the No. 2 man in New England for another season, but his free agent contract desires after this season are expected to price him out of the Patriots' plans. That's part of the reason the team used its top pick, late in the second round, on Jones out of Alabama. The young player should compete for playing time in the slot from opening day and as the best punt returner in college football last fall, work to take reps from Julian Edelman/Danny Amendola in that area as well.
The rest of the cornerback position is filled with mostly young, unproven talent. Coleman was an undrafted rookie brought aboard during last season who impressed late in the year when he saw the field. Roberts was a fan favorite early in training camp last summer as a seventh-round pick but landed on injured reserve, missing his rookie season. LeBlanc showed impressive coverage skills this spring in shorts and T-shirts, but the undrafted rookie will need to do much more than that to crack the rotation.
At safety, the Patriots have an impressive veteran group as well as experienced special teams players. McCourty is a Pro Bowl talent even if many fans don't think he makes enough plays given his $48-million contract. Still, the former cornerback is a consistent, reliable and sure force the deep middle for a defense that works to avoid allowing big plays at all costs. Chung earned himself a contract extension with an impressive 2015 in which he showed much improved coverage abilities. Always willing to throw his body around in the box, the veteran's second tour of duty through the New England defense has shown him to be a more well-rounded player in the back end. Harmon is mostly a deep safety guy, far better keeping teams from making plays than coming up to make them himself. He's a valuable third body at the position, and will likely once again see a lot of action in three-safety sub sets that have almost become the team's primary defense.
Ebner missed the offseason to pursue a role on the Olympic rugby team, but will be expected to return as a core special teams leader and playmaker. King is developing in a similar mold as a former undrafted rookie, but Richards seems to be a total wild card at this point as a 2015 second-round pick. The youngster saw little action as a rookie and it will be interesting to see what role he can earn himself this summer in a group with a lot of roles already defined by returning players.
SPECIAL TEAMS: K Stephen Gostkowski, P Ryan Allen, LS Joe Cardona, PR Cyrus Jones, KOR Keshawn Martin, PR Julian Edelman, LS Christian Yount.
Gostkowski had an almost perfect 2015 season, right up until the All-Pro missed an extra point in the AFC title game that contributed to New England's loss in Denver. It was even more notable given that Gostkowski holds the NFL record for consecutive PATs with 463. Gostkowski has the best field goal percentage in Patriots history -- 87.3 -- including going 33-of-36 last fall. He also tied for the NFL lead with 69 touchbacks, although new touchback rules (ball will be placed at the 25-yard line) could alter the way New England and all teams approach the play strategically. Allen is middle-of-the-pack among punters. Allen ranked 13th in the league with a 46-yard average last fall and slightly worse at No. 16 with a 39.9 net average. He had 31 of his 73 punts downed inside the 20. But given that he has no competition on the roster, and is a trusted holder for Gostkowski, Allen appears to have the punting job held down.
The same is true for Cardona, assuming he can continue to balance his NFL play with his duties in the Navy. The second-year fifth-round pick built an instant bond with Gostkowski and Allen on the way to an impressive rookie season last fall. Although there was some question this spring, it appears Cardona will once again have the leeway to play out the year. Yount's presence on the roster this offseason was insurance in that area, as Cardona did miss some spring work while on duty with the Navy in Maine.
Jones led the nation in punt returns last fall, including four touchdowns for Alabama. He does, however, have some ball security issues that will be a non-starter for Belichick if they pop up in New England. Jones struggled at times fielding punts this spring and if he isn't ready, then the duo of Edelman and Danny Amendola will be called into action yet again, which could be the case in high-pressure situations regardless. Martin is the default option on kickoff returns unless another player steps up in the process this preseason. Given the new kickoff rules, the Patriots could also use new lineup options deep as they decide how they will strategically approach the kickoff return game now that touchbacks will bring the ball to the 25. The Patriots special teams units had an uncharacteristically up-and-down season last fall, the first under promoted special teams coach Joe Judge. It bears watching whether the coach, and his veteran core players, can bring more consistency to the third phase in 2016.
NEW YORK JETS
CAMP CALENDAR: Full squad reports July 27.
TRAINING CAMP GOALS
--Find a starting quarterback: This could be answered before the Jets report, as long as Ryan Fitzpatrick signs. But that looks increasingly unlikely with each passing day. Geno Smith will not necessarily be safe, though, even if the Jets move on from Fitzpatrick. Deposed Rams starter Nick Foles remains eminently available for a song, and you can bet general manager Mike Maccagnan will keep an eye on other quarterback situations around the league in case a stopgap starter comes loose. Imagine if Mark Sanchez loses the starting job in Denver?
--Find a starting outside linebacker: Lorenzo Mauldin is entrenched at one spot, but the Jets will have a legitimate competition - i.e., not a John Idzik competition - to determine the other starter. The choice to find a pass rusher from within, instead of applying band-aids such as Calvin Pace, Jason Babin or Aaron Maybin as in previous seasons, is a necessary step for the Jets, but it could be an initially painful one if Jordan Jenkins, Freddie Barnes or Trevor Reilly can't emerge from the pack.
QUARTERBACKS: Starter - Geno Smith. Backups - Bryce Petty, Christian Hackenberg.
This is the most unstable depth chart in football. Smith's roster spot will be imperiled if Ryan Fitzpatrick ever decides to re-sign, but the Jets have to at least enter training camp parroting the idea Smith is ready to turn a corner in his fourth NFL season. He's probably not ready to turn the skills he displays during non-contact drills into the real thing, but Smith is at least a stopgap NFL quarterback, which makes him a far better option than the raw Petty or the even more raw Hackenberg.
RUNNING BACKS: Starter - Matt Forte. Backups - Bilal Powell, Khiry Robinson, Zac Stacy, Tommy Bohanon, Romar Morris, Dominique Williams, Julian Howsare.
Forte is entering the twilight of his career, but the best Bears running back since Walter Payton should still provide an upgrade on the injury-prone Chris Ivory as the leader in a running back by committee. Powell will give Forte plenty of rest as the jack-of-all-trades who can play in any situation. Robinson and Stacy, both of whom are coming back from season-ending leg injuries, are likely fighting for one short-yardage spot. Bohanon will continue to serve as the fullback.
TIGHT ENDS: Starter - Kellen Davis. Backups - Jace Amaro, Brandon Bostick, Wes Sexton, Zach Sudfeld, Jason Vander Laan.
Weird but true: With three catches last year, Davis is the top returning receiver among the tight ends. And he might remain the nominal starter. Amaro has perceived upside and draft stock on his side, but he wasn't selected by the current regime and didn't wow anyone before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury last August. The Jets are also getting tight end-like usage out of Quincy Enunwa, which makes Davis' reliable run-blocking skills more valuable.
WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters - Brandon Marshall, Eric Decker, Quincy Enunwa. Backups - Charone Peake, Kenbrell Thompkins, Jeremy Ross, Devin Smith, Robby Anderson, Kyle Williams, Titus Davis, Jalin Marshall, Chandler Worthy.
Can Marshall and Decker reproduce the most productive season by a pair of Jets receivers this century? The easy thing is to answer "only if Fitzpatrick returns," but Smith never had weaponry like this in his first two NFL seasons. Should Smith remain behind center, Marshall and Decker will be the Jets' most important players. Enunwa, a rare find by ex-general manager John Idzik, proved to be a valuable and versatile player last season. Thompkins made a handful of big catches down the stretch and should enter camp as the leading candidate for the No. 4 receiver gig, but the speedy Peake could surge past him and become the deep threat the Jets have lacked for years. Smith was supposed to be that deep threat, but struggled badly with drops last season before suffering a torn knee ligament. Ross and Williams will likely vie for kick and punt returner duties.
OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters - C Nick Mangold, RG Brian Winters, LG James Carpenter, LT Ryan Clady, RT Breno Giacomini. Backups - C Kyle Friend, G/C Dakota Dozier, G Jarvis Harrison, G Wesley Johnson, G Mike Liedtke, G Craig Watts, T Jesse Davis, T Ben Ijalana, T Brandon Shell, T Brent Qvale.
The rebuild of the Jets' most stable area is underway. Carpenter emerged as a reliable starter last season, but the Jets are banking on Clady - who missed all of last season with a torn ACL - staying healthy as he replaces the retired D'Brickashaw Ferguson. Winters gets another shot at right guard with veteran Willie Colon allowed to exit as a free agent. Giacomini, viewed most of the spring as a potential cap casualty, has underwhelmed in his first two seasons and could be pushed by fifth-rounder Shell or annual training camp star Qvale. Mangold, the longest-tenured Jets player following Ferguson's departure, has begun showing signs of the wear and tear of 11 NFL seasons, but Dozier isn't ready to assume Mangold's spot as the anchor of the line.
DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- DE Muhammad Wilkerson, NT Steve McLendon, DE Sheldon Richardson, DE Leonard Williams. Backups - DE Mike Catapano, DE Helva Matungulu, DE Julien Obioha, DE Claude Pelon, DE Lawrence Thomas, DL Jarvis Jenkins, DT Tarow Barney, DT Shelby Harris, NT Deon Simon.
The 100/1 shot came through July 15, when Wilkerson and the Jets surprisingly agreed on a long-term deal. Now the Jets know their strength will remain intact for another season, though the long-term future of Richardson grew cloudier with Wilkerson's return. There may not be a team with a better trio of ends than Wilkerson, Richardson and Williams, the latter of whom looked like a budding star last season as a rookie. McLendon has big shoes to fill in replacing the run-plugging Damon Harrison. The big four need to remain healthy because there is precious little depth behind them.
LINEBACKERS: Starters - ILB David Harris, ILB Erin Henderson, OLB Lorenzo Mauldin, OLB Jordan Jenkins. Reserves - ILB Darron Lee, OLB Deion Barnes, LB Freddie Bishop. LB Bruce Carter, LB Taiwan Jones, LB Josh Martin, OLB Trevor Reilly, LB Julian Stanford.
The biggest task for the Jets in training camp, other than finding a quarterback, will be figuring out a second starter at outside linebacker. Jenkins, this year's second-round pick is the leader by virtue of draft stock and his potential. Reilly has been a reliable special teamer in his first two NFL seasons but is already 28 years old. Bishop is a darkhorse after two impressive seasons in the CFL. Whomever wins the gig opposite Mauldin will be tasked with trying to jumpstart a pass rush that has relied on 30-somethings for the better part of a decade. Harris will remain the leader of the unit, though the Jets hope Lee will eventually take his spot. Henderson was out of the NFL in 2014 but emerged as a starter last year and seemed to be turning into a team leader during minicamp.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters - CB Darrelle Revis, CB Buster Skrine, FS Marcus Gilchrist, SS Calvin Pryor. Backups - CB Marcus Williams, CB Juston Burris, CB Bryson Keeton, CB Dexter McDougle, CB Dee Milliner, CB Daryl Morris, CB Kevin Short, S Dion Bailey, S Ronald Martin, D Rontez Miles, S Doug Middleton.
The reunion between Revis and Antonio Cromartie only lasted one disappointing season as Cromartie aged dramatically and Revis had his first subpar season - at least by his standards. The Jets will find out this year if it was an aberration or the beginning of the end. Even if Revis continues to decline, the secondary should be a strength for the Jets. Skrine is a solid starter. Williams has shown impressive play-making skills the last two seasons and both Milliner and McDougle will be eager to prove they can contribute in what should be their final chance to impress the regime that inherited them. Pryor might be the hardest-hitting safety in the league while Gilchrist provided stability last season at a position long overlooked by Rex Ryan.
SPECIAL TEAMS: K Nick Folk, K Ross Martin, P Lachlan Edwards, P Tom Hackett, KR/PR Jeremy Ross, LS Tanner Purdum.
The usually reliable Folk, who missed the final seven games last season with a quad injury, should be safe, but he'll need a good start to camp to ensure Martin doesn't threaten his grip on the job. The big competition will be at punter, where the seventh-rounder Edwards and undrafted free agent Hackett will conduct a summer-long battle. The Jets have basically ignored the return games the last couple seasons, but Ross could finally provide some electricity there. Purdum remains as anonymous as he is dependable.