The wait is over. Football is back.
Rejoice Bills’ fans, training camp starts today and Buffalo’s road to ending a decade-long playoff drought has begun.
So cover up those pools, put those golf clubs away, and dust off those jerseys because football is just around the corner. Finally, training camp is here.
Now that things are starting up for real, it’s time to get serious. No more putting an “x’” on the calendar to count down the days until the pads start popping.
With the guys out in the fun and sun of Rochester, N.Y., I decided to put together a list of five players I will be watching closely over the next couple of weeks.
There is not a set criteria for this list, they are just five players I find intriguing and guys I feel are worth keeping an eye on. Feel free to add your own in the comments section.
I have been a McKelvin fan since his college days at Troy, and I thought the Bills made a smart move when they drafted the athletic corner/return man.
Cornerback is a little bit different than some other positions like running back, where rookies come right in and look like future Hall of Famers.
Corner is a position that is a little more complex and it requires a bit more thinking, so a player can’t rely solely on his God-given physical skills to succeed in his first year.
What I found encouraging from watching McKelvin last season was in my opinion he progressed as the year went on. To me, that sets up for McKelvin to have a very strong year as Buffalo’s starting corner in 2009.
Last year as a rookie coming out of Troy, my guess is McKelvin did too much thinking during training camp. He was digesting a huge NFL playbook and trying to avoid making a lot of mistakes that would draw the coaches’ ire.
Now with a year in the Bills’ defensive system under his belt, I expect McKelvin to be much more comfortable out on the field and let his physical ability take over.
Buffalo is looking for guys on the defensive side of the ball to make more plays I would like to see McKelvin start showing that kind of big-play ability right from training camp.
The Bills have a deep, talented group of corners but McKelvin has the upside to become the best of the bunch. I will be watching the second-year corner closely over the next month, because I honestly believe the sky is the limit for McKelvin.
Back when I ran the draft coverage for Patriots.com, I used to tell people it wasn’t fair for me to give them my opinion on 99 percent of offensive linemen that came out in the draft.
It has always been my contention that as a novice, offensive linemen are the hardest position for people like me to judge by just watching games.
Watch four quarters of a game. A majority of the time can you honestly tell me how well a center or guard played? If you can, perhaps you have a future in scouting.
I think with quarterbacks, running backs, etc. we see enough to form an educated opinion but when it comes to most offensive linemen, I believe one needs to see the coaches’ tape to really break down the position.
Some people disagree with me, but that’s my opinion.
But every now and then, a lineman comes along in the college game that is so dominant that he stands out all by himself. Andy Levitre was one of those players.
I saw eight Oregon State games live last season. By the third game I said to myself, “Who in the heck is this No. 66?”
It was Levitre. He was such a road grader in the running game, opening up holes for Beavers’ mighty mite running back Jacquizz Rogers, I couldn’t help but take notice.
It got to the point that by the end of the season, I was actually watching Levitre destroy the man in front of him instead of watching Rogers, the Pac 10’s Offensive Player of the Year, shake and bake his way to another big run.
I thought Oregon State had one of the best offensive lines in the country last season and Levitre was the leader of that group. He is a monster in the run game, which is why the Bills are moving him to guard.
Once Levitre got his hands on a defender in college and started driving forward, it was pretty much game, set, match. You rarely see a left tackle run block the way Levitre did last season for the Beavers. Again, that’s why the Bills are moving him inside to guard.
The other thing I really like about Levitre is he plays with a real mean streak. I lost count of how many times the whistle had blown and he was still going at it with an opposing defender, usually tossing him to the ground.
Like I said, I’m far from an offensive line guru, but I do believe Levitre has what it takes to beat out Kirk Chambers for the starting left guard job. I’m excited to watch him and chart his progress during training camp.
Who’s it going to be, guys? Aaron Schobel can’t do it alone. Buffalo needs someone else to step up and put pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
Improving the pass rush is vital to the Bills’ success this season. Buffalo finished 28th in the NFL last year with just 24 sacks.
The Bills drafted Aaron Maybin with the 11th pick to help solve the problem. In a perfect world, Maybin will be a star from Day 1 and record 12 sacks as a rookie.
In a more realistic world, the former Penn State star will help contribute on passing downs and a rookie campaign with five or six sacks will be considered a success for a guy who weighed 235 pounds just six months ago.
So someone else needs to step up. The Bills know what they have in Chris Kelsay and Ryan Denney. I don’t know about anyone else but neither of those guys gets the old blood pumping with me.
That leaves Ellis as a possible wild card.
The former third-round pick didn’t make much of an impact as a rookie before being placed on injured reserve with a high ankle sprain but reports are he’s been training like a madman all offseason.
That doesn’t guarantee success, but it shows he’s hungry and it could mean more playing time in the defensive end rotation for Ellis.
At Virginia Tech, Ellis had a lightning-quick first step off the ball, and that’s a quality you’re either born with or you’re not, so he already has that going for him.
The other thing that has me intrigued by Ellis heading into training camp is the one knock on him in college was always his work ethic, never his ability. So hearing that he’s busting his hump is a good sign because the talent is there.
If someone can step up and help take the pressure off of Schobel, it will be a big boost to Buffalo’s defense.
And if the Bills have a healthy Schobel to go along with two young, up-and-coming pass rushers like Ellis and Maybin, their defense will be better than anyone ever imagined this season.
Hey, you never know.
I touched on Harris quite a bit in my last column, so I won’t go into detail again here. In short, I believe now that Harris is playing his proper position, he has a chance to be a star for the Bills at outside linebacker.
Physically, Harris has all the tools to excel at strong side linebacker in the Bills’ system.
He is quick and fast when not being forced to cover a lot of ground. Harris is a big-time hitter who always seems to be around the ball making plays.
From reports coming out of Buffalo, he’s also very intelligent and picking up the new position much quicker than anyone anticipated. I really think Harris is going to be a fixture in the Bills’ defense for years to come.
I don’t want to put any unreasonable expectations on a guy switching positions. I expect Harris to be a backup and special teams ace as a rookie.
If he proves me wrong and wins the strong side linebacker job, more power to him.
Either way, I look forward to charting his progress in camp and watching him closely this preseason.
I will always be objective as a columnist but I don’t mind saying that I will be rooting for this kid to succeed when I shut the laptop down and put my fan hat back on.
Other than Trent Edwards, Butler may be the most important player on the Bills’ offense this season.
The Bills will have two new starting tackles in 2009, sort of. Langston Walker is moving over from the right side to replace the departed Jason Peters at left tackle.
Walker may not be as talented as Peters overall but the Bills know what they are getting in the eight-year veteran.
He’s a solid NFL tackle that the coaches trust to protect Edwards’ blind side week in and week out. And most Buffalo fans will probably rest somewhat easy with Walker playing left tackle.
Butler is a bit more of a risk. He’s making the switch from guard to right tackle. He did start 31 consecutive games at right tackle in college, so it’s not like this is a completely new position to him.
However, because left tackle is one of the most important positions in the NFL, people tend to toss out right tackle as if teams can just put in anyone there and get away with it.
Yet if Butler struggles, so will Edwards and the Bills’ no-huddle offense, regardless of how well Walker is playing on the left side.
Butler is a freakish athlete and the Bills’ coaching staff is confident that he will make a successful transition to tackle.
As a matter of fact, they are so confident in Butler’s abilities that he was one of the reasons they were willing to part ways with the disgruntled Peters.
Personally, I always thought Butler was a vastly underrated player and it won’t surprise if he ends up in the Pro Bowl someday. I think his game is perfectly suited to play right tackle in the NFL.
The outcome of preseason games doesn’t matter and neither does the performance of some of the upper echelon players.
However, if Buffalo’s first-string offensive line is getting beat like a rented mule all summer long, it will be cause for concern heading into the opener with the Patriots.
By the way, I didn’t feel a need to put Terrell Owens on this list. If Owens isn’t one of the players you are keeping an eye on in training camp, you either don’t care about football, don’t care about the Bills, or you are probably lying through your teeth.
Now, that’s enough of my inane babble. Football is back and the Bills’ quest for a playoff berth is officially underway. All is right with the world.