Monday, July 23, 2012

Training camp primer: 5 questions for the Bills

Photo: Iswiecicki, Flickr 

The Bills had one of the best offseasons in the league in terms of improving weaknesses and locking up already-important members of their team. However, Buffalo still has a lot to prove, as games are won on the field, not on paper.

Here's your five-question training camp primer for the Bills:

Will age be a factor injury-wise?

Buffalo is coming off one of the most debilitating, injury-plagued seasons to memory, at one point missing more than a dozen players including some much-needed veteran presence. Fred Jackson, Mario Williams (the former Texan), Terrence McGee, Kyle Williams, George Wilson and Shawne Merriman, among others, all missed significant time last season due to injury, and none of them is any spring chicken.

The Bills spent much of last year trying to plug the leaks with younger, inexperienced players in a shallow depth chart, and the team did a better-than-average job this offseason bulking up its roster. Buffalo is better prepared this year for any unforeseeable issues, but a loss to its experienced core could damper a much-anticipated year on both sides of the ball.

Does the transition to a 4-3 defense go smoothly?

After two years in the 3-4, the Bills are back to a 4-3 base under new defensive coordinator Dave Wannstedt. A new formation means new responsibilities for the defensive squad, not to mention learning a good majority of a new playbook. The switch puts Kelvin Sheppard at the anchor of the defense, a bold move considering it's only Sheppard's second year, but a strong statement by the coaching staff on its confidence in the young linebacker.

A 4-3 formation will also allow the defensive front, especially the ends, to be more aggressive, which will be especially beneficial to the styles of Mark Anderson, Williams and Merriman. The rush defense can only go up from last season, finishing 28th, and the offseason additions to the squad have added consistent talent throughout. Whether they can band together and adapt quickly to a new scheme will be the determining factor.

Who will be the No. 2 receiver?

It seems to be four-man race at the moment, with receivers Donald Jones, T.J. Graham, Derek Hagan and Marcus Easley leading the packed squad. Jones, the No. 2 before an ankle injury last season, has been touted as the heir apparent for the spot, though he did line up in the slot position for the majority of OTAs. Easley has the size and hands for the job, but his lack of pro snaps — zero — could keep him in the back-up role.

Hagan, despite plenty of experience, lacks consistency, though he ended 2011 on a high note against the Pats with seven catches. Lastly, Graham, who has more than enough speed to spread a defense thin, it is pretty raw in his route-running and isn’t the biggest of the bunch. The safe money is on Jones if he can stay healthy, but don’t be surprised to see the Bills shuffle guys in and out every down to keep defenses guessing.

Will Gilmore impress in his rookie season?

Buffalo’s eventual No. 1 pick entered the draft carrying the praise of a number of scouts, and for good reason. A rare mix of size and speed, the 6-foot cornerback ran the third-fastest 40 in the combine among defensive backs and has been touted for his physicality on the line of scrimmage by the Bills coaching staff. Gilmore ran the majority of plays with the defensive starters in OTAs, and has been complimented by both Stevie Johnson and Ryan Fitzpatrick on his ability.

Obviously, there’s a learning curve for any rookie player, even the extremely talented ones. Gilmore is going to get burned at some point this season. Don’t expect it to be an ongoing issue, though. His mental and physical toughness, coupled with a revived blitz threat off the line that is sure to rush quarterbacks in their throws, Gilmore should be able to ease into his starting role and make an impact right away. Having George Wilson, an eight-year vet with 10 combined interceptions in the past three years backing you up never hurts, either.

Who gets the nod for the starting left tackle gig?

A question even coach Chan Gailey hasn’t been able to answer yet, recently telling, “I don’t know who will win that job.” Unlike the No. 2 receiver role, the race for the most important position on the line is a two-man showdown: Chris Hairston or Cordy Glenn. Hairston, after being thrown into the mix last season with injuries to the line, shined for a rookie, allowing four sacks and taking only three penalties in seven starts. His size, arm length and experience in full-speed situations give him a leg up in the race.

Then there’s Glenn, who at one point was a potential first-round pick for the Bills. He played nearly every O-line position in college and shows great speed for a player of his size. He started exclusively at left tackle in OTAs, while Hairston picked up the right side for the ailing Eric Pears. The smart money says Hairston takes the starting role, using all those reps against Mario Williams in OTAs as fodder for when he faces the league’s top blind-side pass rushers. With Glenn getting as many reps in as possible now, he can be no-brainer fill-in late in games or if Hairston goes down with an injury. Or it could go the complete opposite way. Anything can change once the pads go on.

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