Conclusions about spring football practice are like soap bubbles. They often go “poof” when the real football begins in the fall.
Buffalo Bills fans know it. Rob Johnson threw nothing but pigskin darts in the spring and summer. In the fall, not so much. Former coach Chan Gailey, who spent his life running mostly capable offenses, watched Trent Edwards compete with Ryan Fitzpatrick an entire spring and summer, yet picked the wrong guy (Edwards) when the 2010 season began.
Fast forward to the Bills’ final minicamp practice on Thursday. How did quarterback EJ Manuel look? Some good, some bad.
He threw a beautiful, 38-yard, lofted bomb down the left sideline to Robert Woods. Later, he made a quick shift in the pocket to hit his second option, Woods, on a crossing pattern in the middle of the end zone.
Manuel threw an interception to safety Aaron Williams, who made a superb play on a sideline throw for Woods. Manuel also made an open Woods turn into an elastic-man superhero to make a diving, goal-line catch.
Bills coach Doug Marrone said the spring practices served their purpose for Manuel, allowing him to hone his mechanics and improve his mastery of the offense.
“The thing that we were concentrating on, like I said before, was to make sure that he had the fundamentals that a lot of people might not be able to see because we’re always looking for the end result,” Marrone said. “But I think in these last couple of days, we’ve had some good results, with yesterday probably being the best day that he’s had on third down.”
The Bills closed out 12 days of spring practices with their final minicamp session. The highlight was a two-minute address by Bills great Jim Kelly to the players at the start of the session. The players are now off until they report for training camp in Rochester on July 18.
Aside from Manuel’s inconclusive showing, here are some of what seemed like notable developments during the spring:
• Jerry Hughes picked up where he left off last season by showing off his quick first step in attacking the quarterback.
• In a backfield that is deeper than ever, Fred Jackson still looks like one of the offense’s sure things at age 33. C.J. Spiller deservedly is the No. 1 back. But the oldest player on the offense did not look like he has lost a step, barreling across the line of scrimmage with the same downhill force as ever.
• Erik Pears is not out to pasture yet. The fact the Bills spent a high second-round pick on Cyrus Kouandjio says they want him to start at right tackle. But Pears still took most of the first-team snaps. Kouandjio worked with the second team the last two days. We’ll see how fast Kouandjio and rookie Seantrel Henderson can develop in training camp. Henderson started at left tackle this week with No. 1 Cordy Glenn sitting out. Given the youth on the line, Pears’ experience could be a valuable commodity, even if he’s the No. 3 tackle. Are the Bills going to be better at tackle? The jury is out.
• The Bills were trying out combinations at guard. Tackle Chris Hairston again split time with Kraig Urbik on the starting unit at right guard. Chris Williams is locked in a left guard. Hairston, coming off a year of inactivity due to illness, is heavy. Can he get into good enough condition to be a factor at tackle?
• Jim Schwartz does not resemble Dave Wannstedt. The Bills’ new defensive coordinator displayed a wide variety of blitzes. It was not the static defensive front of the Bills’ 2012 coordinator. It probably wasn’t as heavy a blitz package as Mike Pettine threw out last spring. But the Bills had plenty of defensive backs buzzing into the backfield. (Keep in mind, Pettine didn’t actually rush five or more a lot last season, but he did blitz creatively.)
• Jarius Wynn made a good decision signing with the Bills. Buffalo needs a stout end to play first down against power offenses. Wynn is 277 and spent most of the summer playing with the first team, since Mario Williams was limited coming off surgery. Can Wynn be effective when the pads go on, or is he “just a guy?”
• The cornerback roster is deep. After Stephon Gilmore and Leodis McKelvin, both of whom mostly sat out, Corey Graham is a proven No. 3, and slotman Nickell Robey again flashed his playmaking ability. Ron Brooks was next man in, but he may be pushed in camp by fourth-round pick Russ Cockrell.
• Scott Chandler still looked like the best tight end on the field.
“I was very pleased with the rookies,” Marrone said of the way players mastered the playbook. “And I think that’s a good measure of the teaching that’s going on and how well other people should be picking it up. . . . Did we see times where information became, for lack of a better word, overwhelming? Yes, and we had to step back with those players. But overall I’d have to say we were very happy with the way they were able to retain that information. Especially the stuff we put on Sammy Watkins’ plate, being the first pick, and even a couple of the other guys, too.”