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.
Earlier in our Countdown series, Buffalobills.com ran a story about the potential new playmakers on the defensive side of the football. The Bills defense is certainly being analyzed closely, as the team will return to the 3-4 scheme, the same general formation employed during the AFC Championship years of the 1990s.
For all of the attention being paid to the defense, it is really the status of the offense under new head coach Chan Gailey that will truly be under the microscope. The Bills will enter training camp with three candidates vying for the quarterback position, a talented group of running backs, and a large assortment of wide receivers all battling for playing time. A pressing question revolves around which young skill player will become a breakout performer for the offense in 2010?
Players like Lee Evans, Fred Jackson, and Marshawn Lynch have shown the ability to break games wide open in recent years with big plays, but Gailey and staff will look to others on the squad to produce in much of the same way. After viewing the team through spring practice, the prime candidates for the next offensive playmaker look to be Steve Johnson, Roscoe Parrish, Shawn Nelson, and rookie C.J. Spiller.
Johnson is still a relative unknown given the fact that he has been utilized sparingly in his first two NFL seasons. Just by watching him in non-contact drills however, Johnson appeared ready to assume a major role in the Buffalo offense, which translated into an impressive series of plays throughout the spring.
He was often a sure-handed pass catcher, finding room in space for the marginal gains that the club will need to keep the chains moving, as well a secondary-stretching threat that opened things up down the field.
Johnson said that the young wide outs on the team are a solid group, and that the ability of the group as a whole to be multi-talented will lead to offensive success. And that is what number 13 wants to bring to Bills fans in 2010.
"I want to get the crowd on their feet, make the fans happy," Johnson told Buffalobills.com during OTAs. "Making plays, of course, that's what we all want to do. That's the basic answer. I want to bring electricity into Ralph Wilson Stadium."
Parrish is the wily veteran in the equation, but is still searching to find his niche in the offensive game plan. A special teams standout since joining the Bills in 2005 out of the University of Miami, Parrish's impact on offense has been relatively minor, with only 100 catches for 1,086 yards and five touchdowns in that span.
Under Gailey and new offensive coordinator Curtis Modkins, many Bills veterans have expressed the desire for a chance to re-invent themselves, and Parrish is no exception. His speed was in full force during the spring, as he created matchup problems from the moment he stepped into the slot on offense. It is the new coaching regime that has Parrish mentally prepared for 2010, and he said that he intends to make the most of his fresh start.
"I just have to continue to work hard myself. (Gailey's) the kind of coach that gets the ball in a playmaker's hands," Parrish said. "I have to do what I need to do and that's get better each day and take advantage of all my opportunities. I did hear this and did hear that, but that was last year. It's 2010, we've got to get everybody on the same page and get rolling."
The young tight end Nelson showed a lot of promise during his rookie campaign in 2009, recording 17 receptions and a touchdown during an injury-shortened freshman effort. At 6'5", 240 pounds, he not only has the size of a top-tier tight end, but also brings uncanny athleticism to the table.
Although he missed a few days of voluntary workouts during the spring due to a personal matter, Nelson was ready to play when he was in attendance. His route running and hands were on full display during OTAs, as were his much improved contributions as a blocker in the run game. The ability to get on the field and build camaraderie with his teammates, in Nelson's opinion, will lead to a better tuned offensive unit, and he said he will put in the necessary work to perform to his full abilities.
"I believe in myself, and I just hope that coach can believe in me as well and give me an opportunity to make plays because I believe that's what I do," Nelson said. "I believe if they give me a lot of opportunities with the ball, I can help this team win."
Being the team's top draft choice Spiller has naturally been an oft-mentioned player throughout the offseason, simply because there are so many possibilities as to how he might be utilized in the offensive attack. On top of his record-setting output in the kick return game at Clemson University, Spiller was also a perennial 1,000-yard rusher, and a home-run threat as a receiver out of the backfield.
During OTAs, he often lined up at different areas on the field to present the defense with a challenging look each play. Spiller turned in a number of impressive runs on the ground, and showed his ability to find space in the heart of the opponent's formation as a receiver, stretching opposing linebackers out of their comfort zone. His participation in rookie minicamp and OTAs gave Spiller a broader outlook on the game as a whole, and he said that knowledge will translate onto the field come September.
"I learned that this is an opportunity, and you have to take advantage of it and have faith into your own hands and study. You have to know everything that's going on out on the field so you're not out there guessing," Spiller said following rookie workouts in May. "That's what I learned this weekend. Of course it ended a whole lot faster, but once you slow everything down I think it works to your advantage.
With an astute offensive mind in Gailey and fresh young talent just waiting to be utilized, Buffalo's offense may finally have more than just a couple of game breaking options on Sundays.