Here are my five takes on the Buffalo Bills’ offseason workouts:
1. Quarterback confusion. Not knowing the identity of the Bills’ starting quarterback isn’t merely a problem because the other members of the offense (or the entire team, for that matter) have no idea who will be leading them or because of the angst it creates for fans. It also made it tougher on the efforts of the receivers, running backs, tight ends and linemen to learn a new offense and develop a sense of timing or chemistry during OTA and minicamp practices because of the multiple quarterbacks getting repetitions in the No. 1 spot. Offensive coordinator Greg Roman gave the players on his side of the ball a whole lot to digest in the past few months, and there’s reason to think they might be grasping it better if one man took the majority of snaps from center. “We’re working with three, four quarterbacks,” running back Fred Jackson said last week. “So it’s a juggling game who we’re going to be playing with, but also we’ve got to know what we’re doing when we get out there.” All the more reason for coach Rex Ryan to make his decision as soon as possible in training camp. Allowing this to drag on could very well gum up an already difficult teaching process while also creating a summer-long distraction that could bleed into the season.
2. No clear-cut choice. To the naked eye of a reporter who has been allowed – along with the rest of the media – to watch six offseason practices, there is no obvious pick for the starting quarterback job. Which is another way of saying that EJ Manuel, Matt Cassel, and Tyrod Taylor have all struggled enough to be deemed unworthy of the role … or at least to fail to separate from the pack. Matt Simms, the fourth-stringer, hasn’t gotten a sufficient amount of work to be considered a legitimate candidate at this point. But Ryan has said that he is fairly certain his choice will come from someone on the roster, and he just needs to make his selection and move on. Manuel might be a bit more decisive and better with his recognition than he has been the past two years, but he still seems capable of making the killer mistake at the least opportune time. He is the most complete talent of the bunch, so that might be the best reason to give him the job. Cassel doesn’t move well, he doesn’t always throw the prettiest ball, and has easily had the worst-looking practice performances of all of the quarterbacks. Still, he’s a smart, savvied, 11-year veteran. Taylor is true to his reputation as an exceptionally fast runner. The problem is, he looks much better running than throwing. But Ryan has touted him heavily since he was signed in the offseason, and if he believes he’s the answer, then he wouldn’t be going all that far out on a limb to pick him, given the question marks hovering over the others.
3. Intensive teaching. The coaches identified plenty that was wrong with the fundamentals of returning players. Although no one from the current staff is going to take public shots at the former staff, there is a clear sense that the new group doesn’t think all that highly of the some of the work done by the predecessors. The players in question also haven’t been publicly critical of the previous coaches, but they are making no secret about how much they have learned so far from the new assistants. For instance, Manuel has received more guidance on his mechanics than he has the last two years. He was essentially thrown into a mostly shotgun, zone-read offense as a rookie in 2013 minus essential training on how to operate it, and wasn’t helped a whole lot more last year. The receivers showed a general lack of awareness in basic route-running concepts, while the offensive linemen showed they generally needed much more in the way of education about techniques.
4. Sorting out the tight ends. Among the more interesting competitions are the ones for the backup spots behind Charles Clay at tight end. MarQueis Gray looks to be the early favorite for No. 2. He is among the more athletic players on the team, using his 6-foot-4, 242-pound frame and speed to his full advantage. Gray isn’t much of a blocker, but that isn’t what the Bills really want or need from that role. They have to have someone who can consistently catch the ball and stretch the defense. Clay will make an impact as a blocker and someone who can be effective on short and intermediate routes, especially near the goal line. We saw flashes of impressive work from Gray last season, and there is every reason to believe there is more where that came from. I watched the guy on a consistent basis in practice with the Cleveland Browns, and he was often impressive.
5. Running his way to a significant role. It is far too early to judge how much of an impact a rookie running back will make. Contact practices, which won’t happen until training camp, are necessary to fully gauge what he can or can’t do as a runner or blocker. But I’ve liked a lot of what I’ve seen of fifth-round draft pick Karlos Williams. The 6-1, 230-pounder shows a good deal of explosiveness through the hole, and runs with good lean and balance. He seems instinctive and confident in understanding the proper places to run and displays good patience in following his blocks. Figuring out the depth at running back behind LeSean McCoy is a bit tricky. No one would bet against Jackson, despite the fact he is 34, and if he does stick, he would have to be in the No. 2 spot. After that, it’s a guessing game. Anthony Dixon is the early favorite to be the third running back, but Williams could easily give him a strong push. Bryce Brown would seem to be a long-shot to make the final roster, especially with the Bills keeping at least one fullback, who will likely be Jerome Felton.