As training camp approaches, we take a look at the players on each team who will be most heavily scrutinized. The list contains a fair amount of quarterbacks — no stunner there — but we tried to highlight as many non-QBs as we could. The players highlighted range from rookies to veterans with 10 or more years of experience.
In the first of an eight-part series, we look at the AFC East from the 2011 order of finish:
Patriots CB Devin McCourty
The first question with McCourty is whether he can return to his 2010 form, when he intercepted seven passes as a rookie. The second is at what position. McCourty struggled in man coverage last season, getting repeatedly beaten in one-on-one situations, and he ended up getting a lot of reps at safety down the stretch. It appears he’s still a corner despite the team not adding a lot at safety, but McCourty has the goods to adapt. The Week 17 victory over the Bills showed that he made improvement in heavy man coverage.
Other Patriots worth mentioning: RB Stevan Ridley, OLT Nate Solder.
Jets WR Santonio Holmes
Holmes has become the target for Jets fans that are angry about the team’s fall from contention last season, and his relationship — on and off the field — with QB Mark Sanchez will be one (of many) story lines to follow closely at Florham Park. Despite Holmes and Sanchez being booed at a Knicks game in late April, the two players are said to have made up and are determined to solve their problems in order to become a more effective passing duo. The jury remains out until further notice. So far, you’d have to say the Steelers fleeced the Jets when you consider Pittsburgh turned the fifth-round pick they got for the former Super Bowl MVP into the sixth-rounder that became Antonio Brown.
Other Jets worth mentioning: Sanchez, LB Bart Scott.
Dolphins QB Matt Moore
Some believe it’s only a matter of time before first-round QB Ryan Tannehill takes over, but Moore proved in the short term last season that he can win games — six of them in the final nine contests, to pull out of what was an 0-7 start. Moore has battled concussions and injuries in his career, and he has yet to earn the trust of the new coaching staff despite a few big games last season and a solid 16-9 TD-interception ratio. He will have to fend off David Garrard and Tannehill in camp and then navigate an early schedule that includes five road games in the first eight contests and matchups against the Texans (Week One in Houston), Bengals (Week Five in Cincy) and two versus the Jets (Weeks Three and Eight).
Other Dolphins worth mentioning: OLB Koa Misi, RB Daniel Thomas.
Bills DE Mario Williams
There’s no hiding it: Williams was the biggest free-agent catch this offseason, and he will be expected to have the same effect that Julius Peppers had on the Bears two seasons ago — maybe even more. The sometimes spotlight-shy Williams is a tremendous player, and he should be fully healed from a torn pectoral muscle he suffered with the Texans in Week Five last season. But can he handle the intense scrutiny, help an entire defense jell and return to form as a blocking-scheme-wrecking menace? Tall order indeed.
Other Bills worth mentioning: OLB Shawne Merriman, CB Leodis McKelvin.