Camp Confidential: Buffalo Bills

August, 4, 2014
Aug 4
11:00
AM ET
PITTSFORD, N.Y. -- If you had asked about Donald Trump or Jon Bon Jovi at Buffalo Bills training camp last season, you'd have gotten some odd looks.

This summer, both are part of the conversation around a team that is making a full-speed charge at a playoff berth after 14 seasons out of the postseason.

As their pending sale and the uncertainty of a new owner hang over training camp at St. John Fisher College, the Bills are trying to push forward in their rebuilding efforts. Another 6-10 record, like that posted by first-year coach Doug Marrone and rookie quarterback EJ Manuel last season, won't be accepted.

"We haven’t been in the playoffs in a long time, and we owe it to the fans, our late Hall of Fame owner [Ralph Wilson] and everybody in this business to show that we’re not the Bills anymore," general manager Doug Whaley said last month. "We want to be a playoff team. We’re planning to be a playoff team, and that’s our goal."

Whaley and CEO Russ Brandon were brimming with excitement after they swung a draft-night trade for Sammy Watkins, college football's top receiver last season. Through two weeks of training camp, Watkins has looked the part.

That's welcome news for Manuel, a first-round pick whose uneven performance last season didn't inspire much confidence. This season, he could benefit from a big-time talent like Watkins.

"[Manuel] doesn’t have to feel the weight of the world on his shoulders and he has to go out and win," Whaley said. "We’ve surrounded him with some people where, if he does his job, we should be OK."

[+] EnlargeSammy Watkins
AP Photo/Bill WippertThe Bills traded up to get Sammy Watkins, and the receiver has performed as advertised so far in camp.
Three reasons for optimism

1. Another year under the belt for Manuel. That's the mantra we've heard from the Bills' brass since the start of the offseason. The expectation is that Manuel, having experienced the rigors of the rookie quarterback experience, will be more comfortable in his second season. Whaley often points out that the 2012 draft skewed the way rookie quarterbacks are evaluated, as its top quarterbacks experienced immediate success. He insists Manuel is on the right path. With a full offseason to work with offensive coordinator Nate Hackett, anything but an improvement from Manuel would be a disappointment.

2. By adding Watkins in a high-stakes, draft-day trade, the Bills gave Manuel his best chance at success in the NFL. Watkins will be Manuel's safety net, snagging anything within reach and keeping defenses honest in the deep game. The best-case scenario is that Watkins' production as a rookie is on par with some of his counterparts in recent drafts -- A.J. Green and Julio Jones. That would be a boost to a Bills offense that ranked 30th in passing touchdowns last season. But it's not the only addition; the Bills also traded for Mike Williams and added running backs Bryce Brown and Anthony Dixon, injecting more talent around Manuel.

3. The Bills possess the NFL's best defensive line, possessing three players -- Mario Williams, Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus -- who were voted to the Pro Bowl last season. This is an athletic, ferocious unit that has disrupted practices this training camp with its pressure on quarterbacks. It will be tough to match the franchise-record 57 sacks the Bills' defense posted last season, but this front line still has the potential to give opposing offensive lines major headaches. Defensive end Jerry Hughes, coming off a double-digit sack season, has looked strong this summer and shouldn't be overlooked.

Three reasons for pessimism

1. The loss of Kiko Alonso to a season-ending knee injury is crushing. The Bills don't have one player who can match his production -- playing on every defensive snap and finishing third in the NFL with 159 tackles. They'll have to do it with a mixture of Nigel Bradham, who is suspended for the season opener, and Preston Brown, a rookie. That will be a weaker point in the Bills defense, as will safety, at which the departure of Jairus Byrd through free agency can't be overstated. His return from a foot injury last October settled down a rocky pass defense, and the Bills did nothing to replace him this offseason.

[+] EnlargeEJ Manuel, Tashaun Gipson
AP Photo/David RichardE.J. Manuel will need to show marked improvement if the Bills are to make the leap to playoff contender.
2. Part of it might have been the inexperience of their quarterbacks, but the Bills allowed 48 sacks last season, fourth worst in the league. They added free-agent left guard Chris Williams, but he doesn't have a sparkling track record as a starter. At left tackle, Cordy Glenn played well last season, but his status is cloudy. He remains on the nonfootball illness list. The right side of the offensive line was suspect last season, but the Bills might not be able to find better options than incumbent guard Kraig Urbik or tackle Erik Pears. No matter what weapons Manuel has around him, poor offensive line play will doom the Bills' offense.

3. We started our reasons for optimism with Manuel, so it's only appropriate that we end our reasons for pessimism with him. Manuel is the linchpin for the Bills' success under Marrone and Whaley. Some young quarterbacks grow and become important pieces of playoff-caliber teams. Others don't. There were times last season when Manuel looked more like Mark Sanchez or Blaine Gabbert than he did Russell Wilson or Ben Roethlisberger. Despite the addition of Watkins and the quality of the Bills' other offensive pieces, does Manuel have what it takes to make the winning throws? The jury is very much still out on that one.

Observation deck

  • The Bills began last season running a no-huddle offense with some option elements. The pace slowed when Manuel was sidelined for more than a month in midseason with a knee injury. The feeling early in camp is that we'll see less designed runs from Manuel this season. The Bills have added more weapons at receiver and bolstered their backfield, so don't expect Manuel to be Cam Newton with his feet.
  • Little went right offensively for the Bills last season. One particular area of futility was in the red zone, in which they ranked 29th in touchdown efficiency. Marrone has made the red zone a "point of emphasis" in camp, adding an extra 7-on-7 period to the end of each practice. The results have begun to show, with Manuel completing four of five passes for touchdowns at one point last week.
  • When the Bills signed Corey Graham and drafted Ross Cockrell this offseason, there was some thought that slot cornerback Nickell Robey could slide down the depth chart. Graham began organized team activities in Robey's spot with the first team, but that quickly changed. Two weeks into camp, Robey looks to have that spot locked down. An undrafted rookie last season, Robey has the instincts and the ball skills of a savvy vet.

Mike Rodak

ESPN Buffalo Bills reporter

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