Regular-season football almost is back. The long-anticipated wait is nearly over and the Patriots are just days away from the quick flight to Buffalo to take on the Bills in their season opener, a division contest that pits last year’s champion against a team starting fresh with a new general manager and head coach.
It’s been a whirlwind couple of weeks for the Bills at the quarterback position, as presumptive starter EJ Manuel -- the team’s top pick in April’s draft -- underwent a knee procedure that has his status for Sunday in doubt. Veteran Kevin Kolb was placed on injured reserve, and the team recently added former Heisman Trophy winner Matt Leinart, only to release him shortly thereafter.
The Bills have a new coaching staff led by Doug Marrone, who patrolled the Syracuse sidelines before his arrival in Buffalo. He added a familiar face to oversee his defense, as he hired former Jets defensive coordinator Mike Pettine to the same position.
Doug Whaley takes over as the general manager in Buffalo, replacing Buddy Nix, who remains with the team in a special assistant role.
Below is a primer on more names of note for the Bills:
Record: 6-10 (2012)
Head coach: Doug Marrone (0-0, first season)
Offensive coordinator: Nathaniel Hackett
Defensive coordinator: Mike Pettine
THREE PLAYERS TO KNOW, OFFENSE
1. QB EJ Manuel/QB Jeff Tuel. The Bills look likely to start Tuel, an undrafted free agent out of Washington State, though Manuel, the impressive prospect out of Florida State, returned to practice on Sunday. If the team does go with Tuel, he’d be the first undrafted rookie since at least 1967 to start at quarterback in Week 1 of the regular season. Manuel was the 16th pick in this year’s draft and the first quarterback taken. Prior to Kolb’s injury, many were projecting that Manuel would win the job. Now it’s a matter of his health.
2. RB C.J. Spiller. Few players are as electric as Spiller, a sprinter who averaged 6 yards a carry last season. He can get the job done as a runner and receiver, with sensational open-field agility and the presence to make defenders miss. He’s not a power runner, per se, but defenders must wrap up to bring the Clemson product down. No doubt that Spiller will be a focus for the Patriots this week.
3. C Eric Wood. The Bills spent big to ink Wood, a tri-captain for 2013, to a contract extension, cementing his status as a pillar of this line and standing as one of the best centers in football. A former first-round pick out of Louisville, Wood anchors the middle for Buffalo and can hold up as both a pass protector and run blocker. He draws a tough assignment this week against Vince Wilfork.
THREE PLAYERS TO KNOW, DEFENSE
1. DE Mario Williams. The Bills emptied the checkbook to land Williams as a free agent last offseason, and Pettine’s defensive scheme should lend itself to helping Williams have a productive 2013. Williams has unique length and the ability to bend the edge as a rusher, which should provide a stiff test for the Patriots' top tackles. He came on at the end of last season, finishing with six sacks, two forced fumbles and three passes defensed in the final eight games of 2012.
2. FS Jairus Byrd. Another Bill who is banged up, Byrd is one of the best safeties in football when healthy, which is why the Bills made him their franchise tag player this offseason. He’s currently working through a plantar fasciitis issue, which has put his status for Sunday in jeopardy. The ball-hawking safety has 18 interceptions in just four pro seasons, including five last year.
3. DT Kyle Williams/DT Marcell Dareus. The Lions likely set the bar for best defensive tackle tandems in the NFL, but the Bills have an impressive duo who have the raw talent to be exceptional. Williams, a captain for 2013, is a rock in the middle who is tough to move off of his spot. He’s been perpetually underrated during the course of his career. Dareus has an abundance of talent and is looking to make strides under Pettine. He was a star at Alabama and the third pick in the draft in 2011. He stands at 6-3 and 330 pounds, but, much like Wilfork, has terrific movement skills for a player of his stature.
Also of note: The Bills will be without their best defensive player in cornerback Stephon Gilmore, as he recently fractured a wrist that has him out for 6-8 weeks. The team is likely to start Leodis McKelvin and, perhaps, Justin Rogers at cornerback. ... Robert Woods and Marquise Goodwin, two of the team’s top four picks in this year’s draft, may work into the wide receiver rotation, while second-round linebacker Kiko Alonso is expected to be an every-down player from the outset.