It was an unexpected visit from the organization's Hall of Fame quarterback, but it was very inspiring for everyone in attendance when Jim Kelly still recovering from his last round of treatments for sinus cancer walked onto the practice field for the final day of Bills minicamp. He addressed the team following the stretch period and broke the team down with a "one, two, three, playoffs." Needless to say it put a spring in the step of every player on the field.
"Just to see him out here, I don't care what you've got on your mind or what's on your plate, it's not near something that he's gone through," said Bills quarterback Jeff Tuel. "To see him out here to talk to us and keep our spirits up I don't think we've had as good of a start to practice as we did after Jim spoke to us. He had great words and I think it fired everybody up because there was a lot of energy after that."
PHOTOS: Jim Kelly's surprise visit
There's no question there was an edge to practice right at the start, which is why head coach Doug Marrone never has a problem with a Bills legend addressing the team.
"We always appreciate him," said Marrone. "Personally for myself, I miss having Jim around. He was great for myself and great for Coach Hackett and coming around, talking to us, having great insight and being a true Bill in every sense of the word. We're with him. We're fighting through this. Just like he's been there with us trying to fight through what we're going through. We support him and it was great for him to get out there and be amongst the team, which I think he feels comfortable about and having the strength to address them."
Baptism by fire
For the past two days rookie seventh-round pick Seantrel Henderson has manned the starting left tackle position in place of an under the weather Cordy Glenn. From the outset of the spring practices Marrone has said that Henderson has the skill set to play at the NFL level. He got a quick indoctrination to the NFL game on Wednesday and Thursday, but did not look overmatched.
Sure there were times when Jerry Hughes and Manny Lawson got the best of him, but it appeared to be more a byproduct of inexperience rather than ability. Henderson is physically gifted with the agility and strength that is not often seen in men his size (6-7 331).
"I didn't know that Cordy had an illness, but ever since coach told me before practice Wednesday that I was going to be running with the ones he's been nothing but a big help along with Eric Wood," Henderson told Buffalobills.com. "It's just seizing the opportunity. That's all it is. A little nervous, but just putting a little more pressure on myself to go out there and make sure I do my assignments right and making sure that I've got the calls down pat so I'm just flowing like I'm a veteran even though I'm a rookie."
Henderson struggled with the speed rush of Jerry Hughes on Wednesday surrendering a couple of tap out sacks, but was much more effective in Thursday's practice. The Miami product doesn't mind facing Hughes, Manny Lawson and Jacquies Smith coming off the edge. He knows top flight competition will only help him.
"Great guys. They get me better every day," he said. "I haven't had the chance to go against Mario (Williams) yet, but 55, 54 and 91 are bringing it every day and it's been good competition."
Fellow rookie and top draft choice Sammy Watkins also got an introduction to Stephon Gilmore and Leodis McKelvin as both veteran cornerbacks saw their most extensive action Thursday. Several times Watkins was matched up against both of them and they weren't giving the receiver much room to work.
"They're very competitive. They're great cornerbacks, they're the top cornerbacks here and I got some good work with them today," said Watkins. "They kept me alert. It's going to be easy when the pads go on and I can touch and grab them some. Just like they grab me I can grab them too."
Watkins said he took some mental notes on both corners so he'll know going into training camp what they like to do.
"They like to press and they like to hold you so now I have to come back prepared and work my craft. I've got some tricks too," Watkins said.
Photos from the final practice from mandatory minicamp at One Bills Drive.
Jeff Tuel's day got off to a good start as he hit Chris Gragg on a well-timed crossing route for first down yardage and more.
Aaron Williams jumped a route by Robert Woods early in 7-on-7 to intercept an EJ Manuel pass that he would've returned for a touchdown in a game setting.
Manuel overcame the early pick and went back to Woods for a 40-yard gain down the left sideline.
Corey Graham executed a difficult pass breakup on a deep post intended for Watkins by Manuel. Graham leaped at the perfect time to calmly deflect that pass away from the waiting hands of Watkins. The play would've been a touchdown if it was completed.
Stephon Gilmore broke up a pass intended for Watkins in the end zone during red zone work on a throw from Manuel.
Bryce Brown made a difficult catch down by his knees in the right flat on a throw from Tuel and was still able to get upfield for positive yardage.
Anthony Dixon pulled in a Dennis Dixon pass coming out of the backfield and though he slipped was able to dive for the pylon and score during red zone work.
Chris Hogan made the catch of the day with an over the shoulder fingertip grab down the left sideline on a throw from Tuel for a touchdown during 11-on-11 red zone.
Kyle Williams logged a would-be sack with his trademark penetration into the offensive backfield.
Manuel and Woods hooked up for touchdowns on back-to-back plays in an 11-on-11 red zone series. On the first play Woods cut back outside and Manuel put it toward his outside shoulder despite tight coverage. The receiver dove to make the catch just inside the goal line for a score.
On the ensuing play Manuel reads took him back across the field. He left the pocket due to oncoming pressure and spotted Woods under the goal posts for a 10-yard touchdown pass.
Free agent rookie Michael Carter made an acrobatic interception in the back of the end zone on a Thad Lewis pass intended for Chris Summers.
The right side of the offensive line opened a good hole for Dixon as he shot through the opening created by Erik Pears and Kraig Urbik to reach the end zone.
Dixon would score again on another red zone run play that he took to the right up the middle.
Chris Hairston again lined up at the starting right guard spot a good deal as he got more of the snaps there than Kraig Urbik who rotated in. Head coach Doug Marrone addressed the emerging competition heading into training camp.
"He's a big body and it's a position for that," said Marrone of Hairston. "We have Kraig Urbik. We have Chris there. We have some of those younger guys that are playing that position. Like we said, it's hard to judge at this time of year in shorts and how it's going to shake out, especially up front. So we're putting everyone in there and giving them an opportunity to learn that stuff so they can go ahead and compete."
Guard wasn't the only place that Urbik lined up. Late in practice he went for a series at center in place of Eric Wood while Hairston manned right guard.
Doug Legursky, who has largely lined up at center with the second unit also got some right guard reps with the second team offensive line.
Preston Brown and Kiko Alonso continue to be the top nickel package linebacker pairing with Brandon Spikes and Nigel Bradham rotating in behind them. Alonso, Spikes and Rivers have been the top base defense linebackers.
The players are off for about a month with the report day for them being July 18th at training camp in advance of the first practice on Sunday July 20th. It doesn't offer a long break, but there are benefits to that as coach Marrone sees it.
"Hopefully it's good," said Marrone. "From a retention standpoint, it's a quick turnaround so we should be in good shape."