5 Biggest Areas of Concern for Buffalo Bills Heading into Training Camp
In less than three days, the Buffalo Bills will be taking the field for the first time this season at St. John Fisher College. While organizations are working year round, this is where the preparation for the upcoming season really starts to ramp up.
The team will be trying to find the best players at each position who will hopefully put them in position to win games and get them into the playoffs. There are some areas that are bigger concerns than others, and these are things that will require extra attention over the next month.
In the following slides, I have identified five areas of concern that the Bills coaching staff will need to look at during training camp.
Will Defense Take a Step Back with Jim Schwartz?
Sometimes change isn't always a good thing, and change is not in your control. This is the case for the Bills at defensive coordinator when they lost Mike Pettine, who became head coach of the Cleveland Browns. The team did not waste any time, though, and tried to find the best replacement in Jim Schwartz, who is the organization's fourth defensive coordinator in as many years.
The Bills defense improved drastically last year under Pettine and finished in the top 10 in yards against. In a recent article by Jay Skurski of The Buffalo News, Schwartz is entering this season with no preconceived ideas but is waiting for training camp to really formulate this defense.
The one concern with Schwartz's defense is that it is not as aggressive with the blitz as Pettine was a season ago. Schwartz isn't concerned and says about his defense:
You don't want to fit square pegs in round holes. You have to be adaptable. I've had times where I've had playoff teams that blitzed almost 40 percent of the time, and I've had playoff teams where we blitzed less than 10 percent of the time.
Hopefully the players on this defense are just as adaptable and will pick up his scheme quickly and build on the success from a season ago.
Can They Replace Kiko Alonso?
When Kiko Alonso went down with a torn ACL earlier this month, the Bills lost more than just their weak-side linebacker. The team lost a player who played over 1,100 snaps as a rookie and quickly became a leader on the field and a legend off of it.
The coaching staff now has the challenge of finding a player to replace his production, but after a strong offseason, they have a couple of options. The team could look at third-year pro Nigel Bradham, free-agent signing Keith Rivers or third-round pick Preston Brown. The rookie out of Louisville seems to be the favorite among the coaching staff, according to Tim Graham of The Buffalo News.
All three players are sound tacklers, and there shouldn't be much of a drop-off in talent in terms of stopping the run. The area of biggest concern, though, is defending the pass, as Alonso was the team's best coverage linebacker, and none of these three options have the same athletic ability.
One option will be to continue to use Da'Norris Searcy as a safety/linebacker type of player, a role he excelled in a season ago. The loss of Alonso is not ideal, but the Bills do have options on this defense to try to minimize the loss.
Will Mike Williams Rebound with the Bills?
The Bills took a flyer on Mike Williams right before the NFL draft when the team traded a sixth-round pick to Tampa Bay for him. The team saw the type of wide receiver they were sorely missing a season ago, a player who could play on the outside and go after those jump balls in the end zone.
It will not be easy for Williams as he tries to return from a hamstring injury that allowed him to only play in six games last year. That was the only health concern, as he was stabbed in the thigh by his brother back in March. According to Mike Rodak of ESPN.com, Williams was limited during the mini-camp last month, but Doug Marrone said he doesn't expect any players to miss the start of training camp.
Williams may end up being the third option for EJ Manuel, behind Sammy Watkins and Robert Woods, the majority of the time. However, with his ability, he could end up being Manuel's go-to guy in the end zone because of his playing style and ability to go get the ball. In his first three seasons in the league, Williams caught 23 touchdown passes, which is the highest among any wide receiver currently on the Bills roster.
With a fresh start in his hometown, Williams has a great opportunity to have a bounce-back season with his health seemingly the only thing that could hold him back.
How Quickly Will the Offensive Line Come Together?
It was clear the offensive line was something that needed to be addressed this offseason, and the Bills did just that. The only concern is that when teams make wholesale changes along the line, it takes time for them to come together.
The Bills could be starting the season with as many as three new starters. The one position guaranteed to have a new starter is left guard, with the team signing free agent Chris Williams to replace Doug Legursky. But he right side of the line is going to be one to watch, as the right tackle and right guard positions are most likely to be two tough training camp competitions.
Veteran Erik Pears was the starting right tackle a season ago and will be looking to hold off second-round draft pick Cyrus Kouandjio. The rookie out of Alabama is an excellent run-blocker, an area Pears struggles in, and is even listed as the starter on ESPN.com's depth chart for the Buffalo Bills.
The right guard is another position that could possibly see a new starter at the start of the season, as the team drafted Cyril Richardson and has put Chris Hairston at the position during OTAs. Incumbent Kraig Urbik is not necessarily on as shaky ground as Pears, but Urbik will certainly have to earn his starting spot.
If the Bills do end up going with three new starters along the offensive line, there would have to be some concern there about how quickly they can come together.
Is EJ Manuel Ready to Take the Next Step at Quarterback?
The biggest concern for the Bills entering training camp has to be if EJ Manuel is ready to take that next step. He is sure to be scrutinized over the next month at St. John Fisher College, and it's sure to continue right through the 2014 season.
There is a lot of pressure on the second-year quarterback, mainly because of all of the new added weapons he has at his disposal. The Bills moved up in the first round to get him a true No. 1 wide receiver in Sammy Watkins, traded for another wide receiver and beefed up the offensive line.
The biggest concern for Manuel is if he can stay healthy, and this will most likely not go away until he is able to complete a full season. During his rookie season, Manuel suffered three knee injuries over the course of the season and was only able to play in 10 games.
According to Dan Hanzus of NFL.com, Manuel likes his chances this year, as he has already said he is "100 percent healthy" and will play smarter. If Manuel can stay healthy for the whole season, it will be a major boost to this offense and should put this team in better position to be successful.