Buffalo Bills Position Battles to Keep an Eye On

Matt SchaeferCorrespondent IMay 20, 2009

KANSAS CITY, MO - NOVEMBER 23:  Keith Ellison #56 of the Buffalo Bills moves on the field during the game against the Kansas City Chiefs on November 23, 2008 at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

The Buffalo Bills opened up the 2009-10 NFL season with Organized Team Activities on Monday of this week in Orchard Park, New York. 

While the organization is heading for their first playoff berth in the last decade, there are multiple positions that are open for any player to step in and take over the starting spot.

Almost the entire nation believes that the Bills are not going to come anywhere close to making the playoffs this year, but the players at One Bills Drive certainly don’t believe that they are just going to roll over.

In the quest to make the playoffs this year, the key players are going to need to step up and play much better down the stretch than they did last season in their collapse. 

Of course you also need players to come out of nowhere too. 

That is what offseason activities, training camp and the preseason are for, to find those players that will step up and fill big roles on the team. 

Here are the positions in which the coaching staff will be looking the most closely at:

Back-Up Running Back

There is no debate about who is the starting running back this year, as Marshawn Lynch will go for his third straight 1,000 yard rushing season. 

Lynch is a power runner who gets stronger as the game goes on. His physical style of play tires out defenders and Lynch is one of the hardest runners in the league.

Defenders need to make sure that he is tackled before they stop moving their feet, because Lynch never stops his. He has the ability to push the pile and carry defenders on his back to gain a few more yards. 

He should be getting most of the Bills carries this season. You can pretty much mark him down for 1,000 yards and eight touchdowns.

Even with a Pro Bowl running back on the top of the depth chart, the back-up running back is a spot that will be a battle until the start of the regular season, and even then it might not be decided. 

The back-up to Lynch will start the season as the Bills No. 1, as Lynch serves his three game suspension due to his run in with the law during the offseason (Lynch is appealing the suspension length however, and could see his three game suspension turn into one or two games). 

The only downside to Lynch’s style of play is the fact that he is exposed to injury.  During his first two seasons in the league, Lynch has missed fours games due to injury, making the back-up running back even more likely to get a good amount of playing time.

The battle fans should be watching as the offseason goes on is between Fred Jackson and Dominic Rhodes, although Xavier Omon could also factor into the decision.

Jackson just re-signed with the Bills for a four year, $7.5 million deal this offseason. The Coe College product is entering his third year in the NFL and is coming off of two straight very productive seasons serving as Lynch’s backup.

While Lynch is the power back, Jackson is the speed rusher. While Lynch may be able to run you over, Jackson can make you break your ankles with a quick few cuts and has the ability to put it into fifth gear to out run defenders.

Jackson gave the Bills one of the better one-touch punches in the league as he rushed for 571 yards on 130 carries (averaging 4.4 yards a run). He also reached the end-zone three times.

Jackson knows the Bills offense to a “T” and has shown the Bills coaching staff that he belongs on the field.

In last season’s finale against the New England Patriots, Jackson rushed the ball 27 times for 136 yards against one of the best run stopping defenses in the league.

Not only does Jackson rush the ball well; he also is a big threat out of the backfield.  Jackson hauled in 37 catches for 317 yards, just behind Lynch’s 47 receptions (he only had 300 yards receiving). The difference between the two is that Jackson has the better pair of hands.

Lynch might have caught almost 50 passes thrown his way, but he had his fair share of drops, especially on easy dump off passes. Jackson not only showed sure hands on short passes, but had a few very nice down the field receptions too. 

Another multi-threat back that is fighting for the backup spot is former Indianapolis Colt Dominic Rhodes.

The 30-year-old Rhodes, who many thought was on his last legs last season, revived his career, filling the role of Joseph Addai’s back up. 

Rhodes played in 15 games last season (four games started) and rushed for 538 yards on 152 attempts. He also showed that he could reach the end zone still, cashing in for six rushing touchdowns.

Like Jackson, Rhodes also has sure hands coming out of the backfield, having 302 receiving yards and three touchdowns. The Bills thought highly enough of him to give him a two year deal as a free agent this offseason.

Rhodes will give Jackson a run for his money, but in the end, I have a feeling that Jackson will pull away and earn the backup role.

Rhodes certainly isn’t just going to roll over, though.

"The way I always look at it is, when I get in the game, I try to give them a reason not to take me out and a reason to keep putting me back in," Rhodes said. "The first three games are definitely a plus and anything after that, I'll just, with practicing hard, playing hard, I'll just show them what I can do." (CBS Sports)

Last year’s draft pick, Xavier Omon, does have some upside, but might be a victim of roster numbers and still has practice squad eligibility.  It will be a very tough time for Hall to make the squad due to the people in front of him.      

Projected 2009-10 Depth Chart: Marshawn Lynch, Fred Jackson, Dominic Rhodes, Xavier Omon, Bruce Hall

4th and 5th Wide Receiver Spots

Just like the running back position, there is no question about who the starters are at wide receiver.

Lee Evans and Terrell Owens are on the top of the depth chart coming into this season and for good reason.

Evans is coming off of his second career 1,000 yard season in a year in which the offense was nothing to write home about. Terrell Owens, who racked up 1,000-plus yards and 10-plus touchdowns for the third straight year, is definitely a surefire decision.

It doesn’t matter who is the No. 1 or the No. 2 wide out, both receivers will complement the other nicely. While Owens's numbers might take a minor drop, look for Evans to catch a lot more than just three touchdowns, like he did last year.

After Owens and Evans, Josh Reed will start at the slot position, a spot where he thrives on. 

“Mr. First Down”, as he is known by the fans, excels at finding the soft spots in the defenses and sits in zones. Last season, Reed spent time as the No. 2 receiver, a spot that doesn’t suit him well, and yet he still had a career year, hauling in 56 catches for 597 yards.

He won’t burn you to get into the end zone (his 9 career TD’s in 8 NFL seasons prove that), however, he will move the chains and defenses will have to choose to cover the deep threats in Evans and Owens and nine out of 10 times will leave Reed with a ton of open field.

After the top three wide receivers, it gets a little bit trickier to figure out as a speedy playmaker and two 2008 draft picks go head to head for two spots. 

One of the most underrated players coming into camp last season was seventh round selection Steve Johnson. He wasn’t even suppose to be on the roster last season but a great off-season with the team got Johnson a roster spot.

At first he didn’t get a chance to do too much with it, as he spent most of his time on the bench, however, when he was given his chance towards the end of the season, he thrived.

In the last four weeks of the season, Johnson showed that he belonged on the team, catching seven passes for 71 yards including a go ahead score against the Denver Broncos in Week 16.

Johnson has a solid frame, standing at 6-foot-2 and 202lbs and excels at shielding the ball away from defenders. There is no reason why Johnson will not continue to get better and should earn some solid playing time this season too.

After Johnson, Roscoe Parrish is penciled in as the fifth string wide out, but even then, his name is easily erasable.

Parrish has not panned out since being selected in the second round of the 2005 draft.  His athletic ability has never been the question, as he is one of, if not the fastest player, on the Bills.

The problem is his size and route running abilities. 

Parrish is undersized at just 5’-9”, 171 lbs. He also struggles getting open.

The only way Parrish can be used to his best ability is by getting him the ball quickly, using him on mostly screens and quick slants. When having to run routes down field, Parrish is usually covered and lacks the ability to generate space from his defenders.

With the amount of targets on the Bills offense this season though, Parrish will come into the line up as a change of pace wide receiver, who in the right matchup could provide big returns to the Bills. 

Don’t expect him to get above his career average numbers of 24 receptions, 263 receiving yards and one touchdown per season, but he will have his big game every now and then.

In the sixth spot, James Hardy will try to battle his way back from a poor rookie campaign and a torn ACL.

For the start of next season, Hardy needs to improve his route running and his ability to gain separation from defensive backs. His hands were also a concern at times last season, as he dropped easy passes.

He certainly isn’t a bust yet though, as most wide receivers struggle in their first year in the league as they get used to much better coverage than in college. It was a wake up call for Hardy, as he learned that he can’t just run streaks and out jump defenders. 

Hardy has one great asset that you can’t teach though—height. His 6-foot-5 frame gives him a height advantage over almost any defensive back in the league. As long as he gets the offense down, while also working on his overall game, Hardy should do fine in the future.

He won’t get much playing time because of all of the wide receivers in front of him, but he gets to learn the position from a future Hall of Fame wide out and should be a factor on the offense two years from now.

Of the other six wide receivers that I haven’t mentioned yet, only Justin Jenkins has a chance to make the roster. He played special teams last year and will look to do the same thing again this season.

It will be very tough for any of the other wide receivers listed on the roster, including Jenkins, to make the roster. With all of the talent, it becomes a numbers game at the wide out position and a tough choice will be made here to see who stays.

In my eyes though, seven wide receivers is too much to keep on one team during the year, unless on really shines in the preseason/training camp. It depends on how much say special teams Coach Bobby Aprils has on the matter.   

Projected 2009-10 Depth Chart: Lee Evans, Terrell Owens, Josh Reed, Steve Johnson, Roscoe Parrish, James Hardy


Tight End

The Buffalo Bills let their starting tight end go this offseason by releasing Robert Royal, making the tight end position one that needed to be addressed in the offseason.

The Bills did just that by selecting tight end Shawn Nelson out of Southern Miss with their fourth round pick (No. 121 overall).

Nelson was thought to be the No. 2 tight end overall in the draft class, yet still fell to the Bills with their fourth round selection. They are certainly happy about it.

Nelson has a good frame, standing at 6-foot-5 and 240 lbs. His blocking ability is the weakest part of his game, but he can easily make you forget about it with the plays he makes in the passing game.

Nelson uses his body to shield the ball from the defender in the air and has great hands.  He also can go up and get the ball in a jump-ball situation and makes the hard catches look easy.

When Nelson is on the field, the Bills have an extra wide receiver in the game. He is too quick for linebackers and too big for defensive backs to cover. When he is on the field the Bills will create matchup problems before the ball is even snapped. 

While Nelson is improving his game in the early part of the season, last year’s fourth round pick, Derek Fine, will try to lock down the starting role.

Nelson’s weakness is Fine’s strength, as he is a superb blocker (some believe even better than Royal, who was considered as one of the best in the league). He also has shown soft hands, and is utilized best in the play action game.

While his sample size is still small, Fine took great strides in his rookie season. Many thought that Fine was just a special teams player, but he worked hard at his game and got himself onto the field to run some of the offense.

He was used mostly in double tight end formations, so the Bills could take advantage of his blocking abilities. While he wasn’t relied much on in the passing game, he ran crisp routes and had 10 receptions for 94 yards and one touchdown on the season. 

Just like last offseason, Fine is looking to improve his game again, except this time he should be the one starting when the season begins.

Derek Schouman is going to be breathing down the back of the necks of both Fine and Nelson, as he too, is a good blocker. Like Fine, he didn’t put up big numbers, but looked very good on play action plays when the tight end would block and then release into the open field to run his route. 

Fine, Schouman and Nelson will all be seeing a good amount of time on the field, just on different situations. 

Fine and Schouman will be relied on in the running game and short passing play while Nelson is looking to become to play making tight end that the Bills have been looking to get since Jay Riemersma, almost a decade ago.

Projected 2009-10 Depth Chart: Derek Fine, Shawn Nelson, Derek Schouman


The Bills certainly have many different ways they can go with the free safety position, but most of it comes down to what they what to do at free safety.

Reports came out earlier in the offseason that the Bills were going to move Donte Whitner from his spot at strong safety to free in order for him to become more of the centerfielder of the defense to create more plays, but Buffalo selected a defensive back in the second round that could change the plans.

Jairus Byrd was one of the Bills second round selections in this year’s draft. Although he was a corner back in college, his ability to intercept passes makes the move to safety an easy one for the Bills.

In order for Byrd to start though, he will have to have a very strong training camp and preseason, and even then it might be tough. He does have potential (17 interceptions in college in three years) but he is learning a new position and it will take some time.

If Byrd does start though, Whitner will be moved back to the strong safety position, a spot that in my eyes suits him better. Whitner is great against the run and in his few years in the league, hasn’t really shown the ability to make big plays. 

He is a very strong hitter that should be attacking the ball carrier. Playing strong safety makes him like a fourth linebacker on the field in certain formations, a spot in which he thrives in.

I highly doubt the Bills are going to just hand the spot over to a young player switching positions, so it looks like Whinter will make the move to free safety as veteran Bryan Scott takes the spot at strong.

Scott is a serviceable vet, who, like Whitner, plays very well against the run. He isn’t as big of a hitter as him, but Scott is reliable in the open field. He plays the game very physical and does a good job at turning the opposition’s tight end out of the game. 

Once promising Ko Simpson, whose career has been rocked with poor play and injury, will have an up hill battle to find himself a spot on the roster.

He would have to leap frog both veteran George Wilson and John Wendling who are both solid back ups while also being great at special teams. 

I don’t see Wilson going anywhere, as he is respected by both his coaches and his teammates (he was named one of the team captains last season) and special teams coach Bobby Aprils will not let Wendling leave the roster.

Projected 2009-10 Depth Chart

FS: Donte Whitner, Jairus Byrd

SS: Bryan Scott

Back Ups: George Wilson, John Wendling

Offensive Line

The offensive line took a big hit on paper, with the loss of LT Jason Peters in a trade to the Philadelphia Eagles

I am still not sure if it will hurt in this upcoming season though.

Peters was not only a distraction as he sat out all of the team activities, even missing the first game of the regular season, but he was not good on the field. If anything, he was one of the weakest members on the line as he gave up 11.5 sacks in only 13 games played. 

Giving a long term deal to that kind of player is not something that I would’ve been behind and neither was the Bills organization as they told him not to let the door hit him on the way out and they would find someone else to fill the spot.

Well that player will be mammoth RT Langston Walker, as he moves from the right side to the left to protect Trent Edwards blind side. Walker is characterized as a “masher”, or a lineman good as pounding opponents in the running game. 

His footwork will need to improve as he is now going against the opposition No. 1 rusher, but he should step into the role just fine. Even thinking of the worst case scenario, I will guarantee right now that he lets up less than 11.5 sacks.    

With the right tackle spot now being available, Brad Butler and Kirk Chambers will both be battling to start. Either way the Bills go, it gives them a good starter with a solid back up behind them.  

Butler is a good player, who will finally get a chance to start full time. Last season Chambers played at both the LT and RT spots, adding great depth to both positions. 

Demetrius Bell is still a work in progress, but shows some real potential in only his fifth season ever playing football. He was thought of enough not to be placed on the practice squad last season so another team couldn’t sign him, and was put on the active roster (although he was listed inactive for all of the regular season games). 

Bell is an athletic freak and has great size for the position. Who knows, the seventh round selection could be the Bills next Jason Peters project (Peters was undrafted).

The two guard spots will go to rookies, as Andy Levitre and Eric Wood were selected in the first two rounds of the draft. 

Both of the rookies play the game the same way, hard, physical and to the whistle.

Both players will not back down from anyone and play with a mean streak.  They are also both students of the game who work just as hard off the field as they do on it.

To anchor the line is another smart player, Geoff Hangartner, who was signed by the Bills in the offseason.

Hangartner will be the brains behind the line, calling plays and recognizing defenses. 

He was on the Panthers last season and was used as their “sixth offensive lineman” being used at all positions.  He was strongest at the center position though and will be an upgrade over the Bills former centers. 

Projected 2009-10 Depth Chart

Tackles: Langston Walker (LT), Brad Butler (RT), Kirk Chambers (Bench), Demetrius Bell (Bench)

Guards: Andy Levitre, Eric Wood

Center: Geoff Hangartner

Weak-Side Linebacker

What exactly do the Bills plan on doing with this position?

It is a depth chart filled with veterans and rookies, and non of them seem like strong opinions on paper, however, the Bills did not go out to sign anybody to try to upgrade the position, standing pat with what they have. They are sending the message that they are happy with what they have at the position. 

Keith Ellison is the starter on paper, as he tries to return to his spot from last season.  His performance was nothing to write home about though.

He struggled in both pass coverage and in defending the running game, and is not a playmaker at all.

The players behind him might not be much better though.

Pat Thomas was signed during the off-season to give Ellison a run for the starting spot.  He is not considered by most to be an upgrade though. On most teams, he would be added for the depth that he brings to the position and while Ellison is nothing special, Thomas certainly won’t overtake him easily unless he shines in the pre-season. 

The Bills also picked up Nic Harris in the draft, a college safety too slow to stick with the position at the next level. He does have the size to play linebacker though, and the Bills took a chance with him. 

Harris is a very athletic player who should do well in pass coverage.  He did spend a little time at middle linebacker his senior year due to injuries, and played very average.  He was overpowered on some plays and on others, wasn’t in the right position at all. He is a work in progress with some upside.

Alvin Bowen is making his return after a leg injury knocked him out all of his rookie season.  He was thought of highly after college but didn’t get much time to show his talents as he was injured in an early practice last year. 

Overall, this position is a toss up as no one really stands out above the others. It is one of, if only, weak spot on the Bills defense this season.

Projected 2009-10 Depth Chart:  Keith Ellison, Pat Thomas, Alvin Bowen, Nic Harris 

Defensive End

Aaron Schobel is going to be playing healthy for the first time in almost two years.

The question is will this be the Schobel of 2005-2006 in which he average 13 sacks over two seasons, or will this be the Schobel of recent, struggling to get to the quarterback and losing playing time due to injuries. 

Schobel is looking to rebound this year, and to be honest, is much better than anyone else on the depth chart and will be welcomed with open arms after the Bills ranked 28th in the league with only 24 sacks. 

Along with getting after the quarterback, Schobel is tough in the running game.   

Chris Kelsay and Ryan Denney are pretty much the same player, both are good at stopping the run but both struggle putting pressure on the quarterback and they disappear way to often during games. 

Kelsay and Denney will both be looking through the rear view mirror as eleventh overall pick Aaron Maybin tries to crack the starting line up. 

It is too early to say now, but if Maybin can put on a little more weight, along with getting some valuable experience in pre-season, he might be able to be the opening day starter.

That of course is the optimistic view, as Maybin will most likely struggle his first season in the league as he gets accustomed to the NFL. 

He will be used on mostly passing situations  as the Bills look for him to use his speed and finesse moves to get around slower tackles and put pressure on the QB. 

Progected 2009-10 Depth Chart

RE: Aaron Schobel

LE: Chris Kelsay, Ryan Denney, Aaron Maybin, Chris Ellis


The regular season doesn’t begin for about another four months, but positions are won and lost in practice and the preseason.

While we might not know who the winners will be of the position battles yet, it sure gets everyone excited for the football season.

Most importantly, the players, who are going to be fighting for playing time.


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