Buffalo Bills 2016 training camp is finally upon us.
Before the team hits the field for its first official practice of the season on Saturday morning, I’ve outlined some training camp battles (with predicted winners) for your perusal:
No. 3 cornerback
The incumbent: Nickell Robey-Coleman
Robey-Coleman was a pesky nickel corner as a rookie, regressed slightly in 2014 and had his most disappointing year a season ago... but wasn’t a major liability in the Bills’ secondary. He’s been durable, having not missed a game since entering the NFL, and his size and quickness match most of the league’s slot receivers well. Also, he’s an experienced albeit not necessarily efficient blitzer, the former being an asset in Rex Ryan’s defense. While Robey-Coleman’s play has been trending downward since his impressive debut campaign, it won’t be easy for him to lose his job.
The challengers: Sterling Moore, Mario Butler, Corey White, Javier Arenas, Kevon Seymour
Moore was the best cornerback in a porous Buccaneers defensive backfield in 2015, and he’s only 26 years old. Like Robey-Coleman, he entered the league as a UDFA and, actually, has had quite the career despite already being on his fourth team.
The 5’10", 190-pounder had two picks as a rookie with the New England Patriots, ironically both against Buffalo in the 2011 season finale. A few weeks later, in the playoffs, Moore was the cornerback who knocked the potential game-winning touchdown out of Lee Evans’ hands in the waning seconds of the AFC Championship Game against the Ravens. A season ago, he snagged one interception and defended six passes in Tampa Bay. He’s the primary Robey-Coleman challenger.
Butler flashed ball skills in camp and preseason last year but struggled in limited action during the regular season. Another former UDFA, Butler is entering his fourth year with the Bills.
White has played for the Saints, Cowboys and Cardinals in his four-year pro career. In 51 games, he’s defended 22 passes and grabbed four interceptions. If you ask a Cowboys fan about White, they’ll remember a serviceable depth defender. If you ask a Saints fan about him, they’ll likely, well... they won’t have fond memories.
Arenas was teammates with Marcell Dareus at Alabama, and the 28-year-old has seen a ton of NFL action in his six-year NFL career. With the Chiefs, he appeared in 47 games from 2010 to 2012. Most notably a kick and punt returner, Arenas played for the Cardinals in 2013 and Falcons in 2014. He spent the 2015 training camp with the Jets but failed to make the final roster. Arenas’ best chance to make the 2016 Bills is as the club’s primary returner.
Seymour was Buffalo’s sixth-round pick just a few months ago. He’s 6’0" and was clocked at 4.39 in the 40-yard dash at the combine. Ty Dunne of The Buffalo News wrote an interesting feature on Seymour, which highlighted his eyesight issues and what he’s done to correct them. Seymour is what you’d call a "deep sleeper."
Predicted Winner: Sterling Moore
The incumbent: Jordan Mills
Mills has two things going for him:
- Buffalo’s offensive line coach, Aaron Kromer, was with him in Chicago for two seasons.
- He actually played well in the month of December and ended the season as the starting right tackle.
Is Mills an eventual Pro Bowler? Highly unlikely. However he did handle himself well after being thrown into the fire against J.J. Watt in 2015. At 6’5" and 314 pounds with 34" arms, Mills undoubtedly passes the eye test, and his film shows glimpses of a nasty streak every team wants from its right tackle. Mills must improve against smaller, speed rushers who can get him off balance.
The challengers: Seantrel Henderson, Cyrus Kouandjio
Henderson is battling Crohn’s disease, and although the team hasn’t given an official update recently or laid out a specific timetable, there has been "positive news" on his progress, according to GM Doug Whaley. The former seventh-round pick from the University of Miami played all 16 games as a rookie in 2014, and I thought he was the biggest liability on the line. Even early in 2015, Henderson had just minimal stretches of sound play. His starting experience is valuable, though.
Kouandjio is a polarizing Bills player, and count me in the minority that wants to see him get more of an opportunity. The former second-round selection, who just turned 23, experienced immense growing pains as a rookie but was one of Pro Football Focus’ highest-graded offensive tackles in the 2015 preseason and was solid in his limited action during the regular season. Younger than some 2016 draft picks, upside is still in Kouandjio’s corner, then again, if he doesn’t prove to be at least more reliable than Henderson, he may not be in Buffalo much longer. As of last season, Kouandjio’ strength was run-blocking, but he demonstrated greatly improved balance and footwork as pass-protector.
Predicted winner: Jordan Mills
No. 3 safety
The incumbent: Duke Williams
Williams -- along with Bacarri Rambo — stepped into the second safety position after Aaron Williams went down in Week 2 of 2015 with mixed results.
He carried the "big hitter" label from college at Nevada into the NFL yet hasn’t been able to establish himself an enforcer early in his career and has routinely been lost in coverage, regardless of where he lined up before the snap.
The challengers: Robert Blanton, Jonathan Meeks, Jonathan Dowling, Colt Anderson
Blanton was once a starter on a up-and-coming Vikings defense. He then lost his starting role and never got it back. The soon-to-be 27-year-old Notre Dame product has appeared in 60 games in his NFL career. He’s more of a jack-of-all-trades than a specialist in any one area.
Inexperience is the general theme for the rest of the challengers, Meeks, Dowling and Anderson. It’d be a significant surprise if either Williams or Blanton were not the next in line at the safety spot behind Corey Graham and Aaron Williams at the start of the regular season.
Predicted winner: Robert Blanton
The incumbent: John Miller
After drafting him in the third round of the 2015 draft following a lengthy career at Louisville, the Bills want Miller to win this competition. Like most rookie offensive linemen, he lacked in the strength department a year ago and was a step slow getting to the second level and when asked to pull across the formation.
(I labeled him a 2016 Bills X-Factor.)
Miller is "small" for an offensive guard, at 6’2" and around 300 pounds, but his size lends itself to more quickness, and he goes 100% on every snap. If he’s added power to his game and has a better grasp of the complex blocking designs of Greg Roman’s offense, he’ll have a relatively decent chance to retain his starting right guard gig.
The challengers: Fernando Velasco, Cyril Richardson
Like Moore, Velasco was a shrewd depth signing during free agency — versatile, adequate player brought in a cheap contract.
The veteran offensive lineman has played for the Titans, Steelers and, most recently, the Panthers during his seven-year career. He’s manned all three interior offensive line positions but, obviously, he has the best opportunity to play right guard for the Bills. At 31, Velasco shouldn’t be expected to completely transform the right side of Buffalo’s line, however, with the uncertainty that comes with Miller entering Year 2, there’s a good chance Velasco sees the field in 2016.
Richardson was a fifth-round pick two years ago, and although he appeared in 12 games and made four starts as a rookie, he didn’t see any action for Buffalo in 2015.
Like he did at Baylor, Richardson gets exposed by quick defensive linemen who have good lateral agility and burst... strength is not an issue for the 6’5", 330-pound offensive guard. If he’s gotten more fleet of foot, he’s a sleeper to garner some playing time with the starters in the preseason. The most likely outcome for Richardson is more time spent on the practice squad.
Predicted winner: John Miller
The incumbent: Jerome Felton
Felton was the most obvious free-agent signing during the Bills "splashy" 2015 offseason, as the fullback is an integral piece to Greg Roman’s offense. During his prime, Felton was one of the best lead-blockers in football, but now, at 30, it’s not crazy to assume his best days are behind him. He sprung a handful of big-gainers a season ago, but whiffed more often than expected.
The challenger: Glenn Gronkowski
Gronk was a top-level lead-blocker in 2015 with Kansas State, though it’s hard to quantify how much he excelled in that area.
While it may be a stretch to assume Baby Gronk can suddenly emerge as a viable pass-catching fullback, after posting just 15 receptions, 365 yards and five touchdowns in three collegiate seasons, he boasts the athleticism to create favorable matchups against linebackers and defensive backs.
Here’s how he stacks up against Charles Clay:
|Height / Weight||40-Yard Dash||Three-Cone Drill||Short-Shuttle Drill|
|Charles Clay, 2011||6027 / 245||4.73||7.07||4.15|
|Glenn Gronkowski, 2016||6021 / 239||4.71||7.1||4.45|
...which brings me to my next point. Gronkowski will certainly have to display reliable lead-blocking in camp, but I think he can pull away from Felton if he showcases his athletic talents as a receiver. If he does that, he can double as a classic fullback and Clay’s backup.
Predicted winner: Glenn Gronkowski
No. 3 wide receiver
The challengers: Greg Salas, Leonard Hankerson, Jarrett Boykin, Greg Little, Dez Lewis, Marquise Goodwin, Kolby Listenbee
The most hyped position battle of 2016 training camp features a plethora of journeymen, a promising second year player and some rookies.
In June, MRW broke down this competition, with some quotes from Buffalo’s wide receiver coach Sanjay Lal. It’s definitely worth a read.
Basically, Salas, Hankerson, Boykin and Little are "known" names who’ve either completely fallen short of initial expectations or labored through drastic dips in production after one promising season.
At 6’4" and 215 pounds, Lewis is the most intriguing, because of his size and simply due to the fact that we don’t know what he has to offer just yet.
Unfortunately, Goodwin has never been able to stay healthy in his pro career, and Listenbee, a pass-catcher with comparable speed, was just added in the draft.
Predicted winner: Dez Lewis
On Reggie Bush
Right now, the impact the Bills will likely need from their No. 3 wideout is pretty minimal.
If they sign Reggie Bush... it’ll likely make that receiver’s role almost completely insignificant, simply due to lack of targets to go around.
Using past seasonal averages, I estimated the "low-end" target figures for the Bills’ offensive skill-position players:
|Player||Low-End Predicted Targets in 2016|
|Backup TEs, RBs||45|
As you can see, even in a "lowest-possible scenario" in terms of combined targets — which is important to consider — there should be only around 35-40 targets for Buffalo’s No. 3 wideout this season.
Sure, it can be argued that the third receiver could take precedence over Bush. However, Bush has proven to be at his best when utilized as an offensive weapon out of slot — or simply as a pass-catcher in space — who occasionally carries the football... in essence, a third wideout.
We aren’t sure if the Bills will sign the veteran just yet, but in Vic Carucci we trust.