ESPN.com NFL Power Ranking (pre-camp): 31
PITTSFORD. N.Y. -- Of any preseason prediction I can make, the one I'm most confident in is that the Buffalo Bills will finish fourth in the AFC East.
That slot would be neither general manager Buddy Nix's nor head coach Chan Gailey's fault. The problems they inherited have set the course for 2010.
But they are setting a tone for the long-term future the players can respect.
Gailey is trying to establish a new culture with his first training camp. He wants people to use two adjectives that haven't been associated with the Bills for a long time: tough and disciplined.
"He's very particular about things and how he wants them done," Bills receiver Lee Evans said. "We haven't really had that for a while here, with the head man running the show. You understand what he's trying to get done."
Gailey has kept his players in full pads at St. John Fisher College. Previous coach Dick Jauron rarely had his players in complete gear at camp.
Gailey believes players should be in pads and tested both physically and mentally. He's in a discovery phase not only about what he'll be able to work with on Sunday afternoons, but also keepers who will help him build a long-term foundation.
"When you actually have those shoulder pads on, mouthpiece in, chinstrap buckled up and you have to get off a block to make a play," safety George Wilson said, "that really shows the true testament of a real football player.
"That's what our coaching staff needs, a new staff that's coming in to evaluate this entire team and be able to put the best 53 men together for this 2010 season. I like what we’re doing. It's going to make us a lot more physical, a lot tougher, a lot more mentally prepared, and I have a positive outlook about it."
THREE HOT ISSUES
1. Can quarterback Trent Edwards capitalize on another opportunity? Bills fans seemed to be pulling for Brian Brohm to emerge as the favorite to win the starting quarterback job. A major reason is they haven't seen him truly fail yet -- unlike Edwards and Ryan Fitzpatrick.
Yet, after several months working with his quarterbacks, Gailey liked Edwards best and installed him as the No. 1 quarterback to begin training camp. The battle remains open, but with Fitzpatrick and Brohm sharing reps with the backups and surrendering a few here and there to rookie Levi Brown, it's Edwards' job to lose. Based on Edwards' medical chart (combined with Hot Issue No. 2 below), there are no guarantees.
But Edwards has yet to get a fair shot to prove what he can do. He has experienced plenty of chaos since the Bills drafted him in the third round in 2007. Gailey is the first offensive-minded head coach Edwards has played under. Last year, offensive coordinator Turk Schonert got fired 10 days before the season, the Bills jettisoned both starting tackles (two-time Pro Bowl left tackle Jason Peters and the most experienced member of the offensive line, Langston Walker) from the season before and endured a futile no-huddle experiment.
Gailey has run successful offenses everywhere he has been. This finally could be a legitimate chance for Edwards to show what he can do.
2. How will the Bills survive without proven offensive tackles? The Bills aren't known for their pass rush, but it was apparent in the early days of practice their offensive tackles were overmatched in pass protection. For their safety, quarterbacks wear red jerseys to remind oncoming defenders not to hit them. Good thing, or else the Bills might have needed to sign some replacements already.
While some front offices believe guards are fungible and tackles vital, the Bills have operated contradictorily in recent years. They've drafted guards within the first two rounds (Eric Wood and Andy Levitre) and paid big bucks for a free agent (Derrick Dockery) while declining to draft a tackle earlier than the fifth round since 2002.
Left tackle Demetrius Bell has been limited in 11-on-11 drills because he's recovering from knee surgery. He received his first snaps Sunday. His replacement, Jamon Meredith, has been overwhelmed at times. The other tackles likely to make the 53-man roster -- Cornell Green, Kirk Chambers and rookie Ed Wang -- have looked ordinary at best.
3. What will happen with vacillating pass-rusher Aaron Schobel? He spent the entire offseason at his home in Texas, perhaps playing possum. He didn’t return to the Bills' facility to collect his roster bonus or participate in offseason workouts. He told some media outlets he was all but retired.
Then, on the verge of camp, the two-time Pro Bowler with a $6 million base salary expressed a change of heart. Schobel might want to play after all. Or maybe he's posturing for a trade, threatening to show up a month before the regular season despite failing to attend so much as a chalk-board session on the team's transition from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4.
On Monday morning, the Bills provided a nebulous answer: In a news release, Nix announced the team is moving forward with plans that do not include Schobel.
Nix said: “Aaron has been contemplating retirement for the past seven months, but we are at the point where we are moving forward and have informed his agent of our plans.”
Schobel can improve the defense with his talents, but the team is rebuilding and going through a defensive transformation he has demurred from. If they cut him, then they forfeit an asset. A trade appears to be the best option to me.
Wide receiver Steve Johnson was an afterthought when the Bills drafted him in the seventh round three years ago. But the front office was quietly confident he would be a player someday. After getting buried on a depth chart that no longer includes Terrell Owens and Josh Reed, Johnson might be ready to emerge. Johnson opened camp as the starting No. 2 receiver opposite Evans. That puts James Hardy on the spot. The Bills took him in the second round the same year they drafted Johnson.
Rookie running back C.J. Spiller, the ninth overall draft choice, still hasn't been signed. Reports indicate it might be a while before he's under contract. The players around him in the draft order have come to terms, but Spiller was the first running back off the board and was considered the most electric playmaker in the draft. His agent, Gary Wichard, certainly is hammering home that point every time he speaks to the Bills. While it's true running backs can afford to miss practice more than other positions because their role is so reactionary, Spiller is more than that. The Bills also consider him a receiver, and that makes practice time more precious for learning the nuances of Gailey's offense.
The atmosphere at St. John Fisher College has been lifeless. It hasn't mattered whether it's morning, afternoon, night, weekday or weekend. The few fans who have shown up are silent.
Fitzpatrick has been plagued by interceptions through the first few days of camp. Bills defenders seem to have developed a strong read on where he's going to throw.
Gailey has mandated knee braces at practice for the offensive linemen, whether they've had injuries or not. He has been doing that since he began working with O-line coach Joe D'Alessandris at Georgia Tech in 2002. The players can opt out of the knee braces for games if they don't like how they feel.
The Bills' defensive backs have sensational hands. In every drill I watched, it was rare to see a ball hit the ground.
Left cornerback Leodis McKelvin has demonstrated lapses in concentration. He seemed lost in a passing drill Saturday, getting beaten by Hardy for an easy touchdown. Secondary coach George Catavolos had trouble getting McKelvin's attention afterward for some instruction. Soon after, McKelvin was dropping punts in a return drill.
Inside linebacker Kawika Mitchell told me the unit relies on free-agent acquisition Andra Davis' insight when it comes to 3-4 questions. That also goes for inside linebackers coach DeMontie Cross, who hasn't coached an NFL 3-4 before.
Mitchell on the 3-4: "It gives you more freedom. It allows you to showcase your ability a lot more. It's going to be a lot more fun."
Wood is a head knocker. His quick return from a shattered left leg and no-nonsense demeanor on the field will make him popular in Buffalo.
After obstructed media views on the opening day, the Bills did a fine job of reorganizing their access areas to allow better viewing of 11-on-11 drills.
Outside linebacker Aaron Maybin has a body shape that stands out the moment you see him. Maybin looks like a Wii character, with a tiny waist that flares upward toward his shoulder pads. He told me his waist is 36 inches, but in pads it seems like a 28.
I focused on the tight ends at the blocking sled Friday morning. I saw why sophomore Shawn Nelson is viewed as more receiver than blocker. He looked considerably less powerful than the rest. While Derek Schouman, Jonathan Stupar and Michael Matthews jacked the sled, Nelson merely budged it. Nelson is listed at 6-foot-5 and 240 pounds. Only Matthews is larger at 6-4 and 270.