By Steve Silverman
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NFL training camps are just about ready to open, and that means that teams will start setting the tone for the upcoming season with the first few practice sessions of the year.
In the not-too-distant past, a majority of head coaches would attempt to send a message to players with a string of two-a-day practices that were designed to bring toughness to teams that might not have existed otherwise.
Two-a-day practices are still technically legal, but so many restrictions have been imposed that the guts have been taken out of them.
The game has changed dramatically, and talking wistfully about the past is nothing but a hapless exercise at this point.
Smart coaches have found a way to adapt, and the smartest coach resides in the AFC East. Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots are once again favorites to run away with the division and potentially win another Super Bowl.
However, it’s all in front of them, and they must prove themselves once again this year, as does every team in the division. We look at the best- and worst-case scenarios for each team.
New York Jets
Best Case: Few give the Jets a chance to have a respectable season, but if new quarterback Josh McCown can match what he has done in his best previous seasons, they will be much better at the most important position on the field than they were a year ago. With Muhammad Wilkerson and Leonard Williams, the Jets have the personnel on the defensive front to put pressure on opposing quarterbacks. If they can do that consistently, that will make life much better for a secondary that looks simply awful. Record: 8-8, third place
Worst Case: Many of the preseason publications look at the Jets as a team that can take over for the Cleveland Browns as the worst in the NFL. If McCown does not get half-decent protection from his offensive line, he is likely to get run over and won’t finish the season. The linebacking crew lost its leader in David Harris, who signed with the Pats. The defense could be a disaster area without him. Record: 3-13, fourth place.
Best Case: The Bills could be headed to the playoffs for the first time since 1999 because they appear to be loaded on offense. With just a little bit of improvement, Tyrod Taylor will be a very dangerous quarterback, while LeSean McCoy is one of the most versatile and dangerous running backs in the league. Wide receiver Sammy Watkins needs to show he can stay healthy for a full season, and the defense shows off an aggressive and effective demeanor. Record: 10-6, second place.
Worst Case: The biggest issue the Bills and rookie head coach Sean McDermott face is a lack of depth all over the field. If they can’t stay healthy for a full season – an unlikely scenario – the Bills are likely to have serious problems as the season progresses. The defense seems likely to improve under a sharp defensive mind in McDermott, but the players will have to adapt to his 4-3 scheme after two years under Rex Ryan. Record: 7-9, third place.
Best Case: The Dolphins made a great choice when they hired Adam Gase to become their head coach prior to last season, and he helped turn the team into a consistent and effective unit following a 1-4 start. The Dolphins were at their best when it came to fourth-quarter/overtime execution, and that has created a confident atmosphere in Miami for the first time in years. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill must stay healthy after suffering a left knee injury last year, while running back Jay Ajayi must show that his 1,272 yards last year were not a fluke. Record: 13-3, first place.
Worst Case: Can the Dolphins continue to outexecute opponents in the final quarter, or will the odds catch up with them? The defensive personnel is mediocre at best unless defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh plays up to his enormous physical potential on an every-game basis. This was a team that ranked 31st in rushing yards allowed per play last year, and that simply won’t get it done. Record: 7-9, third place.
New England Patriots
Best Case: The Patriots have won two of the last three Super Bowls and appear to be in an excellent position to make it three out of four. They have one of the best quarterbacks in the history of the game, a game-changing tight end and wideouts who will sell out to make the catch. They have a powerful offensive line and the depth on defense to outduel opponents when the game is on the line. New England is not loaded with superstars on the defensive side, but defensive coordinator Matt Patricia deploys his personnel like an accomplished general. And this unit almost always wins the fourth-quarter battle. Record: 14-2, first place.
Worst Case: Quarterback Tom Brady is not infallible, and he is human. Despite his offseason meanderings about keeping himself in great shape and wanting to play for another 10 years, nothing is guaranteed. He is vulnerable and could take a season-ending hit. Tight end Rob Gronkowski has a difficult time staying healthy, and the defense has newcomers in Kony Ealy and Stephon Gilmore who must show that they fit in. Record: 11-5, second place.
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