Buffalo Bills Training Camp Preview: 5 Things To Watch

Players will report to training camp on Friday at St. John Fisher College, beginning practice for the first time in a month.

The second-year of the Doug Marrone regime will be a lot different compared to the first. At this time last July,  there was a quarterback competition, a rookie middle linebacker making a name for himself (Kiko Alonso), and a small, undrafted cornerback that made big plays in his rookie season (Nickell Robey).

E.J. Manuel is now the starter after an up-and-down rookie season, while Alonso is likely out for the season with a Torn ACL, and no one knows who out of the undrafted signees will make the team, much less make an impact this year. With a lot of questions to answer, there is certainly many things to watch for in training camp for Bills fans.

Here are the five biggest things to keep an eye on:


1. E.J. Manuel’s development

Now in his sophomore season, Manuel has done a lot this off-season to improve his game in order to become the signal caller that ends Buffalo’s 14-year playoff drought. Manuel worked out with Colin Kaepernick (via nfl.com’s Kevin Patra), and worked with a quarterback guru to improve his release (via foxsports.com’s Ross Jones).

Manuel talked to NFL network last week about the increase in confidence from last season to now, how he will avoid injuries that cost him six games last season, and how much his coaches have aided his advancement (via buffalobills.com’s Dallas Miller):

On what the biggest difference will be from year one to year two:

EJ Manuel: “I think its overall confidence in myself. Obviously, I have a rapport with my teammates. Having a full offseason with guys who I’m familiar with — I’ve been lucky enough to have the same head coach, the same offensive coordinator, now a new quarterback coach in Coach [Todd] Downing. I’m very excited moving forward to my second year.”

On how much of a different EJ Manuel will be seen this year due to him being healthy:

Manuel: “I think that’s one thing I had to learn was to be smart when I take off with the football. Instead of trying to get an extra three yards, either step out-of-bounds or slide.

Those are all of the nuisances I had to learn. Obviously, I didn’t want to go down with an injury because I’m a competitive player. I go hard each and every time I step on the field. It just so happened that I had to come down with an injury. I moved past it. Thankfully, I am 100 percent healthy right now. I feel like I’m stronger than I was last year, so I’m looking forward to moving on.”

On how the coaches have helped him progress with the learning curve:

Manuel: “They’ve helped tremendously. Coach [Nathaniel] Hackett and Coach [Todd] Downing have been very intricate with my growth as a quarterback. Obviously, it starts with me. You have to put that foot forward. There’s a lot of downtime as far as the offseason — You want to get in your playbook, you want to learn, or you want to go over your protections each and every day. You can’t learn that stuff if you can’t go over it enough. Those are things that I’ve been doing to help our team win. I think those are all building blocks, and it’s just a part of the process as an offense for us to continue to grow.”

Manuel appears to have put in the time and effort to prove he is the Bills’ franchise quarterback. Now it’s time to see the results in camp and preseason camps, especially how he connects with the biggest acquisition for the Bills offense.

NFL: MAY 08 National Football League Draft

2. Sammy Watkins’ on-field relationship with Manuel

Watkins is both the 2014 and 2015 first-round pick for the Bills, arguably the biggest investment in a rookie receiver since the Atlanta Falcons made a similar trade for Julio Jones in the 2011 NFL draft. Watkins admitted in June to NFL Network’s Alex Flanagan that their is still some work to be done in terms of mutual trust in the passing game between he and Manuel:

“It’s not fully there. I mean, we’ve been connecting at minicamp, and OTAs,” Watkins said. “But at the same time, I could be wide open, and if he don’t feel it, or if I run it a different type of way, he won’t throw the ball.

“So it really just got to come with him believing in me. I believe in him. He can throw just about any ball. So it just comes down to … we just need a lot of reps.”

On Tuesday, Pro Bowl center Eric Wood expressed Sirius XM NFL radio that Manuel and Watkins “will definitely get there” in terms of on-field chemistry between quarterback and receiver (via Syracuse.com’s Matthew Fairburn):

“Chemistry is extremely important,” Wood told Sirius XM NFL. “I think EJ and Sammy will definitely get there. They made some plays through the spring that were really eye-opening. I think EJ’s really getting better as a player, and Sammy’s going to be a NFL wide receiver – probably a NFL star - very quickly. He’s got a tremendous work ethic, and his skill set is pretty obvious for those who have watched him play football.”

If the “eye-opening” plays between Manuel and Watkins Wood talks about happen consistently during camp, the two players will help each other reach their potential.

lions coach jim schwartz DZ 350

3. Defensive system adjustments

What isn’t different from last year’s camp is the fact that Buffalo’s defensive players will have to adjust to a new defensive scheme. With Mike Pettine moving on after one year to be the head coach of the Cleveland Browns, Marrone tapped former Detroit Lions head coach Jim Schwartz as the new defensive coordinator.

A defense that was second in the league in both sacks (57) and interceptions (23) will attempt to recreate that success even with the scheme change. Syracuse.com’s Matthew Fairburn explains how a switch from Pettine’s 3-4 to Schwartz’s 4-3 look will impact the way the Bills rush the quarterback in 2014:

1. How will the Bills’ pass rush change under new defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz?

While Pettine’s defense was a blitz-heavy scheme that utilized a lot of 3-4 principles, new defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz can be expected to have the Bills playing a defense that more closely resembles a traditional 4-3.

The roles of the defensive linemen shouldn’t change drastically, and all four of the Bills’ expected starters fit into a 4-3 defense just fine. The question worth asking is whether or not the Bills will be quite as aggressive when it comes to generating pressure under Schwartz, who traditionally hasn’t utilized the blitz as often as Pettine did a year ago.

The entire defense should be able to get used to the new scheme together, with only two absences from last year’s starting eleven. The first was Pro Bowl safety Jairus Byrd, who went to New Orleans in free agency, and the other came out of unfortunate circumstances.

Photo by Ed Runyon

4. Replacing Alonso

Kiko Alonso was third in the league in tackles, had four interceptions, and became a defensive star in the making. But his off-season injury has thrown a wrench into the linebacker core, as Alonso was preparing to move from the inside spot he occupied as a rookie to the weakside position in Schwartz’s 4-3 defense.

But the Buffalo News’ Tim Graham wrote in early July that the team believes a first-year player could step in to play that spot:

The obvious candidates for fans to consider are newcomer Keith Rivers and Nigel Bradham, the third-year pro who started two of the last four games at that spot.

Rivers and Bradham, though, are not who the Bills think can help the most. Sources say they are looking at rookie Preston Brown.

The third-round draft pick from Louisville was outstanding at the team’s voluntary workouts and minicamp. Coaches raved behind the scenes about how well Brown practiced. The front office was thrilled with how he looked and Tuesday night became even more relieved they drafted him after word came about Alonso’s injury.

Brown is versatile. He was a tackling machine at Louisville and is a hefty 260 pounds. But he’s slick enough that the Bills used him as a first-unit nickel linebacker in spring practices.

How Brown performs in drills and scrimmages, along with preseason games, will be key to make his case to receive defensive snaps. If he has the scheme down, he could make his move toward the weakside starting spot, as his youth and speed could be something taken into account more in terms of the linebacker core lineup because of Alonso’s absence in order to replace his play-making and coverage abilities.

cyrus kouandjio

5. Offensive line battle

Buffalo appears to have three of its offensive line positions set in stone, with third-year stud Cordy Glenn at left tackle, Pro Bowler Eric Wood at center, and the solid Kraig Urbik at right guard. However, the front five overall ranked No. 22 in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus’s Khaled Elsayed.

The team added three young offensive linemen in the draft: Second-round pick Cyrus Kouandjio, an offensive tackle from Alabama; fifth-round pick Cyril Richardson, a guard from Baylor; and Seantrel Henderson, an offensive tackle from Miami. The Bills also added guard Chris Williams in free agency, so it appears Buffalo wants to have competition bring out the best for all players battling for the left guard and right tackle spots.

Matthew Fairburn of Syracuse.com wrote on Monday how Kouandjio and Williams could figure into the offensive line this season:

1. How will Cyrus Kouandjio’s knee hold up and is he capable of being a day one starter at right tackle?

Kouandjio was once looked at as a lock for the first round in the 2014 NFL Draft. He’s a massive 6-feet-6-inches tall and 311 pounds, but he moves like a man much smaller. General manager Doug Whaley praised his aggressiveness and toughness following the draft and also noted how much room Kouandjio has to grow.

So why did he fall to the second round? Because his surgically repaired knee reportedly caused him to fail physicals with six teams at the NFL Scouting Combine. Whaley said the Bills’ medical staff was comfortable with the condition of Kouandjio’s knee (he tore his left ACL as a sophomore), but he wasn’t quite the same player as a junior while playing on it.

If his knee holds up, Kouandjio should start for most of the season at right tackle. The Bills are counting on him to upgrade the line, so he’ll be a player to watch throughout the preseason.

2. Can Chris Williams revive his career in Buffalo?

The Bills signed Williams to a four-year, $13.5 million contract this offseason after the former first-round pick was cast aside in Chicago and struggled with the Rams in 2013. Williams started all 16 games and allowed five sacks, eight quarterback hits and 28 quarterback hurries, all among the worst in the league at the guard position.

Bills coach Doug Marrone has an offensive line background, so there is some hope that he can turn Williams around and tap into the potential that made him a first-round pick back in 2008. Still, Williams’ play will be a big question mark heading into the season.

As Fairburn stated, Marrone being an offensive lineman and offensive line coach could mean he will pay extra attention to the young additions made to the front five depth chart overall, something that may be needed to make the Bills’ offensive line go from a near bottom-third group in the league to one that performs among the NFL’s top half.

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