With July just beginning, there is about a three-week period between now and the start of NFL training camps.
In the AFC East, Bills players will report to camp on July 18, followed by the Dolphins on July 20, and the Patriots and Jets on July 23.
Arguably the biggest thing teams look for in training camp is the improvement of their young players, especially their rookies. With that in mind, here is a look at a potential impact rookie for each squad in the division:
Sammy Watkins, Wide Receiver
Watkins was maybe the biggest investment any team put into one rookie, as Buffalo traded its No.9 selection, its 2015 first-round pick and 2015 fourth-round pick to move up to No.4 to select the Clemson star. Watkins admitted to the NFL Network that he and second-year quarterback E.J. Manuel haven’t gotten on the same page (via CBSSports.com’s John Breech):
“It’s not fully there,” Watkins told NFL Network. “I mean, we’ve been connecting at minicamp, and OTAs, but at the same time, I could be wide open, and if he don’t feel it, or if I run it a different type of way, he won’t throw the ball. So it really just got to come with him believing in me. I believe in him.”
Despite the fact that Manuel and Watkins are still working on their chemistry, Watkins says he’s been impressed with his second-year quarterback.
“He can throw just about any ball,” Watkins said. “So it just comes down to… we just need a lot of reps.”
As Breech writes, reps won’t come until the Bills have their first training camp practice on July 20. With the amount of trust and belief in Watkins in terms of organizational resources, seeing how the two develop their chemistry will be an interesting subplot of the team’s training camp at St. John Fisher College.
New York Jets
Jace Amaro, Tight End
While safety Calvin Pryor was the team’s first-round pick, he will have to compete with incumbent veteran Dawan Landry for the starting spot.
The rookie who could prove to be more impactful, at least initially, is Amaro, who New York took in the second round of the draft. Amaro has the size (6’6”, 260 pounds) and receiver-like skills of a tight end that a certain New England Patriot at the position (Rob Gronkowski) has used to befuddle the Jets defense.
After re-signing starter Jeff Cumberland (26 catches, 398 yards, and 4 touchdowns in 2013) at the position, New York’s tight end grouping consists of Cumberland, Amaro, and intriguing second-year player Zach Sudfeld. Amaro said on the first day or rookie minicamp that his goal is to become the next Tony Gonzalez, according to ESPN New York’s Rich Cimini.
However, Cimini details a few things that could hold back Amaro in his development and eventual goals:
“We’re deep and talented at the tight end spot,” offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg said last week. “That’s going to be an impressive position for the New York Jets for years to come.”
That’s assuming Amaro develops into a stud. He has a long way to go.
As we noted on the night of the draft, this won’t be an easy transition for Amaro, who came from a system at Texas Tech that’s dramatically different than the one he’s trying to master with the Jets. Amaro described the Tech offense as “simple,” — a no-huddle, spread attack that doesn’t have a high volume of plays. Using a math analogy, it was on the level of addition, subtraction, division and multiplication. The Jets are using calculus.
Which explains why Amaro struggled in last week’s minicamp. He got some work with the first team, mostly in the three-receiver package, but he looked lost at times. Simply put, he needs to clean up all aspects of his game.
After having matchup issues against tight ends with a similar skill set of Amaro, the Jets cetainly hope he can give other defensive coordinators those same nightmares. That won’t happen until Amaro figures out the team’s West Coast offense with timing patterns based on precise route concepts, according to Cimini.
Ja’Wuan James, offensive tackle
After a year in which the offensive line allowed a league-high 58 sacks, new general manager Dennis Hickey went out in free agency and signed Branden Albert to be Ryan Tannehill’s blindside protector. In the draft, Hickey took two more offensive tackles, James in the first round and Billy Tucker in the third round.
James started at right tackle for the University of Tennessee for four straight years, a total of 49 games, a school record for an offensive lineman. James has great length (6’6”) and size (317 pounds). He also has good athleticism for a tackle due to his past playing at tight end in high school, according to the Finsiders’ Zach Dean:
However, James hasn’t always been an offensive lineman. In fact up until his junior year of high school, James was a tight end, until one practice when former O-line coach Charles Allen stepped in and changed the course of James’ life forever.
On Monday, Allen joined The Finsiders to discuss his experience coaching James throughout high school. He discussed the moment he knew the transition to tackle was inevitable and the conversation he and James had the morning after he was drafted.
Growing up, James modeled himself after former Falcons tight end Alge Crumpler and pursued the dream of playing the position all through 8th, 9th, and 10th grade. However, entering his junior year, James began to realize that didn’t have the speed or the hands to play the tight end position. His coach decided to try something different.
“Just watching Ja’Wuan in practice it was apparent that anything he really wanted to be, he would have been good at it,” said Allen. ”Being a gigantor like he is, we didn’t really close our tight end much, so watching him move around there and seeing him play in space we thought lets try him out at tackle and see how good he is. After about two days of that it was apparent that JJ could play the tackle position and could really excel at it.”
James appears to have the ability to come right in and play, as he did as a true freshman at Tennessee. Miami may need him to have continuity on an offensive line that will miss Pro Bowl center Mike Pouncey in the early portion of the regular season.
New England Patriots
Dominique Easley, defensive tackle
After an ACL injury in September in his final season at the University of Florida, the Patriots hope Easley and Pro Bowl defensive tackle Vince Wilfork return to full health before the regular season begins.
ESPN Boston’s Mike Reiss addressed their timetable in his Patriots mailbag last week:
Dominique Easley is recovering from a torn ACL suffered last season at Florida.
A: Mike, it looks that way to me based on what we saw in spring camps. A lot can still change, but I think it’s headed in that direction. Both players might be limited a bit in training camp when the team works in pads, but that doesn’t mean they won’t be ready on opening day. It would just be carefully managing their situations.
Easley tore his ACL twice in college, the first time being in his true sophomore season of 2011 after starting 12 games and recording 37 tackles, 7.5 for loss. The next season after the injury, Easley came back with 26 tackles, 8.5 for loss, along with a team-leading 4 sacks.
At 6’2”, 285 pounds, Easley has the stout size and frame to play any position along the defensive line, which only adds to New England’s flexibility on their front with Chandler Jones, Rob Nincovich, Chris Jones, and Wilfork. If Easley can contribute in a somewhat limited but continually extended role, similar to then-rookie linebacker Jamie Collins last season, he could make his imprint in key moments, just like Collins.
Check in next week for AFC East news!
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