It was an offseason of change in Buffalo. New head coach Doug Marrone looks to implement his attacking, high-tempo offensive system while the defense switches to an aggressive, hybrid scheme under Mike Pettine.
The Bills mandatory minicamp revealed the breakneck pace that Marrone wishes to implement. The question remains whether he’ll have a quarterback to pace this offense? While that question will be the talk of training camp, there’s plenty of intrigue that should mark the start of this new regime.
The Quarterback Derby
A lot will be made of the inevitability of a quarterback competition this offseason. Gone are Ryan Fitzpatrick and Tarvaris Jackson. Enter Kevin Kolb and first-round pick EJ Manuel. Kolb is likely to get the first-team reps initially but Manuel will be hot on his heels. Marrone’s system at Syracuse was predicated on quick, rhythm passing which suits the skill set of Kevin Kolb very well. That said, the tempo and versatility edge will go to Manuel. Manuel gives Marrone’s offense a dimension that Kolb doesn’t – the zone-read.
Marrone base offense builds off “21” personnel package (two backs, two wide receivers, and one tight end). He will incorporate a slew of other personnel packages to incorporate his offensive skill players and reduce the load on an offensive line breaking in a new left guard.
Kolb will get the first crack at the starting gig and the Bills could be best served by Kolb starting the season behind center. Manuel’s physical skill set is intriguing but remains a work in progress on several levels.
The breakdown from minicamp saw a 50-40-10 split between Kolb, Manuel, and Jeff Tuel. The reps, at this point, are insignificant but reveal the direction of the start of training camp. How this one ends is anyone’s guess but we know a tie will go to the rookie first-rounder.
How will the defense make the transition to Mike Pettine’s hybrid?
It was Buddy Nix’s long-term vision for this team to transition to the 3-4 defense. Unfortunately, they were never in the position from a personnel standpoint to make the transition.
This offseason’s defensive acquisitions were spent on revamping the linebacking corps and adding depth on the defensive line. Mike Pettine’s hybrid defense will be predicated on how the team can fit a few square pegs into round holes.
The defensive line appears solid with Mario Williams, Marcell Dareus, and Kyle Williams set to play in the three-man fronts. Alan Branch was brought in to add solid depth capable of play end or tackle in the three-man front. When the line transitions to a four-man front, Mark Anderson will go from standup linebacker to defensive end.
Nigel Bradham will be joined by rookie Kiko Alonso in the middle of the defense. Alonso and Bradham securing the middle of the field will be a major factor in the success of Pettine’s first season in Buffalo. It will also be one of the keys to the early success in Buffalo. On the outside, the Bills brought in Manny Lawson and Jerry Hughes to join Mark Anderson.
The secondary will be a spot to watch as training camps drags on into August. Jarius Byrd is holding out for a new contract but I don’t envision that lasting long or even into July. The spot opposite Byrd at SS is up for grabs. Da’Norris Searcy will get the first crack at the starting spot but rookie Duke Williams
should will push him. With second-year standout Stephon Gilmore entrenched at one corner, the spot opposite remains a sore spot. Leodis McKelvin and Ron Brooks could battle this one out until late in training camp. Rookie Nickell Robey could factor in as the third corner and should challenge the loser of the McKelvin/Brooks battle.
Outside of the quarterback battle, the secondary will be the spots to watch during training camp.
Pettine is left with more questions than answers. As the media focuses on the ensuing quarterback battle, the most highly anticipated battles will occur on the defensive side of the ball.
Who will replace Andy Levitre?
The Titans outbidded everyone for the services of one of the better guards in the league. Levitre’s loss leaves a large impression on an important group for this new offense.
The battle pits veteran Doug Legursky, Colin Brown, Sam Young, and Chris Scott appear entrenched in this battle that could last well into August.
Legursky has 17 starts in the last four seasons but could be best suited as a backup, depth player on this roster. Colin Brown is the best fit in Marrone’s up-tempo offense and could have a leg up in this competition. Sam Young is another tall, former tackle that will make a run at the starting LG spot. Young doesn’t quite fit the mold of a typical guard in Marrone’s system and could be best suited as a backup tackle.
The darkhorses are Chris Scott and Zebrie Sanders. Sanders is the most intriguing of all the options. He missed much of last season with a hip injury but fits Marrone’s system to a tee. With great movement skills and size, Sanders is one to keep your eye on in this battle.
Can Robert Woods unseat T.J. Graham as the No. 2 WR?
The No. 2 wide receiver spot will be a source of much contention this offseason. Rookie Robert Woods appears to have the leg up in the competition as T.J. Graham’s best suited in the slot. Woods is a solid possession receiver with the hands and precise route-running to serve as a perfect complement to Stevie Johnson.
T.J. Graham impressed the coaching staff during OTA’s and appears more polished than his rookie season. The one thing everyone knew Graham could do was stretch the field vertically but has to show he can vary his routes beyond the vertical to secure this spot.
The battles ensue beyond just the No. 2 spot as rookies Da’Rick Rogers and Marquise Goodwin vie for playing time behind Johnson, Woods, and Graham. Both Rogers and Goodwin bring intriguing skill sets that will make camp very interesting for some of the fringe receivers on this roster.
Brad Smith – Smith makes a hefty sum of money for a guy that could be in the mix for the No. 4 WR spot. Smith’s lack of ties to this staff could make him a candidate to hit the road.
Rian Lindell – The veteran kicker could get pushed by rookie Dustin Hopkins. The good news for Lindell is he carries $2.7 million in dead money.
Sam Young – If Young can’t lock down the staring LG spot, he could be sent packing as the Bills have plenty of younger options and it would save them $630K.