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Camp questions

Sean McDermott faces tall task of getting so many new players up to speed

This is the eighth part of a series looking at 10 questions facing the Buffalo Bills entering training camp, which begins July 25. Today’s question: How will the coaching staff incorporate so many new players?

The Buffalo Bills’ roster churn is basically complete.

Just five players on the team’s 90-man roster predate the arrival of coach Sean McDermott in January 2017.

Of course, that means the work is just beginning. With that turnover comes the challenge of building continuity. McDermott and his coaching staff must get the 18 unrestricted free agents signed by General Manager Brandon Beane -- and the eight drafted rookies -- up to speed on how the Bills do things in short order. Spring practices played a part in that, but it will kick into high gear when the team opens training camp July 25 at St. John Fisher College in Pittsford.

“You look at the teams that have won and sustained winning and they have a number of years being around each other systematically, personnel wise,” McDermott said. “Changeover is part of the modern-day NFL landscape, but building the continuity is important.”

That’s especially important on offense, which could have seven or eight new starters, including at least four along the offensive line, tight end and one or two receivers, depending on the personnel package.

Signing 18 new players excited the fan base – and kept reporters busy during the offseason – but it’s less than ideal because those players come in without a working knowledge of the way the Bills do things.

The new faces extend beyond players, too. McDermott has a new special-teams coordinator (Heath Farwell), as well as positional coaches at offensive line (Bobby Johnson), quarterback (Ken Dorsey) and wide receiver (Chad Hall).

Helping them get up to speed involves more than just the coaching staff. McDermott credited the “development team” of Marlon Kerner (director of player engagement), Len Vanden Bos (team chaplain), Laura Young (coordinator of player services) and Katy Turner (peak performance specialist) as being instrumental to the team’s onboarding process.

“I would say this year that we’ve been better than last year in terms of our process as it relates to onboarding our players,” McDermott said. “And then my involvement with that is how I then work off of that group and connect what I need to connect to the overall team without being, just from a messaging standpoint, redundant to the guys who have been here now going on their third season. And so that’s an important piece this time of year in particular and all the way through training camp.”

From an on-field perspective, complicating matters in the spring were injuries. Expected key contributors, including center Mitch Morse (core muscle surgery), guard Quinton Spain (thumb), tight end Tyler Kroft (foot) and wide receiver Cole Beasley (core muscle surgery),  missed significant time.

Spring practices are a time when coaches move players around on the depth chart. Only so much can be learned when players are in T-shirts and shorts, and it’s wise not to read too much into who looks good or bad at that time, since the real meat of evaluations are formed from padded practices in training camp and preseason games.

Nevertheless, the Bills would have preferred everyone to be healthy, since the coaching staff will need as much evaluation time as it can get.

“Time is of the essence, for sure,” Beane said. “Especially up front, that's the area, being candid, that we’ll have to try and jell as quickly as we can, because if it's not working up front with the run game or pass protection, then that will lead to a lot of problems.”

The topic of four preseason games has been in the news lately after the Wall Street Journal reported last week that owners have floated the idea of an 18-game regular season in which players would be limited to just 16 games. Doing so likely would cut into the preseason, which would be welcome news for fans who rightly feel like they are getting raked over the coals by paying regular-season prices to watch backups.

McDermott, though, likes the current setup with four preseason games, particularly this year, when he has so many new players to get up to speed.

“And I say that, part of it is probably habit,” he said. “As long as I’ve been in the league, it’s been four. I think somewhere in that three-to-four range, you should know what you’ve got and how you want to shape it coming out of those three-to-four games.”

Doing that in two games, McDermott said, would be too small of a sample size, even if teams held joint practices – like the Bills are doing this year with the Panthers. While the fourth preseason game is generally loathed, coaches say players can make the 53-man roster with strong performances in it.

“Sometimes it just takes these guys time, multiple exposures to … the NFL speed, for them to show you the best versions of themselves,” McDermott said.

Time is something the Bills don’t have a lot of. Coming off a 6-10 year and entering a season in which the team has to take a big step forward with its record, there is no doubt this year’s successes or failures will be squarely pinned on both McDermott and Beane. When the regular season begins Sept. 8 against the New York Jets, those 18 free agents will have to be ready to go.

“We are further along than where we were when we first got here,” McDermott said. “We talk a lot just in meetings with (team owners) Terry and Kim (Pegula) both about the state of our football team, where we are, what our concerns are for the upcoming season. … I feel that we are a better football team today than the way we ended the season, with a lot of work to do. And so does that mean we’re going to win one game or ‘X’ number of games? That remains to be seen. But I feel like we are – this organization is – in a better place now than where it was three or four months ago.”

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