(This is the last of four stories previewing Buffalo Bills training camp. Today's installment is on the competition for starting jobs.)
In a departure from past seasons, the Buffalo Bills head into training camp with the offensive line position almost set. The lone exception is right guard, where incumbent Duke Preston must hold off the challenges of Jason Whittle and Brad Butler to keep the job.
The starting spot will be there for the taking in training camp, and the Bills expect the best man to distinguish himself in a hurry.
"We're not going to wait too long to make that decision," said offensive line coach Jim McNally. "We want to get somebody established next to [right tackle] Langston Walker to work with him all the time. It might take a week, but we're going to move quickly so we can get our best five on the field together."
Preston is the early favorite. He replaced an injured Chris Villarrial and finished the season with eight starts. Despite his potential, the signing of Whittle indicates the Bills aren't sold on Preston yet. Both players shared snaps with the starting offense during the offseason practices.
"I know I have to be more consistent and that's what I've been focused on this offseason," said Preston, who was identified by General Manager Marv Levy as one of the young players who must step up this season. "Having a chance to start those eight games was big in my development and I'm looking forward to progressing even more this year."
Whittle, who played in Minnesota last season, has a lot of experience. The eight-year veteran has started 42 career games, but only two in the last two seasons. He is a smart, technically sound player with the quickness to pull and block linebackers beyond the line of scrimmage. He also has a history with McNally, who coached him when both were with the New York Giants.
Butler is the wildcard of the group. He appeared in only two games as a rookie backup tackle last season, but McNally is intrigued by the 6-foot-7, 315-pounder's size, athleticism and potential.
McNally said the starting right guard will be the guy who is more physical and able to consistently handle big opposing defensive tackles. Preston believes he's that man and doesn't mind facing competition to prove it.
"That's the business," he said. "If there wasn't any competition, this game wouldn't be what it is. I'm just focused on myself and how I can get better. You put your best foot forward and hope that's enough."
Here's a look at some of the other key competitions heading into training camp:
Jason Webster, Kiwaukee Thomas, Jabari Greer and Ashton Youboty are the top candidates to replace Nate Clements as the starter opposite Terrence McGee. Webster, who was signed in May, is the most skilled of the group and looked good in the offseason workouts. Thomas, an effective nickel back last year, has experience as a starter and knows this defense well.
The team believes Greer has starting talent, but he needs to avoid lapses of concentration to win the job. The player to watch is Youboty, who missed most of training camp last year but will get plenty of opportunities this summer to realize his considerable potential. Former practice squad member Eric Bassey along with undrafted rookies Duane Coleman, Reggie Lewis and Riley Swanson are in the mix to crack the top six.
Larry Tripplett is locked in as the "three technique" tackle and Kyle Williams is the man to beat at nose tackle. Whether Williams remains the starter depends on John McCargo. He didn't do much in the spring workouts while recovering from foot surgery, but the former first-round pick is being counted on to become a stud in the middle. Williams was a pleasant surprise as a rookie. Will McCargo be good enough to unseat him?
Tim Anderson and Jason Jefferson are fighting for jobs as backups. Their chances improve greatly if Darwin Walker continues his contract holdout. He must report by Aug. 5 or the Bills can return his rights to Philadelphia, which traded him for linebacker Takeo Spikes and quarterback Kelly Holcomb, and get the Eagles' sixth-round draft pick next year. The Bills were counting on Walker supplying depth at both tackle spots and making an impact as an interior pass rusher.
Second-year pro John DiGiorgio was No. 1 in the offseason, but most people think he was just keeping the seat warm for rookie Paul Posluszny, the team's highly touted second-round draft pick. Although DiGiorgio had a strong offseason, the smart money is on Posluszny, who will get every opportunity to win the job. The Bills are extremely young here, but they have no plans to seek free agent help for now.
It will be an upset if first-round pick Marshawn Lynch isn't the regular-season starter. Anthony Thomas will make Lynch earn it, but Lynch's superior versatility and big-play potential should give him the edge. Rookie Dwayne Wright's impressive offseason and Josh Scobey's special team talents make them good bets to win the third and fourth spots. That means fourth-year veteran Shaud Williams and former practice squad player Fred Jackson must be spectacular to make the coaches expand the depth chart.
>Backup tight end
The Bills went into last season with three tight ends, but ended with four on the roster. The team plans to use the tight end in place of a fullback, so it will keep at least four and perhaps five. Robert Royal is the unquestioned starter, leaving Kevin Everett, Ryan Neufeld, Brad Cieslak, Matt Murphy and rookie Derek Schouman to contend for the second spot. It's do-or-die time for Everett, who must bridge the gap between promise and production. Neufeld, Cieslak, Murphy and Schouman are all candidates for the hybrid fullback/H-back role.
>Fifth and sixth receivers
The top four are set with Lee Evans, Peerless Price, Josh Reed and Roscoe Parrish, but it's not certain how many more the Bills will keep. Sam Aiken has a shot to be the fifth guy because he has the most experience among the other competitors and he's a special team standout. Whether the Bills keep a sixth receiver may depend on what free agent Donovan Morgan or undrafted rookies Aaron Brown, Jemalle Cornelius, Scott Mayle and Johnny Quinn show with their limited chances in practices and preseason games.
Craig Nall is expected to be pushed by rookie Trent Edwards. Nall has the edge in experience, but the Bills drafted Edwards in the third round for a reason. At the very least, the team wants to get Edwards ready if Nall falters or gets injured again.