Every summer leading up to training camp buffalobills.com examines 25 of the more pertinent issues facing the team as they make their final preparations for the upcoming regular season. This year we wanted to focus on a few different areas that impact the team off the field in addition to what takes place on the field. From now until report day at training camp we’ll address these subjects one at a time. Here now is the latest daily installment as we closely examine some of the answers the Buffalo Bills have to come up with between July 18 and the Sept. 7 opener at Chicago.
Whether it is offensive linemen looking to gain cohesion or defensive backs fighting for a starting spot, some positions are going to be more intriguing to keep an eye on than others. Here are five positions that will pique the interest of coaches and fans alike once training camp begins.
All eyes will be on Sammy Watkins as he continues to develop chemistry with EJ Manuel and transition to the pro game. He has already been possibly the most impressive player on the field throughout OTAs and minicamp and has looked the part of a true No. 1 wide receiver. Now that defensive backs will have more freedom to jam receivers at the line and get away with more contact during practice, will Watkins continue to impress?
Mike Williams had a down season in Tampa last year, but coming back to his hometown should prove to be a positive change in scenery for the veteran receiver. It should take more than a handful of padless practices to develop the right chemistry and timing with EJ Manuel, but Williams has the right combination of size and athleticism to be a primary receiving option for Nathaniel Hackett’s scheme.
Williams and Robert Woods have been the presumed starters alongside Watkins since May, but the depth the Bills have built at the position has not made it a sure thing. Chris Hogan has impressed so far this preseason.
With Aaron Williams solidifying the free safety position, it looks as though Da’Norris Searcy, Duke Williams, and Jonathan Meeks will be battling it out for the strong safety spot.
Searcy was more often spotted alongside the rest of the first team defense toward the end of minicamp, and his experience in the NFL appears to give him a leg up on the competition. However, Meeks has the ball-hawking attitude to push Searcy for the starting spot and Duke Williams is the type of big hitter that will get the attention of the coaching staff during training camp.
All of the guys that we’ve got are great players,” Meeks said of the defensive backfield. “But I will be there in run support, a playmaker on pass plays, and a physical guy. In this position battle I’m just trying to show the coaches what I can do.”
An influx of young, powerful linemen was one of the highlights of the Bills offseason. It seems as though head coach Doug Marrone has left every position along the line open for competition and will give everyone the opportunity to fight for a starting spot.
With Cordy Glenn out for minicamp due to illness, rookie seventh round pick Seantrel Henderson got the opportunity to run with the first team. Chris Hairston, Kraig Urbik, Cyril Richardson, and Chris Williams have all been rotating in at guard. Cyrus Kouandjio has brought stiff competition to Eric Pears at the right tackle spot. Eric Wood is likely secure at his center position, but he still likes the talent surrounding him.
“We have a lot of talented O-linemen right now and we’re going to have some competition,” said Eric Wood. “It’s been exciting having guys moving in and out of the lineup to try some guys here and there. Give the vets a few plays off and see what a young guy can do going against the starting D-line.”
Brandon Spikes and Keith Rivers are the two big names that have been brought in to shore up a run defense that ranked 29th in the NFL last season. Along with Kiko Alonso, the two seem to be locked into starting roles.
How the three - along with Preston Brown and Nigel Bradham - are able to accept their roles and responsibilities will be the key to how improved the defense will be in 2014. If they are not able to adjust to their new roles in defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz’s scheme, it could spell trouble for the entire unit. Spikes, however, does not foresee that being an issue.
“A lot of the guys here are familiar with me,” Spikes said. “So they pretty much know what I’m about. At the same time there are some new guys, so I just want to gain respect from them and let them know that I will be accountable and do my job by any means necessary.”
While most of the attention will be on the wide receivers, the safety net that Scott Chandler and Tony Moeaki could provide for a young quarterback like Manuel could be even more important.
Chandler was limited for much of OTAs and minicamp, which allowed Moeaki, Chris Gragg and Lee Smith to prove what they can do. What makes this position interesting is that each brings a slightly different set of skills to the table. It is up to the coaching staff to figure out in what situations each player can succeed most.
“I feel like I have everything to prove,” Moeaki said. “Show that I can help the team in different ways and take it one day at a time. I just want to work hard and let the chips fall where they may.”