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Joe B: 9 Bills questions heading into training camp

Joe B: 9 Bills questions heading into training camp
Posted at 2:39 PM, Jul 27, 2016
and last updated 2016-07-27 14:43:57-04

With training camp just days away, there are still a plethora of questions to answer before we get to the practice field at St. John Fisher College. As players begin to report to camp on Thursday ahead of their conditioning workouts on Friday morning, what can we expect from the 2016 version of the Bills?

Here are the top remaining questions, and of course, if you missed any of the bigger questions heading into camp, all the links are below. Let's get to it:

1) Is this it for EJ Manuel? 

- Entering the fourth and final year of his rookie contract, former first-round pick EJ Manuel is set to be the backup to Tyrod Taylor in the event of an injury emergency. And with Manuel, unless he's pressed into duty and performs admirably in Taylor's place, I believe it's likely best if the two sides part ways at the end of the year. Unfair expectations were put on a raw, developmental quarterback due to his draft status and injuries during his rookie season, and it's seemed as though Manuel has been swimming upstream since. Known around the locker room as a great teammate and a hard worker, Manuel will have his chance during preseason this year to impress not only the Bills, but future employers in the NFL as well. His NFL story isn't over by any means, he's got enough to work with to land elsewhere. However, as far as the Bills are concerned, 2016 is likely to be the swan song for Manuel.

2) Can Preston Brown return to form?

- Almost as important as the Rex Ryan defensive scheme to work more effectively, the Bills need their starting middle linebacker Preston Brown to be the same player he was in the second-half of his rookie season in 2014. Brown has the ability and the instincts to play at a high level -- we've seen as much. However, he faded into the background for much of the season, and even near the end of the season, was getting covered up by blockers and allowing big gains in the ground game. There is a legitimate question as to whether or not Brown can be an effective player in the 3-4 defensive scheme, and he'll have to prove as much early on this year. If he does not, rookie Reggie Ragland is a more-than-suitable replacement at middle linebacker. However, they have the utmost faith that he can not only do it, but Rob Ryan even went as far as to say Brown would be a "star." We will certainly see, but his instincts in the Ryan's defense and his ability to stack-and-shed must improve.

3) What's going on at right tackle?

- As of right now, it's all Jordan Mills -- and I'm sure that's at least a tad concerning to some of you. It is to me, anyway. In the 2015 season, after I graded out each and every Bills game, Mills graded out as the second-worst performer that had over 150 offensive/defensive snaps on the field. Even through a lack of success, he is the presumed starter at right tackle due to all the questions regarding the players behind him. Third-year player Cyrus Kouandjio has failed to capitalize on chances, and it seems Aaron Kromer appears to favor Mills due to the two working together in Chicago a few years back. As for Seantrel Henderson, there is still no update on his potential playing status after battling Crohn's disease, and that's a major storyline moving forward. So, for now, it's Mills' job to lose, and they're going to need him to be a lot better than he was in his performances last year.

4) Who is the key to unlocking the passing game?

- We all know about Sammy Watkins and the success he had in the second half of the 2015 season, so at this point, he has been fully unlocked. Who is the one player that can bring this passing offense to a much higher level in 2016? Tight end Charles Clay, that's who. The Bills have said all offseason that they want to take advantage of the middle of the field more, and that stands to benefit Clay the most. We saw a glimpse of Clay's potential in the offseason and his athleticism especially in the team's Week Three win over Miami, and only a couple of other times over the course of the rest of the season. In fact, Clay ended up with 4 receptions or less in eight out of his 14 games played, which is well below what was expected of him heading into the year. If Clay can be taken advantage of over the middle of the field enough, that can take pressure off of both Tyrod Taylor and Watkins enough to make the passing attack much more explosive.

5) How big of an impact will Reggie Ragland have?

- With how everything has shaped up this offseason, second-round pick and linebacker Reggie Ragland will have the most playing time of any rookie on the Bills -- barring injury, of course. Ragland will be a three-down linebacker, playing the role of weakside inside linebacker, and with his playing history at Alabama, he'll more than likely dabble as a blitzing option for Rex Ryan's defensive scheme. The impact, no matter if it's a positive or negative one, will be humongous to the defense. If he hits as well as the Bills believe he will, that's an impact defender they've added to the front seven to help them get back to what they were in 2014. If he doesn't and struggles in coverage, the Bills' troubles with limiting opposing tight ends will only continue. Ragland seems to have all the tools to be a success in Rex Ryan's defense. In fact, I'd argue Ragland is the lesser of risks between the two starting inside linebackers. That said, it's all up to him to make a humongous impact, and potentially take the Bills defense to much higher level than they were at last year.

6) Will LeSean McCoy return to his Philly form?

- Considering the fact that the Bills ran the ball 52.3-percent of the time in 2015, they had the most rushing yards in the NFL, and were second in the league in total rushing attempts, it's pretty safe to say the running game is vital to the team's success in 2016. And with the latest news about backup running back Karlos Williams, it's even more important that LeSean McCoy return to the form he displayed on occasion in the 2015 season, and more consistently during his time with the Philadelphia Eagles. Just when it seemed like McCoy was getting back to the reason that the Bills traded for him in the first place, an injury of some sort popped up. As a result, McCoy ended the season with only 895 yards, the third-lowest total of his seven-year career. At 28 years old, a player with McCoy's running style likely only has one-to-three years more of full efficiency as a speed threat. The good news? The running back showed he still had that same, exciting style of play at certain points throughout the year. They need to be careful with him at training camp, and then perhaps not put a huge workload on him once the regular season comes around.

7) Who will return kicks and punts?

- With the 2016 version of the Bills, nothing has been decided at either of the two return positions. At punt returner, the Bills used Javier Arenas, Greg Salas, and Walt Powell there during OTAs and minicamp, but that likely isn't just the extent of it. As long as they can both participate in practice, I would expect the two main speedster wide receivers -- Marquise Goodwin and Kolby Listenbee -- to be entered into the fray for that job as well. That also seems like the case at kick returner, which the Bills gave some reps to both Powell and rookie cornerback Kevon Seymour. Among the options, Seymour caught my eye with some explosiveness on a few kick returns that I watched. He, along with Goodwin and Listenbee, are my best bets as to who actually wins the return jobs this summer. With the two wide receivers, that might also be a key battle to see who the Bills keep on the roster when they enter the 2016 regular season.

8) Can Dan Carpenter hang on to his job?

- For the first time since the 2013 season, Dan Carpenter's hold on the kicking job is actually in jeopardy of being snatched away by another player. His inconsistency on field goal attempts in the preseason, and then on extra point attempts during the regular season, led to some frustrating moments for head coach Rex Ryan. The Bills have given Carpenter votes of confidence publicly, but they also restructured his contract enough to incentivize him making the roster by changing his roster bonus due date from March of 2016 to September 2016 -- which he'll only get if he makes the team. He has competition this training camp in undrafted rookie Marshall Morgan, whom the Bills believe was one of only a handful of kickers available from college this year that could actually crack an NFL roster. Morgan has plenty of leg, but he needs to outright win the job to take it from Carpenter. I think the veteran will hang on to the job, despite his struggles during the 2015 season.

9) Who is the ultimate super sleeper at training camp?

- Some will consider defensive lineman Justin Zimmer, others will say running back James Wilder, Jr., but of all the options for a super sleeper on the roster, I've got my eye firmly on tight end Blake Annen for that. The tight end group is a lot less defined than most believe it to be. The only player that is firmly on the roster, and a given for a role on offense is Charles Clay. Past that, there will be loads of competition between Jim Dray, Chris Gragg, Annen, and Nick O'Leary. Dray is seen as the run-blocking specialist but will have to show a great deal of success in that area to warrant his spot on the team. So far during offseason workouts, he's faded a bit into the background. In my opinion, Gragg is a much safer bet to make the team. He's come a long way as a blocker, and has showed to be a dependable target when called upon. O'Leary will need a very strong camp and preseason to warrant a roster spot, because he is well undersized for the position and lacks the athleticism that others have. As for Annen, he flashed a great deal of potential during minicamp, and has both the frame (6-foot-4, 247-pounds) and athleticism to crack the 53-man roster. If he shows well enough as a blocker and continues to impress as a pass catcher, that would be all he needs to make the team, and maybe even carve out a small role for himself on offense. He needs to take care of the former part of that plan first, but keep your eye on No. 86 at training camp.

Other Bills Training Camp Questions

1) Is Tyrod ready to take the next step?

2) Who steps up in place of Shaq Lawson?

3) Which wide receiver will win the No. 3 job?

4) Do the Bills have the defensive depth?

5) When will Karlos Williams be ready?

6) Will Stephon Gilmore hold out?

7) A breakout season for Sammy Watkins on the horizon?

8) How much can we expect from Cardale Jones?

9) Which undrafted rookies might stick?

10) Who backs up McCoy the first 4 weeks?

11) Who are the Bills breakout candidates?

Twitter: @JoeBuscaglia