Training camp begins Sunday for the Buffalo Bills, and so will the process of filtering the team’s roster from 90 men down to 53. While they still have more than a month before they’ll actually have to make any cuts, the evaluation of how players fit the Bills and which players belong on the regular-season roster will begin immediately.
The competition of camp, however, isn’t limited only to those who need to prove themselves to make the roster. On a team that has no shortage of young talent but few established stars, just about everyone still has something to prove yet also has an opportunity to push their way up the depth chart this summer.
As camp rolls along into the preseason, it will become more clear which players are set for bigger roles in 2014, and which players might be falling out of favor this season. But as we get set for the Bills 2014 season to begin, the Buffalo Bills Draft editorial team has ranked the roster from top to bottom.
Note: The players ranked here reflect the players who were on the Buffalo Bills’ 90-man roster as of July 19, including players who were on injury/illness designations.
1. Mario Williams, DE
2. Kyle Williams, DT
All three members of our editorial team agreed that the two defensive linemen surnamed Williams are the two best players on the Bills going into 2014. Mario Williams, one of the NFL’s premier pass-rushing talents, is coming off a 13-sack season in 2013. Kyle Williams, a penetrating defensive tackle who excels with both quickness and strength, had 10.5 sacks last year. Their roles will adjust slightly as the Bills shift to yet another defensive scheme under new defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, but what shouldn’t change at all is that both of these players can wreak havoc versus both the pass and the run. They are the staples of Buffalo’s strongest unit and the defense as a whole.
3. Kiko Alonso, MLB (Active/Non-Football Injury)
4. Cordy Glenn, LT (Active/Non-Football Illness)
5. Marcell Dareus, DT (Active/Non-Football Injury)
If you’re already feeling concerned about the upcoming Bills season, it might be in part because of the designations each of these players have been given before training camp begins.
For Alonso, the 2013 PFWA Defensive Rookie of the Year, it’s already known that he “will most likely miss the 2014 season,” in the words of general manager Doug Whaley, with a torn ACL.
For Glenn and Dareus, their pre-camp designations came as more of a surprise, as it is unknown to the public what is ailing each of them. The good news: Either player could be activated at any time during training camp once healthy. Losing either player for any time during the regular season would be a significant loss, though Dareus could also face a suspension from the league for his multiple arrests this offseason.
Key Players with Something to Prove
6. Stephon Gilmore, CB
7. C.J. Spiller, RB
8. Aaron Williams, FS
Gilmore, Spiller and Williams have all shown the abilities to be among the league’s best players at their positions. The 2013 season went disappointingly for both Gilmore and Spiller, as both young standouts battled injuries, but both have star potential if they can return to their 2012 forms and build upon them. Williams, on the other hand, is coming off a career-best season after moving from cornerback to strong safety, but now must prove that he can be the center-fielder of the secondary as he replaces Jairus Byrd at free safety.
9. Jerry Hughes, DE
10. Fred Jackson, RB
11. Leodis McKelvin, CB
12. Eric Wood, C
13. Sammy Watkins, WR
14. Brandon Spikes, MLB
15. Robert Woods, WR
It’s a stretch to classify any of these players as stars, but all of them should play an important role with regular playing time for the Bills in 2014.
Hughes had a terrific season as an edge rusher for the Bills in 2013, and is now set to start opposite Mario Williams at DE. McKelvin is a solid No. 2 corner on the outside who, like Hughes, is coming off a career-best season. Spikes won’t be an every-down player, but is expected start at middle linebacker and play an integral role for the Bills’ run defense in his first season with the team.
Jackson was the most consistent of Buffalo’s skill-position players last season; he could lose some carries to a healthy Spiller and Bryce Brown this year, but should remain a core component of the team’s rushing offense. Watkins, the No. 4 overall pick in this year’s draft, should be an immediate starter along with Woods at wide receiver, while Wood is a solid center anchoring the offensive line.
16. Nickell Robey, CB
17. Scott Chandler, TE
18. Mike Williams, WR
19. EJ Manuel, QB
20. Corey Graham, CB
21. Manny Lawson, DE
22. Kraig Urbik, RG
23. Cyrus Kouandjio, RT
24. Dan Carpenter, K
25. Keith Rivers, SLB
26. Marquise Goodwin, WR
27. Da’Norris Searcy, SS
These players are in position to hold down starting spots or be key rotational players for the Bills, but none of them would be considered among the better half of starters at their position in the NFL (with the possible exception of Carpenter, who is lower on the list due to his position).
Most of these players are expected to be role players and have to compete for their starting jobs, but also fitting in with this group is Manuel, arguably the most important player to Buffalo’s success in 2014. The quarterback barely fits inside the top 20 of the team’s top talents, but as the starting signal-caller for the offense, his development and progression are crucial to Buffalo’s chances of making a playoff run.
Chandler is a solid if not spectacular tight end, while Williams brings size and Goodwin brings speed as complementary options at wide receiver for the Bills. Urbik and Kouandjio are the favorites to start on the right side of Buffalo’s offensive line, though both will face competition in training camp. Rivers is set to start at strongside linebacker while Searcy is the favorite to start at strong safety. Robey and Graham should play important roles in defensive sub-packages as the team’s nickel/dime slot cornerbacks.
28. Nigel Bradham, LB
29. Bryce Brown, RB
30. Alan Branch, DT (Active/Non-Football Illness)
31. Thad Lewis, QB
32. Preston Brown, LB
33. Stefan Charles, DT
34. Duke Williams, S
35. Chris Hairston, OT/G
36. Chris Williams, LG
All of these players are better suited for rotational/backup roles than starting, but any of them could be called into the lineup as necessary. With Alonso sidelined, Bradham and Brown are expected to compete for what would have been his starting spot at weakside linebacker. Chris Williams is the favorite to start at left guard, while Hairston projects as a primary backup at both tackle and guard and could theoretically end up in the starting lineup over Williams, Urbik, Kouandjio or in place of an ill Glenn.
After being acquired in a trade this offseason, Brown is likely to take some carries from Jackson and Spiller in Buffalo’s backfield. Lewis returns to the Bills as Manuel’s primary backup. Branch and Charles should see playing time as rotational defensive tackles, and either one of them could end up starting if Dareus misses time. Duke Williams has a shot to win the Bills’ starting strong safety job.
Back of the Roster
37. Ross Cockrell, CB
38. Ty Powell, LB
39. Cyril Richardson, G
40. Marcus Easley, WR
41. Corbin Bryant, DT
42. Anthony Dixon, RB
43. Chris Hogan, WR
44. Garrison Sanborn, LS
45. Lee Smith, TE
Although none of these players project to see considerable playing time in 2014, all of their roster spots seem relatively safe.
Powell is a sleeper candidate to factor into the competition at weakside linebacker, but should at least remain in the fold as a backup and special teams contributor. Easley and Sanborn are key contributors on special teams. Cockrell and Richardson have promising upside, but the Day 3 draft picks aren’t likely to see the field much as rookies. Dixon, Hogan and Smith provide solid depth and are role players at the skill positions.
Which players are projected to earn the last spots on the Bills’ roster, and who could be left on the outside looking in? See page 2 for players 46-90.