The Buffalo Bills have a new head coach in former Syracuse head man Doug Marrone. Marrone also was the offensive coordinator for the New Orleans Saints for the first three years of Sean Payton’s tenure there. And he hopes to end the Bills’ league-leading playoff drought by building a dynamic offense similar to what he helped design in New Orleans.
In order to that, he’ll have to start with the quarterback position. The Bills will feature an open competition between veteran Kevin Kolb and first round pick E.J. Manuel. Kolb received the majority of reps during OTAs, but the team did dump Tarvaris Jackson in June, which clears the way for Manuel to win the job. While it’s possible that Marrone could opt for the veteran in Kolb to start the season, by the time the Bills face the Falcons in Week 13, it seems likely that Manuel will be the starter.
One reason for that is the lack of durability that Kolb has shown in the past. Injuries cost him starting jobs in both previous stints in Philadelphia and Arizona. Injuries and inconsistency. Kolb simply doesn’t have the upside that Manuel possesess, with his superior size, arm strength, and athleticism drawing comparisons to Cam Newton during the lead-up to this past April’s draft.
Not to mention that of the fifteen first round quarterbacks selected since 2008, only two of them were not the starters by Week 8 of their rookie seasons (Tim Tebow and Jake Locker). So even if Manuel doesn’t win the job during camp, odds are that he’ll get his opportunity in 2013, assuming history repeats itself in regards to Kolb’s ability to maintain a hold on the starting spot.
Bills training camp will also feature an open competition at the wide receiver position, where a number of young receivers will be competing to be the complement to Stevie Johnson. Second round pick Robert Woods is expected to win the starting job, due to his polished ability. But T.J. Graham has had a strong off-season and has bulked up to add to his already excellent vertical speed. And regardless of who wins the matchup, Marrone’s offense likely will feature a number of three wide receiver spots. Also competing at the spot will be rookies Marquise Goodwin and Da’Rick Rogers. Rogers may be the most talented of the group, but he’ll be on a short leash given his off-field baggage.
The tight end position could also see some shakeup. Starter Scott Chandler is recovering from an ACL tear and has been limited in the off-season. That has given athletic rookie Chris Gragg an opportunity to shine. If he can come in and have a strong camp, he may steal the job right from under Chandler.
Up front, the Bills will feature competitions for two starting spots. Right tackle will feature a competition between Erik Pears and Chris Hairston. Hairston has the upside, but has struggled in the past at left tackle, but should fit better on the right side where his power and size can impact on the ground game. Inside at left guard, Colin Brown appears to be the front-runner for the starting job at that position. But he’ll see competition from Doug Legursky, Sam Young, and Zebrie Sanders. Brown was an effective starter late at center and offers good size. A starting five that features Brown, Hairston, alongside Cordy Glenn at left tackle, Eric Wood at center, and Kraig Urbik at right guard gives the Bills a large offensive line. They will be asked to clear running lanes for what will be the focus of their offense: their running game. C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson are expected to share the load. Spiller is coming off an outstanding 2012 campaign, and if he can pick up where he left off he could potentially be the top back in the league in 2013.
Defensively, new defensive coordinator Mike Pettine will be installing a hybrid 3-4 and 4-3 scheme to try and create confusion. The centerpiece of the new-look Bills defense will be Mario Williams. Williams had a lackluster 2012 year, but only a player of Williams’ talent can be considered lackluster when he records 10.5 sacks. Williams will be used as a movable chess piece, able to play both defensive end and outside linebacker. Williams will need to have a good summer to shake doubts about him being overpaid after a shaky off-season where he created mini-controversies due to guns and lawsuits.
Also adding versatility up front will be Kyle Williams, Marcel Dareus, and Alex Carrington with the Bills planning on using all three at multiple positions. Williams and Dareus are arguably the most talented pair of defensive tackles in the league. But Dareus will be pushed for his starting job, on the hope that the added competition will inspire him to have a stronger 2013 season.
Providing pressure off the edge will be Mark Anderson, Jerry Hughes, and Manny Lawson. Anderson struggled with injuries last year and they hope he can come back strong in training camp. Hughes had three underwhelming seasons with the Indianapolis Colts after being a top pick in 2010. He was traded to the Bills with the hope that the change in scenery will jolt his career. He and Anderson will be asked to line up across from Williams to try and pressure the quarterback. Lawson will play strongside linebacker, the same role he played for the San Francisco 49ers under Mike Nolan. Lawson has never been known for his pass rush ability, but the Bills hope that he can emerge in that arena at age 29.
Inside at linebacker, rookie Kiko Alonso and second-year player Nigel Bradham are expected to man the middle and weakside positions, respectively. They’ll be pushed by Arthur Moats, who has flashed potential as a pass rusher in limited opportunities in the past.
In the back end, questions abound at the safety position. Top free safety Jairus Byrd received the Franchise Tag this off-season, but held out. He didn’t get the contract he wished and has yet to sign his tender. Questions remain on when Byrd will sign his tender and report to the team. He may opt to skip camp, but it doesn’t seem likely that his holdout will loom beyond the start of the regular season. In his absence the Bills safety position appears wide open. Da’Norris Searcy is expected to win the starting strong safety spot, but will face competition from Duke Williams. Replacing Byrd is potentially Aaron Williams, who is being converted from nickel cornerback. Rookie Jonathan Meeks and Mana Silva will also be competing for reps. In the end, the Bills will hope the contract impasse with Byrd ends since none of those players come close to his play-making ability.
Leodis McKelvin was re-signed this off-season to man the starting spot opposite Stephon Gilmore. He has struggled to garner playing time beyond being the team’s nickel cornerback. They will need him to come in and have a good summer given the uncertainty at safety.
The Bills will also need someone to quickly step up at the nickel spot. Williams could move back to that spot if Byrd reports early. But in his absence, Ron Brooks appears to be the front-runner in that competition.
The Bills also will feature open competitions at both the kicker and punter spots. Rian Lindell is being pushed by sixth round pick Dustin Hopkins. Lindell has been a fixture for a decade, but he’s starting to decline at age 36. He has showcased his accuracy throughout the off-season, but Hopkins has impressed with his youthful leg strength. The Bills might consider keeping both players on the roster if neither distinguishes himself in camp.
At punter, Shawn Powell unseated long-time Bills punter Brian Moorman last summer. But he’ll face competition from undrafted rookie Brian Stahovich and again the best man will win the battle this summer.
The Bills will be hopeful that despite the numerous open competitions across their roster, things will start to gel for them as the season progresses. If they can get their young players like Manuel, Woods, Graham to join playmakers like Spiller and Johnson, they have explosive offensive potential. And if they can get talented defenders like Mario Williams, Dareus, and Byrd to step up in their new-look defense, they could potentially be a dark horse to challenge the New England Patriots and Miami Dolphins for the lead in the AFC East.