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Training Camp Preview: Defense
Camp more important than ever for young talent.
by Steve Saslow
Tuesday July 18, 2000
NFL Coaches consider training camp the most important time of the year. It takes on extra importance for the Bills this year especially on defense. There are many young players trying to earn important backup spots and a couple that are being counted on to start for the league's number one ranked defense from a year ago. How these players develop over the next six weeks will go a long way in telling how good the team will be this season. In our first article in a three part series, we will preview the defensive unit of the team.
The defensive line lost two players, the biggest being, of course, future hall of famer Bruce Smith. The salary cap move to cut Smith gave the depth a bit of a hit that they feel they recovered by drafting Erik Flowers in the first round of the draft. Smith's starting right end spot is suppose to be filled by third year pro Marcellus Wiley who is recovering from back surgery. While he rehabs, Flowers will keep his spot warm. Wiley is hoping to be back by the final pre-season game. His absence from camp will create a hole at the right end spot when they practice the dime defense. Flowers will play there during the regular season. The downside of the surgery, is Wiley will miss important practice time, that would have got him used to playing right end as a starter for the first time as a pro. The upside is Flowers will gain valuable experience practicing with the first team every day.
Besides this situation the defensive line is in fine shape. Veteran Phil Hansen returns as the starting left end and moves to right tackle in the dime defense. The middle is in the capable hands of the slimmer Ted Washington and his partner Pat Williams. Another player that will benefit from Wiley's absence is Shawn Price. He will see more practice time in the dime defense. The club may have some trouble in camp practicing for the line rotation Wade Phillips loves so much. The other players that can be used are rookies Jarrett Procell and sixth round pick Leif Larsen. Also in for a full camp is Bryce Fisher who has one year left of his military obligation. Fisher would be the ideal candidate to play left end in the dime during camp, except for the fact that he won't be here when the bullets fly for real.
The Linebacker unit is solid with three returning starters. John Holecek and Sam Cowart continue to rule the middle of the defense. Cowart inherits the only linebacking position in the dime defense from departed Marlo Perry. Last year's fifth round pick Jay Foreman will get a good look in camp. He will be the number one backup at inside linebacker and has a good chance to become Cowart's backup in the dime defense also. Seventh round pick DaShon Polk will be looked at to win the other backup inside linebacker position. Rookie free agents Kenyatta Wright and Keith Kelsey round out the prospects in the middle. Wright showed some flashes in the mini-camps and will have a chance to win a roster spot.
On the outside, Sam Rogers will continue to start at one outside position with last year's fourth round pick Keith Newman getting the start at the other spot replacing Gabe Northern. The club is very high on Newman and thought about giving him more playing time last year. Look for the Bills to continue their experiment from mini-camp of flip-flopping Rogers and Newman. Rogers wants to rush the passer more so he's experimenting with playing on the weakside. Newman would only move to the strong side if he shows good pass coverage skills in training camp. This bares watching at St. Johns Fisher over the next few weeks. The number one backup on the outside is 3rd round pick Corey Moore. The Bills envision him being used on special teams this year and as a situational pass rusher. His development in training camp is critical to how much playing time he will see with the defense. Rookie free agents Fred Jones and Dustin Cohen also will battle for a spot on the 53-man roster.
The secondary is where the biggest changes have occurred and it will be the most watched position of the entire training camp. At cornerback, Ken Irvin returns healthy after his knee injury last season. He will move to the right cornerback position that was held by Thomas Smith last season. Last year's 1st round pick Antoine Winfield will start at left corner, where he excelled in Irvin's place at the end of the year. Winfield will return to his familiar slot position when the club goes to the nickel defense. Donovan Greer will then play left corner in for Winfield. The battle for the other backup corner spots will be hot and heavy at training camp with many rookie free agents battling for good positioning on the depth chart. Ray Hill and Reggie Durden may have the early lead based on their performances at mini-camp. David Byrd and newly signed Quincy Coleman will have a chance to catch up in camp.
The strong safety position will remain in the capable hands of veteran Henry Jones. Last year's practice squad player Raion Hill will back him up. Rookie Askari Adams will try to battle Hill for the backup position. Jones may need to help out with the signal calling usually done by the free safety due to the lack of experience at that position. This will be the most hotly contested battle at camp, since this is the only starting job totally up for grabs. How the candidates practice over the next few weeks will go a long way in deciding who will be "the quarterback of the defense" come opening day. The early lead in the battle is Daryl Porter. Porter has the most experience of all the candidates, he has been around four years and has made the move from corner to safety in search for a starting position. The other two that are battling with Porter is Keion Carpenter and Travares Tillman. Carpenter is the lone undrafted free agent to make the team last year. He has shown he has the talent to play. Tillman is this year's second round pick who has so far struggled to pick up the defensive schemes. If Tillman comes to camp with the playbook down, he can make major strides in catching up to the other two for the starting job.
All eyes will be on Pittsford for the next four weeks as the club prepares for the season. For some players it will be the most important time of their whole career. Jobs will be won or lost on the practice fields, it will be interesting to see at the very least for all rabid Bills fans.
Other Articles In This Series:
Training Camp Preview: Offense
Training Camp Preview: Special Teams
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