Predictions of the end of the New England Patriots' 11-year reign at the top of the AFC East are plentiful this summer. Some even speculate the Miami Dolphins might be the team to supplant them.
One thing is certain: the longtime adversaries look much different than the teams that squared off in Miami's 27-24 upset win last December.
The post-Tom Brady era begins for New England Sunday at Gillette Stadium.
The Patriots hand the keys to the offense to another former Super Bowl MVP. Cam Newton, released in the offseason by the Carolina Panthers, could have signed with any team but went unclaimed for weeks before the Patriots brought him in on a relatively bargain deal for a starting quarterback.
Newton overtook second-year quarterback Jarrett Stidham to earn the starting job, while winning over head coach Bill Belichick.
But there's more to prove.
Newton has undergone four surgeries over the past six years, which raises doubts about his potential effectiveness, but he won over teammates in New England and will make his first start for the Patriots.
The Dolphins (5-11 in 2019) had a productive offseason in free agency and drafted a potential future franchise quarterback in Alabama star Tua Tagovailoa.
Dolphins head coach Brian Flores named Ryan Fitzpatrick his starter for week 1 as Tagovailoa continues to learn the offense.
"New England is different, we're different, it's a new year, it's a different year, so it'll be a different environment with no fans," said Flores, a former Patriots defensive coordinator who guided his team to an upset win at Foxborough to close out his first season as head coach. "Everything is just so, so different that we as an organization, as a team, we're not really looking at last year's game and taking much from it."
Newton's offensive targets won't have much experience beyond Julian Edelman, N'Keal Harry and a backfield of James White, Sony Michel and Rex Burkhead.
The Patriots recently placed second-year back Damien Harris on injured reserve after undergoing finger surgery.
"It's been a fun process (with Cam), he brings a lot of energy," Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said. "There's never a dull moment and then you can see why the players gravitate so much towards him and his personality."
The Patriots' defense took some hits in the offseason in losing linebacker Dont'a Hightower and safety Patrick Chung after both opted out due to COVID-19 concerns. Tackle Danny Shelton and linebackers Jamie Collins, Kyle Van Noy and Elandon Roberts each departed in free agency with the latter two joining the Dolphins.
Cornerback Stephon Gilmore and both Jason and Devin McCourty are back in what should be a formidable secondary.
The Dolphins' defense felt the pain of the initial stages of their rebuild in 2019 surrendering the most points in the league (494) and allowing a league-worst 6.0 yards per play.
Fitzpatrick (85.5 passer rating in 2019) still has DeVante Parker (72 catches, 1,202 yards, nine TDs), and second-year pro Preston Williams (32 catches, 428 yards, three TDs), but lost Albert Wilson and Allen Hurns after each opted out.
The arrival of Jordan Howard and Matt Breida should improve what was the league's worst running game in 2019 (3.3 yards per attempt). Miami also traded for versatile receiver Lynn Bowden Jr. last week.
"We have a lot of talent on the offensive end and I think being able to utilize each guy, playing to their strengths and giving them some freedom to go out there and do what they do best, that will hopefully show up here as we get going," Fitzpatrick said.
For Miami, Parker (hamstring), Williams (knee), Van Noy (hand), cornerbacks Byron Jones (Achilles) and Xavien Howard (knee) and tight end Mike Gesicki (glute) were limited in practice Wednesday. Tagovailoa (hip) practiced fully.
For the Patriots, Edelman (knee) was limited in practice as were wide receiver Gunner Olszewski (foot) and defensive lineman Chase Winovich (shoulder).
--Field Level Media