The 5 Biggest Takeaways from Buffalo's Rookie Minicamp
Rookie camp always has an interesting dynamic for young football players.
With draft memories or frustrations still fresh on their minds, players from all over the country get their first chance to prove they belong on an NFL roster. The three-day event—stuffed with activities and drills—may be the only opportunity for some of the players to showcase the qualities that made them a pick or priority free agent in the first place.
The 33 players who participated in the minicamp since Friday afternoon are a part of an exciting new era of Buffalo Bills football.
A franchise that has been mired in mediocrity since its '90s glory days and that had one of the more controversial offseasons has pinned its hopes on finding a few budding stars out of this group. Eyes were on young playmakers EJ Manuel and Robert Woods, but a few other players turned in solid performances during three days of practices in Orchard Park.
Performances in rookie camps—especially for those drafted toward the top—mean very little in the grand scheme of things, but they give coaches a little glimpse at the beginning of development. With that in mind, here are a few things to take away from the Bills' wrapped-up minicamp.
The Starting Wide Receivers Will Be Awfully Young
The wide receiver position in Buffalo is looking a lot different than it has in quite some time. After Donald Jones and David Nelson—the Bills' second and third receivers the last two years—were not offered tenders, fans were left wondering who would be catching passes for the team in 2013.
It has been Stevie Johnson and not much else for the greater part of three seasons, but Nelson and Jones both had the makings of solid depth at receiver. With the cupboard bare, Buffalo knew going in that the position would need to be filled early and often in the April draft.
The Bills started off day two with the selection of USC's Robert Woods, arguably the most NFL-ready receiver in the draft because of his advanced route-running and understanding of defenses. Woods has a very similar skill set to Buffalo's veteran Johnson, which should open some holes for other players.
Woods showed off his knack for getting open during three days of practice and was often the subject of conversation during Buffalo Bills lead reporter Chris Brown's camp recaps at the end of each day. If Woods was not already penciled in as the starter opposite Johnson heading into camp, he will likely be close to that now—even in a somewhat meaningless event.
Marquise Goodwin showed off the elite speed that made him the talk of Senior Bowl practices back in January. The Goodwin pick was not popular among draft analysts. However, he was consistently getting behind the rookie defensive backs with pure speed during three days of practice.
EJ Manuel and undrafted free agent Jeff Tuel both underthrew Goodwin a few times, according to Brown, but chemistry is rarely found between new quarterbacks and speed-receivers this early in the process.
The other standout at the receiver position was undrafted free agent Brandon Kaufman from Eastern Washington. Kaufman put up eye-popping stats on the red turf during his four-year career with the Eagles, including 3,731 yards and 33 touchdowns. Most of those stats came in his sophomore and senior seasons—the only two in which he was fully healthy.
Kaufman used his 6'5" frame to get open over the middle of the field and showed a comfortableness roaming in between the hash marks. He is one of four rookie receivers who has a very good chance at making the team out of summer camp.
Da'Rick Rogers Will Have a Short Leash in Buffalo
Former Tennessee and Tennessee Tech wide receiver Da'Rick Rogers comes to Buffalo with plenty of baggage and not solely the type that keeps his clothing.
Once seen as a potential first-round pick, the troubled receiver fell all the way out of the draft completely and latched on with the Bills as a priority free agent soon after. Rogers was seen by many as the cream of the crop in post-draft free agency, and the Buffalo coaching staff impressed the team's faithful following with the pickup.
Message boards and blogs were buzzing about the Rogers signing, with some Internet followers even seeing him as the best move Buffalo made during the draft weekend.
Expectations should be tempered for Rogers early on as he adjusts to NFL life. In fact, he was barely mentioned for on-the-field accolades during the team's weekend rookie camp.
Rogers was still in the news aplenty this week though, with feature articles showing up on Yahoo! and NBC Sports. Bleacher Report's own Chris Trapasso wrote a fantastic piece about Rogers' boom-or-bust candidacy for Yahoo!'s contributor network.
Buffalo media seemed to be impressed with the young receiver during his sit-down interview with Buffalo Bills announcer John Murphy on Friday evening. Jay Skurski of the Buffalo News and Jonah Javad, a sports anchor for WGRZ in Buffalo, made positive remarks on Twitter about Rogers' first meetup with the local media.
Skurski described Rogers as "someone who gets it," while Javad said that Rogers gave "one of the most self-aware and self-motivating soundbites" he has heard since covering the Bills beat.
Head coach Doug Marrone said in a call with season-ticket holders that Rogers will have to act like a professional during his time in Buffalo. He stated that with Rogers' checkered past, the team is willing to overlook, but that it will be a "one-shot deal" (per The Associated Press, via The Washington Post). Which in summary means that Rogers has no room for screwups with Buffalo.
Rogers could be another piece of the puzzle for the new-look Bills offense, but he will have to remain focused on the job at hand to be a part of the future.
EJ Manuel Is Exactly What We Thought He Was
Two weeks ago, Buffalo shocked the NFL stratosphere by making EJ Manuel the first quarterback taken in the 2013 draft. The shock transpired into plenty of hasty negative judgments against the franchise, including Pete Prisco's dreaded "F" grade for the selection.
The team has not officially opened up the quarterback position as one that will be fought for during training camp this summer, but that idea is all but guaranteed. Manuel will not waltz into the starting gig despite his first-round status, but instead fight for the opportunity with Kevin Kolb and Tarvaris Jackson.
Manuel showed the big arm and intermediate accuracy that intrigued the Bills enough to select him as the first quarterback in the draft. For better or worse, the new coaching staff are married to the Manuel selection for as long as they all remain in Buffalo.
The former Seminoles quarterback also revealed a few of the known holes in his game, including the footwork that leads to some overall accuracy issues. Following Friday's practice, Doug Marrone told reporters that Manuel "made some nice throws," but that he still needs to "work on his footwork," according to Marc Sessler of NFL.com.
Footwork was the main area of concentration for the Bills coaching staff in regard to Manuel during practices on Friday and Saturday, according to Sessler.
No one is expecting Manuel to come in right away and light the world on fire. Every quarterback prospect in the draft had flaws in his game, and Buffalo must have felt that Manuel's were the most fixable.
Improving footwork seems the be the name of the game for Manuel as he competes for the starting job.
Nickell Robey Is Earning His Keep in Nickel Formations
One of the smallest players on the field for the Bills over the weekend was cornerback Nickell Robey, who stands somewhere between 5'7" and 5'9", depending on who you ask.
Robey was projected as a mid- to late-round pick by many draft projection sites and was placed firmly as a midround prospect on his NFL.com draft profile. Each website cited his size as the main contributing factor behind middling stock, despite putting up good stats at USC.
Robey ultimately went undrafted, and the Bills quickly scooped him up after seeing him while checking out teammate Robert Woods in Southern California during an April workout.
As a two-year starter with the Trojans, Robey showed elite range and athleticism to put himself in good spots to make plays. He showed off those skills during practice this past weekend and picked off a pair of passes during seven-on-seven passing drills on Saturday and Sunday.
The cornerback position is fairly wide-open for the Bills—as with many spots across the roster—which gives Robey a good shot to make the team, should he continue to make plays in workouts. His frame would be more troubling if he was being asked to play outside, but the coaching staff has him smartly pegged as a nickel package corner.
The New Coaching Staff Is a Nice Change
Doug Marrone has done as much as he can to change the culture of the Buffalo Bills during his first four months on the job. He replaced some of the old signage in the team's field house with AFC Championship banners from the 90s and hung a large replica of the Lombardi Trophy behind one of the up-rights.
He has also gone against the grain to add players whom he feels will excel in his coordinators' new schemes for long-run success, rather than just short-term rewards. He has explained away the signings of Kevin Kolb and Da'Rick Rogers, as well as the drafting of EJ Manuel—providing sensible answers for each question directed his way.
Perhaps my favorite news coming out of Bills rookie camp was offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett made the offensive rookies do a series of "up-downs" when Manuel threw back-to-back interceptions during seven-on-seven drills (per John Murphy of BuffaloBills.com).
Chan Gailey was known for being a players' coach, and the loyalty to players who were not performing ultimately cost him his job. Marrone and Hackett have already instilled a level of responsibility that needs to be met to earn a spot on the team.