August 9, 2012
With the Buffalo Bills getting their preseason schedule underway this evening with a game against last year’s Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III and the rest of the Washington Redskins, it gives us a moment to contemplate some of the more heated position battles for the Bills that will play out his preseason. There is a lot of optimism around Buffalo and Bills fans, who are hoping for the team’s first playoff appearance since 1999. With an aggressive splash in free agency that landed the top name on the market in Mario Williams, the Bills are thinking playoffs.
Let’s take a look at some of the key battles that will be decided over the next few weeks as the Bills prepare for their season opener against the New York Jets in week one of the regular season.
#2 Quarterback: The starting quarterback role is locked down with Ryan Fitzpatrick, who signed a $59 million extension last season. Whether that’s a good or bad thing in your eyes, the fact remains that he’s the #1 barring injury. That leaves Tyler Thigpen and Vince Young to compete for the backup role. Early reports say that there is little separation between the two, which would point toward Thigpen getting the upper hand. After all, position battles tend to favor the incumbent and Thigpen was the backup last season.
However, when it comes to pedigrees, should Fitzpatrick go down, one would have to lean toward Young. Career statistics bear out that Young has a far superior record as a starting quarterback (31-19 to Thigpen’s 1-11) and led the Tennessee Titans to the postseason in 2007. He’s been able to win games and perform in clutch situations, something Thigpen has been unable to prove. One thing is certain: both QBs won’t be kept, because Brad Smith is a former college quarterback that could serve as a number three. Both QBs have contracts worth more than $2 million this season, so whoever loses the competition will be out of luck.
Edge: Young, solely based on his track record and ability to make plays. If it comes down to winning a game late in the season to stay in the playoffs, I’ll take him over a guy with one career win as a starter. After all, that’s only one more win than I have in the NFL as a starter.
#2 Wide Receiver: It may not necessarily seem all that important, given the fact that the Bills play a lot in the spread formation with three and four wide receivers on the field, but for those occasions when there are only two wide receivers, who would be opposite Steve Johnson? Johnson was the first receiver in franchise history to put up back to back 1,000 yard seasons but he still can be prone to drops and teams roll coverage in his direction.
David Nelson caught 61 passes last season but is expected to fill the slot receiver role in three receiver sets, leaving an opening on the outside to be filled. Donald Jones, who caught 23 balls a year ago before missing the second half of the season with an injury, is one candidate for the job. Derek Hagan, who caught five passes against the Bills when he was with Oakland in week two and 13 in four games with Buffalo at the end of the season, could be a factor as well.
You then have Marcus Easley, who was a fourth round pick a couple years ago out of Connecticut but has not played in the NFL due to a heart condition, and rookie third round pick T.J. Graham out of North Carolina State. Graham has great speed and Easley has size but can’t shake the injury bug. Ruvell Martin caught seven passes last season but is more utilized on special teams and more than likely is not a serious contender for the job.
Edge: Hagan. I can’t say that Jones has been all that impressive when he’s been on the field, not to mention the number of games he has missed due to injury. Easley or Graham could surprise. Naaman Roosevelt is solid but probably not in the mix for the role.
Left Tackle: Last year’s original starter, Demetress Bell, departed via free agency and signed with the Eagles, where he’ll likely step in for Jason Peters, the last left tackle to leave Buffalo for Philadelphia. Peters is done for the year after tearing his Achilles and with Bell departing, the Bills have a slot to fill on the line. Chris Hairston stepped in when Bell was out of the lineup last season and did a decent job and the Bills drafted Cordy Glenn out of Georgia with their second round selection. Andy Levitre also filled the spot during stints last season and was the only player in the league to play center, guard and tackle.
With Erik Pears continuing to recover from injury, Hairston is getting first team reps at right tackle, allowing Glenn to play with the starters from the left tackle position. Glenn played both tackle and guard in college and has the ability to be a road grader at the left tackle position for the foreseeable future. If Hairston can hold his own at right tackle and Glenn does the job at left tackle, it might be Pears who finds himself in a reserve role.
Edge: Glenn, due to his size and ability to steamroll holes in the run game. Hairston would be a good fit at right tackle and Pears or Sam Young could be a good swing tackle off the bench.
Outside Linebacker: With the move from a 3-4 defense back to a 4-3 in 2012, the Bills are playing to the strengths of their defensive players. The defensive line is a force to be reckoned with as the front four is comprised of Mario Williams, Kyle Williams, Marcell Dareus and Mark Anderson. The team also has depth with Dwan Edwards, Spencer Johnson, Chris Kelsay and Shawne Merriman that can all rotate in and give the starters a breather here and there.
The linebacking unit will feature Nick Barnett, who was solid playing on the inside last season, manning one outside linebacker spot and more than likely Kelvin Sheppard taking on the middle linebacker role. On the other side, there is a competition between Arthur Moats and Kirk Morrison. Moats is best known at the moment for delivering the hit that ended Brett Favre’s record ironman streak. He has a motor and is capable of delivering big hits but one has to wonder if he’s ready to be an every down player.
Morrison on the other hand, has plenty of experience as a starter, with five 100 plus tackle seasons to his credit in his career. He saw limited duty with the Bills last season after signing during training camp but he has the skills necessary to play against both the run and the pass. Morrison is athletic and has picked up seven interceptions in his career, including 4 in 2007 while playing with the Raiders.
Edge: Moats, but only by the slimmest of margins. Defensive coordinator Dave Wannstedt said that both players will get equal reps in Thursday’s preseason game, though Moats would get the start. If Morrison shines and Moats looks remotely out of place, the leverage in this situation could shift. Definitely the most fluid situation in the Bills lineup as it stands right now.
Cornerback: Last year, the Bills had Drayton Florence start all 16 games on one side, while Terrence McGee, Leodis McKelvin and Aaron Williams all saw time on the other side in a starting capacity. Florence is gone, having been cut by the Bills earlier in the offseason and subsequently signing with Denver, leaving one spot open. With McGee’s penchant for injuries, theoretically both spots are up for grabs.
One spot seems to be a virtual lock for rookie first round pick Stephon Gilmore. Gilmore has been terrific in camp and has repeatedly locked up with Buffalo’s top receiver in Steve Johnson. He’s fast, has good reaction to the ball and the breaks receivers make and has the size to be physical. More importantly right now, he has the confidence that he can do the job and that is something that the Bills definitely are glad to see.
The other side is still up for grabs. The trio of McKelvin, Williams and McGee are in the mix for the job, with the eventual loser of the competition still seeing a fair amount of work in the nickel package. Williams may have the early edge due to his performance in the second half of last season as a rookie, when he recorded 32 tackles, knocked down five passes, forced a fumble and picked off a pass in nine games, six of which he started. He has some size at six feet and 204 pounds and Buffalo liked the way he played last season.
McGee has the longest tenure with the team, having been with the Bills since 2003 but injuries have bitten him in recent years. He’s played in just 26 of Buffalo’s 48 games the past three seasons, including only six games last season before ending up on injured reserve. His last interception came in 2009 and his last touchdown of any sort came on a kickoff return in 2007. He is simply running out of chances to impress and make an impact. There is a real chance that McGee may be cut; he won’t play Thursday as he continues to recover from a knee injury.
McKelvin has a first round pedigree but hasn’t put it all together since being drafted in 2008. He started 13 games in 2010 but was supplanted by Williams last season, starting only six of the 16 games he appeared in. McKelvin got a little more rope because he was a high draft pick but it is clear that the coaching staff’s patience is wearing thin. It may be put up or shut up time for McKelvin this year.
Edge: Gilmore and Williams. Barring injury, Gilmore is a lock and Williams performed better than the other two last season. If he plays up to potential, he has a bright future ahead of himself.
We’ll see how the Bills new look and new acquisitions pan out in their preseason opener and we’ll critique the team following the game.