The Cleveland Cavaliers are NBA Champions. Sidney Crosby hoisted a second Stanley Cup. NFL teams have broken minicamp, shutting down for a month. And Jon Snow has... OK, no Game of Thrones spoilers here.
It's about to get pretty quiet.
Rex Ryan has declared the Buffalo Bills Off-Season Champs. Not sure when the hats and shirts will be hitting the stands but here are 10 quick takeaways from the spring...
1. IK Enemkpali may be the key to the Bills’ defense. Really. First-rounder Shaq Lawson was pegged the savior for Ryan’s defense in Year 2, yet won’t be returning to the field any time soon following his shoulder surgery. The best 3-4’s in the NFL — see: Denver Broncos — feature two fire-breathing pass rushers. Manny Lawson may be the single most knowledgeable defensive player here but was hardly ever cut loose last year. Enemkpali got some run with the No. 1 defense and should realistically push Manny Lawson for the job. Yes, I know. These are only padless practices. But Enemkpali was impressive all week in ripping past Cyrus Kouandjio inside and outside. The world knows him as the one who broke Geno Smith's jaw; Enemkpali will have a chance to change that.
2. Tyrod Taylor was on the money. His vision shifted quickly, read to read, drill to drill. QB coach David Lee said Taylor’s eyes are “in the right place all the time.” Even though Sammy Watkins was sidelined following his foot surgery, Taylor got a lot needed work in with Robert Woods and Charles Clay — you could see him making a conscious effort to throw more over the middle of the field. As Taylor explained in length to The News in a sit-down interview, he believes he can do exactly what Cam Newton did a year ago. He sincerely believes he can be one of the greatest ever. With a brutal schedule, the Bills need Taylor to be special.
3. But Buffalo is crossing its fingers Taylor won’t get hurt. EJ Manuel and Cardale Jones both struggled in the practices open to the media. Manuel threw multiple pick-sixes and was hesitant in 7-on-7 drills, a familiar sight. Jones unleashed one eye-popping throw deep, yet floated several passes high and short in addition to footwork problems in other drills. One play, he smashed into his fullback. Jones is clearly a project. Granted, a lot of teams would be waving the white flag if their starting QB went down but the back-up plan is especially worrisome here in Buffalo.
4. Karlos Williams’ weight gain is no season-killer but it must be disappointing. Here’s a player who looked like a bonafide No. 1 back with the ball in his hands. Big (240’ish pounds), fast (4.4 speed) and decisive, Williams’ one-cut style was the perfect fit for Greg Roman’s scheme. The fifth-rounder from Florida State rushed for 517 yards on 93 attempts (5.6 avg.) with seven touchdowns. If he was 240-plus last season — as the back said himself — what is he now? Williams was carrying an extra bulge in minicamp, admitting he ate so his pregnant fiancé wouldn’t feel bad. Is he a bust? Absolutely not. There’s plenty of time to whip into shape. But his off-season approach must be deflating internally for the Bills. And he’ll have three, well, hungry backs in Jonathan Williams, Mike Gillislee and James Wilder Jr. fighting for carries behind him.
5. Dezmin Lewis is your Minicamp MVP. For what it’s worth. My lasting image on the Packers beat last spring was wide receiver Davante Adams dominating. He caught everything Aaron Rodgers threw his way... only to be a colossal disappointment once the season began. Leonard Hankerson and Greg Little each had their moments but Lewis, the second-year receiver out of Central Arkansas, was the best of the bunch behind Woods. Rex Ryan took notice too, saying Lewis “consistently has done a great job,” adding that the 6-foot-4 Lewis got a lot stronger in the weight room. “He did a phenomenal job there,” Ryan said, “getting stronger, faster and then it is not Chinese to him anymore.”
Whether it was a one-handed touchdown grab in the end zone or a deep ball from Jones in which he adjusted his body, Lewis was the star of the week.
6. Preston Brown is taking charge. The inside linebacker vowed to speak up more, to take ownership of this defense. So far, so good. Brown was one of the most vocal players on the field through OTA’s and minicamp and seems to have a better grasp of Ryan’s defense with Rob Ryan calling him a star in the making. Yes, it’s all kumbaya right now. Coaches say the players get the defense; players say the coaches will take their input. A balance must be struck this season. A leader must show everyone the way on the field.
7. Will the Bills really let Stephon Gilmore get away? No, they don’t have much excess dough at the moment after re-signing left tackle Cordy Glenn. Yes, they might need to pay up for Tyrod Taylor if he proves himself this year. But shutdown cornerbacks do not grow on trees and that’s exactly what Gilmore is. The best teams in the NFL, the true contenders consistently lock up the three most important positions in the game — quarterback, left tackle, corner. Taylor needs to prove himself more after only 14 starts, but Gilmore has done enough to warrant Top 5 CB money. It doesn’t sound like the two sides are close to a deal and Gilmore was less than thrilled about it when he addressed the media. He might not be at Fisher when training camp begins. Stay tuned.
8. Buffalo needs castaways to emerge. Everywhere you look, there are players who’ve been cut by three, four, even five teams. The Bills are counting on a few of them panning out. Jerel Worthy, a former second-rounder, worked with the first-team defense and says he’s a totally different player. Greg Salas is on his sixth team. Tight end Blake Annen is on his fifth team. Linebacker Zach Brown and safety Robert Blanton are fighting for roles. The Bills didn’t have the ammo to sign any high-profile free agents, so they're hoping someone finds new life. Players bringing a last-shot mentality to a team can be a powerful thing, but there's a reason other teams let them go, too.
9. Hiring Ed Reed sure sounds like a savvy move. The future Hall-of-Famer kept it real in his first news conference. Here's his take on his secondary's 2015 performance...
“If you watch the film from last year, you saw a lot of confusion, a lot of not communicating and guys not giving effort,” Reed said. “So with that in mind, there couldn’t have been too much communicating out there. Some of the offensive guys even said it. You could hear a pin drop last year. So for us to be effective, that’s got to happen. We’ve got to communicate. And to see those guys comment like that, man, we’re getting better. We’re getting a lot better. For where we were last year from what I heard, we’ve gotten a lot better.”
Reed’s words will carry a lot of weight in the meeting room. These players grew up watching him at The U and Baltimore. Nobody handled Ryan's defense better on the back end.
10. On the surface, Ryan’s boast that the Bills “won the off-season” is, of course, odd. Ridiculous, even. But as we discussed on Friday’s podcast, let's see how the season plays out. Maybe, behind the scenes, the Bills did make significant strides. This defense was a cluttered mess at times a year ago with coaches not utilizing the talent and some of that talent (Williams, Mario) not buying in. Ryan’s defenses before consistently ranked in the Top 10. Quite possibly, he does see his unit taking a genuine step forward. No coach uses pressure and disguised pressure like him. This is the most complicated playbook players here have ever seen. Winning the off-season might simply mean that it's all starting to click for them. By September, the truth will be revealed.