BUFFALO BILLS - Pre Training Camp Report
Bills will show improvement this year.
by Ajitpaul Mangat
Bills Daily Correspondent
August 5, 2002
Last Season: 3-13 (Last Place In The AFC East)
The Buffalo Bills have been trying to find a true starting quarterback ever since pro football hall of fame member Jim Kelly’s retirement. The team has had some good quarterbacks come through, Doug Flutie, some highly touted ones, Rob Johnson, and some terrible ones, Todd Collins and Billy Joe Hobert. This season should be different however as Drew Bledsoe was brought in from the New England Patriots in a last second draft weekend trade. Bledsoe is the first proven QB to come to Buffalo since Kelly. The offense, defense and special teams were all shored up with some big acquisitions including offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride, LB London Fletcher, LB Eddie Robinson, K Mike Hollis and KR Charlie Rogers. All are proven players who will help the Bills in needed areas. These big name acquisitions have given Buffalo fans something to cheer about and many are thinking playoffs and beyond. This however may be nothing but hopeful dreaming as the Bills still have many holes, little depth and many chemistry issues to work out before the “p” word can seriously be considered. DRAFT:
Quarterbacks: The acquisition of Bledsoe was obviously the big news of the off-season. Bledsoe’s arrival will allow newly hired offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride to implement the offense he wants, which requires a pocket QB with a strong and accurate arm. Bledsoe does come with some question marks though and was not acquired cheaply with what could be a relatively high first round draft pick. Bledsoe is also coming off his first major injury suffered last season against the Jets. Bledsoe’s lack of winning and ability to make those around him better has also been brought up by his critics due to his failures the past few seasons with the Patriots. These criticisms are not entirely Bledsoe’s fault as the teams around him were sub-par and Bledsoe had already proven he could win, taking his team to the Super Bowl in 1997. However much of it does fall on Bledsoe’s shoulders as he threw his fair share of interceptions and was guilty of holding on to the ball for too long, resulting in sacks. Bledsoe will therefore have to play well to justify his first round draft pick price but no matter what happens Bledsoe will be a step up from last years quarterback tandem of Rob Johnson and Alex Van Pelt. Johnson was let go in the off-season because of his unwillingness to take a pay cut and now finds himself in Tampa Bay. Van Pelt is still around and has made it clear he feels he should be given a chance to battle for the starting position. This won’t happen with Bledsoe’s arrival but Van Pelt will make a very good backup. Van Pelt was a fan favorite, playing smart football but ultimately he did lack the physical gifts needed to lead a team to the playoffs and beyond. The third string duties will likely fall to Travis Brown who received some playing time last year against the Miami Dolphins.
Running Backs: The Bills feel they found a real gem last season in Travis Henry who would have reached 1000 yards if not for a late season injury. Henry played well behind an injury rattled line, running hard and breaking tackles once he found his way into the open field. Henry should play even better this season behind an improved line and with the added threat of a passing attack which should lead to fewer defenses filling the box with eight or nine players. Henry will not be handed the job however because of the Bills depth at the position. Richard Huntley recently acquired as a free agent is familiar with Kevin Gilbride having played under him in Pittsburgh. This familiarity will give Huntley a jump on Shawn Bryson, who is the focus of many persisting trade rumors. Bryson showed flashes of greatness in two late season games rushing for over 100 yards in each. Behind Huntley and Bryson are two more talented backs in Sammy Morris and Curtis Alexander. Alexander is an intriguing prospect because of his great feats in NFL Europe. The fullback position is also one of strength as Larry Centers returns from an 80 reception season which landed him another berth to the Pro Bowl. Centers may not exceed those numbers this year however as Gilbride’s offense doesn’t feature as many FB routes as the West Coast Offense.
Receivers: Eric Moulds is one of the best receivers in the NFL. Although he had a sub-par season last year much of it was due to the carousel at QB but with a proven QB at the helm this year Moulds should return to Pro-Bowl form, with stats in the neighborhood of 90 receptions and 1300 yards. The play of Peerless Price will also go a long way to determining how Moulds and more specifically the team does. Price entered the NFL as a one-dimensional receiver who could only go deep and was not a threat to go over the middle. Although this reputation still lingers with Price he showed willingness last season to put his body on the line. With Price’s impending free agency and still uncertain whether he wants to play in Buffalo, the Bills got themselves a safety valve in Josh Reed. Reed was ranked behind many more physically gifted receivers in the draft but the bottom line is that Reed was the most productive receiver in college football last season. Reed is a sure handed receiver who although lacking height is built like a running back and therefore in the open filed will be a handful for smaller cornerbacks to take down. The Bills lacking any real veteran leadership made a move buried in the headlines but which could pay big dividends, they picked up veteran receiver Charles Johnson who won a Super Bowl ring with the Patriots last season. With so many young players on the team, Johnson’s presence in the locker room and huddle could be a big help to the coaching staff. The Bills also picked up Dave Moore who will backup Jay Riemersma and play in two tight end formations. Moore although not a great receiver is a good run blocker and should help upgrade a porous running attack..
Offensive Line: Ruben Brown continued his impressive streak of Pro Bowls last season even though the team performed poorly in the running game and pass protection. Brown was criticized as only making the Pro Bowl because of his reputation as a great player and therefore will have to play even better this year if he wants to prolong that streak. The Bills finally brought in some help for Brown this off-season through the draft and free agency. The acquisition of Mike Williams was a big one and will pay off right away in the running game as Williams brings a hard-hitting mentality to a line that was lacking that killer instinct. Williams will start at right tackle but could move to left tackle later in his career. Brought in through free agency was Trey Teague, a versatile lineman who can play both center and tackle. The Bills will start the season with Teague at center but that could change with injuries. The rest of the line will have Jonas Jennings playing left tackle, Brown at left guard and Jerry Ostroski and Marques Sullivan battling it out at right guard. Depth, a major concern last season, could prove to be a strength this year because of the new acquisitions. Marcus Price, a free agent, will backup at tackle, Pucillo and Corey Hulsey will back up at guard while last years starter Bill Conaty will backup at center.
Overall Grade: B
Key Offensive Player(s): Jonas Jennings, OT. Jennings has been handed the starting left tackle position over free agent Trey Teague. Jennings will be the most important player on the line because he will be guarding Bledsoe’s blind side. If Jennings can play well the Bills passing attack will open up, which in turn will help the running game.
Defensive Line: If there is one clear weakness on the Bills it is their defensive line which remains a one man show. Pat Williams is that one man and is just now starting to receive praise and pro-bowl consideration for his great play. Williams is very strong at the point of attack and can engulf two defenders, while still disrupting the running game. Williams’ main problem was that he faced so many double teams last season that it made it difficult for him to play to his full potential. That will not change this season with the loss of Phil Hansen the one other solid contributor on the line. One of the available defensive end positions will be filled by Aaron Schobel who had a good rookie season, leading the team in sacks with 6.5. The other defensive end spot on the line will be an open competition between Erik Flowers, Ryan Denney and Bryce Fisher. Flowers is a former first round draft pick who has not lived up to expectations and whose days as a Bill may be numbered if he can not improve his play this year. Denney and Fisher are both high motor players who will be given chances in camp to show their true worth. The yet unfilled defensive tackle position beside Williams is another open battle between Tyrone Robertson, Justin Bannan, Ron Edwards and Leif Larsen. The best move might be to rotate these players, which would keep them fresh throughout the season.
Linebackers: The linebacker position will have two new starters with the departure of talented but injury prone Sam Cowart and Jay Forman. Brought in to replace these players were Fletcher and Robinson. Fletcher brings playoff experience and a swagger to a Bills line backing unit that was anything but confident last season. Fletcher is not the most physically gifted player in the league but is a difference maker as seen in his time with the Rams. Robinson was brought in mainly due to his familiarity with head coach Greg Williams and defensive coordinator Jerry Gray. Robinson played under both in Tennessee and will be able to help the younger players get acclimated to the system. At the other linebacker position is Keith Newman who was unable to play his usual pass rushing style last season due to injuries to the rest of the linebackers, which required him to drop into coverage more than the coaching staff wanted. With the arrivals of Fletcher and Robinson, Newman will be able to rush the quarterback more which should help a line that seems incapable of that task. Depth should be improved this year even with the injury to Brandon Spoon. MLB Jimmy Robinson will likely be the number one backup to Fletcher. Backing up at the outside will be DaShon Polk and Fred Jones. This is a young and exciting line backing unit with lots of potential.
Secondary: The Bills have arguably the best young cornerback tandem in the league in Antoine Winfield and Nate Clements, two former first round draft picks. Winfield is an excellent cover man who lacks height but makes up for it with his great instincts and leaping ability. The one thing Winfield is most known for is his tenacious tackling which leaves many players and their helmets separated. Clements lining up on the other side of the field had an excellent rookie season even though he found himself playing against the opposing teams best receivers because of his great cover skills. Clements’ “coming out party” occurred on national television on a Thursday night in a game against the Jacksonville Jaguars in which he shut down Jimmy Smith, one of the best wide receivers in the NFL. Clements although a very good cover man is known for taking too many risks, something he should improve with experience. The nickel cover duties will go to Chris Watson who has improved mightily in his time with the Bills. The dime coverage duties will be an open battle in camp but will likely go to Thomas, a rookie out of UNLV. The safety position although improved from last season is the weak link in the secondary. Strong safety Billy Jenkins brought in through free agency fits Gray’s defensive plans perfectly as a roaming safety that will play close to the line, showcasing his blitzing and tackling ability. A new free safety will need to step up because of Keion Carpenter’s defection to the Falcons. Tavares Tillman seems to be that man but Pierson Prioleau, who played well in limited action, will also be given a chance. Tony Driver and Coy Wire will be used as backups.
Overall Grade: B
Key Defensive Player(s): London Fletcher, LB. Fletcher is replacing a pro-bowl caliber player in Saw Cowart and therefore will need to come into Buffalo and play well right off the get go. The Bills’ run defense was horrendous last season and Fletcher will be needed to make sure tackles if the running backs break through the line. This is especially important in a division with Ricky Williams and Curtis Martin. In addition to this Fletcher will also be asked to lead a defense full of youngsters and also be a disruptive force, creating sacks and interceptions. SPECIAL TEAMS:
Kicker: Mike Hollis stumbled last season but was one of the leagues stand out kickers before that; may turn out to be the Bills’ most important off-season acquisition.
Punter: Brian Moorman started strong but sagged in the last half of the season.
Kick Returner: WR Charlie Rogers brought in through a trade with the Texans, is one of the premier return specialists in the league.
Punt Returner: Charlie Rogers. Another option could be Clements who proved he could be a dangerous punt returner bringing back a punt for a touchdown last season.
It is obvious to everyone that the Bills are improved and that they will be better than 3-13 but a big improvement will be difficult because of the terrible schedule given to the Bills, tied for toughest in the league. The Bills are still a pass rushing defensive end, a defensive tackle, a solid free safety and a proven left tackle away from competing for the AFC Championship but in this day and age of NFL parity a playoff berth may be possible with some luck. OVERALL GRADE: B
Projected Record: 7-9 (4th In AFC East)
Wins: vs. NY Jets, @ Minnesota, @ Houston, vs. Detroit, vs. New England, vs. San Diego, vs. Cincinnati (Total: 7)
Losses: @ Denver, vs. Chicago, vs. Oakland, @ Miami, @ Kansas City, @ NY Jets, vs. Miami, @ New England, @ Green Bay (Total: 9)
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