10 Things From Wednesday’s Bills Practice

1. Bills daily camp reminder of Sammy Watkins’ talent

In quarterback to wide receiver drills, Watkins slipped on a post route, stumbled, made his cut inside, and grabbed the ball with one hand. Fans couldn’t see it because it was on a different practice field than the one fans were watching, but WGR 550′s Sal Capaccio captured the sequence on video, and in a snapshot photo as well.

Later in a redzone drill, Watkins also leaped for a pass between safety Aaron Williams and cornerback Leodis McKelvin and still caught the ball for a touchdown from E.J. Manuel. Cornerback Stephon Gilmore already has seen that Watkins has the skills and talent to be a “great wide receiver”, and the two of them playing against each other makes them both better.

“He strong, fast, and quick,” said Gilmore. “He’s going to be a great receiver in this league. I can just see it. I can tell from the other receivers I’ve already guarded playing my first two years.”

“He’s a good player. You can’t take anything from him. He works hard. Like I said, we’re making each other better every day.”

Again, everyone knows about Watkins’ ability, but seeing it on a day-to-day, catch-to-catch basis is something to behold.

2. Marcell Dareus comes back

Dareus trained on the side during practice, including a couple of occasions riding on a treadmill.

The Pro Bowl defensive tackle released a statement this morning through the team:

“After dealing with a personal matter in Alabama, I am excited to return to training camp to rejoin my teammates in our preparations for the 2014 season.

Right now, my focus is on earning the trust of my teammates, coaches and the fans while continuing to improve as a football player. I have a passion for this game and I want to be here to help this organization achieve its goals. There are things I need to work on professionally and personally to make sure I can be accountable to myself, my family, this team and this community.

My focus will remain on achieving that goal one day at a time. I want to thank the Bills organization, coach Marrone and the coaching staff, my teammates and our fans for their continued support.”

3. The road to returning for Dareus and Alan Branch

Both Dareus and Branch were instrumental in an impressive 2013 for the defensive line of the Bills, but both of them being unable to participate to this point due to failed conditioning tests has put their ability to get used to a new defense in time for the regular season in jeopardy. Marrone didn’t give any date after practice for Branch and Dareus taking the conditioning tests that, if they passed, would along him to play alongside his teammates.

Both will have to wait until the weight coaches say they’re ready, according to Marrone.

Cyrus Kouandjio, Move-In Day
Cyrus Kouandjio talking to media at move-in day for Bills

4. Cyrus Kouandjio yet to get first-team reps at right tackle

Kouandjio was a second-round pick out of Alabama that some thought could have been taken in the first round. But he has yet to get snaps with the first-team, with that being a product of both Kouandjio’s youth and inexperience, along with the encouraging performance of incumbent Erik Pears, according to Marrone.

“Cyrus is coming along,” said Marrone. “Again, the closer you are to the ball, the tougher it is to play in this league. I think Erik really feels healthy. He was coming off an injury last year and has really performed well. It’s still going on. Nothing is locked in stone yet. It wouldn’t smart of me to sit here right now and say, ‘Hey this is locked stone, this is locked in stone.’ Everyone has to go out there and prove that they can do it. We’ll see how it goes as camp moves along, but Erik’s done a very good job so far.”

Pears’ success so far could be what is needed to push Kouandjio to put his best foot forward for the right tackle spot, or it could be that Kouandjio’s presence has pushed Pears enough for him to hold on to the job. There are still many practices and five preseason games to decide who will be at right tackle opening day, however, so making any assumptions at the position would be premature.

EJ Manuel training camp

5. Bills’ red-zone struggles

ESPN’s Mike Rodak charted the plays of the Bills’ red-zone offense, a part of the unit that must improve drastically after ranking fourth-worst in the league in efficiency (47.73% rate of possessions resulting in a touchdown):

In Wednesday’s practice, the Bills’ second padded session of training camp, there was a heavy emphasis on the red zone. The results were mixed for the offense.

Robert Woods made the play of the practice, snagging a touchdown pass with one hand in an 11-on-11 drill. Fellow receiver Sammy Watkins also had a leaping touchdown that drew cheers from the smaller crowd in attendance.

There were problems on third downs, however. Here is our log of third-down results from the first-team offense, led by EJ Manuel:

11-on-11, first series: Sack; defense blitzed a safety.
11-on-11, second series: Incompletion to C.J. Spiller; threw hit the ground in front of receiver.
11-on-11, third series: Spiller run.
11-on-11, fourth series: Manuel scramble and throw away.
7-on-7, first series: Incompletion to Woods; pass deflected off Woods’ hands in end zone.

Third downs were also an issue in regular 11-on-11 work, outside of the red zone. Here is our log of those first-team plays:

11-on-11, first series: False start
11-on-11, first series: Completion to Mike Williams, but throw came in behind receiver.
11-on-11, second series: Botched play in backfield; hand-off attempt to Anthony Dixon resulted in fumble.

For Manuel and the offense to truly show that the group is much better than 22nd in points per game at 21.2, this is an area that must improve drastically. The additions of receivers like Watkins and Mike Williams that can make leaping grabs is great, but being able to execute those opportunities has to be a total team effort.

An offensive line that has struggled some in camp with left tackle Cordy Glenn yet to participate due to an undisclosed medical condition has allowed for some early pressure and sacks, especially in red zone situations.

Da'Norris Searcy-training camp
Da’Norris Searcy (#25)

6. Da’ Norris Searcy emergence

Searcy, now in his fourth season and his contract year, has played “extremely well”, according to Marrone. The 5’11”, 216 pound safety is coming off a breakout campaign in 2013, in which he totaled 48 solo tackles, 3.5 sacks, and an interception in 16 games and seven starts.

“He did a very good job for us last year and I thought at times he probably didn’t get enough credit for the plays he made, he made a lot of big plays for us, ” said Marrone. “He’s very solid, he’s very good at what he does, he’s very knowledgeable, he has good instinct. He’s been playing very well, and I’m excited about that. He’s a multi-position player, he can play the back end safety for us, he can play up on the line of scrimmage, he can blitz, he can play man to man, so he gives us a great deal of versatility, and he plays special teams. I’m very happy, and I don’t mean to sound robotic, but he’s a great value for us.”

In a league where the flex tight-end, slot receiver, and pass-catching running back have made it a necessity to have third and even fourth safeties to go to in nickel and dime sub-packages, Searcy could be one of the best in a group that includes New Orleans’ Raphael Bush and New England’s Tavon Wilson. Of course, there’s no guarantee that Johnathan Meeks or Duke Williams or starting at free safety next to Aaron Williams as of yet, so Searcy could also be a starter in this defense as well, although ideally his skills project to a more Swiss-army knife role in terms of lining up all over the defense.

Jeff Tuel standing next to E.J. Manuel
Jeff Tuel standing next to E.J. Manuel

7. Tuel-Lewis competition

Jeff Tuel’s performance this off-season has made what seemed to be a closed case to the quarterback depth chart now suddenly open. Marrone said today that Tuel and Thaddeus Lewis “are definitely in competition” for the backup quarterback spot.

“They’re aware of it,” said Marrone. “They know it. We’ve talk to them about it, so I don’t think it’s a secret. I think it’s a point where you feel that you have gotten enough reps and you feel like there’s separation and you go ahead and make a decision.”

Marrone stated that he’d have to check if Tuel and Lewis had played equally well over the first four practices, but Tuel’s willingness to take chances throwing downfield has put him in the discussion to be one injury away from starting, as last season it was three injuries (Kevin Kolb, E.J. Manuel, Thaddeus) before he got his first career start against the Chiefs. Going from an undrafted free-agent who only threw 8 touchdowns in his senior year at Washington State to a potential back-up quarterback, Tuel has arguably been the best reclamation project of the Doug Marrone era thus far.

8. Up-tempo offense pace

Buffalo’s no-huddle offense resulted in it having the third-most plays of any team in the league (69.8), but Marrone thinks the pace in the first four days is not what he would like it to be.

“No, it needs to be moving a lot faster,” said Marrone. “Obviously we’re installing again, so we’re reinstalling, and in the back of my mind that might tend to slow things down a little bit, but my expectation is to be right on the money with it, so we need to be faster.”

There has definitely been more of Manuel making adjustments with receivers and offensive lineman without a huddle, but new players involved in the offensive and receiver mix certainly has made it difficult to keep everyone operating at the same pace. Though Manuel is only a second-year signal caller, Marrone said is “not concerned about” piling too much onto Manuel or the young receiving corp in terms of the no-huddle offense responsibilities.

“In other words, everyone else needs to make sure they can keep up with the quarterback,” said Marrone.

9. Right guard spot now in competition

WGR’s 550 Joe Buscaglia has the latest on what is happening at right guard, a position that seemed to be locked down before camp with Kraig Urbik as the starter:

Head coach Doug Marrone once again explained the the backup quarterback job is an open competition well, and that opened up the questioning for other positions. At right guard, Urbik has been splitting first-team snaps with Chris Hairston, making many wonder if Urbik’s job was in trouble.

Asked if right guard was “up for grabs,” Marrone’s answer was simple: Yes.

Hairston has been getting time as an interior offensive linemen through three of the first four days of camp (the lone exception was when Seantrel Henderson could not practice and Hairston played left tackle), as well as through the duration of the three-day mandatory minicamp in June. A former offensive tackle at Clemson and then later on with the Bills, the fourth-year player is making his first legitimate move to the inside.

With Cordy Glenn’s absence allowing younger players to work at both tackle spots, Hairston has been given a chance to try a new position, and has ran with the opportunity. Besides Eric Wood at center, assuming Glenn’s absence continues, every other position on the offensive line appears open for competition, which could make players better, but doesn’t necessarily do much for cohesion.

10. “We’re lucky to come into camp early”

That it was what Marrone said in reference to the team’s progressions, also stating that the Bills “have a long way to go”, and that they should be “grateful that we have this head start.”

Marrone maintained that his expectations for performance in practice are “extremely high”, but he doesn’t want his demeanor to be looked as disappointment.

“Every time I come here, there’s a lot of things on my mind that I want to make sure that we get better with,” said Marrone. “I don’t want you to take my demeanor at times as a chance of reflecting on my disappoint, I’m actually very encouraged, when you look at where we were last year to where we are this year, it’s very encouraging, but it’s still not where we want to be at.”

After a pair of practices where the offense had its issues, although Marrone said execution was better today than Tuesday, the excitement of the first two days has been a little tempered. With a day off for the players tomorrow before a walkthrough and night practice on Friday, time to work out the kinks maybe comes at the right time.

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