The Buffalo Bills converge on suburban Rochester today to begin their longest training camp in five years.
Because the Bills are playing in the Hall of Fame Game on Aug. 3, they get an extra week of practice. After three straight 6-10 finishes, they can use it.
Bills players will move into the dorms at St. John Fisher College in Pittsford this afternoon and tonight. They hit the field for the first time on Sunday night, and from that point will have 49 days to get ready for the season opener on Sept. 7.
Here’s a look at five key things to watch during training camp practice sessions:
1. EJ’s accuracy. EJ Manuel completed 58.8 percent of his passes last season. The league average was 61.2. He was a league-worst 47.5 percent on third downs. That’s not a shock for a rookie. He needs to take a good step forward. Familiarity with coordinator Nate Hackett’s system should be a huge help. To get in better synch with the QB’s footwork, the coaches have the receivers determining the depth of their timing routes by the number of steps they take, not just their depth in yards. When the pocket is clean, watch for Manuel’s ball placement. Quality offenses don’t let the ball hit the ground much in practice. Another good sign in camp would be Manuel making quick decisions with the ball.
“He has put in a lot of work,” said coach Doug Marrone. “He has a much, much better understanding. … There are a lot of things that are going on that you get excited about, and we have to carry that on and do that when the preseason comes.”
2. Health. The most important accomplishment any team can make in July and August is to come out of training camp healthy. The Bills already have lost one key starter (Kiko Alonso) in the offseason. They can’t afford to lose many more. Last year was a bad camp for injuries. The Bills ended August with their top two quarterbacks, their two best defensive backs and their kicker nursing injuries. The Bills’ deepest positions are running back and defensive backfield. Receiver looks fairly deep. Positions that can’t afford injury look like edge rusher, linebacker and, perhaps, offensive tackle.
3. Cyrus Kouandjio & the OTs. The massive Kouandjio, 6-foot-7 and 325 pounds, is key to the Bills’ plans to upgrade the offensive line. How fast can he catch on, and can he beat out Erik Pears at right tackle? Kouandjio turns 21 on Monday.
If Kouandjio learns fast, super-talented seventh-round pick Seantrel Henderson keeps his head on straight and Chris Hairston can get in reasonable enough shape to challenge for a roster spot, the Bills could find themselves with awesome depth at tackle. If a couple of those things don’t fall into place and starter Cordy Glenn has issues (he will open camp on the sidelines due to illness), then tackle could be a worry spot.
4. Replacing Kiko. Alonso played every defensive snap last season, but the Bills don’t necessarily have to replace him with one man. They could do it with two or three. It’s now or never for third-year man Nigel Bradham to show he can play. Rookie third-round pick Preston Brown may wind up getting the nod as the weak-side starter. Alonso has to be replaced in the nickel defense, too. Brown got snaps next to Alonso in the spring in passing situations. The Bills could make more use of safety Da’Norris Searcy down in the box in passing situations, too.
5. Breakout players. Every team needs some unheralded players to take a great leap forward. Last year, Jerry Hughes and Nickell Robey came out of relative nowhere to make huge contributions.
Can the Bills discover three or four playmakers from the depth of the roster?
Top candidates include running back Bryce Brown, safety Duke Williams, tight end Tony Moeaki and defensive tackle Stefan Charles.
Brown may not get a ton of snaps in the Bills’ loaded backfield, but he has the speed and power to be a situational weapon. Williams isn’t exactly a sleeper, but he aims to make a big step into a starting role at strong safety. Moeaki seeks to rebound after sitting out with injuries two of the last three years. Can he make the Bills’ two-TE sets more dangerous? Charles is massive, at 6-5, 323, and could emerge as a useful backup at defensive tackle.