Tuesday, July 30 – Bills Camp (Rochester)
The drive from Gillette Stadium to Rochester is 400 miles and because of the Patriots late practice we arrived at Rochester at 4:40 am – loads of time to spare for the 8:30 am practice.
It was worth it though because the media access in Buffalo is excellent. For example, unlike many of their rivals they are entirely pragmatic when it comes to video footage and pictures. While many teams allow 15 to 20 minutes before shutting things down, the Bills, with fans doing whatever they want in the stands, sensibly don’t impose those restrictions. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not open season – indeed it’s very well managed – but it leaves you feeling rational thought hasn’t deserted the planet.
Anyway, enough with technicalities – what did I find out?
Manuel to Start?
This time last year I was in Flagstaff watching Kevin Kolb, John Skelton and Ryan Lindley outdo each other in terms of ineptitude at Cardinals camp. Everyone was terrible but, of the three, Kolb was probably the worst.
Fast forward to Rochester yesterday and nothing much has changed for Kolb but there is a significant difference in the overall set-up. While Kolb was underthrowing deep, miss-judging a corner route for an interception and throwing into traffic over the middle, E.J. Manuel actually looked very good. He found his receivers with regularity both short and deep but what was more impressive was the touch with which he threw the ball. A deep pass was lofted with such precision that Da’Rick Rogers hardly altered his body position at all in catching and running in the TD. In truth, he appears — at least on the evidence of this practice — a far superior player and with the Bills a very long shot to make the playoffs why not run with the rookie?
As we know, in 2012 the Cardinals went with Skelton who proceeded to plumb new depths before being injured and replaced by Kolb. It was only then that the ex-Eagle started to play reasonably well; with his offensive line setting new standards of porosity not only did he stand in but also managed to win a few games too. Eventually the beating he took from defensive linemen ended his season but he showed he’s a far better player than he demonstrated on that day in flagstaff.
I think for most people around the league the book on him is in – he’s never going to make it. They never thought he was much good and a few decent games in early 2012 won’t change their mind. Lock in – Lock out. Lock in on the awful – and to be fair, particularly in practice, there’s a lot of it. Lock out how well he did under more pressure than most quarterbacks will ever face. I’m not trying to be a Kolb apologist – simply saying there may be a little more to Kevin Kolb than many believe regardless of who is under center Week 1.
The Bills have recent form when it comes to screwing around with their defense. For the last few years they shifted backwards and forwards between more schemes than you care to imagine (some in-season). So now it’s Mike Pettine bringing his brand (or maybe Rex Ryan’s brand) of hybrid defense to Buffalo.
I’m always a little sceptical of coaches arriving and implementing “their” scheme. It always seems strange to me that with so many personnel guys saying “this guy or that guy doesn’t fit what we do” that a coach will come in and try to shoehorn players that previously were a fit for a different strategy into his plans. Now sometimes it may actually be a better fit, for example I think the Dallas personnel may work slightly better in Monte Kiffin’s 4-3 but I can’t see how, say, Philadelphia’s move to 3-4 is a great idea. This may be somewhere in between.
The problem, as with most moves to 3-4/hybrid is at OLB. While Mario Williams has done it before in Houston and has the pass rush credentials seeing him in coverage will not be a familiar sight – or if it is, could be an issue. Williams dropped on only six of 952 snaps last year and only 67 times overall in the last five years. On the other side, Jerry Hughes has one mediocre years’ experience in the role (though, to be fair, we actually graded him slightly positive in coverage) and while Manny Lawson once had the job in San Francisco, he’s been a distinctly average two-down linebacker in Cincinnati for the last few years. They’ll fight for the job to start opposite Williams.
At inside linebacker they have second round pick Kiki Alonso and sophomore Nigel Bradham who played 144 snaps dropping back last year. Between all five of these players that’s either very limited experience or ability in coverage and I expected teams to attack the short middle frequently.
– It looks very much as if Robert Wood will wrest the starting job from T.J. Graham, although expect to see Graham as part of the 11 personnel set.
– The biggest issue for the Bills on offense may well be at Andy Levitre’s old position of left guard. The fact that Colin Brown is having to compete there with a player like Doug Legursky says this may become a real problem for the line.
– With Jairus Byrd holding out, converted corner Aaron Williams is manning the free safety position.
NB: I’ve amended the Buffalo depth chart accordingly, added in the position battles in purple and the update is below: (click image to enlarge)
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