The Buffalo News will examine 10 questions facing the Buffalo Bills leading up to the start of training camp.
The moment of truth is near for Aaron Williams.
The Buffalo Bills’ safety will soon get the answer to a question that’s hovered over him for nine months. That’s about how long it’s been since Williams had neck surgery that doctors said would leave him with a 50-50 chance of ever playing again.
Even though the delicate procedure was a success and Williams has been cleared to return, he’s cautiously admitted that he won’t be 100 percent sure his neck will respond favorably to the physical demands of football until the pads come on and he takes his first hit.
That moment will come soon after the Buffalo Bills report to training camp July 30 at St. John Fisher College in Pittsford.
“I don’t think he’ll truly be 100 percent or be the Aaron Williams we know until he hits somebody,” coach Rex Ryan said at the start of spring practices. “He’s still got to get over that first contact.”
Comments like that leave just enough lingering doubt to ask … what happens if after that first hit doesn’t go well?
Ryan made it a point this spring to talk up the new-found depth at safety. Instead of re-signing Bacarri Rambo, the Bills added Robert Blanton and Colt Anderson in free agency.
General Manager Doug Whaley said before the draft that Blanton would “push to start,” and during spring practices, the former Minnesota Viking got on the field in certain three-safety packages with Williams and Corey Graham.
“I’m excited about him,” Ryan said. “He’s a sharp guy, there’s no question about it. He’s a guy in college that played corner, played safety, so those are things that you look for – a guy that can do multiple things. He can do it and mentally he can handle it, so I’ve been really encouraged.”
Blanton, 26, started 13 games for the Vikings in 2014, making 106 tackles and his only career interception to date – one that just so happened to come in a game against the Bills. Last year, he started just once, but did appear in all 16 games. A former fifth-round draft pick in 2012, he spent his first four years in Minnesota and has 213 tackles in 60 games.
He joined the Bills largely because of the influence of Ryan and his coaching staff, including future Hall of Famer Ed Reed.
“There’s a bevy of great coaches I can learn from,” he said. “I’m going to go out there every day and compete and hopefully the coaching staff likes it and I’ll get an opportunity here.”
As Ryan alluded, Blanton played cornerback at Notre Dame, giving him the coverage ability required of a safety. At 6-foot-1 and 200 pounds, he’s the prototypical size for the position.
“It’s a new opportunity, so I’m excited to be here in Buffalo,” he said.
If Williams can’t go and Blanton isn’t up for the job, the Bills have other options. Anderson was signed as a free agent from Indianapolis primarily for his play on special teams, but impressed Ryan enough in the spring that it’s not impossible to think he could get a shot on defense if the need arises.
“You’re taking a guy because of what we know he does on ‘teams,’ but the fact” is “that this guy is a pretty good player as well,” the coach said.
Anderson has played in 77 NFL games, but made just seven starts. He’s got 104 tackles, one interception and two forced fumbles.
“That’s a big deal in the NFL, having confidence in your ability and, on top of that, having coaches that are confident in your play and know that you can go out there and perform,” Anderson said.
After Blanton and Anderson, the remaining options include holdovers Duke Williams and Jonathan Meeks.
“This is a deep group at safety,” Ryan said. “We got some guys that can flat play and guys are getting better and better – Duke Williams in particular.
“The competition there is probably going to be as strong at that spot than any spot on this team.”
It’s common for NFL teams to keep four or five safeties, but Ryan has suggested the Bills may throw that conventional wisdom out this season.
“You know, we may end up keeping them all,” he said. “You never know if it’s a crazy year like that.”