Kevin Gilbride is out as Offensive Coordinator and has been replaced by Tom Clements. The offensive brain trust includes offensive minded Head Coach Mike Mularkey and QB coach Sam Wyche. The main job of the staff is to get the most out of Drew Bledsoe. The key to success is to get the ball out of Bledsoe's hands quicker so he doesn't get sacked is much. They have worked hard on that in the minicamps and it will be interesting to see how much emphasis they have on the quick release in training camp.
Despite the change in the coaching staff, the origin of the offensive system is very similar to the one under Gilbride, since both coaches came from Pittsburgh. Mularkey's idea is to simplify the system so players don't have to think so much they can just react and let their talent take over.
A key to keeping Bledsoe upright will be the running game. Last year, Gregg Williams and Gilbride said the team was committed to the running game but that never materialized. This coaching staff says the same thing but look for them to actual do it. The running game was emphasized in the minicamps much more than the passing game. If they run the ball well, and they have two talented backs in Travis Henry and Willis McGahee, that should open up the passing game for Bledsoe.
The offensive line will need to perform better than last year for the offense to succeed. Bledsoe was sacked a lot last year because he stands in the pocket and holds on to the ball too long. He also was sacked a lot because the line was porous. The big change on the offensive line is the addition of Chris Villarial as the new right guard. He comes from Chicago where he has the reputation of being a tough player with great run blocking ability, which fits in to the new scheme and character that the coaches are trying to build. The two big bookends return at tackle with Jonas Jennings playing for a big contract next offseason and former first round pick Mike Williams. Trey Teague is a dependable center making the big battle to watch in training camp at left guard.
Ruben Brown was a fixture there for nearly a decade but his play has slipped and he was released. Three players are battling for his spot, Ross Tucker, Mike Pucillo, and Marques Sullivan. Each player has strengths and weaknesses. Sullivan may be on the outside looking in since he has been moved back to tackle for the time being. It appears to be that Pucillo has the upper hand. He started most games last year at left guard before being hurt and replaced by Tucker.
The biggest change to the line is the addition of offensive line coach Jim McNally. He is considered a genius at the position and most feel he will turn around the line despite having similar talent that they had last year. This may be asking a little too much from the Buffalo area native. He will have to work his magic to get the sort of improvement that fans are expecting. He is expected to do wonders on Williams' game. He has not lived up to expectations of a fourth overall pick yet.
The line is going to be asked to run block more than pass protect and that seems to fit into the talents of the unit. This is where all eyes will be on camp. Everyone is waiting with bated breath to see how McGahee looks when the pads go on. They also want to see how he gets along with Henry and how both players will be used. The coaches have talked about using both of them in the backfield at the same time but they seem to have backed off a bit on those statements since one would actually have to block and that doesn't fit the power running game scheme. There is no real training camp battle here, Henry is the unquestioned starter. The question remains, how many carries will McGahee take from Henry? My guess is no more than 5-7 carries a game. Last year, Henry came off the field on third down for Sammy Morris. This year, he'll come off for McGahee who may be more of a contributor in the passing game than the running game in his first year on the field.
A bigger question may be who will block for the talented duo. Danion Shelton is the starter but he was out of football last year. A fullback is supposed to be a big part of this offense, and there isn't a proven one on the roster. The team may use a tight end at the position at times. Ryan Neufeld played there last year.
Speaking of tight ends, with the departure of Dave Moore, Mark Campbell is entrenched at the position. Neufeld will most likely make the team as will fourth round pick Tim Euhus. There is a huge buzz with undrafted free agent Jason Peters, he will be interesting to watch in camp. He will be hard to miss since he's huge but also quick with good hands. If Peters excels in camp, the former tight end turned Head Coach may be tempted to keep four at the position. He could do that if they only keep one fullback and use Neufeld as an H-Back in certain formations.
One of the most hotly contested positions for roster spots is Wide Receiver. Eric Moulds is now completely healthy and should have a bounce back season. The number two spot is a battle between Josh Reed and first round pick Lee Evans. Reed will most likely remain the starter on the depth chart but Evans will likely line up wide in most formations with Reed returning to the slot role where he is more comfortable and excelled as a rookie. Bobby Shaw is a very solid number four receiver. 7th round pick Jonathan Smith will battle with Clarence Coleman, Sam Aiken and Antonio Brown for the fifth spot. The team may carry six receivers if one of them makes the team as a return man.
Another man that will be heavily watched in camp is the other first round pick, J.P. Losman. He enters camp as the number three QB and will likely be in that spot on gamedays. He will take extra snaps during the week instead of Travis Brown. If Losman really picks up the pro game quick and has a really good camp and plays well in the preseason than he may steal the number two job. Either way, the quarterback of the future will be very interesting to watch.
As we wrap up our training camp preview it is obvious that most fans will be watching the offense more closely than defense and special teams. There more unknowns on that side of the ball and how those players develop will be key to the success of the team this season.
This is the third of a series of articles previewing the Bills training camp.