This time of year, with NFL training camps just around the corner, people like to focus on the big story lines - as they do any time of the year - as well as the "sleepers," those little-known players that could surprise and make one look quite intelligent for dropping a name in pre-camp discussions.
Those topics are interesting, but they don't cover the entire spectrum. There are plenty of pique-your-interest story lines heading into Buffalo Bills training camp that likely won't land on the radar of either of the aforementioned discussion points. Obviously, I'll be keeping an eye on players like Trent Edwards, Terrell Owens, Langston Walker and Aaron Schobel in training camp (amongst several others). I'll be keeping an eye on the re-tooled offensive line just as closely as the rest of y'all. And yes, I'm interested to see how sleepers like RB Bruce Hall and everyone's favorite rookie, CB Ellis Lankster, fare starting this Saturday as well.
But I've got seven more guys to bring up that should be tracked on a daily basis. You've heard of them all. They're not all big names, but they've got roles to play and a good deal of talent. All rank somewhere between "big story" and "sleeper"; none of these guys are sleepers by any stretch, but they're worth tracking even though they're not household names (anywhere but Buffalo, that is). Those names are after the jump.
QB Ryan Fitzpatrick. Trent Edwards gets hurt a bit too frequently. He was injured early in 2007 and dinged throughout the season; last year, he missed a full 14 quarters of football. The chances that we will see Fitzpatrick playing meaningful snaps this season are quite high. Signed away from Cincinnati in March, Fitzpatrick was Buffalo's choice as Edwards' backup because of his intelligence and underrated athleticism. But it's no secret that Fitzpatrick has also been streaky and turnover-happy in his young career. Now he's learning an entirely new system. It would be nice to see Fitzpatrick making sound decisions and being smart with the ball in camp. Encouragement is always great to have when discussing backup quarterbacks.
TE Shawn Nelson. If there is one Bills draft pick this year that screams "boom or bust" louder than Nelson, I'd love to hear that argument. Nelson is perhaps the most unique talent the Bills have selected in the Draft in Dick Jauron's four years in Buffalo - he's one-dimensional, very raw, and unlike a player in a similar situation (DE Aaron Maybin), playing time is not guaranteed to Nelson right out of the gate. Nelson spent most of rookie mini-camps working with the wide receivers. He won't be a big part of the passing attack whether he booms or busts, but if he develops nicely, he could be a nice additional red zone target. If not, we could be looking at a Chris Ellis-like rookie season.
OT Demetrius Bell. Right now, everything sounds peachy when discussing Bell, even though he's entering just his fifth year of organized football. We talked recently about Bell's relevance to the offensive line based purely on his immense talent level at the tackle position. Folks, tackle isn't exactly a deep position for the Bills. There is depth to the earholes on the inside, where nearly every player can play all three positions. In terms of pure tackles, however, Bell might be the only other name on the list besides starting LT Langston Walker. His progress is significant just from the standpoint of curiosity, but the better he is this pre-season, the more comfortable the coaches will be after trading Jason Peters.
DE Chris Ellis. Aaron Schobel is back. Aaron Maybin is here. Chris Kelsay and Ryan Denney still exist and are clogging up the depth chart. Copeland Bryan wasn't terrible in '08, either. Where does Ellis fit in? Can he rebound from a zero-impact rookie season? We know the talent is there, but is the work ethic? We've heard reports recently that Ellis has been busting his butt all year getting ready to assert himself into the end rotation. Bills fans have every reason to be skeptical until we see that happening. Ellis will get his chance to make that happen starting next week; I'd be lying if I didn't say I'm very curious to see how his pre-season unfolds.
DT John McCargo. It's not often that a player gets a second crack with a franchise that tried - and, in reality, succeeded - to trade him the previous year. 2006 first-round pick McCargo gets exactly that opportunity this year in Buffalo, and early reports have McCargo rejuvenated and working harder than ever under new defensive line coach Bob Sanders. If you're asking me, McCargo is the most talented player on this list. There's no denying that his physical gifts are enormous. If he can put it together mentally and in his preparation under Sanders, he might just make something of himself after all.
LB Alvin Bowen. In an effort to get more physical in the front seven over the past couple of years, the Bills have sacrificed some speed and athleticism, particularly at linebacker. Paul Posluszny and Kawika Mitchell aren't going to beat many Cover 2 linebackers in a foot race. Bowen, along with undrafted rookie free agent Ashlee Palmer, is probably the most athletic linebacker on the squad. He's coming off of a non-existent rookie season thanks to a severe knee injury, but young, athletic linebackers always have a chance to contribute in this defense. Most will focus on his (very) dark horse chance at winning the SAM linebacker job, but Bowen should emerge as a centerpiece of Bobby April's special teams units.
FS Jairus Byrd. The Bills are deep at safety. Donte Whitner, Bryan Scott, George Wilson and Ko Simpson all have significant game experience. John Wendling is an ace on special teams. But none of these players has been able to consistently provide game-changing plays (though that might change in some cases with an improved pass rush). Byrd is here because he was a playmaker in college, registering 17 interceptions in three years. His instincts are excellent, but he has a lot of ground to make up after missing most of the team's pre-season workouts. Keep an eye on whether or not Byrd looks lost while running the defense from the free safety position; his early disadvantage could keep him off the field in a similar fashion to the aforementioned Nelson.