Preparations for the 2014 season began in earnest Tuesday for the Buffalo Bills as the team began Phase One of its voluntary, nine-week offseason workout program.
“We’re extremely excited as coaches and as an organization when the players start coming back in this building,” coach Doug Marrone said. “Even though you’re limited to doing a lot of things and we know it’s voluntary, it’s great to see the players back – knowing that we do have a lot of hard work ahead of us. Coming off a disappointing season last year, we look forward to that hard work.”
Marrone said the percentage of the team’s 75 roster players who were in attendance Tuesday was “in the high 90s” and that he had been in contact with the few players not present. He expects to be at 100 percent attendance soon.
“We appreciate the players that are here and understand if the players have other commitments and can’t get here. I’m obviously very happy, extremely happy with the players that are present today,” he said.
Per the collective bargaining agreement between the league and players association, Phase One activities are limited to strength and conditioning and physical rehabilitation only. Marrone and the team’s other coaches are not allowed on the field for the workouts, which for the Bills are directed by head strength and conditioning coach Eric Ciano.
Players are forbidden from wearing helmets, and footballs are not permitted, except for quarterbacks throwing to receivers, provided they’re not covered by any other player.
Phase One lasts for two weeks, followed by a three-week Phase Two, during which time coaches can lead individual player drills. No team offense vs. team defense drills are allowed during Phase Two, and players are still not permitted to wear helmets.
Phase Three covers the final four weeks of the offseason program, during which time teams can conduct 10 “organized team activities” that allow for 11-on-11 and 7-on-7 drills, though no live contact.
A mandatory three-day minicamp is also permitted under CBA rules, and will take place for the Bills from June 17 to 19.
Marrone said the theme for the offseason workouts is “getting better every day.”
“That’s important as we go through these days and we go through these phases,” he said. “That we continue to do that so that we can field a better football team that can accomplish what our goals will be going into this 2014 season.”
While coaches aren’t allowed on the field during workouts in Phase One, they are able to meet with players, which gives the coaching staff an opportunity to, in Marrone’s words, “put in the foundation of the system with offense and defense.”
That’s important, especially with new defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz taking over for Mike Pettine, who was hired as the head coach of the Cleveland Browns.
“We’re switching up the scheme a little bit, but we’ll kind of figure that out as we go,” edge rusher Jerry Hughes said. “It’s just day one and it was basically an introduction time with everybody getting to know the new coaches and all the players getting to know the guys that are new. We’ll figure that out as the phases continue to move on.”
Marrone said part of his message touched on ending the team’s 14-season stretch of missing the playoffs.
“It’s been put at a high priority for us, it really has. That’s what it is. You have to get everyone on the same line; everyone has to understand that it’s about winning,” he said. “I told everyone what we need to put on top of that job description is win. That’s what we have to do. When that is at the top of your job description, you can hold everyone more accountable and you can push each other and you can develop a trust and a respect. It gives you the ability to get better each and every day and that is what we’re trying to accomplish.”
The Bills know what teams they are playing and where they are playing them this coming season, but will find out what the order will be tonight when the 2014 NFL schedule will be released (8 p.m., NFLN).
The Bills re-signed their three exclusive rights free agents Tuesday, agreeing to terms with fullback Frank Summers, receiver Chris Hogan and guard Antoine McClain.
Hogan, 25, played all 16 games last season, making 10 catches for 83 yards and 10 tackles on special teams.
McClain, 24, came to the Bills midway through the 2013 season after being released by Oakland. The 6-foot-5, 336-pounder did not appear in a game.
Summers, 28, played in 15 games, making nine starts in 2013. He carried 12 times for 46 yards and caught seven passes for 79 yards, scoring two touchdowns.
The Bills hosted three more players on pre-draft visits Tuesday, including an expected top-10 pick in Texas A&M receiver Mike Evans. He was joined by Southern California center Marcus Martin and Georgia Southern running back Jerick McKinnon.
The 5-9, 209-pound McKinnon played option quarterback in college, but is making the switch to running back in the NFL. He ran a 4.41-second 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine in February.