Buffalo Bills players have the day off from training camp activities on Thursday, meaning that it's a great day to wrap our heads around what has transpired during the first four practices of the new season. The team has plenty of prominent playing time roles up for grabs this summer, and the situation at each position has clarified in some way since camp started on Sunday.
E.J. Manuel is the talk of town, having begun his first NFL training camp with several strong practices. Kevin Kolb, however, has received significantly more first-team reps, more reps in general, and has played against far more aggressive and varied looks from Mike Pettine's defense. Manuel is being spoon-fed by Buffalo's offensive coaching staff; the solid foods are soon to come. It's certainly encouraging that he's handling what he's given well, but there may be a long way to go before the rookie passes Kolb on the depth chart - even as Kolb continues to struggle.
There was never really any doubt about which player would line up as the No. 2 wide receiver - and while T.J. Graham has shown good signs this summer, Robert Woods is already taking first-team reps away from him, and has been the recipient of rave reviews from many that have taken in practices. He remains the strong favorite to start opposite Stevie Johnson, with Graham and Marquise Goodwin figuring to have roles, as well.
Colin Brown has taken the majority of first-team reps through the early portions of camp, but Doug Legursky began to steal some of those from him earlier this week. Bills head coach Doug Marrone, however, is clearly not happy with what he's seen from that duo thus far.
"I think both players are doing the best they can," Marrone said Wednesday. "I think we have to look to throw someone else in the mix. I don’t think we’ve seen the separation right now... (We'll) see if there’s anyone else that can go there and see if someone else can separate themselves. I think they’re both doing a good job and they both have to develop, and I’m looking toward the preseason games to see how they perform in the preseason games. But right now it’s not solidified in the way you want to be right now."
It's not yet clear which player might be the third to enter the race to replace Andy Levitre, but we could know as soon as Friday morning, when camp practices resume.
Due to the continued absence of Chris Hairston (on Active/PUP with an undisclosed lower body injury), Erik Pears has taken the vast majority of first-team reps on the right side so far this summer. Some expected that other players - like Sam Young or the struggling Zebrie Sanders - might enter the fray, but that has not been the case. Unless Hairston can get healthy soon, Pears might walk into the starting lineup, even with a salary that should otherwise put him on the roster bubble.
Kyle Williams remains limited coming off of off-season surgery, and Marcell Dareus was limited early on in camp due to a viral illness. In total, five players have taken first-team reps along the defensive line to this point: Dareus, Alex Carrington, Alan Branch, Jay Ross and Torell Troup. (Dareus, Branch, Ross and Troup have all seen time at nose tackle, as well.)
It's not yet clear how many defensive linemen the Bills will keep for their hybrid defense, but beyond Williams and Dareus (who should start to see a more normal workload very soon), the early pecking order appears to be as follows: Carrington, Ross, Branch, Troup. Branch may climb the ladder, so to speak, as he continues to grow more comfortable in the defense after missing spring practices.
We already knew that Kiko Alonso was a shoo-in to start, but there was some question regarding whether or not Nigel Bradham could lock down a three-down linebacker role beside him. Perhaps aided by the fact that Marcus Dowtin has had to work mostly at outside linebacker, Bradham has been a mainstay next to Alonso in the lineup, with Bryan Scott and Arthur Moats handling second-team inside linebacker duties. For now, it's looking like Alonso and Bradham will open the season as Buffalo's every-down linebackers.
Long-assumed starting cornerback Leodis McKelvin only began taking first-team reps on Wednesday after he missed spring workouts recovering from off-season groin surgery. Until that point, three other players had lined up across the field from Stephon Gilmore: Justin Rogers, Ron Brooks and even T.J. Heath. Rogers is currently out with a hamstring issue, while Brooks looks like he'll end up being the nickel corner. Unless McKelvin falters from this point forward, it looks like he'll stake his claim to the job as expected.
Jairus Byrd remains a no-show, and as expected, Aaron Williams and Da'Norris Searcy have been the beneficiaries, taking the lion's share of first-team reps thus far in camp. (Searcy, according to several reports from camp, has been all over the field, and the better of the two.) Duke Williams began receiving first-team reps as part of a three-safety package on Wednesday, according to BuffaloBills.com, but until that point had been working mostly as a second-teamer. For now, as long as Byrd is out of the picture, it's looking like Searcy and Williams are locked in with the top unit.
Rookie kicker Dustin Hopkins remains the favorite to unseat veteran Rian Lindell this year, showing off a stronger leg, as expected. The punter battle, however, looks like a dead heat between Shawn Powell and Brian Stahovich at this point. Pre-season performances will carry a lot of weight in these battles.