The Buffalo Bills finished the first week of OTA's, and received a firsthand introduction to new head coach Chan Gailey and the rest of the coaching staff that he has assembled. The rookies and second-year players had their mini-camp prior to OTA's, while the rest of Bills as a collective group came away impressed with what they have seen so far.
Gailey is pushing the Bills to be in better shape, and to be a more physical football team. It is clear that he will make the team wear pads more frequently than former head coach Dick Jauron ever did.
The defensive schemes that are being installed are extremely complex, and according to veteran safety Donte Whitner, the team has more defenses now than it did all of last season. And this is after one week.
Clearly, this is a year of change for the Bills. And while it is way too early to start predicting where this team will finish, Gailey noted that the players are anxious to win, and he wants them to get used to that feeling as quickly as they can.
However, to the experts that predicted the Bills will hold the first overall pick in the NFL Draft in 2011, that is being a bit far-fetched.
Even with last season's toned-down defense, the Bills were still competitive in the vast majority of their games. With the influx of the new rookie crop, and the return of all of the injured players from last season, it is safe to assume that the team will continue to compete. But will they be better? Let's see.
New Coaching and Organizational Staff
The players seem to be taking to the new workout mentality, as TV screens are no longer part of the workout facility. The players come to camp to work, and they have noticed the business-like approach that Gailey has instilled in the locker room. He wants the team to be in better shape, and to be more physical. If anything, this should reduce the number of injuries.
Gailey has turned the defense over to coordinator George Edwards, and he has taken the keys and is running with it. He is changing the defensive secondary from more of a zone Tampa 2 look, to having a more straight-up man-to-man coverage.
With talented athletes such as Whitner, Terrence McGee, Leodis McKelvin, Ashton Youboty, Jairus Byrd, Drayton Florence, and George Wilson, the Bills will be looking to create turnovers in bunches as they did last year.
Applying pressure on the quarterback from different blitz packages in the 3-4 should be a byproduct of the new alignments. I think the sack totals will rise as well, because of the different looks the Bills can now bring to the table.
But it's on the offensive side of the ball where Gailey excels. However, I still wonder if he has enough tools to work with.
True, wide receiver and return specialist Roscoe Parrish is out of the proverbial doghouse and excited to play football again, but he is not a kid anymore. Meanwhile, James Hardy, Chad Jackson, and Steve Johnson remain big question marks, and rookie receiver Marcus Easley seems to be more of a project type, as he really only had one year of big numbers at UConn.
For the most part, Bills general manager Buddy Nix has remained quiet since the team has gotten back onto field. He has done his job, and brought in plenty of competition for the majority of positions that lacked a clear starter. Still, there are many fans that will read that, and say that he didn't bring in this guy, or address that position with a more proven player, and I would agree.
However, Nix has stated that he foresaw this as being at least a two- to three-year rebuilding effort, and that the organization has taken a step in the right direction. What happens over the course of the next year and the 2011 draft, will tell everyone if the team is that much closer to being a playoff contender or not.
The offensive line, wide receivers, and quarterback positions are still far from being settled. The Bills hope that the starters who were placed on the IR last year, namely offensive linemen Eric Wood and Demetrius Bell, will be able to return and be healthy for the start of the season. Any setback for either one of them will create a major problem.
The backup to Bell right now appears to be Jamon Meredith. Meredith only played one game at left tackle last year, and although he shows promise, his resume shows he is not ready to be a starting left tackle.
Between Cornell Green, Ed Wang, Bell, and Meredith, the Bills hope that this quartet can stay healthy enough to make it through the season. Based on what we saw last year, that is a tough assumption to make. I am still in favor of trying to acquire a guy like Jared Gaither, and possibly surrender a draft pick so that the Bills can to bring him in. There is just not enough talent right now in the tackle positions.
The wide receiver situation is unstable as well. The trio of Hardy, Jackson, and Johnson needs desperately for one of them to emerge as a serious threat to compliment Lee Evans. If none of them do, then the opposition will simply double-team Evans, focus on stuffing the Bills running game, and, well, there you go.
Can one of the receivers step up? Part of the concern is that with an unsettled QB, it means that the desired chemistry between your quarterback and receivers will continue to suffer. With an equal share of the reps between Trent Edwards, Ryan Fitzpatrick, and Brian Brohm, none of them will be throwing only to Hardy or Johnson.
They might get 10 reps with those guys, but then their next turn might see them throwing to Parrish, Marcus Easley, or Naaman Roosevelt. The continuity is lost, and the learning process gets muddled. This is something that regular playoff teams don't have to deal with.
The sooner the Bills identify who their starting QB is, the better. He can then get in as many reps as possible to be on the same page with his starting receivers. This will help them know when they like to have the ball delivered coming out of their breaks; how soft or hard a pass they can handle, what part of their body they like to have the ball thrown to, etc.
When considering Buffalo's most recent draft prize, running back C.J. Spiller, who's a wild card for the Bills. He's the one player that I am most interested in watching this year. Despite all of the offensive line and receiving issues that were addressed during the offseason, Spiller has the potential to make those concerns go away.
It is one thing for a tackle to not be able to create a hole for a back to run through. It is an issue for wide receivers to have enough time to run their patterns, and to be able to make their double moves, if that is what the play calls for. If the offensive line can't give the QB enough time for all that to develop, the play is shot. Spiller can make such issues go away.
Can't find an open hole? Spiller can run right past the defender before he knows he is even by him. The QB doesn't have time to look downfield? Spiller will be right there, coming out of the backfield, so Trent Edwards dumps a short three-yard pass to Spiller, and just watch him go in the open field.
Am I buying too much into the hype of the former Clemson star? Possibly, but it is fun to speculate on what this kid can do. If he can make an impact in the first three or four games for the Bills, and defenses realize that they have to actively game plan for how to contain him, that should then open up things for the rest of the offense to step up.
One other thought regarding the offense: Marshawn Lynch. Lynch had made a comment that he would be here during the first week of OTA's, but the first week came and went, and no sign of him. He had requested a formal trade during the offseason, but the Bills did not get any offers that they felt were worthy. So, the Bills are at some sort of stalemate with Lynch.
You would like to think that he would want to be given an opportunity to produce, and get off on the right foot with the new regime in Gailey. His lack of attendance the first week of OTA is a clear sign that Lynch still has not matured very much, and I am losing the little faith I had in him wanting to be part of this team.
The new schemes being installed by Edwards opens up a whole new world for linebacker Aaron Maybin to be showcased in a position where he should excel. Use his speed and athletic abilities to put heat on the QB. In what was a largely disappointing rookie season for Maybin last season, he will now have the chance to show everyone that he was worthy of the lofty pick the Bills used to secure him.
Kawika Mitchell's injury has him now playing second fiddle to Andra Davis at the other inside linebacker slot, next to Paul Posluszny. If that is how things stack up in Week One, you already know that the Bills depth at inside linebacker is much better than it was last year.
The outside linebackers will be put to the test if Aaron Schobel does not return to the team. We had all hoped he would have decided by now, and joining the team from the start of the OTA's would have been ideal in order for him to learn all of the new kinks in the defense with the rest of the starters. But he has not decided what he wants to do yet, and the Bills continue to keep the door open.
How effective will Chris Kelsay be in coverage? I suspect that Keith Ellison will be used some in OLB, provided that Maybin is able to hold down the other side. There was a positive buzz about the late Bills linebacker picks in Arthur Moats and Danny Batten. They will probably be used more for depth and seeing spot action, and may figure into the special teams unit as well. The same could be said for Antonio Coleman.
The defensive line looks to be fortified, and much stronger than it was last year. Kyle Williams graded out as one of the top defensive lineman last year, along with Schobel, so that is a good start right there. Add in rookies Torrell Troup and Alex Carrington, along with newcomer Dwan Edwards, and that makes for some interesting depth.
Returning veterans Spencer Johnson, John McCargo, and Marcus Stroud give the Bills enough talent that they can continue to rotate players in throughout the contest to keep everyone reasonably fresh.
I am anticipating a big year for the secondary, and a healthy Leodis McKelvin would go a long way towards making that happen. Jairus Byrd should be over his injuries, and Whitner appears to be using all of the trade rumor mill to spur him to play at a higher level.
Then you add in all the guys that stepped up last year, such as Bryan Scott and George Wilson. They bring great depth and will challenge for a starting role. Same scenario for Drayton Florence. The Bills haven't had this much collective talent for many years.
With the new defensive alignment, it forces some players to find a new home. There are question marks as to where to put guys like Nic Harris, Jon Corto, John McCargo, and Chris Ellis. Perhaps some of them will still be with the team, but some may be headed out the door. The Bills already cut Ashlee Palmer and Marlon Favorite, as neither one was thought to be a fit for the new defense.
So many roles still need to be defined, but we have the entire training camp to figure all of that out. Who will be the special teams players, who will be the team's nickel backs, and third down specialists, and so on?
Many answers will follow, but for now, I am enjoying the competition on the roster, and trying to figure out how all of the pieces will come together.