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Buffalo Bills training camp 2015: what we learned

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2015 Buffalo Bills training camp provided clarity in some roster battles, very little in others, and reinforced what we've all been asking about a Bills team trying to end a 15-year streak without a playoff berth: they'll be good, but will they be good enough?

Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

Another Buffalo Bills training camp has come and gone, but the 2015 version that just wrapped up provided a level of intrigue that Bills camps of yesteryear could only dream of. With 17 practices (plus two preseason games) in the books, and as the Bills pack up at St. John Fisher and head back to One Bills Drive in Orchard Park, we're left to evaluate where the team stands now that camp has concluded.

We will endeavor to do this in a few ways: by talking at least a little bit about every player on the roster; by establishing a ranking, based on perceived roster security, of every player at every position; and by fleshing out where, exactly, Bills decision-makers Doug Whaley and Rex Ryan (and, to an extent, coordinators Greg Roman, Dennis Thurman, and Danny Crossman) have tough calls forthcoming.

What did we learn during Bills training camp? The following 2,200-plus words attempt to answer that very question.

Quarterback

  1. Matt Cassel: Had long stretches of solid play, setting the bar for the other competitors.
  2. Tyrod Taylor: A clear fan favorite that has the most convincing argument to unseat Cassel.
  3. EJ Manuel: A polarizing figure thanks to good preseason play, but is clearly third in the pecking order.
  4. Matt Simms: Sticking around for the preseason finale; a viable No. 3 if a teammate is moved.

Training camp provided very little clarity on the Bills' starting quarterback race. That can either be viewed as a good thing, because the three competitors have all played well in preseason action thus far, or a bad thing, considering Week 1 is less than three weeks away.

Running Back

  1. LeSean McCoy: Has looked the part, but a hamstring injury is worrisome.
  2. Fred Jackson: Just returned from a hamstring injury; seems entrenched as the No. 2 back.
  3. Karlos Williams: The only player that could steal reps from Jackson, but surgery has slowed his roll.
  4. Boobie Dixon: Missed most of camp with a calf injury, one of many injuries at the position.
  5. Bryce Brown: Fumble issues and a hamstring tweak undermine one strong preseason outing.
  6. Bronson Hill: Street free agent has shouldered the load with everyone in front of him dinged.
  7. Cierre Wood: Signed last week, Wood is the most talented of the three "extra" backs.
  8. Ricky Seale: Little-used back at Stanford had his crack at NFL training camp.

This injury-riddled position has not seen much movement for that very reason. Williams impressed early, and might be in line for a role on offense - but hasn't done enough to unseat Jackson. Brown has work to do if he's going to make Dixon and his special teams prowess expendable.

Fullback

  1. Jerome Felton: Firmly entrenched as the Bills' starting fullback.
  2. John Conner: An injury kept him out of camp early; has not made much of an impression.

Conner is going to have a very hard time making this team, particularly if Dixon - who has moonlighted as a fullback for Roman before - makes the squad as expected.

Wide Receiver

  1. Sammy Watkins: When healthy, has dominated for stretches, regardless of who was covering him.
  2. Robert Woods: No. 2 job may change game to game, but Woods is going to be highly involved.
  3. Percy Harvin: Has missed multiple weeks with a hip injury, but should be good for Week 1.
  4. Marcus Easley: Won't be the No. 4 receiver, but special teams ace has great roster security.
  5. Marquise Goodwin: Had a strong camp; coaches seem eager to utilize his speed.
  6. Chris Hogan: Inconsistent hands, knee/ankle injuries could leave his spot up for grabs.
  7. Deonte Thompson: Has consistently stood out, to the point where other teams are noticing.
  8. Marcus Thigpen: Excellent punt returner has a good chance to make the team in that role.
  9. Andre Davis: Undrafted rookie has excelled at times; no lock to sneak onto the practice squad.
  10. Dezmin Lewis: Drafted rookie has come on of late, and is a prime practice squad candidate.
  11. Tobais Palmer: Has not really capitalized on some positive press from spring workouts.
  12. Austin Willis: Most recent roster addition is speedy slot-type with return ability.

The top four players here are locks, and Goodwin seems like a very safe bet at this juncture, as well. There are multiple players deserving of that sixth spot, which likely means there will be a sixth on the final roster, but it's anyone's guess right now who among Hogan, Thompson, Thigpen, and maybe even Davis will grab that slot.

Tight End

  1. Charles Clay: Other than McCoy and Watkins, might be the skill player Bills can least afford to lose.
  2. Matthew Mulligan: Blocking specialist seems to have locked down a roster spot.
  3. MarQueis Gray: Versatility and special teams ability help tremendously in his roster bid.
  4. Chris Gragg: Has flashed from time to time, but also has not clearly separated from the pack.
  5. Nick O'Leary: Sixth-round pick has not made waves in the backup tight end competition.

It's hard to argue that the position has played well enough to merit keeping four of the five players here. Behind Clay, there's a genuine crapshoot vibe, with no roster locks and all four players having murky arguments for their own roster inclusion. This position may need to be bolstered via the waiver wire.

Offensive Line

  1. Cordy Glenn: Playing as well as a talented athlete in his contract year should.
  2. Eric Wood: Has struggled at times in the pivot, but his job security hasn't changed.
  3. John Miller: Firmly entrenched as the starting right guard after a strong camp.
  4. Richie Incognito: Already named the starting left guard, but could still stand to improve.
  5. Seantrel Henderson: Nothing is official yet, but Henderson has a firm grip on the right tackle job.
  6. Kraig Urbik: A lock for the final roster as the top backup at all three interior positions.
  7. Cyrus Kouandjio: Is performing well enough right now to lay claim to swing tackle status.
  8. Cyril Richardson: Sneaking in first-team reps from time to time, but still struggles to pass protect.
  9. William Campbell: The only lineman beyond the top eight who has made a positive impression.
  10. Darryl Johnson: Might be playing out of position; has been a turnstile at second-team left tackle.
  11. Alex Kupper: Struggles mightily to snap, but has seen plenty of action with the second team.
  12. Tyson Chandler: Not remotely ready for an active roster, but could be a practice squad option.
  13. D.J. Morrell: Has not seen much playing time (yet) in preseason action.
  14. Terren Jones: In-camp addition has exclusively played third-team right tackle.

The starting five seems set, and Urbik and Kouandjio should be fairly comfortable with their job status, as well. Richardson is clearly upgradeable as the eighth lineman (inactive on game days), as he continues to struggle despite public praise from his head coach, and keeping nine here - which is standard practice - seems rich. Waiver-wire adds would make sense for this group, as well.

Thoughts on the offense: Roman's system has been as advertised - run-heavy, alignment-creative, and physical - and they have been effective, if not great, during preseason action. This offense, as expected all along, will rely heavily on improved line play and the elite talents of its skill players to mask deficiencies at quarterback, where we have scarcely more clarity today than when camp opened. Buffalo really needs its star players (McCoy and Watkins, specifically) healthy for the start and the duration of the regular season. They're walking a fine line between maybe-good-enough and disappointing, regardless of who is under center.

Defensive Line

  1. Marcell Dareus: Seems poised to have his best season yet, maximizing his contract value.
  2. Kyle Williams: Just returning from a leg injury, but will still be doing Kyle Williams things.
  3. Corbin Bryant: The clear favorite to start for Dareus in Week 1 after an excellent camp showing.
  4. Red Bryant: Late-camp addition is a veteran run stuffer that will fill an early-down rotational role.
  5. Stefan Charles: Has had a fairly quiet summer, which may or may not be meaningful.
  6. Alex Carrington: Missed a lot of time due to injury, which hurt his roster chances dramatically.
  7. Andre Fluellen: Athletic veteran appears to be on the outside looking in.
  8. Justin Hamilton: Undrafted rookie might be a prime practice squad candidate.

How many of these players will Ryan believe that he needs to keep? That will inform the debate between Nos. 5 and 6 on this list, and whether or not Charles and/or (probably or) Carrington will make the team. The two Bryants seem destined for wave/niche roles, but there's not an awful lot of playing time up for grabs here with the two Pro Bowlers hogging snaps.

Edge Defender

  1. Mario Williams: Another camp down, another double-digit sack season en route.
  2. Jerry Hughes: Spring-time concerns about the size of his role were clearly overblown.
  3. Manny Lawson: After a slow 2014 season, will re-assume a huge linebacker role for Buffalo.
  4. IK Enemkpali: Could hold a major role as a rotational/situational pass rusher.
  5. Randell Johnson: Struggles at times, but athleticism, positional versatility are pluses.
  6. Michael Buchanan: Fairly quiet summer has kept him on the bubble, but has versatility.
  7. Quentin Groves: Recently-signed veteran could sneak onto the 53-man roster.
  8. Cedric Reed: Has had his moments at end, and seems destined for the practice squad.
  9. Andrew Hudson: Another practice squad candidate that has made some plays this summer.
  10. B.J. Larsen: The least-impressive undrafted rookie edge rusher to date.

Lawson really is going to play a lot in Ryan's defense. That much we know. The rest is a bit murky; Enemkpali seems destined to be the top reserve defensive end, but the roles for the edge/linebacker hybrids (Johnson, Buchanan, Groves) are a bit more difficult to define. Expect one or two of them to make the final roster, and don't be surprised if Reed - who also plays end - sneaks onto the team somehow. Without much in the way of traditional linebacker depth, this group stands to benefit on the whole.

Linebacker

  1. Nigel Bradham: Another contract-year player poised to do big things in 2015.
  2. Preston Brown: A bit too up-and-down for comfort, but still mostly solid as the Mike.
  3. Tony Steward: Highly athletic with special teams chops, but may not be ready for key reserve role.
  4. A.J. Tarpley: Has had his moments in camp, particularly in pass coverage.
  5. Jimmy Gaines: Injury has robbed WNY native of a chance to compete for a job.

It would not be terribly surprising if the Bills looked to the waiver wire for a sensible addition, but Bradham and Brown are every-down players, and the team clearly likes Steward on special teams. (Tarpley would be a wise keep on the practice squad, as well.) Depth is concerning, but perhaps not in an emergency state.

Cornerback

  1. Stephon Gilmore: Appears more consistent, and seems ready to enjoy a breakout campaign.
  2. Leodis McKelvin: Spent the entirety of training camp in a cast, driving around on a scooter.
  3. Nickell Robey: Continued to make plays this summer while signing a two-year contract extension.
  4. Ronald Darby: Running with the ones in place of McKelvin, Darby has already proven he belongs.
  5. Ron Brooks: He'll buck the bubble rhetoric again as a top reserve and special teams player.
  6. Mario Butler: Ryan has praised his summer work on multiple occasions, and could make the team.
  7. Ellis Lankster: Veteran that knows Ryan's system; also has special teams ability.
  8. Ross Cockrell: Only returned from an injury this week, and may not have time to make up ground.
  9. Merrill Noel: Slot-sized undrafted free agent has flashed, and could make the practice squad.
  10. Cam Thomas: Spent the entirety of camp on the PUP list.

McKelvin's status will inform decisions here; Ryan has said that he doesn't expect the veteran corner to begin the season on Reserve/NFI, but unless he's out of his giant cast soon, that might be the best move to make. This is purely a numbers game, as the top five names on the list have defined roles with the team. They'll probably have six on the roster, but if that number doesn't include McKelvin's name to start out, that'll bode well for Butler and Lankster, who are the bubble players in this scenario.

Safety

  1. Aaron Williams: Exits camp (mostly) healthy and the unquestioned top safety on the roster.
  2. Corey Graham: So much for that starting competition; Graham won that job immediately.
  3. Duke Williams: Had a very up-and-down summer, but is still a very strong bet to make the team.
  4. Bacarri Rambo: Of those competing for roster spots, Rambo seems to have made the most plays.
  5. Jonathan Meeks: Snuck in a few first-team reps early, but has been buried of late.
  6. Kenny Ladler: Special teams option has not seen as much time at safety so far as others.
  7. Wesley Miller: Undrafted free agent seems like a prime practice squad candidate.

Aaron Williams and Graham are your starters, and have a chance to be a pretty good and versatile pairing on the back end. Who will Ryan turn to if he wants to run three-safety looks? That's the question, as Duke Williams has not had an impressive camp, and might have played himself out of that role. It's possible that five could be kept here, given that all of these guys can play special teams, plus a box safety can play a linebacker role in the event of injury there.

Thoughts on the defense: Believe the hype. Depth is a concern for any defense in the NFL, just as it is for the Bills in certain spots, but this group has genuine star power and top-notch athleticism at every level. They genuinely have a chance to be the best defense in the NFL in 2015, and even if they don't reach that milestone, if the group stays healthy, they'll be excellent.

Special Teams

  1. Dan Carpenter: Knocking off the rust after missing time with a hamstring issue.
  2. Garrison Sanborn: Continues the consistent snap quality he's displayed since 2009.
  3. Colton Schmidt: Has alleviated remaining concerns about his ability with a great camp.
  4. Jordan Gay: Continues to kick footballs a long way, and high into the air, off of a tee.

Gay is a good kickoff specialist, but will be completely at Ryan's mercy during final cut-downs. Ryan may or may not see the value that Doug Marrone saw.

Thoughts on special teams: Two years (one vastly improved over the other) into his gig as Bills special teams coordinator, Crossman seems to have a clear idea of who fits where on his various units. He'll have a lot of input regarding the final few roster spots this year, and the Bills appear ready to continue to be very good in this phase.