Heading into the long weekend, there were some Bills first teamers absent for the sixth day of OTAs in Buffalo. Those absences provided some opportunities for others and some young Bills made the most of the increased reps.
With tight end Lee Smith sidelined Thursday, rookie tight end Chris Gragg found himself with the first team offense and he stepped up in a big way. Gragg was on the receiving end of multiple connections, including a solid 20-yard grab from quarterback Tarvaris Jackson in 9-on-9.
"I've been telling [the quarterbacks] they can throw me the ball," said Gragg. "I'm just trying to gain their confidence."
Gragg's performance Thursday should go a long way in improving his rapport with the quarterbacks currently embattled in competition.
"It's an opportunity for me," he said. "The more reps I can get the more I can learn and the more I can get the veterans to believe in me."
Tight end Mike Caussin also saw increased reps with the dwindled tight end corps.
On the defensive side of the ball, defensive end Jamie Blatnick, cornerback Nickell Robey, and defensive back Mana Silva each worked with the first team.
From linebacker Jerry Hughes' usual position, Blatnick had a wildly successful day. Early in 9-on-9, Blatnick perfectly read a screen pass and tapped up the running back C.J. Spiller for the loss. Just a few plays later Blatnick executed a perfect stunt and wrapped up Tarvaris Jackson for a would-be sack.
The secondary featured two new faces in Robey and Silva. Robey received first team reps in the slot and the rookie believes it is a great opportunity to gauge his skill level.
"It's good to play out there with the ones just to see where your skill level is and see how good you are and how good you fit in with the players and how you work with them," said Robey.
"I come out here and I want to show everybody that I'm worthy to play and be a Buffalo Bills and make the team. So I just strive every day to get to that point."
Safety Da'Norris Searcy was also absent Thursday, so Mana Silva was plugged in for first team reps at strong safety. The second-year player out Hawaii appreciated the extra reps and believes his duty is to make the most of every chance.
"Every day is an opportunity to go out there and make plays and do what they ask you to do," said Silva.
With every 7-on-7, 9-on-9, and 11-on-11 the atmosphere of OTAs receives an extra charge and creates some intense battles. On this day the defense was undeniably the winner.
Early in 7-on-7, quarterback EJ Manuel had a pass tipped and linebacker Bryan Scott was there to pull in the pick and take it to the end zone. Soon after, Jamie Blatnick made his previously mentioned mark on the day, putting the icing on a solid early run for the defense.
As practice wrapped up with 11-on-11, the defense again made a lengthy run of big plays. With Tarvaris Jackson at the helm, the defense picked up three sacks in quick succession, including a nice rush by rookie linebacker Keith Pough.
The defense then pulled in their second interception of the day, when a Kevin Kolb pass was tipped twice into the ready arms of rookie defensive back Jonathan Meeks.
When play was called for the day, the rapidly rising energy level of the defense was released in an exuberant celebration at mid-field. Chest bumps and dances were heavily prevalent.
Once again the practice energy was bursting through the roof. The offense continues to operate at a rapid pace and the defense plays with an intensity to match it. Watching the coaches interact with the players, it is easy to see where the players find the extra boost. Special teams coordinator Danny Crossman, defensive backs coach Donnie Henderson, and offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett are all particularly vivacious in their duties.
"The energy is great out here and we need it," said center Eric Wood. "We've got to get better day in and day out and these coaches are doing a great job of getting us going, getting us prepared each day. They're really hands on."
As has become standard practice, head coach Doug Marrone inserted himself into play on multiple occasions. With his visor flipped around, Marrone gets right in the action with the linemen and snaps the ball in quarterback drills.
"When you've got the head coach who is a former offensive lineman in the league, a former offensive line coach, getting hands on, working with us, snapping for the quarterbacks, he's putting his words into actions," said Wood.
Rookie connection strikes again
EJ Manuel and undrafted rookie receiver Da'Rick Rogers again hooked up for a deep ball Thursday. Bills fans keeping track will remember Manuel and Rogers already connected deep once last week and once for an 80-yard touchdown Tuesday.
On Thursday, Rogers ripped right up the seam and Manuel's throw was on the money. Seventy yards later the duo had its third big play of OTAs.
Rotating linebacker combos
Earlier this week linebackers Kiko Alonso and Bryan Scott were paired up on the first team defense, with Arthur Moats and Nigel Bradham working as the second team. Thursday saw the following pairings: Alonso-Scott, Alonso-Bradham, Moats-Scott, and Moats-Bradham.
The Bills hosted a pair of famous guests Thursday. Executive Director of the National Football League Players Association DeMaurice Smith was on-site at One Bills Drive. Smith spoke to the team after practice had concluded.
Bills legend Jim Kelly was also roaming the sidelines of OTAs. Kelly conversed with Smith and Bills President and CEO Russ Brandon.
The Bills will take the field again Tuesday May 28 for a 10:30 a.m. practice.