Buffalo Bills: What to Watch for at OTAs
Organized team activities started for the Buffalo Bills last Monday, and the team will run practices three days a week for the remainder of the month. OTAs are completely volunteer-based—although it is unwise to not attend them—and it gives players their first shot at proving themselves worthy of a roster spot.
Plays run during OTAs are dumbed down to accelerate a more fluid style of practice, but players young and old will soon be asked to master the new Buffalo Bills’ playbook.
There are many storylines headlining the Bills’ offseason event this year with a completely reshuffled front office and a newly-drafted quarterback with charisma that can charm even the hardest-hearted media members. Not to mention, Buffalo’s franchise-tagged safety Jairus Byrd is missing in action without the long-term contract that is well overdue.
As the Bills cap off a busy week of practice and front-page pressers, there is plenty still to be watching for in the next two weeks.
Snaps in the Quarterback Competition
Buffalo’s quarterback competition got a whole lot more interesting after the team selected EJ Manuel in the first round of the draft. There was no consensus on what the Bills would do with the position after they signed Kevin Kolb in early April.
A two-man race of Kolb and incumbent by default Tarvaris Jackson seemed destined to happen, as the Bills would surely wait until next offseason to find a better prospect.
However, the Bills made the surprising selection of Manuel after trading out of the top 10 and made the battle a three-man race.
Kolb could have been seen as the favorite to get a bulk of the snaps leading into OTAs after being a priority free-agent signing for the Bills. Even more so because Buffalo did not activate Jackson once last season after acquiring him from the Seahawks for a seventh-round pick in the 2013 draft.
Instead it was Jackson that opened the offseason as the top dog in the rotation when the team started last Monday morning. Familiarity with the team or the offense is out the window when arguing about why Jackson started off on top. His aforementioned bout with the inactive list made him an intriguing re-signing in March, but the Bills must have offered him a shot at the starting spot.
A similar promise was likely delivered to Kolb to get him to sign here, but the pressure was amped up on him a bunch when Manuel was drafted. There is not a ton of guaranteed money wrapped up into Kolb and Jackson, but the likelihood of both remaining on the roster past August is not incredibly high.
Jackson looked sharp in the small amount of footage released by BuffaloBills.com’s John Murphy and Chris Brown. However, we should see an evening up of snaps as the offseason progresses and as Manuel gets more accustomed to the offense.
Progression of Rookie Receivers
After an offseason overhaul of the position, Buffalo brought in four rookie receivers between the draft and post-draft free agency to compete. Robert Woods and Marquise Goodwin went in the second and third rounds, before the Bills added Da’Rick Rogers and Brandon Kaufman in the hours after the draft ended.
Woods, Goodwin and Kaufman all went back to school after rookie camp ended last Sunday afternoon to complete their graduation requirements. Rogers was able to take advantage of the thinned out position in the first week and showcased his skills on two long touchdown plays during day one’s practice.
Rogers might have the most raw talent of the group, but he will have to put his troubles behind him to guarantee a spot on the team.
Kaufman finished a record-breaking senior season at Eastern Washington with a nice showing during Bills’ rookie camp. At 6’7” he has a similar body type to former Buffalo receiver David Nelson and shows the same knack of getting open over the middle.
Woods showed the most polish of the group during rookie camp, and it will be nice to see him back in Buffalo once Southern Cal finishes up the academic year.
Goodwin displayed his elite speed last weekend, but he may have the hardest time building chemistry with his new quarterbacks. T.J. Graham is another track athlete at receiver, and he was excellent during the first days of practice. Graham looked so smooth that Ryan Talbot of QueenCitySports.net named him the MVP of the first week.
Graham’s marked improvement could push Goodwin down the depth chart in his rookie season, but it will be interesting to see how the two split snaps in the next few weeks.
Who Is Filling in for Andy Levitre?
One of the bigger surprises of the Bills' draft season was that they did not address the gaping hole at left guard. Andy Levitre was the most consistent player on the Buffalo offensive line over the past four years, but the team moved on from the high-priced free agent.
Levitre was one of the best interior pass-blockers in the NFL last season, but as the Bills transition to a run-heavy approach, Levitre was seen as expendable.
With no rookies vying for the left guard spot, three young journeymen have begun their quest to become a starting guard in the NFL. Sam Young, Chris Scott and Colin Brown are the three players currently listed on the Ourlads.com Bills depth chart.
Young was drafted by the Dallas Cowboys out of Notre Dame and was picked up by the Bills after his rookie season. He made the first four starts of his career last season filling in on an injury-plagued offensive line at the end of the year. Now in his fourth season, he has the first opportunity of his career to win a starting spot out of camp.
His main competition is Chris Scott, who has also bounced around from team to team during a three-year career. He was drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 2010 draft but only appeared in two games for them in two years before finding his way onto practice squads for Tampa Bay and Tennessee.
Buffalo plucked Scott away from the Titans' practice squad in December of last year when they needed a few extra bodies up front. Scott was the first player to receive first-team duties at left guard when OTAs opened up last Monday as noted by Brian Galliford of Buffalo Rumblings.
The Mario Williams Saga
The Bills dominated headlines for much of the week, but the story that broke about Mario Williams over the weekend was the most peculiar. Williams and his ex-fiance Erin Marzouki broke off their engagement in November, but news of Williams suing to get the ring back became back-page news last week.
Williams' lawsuit became front-page material when Marzouki's lawyers released texts from Williams to his ex-fiance that showed a depressed and, at times, disillusioned man. The Associated Press released all the juicy details on Saturday after the first day of closed-door meetings between the two parties.
Judgments will be drawn about the situation on a person-to-person basis, but it is telling that Williams play was not affected despite the lightly-publicized personal issue. He played his best down the stretch last season and finished with double-digit sacks for the third time in his career.
Law proceedings can be a sticky situation, but as long as Williams keeps a professional presence on the field then this story will pass soon.
Will We See More 3-4 or 4-3?
The Bills have flip-flopped defensive schemes more times in the last four seasons than any other team in the league. One year they are running 4-3, the next 3-4 and the next with a nickel-dominated base scheme.
Part of the reason for this is the lack of stability in the franchise, but more so because the switches and personnel investments have not exactly panned out as planned.
New defensive coordinator Mike Pettine comes over from the New York Jets, where he primarily worked with a 3-4 scheme. Pettine has settled on a hybrid scheme, which will put players on the roster in the best position to succeed.
The Bills have plenty of players on the squad that have a ton of versatility in this regard. Mario Williams has been a 4-3 defensive end for much of his career but spent his last season in Houston as a linebacker in Wade Phillips' defense. Newly-acquired tweener Jerry Hughes—a flop during three seasons in Indianapolis—has at least a year in both schemes as well.
AFC East lead writer Erik Frenz compiled a fantastic breakdown of what Mike Pettine’s defense could look like moving forward on Friday.
The development of the defense as a whole and who will line up where will be an interesting story as the offseason progresses deeper into the summer.
The Running Back Platoon
Lost in an offseason flurry of news, the Buffalo Bills talented platoon of running backs remains an unanswered question.
C.J. Spiller claimed the top spot on the depth chart after outperforming incumbent Fred Jackson from beginning to end last season. Not Jackson's fault as Spiller's jaw-dropping stats put many of the best running backs to shame in 2012.
Spiller finished with a six-yards-per-carry average for 1,244 yards, which put him near the top in both categories despite being severely under-used by coach Chan Gailey. Had Spiller received more of a lion's share, he could have crept close to All-Pro Adrian Peterson in the final stat rankings.
With Spiller taking the league by storm, where does that leave the ageless Jackson in the grand scheme of things?
Doug Marrone used a stable of running backs during his time at Syracuse and with the New Orleans Saints who do not put much stock into workhorses. Marrone has not had a tandem this talented, however, and figuring out how to use them as a duo is no easy task.
Just ask Gailey.
Taking Spiller off the field is probably not in Marrone's best interest, so using the former Clemson back as a receiver when Jackson is getting carries could be a solution. Jackson is coming off of two injury-plagued seasons, but he remains a huge part of this Bills' offense moving forward because of his running style.
Jairus Byrd's Contract
Perhaps the biggest cloud hanging over the long-term outlook of the Bills is the potentially sticky contract situation with Pro Bowl safety Jairus Byrd. Buffalo waited a long time to decide between contracts for Byrd and Andy Levitre, before ultimately franchise tagging Byrd in March.
Byrd is scheduled to make $6.916 million on the one-year offer. Due to no long-term solution being reached, Byrd has stayed away from the team facilities during the voluntary workouts and continue to do so until a contract has been agreed upon.
Mark Kelso, a former Bills' safety and now a color commentator for WGR 550 in Buffalo, had some troubling news during an on-air interview last week. He stated that the Bills and Byrd's camp were two million a part—as reported by Rotoworld—which is a big gap for a player searching for his first big pay day.
The Bills' front office remains adamant that Byrd is a part of their plans and a major priority before the July 15 window to get a long-term deal done. Russ Brandon spoke to reporters about the situation following the draft:
“Organizationally of course we’d love to have him back,” said of Byrd. ”We utilized the asset that was available to us with the franchise tag as you all know. It’s a priority for the organization and we hope to continue to work through the process with him and more importantly his agent, and we’ll keep conversations in a fluid process.” (BuffaloBills.com)
The Bills made moves during the draft with the thought that there could be an impasse in negotiations, but Byrd would be a huge loss if he is allowed to walk.