There's hope in Western New York.
For the first time in a decade, there's reason to believe the Bills could contend for a playoff spot. The hype has built all offseason, but now, with the players hitting the field for practice, that hope has been set in motion, and we're getting a glimpse at whether that hope is founded or faulty.
Here are some in-depth observations wrapping up the week that was in Buffalo Bills training camp.
No. 2 Wide Receivers Beginning to Emerge
One of the biggest question marks around the Bills offense this offseason has been their lack of a No. 2 wide receiver to plug into the offense opposite Stevie Johnson. Early indications in camp are that more than one receiver is stepping up to try and claim that role.
Marcus Easley has earned mixed reviews; on the one hand, Chris Brown of BuffaloBills.com says he's been working with the first-team offense; Brown lauded Easley's athleticism and speed in practice and pointed to a few different examples of some big plays and difficult catches Easley has made.
Marcus Easley stood out making some difficult acrobatic catches. After pulling in a pass deep down the right sideline from Tyler Thigpen, who hit him in stride for a 35-yard gain, Easley also made a catch in double coverage from Fitzpatrick again on the far side of the field for a 20-yard pickup.
That kind of big play ability is exactly what the Bills will need in their outside receivers. These are huge strides for the former fourth-round pick, but Mark Gaughan of The Buffalo News recently said that he felt Derek Hagan would earn the team's final roster spot over Easley if the decision were up to him, and if the decision had to be made right now. Gaughan adds:
I think he's caught the ball well. Havent seen him drop one ... I just think Hagan is getting more reps ahead of him. Easley has had some nice downfield catches ... I don't see the immediate separation that Stevie gets ... Need more info ... Gotta see what he does in preseason games ...
If Easley doesn't pan out, though, the Bills may have more options.
The Bills' third-round pick, wide receiver T.J. Graham has earned largely positive reviews from camp. He's taking reps with the first-team offense (via Twitter, James Walker, ESPN), and Bleacher Report Bills Featured Columnist Chris Trapasso shares some impressive observations from Sunday's practice, where Trapasso says Graham was the practice MVP.
Because he's a smaller and skinnier receiver, some believed he'd have trouble getting off the line. Not on Sunday. [Bills cornerback Stephon] Gilmore frequently played press man, and using some Johnson-esque jukes, Graham didn't have trouble handling bump-and-run coverage.Fitzpatrick found him on a few intermediate comeback routes, but his downfield prowess was the most notable aspect of the evening. He made a fine 30-yard leaping grab on a back shoulder thrown down the sideline with coverage draped all over him. ...The reports about Graham's acceleration aren't exaggerated. It's clear he has a track background.
Chris Brown echoed Trapasso's sentiments about Graham's progress, although an early depth-chart projection has him as the team's fifth-best wide receiver. If the rookie continues to improve, he could rise above that spot on the roster and exceed the expectations beset of him as a "track star" of a third-round pick.
As of right now, though, the No. 2 spot belongs to Donald Jones. He earned that spot last year in camp but disappointed and ended up injured before the season was over. If he wins the job, he'll have to keep the job by performing throughout the season.
But between Easley and Graham, at least it will be a case of the best of the best at No. 2 wide receiver instead of the best of the worst.
Young Cornerbacks Stepping Up
First-round draft choice Stephon Gilmore earned the praise of Chan Gailey for his work in the offseason program and also caught the eye of Don Banks of SI.com, who said that Gilmore "already looks like a seasoned veteran in locking down a starting job."
Trapasso echoes these sentiments in his Sunday observations, noting that his size makes him stand out from the pack at 6'1" and roughly 190 pounds. It's not all roses for Gilmore, though, as Trapasso adds that Gilmore "certainly has much to learn, especially covering the short-to-intermediate routes."
He's not the only young cornerback making an impression; second-year cornerback Aaron Williams has performed well enough to earn the No. 2 spot on the early depth chart, which lists Gilmore and Williams as the team's top two cornerbacks.
Chris Brown of BuffaloBills.com predicted Williams to be a starter at cornerback since before camp, and Mark Gaughan of The Buffalo News predicted it even before that. With the depth chart being posted, and those beliefs now confirmed, it's clear that Williams' performance to date hasn't done anything to change those early impressions.
On that depth chart, Leodis McKelvin and Terrence McGee are listed in the third and fourth spots. We had heard earlier this offseason that McKelvin was taking snaps in the slot, and it seems he did enough to earn that spot despite being escorted off the field during the team's second practice of training camp.
McGee may be listed in that spot on the current depth chart, but that can change in the blink of an eye during training camp. Toward the end of last week, McKelvin admitted fear over losing his job to the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle:
I'm at the back of the line right now, the 10th-year veteran said the other day. There are guys way in front of me right now.
And the problem for McGee is that he may never catch up. ...McGee is still not 100 percent healthy after suffering a torn patellar tendon in his knee last year against Dallas. He was limited during OTAs and mini-camps, and his goal of being ready to go full-bore in training camp was not met. ...However, can the Bills wait for him? That's the question that has him lying in bed pondering each night.
That's one of my worries right now, and it was one of my worries in OTAs; will I have enough time to get in here and get right and compete for a job? he said. I can't control it right now, all I can do is go out there and work hard and improve on something.
The current depth chart lists Ron Brooks at the bottom; it would shock me if the team cut its fourth-round draft pick in his first offseason, but anything is possible. Still, if McGee isn't ready to go or isn't performing at a high level, that creates room for guys like Brooks, Prince Miller and Justin Rogers to move up the depth chart.
Defensive Line Depth is a Strength, Including Shawne Merriman
Depth was an issue for the Bills across the board
Defensive coordinator Dave Wannstedt said, per Sports Illustrated:
[Spencer] Johnson, [Chris] Kelsay [and Dwan] Edwards were all starters last year and they could play for a lot of teams. ...the way offenses are going now, our depth is going to give us a chance. With the hurry-up offenses and the spread offenses now, teams are running more plays than they have in the past, and I think depth at that position is key.
Edwards may have been brought in as a component to the 3-4 defense, but that scheme never worked out too well for the Bills; thus, they spent much of their time in four-man fronts and sub packages, and Edwards remained a factor regardless. It helps, too, that there has always been some element of the 4-3 defense anywhere he's played.
Wannstedt's praise for defensive end Shawne Merriman goes even further than that:
And who knows what Shawne is going to do? So far he's been fantastic. I wouldn't have bet this in a million years after where he's been and injury situations. I would have been the first one to say his career's probably over. And now he's changing positions back to defensive end.
I wrote earlier this offseason that Merriman would be the key to the Bills' success because they'll need to be able to rely on their depth late in games when the top defensive linemen are getting worn down. It will also help them defend against the no-huddle by keeping guys fresh.
Merriman has spent much of his time this offseason working as the right defensive end in nickel packages. That lends itself to the thinking that he will be utilized on passing downs, and that his primary objective will be to get after the quarterback.
As of now, Merriman is listed behind Mario Williams on the team's depth chart, which would put him at either third or fourth depending on where Kelsay ranks. Of course, Merriman has to stay healthy, and he missed some practice time with an ankle injury on July 28 and 29, but as long as he avoids any major damage, he could finally make an impact for the first time in four years.
But of course, Wannstedt is probably most excited about his top-end talent. And why not? Between Williams, Mark Anderson, Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams, the Bills have reason to be excited about their defensive line and the ability of that group to get pressure on quarterbacks.
Williams himself has been quite impressive early on in camp. Per the Associated Press:
[Mario Williams] and tackle Kyle Williams disrupted a running play so quickly that Fred Jackson barely got the handoff when Mario Williams stopped him in his tracks by grabbing him by the shoulder pad. ...A few plays later, Mario Williams wasn't fooled by a misdirection play, staying to his left and forcing Fitzpatrick to throw the ball away. Then Williams and Dareus teamed up by bursting into the backfield to get what would've been a sure sack.
"I knew it was a great group of guys and that there was a lot of talent on the defensive line, but I can feel an aura, I can feel a presence around us,'' Mario Williams said, per Sports Illustrated. "We believe in each other already, even though it's only been a few months that we've worked together. We have fun together. Things are just jelling. If we come out here and stay healthy, and we're running and gunning, the sky's going to be the limit.''
Offensive Line Depth Much Improved
Another of several contributing factors behind the Bills' collapse was lack of depth on the offensive line.
The Bills went to great lengths to address that this offseason, drafting offensive tackle Cordy Glenn in the second round along with offensive tackle Zebrie Sanders in the fifth round.
There's still some cause for concern at a couple of spots: Michael Jasper as the backup left guard and Sam Young as the backup right tackle are a bit disheartening, but having guys like Glenn and Chad Rinehart, who have played multiple spots on the line in their careers, gives the Bills some options if injury should strike once again.
That being said, we still don't know exactly how this depth chart will look when the season starts, specifically at left tackle where Hairston and Glenn remain entrenched in a battle for the starting spot. Per the Democrat and Chronicle:
This early in camp, it’s tough to see who has the edge, and you can’t go by reps because each man has been sharing time with the first-string. It’s been that way throughout the offseason, and nothing has changed at St. John Fisher during the first week of camp.
Coach Chan Gailey promised an open competition, and that’s what it has been. When asked if he could tell whether either player had gained the upper hand, Gailey said it was too early. "I don't know how that one is going to end."
We don't know how it will end, either, but at least, there's competition there. As stated earlier, choosing from the best of the best is a lot better than choosing from the best of the worst.
Odds and Ends
Tying up some loose ends on players and items of note:
- Linebacker Kelvin Sheppard has been projected as the team's starting middle linebacker, and the early depth chart posted above holds that true. He missed a couple of days due to injury, but has since returned to the field. As great as Buffalo's talent is up-front, Sheppard's in-depth knowledge of the defense will be crucial in making the calls and getting the Bills defense into the right play.
- I just got done heaping praise on the wide receivers, but they had an ugly practice on Saturday with a ton of drops. Ryan Fitzpatrick may draw comparisons to Brett Favre, but he can't throw the ball to himself. The receivers are going to have to hold onto the ball if the Bills are going to get a good season out of Fitz.
- Speaking of the franchise signal-caller, Fitzpatrick has looked good in practice and has established himself as the team's unquestioned leader according to Bill Weiter of Sports Illustrated. One of his biggest problems was his footwork, but he has worked to refine that with quarterback coach David Lee. We said here that Lee would be the most important positional coach for the Bills, and if Fitzpatrick is able to sustain a high level of performance over a 16-game season, he will have Lee to thank.
Who to Follow
I'm trying my best, but I can't keep you up-to-date on everything that goes down at Bills practice. So, in the meantime, here's a list of some great Bills writers to follow on Twitter: