After another long offseason that included a coaching change and a new general manager, on Thursday night at 5:30 pm, the Buffalo Bills will have officially started their first practice of the 2017 season. And with the start of training camp at St. John Fisher College, the Bills have to find an identity for themselves with a brand new head coach. Many times, when there is a complete change of the two major decision-making positions on a football team, it takes some time for all that they want — and the types of players that they want — to be established.
As training camp is set to begin, my five things to watch for this year’s version of the Buffalo Bills:
1) Tyrod Taylor’s progress
- To me, this is undoubtedly the top storyline of the entire season because it means the most not only to the upcoming season, but it could easily shape how the Bills approach building their roster moving forward. There isn't a bigger linchpin to the Buffalo Bills operation than Tyrod Taylor. If he has a great season and shows a substantial amount of progress, perhaps the Bills look at him as the quarterback they’ve been looking for. However, we have seen Taylor level off a bit for how many strides we saw him make in 2015 — his first season of starting. The biggest difference between 2016 and 2017, quite obviously, is having a new offensive system in place with coordinator Rick Dennison. It’s a system that has been in place in the NFL for years on end with Gary Kubiak and Dennison, and it gets the quarterbacks rolling out of the pocket a fair bit — which is a strong suit of Taylor’s game. After watching him extensively and reviewing his games over the last two seasons, the one commonality is how much more natural and confident Taylor appears when looking to throw the ball on the run, as opposed to being in the pocket. Inside the pocket, Taylor appears a little stiffer and robotic, but when he escapes he has a great ability for seeing the entire field and keeping his eyes down the field without panicking. That said, Taylor will need to show he has a better sense of the pocket to likely get a longer look in Buffalo — because that’s what GM Brandon Beane has mentioned repeatedly as to what he looks for in a franchise quarterback. If things go awry this season, or if Taylor performs similarly to what he has done the past two years, I’d expect the Bills to do everything they can to get into position to address the quarterback position in a significant way next offseason.
2) Watkins and his injury
- Going along the lines of the Tyrod Taylor question, the other factor you can’t rule out is that for a long stretch in 2016, the quarterback was throwing to non-starting caliber players on a weekly basis. That’s where Sammy Watkins comes into play, and it finally seems like the former fourth overall pick is getting close to being fully healthy. He progressed throughout the offseason to the point that he actually participated in team drills near the end of minicamp in mid-June. With another month-plus of rest, Watkins conceivably should be close to a full return. If the Bills get a completely healthy Watkins, that is a potential game-changing addition to a team that sorely needs a bonafide starting receiver to help the offense out. It will still be a run-heavy offense, but adding a game-breaking talent like Watkins — as he showed in the second half of the 2015 season — would be worth its weight in gold.
3) Four big battles for starting jobs
- Of course, there will be battles to be main backups throughout the roster, but there are four starting positions up for grabs by my count — now that it seems rookie Tre’Davious White has locked down one of the two starting cornerback jobs (for now, anyway) following a strong offseason. We’ll start on offense, which has three of the four jobs up for grabs. If Sammy Watkins is healthy, the starting wide receiver job opposite him will come down to two main competitors: rookie Zay Jones and veteran Andre Holmes. While there are some other players that could factor in (see: Philly Brown), I believe these are the two that have the best chance to claim that starting job. Holmes came on strong as the offseason went on, and turned himself into basically an every down first-team player by the end of the spring. After getting through his injury, the young Jones worked into some first-team work as well. These two will be compared as camp goes along. For the other two starting spots up for grabs, both are on the right side of the offensive line. We’ve long known about the battle for right tackle between rookie Dion Dawkins and veteran Jordan Mills, but at right guard, it was rather unexpected for John Miller to face some competition. Lo and behold, at minicamp, free agent signing Vlad Ducasse was taking some reps at right guard. Both jobs will be interesting to track in the beginning stages of training camp. On the defensive side, the biggest job up for grabs is at middle linebacker — and it’s between two players that were slated to start next to one another last year: Preston Brown and Reggie Ragland. Given the fact that Ragland has three years left on his deal and Brown is in his contract year, I would tend to think Ragland — if healthy — would be given the edge in the event of a tie. However, Sean McDermott will play whoever performs the best this summer, so Brown has a solid chance at the job. Ragland is a little bit quicker than Brown, so perhaps that will also give him an edge at the starting gig.
4) The lack of depth, will it be an issue?
- With the exception of a couple of positions, the Bills are mostly a top-heavy roster. While they have starting players that deserve to be in those positions, on paper at least, it seems there is a dramatic drop-off in the event of an injury. Look right down the line, there are legitimate questions about the depth at quarterback, running back, tight end, wide receiver, defensive end, defensive tackle, linebacker, and safety. This puts them in a great position to find out about their young players to see if there’s anything more there than what was initially thought of. However, if they don’t have players that step up during the summer, that puts them at a tremendous disadvantage in the event of injuries. Really, I’d expect the Bills to comb the waiver wires as teams begin to cut players from their roster to try and address the poor depth at all the positions that I listed.
5) McDermott’s first camp
- With a new head coach, it’s a brand new operating system for the Buffalo Bills at training camp. What will the changes be like for the players? We know one thing: the majority of the practice this summer will be much earlier in the morning than what we grew accustomed to with Rex Ryan. It’s also incredibly important to McDermott, based on the way he’s talked, to establish accountability within the locker room and to try and make a “culture” change, whether you believe in the idea of that or not. One thing I’m really looking forward to learning is how those attempts by the new head coach differ from what the Bills did the last two years.