Where has the off season gone? Come Sunday night, the Bills will hit the practice field at St. John Fisher for the start of their 2014 training camp. There are a number of questions about the 2014 Bills but the biggest question doesn't have anything to do with on field performance.
Who will be the next owner of the Bills? That will loom over the team and the season until there is an answer, which could come as early as October or perhaps as late as March. Depending on who that next owner is, the next question would of course be whether or not the Bills are staying in Western New York.
I came up with more than 30 questions/story lines in regards to on field matters but don't worry, I won't bore you with all of them. I'll just go with my top five. The first one is a repeat question and one that we've been asking every year for far too long.
Will this finally be the year the Bills end their playoff drought? No. As is usually the case when Tom Brady is healthy, the Bills will be fighting for one of two AFC wildcard spots as opposed to a third possible post season avenue via a division title.
To make a long story short, the quarterback is unproven and the defense took three major hits in the off season with the loss of Mike Pettine to Cleveland, Jairus Byrd to New Orleans and Kiko Alonso to a season ending injury. The defense will have to make due without the coordinator who restored life to that side of the ball, as well as its two best playmakers. I don't think its strong enough to carry the team should the offense be inconsistent which leads us to the next question.
Actually its a two part question. Can EJ Manuel stay healthy for a full season? If so, will he do enough to convince us he's the man for the job going forward? If Manuel makes it through the pre-season without getting hurt, that would be a good start since he couldn't do that last season.
As to his performance, I like what I heard coming out of the OTA's about Manuel having a better feel for the offense thanks a full off season to prepare and I was glad to see he had throwing sessions with some of the wide receivers before OTA's began. I like the idea of a quarterback coach to help Manuel so Nathaniel Hackett can concentrate solely on coordinating the offense as opposed to doing both jobs as was the case in 2013. But none of that really matters. It will all come down to how the former Florida State star looks on the field during the regular season.
I'll stay on offense for the next question. What kind of impact will Sammy Watkins have? HIstory will tell us not to get too excited since rookie receivers don't typically light up the league and Watkins numbers will of course rely in part on the play of Manuel. I think the better question might be how many different ways can Hackett and the offense get the ball in the hands of Watkins whose speed, playmaking ability and run after catch skills were constantly on display at Clemson.
The next question also comes from the offensive side of the ball. What will the offensive line look like come opening day? Its possible three of the five starters will be different from game one of the 2013 season. We know there will be a new left guard. Free agent pickup Chris Williams will hopefully perform much better than the tandem of Colin Brown and Doug Legursky.
The major O-Line battle at camp will be at right tackle where incumbent Erik Pears will attempt to hold off rookie Cyrus Kouandjio. My guess is the second round pick from Alabama will have the job by opening day unless he looks completely lost in the pre-season.
The third possible change on the line is at right guard where Kraig Urbik has been the starter. At the very least, Urbik will likely retain the spot by default. The competition doesn't look too stong, with the group including Chris Hairston who has been a tackle and missed all of last season with an injury.
For my final question, lets go back to the defense. Pettine's departure was a punch to the gut that knocked the wind out of the defense. Byrd bolting was like an upper cut to the jaw which left the group a bit woozy and staggering. The word of Alonso suffering a torn ACL while working out was the blow that put the defense down on the canvas. The question is can they get up to continue the fight? The answer is yes, they'll get up but the damage may have been done and the Bills might end up losing on the card.
The Bills should still have one of the best defensive lines in the NFL but Alonso's play as a rookie was inspiring. Its been a long time since Bills fans saw that kind of overall, playmaking ability from an every down linebacker. Alonso was on the field for every single snap last season and it was hoped his shift from the middle to the outside would bolster the run defense. It remains to be seen who will start in Alonso's spot with free agent pickup Keith Rivers just one possibility but no matter who wins the job or if its outside linebacker by committee, there'll be a big drop off in productivity at that spot.
There are plenty of other questions about the 2014 Bills which is why we invite you to join us as we venture out to St. John Fisher and cover training camp on WGR and at WGR550.com.