Training Camp is underway for the Buffalo Bills and there’s a new sense of energy surrounding the team following an influx of big-name individuals such as Rex Ryan, LeSean McCoy, Percy Harvin and Charles Clay, among others. While they may dominate headlines at the moment, there’s several unheralded players that have a chance to make a name for themselves with strong outings during the remainder of training camp and the preseason.
Here at BillsMafia.com, let’s take a look at five “sleepers” that could potentially have a bigger impact in 2015 than expected.
TE MarQuies Gray
Bills’ tight end MarQueis Gray has traveled an unconventional path en route to competing for a significant role within the team’s offense in 2015. A four-star recruit out of high school, he signed on with the Minnesota Gophers, only to be kicked off the team due to discrepancies with his ACT scores. After he regained eligibility, Gray went on to be an “X Factor” for the Gophers, serving as their primary offensive weapon, playing wide receiver before transitioning to a dual-threat quarterback.
In his four collegiate seasons, Gray passed for 2,053 yards and 14 touchdowns, rushed for 1,731 yards and 12 touchdowns and caught 60 passes for 766 yards and six scores.
Gray went undrafted in the 2013 NFL Draft, but spent time with the San Francisco 49ers, the Cleveland Browns and the Minnesota Vikings before being claimed by the Bills in November of last season. The 6’4” 242-pound tight end quickly made himself known when he caught a 41-yard pass in his first game with the Bills against the Browns, who had released him just weeks prior.
Buffalo signed Charles Clay to a lucrative free agent contract and selected Nick O’Leary, the 2014 Mackey Award winner, given to the nation’s top tight end in the 2015 NFL Draft, but Gray has a legitimate chance to see significant playing time in Greg Roman’s offense that relies on multiple tight ends in both the running and passing game. Gray will be competing with Chris Gragg for the “H-Back” role, but he likely has the upper hand over the team’s 2013 seventh-round pick due to his size, athleticism and route running ability.
CB Nickell Robey
Nickell Robey went undrafted in the 2013 NFL Draft despite a stellar collegiate career at Southern California in which he recorded 163 tackles, seven interceptions (three returned for touchdowns) and 24 pass breakups, due to his 5’7” 160-pound frame. In his rookie season under Mike Pettine, Robey proved that his size didn’t matter as he played 629 defensive snaps (53.5%), breaking up 10 passes and intercepting one for a touchdown. He allowed 0.87 yards-per-snap in coverage, the 6th best among slot cornerbacks and his 11.4 receptions allowed per coverage snap ranked 5th.
Last year, Robey was a bit miscast in Jim Schwartz’ zone-based defense and his play suffered. After allowing a 52.5% completion rate for 277 yards and three touchdowns in 2013, Robey allowed a 68.9% completion rate for 548 yards in 2014. This year, he’ll look to bounce back under Rex Ryan, who’s defensive scheme is similar to the one Pettine ran in 2013. Robey will be used in man coverage and featured as a blitzer, where he excelled. He’s already begun to turn heads in training camp, and it appears that Robey should rebound after his sophomore slump.
Nickell Robey is your starting nickel, and he promptly gets a sack on a blitz during team drills #Bills
— Joe Buscaglia (@JoeBuscaglia) July 31, 2015
OT Cyrus Kouandjio
The Bills selected Cyrus Kouandjio in the second-round of the 2014 NFL Draft with the hopes of him being an immediate starter at right tackle in his rookie year. However, it was seventh-round pick Seantrel Henderson that earned the starting nod, while Kouandjio spent the majority of the year watching on the sidelines wearing street clothes.
After spending the offseason training at LeCharles Bentley’s “O-Line World Performance Academy” Kouandjio is now in great shape and has been working with the first-team throughout the start of training camp and reportedly looks good.
At RT Cyrus Kouandjio held his own against Mario Williams and Jarius Wynn on consecutive reps.
— Matthew Fairburn (@MatthewFairburn) August 2, 2015
Cyrus Kouandjio just pancaked DE Cedric Reed into the ground… hard. #Bills
— Joe Buscaglia (@JoeBuscaglia) August 1, 2015
Kouandjio and Henderson are in an open competition for the starting right tackle position and after seeing how several offensive linemen throughout the league have turned their careers around after working with LeCharles Bentley, it shouldn’t come as a surprise if he makes an impact this season.
RB Karlos Williams
Despite trading for LeSean McCoy, the Bills selected a raw, yet big and athletic running back in the 2015 NFL Draft in Karlos Williams to join the stable of Fred Jackson, Boobie Dixon and Bryce Brown. While McCoy will clearly be the team’s workhorse back, early offseason reports surrounding the coaching staff’s view on Jackson’s future, combined with Rex Ryan’s criticism of Brown’s fumbling issues, Williams has a chance to carve out a niche for himself on not only the 53-man roster, but the 45-man gameday roster as well.
Williams, a former safety-turned-running back who was seen as someone who’d compete on special teams as a rookie, has taken snaps with the first-team with LeSean McCoy out of practice and turned some heads.
In the run drill, rookie Karlos Williams looks good. Doesn’t dance or hesitate. A few big runs just now.
— Tyler Dunne (@TyDunne) August 3, 2015
Bryce Brown’s fumbling issues are already showing up and it’s likely he’s the odd man out if the Bills keep four running backs. Boobie Dixon is a solid, yet not spectacular back that contributes on special teams but doesn’t have a unique trait that really separates himself at the running back position. Williams is an energetic, physical and fast running back that fits the profile for Greg Roman’s power-scheme that relies on a “one-cut and go” runner, so while he may not be competing for a starting job, he’ll be competing for carries in an offense that will live and die by the run.
S Jonathan Meeks
Buffalo’s secondary is loaded with talented players, featuring the likes of Stephon Gilmore, Leodis McKelvin, second-round pick Ronald Darby, Corey Graham, Aaron Williams and up-and-coming safety Duke Williams, but third-year safety Jonathan Meeks could be a name to keep an eye on in the weeks leading up to the season. A two-year starter at Clemson that recorded 159 tackles, seven interceptions and 17 passes defensed in 50 total games,
Meeks was selected in the fifth-round of the 2013 NFL Draft. While he hasn’t seen playing time yet due to a severe neck injury, Meeks is held in high regard by the front office and has the athletic ability coveted at the safety position in today’s NFL (6’0” 210 lbs, 4.5 40-yd dash, 1.67 10-yd split, 7.13 three-cone, 23 bench reps, 33.5” vertical leap, 9’07” broad jump).
Meeks’ has seen time with both the first and second-team units through the first three days of training camp practices and Rex Ryan brought his name up twice when discussing the secondary. In college, Meeks showed that he was versatile enough to defend the run while also displaying solid anticipation and closing speed that he’s apparently showcasing in training camp.
Nice break on the ball by Jonathan Meeks in 7 on 7 covering Chris Hogan for a break-up.
— Tyler Dunne (@TyDunne) July 31, 2015
The Bills still have over a month before the regular season kicks off, but keep these five players in mind as you watch preseason games, as they could be making their way onto the field on Sundays in the near future.