In 2014, the Buffalo Bills went through their longest training camp at St. John Fisher College in recent memory. The players checked in on July 18 and they won’t leave until August 23.
Trips to Canton, Charlotte, Latrobe and Pittsburgh were mixed in, but for over a month the Bills have been together all the time, thinking about football all day and every day. Camp practices are over with in 2014 and the Bills had 21 sessions available to the media.
Some players made good impressions, some fell behind. For the third year in a row, let’s revisit who stood out in Pittsford, NY in this year’s version of the Training Camp Awards:
Flying Up the Depth Chart: OT Seantrel Henderson
- After the 2014 NFL Draft, most were looking to draftees Cyrus Kouandjio and Cyril Richardson as the young offensive linemen who had the best chance of cracking the starting lineup. The general consensus on seventh-round pick Seantrel Henderson was that he would be a good player to develop with a lot of potential down the line. As it turns out, the situations were reversed. Over the past month Henderson has proved to the coaching staff that he can be depended on and the team now views him as one of their top five offensive linemen on the roster. When Cordy Glenn was out, he took all the first-team snaps at left tackle. With Glenn back, the Bills immediately moved Henderson to take first-team reps at right tackle. Buried behind Glenn, Pears, Kouandjio and maybe even Chris Hairston before camp, Henderson has shown to be the most complete rookie offensive lineman that the Bills brought in this year and will likely be a member of the starting five.
Failed to Impress: DT Alan Branch
- It’s been a precipitous fall for defensive tackle Alan Branch since he signed an extension with the Bills in the offseason. Branch was a no show to all the team voluntary workouts and OTAs — which is completely acceptable —but head coach Doug Marrone made somewhat of a problem in the public eye when he said that he hadn’t even as much as heard from Branch in the offseason. The defensive tackle then showed up to training camp out of football shape and was placed on the Non-Football Illness list to start things off. It took Branch a few days, but he eventually passed his conditioning test and got back on the field. In that time on the field, though, Branch has been surpassed by Corbin Bryant, Stefan Charles and even camp upstart Landon Cohen. Even to this day, he is still only getting snaps with the third-team defense. Branch’s days could be numbered in Buffalo this year, and it would have been a shock to say that back in April.
Best Fight: C Eric Wood & TE Scott Chandler vs. DE Bryan Johnson
- Players were cranky, helmets were ripped off, punches were thrown and it brought out another memorable line from Eric Wood. Known for his comment to former Bills defensive end Aaron Maybin in which he said, to paraphrase, for the defender to actually do something to earn his paycheck, Wood had another gem in 2014. After undrafted rookie defensive end Bryan Johnson ripped off the center’s helmet and took two swings at his face, it prompted Wood to scream “I am going to [expletive] kill you.” Yeah, it’s a safe bet that will be remembered for a few years.
Most Memorable Moment: Doug Marrone’s Screamfest
- Had it not been for this gem on the final day of practice at St. John Fisher College, the award likely would have gone to EJ Manuel for his stellar performance on the second day of joint practices with the Steelers last week. Instead, Marrone’s anger at a lack of discipline and fighting on the field boiled over and turned into an expletive-laden scolding that made you glad that no kids were in attendance. He stopped practice dead in it’s tracks after the second mini-skirmish of the day, screamed for the music to be stopped and for the players to get on the sideline to run a punishment lap. There were even some heated words exchanged between Marrone and defensive end Jerry Hughes. That was undoubtedly the biggest blowup by a Bills head coach since 2009 (when yours truly started to cover the team).
Rookie Standout: WR Sammy Watkins
- Could this award really go to anyone else? An honorable mention could have gone to Seantrel Henderson, but Sammy Watkins is the prized merchandise that the Bills brought in this offseason. Much to their liking, Watkins has done nothing to disappoint his rather lofty expectations and might have even raised the bar higher for himself. A couple of one-handed grabs that went viral helped build his legend before he has even taken a snap in the regular season. His blend of physicality, speed, jumping ability and route running all lead to him being a supremely talented athlete that will usually dominate a training camp setting.
Rookie Dud: OT Cyrus Kouandjio
- Out of everything that happened when the Bills first got on the field back in May for the start of voluntary practices, one of their biggest disappointments must be the lack of success second-round pick Cyrus Kouandjio has had. Drafted to battle for the starting spot at right tackle with Erik Pears, Kouandjio had to just pull even with the veteran to win the job outright. There’s one main problem: he hasn’t been anywhere close to even and hasn’t sniffed a first-team rep since the first week of OTAs. His unbalanced, top-heavy kick-slide allows his opponents to knock him back, which also has led the rookie to try and overcompensate for it by lunging at times. He has been made to look foolish on many different occasions throughout camp. Had he not been a second-round pick, but a fifth-round pick or later, Kouandjio likely would not survive the final cutdown day. The Bills will continue to work with Kouandjio through the season, but don’t expect him to be active on game days. He is a project at this point, plain and simple.
Camp LVP Runners-Up: OT Cyrus Kouandjio & CB Michael Carter
- Kouandjio has struggled almost on a daily basis at training camp and that bled into preseason games. He wasn’t the only offensive lineman that struggled, but he was one of the most notable. Cornerback Michael Carter was released on August 10, but his play still qualifies for the award list. When a quarterback threw the ball at Carter, usually one of two things happened: it would result in a defensive holding or defensive pass interference penalty, or, he would get beat badly for a touchdown. Carter clearly didn’t have the necessary skill set to compete at the NFL level.
Camp MVP Runners-Up: WR Mike Williams & LB Nigel Bradham
- Coming into training camp, there were a few questions surrounding wide receiver Mike Williams. Was he healthy enough? Would he stay out of trouble? Where would he fit into the offense? The answer to those three questions: yes, yes and firmly with the first-team as an outside receiver. The basketball background of Williams is evident in the red zone, as both he and EJ Manuel have found a bit of a chemistry working in that area during practices. His explosiveness has returned and he’s been one of the most pleasant surprises at training camp. The same goes for linebacker Nigel Bradham, who is going to fill in for Kiko Alonso at weakside linebacker this season. It was originally a competition between Bradham and rookie Preston Brown, but Bradham got all the first-team reps to start camp and he never looked back. He’s been especially impressive against the run during both practices and preseason games. His reaction time isn’t quite on the same level as Alonso's, but if he continues to play at this high level, the drop-off will not be as noticeable as once thought. He has stepped up, and in a big way.
Camp LVP: QB Thad Lewis
- It was a whirlwind 2013 for Thad Lewis, having been brought to the Bills near the end of the preseason and then being forced to play in a ‘me vs. you’ type of game against Detroit, where he was fighting Matt Leinart for a job. Lewis won out and eventually became the starter when EJ Manuel went down with his second knee injury of 2013. The Bills were encouraged by his play and it even led them to not address the quarterback position at all in the offseason. That faith has not been rewarded, however. Lewis has struggled mightily to get on the same page with his receivers. He has been inaccurate for the majority of camp practices and has thrown more interceptions than any of the quarterbacks. He is going to need a strong effort over the next two weeks to try and convince the Bills that they should not look to the impending bloated free agent pool for their third quarterback. He’s in trouble if the right player comes along.
Camp MVP: DE Jerry Hughes
- Despite getting into a bit of a verbal altercation with head coach Doug Marrone on the final day of practice, there hasn’t been a more dominant player on the field than defensive end Jerry Hughes. A slow day for Hughes at St. John Fisher College consisted of him only getting into the backfield two or three times throughout the day. He is taking to the wide-nine technique at defensive end like a fish to water. He has even improved in the run stuffing department, as well. With Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus next to him, he could be in line for a truly special season. And, in the nick of time, it just so happens to be Hughes’ contract year. There isn’t any debate in favor of Mario Williams, Hughes has been the most disruptive pass rusher on the Bills roster since offseason practices began.