As the Buffalo Bills prepare to enter training camp, the coaching staff will work rigorously to find the right combination of players to plug into the starting lineup.
It's a huge season for the Bills. Part of the reason for that is the increased amount of quality depth throughout the roster, as Buffalo hasn't been this deep in quite some time.
Head coach Chan Gailey wants to see what each player can do, and the only way to find that out is to give everyone as many reps as possible.
Though the depth chart is currently a work in progress (and will be throughout training camp and the preseason), it's getting close to that time when certain players start emerging at certain positions. Clearly, certain players' spots are more secure than others', but this is a crucial point of the offseason for everyone.
This slideshow predicts the top two spots at each position for the Bills heading into training camp. Please note that this is not a prediction of the final 53-man roster or the final depth chart. Rather, this is an early look at where the depth chart will stand heading into camp.
For further Bills talk, check me out on Twitter at @JoshCembellin.
Starter: Ryan Fitzpatrick
Reserve: Vince Young
Starter Ryan Fitzpatrick returns as the unquestioned leader of the offense. He’s been working on his mechanics with new quarterbacks coach David Lee, and he’s reportedly already making big improvements, according to Chris Brown of BuffaloBills.com.
The shakeup here is newly-acquired Vince Young, who seems destined to win the No. 2 job behind Fitz. Young has great size, lots of experience and a more mature outlook on his role now as a veteran in the league. He should be an upgrade over Tyler Thigpen.
If Young does indeed win the No. 2 role, Thigpen’s roster spot could be in jeopardy. The Bills are working utility man Brad Smith strictly at quarterback now, and it’s no secret that they love his versatility since he can be used in multiple ways to confuse defenses. That means Smith could realistically serve as the No. 3 signal-caller.
Starter: Fred Jackson
Reserve: C.J. Spiller
These two backs will be featured heavily in 2012. “FredEx” is masterful in every facet of the game, and when he’s on the field, defenses have to account for him. Not only that, but his impact in the passing game is just as valuable; he’s a terrific receiver, and his pass protection is perhaps the best in the NFL at the position.
Meanwhile, Spiller stepped up last year in Jackson’s place and proved he’s ready to contribute. Bills lead journalist Chris Brown recently reported that Chan Gailey is pleased with Spiller’s improved blocking technique:
“He can do a lot of things blocking,” said Gailey. “He’s gotten better at his blocking from the previous year.”
This is a dynamic duo here with limitless potential. Many fans envision a breakout campaign from Spiller, but it would come at the expense of Jackson’s playing time. Either way, Bills fans are just hoping this combination can help Buffalo get back to the postseason.
Starter: Corey McIntyre
Reserve: Dorin Dickerson
Big Corey McIntyre will serve as the No. 1 fullback once again in 2012, paving the way for the Bills’ strong running game. The 33-year-old is a bull who loves contact. In addition to his importance in the run game, he also won the Steve Tasker Special Teams Player of the Year award for his work on kickoff coverage last season. The Bills love his physicality.
Then there’s Dorin Dickerson. Signed as an unrestricted free agent this offseason, the former seventh-rounder has been turning heads in OTAs, per Chris Brown. Brown reports that Dickerson’s best chance at making the roster will be as a third tight end, but because he’s an H-back player, he can also line up as a fullback.
Dickerson is far more athletic than McIntyre and is a great pass-catcher, but he’s not nearly as good of a blocker. Either way, it sounds like the Bills are excited about his potential and the unique skills he can bring to the offense.
Starters: Cordy Glenn, Andy Levitre, Eric Wood, Kraig Urbik, Erik Pears
Reserves: Chris Hairston, Michael Jasper, Colin Brown, Chad Rinehart, Sam Young
It seems as though the Bills are going to give second-rounder Cordy Glenn every opportunity to win the starting left tackle job. He’s been getting all the first-team reps in OTAs, and his development has reportedly been “steady.” Chris Hairston could still earn the job, but as of now, it looks like he’s ticketed for the primary backup spot.
Andy Levitre was having a superb season last year until he was forced to hopscotch all over the offensive line due to injuries. If things stay intact across the line in 2012 and he can stay in position, he could make a case for the Pro Bowl.
Meanwhile, the freakishly athletic Michael Jasper, who is down to 375 pounds after being 440 pounds just a year and half ago, could finally have a role with the Bills. Mark Gaughan of the Buffalo News details Jasper’s journey, and while he’s still an underdog, both the Bills and their fans are excited to see what he can do. He could earn a backup guard spot.
At center, Eric Wood is coming off yet another injury (torn ACL), but he’s expected to be 100 percent for 2012, according to his own Twitter account. Because of his recent injury history, Wood needs a capable backup behind him. Rookie Mark Asper could land the No. 2 center gig, considering his versatility on the line. But the Bills will likely prefer Colin Brown’s experience out of the gate.
Kraig Urbik and Chad Rinehart are like the Olsen twins of the Bills. Their skill sets are extremely similar, they’re both at approximately the same point in their careers and they both signed restrictive free-agent contracts this offseason. It’s almost as if they’re interchangeable.
Urbik started 13 games in 2011 and actually fared pretty well when filling in for Wood at center. But Rinehart also started 12 games last season. This may actually be a position battle in camp to monitor, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see Rinehart sneak into the starting lineup.
Finally, at right tackle, Erik Pears will return as the starter after signing a contract extension in December of 2011. While Chris Hairston will likely be the swing tackle if he doesn’t start on the left side, it looks like journeyman Sam Young will be listed behind Pears. GM Buddy Nix had positive things to say about Young when the Bills acquired him last year.
Starters: Steve Johnson, Donald Jones
Reserves: Derek Hagan, Marcus Easley
It was great news to Bills fans everywhere when the team re-signed Steve Johnson this offseason. Buffalo stayed true to its word that it wanted to retain its own productive players, re-signing not only Stevie, but also Fred Jackson and Ryan Fitzpatrick. Now the trio can focus on football and continue putting up strong numbers in Chan Gailey’s evolving offense.
Derek Hagan figures to be the primary backup to Johnson on the outside. He has good downfield speed and impressed in limited time toward the end of last season. In fact, the Bills liked Hagan enough after picking him up midseason in 2011 that they recently re-signed him.
Opposite Stevie J. will likely be Donald Jones. Gailey recently pegged Jones as the front-runner for the second starting wideout spot, and there’s still reason for optimism with him because of his speed and athleticism.
As for Jones’ backup, look for Marcus Easley to finally log some playing time. Easley is arguably the best fit for the No. 2 job based on his physical skills, but he has yet to prove anything due to injuries plaguing his young career thus far. David Nelson isn’t a good fit on the outside, but rookie T.J. Graham could be a sleeper name to monitor.
Easley has the best tangibles for this job, but he has yet to prove anything. Jones received some experience last year, but he also needs to produce consistently. The No. 2 wide receiver spot is one of the hottest position battles in Bills camp.
Starter: Scott Chandler
Reserve: Lee Smith
In 2011, the 6’7”, 260-pound Scott Chandler caught 38 passes for 389 yards and six touchdowns, serving as a red-zone favorite for Ryan Fitzpatrick. He’s a big target with above-average blocking skills, and he should have yet another successful campaign in 2012 after somewhat breaking out last season.
Behind him, Lee Smith, whom the Bills claimed off waivers from rival New England last year, is a quality blocking tight end with just as much size as Chandler. He’ll be the primary backup with Mike Caussin and Dorin Dickerson battling for the third tight end spot.
LDE, LDT, RDT, RDE
Starters: Mario Williams, Marcell Dareus, Kyle Williams, Chris Kelsay
Reserves: Shawne Merriman, Torell Troup, Dwan Edwards, Mark Anderson
Bills fans just salivated a little bit looking at this defensive line grouping.
The truth is, this group is going to rotate quite a bit. Mario Williams, Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams are locked in as starters, and Chris Kelsay may ultimately round out the front four on paper. But free-agent acquisition Mark Anderson will see plenty of time as well at defensive end, and Shawne Merriman will factor in heavily on passing downs, depending on his availability (i.e. health).
Torell Troup is finally expected to be at full health by the time training camp kicks off. He recently spoke with Chris Brown on BuffaloBills.com and expressed his optimism and excitement regarding helping the new and improved defensive line be even deeper and stronger. The former second-rounder has a lot of potential on the interior, and 2012 could be the year he finally begins to tap into it.
For the other backup defensive tackle spot, Dwan Edwards, whom many believed the Bills would release after switching to the 4-3, may actually stick on as a reserve. His veteran leadership and scheme versatility do offer value. However, former third-rounder Alex Carrington is also fighting for that role, and he possesses impressive athleticism for a 6’5”, 300-pound lineman. It should be exciting to see how it unfolds.
SOLB, MLB, WOLB
Starters: Kirk Morrison, Kelvin Sheppard, Nick Barnett
Reserves: Arthur Moats, Tank Carder, Bryan Scott
With Dave Wannstedt’s 4-3 scheme now in place, veteran Nick Barnett will switch to weak-side outside linebacker to make room in the middle for up-and-coming star Kelvin Sheppard. Many fans and analysts expect 2012 to be a breakout year for the second-year Sheppard, who will be the starting middle linebacker.
Kirk Morrison will likely start on the strong side. His immediate backup should be Arthur Moats, whom Wannstedt targeted as a good fit as a Sam backer in the new defensive scheme. Moats actually has decent pass-rushing ability and should see a good amount of time next season.
The other reserve spots are a bit more tricky. Bryan Scott is now listed as an outside linebacker, according to the team’s official website. As a former safety with plenty of experience as a rotational linebacker, we’ll acknowledge his official listing and put him as a primary backup at outside linebacker. He’ll be a matchup tool against big tight ends like Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.
Behind Shep in the middle, rookie Tank Carder and recently signed Scott McKillop (and possibly Chris White) will battle for time. Per Chris Brown on the Bills’ website, McKillop played under Wannstedt at Pittsburgh, and the Bills’ defensive coordinator recently had this to say about his former player:
“He’s an exceptional player,” said the veteran coach. “He graduated in three and a half years so he’s a smart kid. He was a first team All-American. Led the nation in tackles. Tough guy that can play outside or inside. As a rookie he led the 49ers in tackles on special teams.”
If McKillop can regain full health, he could get the early nod. However, Brown’s report also suggests that he’s still “favoring his surgically repaired knee,” which means Carder might have an opportunity to see early work.
Starters: Aaron Williams, Stephon Gilmore
Reserves: Terrence McGee, Leodis McKelvin
Second-year corner Aaron Williams actually left practice early on Monday due to “a recurring irritation” in his knee. Hopefully, this is not a lingering issue, as Williams is expected to play a big part in Buffalo’s secondary this season.
Veteran Terrence McGee has struggled to stay healthy himself the past couple of seasons. Though he’s currently sitting out OTAs, he’s expected to be ready for the upcoming season. While he’s set to battle Williams for starting duties, the youngster has the upper hand on McGee as of now.
Tenth-overall pick Stephon Gilmore should start immediately as a rookie, manning the right corner spot. Former first-round pick Leodis McKelvin will be his primary backup. Both McKelvin and McGee will also battle for slot duties.
The other name to note here is Justin Rogers. Last year’s seventh-round pick impressed in his rookie season, and the Bills have confidence in his abilities to play multiple spots, as he has been getting reps on the outside in OTAs.
Starters: Jairus Byrd, George Wilson
Reserves: Nick Saenz, Da’Norris Searcy
Ball-hawking Jairus Byrd is turning into one of the game’s top free safeties. The former cornerback out of Oregon is a natural playing deep, showing a knack for being around the ball and making big tackles. Joe Buscaglia of WGR 550 Buffalo reported that Byrd “was the best defensive player for the Bills throughout last season.”
It should be another big year for Byrd, who is entering a contract year.
At strong safety, veteran team leader George Wilson hopes to build on an impressive 2011 campaign. The 31-year-old recorded 106 tackles last year, along with two forced fumbles and four interceptions.
Second-year safety Da’Norris Searcy will serve as Wilson’s primary backup. And while Bryan Scott may actually get the reps at backup free safety behind Byrd on the field (even though he’s listed as an outside linebacker), rookie Nick Saenz is next in line on the depth chart.
The Bills love versatility, and Bryan Scott offers a lot of that. So he’ll figure to play a lot despite his official listing. However, the Bills recently signed Saenz as a tryout player, and the three-year starter for the University of Houston could earn some playing time with a strong training camp.
P, K, LS, Kick Return, Punt Return
Starters: Brian Moorman, Rian Lindell, Garrison Sanburn, Justin Rogers, Leodis McKelvin
Reserves: Shawn Powell, John Potter, Danny Batten, Leodis McKelvin, C.J. Spiller
Brian Moorman has some competition in Shawn Powell at punter, but the veteran should be able to hold off the rookie for now.
At kicker, Rian Lindell will handle place-kicking duties, but this year’s seventh-rounder John Potter could handle kickoffs, considering his exceptionally strong leg.
The long-snapper position is all Garrison Sanburn's. Defensive end/outside linebacker Danny Batter is listed as Sanburn's backup on BuffaloBills.com.
For return duties, the Bills are once again deep with plenty of dangerous talent. The problem is that some of this talent comes from key players who start at other positions.
As a result, look for the Bills to check out Justin Rogers on kick returns and keep Leodis McKelvin on punt returns. Other capable returners include C.J. Spiller, Brad Smith, Fred Jackson and Terrence McGee.