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.
**We will get an early look at the 2014 version of the Bills this year, as they will kick off the new season against the Giants in the annual Hall of Fame Game on August 3rd. Early preseason games do not always provide the most entertainment for fans, but for a young team on offense and a few new coaches it can provide some excellent extra practice for in-game situations. Here are six reasons to be excited that the Bills are participating in the Hall of Fame Game this year.
6. First Look at Sammy
Despite all of the rave reviews of Sammy Watkins from OTAs and minicamp in June, we have yet to see the rookie WR in true game action. How quickly he is able to fit into the offense and connect with EJ Manuel will likely be a key factor in how successful the Bills will be this season. The more opportunities he gets to become comfortable with Manuel's passes and Nathaniel Hackett's scheme, the better.
"I'm definitely excited for the opportunity to experience my pro debut at the Hall of Fame Game. It was one of the first things I noticed when I looked at the schedule after being drafted by the Bills," Watkins said.
5. Experience for EJ
After just 306 total passes in 10 games last year, plus a drastically different set of WRs to throw to, Manuel should benefit greatly from the work the extra preseason game allows. Starting his second year in the league, many are expecting a big jump in production from the Florida State product.
It will also be a chance to see how Manuel is able to spread the ball around to his various offensive weapons. While the first team offense will likely get just a few series before retiring to the bench, Manuel will likely want to connect with his new targets in Watkins and Mike Williams, along with Robert Woods and Scott Chandler, before he is taken out.
4. Running Back Rotation
With veteran mainstays CJ Spiller and Fred Jackson unlikely to get much playing time, we should get an extended look at two newly acquired running backs in Bryce Brown and Anthony Dixon. Brown, a home-run threat whenever he touches the ball, has averaged 4.6 yards per attempt in his career with a 46 percent rushing success rate in 2013 (gained 40% of yardage on first down, 60% on second, 100% on third). Dixon, more of an inside running power back, had 52 and 44 percent rushing success rates in 2012 and 2013 as a short-yardage back for the 49ers.
"[Dixon] can bring something to the table being our third back," Doug Marrone said. "Same with Bryce. I'm excited for him to come in and see what he can do."
3. Linebackers Adjusting
A new defensive scheme means that everyone on the defense is adjusting, but it may be an even bigger change for most of the linebacking corps. Kiko Alonso is shifting over to play the weak side, a new position for him, and Brandon Spikes and Keith Rivers will see their first game action with their new team. The success of the defense will largely depend on how quickly and effectively these linebackers are able to settle into their new roles.
"I think we're pulling together great," said Rivers. "Everybody is really excited to work with each other. Everybody is doing a really good job of communicating and being accountable. As long as we all talk we'll be fine."
2. New Coaches
The Hall of Fame game will be the first opportunity to see Jim Schwartz's new defense in action. How much of his playbook he is willing to reveal during preseason games is yet to be seen, but where and how all of the pieces fit will give insight into what Schwartz and the rest of the coaches are planning for the regular season.
"One of our jobs as we go through training camp is to find out what our players strengths and weaknesses are," Schwartz said. "As coaches, our job is to put them in good position, accentuate the positives and try to minimize our weaknesses."
Playing in the league's first preseason game will also afford Schwartz the chance to work in a game day setting with a lot of new assistants to cement clear communication in tight time constraints and delegate any and all responsibilities across the defensive staff.
1. Andre Reed's Induction
Of course, the reason the Bills were chosen to play in the game is to honor one of the newly inducted members of the Hall of Fame. This year, Bills legend Andre Reed will be cementing his legacy with his a bust in the Hall and a gold jacket, along with six other players.
"The two main things I'm looking forward to are honoring Andre Reed, a great player for us, and also Ralph Wilson as a member of that Hall of Fame," Kyle Williams said. "Wherever we go, especially Canton where he is enshrined, we are representing him and have an opportunity to go out and bear his tradition with this team."