Over the course of the next month the National Football League, which is loud and vibrant for the rest of the year, will go dark as players and teams prepare for the onslaught of training camps around the country. For the Buffalo Bills, they’ll have some decisions to make not only on who makes the 53-man roster, but maybe even for players that could impact their season dramatically.
Starting positions will be on the line at St. John Fisher College. When the Bills get to training camp for their first practice on July 20, the competitions between some select players at different positions will be front and center for many.
Which five positions might not be set in stone? Here’s a very, very premature look at how things could start off in Pittsford, New York:
1) Strong Safety
- This is one of two positions that is bringing along guaranteed competition with the start of training camp. Throughout the three-day minicamp fourth-year player Da’Norris Searcy got all the first-team looks, but don’t expect that to continue all the way through camp. Second-year safety Duke Williams knows the job is on the line and will likely get his opportunities to shine with the first unit as well. Searcy has the added advantage of much more experience in regular season games on the defensive side of the ball. However, that’s also that much more tape on him which could expose some of his flaws. Also working in the favor of Williams is the fact that he was drafted by the current regime. Searcy, in the final year of his contract, was not. The two will likely get an equal opportunity to win the job, with a tie likely going to Williams.
2) Right Tackle
- This became a competition as soon as the Bills elected to not use their first-round pick on an offensive lineman, and instead took one in the second round with starting potential. Erik Pears is the incumbent, bouncing back from a below average 2013 campaign and returning to average. The Bills know they can do better at right tackle, though, and they would want to get younger, too. Second-round pick Cyrus Kouandjio enters as Pears’ central competition. Make no mistake, the team wants Kouandjio to win that job but they won’t just hand it to him. They made the calculated risk in selecting him, regardless of concerns over his long-term playing status due to his knee injury. It’s Kouandjio’s job to lose.
3) Right Guard
- The Bills have been looking to upgrade at three of their five positions along the offensive line following the end of the 2013 season. They already signed a new starting left guard in Chris Williams, they drafted the aforementioned Kouandjio to compete for the starting right tackle job, which leaves right guard as one they’re interested in creating some competition. Kraig Urbik, who turned a fantastic 2012 season into a contract extension, has seen his production slip some which has opened the door for the Bills to contemplate competition. Through minicamp, Chris Hairston split the first-team reps with Urbik which was a signal that they may be looking for new blood at the position. Don’t discount Cyril Richardson, J.J. ‘Unga, Antoine McClain or Mark Asper yet either, but Hairston seems to be the guy they’ve liked the most through the offseason practices.
- Fullback is a position that isn’t talked about very often, but it’s one that has seen first-team reps split between the only two on the roster. Frank Summers and Evan Rodriguez both ended the 2013 season on the Bills active roster. While the former made the team straight out of training camp, the latter was added months into the season and eventually worked into the offense. Summers is your old-school type of blocker, but Rodriguez is the more athletic and versatile type that can offer a lot in the passing game. However, Rodriguez doesn’t offer quite as much as a blocker, and the Bills could be favoring a run-heavy attack once again. As training camp approaches the two will likely continue to split their reps with all units, earning the designation of a straight up, ‘let the best man win,’ style of showdown.
5) Tight End
- Of the five listed, tight end is really the only one that doesn’t have some clear cut competition. However, Tony Moeaki got a ton of time with the first-team over the three-day minicamp and was relatively impressive. Scott Chandler was the leading receiver on the Bills last year and was excused from the minicamp to tend to a family matter, but will see some stiff competition from Moeaki during training camp. Don’t be shocked to see some two tight-end sets featuring both players, because Chandler has proved to be a consistent target in his own right. Moeaki created a bit of a rapport with EJ Manuel over the last few days and would likely need a big training camp to unseat Chandler. However, it’s worth monitoring for two reasons. First, the Bills were very much considering using the ninth overall selection on Eric Ebron had they stayed at their selection. And secondly, they’ve been talking up Moeaki since the end of last year. It’s not an outright competition, but keep an eye on this one.
Over the course of the Buffalo Bills 2014 mandatory minicamp there was one player that not only got time at a new position, but even saw some starter reps during his time at that new spot.
Chris Hairston, a former fourth-round selection in the 2011 NFL Draft, left his normal spot at offensive tackle and was shifted inside to right guard throughout the three-day stretch of practices. Since he’s been a member of the organization, it was the first time he’s been moved away from offensive tackle.
With both left tackle and right tackle likely spoken for Hairston’s best chance to not only start, but to make the roster entirely, could be if he shows enough ability at guard throughout the summer. Head coach Doug Marrone explained some of his thinking with trying out the 6-foot-6, 330-pound lineman on the interior.
“He’s a big body and it’s a position for that. We have Kraig Urbik. We have Chris there. We have some of those younger guys that are playing that position,” Marrone said. “It’s hard to judge at this time of year in shorts and how it’s going to shake out, especially up front. So we’re putting everyone in there and giving them an opportunity to learn that stuff so they can go ahead and compete.”
If you’ll recall, Hairston lost his entire 2013 season due to a pair of issues. For one, he had an injury that kept him out of participating of training camp practices. Following that, he had an undisclosed condition that landed him on the Non-Football Illness list, ending his season before it even started.
In 2014, though, he’s fully cleared and back on the field for the Bills throughout their entire offseason program. His hard work has been acknowledged, paving the way for his opportunity at the mandatory minicamp.
“I think he's earned it, to the standpoint of that he's come back after a year off and he's done some great things. I think that when a guy comes back and does what he's doing, it goes across the board for all those guys,” offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett said.
“You want to get those guys in there and see how they are when they get against the, all of a sudden Mario Williams is there. You want to see how they're gonna react, all of a sudden, Kyle Williams is in front of you. That's a big deal.”
Hairston essentially split the first-team reps with incumbent starter Kraig Urbik at right guard over the three-day stretch of practices. Does he serve as Urbik’s biggest competition at training camp?
“I think we will see how that goes as we get closer to camp,” answered Marrone, not wanting to give anything away.
Hairston and the rest of the team are now on a one-month break from football activities at One Bills Drive. They’ll reconvene in Pittsford, New York at St. John Fisher College for the start of training camp on July 20.
The Buffalo Bills wrapped up their 2014 offseason workouts on Thursday evening with the conclusion of their three-day mandatory minicamp. The practice started off with a special message from Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly and the players went through the paces for the last time before a month-long break.
There were some individual standouts, and perhaps some good news as they approach the start of training camp in July 20. Here is how some of the practice played out:
1) Woods standing out
- With two new targets brought in for EJ Manuel throughout the offseason, the only constant from 2013 projected to this year’s starting lineup is Robert Woods. And to this point through the workouts, Woods has not disappointed in the least bit. He didn’t start participating during the team drills right away due to an ankle procedure early on into the offseason. However, once he got the green light Manuel has gotten reacquainted with Woods and found the trust without much delay. The second-year wideout won’t break a game wide open, but he is as consistent and dependable as they come. Woods adjusted to a poorly thrown pass at the goal line after beating his man on an out route, dove for the reception and rolled into the end zone. It was a small example, but further evidence to what Woods means to Manuel.
2) Mike Williams gets some work with the 1s
- A little bit of concerned has been raised over the past week or so about newly acquired wide receiver Mike Williams and his lack of time with the top unit past the first week or so. On Thursday, the final day of mandatory minicamp, Williams got back in the rotation and was part of the three wide receiver sets on the first team sporadically. He’s also been rehabbing his hamstring injury from the 2013 season, which has led to the trainers limiting what he does during offseason practices. To put it plainly, it’s extremely premature to label Williams as a player in jeopardy of making the roster because of the aforementioned reasons. The Bills like him a great deal, and view him as someone that can make an impact on the offensive side of the ball as long as he keeps himself out of trouble and shows ability during training camp.
3) Kyle Williams ripping through the interior
- It’s hard to take much away from the performances of both the offensive and defensive lines because physicality is frowned upon during offseason practices and that is the primary function of those two units. However, Kyle Williams gave a little preview of what to expect when the Bills put the pads on and get to training camp in late July. He got through to the backfield quickly on more than one occasion, which has been commonplace in training camp practices since he was drafted by the Bills. Chris Hairston and Kraig Urbik were no match for Williams on a few occasions.
4) No Byrd? The Bills have a (hopeful) new ballhawk
- As the Bills transition to life without Jairus Byrd, they are also shifting Aaron Williams into a role more similar to what Byrd did than to what Williams did last season. Williams is now the free safety, and he’ll have the liberty to use his instincts and athleticism to try and break up plays, and to even force turnovers. Williams started the day off by baiting EJ Manuel into an interception during 7-on-7s by breaking on the ball quickly and getting in front of the receiver for the turnover. Later on he was merely a step or two away from picking off another pass, this time in the end zone, on a play that was ultimately broken up by the cornerback in coverage. Williams jumped up and screamed out, “That should have been number two!” He’s embracing his new role quite well.
5) Full health for camp?
- As the Bills break for about a month, they might just have every single player ready to go by the time training camp comes around. Head coach Doug Marrone said he believes that all 90 players on the roster should be ready in time for training camp, including the players that they brought along slowly during their offseason workouts. That means players like Mario Williams, Stephon Gilmore, Leodis McKelvin, T.J. Graham and others that have been limited through the last few weeks should be able to participate in a much larger way. Just like Wednesday, the Bills had 89 out of their 90 players on the practice field for Thursday’s practice. Only tight end Scott Chandler, who was excused for personal reasons, missed the session.
Throughout all of the Organized Team Activities and the three-day minicamp, Buffalo Bills wide receiver Mike Williams wasn’t getting as many reps during practice as was expected for a player with his talent level. The reason for his slow start has now been unveiled.
“We started off where, they threw me out there and I was just going every rep, and then the leg started getting to me,” Williams said, referring to a previous injury. “Then they started holding me back more and more, but then I started getting my leg back, they were giving me more reps. It was really the leg, but I should be 100-percent by camp.”
The injury that ended his season prematurely in Tampa Bay during the 2013 season was a torn hamstring, and one that he had a procedure on. Now with a substantial amount of time off from practices, Williams is hoping for his leg to get back in order by the time training camp rolls around.
“I'm almost there. I keep telling them I'm at 80-percent, they're telling me I'm at 70-percent. We're going back and forth, but, I think I'm getting there,” he said. “With this month right now until camp, I think I'll be 100-percent coming into camp.”
Williams had been seen in recent weeks losing out on some first-team reps after starting out with the top unit at the beginning of OTAs. On Thursday, the team’s final mandatory minicamp practice, the Buffalo-native was sprinkled into a few first-team reps during three wide receiver sets.
The Bills acquired Williams this offseason from Tampa Bay for a sixth-round pick.
As the media entered the ADPRO Sports Training Center for the final day of mandatory minicamp, a familiar face to the Buffalo Bills was seen by all. Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly, who is battling cancer, showed up to team facilities for the first time since undergoing radiation and chemotherapy.
Unbeknownst to the 90 players on the Bills roster, Kelly walked out on to the field after they got through stretching and talked to the team as they huddled around him. Considering all that he has been through over the past several months, it was a special moment for both he and the team.
“Like to be honest, I'm not no little girl, but that brought a tear to my eye. That's a legend right there,” said wide receiver and Buffalo-native Mike Williams. “I kept saying it every time he said a word, I said, 'legend.' It was a joy to see him out there talking and walking around, and to come and talk to us and to say the things he said about our offense, it was kind of like a joy.”
The message he delivered was an important one to head coach Doug Marrone in trying to provide perspective to where the players are at and what type of city they’re playing in. He hopes the message sinks in for his players.
“He made a good point, and it's one that we drive home with the players. Buffalo is a special place with special people in this area,” Marrone said. “Jim's message was, when he was a player here they supported him. Obviously now, fighting his battles, they're supporting him just as much, if not more, now. I think that says a lot for the people in this region. I think that's a good point and our players have to understand that.”
After delivering the message, some players said they think the team got a spark for their final session before a month-long break just by hearing and seeing Kelly speak. As he finished up his talk, the former Bills quarterback went to walk off the field but was then called back to break the huddle for the team to start the practice.
“We're with him. We're fighting through this, just like he's been there with us trying to fight through what we're going through,” Marrone remarked. “We support him and it was great for him to get out there and be amongst the team, which I think he feels comfortable about and having the strength to address them.”
While he was there watching the team go through drills, he was surrounded by Hall of Fame running back Thurman Thomas and Bills President and CEO Russ Brandon. Kelly stayed around practice for about an hour before exiting with his brother Dan.