The Buffalo Bills, fresh off a successful offseason that has created a ton of buzz around the league, are staring at an 0-2 start in the preseason. While the records in the preseason mean nothing, how a team plays when the starters are on the field does matter.
The Bills have looked like a team out of sync on both sides of the ball with little sign of improvement from last season despite their offseason hoopla.
Heading into preseason game No. 3, the team will look to iron out the kinks of the pass offense and highly touted defense as they compete their transition back to a 4-3.
The Buffalo Bills' starting offense ran 16 plays in their first game against the Redskins, all of which were passing plays out of the no-huddle. While the end results weren't pretty, the reason for that play-calling was to get the passing offense some practice with the speed of a no-huddle.
The Bills changed up their approach in Game 2 against the Vikings, but there were a few series of the no-huddle sprinkled in once again.
Bills fans should get accustomed to the quick-pace offense because of the way coach Chan Gailey likes to run his offense. Gailey hopes that the no-huddle will keep defenses honest and, in some cases, tired because of their inability to make substitutions. If Fitzpatrick can find a weakness in a defensive package and keep that personnel on the field, then the Bills will have success.
The only big downside to a no-huddle offense is that if Fitzpatrick can't get on the same page with his receivers, then there will be a lot of three-and-outs and, subsequently, a tired, ineffective defense.
The need for a quality backup quarterback in the NFL has grown exponentially over the last decade, as the players have gotten faster and stronger, leading to more injuries and precautions surrounding those injuries.
The Bills haven't had much quality from their starting quarterback since the Jim Kelly days in a revolving door of personnel at the position every season. For these reasons, the backup spot has taken a bit of a backseat in terms of importance for the front office.
With Fitzpatrick, they now have some stability at the position, but the quest for his understudy has remained incomplete.
Vince Young and Tyler Thigpen have been battling it out since training camp opened four weeks ago, and until Friday night, neither had pulled ahead in the competition. The writing was likely on the wall for Thigpen once Young was signed in May, but he has had every opportunity to prove himself. Young's solid performance with the second-team offense will likely lead to Thigpen's walking papers at the end of the preseason or even possibly before.
Scott Chandler emerged on the scene in 2011 with a 38-catch season, also grabbing six touchdowns as one of the main red-zone targets for Fitzpatrick. His numbers weren't eye-popping good, but they were effective for a team that hasn't had a decent tight end since Jay Riemersma left for Pittsburgh in 2002.
Chandler recently won the MVP of training camp from BuffaloBills.com lead journalist Chris Brown:
No other player on the roster turned in more plays on a daily basis than Chandler. A frequent target of Ryan Fitzpatrick and the other QBs, Chandler was beyond reliable and a matchup nightmare in the red zone throughout training camp. The starting tight end has raised his game to new heights.
No one will confuse Chandler as the second coming of Tony Gonzalez, but Chandler has clearly developed a good rapport with his starting quarterback since coming to Buffalo from Dallas. If the beginning of last season is any indication as to how he can be successful in Gailey's offense, then Bills fans should be expecting another step toward being a top tight end in the AFC.
Donald Jones remains in the lead for the second spot on the outside with quite a few guys hot on his trail. He'll likely remain in the same spot he played in last year as long as he can stay healthy, which he hasn't been able to do in his first two NFL seasons. Jones has the right height-speed combo to be a good second guy, but will have to prove that he can produce at a consistent level to keep his starting spot.
He might also keep it by default because no one else on the roster may be ready for that spot.
David Nelson, a former undrafted free agent out of Florida, will be the starter in the slot for 3-wide formations, so he is out. Derek Hagan looked like he would challenge for the spot during camp, but hasn't made much of a mark during the first two preseason games.
T.J. Graham, an unpopular pick in April with draft-niks, has probably shown the most intrigue, but is still very far from being a polished product. Training camp darling Marcus Easley has gone from hyped to a probable camp cut.
Don't be surprised if Gailey goes with committee approach to start the season until someone proves to be a constant at the position.
Fred Jackson was the drumbeat that the Bills offense marched to in the first nine games last season. C.J. Spiller was the lone bright spot for the Buffalo Bills at the tail end of a disappointing campaign in 2011. Together they will look be the consistent cog in the wheel that is the Bills 2012 offense; a wheel that could stop rolling if a rhythm isn't found in the run game.
Gailey has already promised that the players might not be happy with the touches, but that they'll have to live with it if they want to succeed as a team. A quote taken from BuffaloBills.com:
Gailey has preached to both Jackson and Spiller that the focus needs to be on team success, not personal workload.
"I can promise you this, we will not make everybody happy," said Gailey. "That will not happen this year. The only thing that will make everybody happy is winning. That's what the goal is, to come up with plans that incorporate everybody's abilities that allow us to win. Other than that I can't predict what's going to happen as far as percentages for their touches."
Most would agree with Gailey's sentiments, but he's going to have to ride both backs hard if he wants to win. Buffalo's offensive line is full of excellent run-blockers and average pass-blockers, yet Gailey wants to run a pass-first offense. The run game needs to be used to set up a Fitzpatrick-led passing attack, because the Harvard grad isn't the type of quarterback to do it all on his own.
Neither player has seen extensive time or touches during the first two preseason games with the passing game being behind the eight ball. That likely won't change much until the Bills arrive in the Meadowlands for Week 1 of the regular season.
The Bills have two starting-caliber running backs on the roster, and it would be wise for Gailey to find use for both of them.
Rookie tackle Cordy Glenn, a possible steal out of Georgia, has been placed in the left tackle role from day one of rookie camp. In his post-draft press conference, Buddy Nix answered the question about Glenn's role with the team and emphatically stated that the front office saw Glenn as an NFL-caliber left tackle.
Many draft-niks after the draft disagreed with Nix's evaluation of Glenn, myself included, but to his credit, the Bills have maintained their commitment to him at the position.
Glenn has a tall task ahead of him as the blind-side protector for a struggling NFL franchise and has so far looked underwhelming. A lot can happen in three weeks leading up to the season, but Glenn will be learning on the job before he feels comfortable in the capacity.
It has been confirmed that Glenn will be the starter on the blind side. While I believe he may be the best man for the job, my reasoning for that is more because there isn't anyone else I trust at that spot. It will be a trial by fire for the rookie.
Brad Smith was an average college quarterback. Brad Smith was a below average professional quarterback. Brad Smith is an above average weapon in the return game and effective as a receiver. Brad Smith can even run the gimmicky Wildcat package as a duel-threat player out of the backfield every once in awhile.
No one is really sure if his preseason snaps are to get him ready for the aforementioned Wildcat offense, but Gailey needs to cut out the fourth quarter reps for Smith.
James Walker, the AFC East blogger for ESPN, has questioned the decision to list Smith as a QB multiple times, because his skill set is useful at other positions.
It is time to either cut bait or use him in the ways he should be used.
If there is one thing Dick Jauron did right while he was Buffalo's coach, it was drafting center Eric Wood and guard Andy Levitre with back-to-back picks in the 2009 draft. Levitre has proven himself to be the Bills' most versatile lineman when injuries have struck, which coincidentally has been Wood's big issue in three seasons.
Wood has the talent to be a top center in this league, but a mixture of bad luck and poor stamina has held him back from staking such a claim. Wood says he is fully healthy after spending the last seven weeks on the injured reserve in 2011. If he can play a full 16-game slate next to his draftmate Levitre, good things are ahead for the Buffalo offense.
Dickerson was a name I was high on coming out of the University of Pittsburgh before he fell to the seventh round in the 2010 draft to the Texans. Dickerson is more of a pure receiving tight end in the mold of Aaron Hernandez of the Patriots, and that is something the Bills could certainly use in an age where extra weapons on the field is a good thing.
Dickerson offers next to no value in the blocking department, which hurts his value a bit in a 2TE set with Chandler also on the field. However, Dickerson has the mitts and speed to stick in Buffalo as a situation-specific tight end. His preseason action has been limited, but he's made the most of the opportunities that he has received.
Chan Gailey is in love with Tashard Choice for some reason unbeknownst to the majority of Bills fans. We get the connections and familiarity they have dating back to their Georgia Tech days together. However, Choice has been virtually useless since coming over to Buffalo after Fred Jackson's leg injury midway through last season.
Gailey's commitment to Choice in short yard-rushing situations and within the 20-yard line were boggling at the end of last season with C.J. Spiller playing like he was out for blood.
Any player who can't run for at least a 3.0 yard-per-carry average shouldn't be on an NFL roster, even as a No. 3 change-of-pace back.
Friday night, Choice led the Bills in touches with seven and finished with a pedestrian 15 yards for a 2.1 average on the night. His saving grace was that he did tally an unimportant touchdown, which of course means Gailey might roll with him over Johnny White in 2012.
As the 2011 season was wrapping up, the big question in Buffalo was whether Stevie Johnson would prove good on his promise of re-upping with the Bills. The talks went back and forth until they agreed on a five-year, $36.25 million contract just over two months after the season concluded. Johnson, at the time, was relieved that the situation had been resolved and was ready to get back to playing football.
Part of the holdup on the Bills end is that they wanted Johnson, a four-year veteran, to stop the antics that have too often caught him on the wrong end of the media's jeers. No one needs to spend much time thinking about which mishaps I am speaking of.
Johnson had to reassure the front office that it would be all business from here on out, and he would need to prove that he could be a vocal leader in the locker room instead of a distraction.
Following Buffalo's first preseason game against the Redskins, Johnson had some choice words for both himself and his teammates. The following are quotes taken from Buffalo News writer Tim Graham's blog following the embarrassing performance at home.
"We've got to be better," Johnson told reporters Saturday night at St. John Fisher College. "Preseason game, practice, we've got to be better if we want to get to where we want to be.
"Mentally, we've got to prepare like champions, really. We've got to be past the whole 'Let's win this many games in a row.' We've got to be thinking like champions right now, aggressive and dominant. That's it."
"It's only so long where you can just be the old Bills, just getting beat around in this conference," Johnson said, when asked by Associated Press reporter John Wawrow if Thursday was a wakeup call.
"It's time to turn it around and take over, and I think we've got the team that can do it this year. So why not go out there and go hard and try to take this division?"
Johnson's words may be just that, but they may be a sign that he is looking for accountability from both himself and the rest of his squad. Here is hoping that this is a sign of bigger things to come from him.
The defensive line has been highly touted after the signings of Mario Williams and Mark Anderson during an unusually busy free-agency period for Buffalo. With the return of Kyle Williams from injury, arguably the Bills most important defender the last few seasons and the rapid development of Marcell Dareus, Bills fans are giddy at the thought of the new defensive look.
The defense hasn't played at an effectively high level yet thus far into the preseason, but they have shown flashes of the dominance they can impose should they put it all together.
The two sacks by Dareus and Kyle Williams on the first offensive drive for the Vikings last Friday should have been drive stoppers. Once the rest of the defense can catch up to the pace the defensive line has set, the Bills should be fielding a top-10 defense.
Upon receiving the fateful text this morning about Merriman's impending release, I thought to myself, "Is this breaking news because of what Shawne Merriman used to be or because of who he is now?"
Unfortunately, the Merriman news is neither surprising nor really anything that newsworthy. A once promising young player was never the same once he was suspended for getting caught using performance-enhancing drugs.
I truly believed that Merriman had turned the page in that chapter in his life, doing things the right way to get fit. However, he was never able to regain his health following that 2008 season and looks to be on his way out the front door of the NFL.
Merriman finishes his Bills career with one sack in five games played after being claimed by the Bills in 2010.
The starters have been set since March, but who will be rotating in to give them a break is still yet to be determined.
Chris Kelsay is locked into the third defensive end role, for better or for worse. For worse, check out the variety of play-action passes to the flat that were completed by Christian Ponder and gang on Friday, which totally faked Kelsay out multiple times. He is a hustle player who can spell the front four, but is limited beyond the occasional sack.
After that, it is a whole bunch of "who knows."
Spencer Johnson will likely be the first defensive tackle off the bench, which is fine as long as Dave Wannstedt doesn't randomly move the almost 300-pound lineman to linebacker halfway through the season like another recent defensive coordinator.
The rest of the line is full of well-traveled veterans and under-performing recent draft picks, none of which I'm very comfortable with being forced into extended duty in event of an injury.
Sheppard was supposed to be a player who was going to make an easy transition from LSU to the NFL game, but it hasn't happened quite as planned. He had the smarts, intangibles and physicality to be a natural leader at the inside linebacker spot for the long term.
While Sheppard hasn't been a liability per se, he has disappointed in what seems to be a bit of a stunted development. There are plays where he flashes that natural ability only to be followed up by plays where the second-year player looks completely lost in what he is doing.
Sheppard will need to make a step forward rather than two steps back or else the Bills will be shuffling their linebacking deck, moving Nick Barnett back to the middle. I don't foresee this being the case, but the former Bayou Tiger might have to spend a little bit more time in the film room before the season begins.
Kirk Morrison was the officially leader on the initial depth chart released just over two weeks ago, but Moats has quickly gained ground.
What gives him a leg up over Morrison is both his youth and superior athleticism. You don't know exactly what you'll get out of Moats every game because of his inexperience at the position, but his natural ability allows the Bills to do more than they could with Morrison.
Morrison is the safer option at the second outside spot because he does a lot of the little things well, but he won't give you the explosive plays that Moats has the potential to provide.
McKillop is another former Pitt standout who has come over to play for his former college coach after being unsuccessful elsewhere.
He is stuck in a pretty good group of linebackers, but is on an even playing field with a majority of the guys he is battling with. With Sheppard limited by injuries and ineffectiveness, McKillop has played well as his backup in the middle. The third-year player won't wow you with athleticism or speed, but he has the right instincts to be a key player for the Bills defense.
According to the Buffalo News, Chan Gailey is in agreement with that notion.
He made a lot of tackles. He was in on a lot of plays the other night. Scott has done a good job. He is a good special-teams player. He is making a real run at this football team. He has a lot of natural instincts. That is the great thing about him: He understands the game. He has to continue to work on pass coverage, but we have a couple of linebackers in that spot.
There are no guarantees that McKillop wins a roster spot, but the odds are in his favor due to his heady play on defense and special teams.
Nigel Bradham and Tank Carder were drafted by the Bills with the expectation that they would contribute on special teams first and defense second. Both players were All-Conference performers during their college careers, but were similarly knocked down draft boards because of certain holes in their game.
Those holes wouldn't be masked if each had to contribute on defense right away, but their raw talent at the linebacker position have allowed them to make a lasting impression on the kick-coverage unit.
What I liked about Bradham coming out of college is that the instant he was drafted, he said he would come in and do everything possible to help the club. I wouldn't expect anything less from an incoming player eager to get his first taste of the NFL, but he's backed that talk up with his willingness to get better as a special teams player.
The writing has been on the wall for quite some time for Terrence McGee. The problem was that the Bills, until now, haven't had anyone to replace him with.
Having not even completed a full season worth of games over the last two seasons combined, the Bills have been looking to move on from the oft-injured McGee for awhile. Out of loyalty I suppose, Buffalo has kept him around this long. The injuries have obviously affected his production, only totaling one interception since the end of the 2008 season.
Once known for his electric kick returns, McGee has been relegated to watching his peers from the bench instead of helping his cause on the field. Getting old can do that to a player, but it really affects those who already have a history of not being able to stay healthy.
Thanks for the memories, Terrence.
Like Kelvin Sheppard, Williams was supposed to be one of the members of the 2011 draft class that would waltz into a starting job in Buffalo without much of a problem.
The beginning of the Texas graduate's short career was set back by a minor injury that plagued him until the final five weeks of the season. While on the bench, Williams must have spent a lot of time asking questions and watching film because he came back from the injury as a much improved player from the beginning of the year.
That momentum was supposed to carry him into the offseason and have him grab hold of a starting spot opposite a player to be named, who eventually became first-round pick Stephon Gilmore.
Williams has been beaten often both in camp and in the two preseason games thus far, which is troublesome for Bills coaches and fans alike. Williams is known for his physical play and solid ball skills, but his bad tendencies of biting on fakes from college still rears its ugly head from time to time.
There are other young guys who will be nipping at his heels for playing time, so Williams will have to show improvement before September 8.
Gilmore has stepped into the top corner spot for Buffalo without much of a transition period. There have been a few mistakes here and there, but that comes with the territory for a new rookie on the job.
There will be a few times over the season where Gilmore has a play that fits into the phrase "learning on the job," but fans have the right to be excited about his prospects. It has been quite awhile since the franchise has seen a corner with his kind of potential—the Nate Clements and Antoine Winfield days come to mind.
Ron Brooks was the other corner picked in the 2012 draft. Brooks has been talked about quite a bit since his impressive showing over the past month in practices and games. It's not inconceivable that if Williams struggles and Brooks continues to show NFL readiness, that he could be thrust into the starting lineup at some point this season.
Either way, the two new corners have stirred up a position that was in desperate need of a makeover.
Scouts Inc. released their annual "Top Rated Players at Each Position" article yesterday, which always creates some good football discussion.
I made my way to the S-tab and scoured for Byrd's name. It took me a while, but I finally found it at No. 27, below the likes of first-round disappointments Michael Huff and Reggie Nelson, as well as his own teammate George Wilson. Good for Wilson to get some recognition after an impressive 2011 campaign, but it is Byrd who is Buffalo's unheralded MVP.
Almost every time the Bills grabbed a turnover last season, Byrd was in some way a part of that play. Tipped passes, forced fumbles and highlight interception returns are all a part of the young safety's arsenal, yet he continues to fly under the radar in most NFL media circles.
After turning in a runner-up MVP performance in camp, Byrd seems keen on putting the rest of the NFL on notice—just as long as he can avoid being hurdled over by receivers.
Delano Howell has taken an interesting road to get to where he is today. A former Stanford running back on an Andrew Luck-led team, Howell was switched over to safety to fill a need for his college team. There he earned some accolades within the conference, but not enough was known about him at the position for him to be drafted in April. However, Howell was listed as one of the top UDFAs once the draft ended, and he wound up in Buffalo, on a team in need of safety help.
Since arriving here, Howell has seemingly done no wrong from what the fans have seen. He has been one of the lone standouts on the reserve defensive squads, earning him praise from teammates and coaches alike.
Tim Graham of the Buffalo News wrote an article yesterday about Howell's quick rise up the food chain:
"I tell you what," Bills coach Chan Gailey said Friday night. "He's done some good things. I told him on the sideline before the game that he has really picked it up and done a good job. He's making a real run at this thing. He's been impressive the last three weeks."
It helps to learn from players such as Byrd and another offensive player-turned-safety in George Wilson. Continued play at his current rate could see Howell move above Da'Norris Searcy as the prime reserve if he hasn't already.
If you had asked me a few months ago if I would be happy with the Bills if they wasted a roster spot on a kick-off specialist, I would have given a flat no as an answer.
After watching seventh-round draft choice John Potter kick the ball out of the end zone at a consistent rate, I'm willing to give the Bills the benefit of the doubt if they do go that route. Ryan Lindell is slowly becoming a liability at the kicker position, and while we don't know much about Potter's field-goal abilities other than his big leg, he could provide some upside should Lindell struggle.
He already does one thing Lindell can't do, which is eliminate the opposing teams' return game.
There is a lot to be excited about entering the season, but there is still plenty of work to be done by a team desperately needing to crawl out of the AFC East basement.
The media coverage surrounding Buffalo has grown immensely after their first impressive offseason in quite some time, which can be good or bad.
Will the Bills be the "same old Bills" that Stevie Johnson referenced in his postgame rant, or will they take a step forward under the fine lens of a national microscope?
The work that is done on both sides of the ball in the coming weeks will decide whether they will sink or swim in their first year with playoff aspirations under new management.