Training Camp Battles: Who to Watch

Marcus Easley has been one of the most talked about camp players for two years, can he do it again? Photo: USPresswire

By BBD Bills Reporter: Eric Samulski

With training camp set to open later this week we wanted to look back at some of positional battles from earlier this offseason along with add on some extra battles that we didnt have time to post earlier. You’ll see that we had a positional battle that many are not considering with a few of our transitional defenders. As we move from a 34 to a 43 we targeted three players that while given new positions are not great fits and we wonder about their possible role in the new defense.

Back-up QB

Vince Young/ Tyler Thigpen

The Bills front office would have you believe that the quarterback position is the most secure position on the entire roster. It’s Ryan Fitzpatrick’s job plain and simple. If only that were true, we would all approach Sundays with a little more confidence. Fitzpatrick may well be the clear-cut starter, but he has failed to put the stranglehold on the job that Nix and Gailey so desperately want him to. After battling injuries and inconsistently, Fitzpatrick hasn’t proven he’s more than an average starting quarterback.

Enter Vince Young. Everybody at One Bills Drive claims that Young was signed to be the back-up and while I am sure this is their intention, even minor struggles from Fitz will have fans suggesting that Young might be a better option. However, what this signing does guaranteed is that the back-up job is Vince Young’s to lose.

So where does that leave Tyler Thigpen? The third-string quarterback job is usually reserved for projects that a team is intrigued with and warrant a roster spot. Also don’t forget to factor Brad Smith into the equation. The Wildcat specialist is listed as a QB/WR on the roster, and the Bills used him as their third quarterback on many occasions last year. While he was not successful in 2011, the Bills paid a pretty penny to sign him and are blaming his lack of effectiveness on not having a full off-season with the team. I just don’t see how he’s going anywhere. Thigpen, and his salary, are a good bet to be released.

Third- String RB

Johnny White/ Tashard Choice

CJ Spiller and Fred Jackson are locked in as the number one and two runningbacks on the Bills roster. With the Bills also a lock to carry fullback, and special teams ace, Corey McIntyre, it seems likely that only one other back will make the roster.

Logic seems to be on the side of Johnny White. He’s only in his second year in the NFL after being the Bills 5th round pick in 2011. He runs hard and showed some skills in 2011 pre-season action. Meanwhile, Choice has failed to impress consistently with the three teams he’s spent time with during his five-year career and only averaged three yards a carry serving as Spiller’s back-up towards the end of last season.

However, the Bills brought him back, and I think no small part of that is the relationship that Choice has with Gailey from their days at Georgia Tech together. Gailey seems to think highly of Choice, and I think that will enable him to win out over White.

5th and 6th WR

Marcus Easley/ Naaman Roosevelt/ Derek Hagan/ David Clowney/ Ruvell Martin

Stevie Johnson, Donald Jones, David Nelson and rookie TJ Graham are locks to make the Bills in 2012. With the Bills likely to carry six WRs, and Brad Smith as a seventh and third-string QB, only two members of this list will likely suit up for opening day.

The guy with the leg up right now is Easley. He was touted as the steal of the 2010 draft, but has missed the last two seasons with various injuries, most recently a heart condition that is always a scary thing for an athlete to deal with. Nix is high on his size/speed combo and, if he can prove he is healthy, he brings a play-making element that the Bills WR corps didn’t have last season.

That would leave one spot for the remaining four names. Clowney was signed in the off-season due to his speed, but the recovery of Easley and signing of Graham would limit the need for another deep threat, which would hurt his chances. Ruvell Martin has had multiple chances on the Bills roster and failed to deliver much in the way of production, so I think this really comes down to a battle between Roosevelt and Hagan.

Roosevelt out-performed Hagan last year, however, he did receive more opportunities. Roosevelt is a strong route-runner with solid hands, but barely checks in at six feet. Hagan was a high-upside draft pick in 2006 for Miami, but has failed to put it together at the NFL level. He showed flashes of making his speed work for him last year, and I think he comes into camp as the favorite because of the game-breaking ability that Nix loves to talk about and Roosevelt doesn’t possess. If he shows up consistently during the offseason, he could slide into the last wide receiver spot.

Back-up TE

Dorin Dickerson/ Fendi Onobun/ Mike Caussin/ Lee Smith

This will be one of the least-watched battles in camp, but it’s one that I find very intriguing. The Bills have a solid, but plodding receiver in Scott Chandler, and two strong blocking tight-ends in Lee Smith and Mike Caussin. I think the Bills would like to find a more athletic receiving target, which is where Onobun and Dickerson come into the picture.

Dickerson was a tweener H-back at Pittsburgh who has incredible athleticism but might not have the size to compete in the NFL. Onobun meanwhile is 6’6” 260 and has intriguing athletic ability as a former basketball player that he has been unable to harness. Gailey has always loved to create mis-matches with his offense, and he would love for Onobun to start to put the pieces together. However, I simply don’t see him being enough of a football player. Dickerson can add some interesting wrinkles lining up in the backfield and can be a sort of Aaron Hernandez-lite, which is why I think he makes the team.

Dickerson making the team means that the Bills will need a strong blocking TE to help Chandler. Lee Smith was one of my favorite blocking TEs coming out of Marshall two years ago. He was even drafted by the Patriots as an offensive tackle, so I think he can take that job from Caussin.

Back-up Center

Colin Brown/ Mark Asper

With Eric Wood missing significant time again with a leg injury, the Bills found themselves using Urbik at center, with sub-par results. When Wood was out, the production of the entire line suffered from the re-shuffling. I don’t see the Bills allowing that to happen again this year. Brown is a massive man at 6’7” 326 pounds, and he’s currently running with the Bills first unit at OTAs, but he’s yet to prove a consistent prospect at the center position. Meanwhile, the Bills drafted Mark Asper, another 6’7” behemoth and immediately converted him from guard to center. The simple fact that they would draft a player with almost identical measurables to Brown and then have them compete suggests a lack of confidence in the returner. If Asper can pick up the offense quickly, he could steal the roster spot.

Right Tackle

Erik Pears/ Zebrie Sanders/ Chris Hairston

Erik Pears was a solid find for the Bills at right tackle last year and was re-signed to an affordable contract this offseason. However, he wasn’t given enough money to guarantee a starting spot. If Cordy Glenn entrenches himself at left tackle, that will free up Chris Hairston, who was impressive as a rookie to move to a spot many people, myself included, think is a more natural fit. In fact, with Pears recovering from sports hernia surgery, Hairston has gotten the first crack at the RT job during OTAs.

This is all without mentioning Zebrie Sanders, a former projected first-rounder who fell into the 5th round and has incredible versatility on the line. One of these three men will undoubtedly line-up at right tackle come week one, and I think it’s truly a battle between Hairston and Pears. If Glenn looks good on the blind side, don’t be surprised to see Hairston line up as his bookend.

Right Guard

Kraig Urbik/ Chad Rinehart

Urbik was another good find for Nix, picking up the former third round cast-off and slowly easing him into the system. He proved versatile when Eric Wood got injured, but that also opened the door for Rinehart to step into the starting lineup and produce. Nix famously benched Levitre last pre-season and replaced him with Rinehart, ostensibly as a motivation tactic, but also because he loves Rinehart’s physicality. By the end of camp, one of these men will be the right guard and the other will provide some solid depth.

Defensive Tackle

Jay Ross/ Torrell Troup/ Kellen Heard/ Jarron Gilbert/ Alex Carrington

With the switch to the 4-3, the Bills defensive line has shifted around considerably. Marcel Dareus, and Alex Carrington have both permanently moved to defensive tackle, alongside Kyle Williams. The bad news for this group is that, with Kyle Williams out, Dwan Edwards as been working out at DT alongside Dareus. If the Bills think Edwards can make it as a 4-3 DT, there would only be one or two spots maximum for the players on this list.

Carrington seems the sure bet to grab one of the spots as a former 3rd round pick who played in a 4-3 scheme in college, but he’s been working out with the 3rd team so far during the offseason. In fact, Carrington played a lot of DE in college, so the Bills listing him at DT means this will be his third position switch in as many years: 3-4 DE, 3-4 OLB and now DT. It’s not exactly the ideal situation for a young player, but if he can’t make the move, he might be done in Buffalo.

Troup has been getting a lot of media attention as the former second round pick tries to come back from nagging back troubles. If healthy, he has the inside track given his draft status and his familiarity with the 4-3 at UCF. He has a quick first step and could be a disruptive force, but back injuries are always a concern.

Ross and Gilbert are both new Buffalo Bills who pack impressive athleticism into a big body. Gilbert is famous for a YouTube video that shows him jumping out of the pool. However, neither man has really put together consistent production at the NFL level to raise their status to anything more than “intriguing.” Meanwhile, Heard is a big body that has been a mainstay with the Bills as a back-up NT. If he is able to successfully fill a need in the 4-3 system he could beat out Ross or Gilbert.

In order for any one of those three men to win a spot on the final 53-man roster, they are going to need to show consistent ability or there’s a chance they all could be gone.

Position Unknown

Spencer Johnson/ Alex Carrington / Danny Batten

Three men who might be the least happy about the move to a 4-3. Carrington and Johnson are both big defensive ends, who were perfect fits as a 5 tech, but need to find a home in the new system. Dwan Edwards has almost exclusively played in a 3-4, coming over from Baltimore, but, as mentioned earlier, he has been working out alongside Dareus at DT early in camp, so all intentions are that the Bills plan to acclimate him to the 4-3. That means that Johnson and Carrington might be left to battle it out as the Bills hybrid DE/DT for when they move to 3-4 sets. I can’t see Buffalo carrying more than two big, hybrid lineman, regardless of the fact that they claim they will also implement some 3-4 schemes, so realistically only one of those two men will join Edwards as the versatile defensive line option.

Batten is included in this group for his hybrid status. With the Bills almost a lock to keep: Dareus, K. Williams, Edwards, M. Williams, Anderson, Merriman and Kelsay, there simply aren’t a great deal of defensive line spots to go around. If Batten proves he can handle himself as a 4-3 DE, or if Merriman gets hurt, then Nix may keep him to also utilize him as a 3-4 OLB in certain schemes. But the Bills can only keep so many scheme versatile fringe players with seven linemen locked into roster spots.

Inside Linebacker

Chris White/ Scott McKillop

Only one year into his career and it seems as though White is ticketed for a reserve/special-teams role. However, it was a role that he played very well last year. At 6’3” 240, he’s a good size to play any of the three linebacker positions, but with Tank Carder drafted to be a versatile linebacker and special teams demon, White may have seen his roster spot slip away. Especially since McKillop was brought in specifically because of his connections to Wanny and his familiarity with the system. On the current roster, McKillop is the only back-up ILB listed behind Sheppard, which might give him a leg-up. However, if Carder proves that he can handle back-up ILB duties then the Bills may choose to let both guys go or keep the player who proves more valuable on special teams.

Outside Linebacker

Nigel Bradham/ Kirk Morrison

Kirk Morrison loved the move to a 4-3. He talked as though it assured him a spot at outside linebacker. Then the Bills drafted Bradham. Morrison will surely get his chance to battle for the spot, but don’t count out Bradham winning it from him in camp. The Florida State product moves well and hits like a truck. His play-calling instincts held him back a little as an inside linebacker in college, but with the move outside he’s free to run and hit a bit more, which fits in perfectly with his strengths.

Sub Package Corner Back

Justin Rodgers/Ron Brooks/Leodis McKelvin/ Terrence McGee

With the release of Drayton Florence, I’m pretty certain that each of these players will snag a roster spot on the Bills (unless Prince Miller comes out of nowhere). However, who wins which spot is completely up for grabs. Despite the fact that McKelvin is currently running with the starters at OTAs, the Bills would love to start Stephon Gilmore across from Aaron Williams, and likely will. That means McKelvin will move into a sub package battle that Justin Rodgers is currently flourishing in.

Rodgers proved to be a solid late-round find as a sub-package player last year and has come out of the gate hot this off-season. The Bills are also really high on Brooks, who has the capability to make big plays. Terrence McGee will likely see time at one of those spots, if his knees hold up, but that’s anything but a given, and with Spiller likely to get more carries, the Bills could use McKelvin more as a return specialist than corner. He has decent cover skills, and if he ever learns to make a play on the ball, he could be a valuable defender.

Another possibility to look out for if McKelvin doesn’t hold onto the starting spot is that he or McGee go back on the trading block. The Bills love taking a chance on young, unproven CBs as depth and McKelvin and McGee (if healthy) are notable enough to attract some attention. The Bills may choose to go that route if Brooks performs rather than keep two highly paid players as 5th or 6th cornerbacks.

Strong Safety

Da’Norris Searcy/ George Wilson

Safety actually might be the most cut and dry position on the Bills roster. Byrd, Wilson, Searcy, and Scott all seem a lock to make the team. Josh Nesbitt may prove valuable enough for a practice squad place because of his athleticism and size, but I can’t see him competing for the final 53. So really, the only competition is whether or not Searcy can build off a solid rookie campaign to unseat Wilson. Eight years younger, Searcy is the quicker player and can make more plays in run support, but Wilson is simply one of those veterans who just get the job done. With the Bills in a pass-happy conference, it’s easy to assume that Wilson will win out, but it’s no certainty.

Special Teams

Moorman/ Powell

Lindell/ Potter

The Bills actually have some special teams battles this season. Porter seems a lock to make the team as a kickoff specialist with Nix preaching the value of field position. Truthfully, if the kid can put it in the end zone every time then there is no reason why the job shouldn’t be his; it keeps special teams players fresh and pins opposing offenses deep in their own territory.

The other battle features another talented rookie in Powell. The Florida State product was the nation’s leading punter and, at 36, Moorman is certainly not getting any younger. However, he did average 48.2 yards on his punts last year and keep twenty inside the twenty yard mark, so I think it’s going to be hard for the Bills to cut him loose.

Make sure you keep it locked here at BBD as bring you all the camp updates and news from our Bills camp reporter starting later this week!

Tags: Buffalo Bills, Training Camp

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