We are nearly a month into Buffalo Bills training camp and other than their Hall of Fame Game opponent, the New York Giants, no team in the NFL can match the time that the Bills have spent on the practice field. By now, some people have already started to draw some ‘conclusions’ about the team. Some are hasty and unrealistic, others are more pragmatic. Having been in attendance for two of the practices at St. John Fisher, as well as spending much of my last four weeks feverishly scouring the internet for practice updates and breakdowns, I feel as though I am beginning to get a pretty good handle on the direction that the team is trending in certain areas. Like every team in the middle of August, there are certain parts of the group that stir up more confidence than others. The following is a breakdown of the two position groups that I feel most confident and two I feel least confident about as of today.
The ‘We’re Good Here’ Groups
There are two positions that I think are ready to snap the ball tomorrow. Heck, I think both of them could make a case for being the best group in the league. No worries here.
The first one is a relatively easy call. Top to bottom, the Bills own the best defensive line in the NFL in the opinion of this writer. With Jim Schwartz and his base 4-3 ‘Wide 9’ scheme coming to town, the starting front four is certain to be Mario Williams, Kyle Williams, Marcell Dareus and Jerry Hughes. The former three all represented Buffalo in Honolulu last last season. Hughes also had a breakout season, totaling 10 sacks. All four will do well in a base 4-3. Some have doubts about Hughes in this regard, but not me. You watch his tape and you see a guy who is actually more of a power rusher than speed rusher. His ability to get lower than his opponent on the offensive line allows him to get his hands up and under the chest area and use this leverage to overpower many that he is up against. Enough has already been said about the other three Pro Bowlers. I think Hughes will enter that same level this season.
The Bills also have an embarrassment of riches behind that impressive starting four. Manny Lawson, Jarius Wynn, Stefan Charles and Corbin Bryant are virtual locks to make up the next four spots in the rotation. Wynn, and particularly Lawson, are proven NFL commodities, while Charles and Bryant have both shown well since coming to Buffalo. Veteran Alan Branch and Landon Cohen, who has truly been one of the bright spots of the defense thus far in training camp, may be battling for the 9th and final spot on the defensive line. Whether they keep just one or both, the depth that the Bills will have at the position helps stake their claim of being among the best defensive lines in the entire NFL.
Jim Schwartz’s defense is predicated upon strong play out of the front four. It’s been proven over time (see Haynesworth, Albert) that dominant defensive lineman can help create an elite defense in his system. The Bills may have a few guys with that kind of talent and that makes me feel pretty comfortable about this group heading into the season.
On the other side of the football, the Bills running back group is nearly as strong as the defensive line. Buffalo will be one of the most run-heavy teams in the league this season. In order to help translate volume into more production, the Bills went out and got two new backfield toys. Anthony DIxon, a 6’1″, 235 lb bruiser who split time at fullback and running back with the San Francisco 49ers was brought in during free agency and the Bills sent a draft pick to Philadelphia for the uber-talented Bryce Brown. Both Dixon and Brown add important elements to a Buffalo rushing attack that was already solid before they arrived.
C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson are both very talented runners in their own right, and figure to maintain lead roles in the offense. My thought is that if all of the backs are healthy, Spiller and Jackson will combine for about 30 carries a game, which will probably leave at least five carries for one or both of the other two. This is a team absolutely committed to running the football, which is why I believe you’ll see all four of these guys handle the ball at some point during the season – if not during a game.
No matter how the usage ends up shaking out, it is safe to say that the Bills have one of the deepest, most talented running back groups in the league. The Seahawks are probably the class of the NFL, but a case can certainly be made for Buffalo. With four guys in the mix that would see significant playing time on virtually any team in the league, it’s an easy group to feel good about.
The ‘Jury’s Out’ Groups
There are two groups that still have major questions to be answered. While there is talent within both of them, there is not yet enough evidence that talent will translate into success. I’m just not quite sure about these positions as of today.
I know that some people think this is totally asinine, while other think it’s an understatement, but the jury is certainly still out on EJ Manuel and the Bills’ quarterback group as a whole. Manuel has been so tough to read for me. In part because he had so many injury issues that resulted in so many missed practices/games/opportunities to evaluate. The other aspect is that when Manuel has been healthy and on the field, it’s been a decidedly mixed bag thus far. His footwork can look sloppy. Then the next play it can look as smooth as can be. His accuracy can be off-point at times. Then he throws a strike down the seam right between a receiver’s numbers. Manuel’s play has simply been inconsistent so far in his career. In my opinion, a lot of this has to do with injuries. He needs to stay healthy this year for the sake of both his own career and the Bills’ need to evaluate. Regardless, he certainly is one of the most important players on this football team; and also one of the biggest question marks.
Another reason that Manuel needs to stay healthy and in the lineup this season is that the backup quarterbacks in Buffalo have left a lot to be desired throughout the 2014 edition of training camp. Jeff Tuel has been a bit better, but neither him nor Thad Lewis have been able to consistently move the ball against predominantly the 2nd and 3rd team defenses. In the two practices that I saw, Tuel was below-average, Lewis a bit worse than that, and fourth-string quarterback Dennis Dixon was somehow even worse than Lewis. The Bills need to hope that Manuel develops. If not, they better hope that one of these three backup quarterbacks has an even more surprising turnaround, should they be thrust into duty. Right now, I still have some optimism regarding EJ. Not so much with the others.
One of the most popular adages in the NFL today is that it’s a ‘quarterback-driven’ league. While I think the phrase is a bit overused, the quarterback position is surely one of the important areas to be strong in. Hopefully, the Bills will find out whether they really are or aren’t sooner rather than later.
Before we begin this one, a little disclaimer: I’m actually pretty high on the Buffalo Bills’ offensive line. I think there is certainly some talent to play with here. But how that talent will actually fall into place is what creates the uncertainty. As of today, only two positions are truly set in stone. Cordy Glenn is your starting left tackle and Eric Wood is your starting center. That is a nice place to start, as I believe Glenn is a top-5 left tackle in the league (tough to come by) and Wood is in the upper-echelon of players at his position as well. After that, there are a lot of question marks. As far as the other three starting positions (LG, RG, RT) go, it appears that there are about four players seriously fighting for the two starting guard spots and three players fighting to be named starting right tackle.
Two from the group of Chris Williams, Kraig Urbik and Cyril RIchardson would seem most likely to lock down starting guard spots, but Antoine McClain has been making some noise at Fisher as of late, and he seems to be firmly in the mix as well. Chris Williams has done absolutely nothing to impress me during camp or pre-season games so far. I realize the contract implications, but if he doesn’t be careful, he could very well be a surprise cut. As of today, I believe Richardson and Urbik are the Bills’ two best options at the guard position. Cyrus Kouandjio has been one of the more disappointing guys at training camp. A few weeks ago, I said that I thought he was a virtual lock to unseat Erik Pears and start at right tackle for Buffalo day one. However, he’s done nothing but underachieve since then. He has not shown quick enough feet in pass blocking and hasn’t done enough in the run game to make up for it. It is still very early, and I still believe Kouandjio has a ton of talent, but he needs to take a pretty sizable leap within the next two weeks or so if he expects to get any playing time in September. Seantrel Henderson is another option at RT. The 7th round pick has looked more than capable at LT while filling in for Cordy Glenn during the first half in camp, and the Bills may think about flipping him to the right side now that Glenn has returned.
Scenarios such as that are why Buffalo’s offensive line still has a lot of questions to be answered before the season gets underway. I believe the offensive line has a pretty considerable amount of collective talent, but how it all works together is still up in the air. I will be concerned until I at least see the same unit practice together for consecutive weeks.
So there you have what parts of the Bills I am both most/least confident in as of today. What parts of the team are you feeling good about? What parts are making you wonder? Let me know, and as always, Go Bills!