Monday, June 2, 2014
Noting early trends in Bills' OTAs
By Mike Rodak
With three of their 10 organized team activities in the books, the Buffalo Bills have just scratched the surface of the team-building process that will continue through the summer.
During last week's practices there were impressive catches, dropped passes, a few interceptions, and even a fumble. Viewed individually, none of it is of much consequence this time of year.
But if patterns begin to develop, that's where we can begin to draw more substantial conclusions, both good and bad.
With the Bills set to begin their second week of OTAs this week, here are some areas where trends have cropped up. We'll be looking to see if they continue:
Robey's role: When the Bills signed Corey Graham to a four-year, $16 million deal in March, we scratched our heads a little. Graham is a good player, but the Bills' top three cornerbacks last season -- Stephon Gilmore, Leodis McKelvin, and Nickell Robey -- were a strength of the team and all were returning. When the Bills hosted some of the draft's best cornerbacks on pre-draft visits, we continued to scratch our heads. When the Bills selected cornerback Ross Cockrell in the fourth round, it gave an even greater indication that something might change at cornerback.
With McKelvin and Gilmore out of OTAs this week because of hip surgery, the Bills' first-team cornerbacks were Graham and Ron Brooks. The next group on the field was Cockrell and Brandon Smith, followed by Robey and Mario Butler. That wasn't shocking to us, because Robey isn't considered an "outside" cornerback. Rather, he excelled in the slot last season. But when the Bills' first nickel unit came onto the field this week, it was Cockrell and Brooks outside with Graham in the slot. The next wave featured Robey in the slot with two younger players manning the outside.
What do we make of that? It could mean that Jim Schwartz doesn't value the 5-foot-7 Robey in the same way that Mike Pettine did. Would that mean Robey's roster spot is in jeopardy? Probably not, but it could indicate reduced playing time for him. The other possibility is that the Bills are simply tinkering with their personnel, seeing what they have in Brooks in what could be a make-or-break training camp, while getting Cockrell on the field as much as they can. We'll be watching to see whether this trend continues this week in OTAs.
Duking it out: Who will replace Jairus Byrd in the starting lineup at safety? The top two contenders are Da'Norris Searcy and Duke Williams. With Aaron Williams (shoulder surgery) out of OTAs this week, Duke Williams and Searcy made up the first team in the back end. That means we're in wait-and-see mode as far as who will get the first crack next to Aaron Williams. If he returns this week, I would lean toward Duke Williams remaining with the first team and Searcy sliding down to the second team with Jonathan Meeks. If Aaron Williams doesn't return, the question about who will get the first chance to replace Byrd will remain on the back burner.
Two-headed attack: As noted by WGR 550's Joe Buscaglia in his Friday practice notes, the Bills put Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller on the field together for some selected plays in OTAs this week. It's something I can remember seeing early in training camp last summer but rarely during the regular season. With Spiller back to full health, offensive coordinator Nate Hackett may try to vary his usage within the offense. Spiller's receiving numbers dipped last season, but if he can be motioned into the slot with Jackson remaining in the backfield, he will cause matchup problems for defenses.
Dixon's position: The Bills' signing of Anthony Dixon added a low-cost depth player to their backfield. When the Bills traded for Bryce Brown earlier this month, it signaled that Dixon may be used more as a fullback or goal-line back than a tailback. So far in OTAs, that hasn't been the case. Physically, Dixon is a far cry from Frank Summers or Evan Rodriguez, and his body type is more in line with a traditional running back. Brown was sidelined Friday with an undisclosed injury, and with fellow running back Ronnie Wingo dealing with a hamstring injury, Dixon got plenty of work at tailback. Ultimately, I think there is room for both Dixon and Brown on the 53-man roster, especially if Dixon contributes on special teams.