ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- Although general manager Doug Whaley tried to sound convincing, deep down he knows that the 2014 season is a big one for the Buffalo Bills.
"In the NFL, every year is a big year," said Whaley. "Everyone is expecting some big things from us and we're expecting big things."
He's right; every year is a big year for every team, but when you haven't made the playoffs in 14 years, when you made a bold draft-day trade to move up to pick a potential superstar playmaker, and your franchise is about to be sold to a new owner, this is a little bigger of a year for the Bills than any other year.
This team needs to win, and it needs to make the postseason. If it doesn't, the new owner - who should be in charge at some point this season - could very well overhaul the organization, and in that scenario, nobody's job is safe.
"Being where we've been as an organization on the field is unacceptable," said team president and CEO Russ Brandon. "It is certainly unacceptable to me. It's all about winning. There is nothing else, absolutely nothing else that matters. We've made changes and we're not going to sit on our hands and not let any sand get under our shoes when it comes to trying to put a winning product on the field. That's what we're all about."
Coming out of minicamp and heading to training camp, the Bills felt very good about where they are on defense. A strong and productive defensive line returns intact led by three Pro Bowlers, Mario Williams, Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus; the linebacking unit has been upgraded with the additions of Brandon Spikes and Keith Rivers; and the secondary only has to deal with the free-agent departure of free safety Jairus Byrd. After improving in every key category in 2013, this unit should keep the Bills in every game they play.
However, the loss of linebacker Kiko Alonso to a knee injury suffered during late-June workouts in Oregon, throws a big wrench into the Bills' plans for their linebacker corps.
That will complicate things when the Bills practice for the first time July 20, although they have one extra game to sort things out because they will face the New York Giants on Aug. 3 in the annual Hall of Fame Game in Canton, Ohio. They will also travel to Pittsburgh's camp on Aug. 13-14 for joint practices with the Steelers.
In organized team activities last month, the Bills revealed their intention to move Alonso to weak-side linebacker in new defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz's 4-3 system. Last year, Alonso played every defensive snap, 1,145, at middle linebacker.
He did not fully participate in OTA workouts due to his hip rehab.
The Bills did sign veteran linebackers Rivers and Spikes during free agency, and had planned to play Rivers on the strong side and Spikes in the middle. The unit is now in flux with the big hole created by Alonso's injury.
Rivers could move to the weak side with the Bills sliding rookie third-rounder Preston Brown from the middle to the strong side. Another option is Manny Lawson, who started 15 games on the strong side last season, but the role is different under Schwartz and he was expected to play primarily at end this season.
The team could also keep the oft-injured Rivers on the strong side and gamble that Nigel Bradham can improve his run defense under Schwartz and handle the weak-side job.
On offense, things are also worrisome, but only because quarterback EJ Manuel remains somewhat of a mystery. The Bills drafted wide receiver Sammy Watkins No. 4 overall, at the cost of next year's first-round draft slot, and he joins a group that includes Robert Woods, Marquise Goodwin, and veteran newcomer Mike Williams. The running backs are excellent and versatile with home-run hitter C.J. Spiller, the always productive and savvy Fred Jackson, and two solid additions in Bryce Brown and Anthony Dixon. Scott Chandler is a reliable, if not spectacular, tight end, and the line should be bolstered by the additions of free-agent left guard Chris Williams and rookie second-round pick Cyrus Kouandjio.
So it comes down to Manuel, and whether he can prove that he is the quarterback of the future.
"I'm optimistic," said Whaley. "I'm eager to see him get out and perform for 16 games, because you started to see the growth in that Cleveland game (in Week 5 last year) and then he got hurt. I think this year is going to be a big leap for him, and for us."
During much of the OTAs and minicamp, Manuel seemed to struggle, but that's because the Bills emptied the playbook for installation, and things weren't always smooth. Once training camp starts, and the Bills begin to pare down what they believe will work best, Manuel should look better.
"He's put in a lot of work, and he has a much, much better understanding and it's exciting," said head coach Doug Marrone. "What you hope to see at training camp and the installation goes in, you hope to see it better the next time around."
If Manuel comes through, this Buffalo team has enough to make it to the playoffs, as this is the deepest roster the Bills have brought to training camp in perhaps a decade.
As noted, the competition should be strong at wide receiver. The Bills revamped the receiving corps by drafting Watkins in the first round, acquiring Mike Williams in a trade with the Buccaneers, and then trading away Stevie Johnson to San Francisco. Watkins and Williams figure to be the front-runners to win the starting outside receiver spots, and 2013 second-round choice Robert Woods has the inside track to earn the slot position. Woods had a solid rookie season with 40 catches, 587 yards and three touchdowns, working primarily on the outside.
Meanwhile, receiver T.J. Graham has a lot to prove. Graham hasn't been a special-teams contributor, so he must have a really good preseason to make the roster.
Graham has been a disappointment during his first two years in the league. He came to Buffalo as a 2012 third-round draft pick with blazing track speed and was expected to become the team's primary deep threat. Last year, Graham played the second-most offensive snaps among Bills receivers with 723, or 70.9 percent of the plays, but caught only 23 passes for 361 yards and two touchdowns.
Still, overall, the Bills believe they are improving.
"We're confident as a football team, and I'm extremely confident in the roster we have, so now it comes down to execution," said center Eric Wood. "We have a solid group from top to bottom, with some depth to withstand a full season which is crucial in this league. I'm excited about our roster."
Here is a snapshot of the Bills lineup going into training camp:
--QUARTERBACKS: Starter - EJ Manuel. Backups - Thad Lewis, Jeff Tuel, Dennis Dixon.
--RUNNING BACKS: Starters - C.J. Spiller, FB Frank Summers. Backups - Fred Jackson, Bryce Brown, Anthony Dixon, Ronnie Wingo, FB Evan Rodriquez.
--WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters - Sammy Watkins, Mike Williams. Backups - Robert Woods, Marquise Goodwin, Marcus Easley, T.J. Graham, Kevin Elliott, Chris Hogan, Ramses Barden, Caleb Holley, Cordell Roberson, Chris Summers.
--TIGHT ENDS: Starter - Scott Chandler. Backups - Tony Moeaki, Lee Smith, Mike Caussin, Chris Gragg.
--OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- LT Cordy Glenn, LG Chris Williams, C Eric Wood, RG Kraig Urbik, RT Erik Pears. Backups - G Doug Legursky, T Cyrus Koundjio, OL Antoine McClain, T Chris Hairston, G J.J. 'Unga, G Mark Asper, G Cyril Richardson, T Seantrel Henderson, OL Edawn Coughman, C Macky MacPherson.
--DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- DE Mario Williams, DT Marcell Dareus, DT Kyle Williams, DE Jerry Hughes. Backups -- E Manny Lawson, T Alan Branch, E Jarius Wynn, T Corbin Bryant, T Stefan Charles, L Damien Jackson, DL Bryan Johnson, DL Colby Way, DL Ikponmwosa Igbinosun.
--LINEBACKERS: Starters -- MLB Brandon Spikes, WLB probably open competition between Nigel Bradham and Ty Powell, SLB Keith Rivers. Backups -- WLB Nigel Bradham, MLB Preston Brown, LB Jimmy Gaines, LB Randell Johnson, LB Darrin Kitchins, SLB Ty Powell, LB Jacquies Smith, LB Nathan Williams. Likely on IR: Would-be starting ILB Kiko Alonso.
--DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters -- LCB Stephon Gilmore, RCB Leodis McKelvin, FS Aaron Williams, SS Da'Norris Searcy. Backups -- CB Ron Brooks, CB Nickell Robey, CB Deon Broomfield, CB Mario Butler, CB Michael Carter, CB Ross Cockrell, CB-FS Corey Graham, CB Darius Robinson, CB Brandon Smith, FS Duke Williams, SS Jonathan Meeks, S Derek Brim, S Kenny Ladler, S Jajuan Harley.
--SPECIAL TEAMS: K Dan Carpenter, P Brian Moorman, LS Garrison Sanborn, PR Leodis McKelvin, KOR Marquise Goodwin, K Dustin Hopkins, P Jake Dombrowski
By The Sports Xchange
Publish Date: July 14, 2014 12:27:21 AM
NFL Camp Preview: Nobody safe, Bills need big year
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