The Buffalo Bills are a close of training camp and two pre-season games away from the start of the 2007 regular season. It has been clearly established that this year's version of the Bills is very young and very talented, but perhaps not ready to set the NFL on fire. That much is to be expected out of a team so inexperienced at the NFL level. The most important thing that could happen now is for the offensive, defense and special teams first units to get as much playing time as possible - only then will this team begin to play together and reach its potential.
However, the Bills have not hit that point yet. Head Coach Dick Jauron has insisted on letting several positional battles "play themselves out", and the result is that with precious little time for the respective first units left in the pre-season (as most top units play very little in the final pre-season game), the starting units have not yet been officially decided. The two most important of these are at right guard and middle linebacker, where the battles are expected to rage until the team's season opener against the Broncos.
But are these position battles really still undecided? Or is Dick Jauron merely playing the "politically correct" card at this point? The answer, at least in my mind, is the latter - common sense and recent events are huge indicators that these battles are very close to being resolved.
Right Guard: Whittle vs. Preston (vs. Butler?)
Perhaps the most important battle is that at right guard, the lone position left unresolved on an offensive line that received a major facelift this past off-season. Any intelligent football fan will remind you that the best offensive lines in the league are those that have played alongside each other longest - yet, despite this track record, the Bills' line lacks any consistent starting cohesiveness.
But make no mistake: Jason Whittle is leading this positional battle, and by a considerably wide margin. That's a bold statement to make just a day after Jauron reiterated once more that the battle is still ongoing, but I believe it to be true. There are two reasons behind this theory: Duke Preston's positional flip-flopping and Brad Butler's injuries.
Let's look back: at the beginning of training camp, Preston and Whittle were swapping first-team reps at right guard, and while one was on the first unit at guard, the other would run with the second unit at center. Preston started at right guard during the Saints game, while Whittle played very little. But then starting center Melvin Fowler went down. Who got the center reps? Preston did, while Whittle took over almost all of the first-team reps at guard. If the Bills were planning on sticking with Preston at right guard, why not let Whittle play center - he had, in fact, already been doing so at the start of camp.
While Butler - who I still maintain would have won this job had he not been injured - will remain on the sidelines as a reserve this season, Preston's switch to taking center reps is the biggest indicator that Whittle will be the starting right guard. Take into account also that Preston saw left guard time with the third unit O-Line in the Falcons pre-season contest, and you begin to see Preston's role with this team - he'll likely be the primary backup at all three interior line positions.
Middle Linebacker: Posluszny vs. DiGiorgio
The second major battle still "undecided" is at middle linebacker, where second-year player John DiGiorgio is battling stud rookie Paul Posluszny for the position. Ask any Bills fan who has been the superior player this pre-season (by leaps and bounds), and some version of the word "Poz" will escape their lips. Yet Jauron will start DiGiorgio in the third pre-season game, with Posluszny getting that right in the closer at Detroit.
Let's employ some common sense for a moment, however: is there really a chance that a second-year undrafted free agent out of Saginaw Valley State can hold off a highly-touted rookie who happens to be a living legend out of Linebacker U? Especially when all the evidence of pre-season play suggest that Posluszny has clearly outperformed DiGiorgio in nearly every facet of the game. DiGiorgio, who is much smaller than Posluszny, has shown good speed and a knack for being around the ball, but his small size does not allow him to shed blocks at a satisfactory level - which often leads to many second-level runs for opposing running backs. Posluszny has that size and far more potential in this department; couple that with his above-average quicks and nose for the ball, and it's pretty obvious who will get the starting nod in the opener.
So why is Jauron promoting all this "competition" in the pre-season? It's simple: to boost morale. He's doing a good job of it too, because despite some less-than-stellar performances recently, the Bills are a team brimming with confidence. But the indecision with the starters at these two crucial positions could, in the end, hurt the team's chances in 2007.
Unless, like me, you believe that those battles are already won.