Updating Buffalo Bills Position Battles Halfway Through Training Camp
Only 22 days remain between now and the Buffalo Bills' season opener against New England. For all the concerns about an offseason full of change, many of the major questions entering training camp are starting to have more clearly defined answers.
Aside from C.J. Spiller, Stevie Johnson and a handful of offensive lineman, every spot on the Bills' offense was up for grabs when camp began just over two weeks ago. The loss of veterans in the back half of the defense and a new scheme also placed giant question marks in starting positions on the Bills' first depth chart.
Two preseason games have all but settled a few of the races for starting spots, but they have muddied the waters for predicting which players will find themselves on the right side of the roster bubble come September.
Preseason Week 3 is typically the final game the starters participate in, while Week 4 is reserved for those on the bubble to make their case for a spot one final time.
Which positional battles have been locked up and which ones are still unsettled with two weeks remaining in training camp?
Kevin Kolb vs. EJ Manuel
The quarterback competition was the biggest event happening during Bills training camp this year. Kevin Kolb—for all of his faults—entered the offseason as the default starter because of his veteran status. EJ Manuel was listed as his backup as a courtesy to Kolb, but head coach Doug Marrone made it clear before training camp began there would be an open competition.
Neither quarterback distinguished themselves as being above the other in the first week of camp, but then Kolb got into a fight with a rubber mat. After being on the wrong end of slip on a practice field mat, Kolb spent the first preseason game watching from the sidelines.
The Bills-Colts game was in the preseason primetime slot as the only NFL contest last Sunday afternoon. With all eyes tuned to the development of Manuel, he worked through some early-drive jitters to deliver a few dazzling plays at the end of the half.
However, when Buffalo took the field on Friday night against the Minnesota Vikings it was Kolb, not Manuel, who took the field with the first-team offense. Kolb posted a mediocre stat line and showed an inability to run the quick-tempo offense Offensive Coordinator Nate Hackett has installed. The veteran left the game after an ineffective first half with the Bills leading 13-3 thanks to a defensive touchdown that never should have happened.
Manuel came on with the twos to start the second half and immediately led the team on a touchdown-scoring 80-yard drive to put the Bills up 17 points. He methodically went 6-for-6 on the drive, including the four-yard pass to Brad Smith for pay dirt.
For all the backlash the team took for the selection of Manuel in April, his command of the offense has been one of the most pleasant progressions of the last three weeks. Two impressive performances have led many to assume he is in the catbird seat for the starting quarterback spot much earlier than originally thought.
Then came the hammer of reality to bring the high hopes back to Earth, as the team released a statement on their website that Manuel will require a minor knee procedure and miss the remainder of the preseason.
A competition with the look of being closed only 24 hours ago suddenly has the feel of being as uncertain as when the team began practice three weeks ago.
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The position that has seen the most dramatic rise in level of play from last year to this offseason has been the new group of wide receivers. The Bills returned six guys at the position who appeared in at least two games for them a season ago, but added another six to set up one of the most heated battles on the roster.
Stevie Johnson is a lock at the top spot and it is safe to assume T.J. Graham, Robert Woods and Marquise Goodwin will all be a part of the team's plans this season. That leaves two or three spots available to the remaining eight athletes and the race has been in a dead heat for weeks.
The forecasting of those final few spots was complicated further by the reconstruction of Brad Smith's contract right before camp began. Smith was initially a good bet to be on the outside looking in because of his high cap number, but the veteran's salary has been slashed down to $1.5 million, according to Sportrac. A more cap-friendly contract makes Smith more likely to stay around for leadership and occasional spot-duty on special teams.
Assuming the Bills keep seven players at wide receiver—five spots being already taken—a handful of young players are duking it out for the final two positions on the depth chart.
Based on performances during the first two weeks of preseason games, Chris Hogan and Marcus Easley have taken the lead for those final spots. Hogan was a camp favorite for Miami last season when he was a focus of HBO's "Hard Knocks," while Easley finally has the look of being healthy in his fourth season with the team.
Brandon Kaufman is not far behind and he presents a different skill set many of the other guys in the competition do not have—size. Kaufman has good hands and his big frame is a rookie quarterback's dream for quick passes over the middle.
Buzz-worthy players Da'Rick Rogers and Terrell Sinkfield have done little in games to show they are ready for the NFL. Rogers has been a favorite of fans and analysts since the team made him a priority free agent following the draft. His skill set is unmatched by most of the guys above him on the depth chart, but the plays simply have not been there to back it up. With his high profile it will be nearly impossible for the Bills to stash him on the practice squad, making the final decision on who to keep at receiver an even tougher one.
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The competition between Colin Brown and Doug Legursky has been so bad it almost is not worthy of being mentioned. Both players are attempting to fill big shoes left by the offseason departure of Andy Levitre and neither has even looked mediocre to this point.
Brown ran with the first-team offense the entire night on Friday against the Vikings, playing 43 snaps in total. Legursky played 38 snaps with EJ Manuel and Jeff Tuel on the field when the Bills scored their only offensive touchdown of the night. Although that is not necessarily telling for how Legursky has been performing during his opportunities on the field.
I counted three times in the fourth quarter of Friday's game where the Viking's backups on defense blew through the left side of the line. Twice the plays resulted in sacks, once on both Manuel and Tuel. The third play forced Manuel to scramble to his right and pick up a single yard.
The coaching staff cannot be comfortable with either player manning a starting gig as of right now and it would not be a surprise to see the Bills looking to the waiver wire during final cuts in two weeks.
The starting corner spots were locked up before training camp even began, but the third and fourth corner positions on the depth chart were wide open. With the changing culture of offenses in the NFL, possessing good slot corners have become a necessity for teams looking to make deep runs into the playoffs.
Ron Brooks entered the preseason as the leader for that third spot behind Stephon Gilmore and Leodis McKelvin. McKelvin has not practiced with the team yet due to injury which has forced Brooks into playing on the outside almost exclusively in two preseason games. He has had a solid camp, but his up-and-down style of play makes him a bit of a liability at times.
Brooks will often bite on a fake and get burned down the field for a long gain, but his propensity for making up for bad plays gives the Bills a valuable asset in nickel packages.
Behind the top three guys is a cluster of unknowns. Justin Rogers was supposed to take a hold of fourth spot, but has not been able to get on the field. He has had a tumultuous two seasons in Orchard Park and standing on the sideline will not help his roster prospects.
Crezdon Butler and Nickell Robey have been two names that surfaced during offseason workouts and now again during the preseason. Butler made two big plays against the Colts a week ago, but was held out of the game against the Vikings.
Robey is an undersized prospect out of USC, who has made a much bigger impact during gameplay. He made one mistake on a neutral zone infraction against the Vikings, but he has the most snaps out of any corner through two games. He has also made a few tackles on special teams, which makes his probability of making the team as a UDFA even greater.
The only other player to even remotely standout at the position is Kip Edwards, who notched a sack last week before almost getting another against the Vikings on Friday.
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The kicker competition is one that may surprisingly be called early.
Rian Lindell was expected to get plenty of reps early on the preseason, but his aging leg has not compared to rookie Dustin Hopkins thus far. Lindell has only attempted one of the Bills' five field-goal attempts this preseason: a 30-yarder against the Colts last weekend.
Meanwhile, Hopkins has made all four of his attempts and has shown an impressive leg on kickoffs, which could push Lindell out the door after 10 seasons with the organization.
A sixth-round pick in this year's draft, Hopkins looks well on his way to solidifying his spot on the roster in the next week or two.