The Buffalo Bills opened up the training camp season for the National Football League on Sunday night and did so in front of a packed house at St. John Fisher College. As the team clustered together just outside the locker room facility to get ready to run on the field, the reality of the new season had finally arrived.
The Bills have already dealt with their fair share of drama even over the past week with some of their top players, but that was all pushed aside when the players got on to the field. As one would expect the first day back from an extended break resulted in a slow start for some, while others hit the ground running.
Manuel’s first day back
- The Buffalo Bills are looking for EJ Manuel to take the next step in his progression as a starting quarterback in the league. It’s a very vague request, but one that can only be seen and established during the regular season. In his first day back at training camp Manuel had mixed results despite having a couple of new toys to throw to. On the positive side of things, Manuel looked extremely comfortable when he rolled out of the pocket and it even appeared that his downfield vision improved once he gave himself a new angle to throw from. One on play in particular Manuel rolled to his right, let Robert Woods find the soft spot in the zone along the sideline and delivered a perfect pass to him. On the downside, some of the demons from last year that plagued him reappeared in spots. Manuel failed to look off the safety on a deeper throw, put too much loft on the ball and was intercepted. He also had a few instances of misfiring on some of his intermediate targets. It was every player’s first day back, so it’s hard to be too critical, unless of course it becomes habitual.
Summer of Sammy
- The Bills made the move during the 2014 NFL Draft to trade up and select Clemson wide receiver Sammy Watkins and the fans in attendance at St. John Fisher College made sure they let the newest pass catcher know he was welcomed with open arms. Anytime Watkins did anything somewhat positive, it drew a large round of applause from the fans. Watkins made it easy for them to admire him from afar, as he will in most practices where there is barely any contact. In those settings, the rookie will likely dominate just because of his skill set and overwhelming athleticsm. However, Watkins displayed a good chemistry with Manuel in their first practice together and made at least one tough, contested catch over the middle of the field. The real test will be how he reacts to either a padded practice or in his first few preseason games to see if he operates with similar ease.
Flash dazzles, then dashes practice
- Among the top four receivers on the roster, the Bills don’t have anyone quite as fast as second-year player Marquise Goodwin when he’s at full health. That’s the way things started on Sunday night and opposing cornerbacks had a world of trouble trying to stay with him in one-on-one battles. On one play, Goodwin turned Leodis McKelvin (who is also trying to recover from offseason hip surgery) inside out in one of the best beats of the day. Goodwin also flew down the field for a deep ball connection, but then had to be removed from practice due to “medical” reasons. He revealed later on Twitter that it had to deal with “sickle cell” and “asthma,” while the team divulged that he would be ready for practice on Monday.
Absences and their replacements
- Heading into training camp, the Bills were set to take the field for their first practice without their starting weakside linebacker, their starting left tackle, one of their starting defensive tackles and their best substitute at the same position. While their presences were sorely missed on the field and will continue to be if any of them have extended absences, the Bills had to go on with some younger players taking meaningful reps. Kiko Alonso is likely lost for the season due to his torn ACL, and on Sunday third-year player Nigel Bradham took all the first-team snaps as the weakside linebacker. At left tackle, seventh-round pick Seantrel Henderson opened at that position with the first squad, but a hip injury forced him to miss the rest of practice and Chris Hairston took over from there. With both Marcell Dareus and Alan Branch unavailable for practice, reserve defensive tackle Corbin Bryant was the man next to Kyle Williams with the top unit, while Stefan Charles was their top sub.
Igbinosun chipping in
- The absences of both Dareus and Branch made it so the Bills only had three defensive tackles with some game experience available to them for Sunday’s practice. Kyle Williams, Corbin Bryant and Stefan Charles all got their share of time, but undrafted free agents Colby Way and Damien Jacobs didn’t get much playing time during team drills. To complete two separate rotations of defensive tackles the Bills elected to use Ikponmwosa Igbinosun, a normal defensive end, as the second-team tackle next to Charles. Igbinosun is a bigger end (6-foot-3, 286-pounds) that can help control the line of scrimmage and may have helped himself to be in a brighter light for the coaching staff by showing he can play all along the defensive line.
No kicking competition in Buffalo?
- In the 2013 NFL Draft the Bills used on of their choices on Florida State’s Dustin Hopkins, hoping that he would be the big-legged kicker that could cut through the wind at Ralph Wilson Stadium in the winter months. An injured groin changed the course for the Bills and their field goal plans in 2013, but it also helped them find their next mainstay at the position. If there was any thought that Hopkins had a chance to unseat Dan Carpenter, that line of thinking was openly challenged by the Bills not even giving Hopkins an opportunity to kick field goals on Sunday. Instead, Carpenter was given all eight attempts and made each one of them. It appears Hopkins’ only hope may be to steal a roster spot as a kickoff specialist.
Day 1 MVP: S Aaron Williams
- On a day where everyone was trying to get back into the swing of things, it appeared as though Aaron Williams didn’t need that warmup period. The team’s starting free safety was challenged only a handful of times but made sure not a single big play was made while he was in the vicinity. During a one-on-one rep against tight end Scott Chandler, Williams looked like he lost a step on the initial route but then allowed his natural athleticism to kick into high gear and got in position for a potential interception. It was an over-the-shoulder attempt that didn’t result in the safety picking off the pass, but he was in perfect position to force the incompletion. He went on to get his interception later in the day, reading the eyes of EJ Manuel during 7-on-7s and forcing the turnover.
Day 1 LVP: CB Brandon Smith
- A former college wide receiver, the first day for Smith was not kind to him especially during the one-on-one portions. His first downfall was against veteran wide receiver Mike Williams on what looked to be a pass that could have been intercepted. It was a little underthrown by the quarterback and Smith was in position, but Williams was able to wrestle the ball away from Smith for a catch and a big gain. It’s still quite a short amount of time since Smith converted to the defensive side of the ball, but turning and running with the receiver on a deep ball also plagued the cornerback’s day.
Up Next: Practice resumes Monday, July 21 at 2 pm. The session is open to the general public.