It's a new era in Buffalo
It's that time of year again. This week, most NFL teams are reporting to training camp to prepare for the upcoming season.
While each team has an agenda for the upcoming weeks, the Buffalo Bills are in a unique position with an immense amount of organizational turnover. With a new GM in Doug Whaley, a new head coach in Doug Marrone and a new starting quarterback, we're in for a lot of change in the way the team plays.
But first, the team will spend the next month at St. John Fisher College implementing new schemes and deciding position battles on both sides of the ball. Let's take a look at what's in store in the coming weeks.
Will EJ Manuel impress enough to start in Week 1?
Who is going to start in Week 1? That is the biggest question on the mind of Bills fans as training camp begins.
Back in April, the Bills handed Kevin Kolb a two-year contract for what appeared to be a stopgap role as the quarterback for 2013-14. Later that month, however, the organization shocked the world by making EJ Manuel the first QB selected in the 2013 draft. Cue the competition.
In OTAs, Manuel spent a lot of time as the third-string QB, getting less reps than both Kolb and Tarvaris Jackson, who was later cut. Now, he'll get 50 percent of the reps at training camp and every chance to show that he should lead the team right away.
That's the background information, but everyone wants to know who's going to win. If you want my take, I think Kolb is going to win the job. Most fans groan upon hearing that news, but I think he should be given a fair shake and Manuel should be given more time to develop, a la Colin Kaepernick.
No one will argue that Kolb is the answer as the Bills' franchise quarterback, but he led the Cardinals to a 4-2 start last year behind a miserable offensive line. Also, his touchdown to interception ratio was a very respectable 8:3. With a much better offensive line and a variety of weapons on the offensive side of the ball, Kolb may be able to surprise some fans in September and beyond.
Robert Woods looks to lock down the No. 2 WR spot
In the past two years, the Bills have drafted three receivers in the first three rounds of the draft. It's the hope of the entire staff that one of these players can step up across from Stevie Johnson to provide another threat on offense.
With all due respect to Marquise Goodwin and Da'Rick Rogers, this looks to be a battle between Robert Woods and T.J. Graham. While much has been made of the polish Woods has shown in OTAs, Graham has also been very impressive and looks to be much improved from year one.
In an interview with John Murphy, Graham spoke of the differences in his game from last year: “Maybe I couldn’t beat myself on the track, but game speed, I’m a lot more alert, I can see defenses, I can read stuff a lot easier.” That year of experience could make him a pleasant surprise in the coming weeks.
Still, I'm going to put my money on Woods winning the job. Kevin Kolb has given him rave reviews for understanding the timing and footwork in practices, which usually doesn't come easily to rookie wideouts.
The Bills have high expectations for rookie LB Kiko Alonso
Last year, the entire Bills defense underperformed due to a variety of reasons. Outside of Dave Wannstedt's miserable coaching, though, I would point to the play of the linebackers.
In this offseason, the Bills have released Nick Barnett and traded Kelvin Sheppard, leaving Nigel Bradham as the only player who had significant time on the field last year. Bradham will be expected to take a big step up in year two, as he appears to have one of the ILB jobs locked down.
On the outside, you'll see a number of different players rushing the passer. Look for Manny Lawson, Jerry Hughes and Mario Williams to split time here.
That leaves one final ILB spot, and that will almost certainly go to rookie Kiko Alonso. From the second OTAs began, Alonso was on the first unit and was calling the shots on defense. Expectations are sky high for the rookie, who sports a level of intensity and athleticism the Bills defense was sorely missing.
In training camp, we'll hope to see this group gel and make plays against a young offense. Last year's defense was very bad, but the talent was there. With the new 3-4 scheme and improved linebacker play, the Bills hope things can turn around.
Will Rian Lindell hold on to the kicking job?
OK, so special teams has never really garnered the respect the other facets of the game do, but it plays a huge role. This year, the Bills have an all-out battle for both kicker and punter.
Rian Lindell is currently the longest tenured Buffalo Bill, but that may not last for long. In the sixth round, the Bills selected Dustin Hopkins out of Florida State. Hopkins is the FBS all-time leader in scoring and is looking to unseat the veteran.
Due to Lindell's age and decreasing leg strength, Hopkins may only need to perform close to Lindell's level to take the job. After all, it's a young man's game, and any team would prefer to pay less for a younger guy who is equally effective.
At punter, Shawn Powell came in last year to replace the longtime fan favorite Brian Moorman. Powell was often very inconsistent and didn't do enough to justify being handed the job for this year. Enter Brian Stahovich.
Stahovich is a second-year player who has impressed this offseason with the hang time on his punts. Who will win this battle is anyone's guess, but don't be surprised to see Stahovich win, as Powell was the favorite of former special teams coordinator Bruce DeHaven.
Jairus Byrd will be monumental to this defense's success
Though there was originally hope that the Bills and Jairus Byrd would come to a long-term contract agreement before the deadline in early July, things have not gone according to plan. Now, Byrd has refused to sign his franchise tender and has not reported to training camp. The Bills don't need this distraction while trying to implement their new defensive scheme.
The question that remains is if and when will he report to St. John Fisher College. Well, GM Doug Whaley gave WGR 550 a brief statement regarding the situation: "We're not going to do anything in the public or in the media. Just know that we have been in contact and lines of communication are open."
There's no way to tell what that means for the Bills, but optimists should take solace in the fact that both sides are talking. Keep your fingers crossed as training camp goes on, because Byrd was ranked the 25th-best player in the game by Pro Football Focus.