AFC East: Pro Bowl

MIAMI -- I'm not a superstitious person and apparently neither is Tampa Bay Buccaneers star cornerback Darrelle Revis.

The latest reports coming out of Tampa is that Revis and the team are considering the third preseason game against the Miami Dolphins as a possible return date for Revis. The talented cornerback has been rehabbing his knee injury meticulously and appears close to returning.

But are the Buccaneers considering a risky move?

The goal is to get Revis ready for Week 1 of the regular season against the New York Jets. And if you recall the last time we saw Revis, he was crumbled on the field at Sun Life Stadium after his knee gave out. To have Revis’ first game back against the same team and on the same field where he blew out his knee last year is a bit eerie. Don't think for one second that the thought won't travel through Revis' head.

Miami’s passing game, and particularly speedy receiver Mike Wallace, could certainly use the test of Revis on the field for Tampa Bay on Aug. 25. But Revis is a priority for the Buccaneers, and playing against Miami in 10 days seems unnecessary.

Tampa Bay has more than three weeks before its regular-season opener against the Jets. Allowing Revis three more weeks to get healthy and in playing shape seems like the best route.
DAVIE, Fla. -- The Miami Dolphins are a full week into training camp, and I was in attendance for Day 7 to take in all the action.

Here are some notes and observations:
  • The stars of Sunday’s practice were Pro Bowl defensive end Cameron Wake, who got a sack and blew up a running play behind the line of scrimmage in team drills, and backup quarterback Pat Devlin. Miami made a roster move to cut quarterback Aaron Corp. Therefore, Devlin got more reps and had his best practice of training camp. He threw touchdowns to receivers Mike Wallace and Brandon Gibson. However, Devlin did throw a late interception to rookie cornerback Will Davis to end practice. Look for Devlin to play a lot in next week’s Hall of Fame Game.
  • Miami continued to experiment with its offensive line Sunday. Mike Pouncey was played at both center and right guard with the first team. Josh Samuda played center and left guard with the starters. Rookie guard Dallas Thomas got fewer reps with the starters.
  • Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill had his fourth straight day of practice without a turnover. Tannehill also threw a pair of touchdowns to receiver Brian Hartline and running back Marcus Thigpen in the corner of each end zone. After a slow start, Tannehill appears to have hit his stride in training camp.
  • Cornerback Dimitri Patterson worked with the first team for the second day in a row. Patterson has strung together three good practices in a row, and is ahead of Richard Marshall for the time being. Patterson has displayed good quickness and ball skills so far.
  • As we mentioned earlier, the Dolphins had their first fight of training camp. Defensive tackle Jared Odrick and Samuda got into a wrestling match after the whistle during 11-on-11 drills. They eventually patched things later in practice. You can read the full report of what happened here.
  • The Dolphins will play in Sun Life Stadium on Monday night for a team scrimmage. This will be a good opportunity for players to step up and impress the coaching staff.

Camp Confidential: Miami Dolphins

July, 28, 2013
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DAVIE, Fla. -- The tough questions came at a furious pace in the first week of Miami Dolphins training camp.

Is this team a legitimate playoff contender?

When will we see big plays from free-agent signing Mike Wallace?

Can rookie and No. 3 overall pick Dion Jordan make a huge and immediate impact?

Welcome to the world of the 2013 Dolphins. This is not your typical, hapless South Florida football team with low expectations. This year’s Dolphins are gunning for the postseason and have a roster good enough to do damage in the AFC.

The Dolphins have not been to the playoffs since 2008. But this year’s Miami team is deeper and more talented than any in recent memory, which has raised the bar.

“You want to have great expectations for yourself, but at the same time you don’t want to put too much on yourself,” Dolphins second-year coach Joe Philbin said. “You just want to go in and work every single day to get better. We aren’t predicting anything or say we are going to do this or that.”

Are the Dolphins true contenders this season? Let’s examine some key issues.

THREE HOT ISSUES

1. Can the Dolphins catch the Patriots?

Seemingly every move Miami made this offseason had something to do with closing the gap with the reigning AFC East champion New England Patriots.

The Dolphins had an inconsistent pass rush and needed more to rattle Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. As a result, Miami traded up eight spots to No. 3 and drafted the super-athletic Jordan to pair with Pro Bowl defensive end Cameron Wake.

Miami also had the 27th-ranked pass defense because of poor cornerback play and slow linebackers. The Dolphins fixed that by signing former Pro Bowl cornerback Brent Grimes and speedy linebackers Dannell Ellerbe and Philip Wheeler in free agency.

[+] EnlargeCameron Wake
Steve Mitchell/USA TODAY SportsWith its pass rush lacking last season, Miami will need Pro Bowler Cameron Wake to be a force again in 2013.
The Dolphins’ pass offense also wasn’t up to par last season and had only one touchdown reception from the receiver position. As a result, Miami signed tight end Dustin Keller and receivers Brandon Gibson and Wallace in an effort to score points and keep up with New England, which led the NFL in total offense in 2012.

The Patriots have been on top of the division for the past dozen years. But considering New England’s offseason troubles and Miami’s upgrades, the Dolphins believe they have a shot to make a run in the division.

“Nobody stays on top forever, and the underdog will have his day,” Ellerbe said this week. “And I feel like we’re an underdog right now. It’s a new season and only time will tell.”

2. Will QB Ryan Tannehill thrive in Year 2?

The 2012 quarterback class exploded on the scene last season. Andrew Luck of the Indianapolis Colts, Robert Griffin III of the Washington Redskins and Russell Wilson of the Seattle Seahawks all led their teams to the playoffs. Tannehill, who won seven games in Miami, was a cut below. Now, he is expected to take the next step in Year 2.

Miami cannot afford a sophomore slump from Tannehill. The Dolphins built the offense around his strengths and put the right pieces in place for him to thrive. His presence and mentality as a leader are apparent.

“Last year, I didn’t know what to expect coming in other than coming in and fighting for a job,” Tannehill said. “This year I got to really use the offseason to grow my leadership, set things up, get with guys. Now coming in I can really focus on taking this team to the next level, doing everything I can to improve my game and to help improve the guys around me as well.”

Tannehill got off to an uneven start in training camp. He had a particularly poor practice last Tuesday, when he threw a pair of pick-sixes to Ellerbe and safety Chris Clemons. Poor sessions like that are reminders that Tannehill has only 16 NFL starts and still has a lot to learn. However, Tannehill strung together better practices later in the week.

3. Can RB Lamar Miller carry the load?

The AFC East blog touched on this topic earlier in the week. Miller, a second-year tailback, is expected to replace former starter Reggie Bush this season. Keep in mind that Miami is putting a lot of stock in Miller after just 51 carries last season. To Miller’s credit, he led the Dolphins with 4.9 yards per carry.

Durability will be the biggest question. Miller had injury issues in college, which is one of the reasons he fell to the fourth round of the 2012 draft. But Miller has looked healthy and effective so far in training camp.

“I feel very comfortable just getting used to running the ball, the offensive line scheme and just being [involved] more,” Miller said last week. “I just know what I’m doing. I’m not second-guessing too much, and I’m just doing what the coaches are telling me to do. Last year, I was thinking about it too much.”

One of the big things Miller must improve on is his pass protection. It was one of the reasons he failed to get consistent playing time last season. Miller spent a lot of time this offseason with San Francisco 49ers running back Frank Gore to work on becoming a complete tailback.

REASON FOR OPTIMISM

The Dolphins are a faster and more dynamic this year. Practices are faster and there’s more talent flying around the football field.

One of the biggest complaints in Miami the past few years has been that the Dolphins didn’t have enough playmakers. Players such as Wallace, Keller, Ellerbe, Grimes and Jordan were all added to change the makeup of the team. The added speed and athleticism are expected to add at least a couple wins to last year’s total.

“I think we are faster as a football team,” Philbin confirmed. “I think our play speed -- it’s still a little bit early in camp to get a real good feel and to compare it to a year ago as to what it’s going to be this year -- but I think it has the potential to be a very fast team.”

REASON FOR PESSIMISM

I’m still not sold on Miami’s offensive line. This is a group that was up and down last year, and the Dolphins lost their most proven player in former four-time Pro Bowl left tackle Jake Long.

[+] EnlargeBrent Grimes
Robert Mayer/USA TODAY SportsComing off an Achilles injury, CB Brent Grimes has displayed his Pro Bowl form early in Dolphins camp.
Miami’s offensive line is one of the thinnest groups on the team this year. As a result, the Dolphins have been doing a lot of experimenting to find the right combination of players in the first week of training camp.

The biggest question involves new left tackle and 2012 second-round pick Jonathan Martin. He will replace Long and plays an important role in protecting Tannehill’s blind side. Martin was inconsistent at left tackle late last season while Long was injured. His performance in camp so far has been average. We’ve seen both good and bad from Martin.

Projected starting guard John Jerry suffered an injury in the first week, which has affected depth on the team. Miami is trying rookie Dallas Thomas as the starting guard and also exploring Mike Pouncey at guard. This is clearly not one of the team's strengths.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • Dolphins backup quarterback Matt Moore looks solid early in training camp. Moore has been mostly efficient and accurate playing with the backup units. Moore also has thrown the deep ball well. A case can be made that Moore has been the most consistent quarterback in the first week of training camp. This is a rare year in Miami where there is no quarterback competition or controversy. But Moore is proving to be one of the best veteran backup quarterbacks in the NFL and looks ready if Tannehill is injured.

  • Grimes has made several “wow” plays and looks 100 percent recovered from his Achilles injury. Grimes missed most of last season with the Atlanta Falcons, and the Dolphins signed the former Pro Bowl corner to a one-year contract because of durability concerns. Grimes is very athletic, which helps him overcome his lack of size. Grimes and Wallace have had some very good battles in camp, and it's making both players better.

  • Miami’s kicking competition so far is going to the incumbent. Veteran Dan Carpenter has been more accurate in the first week of training camp. Rookie Caleb Sturgis, a fifth-round pick, came to the Dolphins with strong credentials. But Sturgis missed several kicks this week, and that’s put him behind Carpenter early. Sturgis also injured his groin in the first week and missed some practice time. Financially, the Dolphins could save more than $2 million this year by going with Sturgis. But the company line is that the best player will win the job.

  • The deepest part of Miami’s roster is its defensive line. The Dolphins have a very strong rotation of starters and backups at both defensive tackle and defensive end. Wake, a Pro Bowler last season, is joined by Jordan and young upstart Olivier Vernon, who has been very impressive in camps. Miami’s defensive tackle rotation includes Pro Bowler Randy Starks, Paul Soliai and Jared Odrick, who has shifted to the position full time from defensive end. These players will be rotated to keep the defense fresh.

  • Miami’s rookie cornerbacks are off to a slow start. The Dolphins invested second- and third-round picks in corners Jamar Taylor and Will Davis. Taylor missed all of OTAs and minicamps with a sports hernia injury and injured himself again in the second day of camp. Davis has stayed healthy but has allowed several big pass plays in the first week. Cornerback is a tough position to play in the NFL, and it will take time for Taylor and Davis to get up to speed.

  • The Dolphins’ backup receiver positions are wide open. Miami is expected to keep at least five receivers on the 53-man roster this year, and only three spots (Wallace, Brian Hartline, Gibson) are locked up. Other receivers such as Armon Binns, Rishard Matthews and Marvin McNutt are battling for the final spots. They all occasionally show flashes, but consistency has been an issue.

  • Finally, the role of fullback appears to be reduced compared to last season. The Dolphins are using more three-receiver sets this year, and tight ends Keller and Charles Clay at times have been moved around and used as an H-back. Versatility will be important for this position. Evan Rodriguez has been getting more looks with the starters lately than last year’s starting fullback, Jorvorskie Lane.
DAVIE, Fla. -- Former Oregon star and No. 3 overall pick Dion Jordan believes he's ready to help the Miami Dolphins get over the hump this season. The tricky part is Jordan has no idea what his role will be for Miami in 2013.

[+] EnlargeDion Jordan
Al Bello/Getty ImagesThe Miami Dolphins have had their eye on pass-rusher Dion Jordan for years, but their top pick will start training camp on the injury list.
Jordan currently is a potential star without a plan. Despite being taken in the first round last April, Miami’s coaching staff has yet to get its hands on Jordan during practice. The Dolphins’ first-round pick missed all of organized team activities and minicamp due to the University of Oregon’s quarter system and shoulder surgery he had last February. Miami also announced Sunday that Jordan will begin training camp on the non-football injury list. He only participated in warm-ups and did conditioning and stretching on the side.

Jordan's shoulder was expected to be 100 percent by the start of training camp. But that goal wasn't met, which adds to the mystery of his role and further pushes Jordan behind on the depth chart.

It's not the ideal start Jordan wanted as Miami's top pick.

"For any athlete, when this is your job and this is what your whole motivation is, it’s frustrating not being out there and watching the guys go,” Jordan said after Sunday's practice. “But I understand my health is the main concern right now. So that’s what I’m going to focus on.”

Jordan remains Miami's wild card. He has the athletic potential to produce double-digit sacks as a rookie, especially when paired opposite to Pro Bowl defensive end Cameron Wake. Or Jordan could be a slow healer and a slow learner off the bench and not make much of an impact. That is why training camp and the preseason are vital for Jordan to get healthy and get quality reps sooner than later.

Miami moved up eight spots in the draft to get Jordan. Besides Wake, the Dolphins’ defense lacked the ability to consistently get to the quarterback and the team has been scouting Jordan for at least two years. Jordan has the dynamic versatility to move around in various spots once he’s healthy. But for now, Dolphins head coach Joe Philbin said sitting Jordan to start camp “was the best option.”

“[Patience] is something that I’m going to have to learn,” Jordan added. “I’m going to be as patient as I have to. At the same time, I have to understand what the situation is. I have to do whatever I have to do to make sure I’m ready for the season to help my guys.”

Coincidentally, 2012 third-round pick Olivier Vernon had a very good practice as the starting defensive end Sunday. Vernon had two sacks on Miami quarterback Ryan Tannehill on Sunday and looks to be improving in Year 2 after showing flashes and recording 3.5 sacks as a rookie. Vernon could be the favorite to start in Week 1, depending on how long Jordan is out.

Jordan emphasized Sunday that he’s focusing on having a long career in the NFL, and playing injured early is not the best way to go about it. However, that won’t lower the bar for Jordan in Miami whenever he gets healthy.

“Everybody has high expectations, no matter when you’re drafted,” Jordan said. “You have expectations on yourself and the people who drafted you have expectations. So for me, I want to be successful and I want this team to be very successful. That’s the goal for all of us. I’m going to take care of myself so I can help this team.”

The New England Patriots have had an uncharacteristically chaotic offseason. They lost their leading receiver -- Wes Welker -- to an AFC rival. Pro Bowl tight end Rob Gronkowski's status is in question for Week 1 after multiple surgeries, and the team was forced to cut Aaron Hernandez after he was arrested and charged with murder and five additional gun charges.

SportsNation

How many wins will the Patriots get this season?

  •  
    6%
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    47%
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    41%
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    4%
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    2%

Discuss (Total votes: 8,466)

That brings us to our latest "Poll Friday" question: How many wins will the Patriots get in 2013?

Will the recent offseason events in New England impact the team’s bottom line? The Patriots have been the dominant team in the AFC East for the past dozen years.

I’ve said for weeks that this year’s Patriots are not a championship-caliber team. The offense is not as good as the previous two years, and there are still some holes on defense. But as long as quarterback Tom Brady and head coach Bill Belichick are in New England, the Patriots have a chance.

Using our SportsNation poll, vote on the 2013 win total for New England. You can also share your thoughts in the comments section below.
In exactly two weeks we will know the immediate futures of two Pro Bowl players in the AFC East. July 15 is the deadline for teams that used the one-year franchise tag to work out long-term extensions.

The Buffalo Bills and Miami Dolphins used the tag in March to retain safety Jairus Byrd and defensive tackle Randy Starks, respectively. However, neither player has been able to work out a long-term contract over the past four months.

Byrd's situation with Buffalo is the more unstable of the two. He finished his rookie contract last season and is unhappy that the Bills haven't provided long-term security. Byrd skipped all organized team activities and mandatory minicamp. The Bills could not fine Byrd because he hasn’t signed his franchise tender.

Byrd, 26, is a playmaker entering his prime and Buffalo has plenty of cap room. It would make sense for both sides to reach a resolution. However, it’s been eerily quiet from both sides lately and this could go down to the wire.

Miami's situation, on the other hand, is easier to predict. The Dolphins already spent more than $200 million this offseason in free-agent contracts, which includes $117 million in guaranteed money. It is unlikely the Dolphins want to further tie up their salary cap with a big extension for Starks. He is one of Miami’s best defensive players, but Starks also will be 30 in December.

The Dolphins appear comfortable paying the one-year, $8.45 franchise tag and letting this season play out. Starks held out of voluntary practices this spring but showed up for mandatory minicamp. Starks already signed his tag and doesn't appear willing to hold out of training camp if he doesn't get an extension, as expected.

But anything can happen in the NFL. So keep an eye on the situations of Byrd and Starks over the next two weeks.
The NFL Network wrapped up its annual list of the league’s top 100 players this week. It’s a popular project in which the players themselves, which is a good angle to take.

However, something really stood out from an AFC East perspective: Buffalo Bills running back C.J. Spiller and safety Jairus Byrd were both snubbed, left out of the top 100 as chosen their peers. But Byrd has represented the AFC in the Pro Bowl twice in the past four years, while not everyone on that list is a Pro Bowler. Spiller rushed for 1,244 yards, six touchdowns and averaged 6.0 yards per carry in 2012. He's one of the league’s most dynamic running backs.

Here is the simplest explanation why Byrd and Spiller didn’t make the list: Both play for Buffalo.

Sometimes these votes can be a popularity contest, even among fellow athletes. Spiller and Byrd play for the lowly Bills, who currently have the NFL's longest playoff drought, at 13 years. It's clear Buffalo doesn’t have much respect around the league -- and that's something the team has to earn by winning on the field. Byrd and Spiller were both guilty by Bills association.

But at least there is some reason for the Byrd and Spiller omissions. Perhaps the biggest snub from the NFL Network’s top 100 is New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham. There is no explanation for him not being on the list.
NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Other than the quarterback, which player could each AFC East team least afford to lose to injury? Here's a look:

Buffalo Bills: S Jairus Byrd. The Bills have talent in several areas. But the most important player is in their last line of defense: Pro Bowl safety Byrd. Buffalo proved this point by designating him its franchise player. As a result, he is currently in a contract dispute with the Bills and wants long-term security. This is a situation that could spill over into training camp. Despite big names like defensive end Mario Williams, tailback C.J. Spiller and receiver Steve Johnson, Byrd is probably the most difficult player on the roster to replace.

Miami Dolphins: DE Cameron Wake. The play of quarterback Ryan Tannehill kept Miami competitive. But their best player last year was Wake, a Pro Bowl defensive end.. Miami’s best pass-rusher led the Dolphins with a career-high 15 sacks. What’s more impressive is Wake was the Dolphins' only real threat to get to the quarterback and faced plenty of double teams. This offseason, Miami has done a lot to help Wake. The Dolphins drafted rookie defensive end Dion Jordan No. 3 overall. Miami also got faster at linebacker with Dannell Ellerbe and Philip Wheeler. But Wake’s ability to get to the quarterback is a large part of Miami’s foundation on defense.

New England Patriots: TE Rob Gronkowski. The Patriots have already lost tight end Aaron Hernandez. Pro Bowl receiver Wes Welker signed with the Denver Broncos in free agency, and New England released starting receiver Brandon Lloyd for financial reasons. The only productive pass-catcher returning from New England’s top-rated offense in 2012 is Gronkowski, who is now more important than ever. The past few years, New England was able to absorb Gronkowski’s absence because Hernandez was there to pick up the slack. But that cushion is now gone with Hernandez’s release, after he was charged with murder this week. Gronkowski is coming off multiple arm and back surgeries and must stay healthy this year for New England to thrive.

New York Jets: C Nick Mangold. This was a tough choice. The Jets lack the overall talent to be a playoff team this season. However, they do have a handful of key players. Cornerback Antonio Cromartie is a Pro Bowler. But the Jets have talented young backups like Kyle Wilson and Dee Milliner, who are both former first-round draft picks. Defensive lineman Muhammad Wilkerson and linebacker David Harris are talented. But Jets head coach Rex Ryan has always had a good scheme to get production out of his defense. So former Pro Bowl center Mangold is the choice. The Jets' offense desperately needs Mangold's leadership and consistency in the middle. Mangold is one of the toughest players in the NFL and has played through injuries in the past. He has been their one reliable player on offense the past couple years.
Bill Parcells, who is a member of the 2013 Pro Football Hall of Fame class, told USA Today that the one regret in his standout career was leaving the New England Patriots. According to Parcells, if he could do it all over again, he would have stayed in New England after the 1996 season and continued working for owner Robert Kraft after losing to the Green Bay Packers in the Super Bowl.

It's interesting to think what could have been had Parcells stayed with the Patriots longer. Here are several things to consider:
  • Would there have been a Patriots dynasty in the early 2000s? Parcells was definitely on to something in '96. In typical Parcells fashion, he turned a downtrodden New England franchise into a winner and eventual AFC champion before Parcells and Kraft stopped seeing eye to eye. That caused Parcells to split, and New England went on to hire two coaches: Pete Carroll and Bill Belichick. Carroll was a decent 27-21 in three seasons in New England but could never get the team back to the big game. But things took off once Belichick was hired. Five Super Bowl appearances and three championships later, Belichick is still New England's coach in 2013. Belichick was the assistant head coach and secondary coach in New England during Parcells’ final season with the Patriots. Had Parcells stayed, Belichick might have been groomed to be the Patriots' head coach in waiting. Or another team could have called sooner and offered Belichick a head-coaching job elsewhere. Without Belichick, there would be no Patriots dynasty.
  • Would Parcells have switched from Drew Bledsoe to Tom Brady? Bledsoe was Parcells' quarterback, and the two made it to the Super Bowl together in '96. If Parcells were still coaching the team five years later, would he have had the same foresight to stick with Brady after Bledsoe got injured? Belichick made one of the gutsiest calls in NFL history in 2001 to stay with an unknown, sixth-round pick over a former Pro Bowler. The result was New England winning the first of three Super Bowl titles with Brady, who went on to become one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time. Parcells had a stronger connection to Bledsoe than Belichick ever did, so the right decision would have been more difficult for Parcells to make. It's even questionable that New England would have drafted Brady in the first place if Parcells were still running the Patriots. Speaking of which ...
  • How would keeping Parcells impact New England’s drafts? One of the reasons Parcells is being inducted into the Hall of Fame is he was one of the rare people who can both coach and evaluate talent at a very high level. But the Patriots also built their dynasty through the draft with Belichick. It started at the top with Brady, the greatest value pick ever, and continued with homegrown talents such as Richard Seymour, Matt Light, Asante Samuel and Vince Wilfork. Maybe New England's rosters would have been just as stout with Parcells calling the shots. But that’s asking a lot.

Overall, things worked out best for the Patriots. They had a few slightly above-average years with Carroll, then hit a home run with Belichick, who also will someday be inducted into the Hall of Fame.

There is little doubt that Parcells would have continued his success in New England. But could he match Belichick’s five Super Bowl appearances and three titles with the Patriots? Probably not.

AFC East Offseason Stock Watch

June, 20, 2013
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With training camp about five weeks away, let’s take a look at whose stock is up and whose stock is down in the AFC East.

Falling

1. Aaron Hernandez, New England Patriots tight end: For the past three seasons, it's been injury issues that bothered Hernandez. Now, New England’s star tight end has two off-the-field issues that came up this week. Hernandez recently had his home and rental vehicle searched by Massachusetts police during a homicide investigation. Hernandez is reportedly not a suspect in the case. But Hernandez was cited in a lawsuit Wednesday that claims he allegedly shot Alexander S. Bradley in the arm in February after an argument in Miami. The bullet allegedly traveled from Bradley’s arm to his head and injured his eye, according to the lawsuit. Both legal issues combined is not good for Hernandez with training camp right around the corner.

2. Buffalo Bills, Jairus Byrd talks: Jason LaCanfora of CBSSports.com reported this week that there hasn’t been much movement in talks between the Bills and Byrd, a Pro Bowl safety. Both deserve some of the blame. The Bills have plenty of cap room remaining and can afford to pay arguably their best defensive playmaker. On the other hand, Byrd probably could have gone about things better and not skipped all of mandatory minicamp and organized team activities. The longer this situation goes, the more contentious it will become. Byrd has yet to even sign his franchise tag.

[+] EnlargeJake Ballard
Mike Reiss/ESPNJake Ballard could stand to benefit from the questions surrounding New England's top tight ends.
3. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie: Although you have to appreciate Christie's honesty, it’s also easy to question his fandom. Christie, the leader of the state of New Jersey, admitted this week that his favorite NFL team is not the New York Jets or New York Giants -- it’s the Dallas Cowboys. “I was a big fan of Roger Staubach, who was the quarterback for the Cowboys back then,” Christie said during a public appearance this week. “The Giants and the Jets pretty much stunk when I was a kid and my father was a Giants fan.” Ouch!

Rising

1. Jake Ballard, Patriots tight end: Considering the various issues with New England tight ends, it’s looking more like Ballard could get extensive playing time, particularly early in the season. Ballard played well for the Giants’ Super Bowl team in 2011, but sat out all of last year with a knee injury. Patriots coach Bill Belichick claimed Ballard off waivers a year ago when he was still injured. Now that move is looking very wise. Ballard has starting experience and should be able to step in if Patriots starter Rob Gronkowski can’t make it back from back surgery or Hernandez still needs to sort through his legal issues.

2. Olivier Vernon, Miami Dolphins defensive end: Vernon capped off a solid offseason with Miami during mandatory minicamp. After moving 2012 starting defensive end Jared Odrick inside to defensive tackle, Vernon is now the early favorite to start at defensive end heading into training camp. The 2012 third-round pick received an additional boost up the depth chart due to 2013 first-round pick Dion Jordan's absence. Jordan could not participate with the Dolphins this offseason due to the quarter system at the University of Oregon. He also is recovering from shoulder surgery in February. Therefore, Vernon got a lot of valuable reps with the first-team defense and showed many of the flashes he displayed his rookie year. It’s no secret that Jordan, the No. 3 overall pick last April, will eventually supplant Vernon in the starting lineup. But Vernon did all he could to hold his spot and may be in the starting lineup for Miami in Week 1.

3. Mark Sanchez, New York Jets quarterback: Sanchez doesn’t get a lot of good publicity in the AFC East blog. It’s expected when you lead the NFL in turnovers the past two years. However, Sanchez does deserve a pat on the back for holding off Jets rookie Geno Smith thus far in offseason workouts. Sanchez came out the early winner in New York’s quarterback competition after OTAs and minicamp. There is still training camp remaining. But Sanchez is now the early favorite to be under center when the Jets host the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the regular-season opener. Sanchez is definitely not the best long-term option for the Jets. But Sanchez may get the call this season until Smith is ready. Jets coaches say Smith still has things to learn about adjusting to the NFL game.
Here are the most interesting stories Thursday in the AFC East:
  • With all the issues surrounding the New England Patriots, New York Jets center Nick Mangold thinks Patriots coach Bill Belichick is “losing his mind.”
Morning take: Belichick strives for zero controversies and distractions in order to focus on football. That certainly hasn’t been the case the past few weeks with Aaron Hernandez’s legal issues, Rob Gronkowski’s health and the controversial addition of popular quarterback Tim Tebow.
  • Miami Dolphins defensive end Cameron Wake is one of the NFL’s top pass-rushers.
Morning take: Wake had 15 sacks last year and made the Pro Bowl. But what’s most impressive is he put up those numbers with little help and plenty of double teams. Miami got Wake more help this offseason with No. 3 overall pick Dion Jordan.
Morning take: It seems that more NFL teams want to push the pace on offense. The Bills must get on the same page offensively first during the offseason. The last thing a team wants is quick three-and-outs.
  • How much of an impact does Rod Graves make with the New York Jets?
Morning take: Jets general manager John Idzik needed a right-hand man with a scouting background and Graves, his former boss, has plenty of it. Idzik was more of a cap guy in previous stops and again should work well with Graves.
New England Patriots star tight end Aaron Hernandez is facing his second bout with legal issues in as many days. New York attorney David Jaroslawicz confirmed to ESPN’s Ed Werder that a lawsuit was filed Wednesday on behalf of Alexander S. Bradley, who claims he was shot in arm by Hernandez in February.

The timing of this lawsuit couldn't be any worse for Hernandez. Massachusetts police just searched his home and rental car earlier this week during an investigation for a homicide of a 27-year-old Boston man. Hernandez is not believed to be a suspect, a source told the USA Today.

But this latest lawsuit claims Bradley, who has been a friend of Hernandez for several years, got into an argument with the tight end in Miami back in February. The lawsuit claims Hernandez shot Bradley in the arm and the bullet traveled up to his head and damaged his eye. Bradley reportedly required surgery to fix the damage.

These are certainly interesting times for Patriots tight ends -- and not in a good way. Pro Bowl tight end Rob Gronkowski just had back surgery, and his status is questionable for Week 1. In addition, Hernandez now has two legal issues to face with training camp starting in about five weeks.

After losing 2012 starting wide receivers Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd, the New England Patriots must rely heavily on tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez in the passing game. But can the Patriots and quarterback Tom Brady count on Gronkowski to have another Pro Bowl season in 2013?

Gronkowski is slated for back surgery Tuesday and is expected to miss a portion of training camp. The main goal is to have Gronkowski ready for New England's Week 1 AFC East battle against the Buffalo Bills.

But how effective with Gronkowski be when he returns?

“He will be Gronk-ish, I’ll say, but I don’t know if he will be the same explosive, strong, physical Gronkowski," ESPN NFL analyst Jason Taylor said. "It’s tough to come back from four surgeries on your forearm, and now a fifth surgery on your back.”

Taylor also mentioned all of the offseason work in the weight room and strength training that Gronkowski is missing. It will take time to regain his full strength and flexibility.

I’ve said several times to expect New England’s passing attack to take a step back this year. The receivers aren’t as good and the tight end position has plenty of health concerns. If Gronkowski isn’t the “Gronk” of old in 2013, New England needs others step up and stay healthy for a full season.
DAVIE, Fla. -- The Miami Dolphins wrapped up their first of three practices at mandatory minicamp Tuesday. The AFC East blog was live at Miami’s practice facility to take in all the action.

Here is a recap:
  • The big story Tuesday was the return of Pro Bowl defensive tackle Randy Starks, who held out of all of Miami’s voluntary activities due to getting the franchise tag. Starks signed his tag for $8.5 million. Therefore, he was required to show up or risk a fine. Starks didn’t take part in any team work, and it appears Miami will bring him along slowly. Starks didn’t discuss his contract situation, but he did discuss missing OTAs. “It was kind of lonely at first,” Starks said. “It was something to get used to. But I kept in contact with some of my teammates and felt like I was still here a little bit."
  • It was a good day for Miami starting receiver Brian Hartline, who made a series of nice catches in team drills and 7-on-7 drills. Hartline made two deep, sideline catches from quarterback Ryan Tannehill and also made the routine plays over the middle. Hartline recorded his first 1,000-yard season in 2012 and could be poised for another good year in 2013.
  • It was also a good day for interceptions on defense. There were four picks by my count in team drills by Miami defenders. Dolphins starting safety Reshad Jones, linebacker Philip Wheeler, safety Chris Clemons and cornerback Don Jones all recorded interceptions. The Dolphins are focusing on creating more turnovers this offseason, and it was a good day for the defense in that regard.
  • As far as attendance, everyone was present with the exception of rookie No. 3 overall pick Dion Jordan, who has a quarters academic system at the University of Oregon and cannot attend. Jordan also is recovering from shoulder surgery and will not join the team for practice until training camp. Fellow rookie second-round pick Jamar Taylor (sports hernia) worked on the side and didn’t practice. Starting tight end Dustin Keller also sat out of team drills on Tuesday, and backup tight end Michael Egnew got plenty of first-team reps.
  • Dolphins receiver and free-agent pickup Brandon Gibson is looking more comfortable this week in the slot. He seemed a step hesitant earlier this offseason but looked more fluid running and catching inside on Tuesday. Gibson did not play much in the slot during his time with the St. Louis Rams. But Miami needs Gibson inside after trading Davone Bess to the Cleveland Browns this offseason.
  • Dolphins offensive coordinator Mike Sherman offered high praise for Tannehill, who is entering Year 2 as Miami's starting quarterback. According to Sherman, the growth in Tannehill is apparent. "He's doing more as far as what he sees," Sherman said. "He's doing things better than he did a year ago."
  • A player who had a surprisingly good practice was undrafted rookie wide receiver Brian Tyms. He flashed several times Tuesday with some tough catches and displayed good size and athleticism. Miami is stacked at wide receiver, so Tyms could be a long shot to make the 53-man roster. But Tyms could be a developmental possibility for the practice squad if he keeps making plays in practice.

Chad Johnson is going to jail this summer for violating his probation. In the process, the former Pro Bowl receiver can probably kiss any last chance at the NFL goodbye.

Johnson’s antics got him in more trouble Monday. At what was supposed to be a routine court visit to clear up a “miscommunication,” according to Johnson, turned into a 30-day jail sentence after the judge didn’t think Johnson was taking the situation seriously.

Johnson entered a plea deal that initially didn’t require jail time. But the flamboyant receiver angered the judge by playfully patting his lawyer on the butt during the hearing, according to the Associated Press. Johnson apologized but still received a 30-day jail sentence.

If Johnson wanted to prove to NFL teams that he’s matured, he did a poor job of it Monday. The 35-year old couldn’t stop being a showman, even in a serious environment like the court of law. In turn, can a team trust Johnson to be serious on the football field?

Before violating probation I thought Johnson still had a small chance of getting an NFL call this summer. It only takes one team and a few injuries at wide receiver. But Johnson had virtually no margin for error.

Johnson not taking his court appearance seriously and going to jail for 30 days stepped over those boundaries. It would be surprising if we see Johnson in the NFL again after this latest incident.

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