At roughly six o'clock this evening, the Buffalo Bills will kick off the 2014 season with their first (and the league's first) training camp practice of the new year. Football is back, ladies and gentlemen. Revel in it.
The first practice of the season is annually the most over-analyzed day of the football calendar year, in the humble opinion of the author. Rather than breathlessly wait for snap-to-snap updates on the tightness of EJ Manuel's spirals and whether or not he looks in rhythm with his receivers yet, we're going to focus early camp coverage primarily on more tangible items. Not much of a football practice is relevant to the season, but scouring lineups for the unexpected comes pretty close to relevance.
Buffalo has plenty of position battles to monitor at all levels of the depth chart, and tonight we'll have our first clear indication of the starting point for many of those key areas. There are more than just five such situations to monitor, of course, but these are the five that I am most interested in hearing about tonight. What are yours?
We know that Mario Williams is going to play a ton, and we know that Jerry Hughes is going to be a starter and, more pertinently, the team's go-to complementary end in passing situations. We can also reasonably guess that Manny Lawson will be a mainstay at the top end of the depth chart, but how the position looks on the second and third teams will be of interest early, because personnel-wise, things are still a bit nebulous there. Jarius Wynn, Ikponmwosa Igbinosun, and Jacquies Smith are the names of particular interest. One of those players could sneak onto the final roster.
During the spring months, Doug Marrone made some waves when he split starting right guard reps between Kraig Urbik and reserve tackle Chris Hairston, who missed the entire 2013 season due to an illness. Was that decision simply a coach tinkering with his lineups and personnel during lower-stakes minicamp sessions, or was it the prelude to a pending battle for the starting right guard job? If this rotation continues Sunday night, we may have our answer.
Left tackle is settled, even with Cordy Glenn sidelined by illness: rookie Seantrel Henderson will take reps there. The right side, however, remains in flux. Sort of. Cyrus Kouandjio, the team's second-round pick this spring, is the expected starter, but he may not be handed the starting job the way many expect. Erik Pears, last season's starter, may get a shot at trying to hold off the rookie this summer.
A season-ending injury to Kiko Alonso has the Bills' outside linebacker situation in flux, and there are upwards of four players that could conceivably compete for two starting jobs. The popular assumption is that Keith Rivers and Preston Brown have a leg up at the outside linebacker positions, but Nigel Bradham and Ty Powell will factor into that conversation, as well. How the coaching staff divides up first-team reps among that quartet could give us an early indication at a pecking order.
GM Doug Whaley admitted in a Friday interview with John Murphy that Da'Norris Searcy has a leg up in the starting safety job thanks to his playing time edge. Whaley did, however, speak highly of two mid-round 2013 draft picks that are competing with Searcy for a starting job next to Aaron Williams; fourth-round pick Duke Williams offers more athletic upside, but Whaley said that Jonathan Meeks, a player that is consistently in good position, started to make more plays in the spring setting. We'll see if Searcy is handed the job, or if first-team reps are given to either of the two younger guys tonight.