Buffalo Bills: Grading the Strength of Each Position Unit at the Start of Camp
Buffalo Bills training camp is in full swing, and the team put on the pads for the first time during Tuesday's practice.
This year's team personnel looks a lot different than it did last year, so it will take some time for everything to come together. However, there are still talented players all across the Bills roster, perhaps more than there have been in years.
So just how talented is the Bills roster? Let's sort it our by handing out grades to each positional unit. Which position is the Bills' best? Read on to find out.
We have to kick things off with the most important position in sports.
Yes, the Bills have loads of talent on offense (more on that later), but we know they won't go far unless they have solid quarterback play. The platoon of EJ Manuel, Thad Lewis and Jeff Tuel was far from solid in 2013.
Manuel is the starter (duh), but after his injury-shortened rookie campaign, we don't yet know what we can expect out of him. As Joe Buscaglia of WGR reported, Manuel is still having an up-and-down performance during practice. But hey, it is still July after all.
While Lewis was the backup for all of last season, Buscaglia also noted that Doug Marrone said there is a competition for backup QB duties.
Lewis wasn't terrible last year, and he even led the team to a few wins. Tuel was, well, he was an undrafted rookie.
Dennis Dixon is also on the team in camp, but he's a long shot to make the roster. Until we know more about how Manuel will perform, the Bills' quarterback grade can't be at the top of the class.
After adding two pieces in the offseason, the Bills have one of the deepest backfields in the NFL.
Joining C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson are Bryce Brown and Anthony Dixon, whose skill sets should mesh perfectly with what the Bills are trying to do. The Bills are trying to be a running team first, and they will be able to do so with these four talented runners.
Spiller, who is back to full health after a nagging ankle injury, will likely be the featured back again. He has the speed and explosiveness to break away on any play. You know that from the Madden-esque numbers he put up in 2012.
At 33, Fred Jackson is fighting the good fight against Father Time, but he is still a capable player and one of the team's leaders. He's reliable in short-yardage situations and on third down, and don't expect him ever to ask out of a game.
Bryce Brown kind of flew under the radar in LeSean McCoy's shadow, but the Bills expect big things out of him. He is also insurance in case the team loses either of Spiller or Jackson in free agency. ESPN's Mike Rodak said he has been impressed with Brown so far in camp.
Lastly we have Dixon, who will likely handle the short-yardage and goal-line duties. He filled the role nicely in San Francisco, and he should do so again in Buffalo.
Added all up, the Bills have an excellent stable of running backs and should have no problem being one of the top rushing teams in the league this year.
After the way Sammy Watkins has been tearing up training camp, per CBS Sports' Josh Katzowitz and The MMQB's Peter King, respectively, some will be quick to give the Bills wide receivers an A+++, Lisa Simpson style.
But hold the phone. Watkins is still a rookie, and there is going to be an adjustment period for him, no matter how talented he is. But Watkins is still dynamic, and he is joined by a few other versatile playmakers in the wide receiver room.
Stevie Johnson is gone, but Robert Woods will take his place in the slot. Some, like Chris Trapasso at TrendingBuffalo.com, think Woods is in line for a jump in performance this year. Woods had a decent rookie season, and with a full season from EJ Manuel, he should be able to make that jump.
Like Watkins, Mike Williams is a newcomer to the team. Williams, a Buffalo native, arrived from Tampa Bay early in the offseason after the Bills sent a sixth-round pick to the Bucs. Injuries shortened Williams' 2013 season, but he was highly productive prior to that. He had 11 touchdowns in 65 catches his rookie year and nine TDs in 63 catches in 2012.
Williams will definitely be a threat with his ability to catch the ball at its highest point.
To complement all the highly skilled receivers, the Bills have an outright burner in Marquise "Flash" Goodwin. With his blazing speed, Goodwin can leave any defender in the dust. And since opposing defenses will be focusing on Watkins, Williams and Woods, Goodwin should consistently be able to eat up the opposition's fourth corner.
The bottom of the Bills' receiver depth chart is yet to be determined, but Chris Hogan has been impressive, and Marcus Easley was a special teams standout last year. Manuel has to be giddy over all of the weapons he has around him. The only thing keeping this grade from being higher is the fact that we haven't yet seen how the top players will perform.
After heaping praise on the Bills' skill positions, it's time to come back to earth a little bit.
Even though Scott Chandler led the team in receiving last year, tight end is easily one of the Bills' most shallow position pools. After Chandler, the Bills have Tony Moeaki, Lee Smith and Chris Gragg.
It's hard to predict what the Bills will get out of their tight ends this year, as Chandler is the only player who has gotten meaningful playing time in Buffalo.
While Chandler can be a fine target in the red zone, he is not athletic enough to be much of a threat in the middle of the field. Perhaps Moeaki can fill that role, but we will have to wait and see how the team plans to use him.
Lee Smith is around for blocking purposes, and the Bills will need him if they want to run it like they did last year. Anything they get out of Smith in the passing game is gravy.
The Bills may not be as skilled as other teams at tight end, but their wide array of skilled players at other positions should mitigate that going forward.
If you take a quick look at the Bills offensive linemen, you would have to give them a B, because they are big.
But like the Bills receivers, there are a lot of unproven players up front for the Bills. In fact, as of now, there could be as many as four new starters along the Bills offensive line. Only Eric Wood is locked in at center. Cordy Glenn is a great young tackle and would be locked in to start on the left side, but he's currently dealing with a mysterious health condition.
The Bills overhauled the offensive line this offseason, bringing in Chris Williams during free agency and Cyrus Kouandjio, Cyril Richardson and Seantrel Henderson in the draft. Williams and Kouandjio are expected to start, and Henderson could as well if Glenn's absence is prolonged.
For what it's worth, Wood told Joe Buscaglia in the story linked above that he's not worried about Glenn, saying his illness was "bad luck" and that "he'll be back."
But for now, Glenn is out, leaving a hole at left tackle to go along with those at all the other positions. There is a lot of potential on the Bills offensive line, but the grade can't be high until that potential is realized.
Grade: C (B if/when Glenn returns)
Now we're back to a unit that is loaded with talent.
The starting defensive line for the Bills features three Pro Bowlers and a fourth player who had 10 sacks last season. That would be Mario Williams, Kyle Williams, Marcell Dareus and Jerry Hughes.
Dareus is still dealing with legal issues, which is why he didn't arrive to training camp until Tuesday, per ESPN's Mike Rodak. Dareus was in court in Alabama on Monday, and he was accepted into a pre-trial intervention program. If Dareus completes the program, all of the drug charges against him will be dropped, Rodak said.
Mario and Kyle Williams went to the Pro Bowl along with Dareus, and they will be formidable again in 2014. Doug Marrone said Mario is "the happiest I've seen him," per Jay Skurski of The Buffalo News. Marrone added that Mario is "flying around, taking all the reps."
That's good news for the Bills, as Mario is likely the team's most irreplaceable player. There is a significant talent drop-off behind Mario and Jerry Hughes on the edge, so Mario's health is paramount.
Speaking of Hughes, Matthew Fairburn of Syracuse.com said he is "starting to become dangerous."
What keeps the defensive line unit from getting an A is the lack of proven depth. Manny Lawson is the only experienced backup at defensive end, and Stefan Charles doesn't have much experience at defensive tackle. Nonetheless, the Bills front four is as good as it gets in the league.
The loss of Kiko Alonso sets back what could have been a fearsome linebacking crew. However, the pieces are still in place for the Bills to have solid production from the defense's second level.
Newcomer Brandon Spikes will anchor the defense in the middle, and fellow free-agent signee Keith Rivers will likely start alongside him. Nigel Bradham will likely end up being the other starting 'backer, and Doug Marrone had some good things to say about him, via Joe Buscaglia and WGR:
I saw a change, more of a commitment from him when we came back, which I give him a lot of credit for. He came back and really had a solid OTAs and really played well. I think that when obviously the situation with Kiko, and talking with Jim, and we've been talking about Nigel for a while of how pleased we were with his play.
Rookie Preston Brown, whom the coaches are also excited about, rounds out the main portion of the linebacker depth chart. But he's still a rookie, so we don't know what to expect from him yet.
Having Alonso would have made this group dangerous. With the run-stuffing ability of Spikes and the potential of Bradham and Brown, the Bills are more than the one-man show they were last year.
Here we find yet another area where the team is replacing a departed star.
Jairus Byrd took New Orleans' money, so Aaron Williams will slide into the vacated free safety spot. Williams tied for the team lead in interceptions last year, and many are expecting him to make Bills fans say "Jairus who?"
The other safety spot is up in the air, but Da'Norris Searcy showed flashes in 2013, and he is the front-runner for the other starting gig.
At cornerback, the Bills have the potential to be special. Stephon Gilmore has the skills to turn into a shutdown corner, and Peter King of The MMQB thinks Gilmore will make the Pro Bowl this year. Opposite Gilmore is Leodis McKelvin, who is coming off one of his best years in Buffalo.
The Bills have a competition at nickel between the incumbent Nickell Robey, who shined in Mike Pettine's defense, and free-agent acquisition Corey Graham, who is a Super Bowl champion. Add in rookie Ross Cockrell, and the Bills have five cornerbacks who are ready to lock up opposing receivers.
Last but not least, we have the special teams crew.
The kicking competition already seems to be over, as Doug Marrone said Dustin Hopkins can only make the squad "as a kickoff specialist," per Chris Brown of BuffaloBills.com. Dan Carpenter has taken all of the field goals in camp.
Brian Moorman and Jacob Dombrowski are competing for punting duties, and the former seems to have a leg up.
Carpenter is coming off a career season where he made 91.7 percent of his attempts. If he has another season like that in 2014, the Bills will be in great shape.
The Bills kick-coverage team struggled in 2013, but the additions of Anthony Dixon and Corey Graham should help fix that. And the Bills have several dangerous return options in Marquise Goodwin, Robert Woods, Leodis McKelvin and even Sammy Watkins.
You need to be successful in all three phases to win consistently in the NFL, and the Bills are on their way to getting their special teams sorted out.