Buffalo Bills offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett does not hesitate when asked how the team’s extra-long training camp will help the attack.
“No. 3,” Hackett said, referring to quarterback EJ Manuel. “Just given the young team that we have, especially No. 3, just those extra practices are going to help him so much. He loves practicing, he loves competing. The more he can compete with the guys out there the better.”
For the Bills’ 22nd-ranked scoring offense, the critical mission of training camp in Rochester will be building more efficiency. There are a few roster battles to watch, particularly at right tackle where rookie Cyrus Kouandjio will try to unseat Erik Pears. But the most important objective will be to come out of the five-week camp healthy and synchronized.
Manuel and three of his top four receivers – Sammy Watkins, Robert Woods and Marquise Goodwin – all have played fewer than 16 NFL games. They need the on-field work when camp practices begin next Sunday.
Offense requires precision, especially on third down and inside the opponents’ 20-yard line. The Bills ranked 29th in both categories last year. Manuel & Co. need as much practice on those situations as possible in Year Two of coach Doug Marrone’s regime.
“We put the system in last year once, then again in OTAs, then again in minicamp,” Hackett said, referring, in part, to organized team activities. “Then last year we got it again in training camp, so that was four times. Now we come back here and get it in pre-meetings, then in OTAs, then the minicamp. So this will be the eighth time they’ve gotten the system this training camp. That’s a starting point in saying it’s going to be familiar. They’re not going to go, ‘What does that mean?’ That’s going to help them more.”
Like all young quarterbacks, Manuel needs to develop the ability to sit in the pocket and hit second and third receivers when his initial read is covered.
Hackett thinks he saw improvement in that area in spring.
“Earlier on, some of the deep shots, he was like, ‘I really want to throw the ball deep,’ ” Hackett said. “He’s done a really nice job in the pocket, when the pocket has kind of closed in on him, working up into the pocket and checking it down.”
Manuel’s pocket presence will be something for fans to watch at St. John Fisher College.
Here are roster battles to watch on the offensive side of the ball:
Offensive line: How quickly can Kouandjio, the second-round draft pick, develop into a starter at right tackle? If Kouandjio overtakes Pears to start the season, will the Bills keep Pears as the No. 3 tackle? Pears is due to make $2.75 million in salary, high for a backup but hardly an intolerable amount. Will another tackle emerge as a viable player? Chris Hairston is back from illness but has not had the benefit of a full offseason to get in top condition. Seventh-round pick Seantrel Henderson is raw but saw some first-team left tackle snaps in the spring while starter Cordy Glenn rested. Hairston worked at right guard part of the spring, getting some first-team snaps. Can Hairston regain form enough to make any kind of challenge to Kraig Urbik at right guard? Who emerges as the top interior backups from a group that includes Doug Legursky, fifth-round pick Cyril Richardson, Hairston, J.J. Unga, Antoine McClain and Mark Asper?
Receiver: Watkins and Woods are the top two, and Woods is the slot receiver in multiple wideout sets. Mike Williams and Goodwin are the next two outside receivers. Chris Hogan ended spring as the No. 2 slot receiver. Marcus Easley is one of the core special teamers. He rehabilitated from offseason knee surgery all spring. The Bills kept six receivers last season. Can T.J. Graham, who caught 23 passes last year, hang onto a job? Bidding to break into the mix are a slew of big wideouts, including ex-Giant Ramses Barden.
Quarterback: Manuel is the starter and Thad Lewis is entrenched as No. 2. Jeff Tuel and Dennis Dixon will battle for No. 3, and should get decent playing time, given the extra exhibition game.
Tight end: Scott Chandler’s size and catch radius sets him apart as a receiving weapon. There’s a lot of optimism Tony Moeaki can stay healthy and revive his career as a threat from the slot. At his best, he offers versatility because he has shown some blocking ability. Lee Smith is the blocking TE. Chris Gragg will have to shine to win a job.
Running back: Newly acquired backups Bryce Brown and Anthony Dixon should get plenty of work to learn the Bills’ offense, since C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson don’t need a ton of preseason playing time. Fullback Frank Summers (248 pounds) has a power edge on challenger Evan Rodriguez (239 pounds).