Fact or Fiction for Buffalo Bills' Biggest Offseason Question Marks
With the Buffalo Bills enjoying a month-long break before training camp, there's a lot of stories to break down between now and July 20.
There are plenty of new faces on and off the field in Buffalo, providing a lot of question marks concerning how the team will come together in 2014. Two units on offense were completely overhauled, and the Bills brought in a few new coaches as well.
To hold you over until training camp, let's play a little offseason fact or fiction with some major Bills storylines. Will EJ Manuel take over the team? Which receivers will fill out the end of the depth chart? Here's a look at the answers to those questions and more.
There Will Be Multiple New Offensive Line Starters
After bringing in a free agent and using three draft picks on offensive linemen, it is clear the Bills are looking to improve the unit up front.
Chris Williams, Cyrus Kouandjio, Cyril Richardson and Seantrel Henderson are all newcomers looking to earn a spot along the offensive line, and with three starting spots seemingly up for grabs, the competition in training camp should be interesting to watch.
Another player trying to earn a spot is Chris Hairston, who spent last season on the non-football injury list. Now Hairston is healthy, and he's working his way back into the offensive line rotation. Joe Buscaglia of WGR reported that Hairston has taken first-team reps at right guard even though he's been a tackle for the entirety of his career.
We have already pointed out we expect there will be a new starter at right tackle, so Hairston getting an opportunity at right guard could turn into him winning that job in camp. Couple that with Chris Williams challenging to take the left guard job, and it's easy to expect a complete overhaul in the trenches for the Bills.
T.J. Graham Will Make the Team
Wide receiver is another position that will look completely different in 2014. Stevie Johnson is gone, and in his place are Mike Williams and Sammy Watkins.
Alongside Williams and Watkins, second-year players Robert Woods and Marquise Goodwin are all but locks to land roster spots. That leaves, at most, two more spots available with at least five players competing.
After having a spot on the team last year, T.J. Graham is in line to challenge for one again. But this year, his spot is anything but guaranteed. Graham has been disappointing as a pro ever since the Bills moved up in the third round of the 2012 draft to nab him. In addition, Graham is not a player selected by the current regime, and as Johnson can attest, players from the previous era could be sent packing.
There are also other receivers showing they deserve roster spots. One of the best performers from minicamp and OTAs has to be Chris Hogan. A.J. Devine of BuffaloBills.com said Hogan has "proven to be stronger and more sure-handed."
Devine also said the biggest improvement to Hogan's game is his route running, which is very important for a slot receiver.
Graham's biggest asset is his speed, but the Bills already have a rotational receiver who has field-stretching speed in Goodwin. Taking into account Hogan's early improvement and the special teams prowess of Marcus Easley, it's hard to expect there to be enough room for Graham on the roster.
Da'Norris Searcy Will Start at Safety Opposite Aaron Williams
Perhaps one of the biggest question marks concerning the Bills is who will replace Pro Bowl safety Jairus Byrd.
Byrd is now in New Orleans, leaving Da'Norris Searcy, Duke Williams and Jonathan Meeks vying to fill his vacated position. If reports from minicamp are any indication, the competition is likely to come down to Searcy and Williams.
Joe Buscaglia at WGR detailed five positions that could be up for grabs in training camp, and strong safety was the first position listed. Buscaglia said Searcy got all of the first-team reps, but Buscaglia doesn't think that will continue all the way through training camp. Buscaglia expects Williams to get some run with the top defensive unit as well.
Searcy certainly has a leg up, considering he has more experience in regular-season game action. But like Graham, Searcy is a product of the old regime, whereas Williams was brought in by the current front office and coaching staff.
Searcy didn't play poorly in 2013, however. He had 3.5 sacks, an interception and a fumble recovery in relief of Byrd. For now, I would say Searcy is the favorite to win the job. But things can change as training camp or the season progresses.
Verdict: Fact...for now
EJ Manuel Will Take the Next Step
More than anything else, the development of second-year quarterback EJ Manuel will determine the success of the Bills in 2014.
Manuel has all of the talent around him to make it work, and now it is on him to take his game to the next level. Most importantly, Manuel seems to have returned to full health and hasn't missed any offseason work as of yet.
In addition, offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett said, via BuffaloBills.com, that Manuel is "really starting to get it." Hackett also said that Manuel's confidence has "absolutely" gone up and that he was ready to work on improving (instead of learning) the offense when he got to camp.
However, Manuel has still had his down moments in the offseason. Joe Buscaglia said there were glimpses of "good EJ and bad EJ" during minicamp. There were times, Buscaglia said, when Manuel was quickly zipping passes to receivers down the field and others when he was staring down receivers and getting picked off.
Of course, you can't read too much into what happens in shorts in June, and as Buscaglia said, "Rome wasn't built in a day." But still, it would be encouraging to see more consistently strong play from Manuel as the offseason progresses. With regard to his taking the next step, we will all have to wait to see it to believe it.
Verdict: Fiction...for now
The Run Defense Will Be Better
Former defensive coordinator Mike Pettine took the head coaching gig with the Cleveland Browns, leaving behind a unit that set a franchise record in sacks.
However, one area where Pettine's defense was deficient was in stopping the run. Per Howard Simon of WGR, the Bills were 28th in the league in rush yards per game and gave up a league-high 19 runs of at least 20 yards.
Taking Pettine's place is Jim Schwartz, who was the head coach of the Detroit Lions and before that the defensive coordinator of the Tennessee Titans. Per Simon, the Titans ranked in the top 10 in run defense five out of the eight years Schwartz was at the helm. And just last year, Schwartz's Lions ranked sixth in the league in rush defense.
In Buffalo, Schwartz is working with similar defensive talent to what he had in Detroit. Instead of Ndamukong Suh, Nick Fairley and Ziggy Ansah, Schwartz has Kyle Williams, Marcell Dareus and Mario Williams, all of whom went to the Pro Bowl after last season.
Chris Brown at BuffaloBills.com noted that Schwartz's voice could be heard an awful lot early in OTAs, showing he demands perfection from his unit.
Besides Schwartz, there are two other new faces in Buffalo who can help the run D, and they were both poached from the rival New England Patriots. One is run-stuffing middle linebacker Brandon Spikes, and the other is defensive line coach Pepper Johnson. Spikes told Brown he thinks Johnson will help improve the performance of the defensive line, thus improving the run defense.
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