As the calendar moves into July, Buffalo Bills fans can start counting down the days until training camp opens at St. John Fisher College in Rochester, signaling the official start of the NFL season. The Bills head into camp with a lot of hope, but nearly as many questions.
In order to sort through it all here are the top five camp battles that fans should be watching.
5- The Fifth Cornerback- Nickell Robey stepped up last year in the nickel cornerback role, as injuries in the beginning of the season hampered the secondary’s effectiveness. Now, going into his second year, it appears Robey, Leodis McKelvin and Stephon Gilmore are the only locks for playing time. Third year player Ron Brooks is on short leash now that the Bills drafted Ross Crockell in the fourth round and signed free agent Corey Graham and the undrafted Dairus Robinson for extra competition.
So far in the mini camps Graham has been used as both a corner and safety, but he’s almost assured to be the third or fourth guy. So, Brooks comes in as a make or break with Crockell and Robinson as the most likely to push him off the roster. The spot should go to the guy who performs best not only in coverage, but also on special teams.
4- Starting Strongside Linebacker- With free agent signee Keith Rivers signed to a one-year contract it seems like his job should be pretty secured. But the reality is that the cap hit from cutting him is minimum and his competition, third year player Nigel Bradham, is fiercer than most realize.
ProFootballFocus.com recently propped up Bradham as their choice for the Bills’ secret superstar. If he can fully maximize his physical tools there will be no reason for the Bills to keep Rivers outside of depth insurance. Bradham needs to show the coaches he has his head on straight this season in order to make the roster, and that means beating out the incumbent Rivers.
3- The Fifth Wide Receiver- The Bills’ coaching staff kept five receivers out of camp last year. That means after the guaranteed players (Watkins, Woods, Goodwin) it will likely come down to Mike Williams, Rameses Barden, TJ Graham, Marcus Easley and Chris Hogan for the final two spots. Williams seems like a lock, as he is the one with the most upside and shown success in the NFL. Graham, on the other hand, must show he can be consistent in his routes. Barden has suspect hands, but possess length that may be needed, as no receiver is taller than the 6’4” Easley, and that’s been an issue for the team.
No receiver outside of Barden and Easley, possesses a clear height advantage over opposing corners. The Bills kept Easley last year because of his play on special teams, and the decision on who to keep will likely reflect the coaches’ priority of special teams play versus possible playmaking on offense.
2- Starting Strong Safety- Jairus Byrd is no longer with the team, but the Bills prepared for that possibility a year ago, when they drafted two safeties in Duke Williams and Jonathan Meeks. Those two, along with holdover Da’Norris Searcy, will fight for the starting strong safety spot as last year’s surprise standout Aaron Williams will move over to Byrd’s old position. Duke Williams has the most upside of the three, but Searcy holds the most experience. Meeks seems the least likely, and his main focus has to be on special teams in order to make the roster. Searcy is a good tackler and can be a ball-hawk, but he makes a lot of mental errors in coverage. Williams for the most part is unknown as he didn’t see much playing time during the regular season, and will have to try to snatch the job from Searcy early on.
1- Starting Right Tackle- Erik Pears was a potential cut last year, until challenger Chris Hairston went down with a season ending injury. Now this year Pears not only faces a push from Hairston again, but also second round draft pick Cyrus Kouandjio. The Bills zeroed in on their offensive line as a major priority in not only free agency, but also in the draft. Pears is in the final year of his deal so his contract shouldn’t play a role in determining whether he stays or not.
Fans expect Kouandjio to start week one at right tackle, but don’t be surprised of Hairston earns it out of camp. Hairston could be both an upgrade and a stop-gap until Kouandjio is ready for the starters role. The ultimate wildcard in all of this is Seantrel Henderson, the seventh round pick from Miami. Henderson has all the physical tools, but lacks the mental focus and disciple to fully realize his bodily gifts.
The coaches already stated that Henderson is on the “one strike policy,” so challenging for the starters spot appears to be a long shot, at this point. If Kouandjio is healthy and ready he should probably be the starter. In any scenario it’s important that the coaches make a decision on who’s the starter early. That starter will determine the success of not only the running backs (I’ve dubbed the Four Horsemen), but also of second year quarterback EJ Manuel.