Bills: 5 Training Camp Battles to Watch

Just a few weeks before camp opens, I will be identifying five of the biggest battles to watch in training camp this season. An honorable mention goes to the Left Guard and Punter battles.

1. Byrd’s Contract

Who:

Eugene Parker (Byrd) vs. Doug Whaley (Bills)

Analysis:

Heading into camp, this is by far the most popular development on the Bills front. Since reports are suggesting the Bills and Byrd had very little dialogue; Whaley must be preparing to let Byrd play out his one-year tender, and potentially try to hammer out a contract once the season is over. This is a risky situation though, as most players become disgruntled under the franchise tag due to the risk of injury, as well as a lack of long-term financial stability. Though Byrd is expected to sign his franchise tag and report to camp, it is speculated that he may be preparing himself to hold out through camp for a new contract. This is nothing new for agent Eugene Parker, who usually encourages his clients play hardball to get their maximum value. If this were to happen, it could get very bad in a hurry. The Bills are installing a brand new hybrid defense under Pettine that Byrd is expected to excel in, however, if Byrd is unable to prepare himself he may take a few weeks to get back in the loop once the season starts.

Prediction:

Doug Whaley was in Pittsburgh and oversaw Troy Polamalu develop into a future hall of fame safety. If there is any general manager that knows the value of having an all-pro safety it is Whaley. With that being considered, there must be quite the gap on the bargaining table from each party. It was reported by Joe Buscgalia at WGR that Byrd wanted to make Eric Weddle or Dashon Goldson money. This is completely reasonable based on the constant inflation in NFL salaries, especially with Byrd having, in my opinion, more value than both Weddle and Goldson (Byrd is younger than both entering his contract season, as well as being arguably a more valuable safety in terms of value to the team and on field production). However, there might be more to this story that no one has touched on yet. While Byrd may be content with roughly 40-43 million with 20 guaranteed, he may not want that contract from Buffalo. Byrd could very well be asking for 9-10 million a year with astronomical guaranteed numbers to stay in Buffalo, however, would be content with making “Weddle or Goldson money” playing for a contender. What fans fail to realize is that Byrd has no ties to the Bills other than spending his last four seasons there. Byrd could secretly have been waiting for free agency since he was drafted in order to finally play in a more desirable location, or for a much better club. I don’t believe a solution is in the near future, but I do believe it would be in Byrd’s best interest to report to camp, have a productive season, and increase his already enormous value.

2. Starting Quarterback 

Who:

EJ Manuel vs. Kevin Kolb

Analysis:

Easily the most popular position battle going into camp; Buffalo’s quarterback battle will be one of the most intriguing competitions in Buffalo since most Bills fans were hoping Brian Brohm would win the 2010 quarterback competition over Fitzpatrick and Edwards (was that ever a good one). While many are expecting Kolb to have the upper hand due to his experience in the league, I would argue that the Bills staff will do everything in their power to help transition EJ to be the week one starter. The reason for this is not strictly for the best opportunity for Buffalo to win, but more so to allow the offense to gel around their future starters. Just like the Redskins with Griffin III last season, Buffalo will look to implement an offense based around the strengths of their franchise signal caller. It would make very little sense to prepare an offense to Kolb’s strengths, when Manuel is fully expected to be the long-term fixture at the position. This slight advantage may be enough to push Manuel into the starting spot, regardless if he is ready or not. Despite what many die-hard Bills fans believe, Buffalo is not expected to push for a playoff spot this season. Though this is never a mindset of the team, it does help the transition to Manuel as no one expects them to compete anyway.

Prediction:

I am going against the grain here, but I expect Manuel to be the week one starting quarterback for Buffalo. Just like Cam Newton in 2011, Manuel will have the flexibility to make big plays in the offense without feeling the pressure from fans and media to win many games and make the playoffs immediately. Despite being “ready” or not, if Marrone feels that Manuel gives the Bills the best chance at winning he would be wise to start him immediately to gain NFL experience. This similar approach worked tremendously for Russell Wilson in Seattle a season ago, which got his jitters out early in his career, and he is now poised to make a serious run at a Super Bowl. While Kolb could make sense if Manuel is not close to being ready, he could potentially struggle to play in the up-tempo system Buffalo is expected to implement.

3. #3 Corner 

Who:

Nickell Robey vs. Crezdon Butler vs. Ron Brooks

Analysis: 

The third cornerback battle in Buffalo began early in minicamps this offseason. Throughout the minicamps, undrafted free agent Nickell Robey was gaining steam by getting plenty of reps with the starters in their three-cornerback packages. Last season, many were very high on Ron Brooks who came from an elite cornerback program in LSU, however, despite his tremendous athletic ability, Brooks was burned often and fell out of favor with the former coaching staff. While Robey and Brooks will fight for the primary “Nickel” roll, Crezdon Butler has a chance to push McKelvin to slot duties and start on the outside. While Buffalo did not re-sign McKelvin to be a third corner, the NFL (and the AFC East especially) has trended towards very dangerous slot receivers who run quick routes, and can stretch the field deep. If Buffalo feels that they are more vulnerable to slot receivers, Pettine could decide to take advantage of McKelvin’s speed and man coverage ability by leaving him to defend the faster slot receivers, and have Crezdon Butler handle the outside.

Prediction:

This is a very tough one. Minicamp depth charts are normally blown far out of proportion, and the camps themselves generally only give fans a glimpse at the shape players are in, and if injured players are progressing. Though all three of these guys had flashes throughout minicamp it really depends on how they react with pads on. If any of these players are a liability in the run game they will most likely be handicapped in this battle. As a shot in the dark I would think Robey has an advantage over the others, as he is said to be a very good open field tackler. However, if McKelvin fails to make plays on the outside (as he did early in his career) it could be Butler’s job to lose.

4. 5th Receiver 

Who:

Kevin Elliott vs. Brandon Kaufman vs. Da’Rick Rogers vs. Marcus Easley

Analysis:

Personally, I find this is the most intriguing position battle going into Bills camp. Buffalo is likely to keep five or six receivers on their roster depending on their contribution to special teams, as well as their overall skillsets. The Bills are expected to keep Stevie Johnson, TJ Graham, Robert Woods, and Marquise Goodwin on their active roster. It is a pretty safe bet that Brad Smith may not be back with the team come September due to his fairly high price tag and low productivity, however, if Marrone is as keen on special teams as Gailey was this may not be the case. If Smith is cut, it will leave Buffalo with four receivers fighting for one, or possibly two final positions. What handicaps this situation further is that Buffalo has tight ends on their roster that can play special teams, and may be kept over a sixth receiver. All of these receivers have the common trait of being big-bodied “physical” players. While Marcus Easley has the veteran advantage, it might not be enough to save him after three years of injuries and poor play. Though he has always displayed immense potential due to his size and speed, Easley could never figure out how to transition to be an NFL receiver. On the other hand, Elliot, Kaufman, and Rogers come in trying to prove their worth as undrafted rookies. Out of these three Kaufman has the real advantage due to his enormous height that may be very useful in goal line situations, as outside of Stevie Johnson, Buffalo does not predict to have any receivers on their active roster over 6’2. Finally, probably the best player of this group is Da’Rick Rogers. Rogers has the skill set of a poor-man’s Dez Bryant, but has never matured to be able to live up to it. If Rogers can finally tap his potential he may not only crack the 53 man roster, but see tons of playing time this season.

Prediction:

While reports on Da’Rick Rogers at OTA’s were not very appealing, I believe if he stays out of trouble, Buffalo will have a hard time parting with Rogers before the season. Rogers is too much of a physical talent to be able to stash on a practice squad (unlike the others), and I highly doubt Buffalo would take that risk with such a weak receiving corps. Further, in the minicamp footage this spring, Manuel seemed to have a very strong connection with Rogers. If the Bills decide to keep six receivers (assuming Brad Smith is cut as well), I would say that Brandon Kaufman could be kept purely on size. While goal line receivers are a dying breed in the NFL due to their lack of athleticism and versatility, Buffalo may have a hard time in the red zone if they are forced to throw jump balls to Rogers or Johnson on the outside. If Rogers and Kaufman can show any sort of ability on special teams, they will each have a strong case to make the final roster.

5. Kicker 

Who:

Rian Lindell vs. Dustin Hopkins

Analysis:

Lindell has been Buffalo’s kicker since 2003 and has yet to face a real competition for his kicking duties. While Buffalo drafted John Potter in the 7th round last season, he was no more than a kickoff specialist who Buffalo hoped could help their defense with plenty of touchbacks. Lindell ended up fighting off another kicker and did fairly well last season. Lindell has always been very reliable for short accurate kicks; however, he does not possess a strong enough leg to really make a difference late in the season. Since 2003, Buffalo really hasn’t challenged for the post season, so it has been very overlooked. This season, Buffalo drafted Dustin Hopkins who is considered to be one of the best kicking prospects in some time. Hopkins is known to have both a strong and accurate leg, and was also a very clutch kicker for the Seminoles. Hopkins is predicted to make a seamless transition to the NFL, however, Lindell has proven in the past that he is very difficult to beat out in competition.

Prediction:

For the first time since 2002, I believe Buffalo will go into the 2013 season with a new kicker. This isn’t a knock on Lindell, who has been extremely dependable, but it shows a new era in Buffalo. Last season, Buffalo decided to part ways with Brian Moorman, which was a big shock to most fans. This year, Buffalo will look to do the same with their veteran kicker. The reason for the switch will be the same reason Buffalo was very high on EJ Manuel; in very poor weather conditions a strong arm (in this case leg) is a necessity. If Hopkins can display the 55+ yard leg he showed in Florida State’s win over Clemson last season he should be primed for a starting gig in his rookie season.