Here are my three thoughts on the Buffalo Bills before Thursday night's preseason-opener against the Minnesota Vikings at New Era Field:
1. If nothing else, the Bills have a good chance to be a better organized team under Sean McDermott than they were under his predecessor, Rex Ryan. That shouldn't be saying a lot, given the almost laughable level of disorganization with Rex in charge. Nevertheless, the game is going to provide at least some initial indication of what the game operation looks like with McDermott running the show.
First preseason games present their own sets of challenges. By nature, they're sloppy, with an over-inflated roster loaded with players who not only won't be playing with the Bills, but nowhere else in the NFL after their release. So if the more disciplined and highly structured approach of the new coach is able to show up Thursday night, that will be a reasonably strong sign that the Bills will operate with with a level of efficiency that they didn't have in enough of their games last season. Especially on defense.
The common refrain about this season is that the unit that has ranked 19th in the the NFL the past two years will get better simply because the coach won't allow for the many silly mistakes that cost it dearly time and again. During Tuesday's training-camp practice at St. John Fisher College, the last before the game, the Bills had a period devoted to substitutions. That's the sort of attention to detail that could make a significant difference. Whether it will amount to more than seven or eight wins, the totals in each of Ryan's two seasons, remains to be seen.
But it's a start.
2. Sammy Watkins insists he's healthy. Now, begins the receivers' quest to show McDermott and General Manager Brandon Beane that he can live up to his fourth-overall-draft-pick label.
Watkins doesn't have to be spectacular against the Vikings, but this would be a good time for him to make a dynamic play or two during the roughly quarter of action he and the other starters are expected to play. It will be intriguing to see how his performance is impacted by the presence of newly signed Anquan Boldin, whose ability to work outside and inside is capable of making everyone around him better.
Watkins has been impressive on the practice field, the most talented player after LeSean McCoy (who doesn't need to do much of anything Thursday night or in any of the other preseason games, for that matter. It wouldn't be such a bad idea to keep the team's biggest and perhaps only consistent difference-maker on ice).
Watkins will make an even larger statement with a strong, albeit brief, showing against Minnesota. And if Boldin's addition does anything to elevate Watkins' play, that could send a message to all of the opponents on the Bills' regular-season schedule.
3. Eddie Yarbrough has been, by far, the best story of camp. The defensive end, who was signed as a free agent in April after a failed attempt to land a spot on the Denver Broncos' roster last summer, has done nothing but dominate in pretty much every practice. Granted, that might say as much about the poor work of the Bills' offensive tackles as it does about Yarbrough's exceptional quickness off the ball and his impressive array of pass-rush moves.
But there's no denying how well Yarbrough has performed. The fact he has worked his way up to taking first-team reps has as much to do with merit as it does with the groin injury Shaq Lawson suffered in last Friday night's practice.
Yarbrough has overcome a lot, growing up in a trailer park with parents who struggled to feed him and his two sisters. His draft status was compromised by rumors of a knee surgery he never underwent.
Now, Yarbrough can go about the task of solidifying a place on a team that needs all of the defensive-line depth it can get.