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Bills training camp 2014: resetting position battles, roles on offense

On the Bills' first off day during training camp, let's pause to reassess what we've learned and assumed about the shape of the team's offense as we progress into the exhibition season.

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After four straight days of Buffalo Bills training camp practices, the team has the day off on Thursday, which gives us time to pause and reassess what we know about the roster after several days of information overload. Let's start on offense, with a practical rundown of what we can expect that unit to look like as training camp progresses.

Six players locked into huge roles

By "huge" roles, we refer to players that, if they stay healthy, are going to play 90 percent or more of all offensive snaps in 2014, without much question. That limits this list to the quarterback, the offensive linemen, and a couple of wide receivers.

EJ Manuel is the quarterback. Whatever your feelings about his progress (or lack thereof) so far this summer, he's the guy. Sammy Watkins is the NFL's training camp superstar of week one, and he's obviously going to be on the field a ton. The same can be surmised of Robert Woods, who in games he finished healthy (or not ejected for throwing a punch) as a rookie played 94 percent of snaps.

Along the offensive line, Eric Wood and Chris Williams are locked in at center and left guard, respectively. When he returns to the practice field from his undisclosed illness - which he will, because I refuse to believe that the Bills are so unlucky that they'll lose two of the NFL's best young players to non-football reasons before they even have a chance to practice - Cordy Glenn will be the left tackle.

Competitions for two huge roles

The right guard and right tackle, if healthy and consistent, will play every snap in Buffalo's offense, as well. Right now, both of those roles are in flux, but less so at right tackle.

When the Bills drafted Cyrus Kouandjio in the second round of May's draft, most assumed that he'd be the starting right tackle. Many continue to make that assumption; there's a reason the Bills drafted a tackle that early, after all. But in the first four practices of the summer, incumbent starter Erik Pears has run exclusively with the first-team offense. The veteran has a leg up on the rookie, but the door is not close to being closed on Kouandjio just yet.

Things are more ironclad at right guard: Kraig Urbik and Chris Hairston have begun splitting first-team reps there, just as they did during a mandatory minicamp in late June. Going forward, that should be the considered, with relative ease, the most important ongoing position battle in Bills training camp. The winner, if he holds onto the job, will be a vitally important player in 2014.

Five players locked into significant roles

Though there are more interesting questions about the Bills' running back situation, which we'll get to in the next section, there is little doubt that both C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson are going to see a lot of playing time - and a lot of touches - for the Bills this year. They are still the top two guys at running back, and the players that the team will game plan for each week.

At receiver, it seems quite clear at this point that both Mike Williams and Marquise Goodwin will have significant roles. Williams brings a physical dimension to the receiving corps that will be necessary in certain situations, while Goodwin's deep speed will be a huge asset in others. Neither appears to be in line to surpass Watkins or Woods for every-down status, but these guys will be on the field a lot.

Finally, at tight end, it does not appear at this time that anyone is going to seriously push Scott Chandler for the starting tight end job. He played just under 80 percent of snaps last season, and while that might dip a bit, it's pretty obvious at this point that he's going to be on the field a lot this season, too.

Competitions for three smaller roles

It's not strictly true that Lee Smith is competing with anyone for the role of blocking tight end, because he's by far the best blocker at his position group on the roster (and one of the best in the league). For him, it's a matter of keeping that role relevant in Buffalo's offense, or whether other depth tight ends can perform well enough to steal some of his reps.

The Bills used a fullback on 21 percent of snaps last season, and while Frank Summers has a clear lead on Evan Rodriguez at this point, that remains a competition to monitor.

Most intriguingly, there remains the matter of Buffalo's two new running backs, Bryce Brown and Anthony Dixon. Both have enjoyed strong starts to training camp, and both seem like very sure bets to make the Bills' 53-man roster this fall. The only remaining question, then, is whether or not Doug Marrone and Nathaniel Hackett will specifically plan for these guys to have a significant number of snaps and touches per game. Carving out a niche for a third running back is difficult enough, let alone having a fourth, as well. These may be situational runners, too; that's especially true of the bigger and more physical Dixon.

Competitions for remaining roster spots

Given that they are competing for the backup quarterback job, both Thad Lewis and Jeff Tuel are likely to be on the team this fall; it's just a matter of which order they'll end up on the depth chart.

There is something of a free-for-all happening for, in all likelihood, two reserve roster spots at wide receiver. Chris Hogan, T.J. Graham, and Marcus Easley were all with the team last season, while Kevin Elliott spent the season on injured reserve. Elliott is the type of high-caliber athlete that always impresses in the practice setting, and there is some buzz that he can make a push to surpass the team's best special teams player from a year ago (Easley), the highly athletic former third-round pick (Graham), and the reliable slot option (Hogan) for a roster spot. In terms of the back end of the roster, this is a competition that is absolutely worth watching.

The two tight ends that are not only competing for a roster spot, but potentially a role to take reps away from Chandler and Smith, are Tony Moeaki and Chris Gragg. Moeaki has a leg up there not just because of his experience, but due to the fact that Gragg has been hospitalized after succumbing to the heat early in camp.

Finally, there are two separate reserve offensive line competitions to monitor: spots six and seven, who will serve as the active reserves on game days, and spot eight (and perhaps spot nine), the deeper reserves that will likely be inactive on game days, but who might be worth keeping around long-term. Obviously, how this part of the roster shakes out will depend on who wins the right guard and right tackle jobs - both Urbik and Pears have contracts that could make them expendable if they lose out - but for now, the names to keep in mind here are Seantrel Henderson at tackle, and Doug Legursky, Antoine McClain, Cyril Richardson, and J.J. 'Unga on the interior line.