By Sal Capaccio
Today is the start of May. That means Bills training camp begins in just about twelve weeks. OK, give a few days or so either way. For that, here are twelve things I'm thinking about the Bills after the draft and all the free agent signings. Or maybe it's twelve things because Jim Kelly wore #12?! Honestly, I just wanted a number and had to make up a reason. So twelve it is……
1. I'm thinking the Bills, privately, really want EJ Manuel to win the starting QB job out of camp. But publicly, don't want to put the sort of pressure on him that goes along with saying that, much less declaring him the starter before camp begins. My sense is Manuel, Kevin Kolb, and Tarvaris Jackson will get roughly the same amount of reps and snaps with the first team offense once training camp officially starts, but that either Kolb or Jackson will have to clearly be better than Manuel to earn the opening day job over the team's first-round draft choice. If it's anywhere close, Manuel will get the call. It's his job to lose.
2. I want to write this one as carefully as possible, because I know some will take it wrong. I think Marcell Dareus CAN be a very good nose tackle. And I'm totally ok with him playing there and even excited to see what he can do there. But I don't think it's where he's best suited as a football player. Dareus will play a lot of nose when the team goes to a 3-4. True nose tackles have to be 2-gap players. Guys who can hold up both gaps on either side of the center. Guys whose job it is - above all - to stand their ground and take away two and sometimes even three blockers. Not to penetrate vey often. Dareus may be very good at doing this. But considering how athletic he is for a man his size, I've always seen him more of a single-gap, penetrating defensive lineman. A guy who can use his quickness to try and get into the backfield and also be able to chase down plays. Really, I'm all for almost anything new with this defense because they were so bad last year. I just hope Dareus' best assets aren't wasted by keeping him in the middle eating up space.
3. The above said, I'm very excited o see Mario Williams move back and forth and around in Mike Pettine's new hybrid defense. I really believe part of Williams' struggles last year had to do with him being stationary. Teams knew exactly where he'd be and exactly what he'd do on almost every play. And Williams is a streaky player. Once he gets going, he seems to feed off his own energy and play. Moving him around and not placing him in a stationary position will allow him to be more engaged - and energized.
4. I love the fact CJ Spiller
is should be getting more carries this season. We were all frustrated with his lack of touches last year. He should be the unquestioned starter at running back and can be a consistently elite back in the NFL because of it. But Fred Jackson has somehow become "the forgotten man" this offseason. He's still a very good player and very important to the Bills in 2013. Yes, he's now 32 years old. But Jackson won't have to be the primary ball carrier and take the same pounding he did last year. He'll be able to stay more fresh and that's going to be very important considering the type of offense Nathaniel Hackett is going to employ. Fast-paced and up-tempo. This year, when we hear "CJ needed a breather" come out of a coach's mouth, he'll most likely be right.
5. Piggy-backing on the point above, let's also not forget about Tashard Choice, who played well in his limited time on the field last season. Choice and Jackson together are a nice complement to Spiller. They can pick up the tough inside yards when needed to keep the wear-and-tear off CJ. Spiller can handle the inside stuff much better than people still want to give him credit for. And there will be many times he's asked and needed to do that. But with guys like Jackson and Choice behind him, why force him to do that more than he has to? Jackson and Choice are also very good insurance policies to have if Spiller happens to miss any time. In fact, you can make a solid argument that the Bills have one of the best overall stable of running backs in the NFL right now.
6. Despite the recent draft and grabbing two of them, I'm still concerned about the safety position. Even if Jairus Byrd's contract situation gets worked out - which is certainly not a guarantee - the Bills don't have a solid go-to guy to play opposite him. Aaron Williams will be new to the position at the pro level. And even though I've always said he's better suited for safety and welcome that change, he was also bad in coverage last season and there's no simple formula that guarantees he'll be better at it this season when he has to step up against a tight end or slot receiver. Da'Norris Searcy has been a nice backup player but has only started three games in his two-year career (none last season). He still has plenty to prove. What is Bryan Scott? A safety? A linebacker? And as much as we'd all like one of the drafted rookies, Duke Williams or Jonathan Meeks, to become a Day One starter, the fact is no one else on the roster is ready to take on the task of covering Rob Gronkowski one play and tackling a running back the next.
7. So the Bills essentially traded wide receivers Donald Jones and David Nelson for Robert Woods, Marquise Goodwin, and/or Da'Rick Rogers. Both Jones and Nelson had specific areas they excelled at. For Jones, who came on well after being forced into a starting role last season, his biggest asset as a receiver was his strength. But his best contributions to the team came as a good blocker on the edge or downfield. For Nelson, he had the best hands on the team. If the ball hit his hands, he caught it. But he wasn't fast enough to pull away from defenders nor strong enough to go up and fight for 50/50 balls and bring them down. I'm still not sold on Goodwin as anything other than a wideout who is going to take some time to adjust to the NFL game. Goodwin may eventually be a solid player, but don't expect too much from him this season. But Woods and Rogers are different cases. Woods is ready to play in the league right now. In fact, I think he's going to start opening weekend against the Patriots. And he and Rogers both have a much higher ceiling than Jones and Nelson did. We saw what those two had and it was never going to be anything more than that.
8. I really don't know the exact way to feel about the tight end position right now. I think I should be concerned about it because the only player who made any significant contribution at the position last year, Scott Chandler, is coming off a torn ACL and it happened in late December. Who knows if he'll even be ready for camp? Chandler caught 43 passes last season. After that, the sum total of catches by all Bills tight ends was a whopping FOUR! The only tight ends currently on the roster are Chandler, Lee Smith, Mike Caussin, and 7th-round draft choice Chris Gragg. But I keep telling myself I shouldn't be concerned because the fact is no one's sure how the offense will be used in Hackett's new offense. How often will one even be on the field? Will he be asked to block? Will there be a lot less tight end and more H-back this season? I guess I'll settle on the word "intrigued" to describe how I feel about the spot. For now.
9. A lot was made about the Bills drafting and signing more "edgy" players this year. Intentional or not, there were clearly a few more players with legal incidences brought in this April than we've seen in recent years. My sense is the organization feels much better about the ability of Doug Marrone to handle these players and surround them with the right type of environment than they did with Chan Gailey. Gailey was a very nice man and had a lot of respect from his players. But he also was too concerned about hurting players' feelings when it came to playing time and getting the ball. Marrone, on the other hand, is known to be a "draw the line" type of coach. He's had (unfortunately for us Syracuse football fans) plenty of experience dealing with players and legal issues. After Marrone was hired at Syracuse, his discipline policies were a complete 180 from the previous Orange regime. Most likely not coincidentally, more than 20 players left the Syracuse program between the time he was hired and his 2nd season as head coach.
10. Speaking of Marrone and Syracuse, I wouldn't be a bit surprised if undrafted free agent guard Zack Chibane, who played at Syracuse under Marrone and Hackett, made the Bills final roster. Like many had said leading up to the draft about quarterback Ryan Nassib and lineman Justin Pugh, Chibane knows Hackett's offense well, and the coaches know him. It says something that Chibane was the only Syracuse player either drafted or signed as an UDFA by the new regime. Also, Chibane is just a bit lighter than the other guards on the Bills roster. In fact, other than long snapper Garrison Sanborn, Chibane is the only offensive lineman listed at less than 300 pounds. Yes, that's small, but it's also the kind of guard the Bills want to have, at least in some capacity, for their faster offense that will require players to play more up-tempo.
11. I was extremely surprised the Bills did not select a pure cornerback in the draft. Buddy Nix always says you can't have enough of them. In today's pass-happy and spread-offense-happy NFL, he's right. But more importantly, the team is a bit thin at the position right now. As it stands, the only true corners on the roster are Stephon Gilmore, Leodis McKelvin, Ron Brooks, Crezdon Butler, Kip Edwards, Vernon Kearney, Nickell Robey, Justin Rogers, TJ Heath, and Jumal Rolle. It's ok if you've never heard of a few of these guys. But that's the point. I keep looking at that list and then reminding myself the Bills have Drew Brees, Cam Newton, Matt Ryan, Joe Flacco, Josh Freeman, Andy Dalton, and Ben Roethlisberger on the 2013 schedule. Oh, and Tom Brady. Twice.
12. So about those cornerbacks. If Leodis McKelvin is going to start, and he should be penciled in there opposite Stephon Gilmore right now, I'm curious to see if he still handles punt and kick return duties as regularly. Most teams don't like to have their starting skill position players also returning punts and kicks, but McKelvin is so good and dangerous at both, the Bills could be losing a weapon and field position advantage by NOT having him as their primary returner. It will be interesting to see how that plays out.
That reminds me, what happens with Brad Smith this season? Wait. That would make it 13 points. I can't go that far. At least not yet……..
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