|The Bills are counting on T.J. Graham to be their deep threat. (Getty Images)|
This year's visit to Bills camp was a lot different than stops over the past five years.
This summer, there are realistic expectations that a wild-card berth into the playoffs is attainable. General manager Buddy Nix has done a nice job of putting difference makers on the roster and fortifying the depth.
"This year we are going to cut a few good football players, which is a good problem to finally have," Nix said.
I don't think the Bills are yet on par with the Patriots, but they have drawn even with the Jets. As with every team there are questions that have to be answered in camp, which I address below.
1. Can the Bills develop a deep passing game?
Under Chan Gailey's direction, the Bills love to throw and have become proficient at the no-huddle, underneath game. Ryan Fitzpatrick realizes they must add an outside deep threat to keep teams from packing in the underneath zones, which led to many of his 23 interceptions last season. T.J. Graham can fly (100-meter time of 10.2 seconds, 20.6 in the 200) and was drafted to be that threat. But he needs to learn to separate from the press coverage his defensive teammates have been using on him. He can beat the tight coverage but not in time to get deep. As he progresses in his route running the next issue is getting him the ball. Fitzpatrick is very good at the quick release and accurate in the short game but needs to keep working on the deep game. Keep your eyes on preseason games, especially when David Nelson and Scott Chandler are working the middle of the field and the safeties start creeping down on the intermediate routes, leaving a corner on Graham. The deep game is there for the taking but time will tell if the Bills can take it.
|Bills preseason coverage|
|NFL coverage on the go|
2. Will the Bills be able to rush the passer without blitzing?
Dave Wannstedt is the new defensive coordinator and he likes to get after opposing quarterbacks without blitzing, if at all possible. Mario Williams is playing on the left side and will see slide protection all the time. Right tackles can't handle him. Mark Anderson is on the right side and looked very explosive at practice. He will be single blocked by the left tackle and should be a 12-sack player this year opposite Williams. The real impressive part of the front four is the inside rushers. Marcel Dareus and Kyle Williams can both beat guards on their way to the QB. As Williams pointed out, "One of us is getting a single block inside and we have to win and I think we can." The second defensive line is also impressive, led by Shawne Merriman, who looks like he has regained his quickness. Gailey said he's looking for 15-20 good plays a game out of Merriman, and I see him being a bigger factor this season than last. The Bills worked on their blitz package while I watched practice but it will be a changeup, not the base."Once you go down the road of being a blitz team there's no turning back and the good quarterbacks either see it coming or they just spread you out and eliminate most of the pressure calls," Wannstedt said. I think the Bills' front four is good for 35 sacks this year.
3. Will the rookies be ready for the opener?
Like every team, the Bills need immediate rookie impacts. Cordy Glenn has to win the left tackle job and Stephon Gilmore must be the lockdown corner this team doesn't have right now. After practice, I say Gilmore is close to being ready for the job. After interviewing him, I am more convinced. Gilmore is quietly confident, not overwhelmed by the pace of installation of the defense and enjoys the daily challenge of covering Steve Johnson. Glenn is in a battle with Chris Hairston. Glenn must win if the Bills are going to improve their offensive line. Keep in mind Buffalo likes the silent count out of the no huddle, which puts stress on the young tackle. When I watched him in one-on-one blocking drills he showed the ability to dominate defenders. I think both rookies will be ready for Week 1.
4. Who are the receivers besides Johnson?
Gailey said everyone asks him who the No. 2 wide receiver is. He keeps answering, "We know who the No. 1 guy is and the rest of the guys will take turns being the No. 2 man." The Bills love three- and four-wide receiver sets and Fitzpatrick is very capable of reading the coverage and going to the right man. Nelson will play a key role as a hybrid receiver that some teams might treat as a tight end because of his size and willingness to block. Donald Jones will be on the field a lot and some in the organization believe Marcus Easley can compete for a spot if he stays healthy. What's really interesting is how the Bills use their running backs as receivers. At times, Fred Jackson or C.J. Spiller will be the No. 2 receiver.
5. Can the defense match up with the spread offenses they face?
The Bills' nickel defense means linebackers Kirk Morrison and Kelvin Sheppard leave and safety Bryan Scott enters at linebacker with either cornerback Terrence McGee or Leodis McKelvin. Some opponents will look at this adjustment as a dime defense with six defensive backs on the field and look to run the ball occasionally. The Bills' offense checked to the run a few times in practice against this personnel group and had some real success. The Bills had a few nice adjustments when the offense emptied the backfield and built 3 by 2 sets with no running backs. Mark Anderson is capable of standing up and being a "spinner" -- either drop into coverage, which he did well or rush from a standup position. I like the combinations Buffalo has to defend on third down.