I’m in Pittsford, N.Y., summer home of the Buffalo Bills, on the campus of St. John Fisher College, 78 miles east of Orchard Park. I watched the first practice of camp, on Sunday night, and then an afternoon session on Monday. The Bills are in this Rochester suburb for many reasons, but one of the biggest is trying to get more fans in the Rochester area to come out to Orchard Park. The Bills sell about 18 percent of their tickets to fans in this area.
One vivid memory from watching practice
The influence of Pepper Johnson, the new defensive line coach. (Johnson, by the way, turns 50 next week, which should make all of us feel old.) Some guys just have the ability to command respect, and Johnson, after 14 years as a Bill Belichick consigliere in New England, has struck out on his own and ended up with a heck of a talented group: Mario Williams and Jerry Hughes at end, Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams at tackle, among others. Anyway, on Sunday night, his line group left one area of the field to work on hand-to-hand drills, one lineman versus the other, and when the group got to the corner of the field for the drill, there was a blocking sled there. “That damn thing’s in the way,’’ Johnson said, annoyed. Without anything else being said, Kyle Williams went over to the sled and pushed it 20 yards down the field. Boss man said something’s in the way, so move it.
How this team can go 12–4
Two big things have to happen. Very big. E.J. Manuel has to be more of a chance-taker with two good outside receivers, Sammy Watkins and Robert Woods. Pro Football Focus had a great stat about Manuel—he led all quarterbacks in the NFL last year in percentage of total passes attempted to running backs. That means he’s probably checking down too much. I saw that Sunday night. Particularly with Watkins, who is showing signs of being excellent at beating the jam at the line, Manuel is going to have to have faith in his ability to find receivers down the field in competitive coverage. Second thing: Marcell Dareus, on the non-football injury list early in camp for failing the conditioning test, has to grow up. It’s simple. He does too many knucklehead things to be a great and reliable player, and he still could find himself suspended by the league for the first couple of games this year for his off-field transgressions. When he’s right, he’s a top-five interior lineman in the league. And because this team could struggle at linebacker, the Bills need an earth-mover to make space for the ’backers to make plays.
How this team can go 4–12
Three big defensive pieces—safety Jairus Byrd (lost in free-agency), linebacker Kiko Alonso (ACL tear) and Dareus—were missing at the start of camp. Da’Norris Searcy, Nigel Bradham and Alan Branch are the replacement pieces, as of today. Stars, replaced with unprovens, or, in the case of Branch, a rotational tackle. If these players struggle, and Manuel is mediocre, the Bills will fall.
Now, from fantasyland …
Keep these things in mind when you’re considering drafting Bills:
1. Bryce Brown is a player the coaches like a lot. If you draft late, follow what the Bills do with the running back position late in camp. Could they move a back if a team comes knocking for one—Brown or Fred Jackson or maybe ex-Niner Anthony Dixon? I think so. This team plans to run it more than any team in the NFL this year, and I could see Brown, if he sticks, backing up C.J. Spiller.
2. Don’t sleep on Robert Woods while you’re all gaga over Sammy Watkins. But I wouldn’t take any Buffalo receiver very high. Just not sure E.J. Manuel’s going to take enough chances downfield.
3. I would steer clear of Scott Chandler at tight end. He’s going to have some of his snaps stolen by Tony Moeaki on passing downs, and I don’t see him being the safety valve for Manuel that he was a year ago.
How I project the lineup, with competitive spots in bold:
|WR||Sammy Watkins||LDE||Mario Williams|
|LT||Cordy Glenn||NT||Marcell Dareus|
|LG||Chris Williams||DT||Kyle Williams|
|C||Eric Wood||RDE||Jerry Hughes|
|RG||Kraig Urbik||LB||Keith Rivers|
|RT||Cyrus Kouandjio/Erik Pears||MLB||Brandon Spikes|
|TE||Scott Chandler/Tony Moeaki/Lee Smith||LB||Nigel Bradham/Preston Brown|
|WR||Robert Woods||CB||Leodis McKelvin|
|3rdWR||Mike Williams/Marquise Goodwin||CB||Stephon Gilmore|
|QB||E.J. Manuel||SS||Aaron Williams|
|RB||C.J. Spiller||FS||Da’Norris Searcy/Duke Williams/Jonathan Meeks|
|FB||Frank Summers/Evan Rodriguez||3rdCB||Corey Graham/Nickell Robey|
|K||Dan Carpenter||P||Brian Moorman|
Expect Kouandjio to win at RT unless he struggles in camp … At TE, Smith’s the blocker, Moeaki’s the receiver and Chandler’s the all-around guy. All will play … Mike Williams (possession, physical type) will play in some packages, while Goodwin’s the flier … The fullback is important in this offense, and the job’s wide open; the best camp player among Summers and Rodriguez will win … On defense, Brown, this year’s third-round pick, will start out behind Spikes but likely will have a shot for playing time outside. Spikes, a great run player, is likely out of the game on most or all third downs … Free safety is totally open, with Searcy getting the first shot … Graham’s the likely dime back outside, with Robey playing more nickel inside.
Best new player in camp
Wide receiver Sammy Watkins. He’s not physically imposing when you’re next to him, but his advantage, from the looks of two practices, is he plays with equal physicality and quickness. Watching him get off the line of scrimmaging against corners trying to test the kid is a treat.
Strong opinion that I may regret by November
Stephon Gilmore will be a Pro Bowler. His competitiveness and athleticism, in a division with few marquee receivers, makes it possible for him to shine consistently.
What I thought when I walked out of camp
I’ve been coming to see the Bills in camp most years since the glory ones. And this is probably the best supporting cast the team has had in a decade. Driving away, I’m thinking: If Manuel and Dareus play to their abilities, the Bills should win 10 for the first time this century.
But those, of course, are very big ifs.