It has received a good amount of attention this off-season, but still many Bills fans don't realize the importance of the newly installed "H-Back" position into the Bills' offense. Gone are the days where fullbacks take up roster spots just to block and play special teams. Now, the Bills' backfield will feature tight ends that can block, catch screen passes and provide a lot more flexibility to a young offense. This position won't be used much, but the subtle changes in the position's responsibilities will become less subtle as the season wears on - especially if the winner of the battle for the starting position can play it effectively. Let's examine...
The Favorite: Brad Cieslak (86)
After appearing in a handful of games at the end of the 2006 season in place of fullback Daimon Shelton, Cieslak has emerged this off-season as the general favorite to lock down this job. He has proven to be a nice find as an undrafted free agent and played relatively well during the last portion of the season. But there is still a lot of work to do - it is unclear just how good a run blocker he really is at this point, and his receiving skills need honing as well. Has potential at this position, but can he hold off the vet and the promising rookie?
The Upstart: Ryan Neufeld (88)
It's hard to consider a 31-year-old, 7-year veteran player as an "upstart"; however, due to Cieslak's lofty status among Bills fans, Neufeld currently plays second fiddle (possibly even third behind the player listed below). But it would be foolish to count Neufeld out of this competition given that it was actually he who got the first shot at HB after Shelton was nicked up early last year. Neufeld has good experience, is a far more steady run blocker and is just solid enough with his hands to not be a liability as a receiver. He is probably the safest bet to start.
The Darkhorse: Derek Schouman (80)
Buffalo's first seventh-round draft pick brings pretty good value to the team as a rookie, given the fact that he will likely be part of the competition to start. The undersized tight end seems to be a perfect fit for the HB position, and will likely be groomed to start at the position in a year or two. For now, he must refine his techniques, work on his run blocking and learn to stay healthy; in time, he could be a very good addition to this team as a low-round pick.
Predicting the Winner
Given the overall depth of the Bills as a general, it's very odd to think that of the three players vying to start at this position, one of them may not even make the roster. The team will likely only keep 4 or 5 tight end/halfbacks, meaning that if the team decides to keep 3 tight ends, one of these guys may get the axe. That seems unlikely, but it's definitely not out of the question. As for who will start at the position, my money for now is on Neufeld - given the general youth of Buffalo's backfield, it makes sense to put the best run blocker and the most experienced player in at the position, even if he's not the long-term solution. My guess is that Neufeld will start, Cieslak will swap between HB and TE and Schouman will sit the bench (probably inactive most weeks) while he learns the ropes.
Poll Results: Cieslak Should Start
The poll results confirmed my suspicions: Bills fans expect to see Cieslak starting from the get-go.
Which player starts the season at H-Back?
Ryan Neufeld - 11 votes (32%)
Brad Cieslak - 16 votes (47%)
Derek Schouman - 7 votes (20%)
Coming Tomorrow: the final TC Battle Preview, which will occur at the team's number two wideout position. As always, be sure to cast your vote in the poll to the right on who should start next to Lee Evans.