The long, winding, dreary road that is the NFL off-season officially ends tomorrow morning - and we've got our very own Buffalo Bills to thank for it. Bills players will be trickling in to St. John Fisher college all day Friday, and the team will be the first to practice as a full squad (veterans and rookies) when Bills training camp begins on Saturday morning with the first two-a-day of the year.
Drink it in, Bills fans. Football is back.
We've covered the Bills from nearly every angle imaginable this off-season. We thank you for sticking with us. We'll continue to monitor the progress of training camp once it opens tomorrow; our very own MattRichWarren will be on hand to take in practice in person (tweeting updates to us along the way), and we'll have another cool announcement regarding training camp tomorrow as well.
What should y'all be paying attention do during training camp? Most of you have your own agendas, and most Bills fans are keenly aware of the hot issues of the day surrounding the team. There are some players, coaches and positional battles, however, that are worth mentioning in our countdown to training camp. Yes, it's a literal countdown, and we'll be using it as a "viewing guide" of sorts throughout camp. It's after the jump.
5 - Five players you'll hear a LOT about
#1 - QB Trent Edwards. Every perfect throw will be revered. Every skipped pass will cause hearts to do likewise. Over-analysis will run rampant through the fan base. That's just what happens when the collective hopes of an entire city are riding on the brain and right arm of one man. No pressure, Trent.
#2 - WR Terrell Owens. If there's a Bills fan out there who has no idea who Terrell Owens is, you're welcome for listing him here.
#3 - OT Langston Walker. With Jason Peters in Philadelphia, all eyes will be on his replacement, former right tackle Walker. Is he athletic and consistent enough in effort to protect the tough-but-brittle Edwards' blind side? On a line with a lot to prove, the 6'8", 366-pound Walker will be watched the closest.
#4 - DE Aaron Schobel. Clearly Buffalo's most dominant pass rusher of this decade, Schobel returns after missing the majority of 12 games in 2008 with a serious foot injury. Schobel is terribly boring during the pre-season, as he rarely plays during games, but he'll be monitored closely at any rate, particularly if he has to miss any practice time. The eight-year veteran remains the key to not just the team's pass rush, but perhaps the entire defensive scheme as well.
#5 - DE Aaron Maybin. He's likely to miss the start of camp as the team works to get his rookie contract in order. When he does finally hit the field, there will be some excitement. The electric rookie out of Penn State is being asked to add punch to an anemic pass rush, but he's got plenty of questions of his own to answer as well.
4 - Four position battles to monitor
There aren't many positions to iron out this year in camp, but no NFL team will be without training camp competition. These are four battles to monitor throughout the pre-season.
#1 - Left Guard. Four line positions are settled - Walker is the left tackle; Brad Butler is the right tackle; Geoff Hangartner is the center; and once Eric Wood gets to camp, you can bet he'll emerge as the starting right guard. It's not a complete certainty, however, that rookie second-round pick Andy Levitre will be the left guard. Kirk Chambers and/or Seth McKinney might have something to say about that, and it seems likely that one or both will see first-team reps early in camp. If the line displays any sort of cohesiveness with Levitre running with the twos, the coaches might be tempted to let the ones remain the starters heading into the season.
#2 - Tight End. Folks will rip me for leaving rookie Shawn Nelson out of the equation, but let's face it: his role will be specialized in his first year. He's not going to be the every-down tight end. Third-year player Derek Schouman will battle second-year player Derek Fine for that honor; the early money is on Schouman, but don't be shocked if the slightly more talented Fine beats him out by the start of the season.
#3 - SAM linebacker. Widely considered to be the one position that didn't get addressed in a satisfactory way, Keith Ellison remains the incumbent starter at the position - and it's likely to stay that way. Impressive pre-season performances from either Alvin Bowen or Nic Harris, however, might be enough to bump Ellison down the depth chart. Just don't count on it.
#4 - Nickel cornerback. After the free agent departure of Jabari Greer, the Bills moved quickly to bring in veteran Drayton Florence, an accomplished nickel corner in his own right. He'll battle with Ashton Youboty - who got off to a hot start in 2008 before succumbing to injury - and upstart second-year player Reggie Corner, who is coming off of a nice spring. This is clearly the most wide-open battle of camp, as the Bills will likely let the best pre-season performer take nickel duties to start the season. It's difficult to define an early favorite here.
3 - Three important reserves to watch
#1 - QB Ryan Fitzpatrick. In each of his first two seasons, Trent Edwards has missed time due to injury. The odds that we'll see Fitzpatrick taking meaningful regular season snaps are astronomically high; it's a virtual certainty. The speed at which he absorbs Buffalo's evolving playbook is very important - as is, obviously, his overall level of play.
#2 - OT Demetrius Bell. The pressure is currently off of Bell, a second-year tackle project entering just his fifth season of organized football. His potential is enormous, but he's still reportedly quite rough around the edges. He's widely considered the team's future left tackle, and with questions remaining up front, an encouraging pre-season from Bell would be relieving - even if it doesn't result in any playing time.
#3 - LB John DiGiorgio. Buffalo's depth at linebacker is already thin, and far more importantly, it's also inexperienced. Veteran Pat Thomas was added via free agency, which helps the cause, but players like the aforementioned Bowen and Harris, as well as guys like Marcus Buggs and Jon Corto, have little to no NFL experience. DiGiorgio is coming off of a severe knee injury, and it's not certain if he'll be ready for camp. He's a dependable reserve and special teams player, and the sooner he's back in action, the better.
2 - Two positional coaches with their work cut out for them
Buffalo's coaching staff isn't terribly popular. Most will pick apart the decisions of men like Dick Jauron, Perry Fewell, Bobby April and especially Turk Schonert throughout the season. There are two positional coaches, however, working under a severe amount of pressure as well.
#1 - Sean Kugler, offensive line. Entering just his second season as the line coach (he spent 2007 under Jim McNally as an assistant), Kugler gets to oversee perhaps the most massive line overhaul in team history. There's no question that the talent level is solid and there's been a great improvement in blocking demeanor, but there will be kinks that only good, solid coaching can quickly work out.
Packers defensive coordinator must squeeze more sack production out of his veteran ends, and rookie Maybin is entirely his responsibility as well., defensive line. The pass rush has been a hot-button topic for the Bills - in a highly negative way - for at least the past two seasons. Sanders has already made waves by preaching the counter-move and bringing in outside consultants to help with hand usage, and it's no secret that his coaching style is quite different from his predecessors, Bill Kollar and Tim Krumrie. The former
1 - One goal
It's not a taboo word in Buffalo, believe it or not: playoffs. For training camp purposes, one might say "injury-free" or "steady improvement" might be the goal - and while I'd be happy to agree with you on the health part, nothing but the playoffs matters this year. Dick Jauron and the coaching staff have one (last?) shot at ending this franchise's nine-year post-season drought. The talent is undeniable; this is, without a shred of doubt, Jauron's most talented roster. Excuses are very short, for the coaching staff and for the players. This team does have the talent to compete with the big boys. Yes, a lot of questions need to be answered for that to happen. But expectations are high, and that's not unfair. This is the NFL. The playoffs are the goal every year, and the journey begins for the 2009 Buffalo Bills tomorrow morning.