BBD Contributor: Brian Krosky
The Buffalo Bills’ 2014 training camp is officially set to begin. On Sunday, the Bills will have their first practice of the summer at St. John Fisher College in Pittsford, N.Y. After a busy offseason in which the Bills rebuilt much of their coaching staff once again, signed free agents and made a splashy trade in the draft, training camp will be a time for Buffalo to answer lingering questions about its 2014 team and prepare for the upcoming season.
1. Progression and growth for EJ Manuel
Now entering his second season, Bills quarterback EJ Manuel needs to improve upon an underwhelming rookie campaign in which he played only ten games and completed just 58.8 percent of his passing attempts.
Good teams have good quarterbacks. The Bills need Manuel to become one. He can’t improve his play unless he is on the field, so he needs to stay healthy after an injury-plagued 2013 season.
Manuel has new and young receivers and a stout offensive line, but needs to be productive himself. He’s had all offseason to get healthy, learn the offense better and improve his mechanics and decision-making, but he needs to show it on the gridiron.
2. Transition to 4-3 defense from 3-4
The Buffalo Bills finished first in the AFC in both sacks (57) and interceptions (23) in 2013. Playing in a 3-4 scheme under new defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, the defense played significantly better and kept the team afloat and competitive despite a struggling offense. Defensive linemen Mario Williams, Jerry Hughes and Kyle Williams each tallied double-digit sacks, while their pressure up front led to many off-target throws into the hands of the secondary.
This offseason, however, Pettine left to become head coach of the Cleveland Browns. The Bills have replaced him with former Detroit Lions head coach Jim Schwartz.
Schwartz ran a 4-3 scheme in Detroit, where had similar personnel to what he has now in Buffalo. Defensive tackles Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus will now both occupy one-gap responsibilities in the middle of the defensive line, much like Nick Fairley and Ndamukong Suh have in Detroit. Hughes recorded just one sack in two seasons as a 4-3 defensive end for the Indianapolis Colts at the start of his career, so despite his excellent 10-sack season last year, there’s a question as to whether he can repeat that success with his hand in the dirt.
If there is one player the Bills can count on to make a smooth transition between defenses, it’s Mario Williams. He has been successful in every defensive scheme he has played in, so the Bills should know they can continue to rely on Williams to produce and raise the level of play from his teammates around him.
3. Who will replace Jairus Byrd at safety?
After five seasons with the Bills, free safety Jarius Byrd bolted for the New Orleans Saints this offseason as they gave him a six-year, $56 million contract while the Bills chose not to use a second consecutive franchise tag on him. Byrd, who has been one of the best defensive backs in the NFL in recent years, will be no easy player to replace in the secondary.
Aaron Williams is a returning starter at one safety spot, but the other starting position is up in the air. As of now the favorite is Da’Norris Searcy, who started seven games this past season when Byrd missed five starts and Williams missed two. He will face competition in camp, however, from second-year safeties Duke Williams and Jonathan Meeks.
Replacing Byrd will not be easy, and trying to find players who can match his production in 2014 might be impossible.
4. Who will replace Kiko Alonso at linebacker?
When you have the reigning Defensive Rookie of the Year on your team, you hope that the position he occupies will be settled for a long time with consistency and production. That’s what the Bills were expecting from Kiko Alonso, who was set to move to outside linebacker in the new 4-3 defense. Alonso, who had 159 tackles along with four interceptions and four pass deflections in his rookie year, was the bright spot on a strong defense in 2013.
However, Alonso tore his ACL earlier this month during a workout in Oregon and is expected to miss the entire 2014 season. The injury leaves a void alongside Brandon Spikes and Keith Rivers at linebacker, so the Bills will have to turn to someone new to take his spot.
The leading candidate to replace Alonso is Preston Brown, a third-round pick from Louisville. The most important thing Brown needs to prove is his ability to defend the pass. Spikes, who came over from the New England Patriots, is a great run stopper but struggles in pass coverage and is likely to only play in the base defense. With the Bills likely to use sub-packages more than they do their base defense, whoever replaces Alonso needs to be adept in coverage. Only time will tell how good Brown can be.
5. How good can Sammy Watkins be as a rookie?
Draft experts, scouts, and general managers drooled over the potential that former Clemson wide receiver Sammy Watkins displayed during draft season. He has great hands, an explosive combination of speed and power, goes up to make plays on the ball and can take a bubble screen to the end zone. Noted as the most complete receiver in the 2014 draft, he has drawn comparisons to some of the NFL’s elite wide receivers, such as Dez Bryant, Julio Jones and AJ Green.
An elite receiver is what the Bills are expecting to get from Watkins, who they selected after surrendering first- and fourth-round picks in next year’s draft to move up to the No. 4 overall pick from the No. 9 spot.
Watkins wouldn’t be the first highly drafted wide receiver to falter due to off-field issues, but he has stayed clean of trouble ever since he was arrested in spring of 2012 for marijuana possession and suspended for two games.
Watkins should immediately step in as the team’s No. 1 wideout, but his role will become more clear in training camp. Also important will be the development of the team’s other pass-catching targets, including Robert Woods, Mike Williams, Scott Chandler and C.J. Spiller, as other options can keep defenses from focusing all of their attention on Watkins and give him more opportunities to get open.