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. This is a practical rundown of what we can expect the defense to look like as training camp progresses; if you missed it earlier, here's the same structured look at the offense.
Six players locked into huge roles
Few defensive linemen in the NFL play as many snaps as Mario Williams plays; he came in at just over 87 percent of the defensive total last season, and given his importance and the depth at his position, it's tough to envision his role shrinking this season. The same is true of both Kyle Williams and, when he's finally back in the lineup, Marcell Dareus; both are defensive tackles that will be in the 75-80 percent of snaps range, which is excellent given the rigors of their position.
The other three names on this list all play in the defensive backfield. As the starting cornerbacks, Stephon Gilmore and Leodis McKelvin hold every-down roles. (People forget that Gilmore played 1,056 out of a possible 1,088 snaps in his rookie season; he very nearly pulled an Alonso in 2012.) There are durability concerns with top safety Aaron Williams, but if he can steer clear of the injured list, it's a good bet that he'll come very close to playing every snap, as well.
Competitions for two huge roles
For most of the spring months, the question of who would become the team's new starting safety reigned supreme. Through four camp practices, however, Da'Norris Searcy has been the exclusive first-team safety, and remains comfortably ahead of his challengers, Duke Williams and Johnathan Meeks. Searcy is going to have a role on defense no matter what, but the winner of this competition should end up being an every-down player.
Similarly, Searcy factors into the team's sub-package linebacker situation, but the Bills still need to identify their best pass covering linebacker. That linebacker is going to end up playing an awful lot. The three players directly involved in that competition are Keith Rivers, Nigel Bradham, and rookie Preston Brown; all three could be important role players, but it's quite possible that one of them could be much more than that.
Four players locked into significant roles
Jerry Hughes, if he acquits himself well enough against the run, may end up being more than the high-quality designated pass rusher that he was in 2013 (he played 53 percent of snaps). At bare minimum, however, he will play a vitally important role to the team as a pass rusher, and will be on the field a lot - especially in key passing situations.
He won't be an every-down linebacker, even if he's seeing early nickel team work in camp, but there's no doubt that Brandon Spikes will play a very prominent role on defense. He's the key new addition to the team's inconsistent run defense, and while he'll be sidelined in obvious passing situations, he's going to play well over half of the team's defensive snaps if he stays healthy.
In the defensive backfield, where extra bodies are constantly being shifted in and out of the lineup - and where quality third and fourth corners are extremely valuable - both Corey Graham and Nickell Robey are going to see a lot of playing time. They face no quality competition for playing time at the moment, and are the two most well-established defensive backs on the roster - that aren't projected for the starting lineup, that is - by a significant margin.
Status updates on five smaller roles
It's a virtual guarantee that at least one reserve defensive end is going to see a lot of rotational snaps, and his role will be even bigger if the aforementioned Hughes can't hold up well enough against the run. Manny Lawson has a stranglehold on that role, particularly if a run-down complement to Hughes' pass rushing prowess is needed. Lawson may actually become an improved pass rusher with a narrower-focused positional role, as well.
The defensive tackle situation is a bit murky with Dareus facing the possibility of a suspension, and Alan Branch isn't helping that picture out in any way by failing the training camp conditioning test. He is the top interior reserve, however, and he'll play a lot of snaps as a wave player when everyone in the middle is healthy and running at top speed. It's also likely that a fourth defensive tackle will see a healthy number of reps, and the two main competitors for that role are Corbin Bryant and Stefan Charles.
Surrounding Spikes and whichever linebacker emerges as the best coverage player is the need for a third, base-down outside linebacker. Just like before, that battle will come down to Keith Rivers, Nigel Bradham, and Preston Brown. Thus far in training camp, Rivers and Bradham have seen the vast majority of the first-team work, with Brown working in for some sub-package stuff while mostly playing on the second team.
Finally, in the defensive backfield, there will be opportunities for a seventh defensive back to make it onto the field - especially in the event that the team can't identify a true, every-down linebacker that they're comfortable with. The three top candidates for that role (i.e. the three reserve defensive backs with the most job security) are safeties Duke Williams and Jonathan Meeks, as well as rookie cornerback Ross Cockrell.
Competitions for remaining roster spots
There will be a fourth defensive end on the team, even if he doesn't play much (or any) defense. Right now, veteran Jarius Wynn holds the advantage over challengers Ike Igbinosun and Jacquies Smith in that race, but Igbinosun has flashed some positional versatility, which could help his cause.
The Bills are a bit thin at linebacker, with only five players (the four named above, plus well-regarded reserve Ty Powell) strong bets to make the team. If the Bills do keep a sixth linebacker, rookies Jimmy Gaines and Randell Johnson (currently missing practices with an injury) are the front-runners, but that position is also unstable to the point that guys like Stevenson Sylvester and Xavius Boyd could easily find themselves in the conversation.
Five cornerbacks (Gilmore, McKelvin, Graham, Robey, and Cockrell) and four safeties (Williams, Searcy, Williams, and Meeks) are pretty strong bets to make the team already. If Jim Schwartz and Donnie Henderson end up wanting to keep another defensive back or two, the biggest names to watch on that front are Ron Brooks at cornerback and undrafted rookie free agent Kenny Ladler at safety. Brooks has the benefit of draft status, but Ladler has generated some buzz with his play already this summer.