The pads won't come up for another two months but the Buffalo Bills' 2016 team begins to take shape this week at organized team activities. Practices are voluntary with the media viewing Tuesday's session.
Priority No. 1 for Buffalo? Staying healthy. With wide receiver Sammy Watkins and outside linebacker Shaq Lawson both on the mend, the team cannot afford to lose any more starters to injury even if it's only the off-season.
Here are five players worth tracking through OTAs and mandatory minicamp in June.
Mike Gillislee. He was the silver lining through a rough stretch last season, busting loose for 30-, 50-, and 60-yard runs when backs ahead of him suffered injuries. Abandoned by Miami and Arizona before latching on with Buffalo, Gillislee faces more competition for a NFL roster spot in the form of fifth-rounder Jonathan Williams behind the team's 1-2 punch of LeSean McCoy and Karlos Williams.
This is nothing new for a player once buried on Florida's depth chart for three seasons. As Gillislee said a couple weeks ago, “My opportunities were always limited. So I always kept that in mind — whenever I touch the ball, I’m trying to score and do what I have to do with it.”
While it's obviously difficult for any running back to differentiate himself in this quick-whistle, non-contact setting, Gillislee will want to continue any momentum he built late last year. Offensive coordinator Greg Roman said then that Gillislee absolutely would fit into the team's 2016 plans. Now is his chance to carve out a role.
Tyrod Taylor. A year ago, Taylor was in a three-way quarterback competition with Matt Cassel and EJ Manuel. Now, he's the clear-cut starter. He's a soft-spoken vet. Teammates said Taylor embraced more of a vocal role as the season progressed. And as former NFL MVP Rich Gannon said, the quarterback, the unofficial CEO of the franchise must be assertive. Must take charge.
“I think that temperament has to change at some point,” Gannon said. “As you earn more stripes and it becomes your team, then I think you can be more demanding of the players around you and that huddle. All the great ones have the ability to put their foot down. They have the ability to make the corrections on the field, as opposed to Monday in the film room. And they’re very demanding.”
Now that he is the unquestioned No. 1 guy, Taylor probably sees more of a green light to lead in such a manner. In his 14 starts, he passed for 3,035 yards, ran for another 568 yards and scored 24 total touchdowns. As guard Richie Incognito said on the incredible "Pardon My Take" Podcast Sunday, Taylor has been the first one in the weight room, ripping through ab workouts.
No, OTA's aren't real football. But it is a very real opportunity for Taylor to take charge.
Reggie Ragland. No, the Bills won't get see returns on their first-round investment any time soon. Lawson, the 19th overall pick, might not return until mid-season... and how much will he help after missing so much time? The shoulder surgery certainly is a blow to Rex Ryan's defense this year and will put even more pressure on Reggie Ragland, the 41st overall pick, to be an instant contributor. Both Ryan and Doug Whaley were quick to say the team landed three starters "off the bus" this draft. Without money to find such talents in free agency, that was the goal in the draft.
"He’s looking for a heartbeat," Scott said of Ryan. "That’s what he’s looking for. I think Reggie has the potential to do that. He has the mentality and the heart to do that."
Scott added that Ragland, at Alabama, used the same playbook he did under Ryan in Baltimore and New York, saying "It’s the same defense." That's a good thing considering there are so many checks before the snap. He'll need to get up to speed very quickly.
Charles Clay. With Watkins out, this would be a perfect time for Taylor to find chemistry with his next best weapon, tight end Charles Clay. Clay's production (528 yards, three touchdowns) didn't match what a team expects out of a player making $38 million over five years last season. One of the best tight ends ever, Tony Gonzalez, was quite blunt in his assessment during Super Bowl week, too.
Gonzalez compared Clay's year to his own second season in the NFL, when he struggled and it drove him to improve.
"It was one of those things — embarrassment drives you," Gonzalez said. "I don’t know if he’s embarrassed or not but I certainly think he’s unhappy with what happened this year and he’s going to go out there and get it right.”
Here's thinking that Clay wasn't the one really at fault at last season.
Many times, the quarterback missed him open downfield. Many times, he simply wasn't featured in the game plan. Clay was targeted five times or less in seven of his 13 games. And, of course, many times he was used as a blocker. When Clay was featured as a receiver — like that first drive at Miami in Week 3 — he looked unstoppable. While Clay is not a 6-foot-5, athletic freak of a tight end in the Gronk-mold, he is a former running back who breaks tackles in open space. This spring will be valuable for Taylor and Clay.
The right side of the O-Line. Seantrel Henderson's future is still an unknown after his 2015 season ended early due to Crohn's disease. Not to mention, he was struggling before the ailment anyway. Jordan Mills, a mid-season pick-up, would seem to have the inside track on the starting job. And this will also be Year 3 for Cyrus Kouandjio, a former 44th overall pick.
The left side of Buffalo's offensive line is one of the strongest in the NFL and should remain that way for a while with Cordy Glenn and Richie Incognito both re-signing. But for Roman to really get creative with his blocking schemes he'll need John Miller to take a step in Year 2 at guard and someone to win the right tackle job and run with it.