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Bills Training Camp Battles: Nickel Defensive End

Buffalo Bills training camp begins two weeks from today, folks! Be heartened; another lengthy, grueling NFL off-season is just about over with, and football will be back in our lives full force.

Bearing that fact in mind, it's time to start our final pre-camp series here at Rumblings, in which we break down the best positional battles that are about to unfold on the fields of St. John Fisher College. This will be an eight-part series that will carry us right up through the eve of camp, and we'll start the festivities off this morning by re-visiting Buffalo's defensive end position.

Who Plays End On Third Downs?
That's a tough question to answer at the moment, not because we don't know enough about the team's personnel, but because we don't know exactly what defensive coordinator George Edwards' defense will look like on third downs. Will the team stay with a basic 3-4 package? Will they run a hybrid 4-3 look on those downs, moving one of their outside linebackers (possibly Aaron Maybin) to a three-point stance?

My guess is that they'll do both, mixing in a variety of looks to keep opponents off-balance, so picking one player here is tough to do. Even still, there's stiff competition for the player used most frequently off of the bench behind projected starters (and run down specialists) Dwan Edwards and Marcus Stroud.

The Candidates
With all due respect to John McCargo and Rashaad Duncan, I'm going to limit this discussion to two players - veteran Spencer Johnson, moving to 3-4 end from the 4-3 DT position he's played the last two years with the Bills, and Arkansas State rookie Alex Carrington, a raw prospect who will also be learning new techniques for his new role.

These are two players with very different skill sets. Johnson is not considered stout at the point of attack, and can wear down if asked to defend the run for long stretches. He is, however, very quick for a man his size (6'3", 286), which allows him to shoot gaps and make plays behind the line of scrimmage. To me, he looks more like a situational defender that Edwards will use in hybrid looks; he's not long enough to play the five-technique position consistently, and won't be much use against the run if he's playing anything more than an "in a pinch" role.

Carrington, meanwhile, is a little bit longer (6'5", 285) and more athletic than Johnson is, and is a much better fit in terms of body-type for the five-technique position. This is critical, as the Bills will have a hard time getting away with playing Johnson, or even Kyle Williams, at end while trying to spell Edwards or Stroud in their traditional 3-4 looks. My guess is that's where Carrington will get most of his playing time (traditional looks), while the team will try to employ more hybrid, specialized packages on unique downs. Over the long haul, Buffalo expects to run the traditional 3-4 far more frequently than they will this year, so it might be prudent to limit Carrington's snaps to more traditional downs.

Who Wins The Battle?
It might not even be fair to call this one a battle, because as we just got done discussing, these are two different breeds of athlete that likely will be asked to play slightly different roles from the same position. "Battle" might not work, but it will still be interesting to see how these two players are used in camp, and which of them will ultimately see more playing time in 2010.

I'm going with Johnson, at least to start the season. Carrington's got solid potential and is a much better fit for the 3-4, but I'm just not sure how much 3-4 we'll be playing when the season breaks. Edwards (and the entire coaching staff, for that matter) are all about fitting scheme to personnel, and no matter which way you slice it, Buffalo's front seven personnel - particularly along the defensive line - is still better suited to playing in 4-3 looks. I expect a lot of mixing and matching early to see which personnel and schemes work best together, which could limit Carrington's looks - along with the fact that the club should be bringing him along slowly.

But as the team gets more comfortable in the 3-4, it would be nice to see Carrington's snap counts increase as the season progresses. He's the best athletic fit for the five-technique spot on the roster, and if he develops quickly and plays will in his likely limited role early, he could emerge as a bona fide starting option heading into the 2011 season.