As the Buffalo Bills open training camp today at St. John Fisher College in Pitsford, New York, the 2014 season unofficially begins. The team’s first practice is set to take place at six p.m. tonight.
The Bills will be the first team to open training camp this summer, as they are scheduled to play in the Pro Football Hall of Fame game in Canton, Ohio on August 3rd. The early start to camp gives the Bills an extra week of practice this summer over the other 31 NFL teams.
But after three consecutive 6-10 seasons, I’m sure the Bills aren’t complaining about the extra week of practice.
With exactly 49 days until the season kicks off on September 7th, the time from now until then is crucial to the Bills’ success this year. Especially for a young team like Buffalo that will be implementing a whole new defensive scheme.
Let’s take a look at the top storylines entering the Buffalo Bills training camp:
How does EJ Manuel develop?
Is EJ Manuel the face of the franchise? Can he take that next step?
The questions surrounding quarterback EJ Manuel will be the main headline for the Buffalo Bills entering training camp, and will more than likely remain the top storyline throughout the 2014 season.
The pressure for Manuel to deliver now is immense. The second year quarterback got a huge vote of confidence from the Bills brass this off-season when they not only traded up to select wide receiver Sammy Watkins, but also traded for another wide receiver and revamped the offensive line. All the added pieces are in place for Manuel to thrive – can he do it though?
After an injury riddled rookie campaign that saw Manuel only play in 10 games, health will be the obvious concern for Manuel entering camp. But on the field lies a greater challenge for Manuel – his accuracy.
Manuel had a league-worst 47.5 completion percentage on third downs last year, and a 58.8 completion percentage overall. Some of that is just Manuel growing as a rookie last year, while the other part of it was his progressions. Manuel’s progressions must be quicker this year, and his pre-snap reads will be crucial. How offensive coordinator Nate Hackett works on those aspects with Manuel, will be a fun storyline to watch throughout training camp.
Can Mike Williams be a hometown hero for the Buffalo Bills? The wide receiver aims to play a key role in the Bills offensive plans this year. Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports
Who wins the wide receiver battle?
The Bills invested a lot in their receiving unit this off-season by trading up for Sammy Watkins, and trading for former Syracuse wide receiver Mike Williams. With a core of Sammy Watkins, Robert Woods, Mike Williams and Marquise Goodwin, competition will be fierce entering camp.
All four players look to play in some sort of role this season, but the most interesting receiver to watch might be hometown boy Mike Williams. Williams reunites with former Syracuse coach – now Bills head coach – Doug Marrone. Playing for his hometown Bills, Williams could provide a much-needed boost to the offence in the red zone and on third down.
Williams will more than likely battle with speedster Marquise Goodwin for the third receiver spot at training camp.
How quickly can the offensive line come together?
Throughout much of last season, the offensive line was an area of concern for the Bills. During the off-season Buffalo addressed those concerns by bringing in new offensive linemen through the draft and free agency.
If mini-camp was any indication, the Bills could be looking at as many as three new starters along the offensive line this season.
Rookie tackle Cyrus Kouandjio and guard Cyril Richardson are mountains up front and will both enhance the Buffalo run game. Even though both linemen have excellent size and length, their footwork in pass pro is a concern. After playing left tackle at Alabama, Kouandjio projects to move over to the right side of the line at Buffalo.
Although Kouandjio’s skill set is raw still, he is a super talent that could turn into the Bills future left tackle.
Aside from the rookies, the possibility of three new starting offensive linemen this season is a curious proposition. You would imagine that there would be some concern of how quickly they can gel together before the season kicks off.
How does the defence adjust to Jim Schwartz system?
Under former defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, the Bills defence was a top-ten defence last year. Can that type of high-level play sustain under new defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz?
Schwartz is one of football’s most fiery and creative defensive minds in the game today. The biggest difference for the Bills defence is that Jim Schwartz relies on his front four much more than former defensive coordinator Mike Pettine did. With that, Schwartz blitzes considerably less than Pettine does.
Creating pressure was a staple of the Bills defence last year, so how they adjust with the idea of blitzing less will be interesting to watch.
The other potential problem that Schwartz will have to be creative with, is how he replaces all-pro linebacker Kiko Alonso.
Can the defence really replace Kiko Alonso?
When Kiko Alonso tore his ACL earlier in the month, the Bills lost more than just a weakside linebacker who Jim Schwartz could funnel his new defensive scheme into. They lost a player that played over 90% of the Bills defensive snaps last year and was a leader on the team. (And he became pretty much a legend with the fans, too.)
We took a look a few weeks ago at the potential replacements for Kiko Alonso, but let’s be honest here, replacing a player who racked up over 100 tackles in his rookie season last year is a tall task to say the least.
Even though the Bills have options to minimize the loss of Alonso, who steps up to fill in the ever important role of weakside linebacker in Jim Schwartz system remains a mystery. How Schwartz decides to resolve this problem will be another interesting storyline at training camp.
Be sure to check back with us throughout the Buffalo Bills training camp to get your Bills analysis leading up to the season!