The mad dash to the Buffalo Niagara International Airport was on Thursday afternoon.
As soon as the Buffalo Bills wrapped up their final minicamp practice, the 89 players currently on the roster scattered for summer vacation. The team will be back to work in six weeks when it reports to training camp at St. John Fisher College in Pittsford. In the interim, here is a look at the 10 biggest developments to come out of spring practices:
1. The team desperately needs Tyrod Taylor to stay healthy.
The backup quarterback situation for the Bills is unsettled, to put it kindly. T.J. Yates will head to camp as the No. 2, but his performance this spring didn’t inspire much confidence that the Bills will be in good hands if their starter gets hurt. Behind Yates, neither rookie Nathan Peterman nor second-year veteran Cardale Jones looked particularly good, either. Jones heads to camp as the clear No. 4 on the depth chart, which doesn’t bode well for his chance at sticking on the 53-man roster.
Taylor, for that matter, also wasn’t that sharp – although his best practice by far was the final one Thursday. If the Bills have any chance of competing for a playoff spot in 2017, it will be dependent on No. 5 staying on the field.
2. Jerry Hughes could be reborn in Sean McDermott’s defense.
Granted, players aren’t in pads in the spring and defensive linemen have to hold up when they get to the quarterback, but Hughes looked ultra quick going up against rookie Dion Dawkins most of the time.
“He’s flying off the football right now,” McDermott said. “It’s fun watching those guys” (referring also to Shaq Lawson). “I stand most of the time on the offensive side of the ball, just to keep myself out of harm’s way because those guys are flying off the football and that’s fun to watch.”
After having 20 sacks his first two years in Buffalo, Hughes combined for just 11 the last two under Rex Ryan. He’s spoken about how excited he is to return to a base 4-3 scheme, in which his main priority as a defensive end will be getting after the quarterback. If the OTAs and minicamp are any indication, he’s poised to do just that when the games start to count.
3. Sammy Watkins is taking some positive steps.
Sure, he didn’t take a lot of team reps, but just seeing the wide receiver in a team setting before training camp is an undeniable sign of progress as he returns from foot surgery in January. Watkins had catches on back-to-back plays during Thursday’s practice, as his workload continued to trend slightly upward as the week progressed.
The Bills continue to say they’ll take things day by day with him, so it wouldn’t be a surprise to see his practice time limited at training camp and his preseason appearances be brief. That’s the right approach. Even with a new coaching staff, it’s not like Watkins is competing for a job. He’s clearly the No. 1 receiver when he’s healthy, so getting him there should be the top priority. McDermott and Co. seem to understand that.
4. There’s an unexpected competition along the offensive line.
Right guard was not a position that was thought to be up for grabs earlier this offseason. John Miller was coming off a promising second season, but he did suffer an ankle injury prior to minicamp. When the three mandatory practices were held this week, Miller found himself splitting starting reps with Vlad Ducasse. McDermott goes out of his way to say there is an open competition for every job, but seeing Ducasse take starting reps drives that point home.
5. There are a pair of injuries to monitor when training camp arrives.
Franchise left tackle Cordy Glenn ended the spring with his left foot in a walking boot because of an ankle injury. McDermott said the team expects him to be ready for training camp. That will be closely monitored in Pittsford. With Glenn out of the lineup, rookie second-round draft pick Dion Dawkins worked at left tackle in the spring. If Glenn is healthy, it’s expected that Dawkins will shift over to the right side and compete with Jordan Mills for the starting job. The sooner that happens, the better, because Dawkins played left tackle in college and is more comfortable there. Getting up to speed on the right side, if that is indeed the plan, will take some time.
Additionally, tight end Charles Clay is nursing a knee injury that McDermott admitted the team is concerned about. It’s the same issue Clay has had for years, and he didn’t miss much practice time because of it in the spring, but given the depth of the position behind him, it’s imperative that the Bills find a way to keep him on the field.
6. Tre’Davious White is the spring MVP.
McDermott heaped praise on the rookie cornerback from LSU on Thursday, and after watching him in minicamp, it’s easy to see why. White created three turnovers in the three minicamp practices, and over the entire spring solidified himself as a starter on the outside at his position.
“I feel like I did pretty good, but I have a ways to go if I want to benefit this team in any way,” he said. “I’ve got a long ways to go, so I’m looking forward to getting back home and getting to work and working on my craft and getting better.”
7. Preston Brown is hanging onto a starting job, for now.
Second-year linebacker Reggie Ragland has been cleared to participate in team drills after missing all of his rookie year because of a torn ACL suffered in training camp. So far, though, Ragland hasn’t been able to unseat Brown for the starting job at middle linebacker. The coaching staff hasn’t ruled out using both players on the field at the same time together, but for now it appears they’re competing for one spot. Through the spring at least, Brown is ahead.
8. Austin Rehkow got a good bit of work.
The Bills brought in a kicker and a punter to compete with Stephen Hauschka and Colton Schmidt, respectively. It just turns out to be the same player. Rehkow, an undrafted free agent out of Idaho, got plenty of work at both jobs in the spring. McDermott constantly stresses how much he values positional versatility, and Rehkow is a good example of that. He’s also got the ability to handle kickoff duties. It would be a big surprise if he were to beat out either Hauschka or Schmidt, but based on the amount of work he got in the spring, the Bills are going to give him every cahnce to show he can.
9. Walt Powell’s four-game suspension is disappointing, because he’s been good.
Powell earned a spot on the 53-man roster last summer thanks to a strong training camp, and continued to put together impressive offseason workouts this spring. Unfortunately for him, he was hit with a four-game suspension for violating the NFL’s policy on performance-enhancing substitutes. He’ll be eligible to compete in the preseason before serving his suspension. The Bills will have to decide after he sits out the four games whether they want to activate him to the 53-man roster or let him go.
10. Don’t expect any “Ryanisms” from McDermott.
As you’ve probably gathered by now, the Bills’ new coach is not the quote machine the man he replaced is. Asked Thursday about Ryan’s now-infamous “won the offseason” quote that he uttered a year ago, and whether he could ever imagine saying such a thing, McDermott quickly shut that down: “I don’t know if we’ve won the offseason, I’m not into that, I’m into the process. I’m into where we are at in our process and focused intently and only right now on that – That’s what I’m focused on.”
Bills fans will gladly trade sexy quotes for wins. The job of making that happen begins again July 27.