Every summer leading up to training camp Buffalobills.com asks 25 of the most pressing questions facing the team as they make their final preparations for the upcoming regular season. With a new regime and practices at St. John Fisher fast approaching, here is the latest installment as we closely examine some of the answers the Buffalo Bills have to come up with between July 28th and Sept. 12th.
One of the constants from the Buffalo Bills in recent team history has been the franchise's play on special teams. Kicker Rian Lindell and punter Brian Moorman are often ranked among the top players at their given positions each season, and have been successful in providing valuable assets to the club. The team has also seen great play in the kick return game, with the likes of Terrence McGee, Roscoe Parrish, Fred Jackson, and Leodis McKelvin carrying the load the past few seasons. As the Bills approach the opening of training camp on July 29, the main contenders for the return spot appear to be veterans Jackson, McKelvin, Parrish, and Chad Simpson, and rookies C.J. Spiller and Joique Bell.
With the early season injury to McKelvin in 2009, Jackson assumed the role of every down running back and kick return specialist for the Bills. On top of his 1,000 yards rushing, Jackson added 1,000 yards in the return game, a rare feat in professional football. With new head coach Chan Gailey looking to feature the run in his offensive attack, it would be hard to see Jackson being over-utilized if it is not necessary.
The numbers do speak for themselves, as Jackson was able to average 4.5 yards per rush, and 24.7 yards per return last season, so he has shown that he can multi-task at both positions. With a talented crop of other returners on the roster, Jackson may only receive kicks in special situations, or if the injury bug of last year bites the squad once more.
McKelvin, due to his prior success, seems like another solid selection as the kick return man, a role that he succeeded in as a rookie in 2008. The cornerback had 52 returns for 1,468 yards, a 28.2 yard average, and a 98-yard touchdown in his freshman campaign, establishing himself as an up and coming playmaker in the NFL.
His second season was cut short by injury in Week 3 of 2009, and with the Bills transitioning to the 3-4 defense, McKelvin certainly has had a unique road back from injury. Not only is he trying to get back to where he was before the injury, but he is also learning an entirely new scheme as well. His rookie campaign cannot be overlooked, however, and for McKelvin, that is the player he hopes to be when he gets back on the playing field, and then some.
"It was a slow process. I knew when I got put on I-R, I was just waiting for next year and build(ing) on my techniques and the things I need to do," he said. "I was just eager to get out here."
Parrish is the most talented punt returner on the team, registering a career average return of 12.4 yards, but has seen sparing repetitions on kickoffs. He has just 29 kick returns for 685 yards since being drafted by the Bills in 2005, with the majority of his work coming on punt return. Parrish's speed and ability to create once he receives the ball make him a threat anywhere on the field, yet he has far less experience on the unit than some of his veteran teammates.
As a player who seemed to fall out of favor with the previous coaching staff, Parrish is looking to make a strong impression for Gailey and staff on offense first and foremost, but he's not dismissing his return exploits. In the kick return competition Parrish, though he's capable, understands punt return is his greatest strength.
"Punt return has always been my ID. I'm very confident (returning punts), along with being confident as a wide receiver," he said. "But that's what got me here, where I am today, is my punt return. I led the league a couple of years, but more guys (to compete against), more fun."
The primary return man for the AFC Champion Indianapolis Colts last season, Simpson brings experience in a big time environment to the table. The third-year pro out of Morgan State has 52 career returns for 1,242 yards and a touchdown in the NFL.
While Simpson is battling for a roster spot at running back amongst the likes of Jackson, Spiller, and Marshawn Lynch, his time as a kick returner for the Colts gives him an added skill that could keep him find a niche on the roster. As an undrafted free agent, Simpson understands the competition in play, and said that it will make him a better player.
"You have a bunch of guys that can do everything that I can do," he said. "It's going to come down to making plays in the preseason (to earn playing time)."
An accomplished return man at Clemson, 2010 first-round draft pick Spiller is a dynamic athlete who brings a whole new gear to the special teams unit. He recorded 2,052 kickoff return yards and seven touchdowns for the Tigers, and was one of the most feared return men in the ACC.
While the Bills will look to integrate Spiller, first and foremost, into its offensive game plan, he remains a viable option for a team looking to establish a unique playmaking identity. An asset to Buffalo in the backfield, split wide as a receiver, or returning the ball, the Bills really have free range to use Spiller however the coaching staff sees fit.
Bell is yet another player fighting for a roster spot in the deep offensive backfield in Buffalo. Like Simpson, the undrafted free agent out of Division II Wayne State may need to rely on all of his prowess in the return game to make an impact in his first year in the NFL. Bell was the Harlon Trophy winner in 2009 as the best Division II player in the nation, totaling 217.5 all-purpose yards per game and 29 total touchdowns.
Although he may not see a lot of time at running back, Bell has kick return experience and is a good compact runner that showed impressive hands during OTAs. The ability to compete for a position, regardless of where he might fit in on the field, was one of the determining factors in Bell signing with the Bills.
"As far as myself and my talent, I know I can do something on the field at this level to help out this team," he said. "Whether it's special teams or playing running back; I can play slot and catch the ball, kick returner, punt returner, wherever they need me most."
The Bills kick returner will be one of many questions answered at training camp at the end of July, as there are five solid contenders to choose from. The odds-on favorites are veteran players like Parrish and McKelvin, but it is difficult to sell a rookie like Spiller or Bell short. It makes for a lot of intriguing options for fans to discuss until the Bills reconvene at St. John Fisher.