Tomorrow afternoon at 1:30PM ET on NFL Network, the Buffalo Bills will open their 2013 preseason schedule with a road trip to take on the Indianapolis Colts. It will be the first time that players competing for key starting jobs and major roles will have an opportunity to separate themselves from their teammates outside of the practice setting.
In particular, we'll have our eyes on the following position battles when the Bills and Colts kick off tomorrow.
EJ Manuel will start in Indianapolis, and Kevin Kolb won't see the field unless he has to. By nearly every account, Manuel had already created a little wiggle room between he and Kolb before the veteran hurt his knee and missed a week of practice attending to a family matter. A strong showing in Indy would turn that wiggle room into a breathable space; then again, if he struggles, the door will be wide open for Kolb to close the gap as he returns to practice next week.
Out for more than a week with a strained hamstring, Stevie Johnson will not play in this game. That means that three very young players - second-year pro T.J. Graham and rookies Robert Woods and Marquise Goodwin - will see a lot of action with the first-team offense on Sunday. We're fairly certain that all of those receivers will have a role to play on offense, but if any can start to differentiate themselves in a live football setting, their planned role could very well increase.
11 practices into training camp, Colin Brown has six days with the first-team offense to the four for Doug Legursky as that duo vies to start at left guard. Brown has been with the ones for the last two practices, and it's expected that he'll start on Sunday. This battle remains neck-and-neck, however - and also the one that seems to be giving head coach Doug Marrone the most headaches at present - and each will look to be on his A game in Indy.
Kyle Williams, who continues to ease himself back into the game following off-season Achilles surgery, could very well end up being a spectator for this one despite participating in team activities on a limited basis of late. If he sits, we'll be interested to see how much first-team playing time each of Marcell Dareus, Alex Carrington, Jay Ross and Alan Branch receives. There are only so many snaps to be had up front in a nickel- and dime-heavy defense, and the pecking order here could be highly intriguing as the preseason progresses.
Much like Kyle Williams, Mario Williams may sit this game out as the team continues to monitor the sore foot that caused some hubbub at the beginning of camp. That will leave first-team outside linebacker reps to be split between Manny Lawson, Jerry Hughes and Jamie Blatnick (and Kourtnei Brown may even be tossed in on occasion). Lawson is expected to be an early-down defender, and if Williams drops down to the defensive line on passing downs, there will be a rush specialist position up for grabs, with Hughes and the surprising Blatnick the key competitors. Both have had a strong camp, and they'll try to take that onto the field of play.
The Bills have lined up five cornerbacks in the No. 2 spot opposite Stephon Gilmore this summer. The expected starter of the group, Leodis McKelvin, is not expected to play after missing the last three practices with soreness. Justin Rogers, out more than a week with a hamstring injury, will also sit this one out. Ron Brooks and Nickell Robey have taken these reps of late, but T.J. Heath may sneak into the picture, as well. For now, we can expect Brooks and Robey to play extensively with the first-team defense - and if either impresses, they may cement themselves as part of the defensive back rotation entering the regular season.
Dustin Hopkins and Rian Lindell continue to duke it out at kicker (though Hopkins is the clear favorite there), while things are fairly even between punter candidates Shawn Powell and Brian Stahovich. Live game situations will be key for these two battles in particular, and all four legitimate roster candidates will need strong performances to, at minimum, keep the competitions close.
Are there any other prominent roles up for grabs that you're keeping an eye on tomorrow afternoon?