Buffalo Bills Pre-Season Game 1 – 5 Things To Watch

The Bills kick off their preseason slate of games tonight when they host Robert Griffith III and the Washington Redskins.  It’s been a long off-season for Bills fans who were given hope in the wake of their late season collapse with the high profile free agent signing of star defensive end Mario Williams as well as a push to retain their own key players, a philosophy that had been lost on the organization in the decade prior.  The Bills will begin their push to return to the playoffs in earnest tonight with their first tune-up.  The starters will likely be on the field for roughly 12 plays before giving way to the backups who will be fighting for a roster spot.  Here are 5 things to watch in tonight’s game:

Rookie 2nd rounder Glenn will start at left tackle tonight

1. Who will be the left tackle?  This one will be interesting to watch tonight.  Both candidates for starting left tackle, rookie 2nd round pick Cordy Glenn and second year player Chris Hairston, will be in the starting lineup as incumbent starting right tackle Erik Pears is out with an injury.  In a perfect world the Bills will have Glenn as their starting left tackle and Hairston the starting right tackle in the long term but they still have the veteran Pears on the roster and both of the younger guys need to gain experience.  Glenn seems to have the edge so far at left tackle and he will get the chance to prove it with the start tonight.  Hairston played well in spurts last year but he did suffer several injuries.  Both guys will be going up against starting defensive ends at the beginning of the game which will help in evaluation.  Expect to see both guys at left tackle at certain points tonight with both the 1st and 2nd units.

2. Who will step up at wide receiver?  The Bills have two spots locked up at receiver – they have a bonafide #1 receiver in Stevie Johnson who just signed a 5-year extension in the off-season and a mainstay at slot receiver in David Nelson who has caught 92 balls over his first two seasons in the league.  Donald Jones is the #2 right now, as he was at the beginning of last season.  Jones is dependable enough when he’s healthy but he’s missed 9 games to injury over his first two seasons.  Of note to watch are two young receivers who will be jockeying for playing time – 3rd round pick T.J. Graham, a burner who can get behind a defense quickly, and 3rd year man Marcus Easley, who has yet to play a down in the NFL.  After losing his rookie season to a knee injury Easley had a good camp last year before hitting injured reserve right before the start of the season with a heart ailment.  Easley is purportedly back to 100% and is a big target with plus speed so any contribution from him will be an added bonus.  Veteran Derek Hagan, who showed good chemistry with Ryan Fitzpatrick late last season, also figures to be in the mix.  Nelson won’t play after tweaking his knee in camp last week so it should give some of the otehr guys some time with Fitz tonight.

Young has struggled in his attempt to become Fitz’s backup and may be playing for his job already in game 1

3. Will Vince Young make it to preseason week 2?  There has been rumblings out of training camp that the Bills coaching staff is already prepared to cut ties with quarterback Vince Young who has been slow to catch on to the Bills offense.  That says a lot about Young when you consider that the Bills thought so much about Young’s competition for back-up QB, Tyler Thigpen, that they let Ryan Fitzpatrick play the last 9 games of last season with cracked ribs rather than inserting Thigpen into the lineup.  It seems like a make-or-break game tonight for Young who will get to prove himself in game action before the Bills make any decision on him.  If I were Thigpen I wouldn’t rest in my laurels without Young as there is plenty of time to get someone else into practice and throw them into the competition if Young bows out this early.  Despite the reports of Young’s demise GM Buddy Nix told NFL.com’s Steve Wyche this morning that he expects the battle to go down to Week 4 of the preseason so we’ll see how it goes.

4. How will the defensive line’s second unit shape up?  We know about Mario-Kyle-Dareus-Anderson but what about the guys coming up behind them?  Chris Kelsay is an everyman who is as solid as any 3rd DE in the league.  Shawne Merriman can be a huge asset if he is healthy but he hasn’t been healthy in 4 years.  The keys to the 2nd unit are the two 3rd year men – Alex Carrington and Torell Troup.  Carrington has shown flashes in his first two years and if he continues to develop he can be molded into a Chris Canty-type player on this stacked defensive line.  Troup on the other hand has shown very little in his first two seasons  A lot of it is due to injury but again you’ve got to stay healthy to produce.  Troup played in the 4-3 in college and he said in the off-season that he would be more comfortable as an attacking d-tackle in Dave Wannstedt’s new 4-3.  Now is the time for him to show it.

2nd year man Williams has a leg up on the competition for 2nd CB spot

5. How will the cornerback unit shape up?  So far in training camp Stephon Gilmore has lived up to the hype and appears to be a lock for one of the starters jobs.  2nd year man Aaron Williams has been playing the #2 spot to mixed results, one day Gailey and Wannstedt will criticize his play and the next they will praise him.  He definitely played well as a rookie.  Leodis McKelvin has been working in the slot and that might be the best spot for him.  He struggles mightily against bigger receivers and gets beat along the sidelines often so the middle of the field might be the best place for him.  Terrence McGee is coming back from injury and looking to make one last run with the Bills in his 9th season with the team.  He will be pushed by youngsters Justin Rogers, who was a revelation as a 7th round pick last season, and Ron Brooks, who played behind two All-Americans at LSU.

That’s the 5 biggest things to look for in this game tonight.  There are of course larger issues such as how Wannstedt’s new 4-3 defense acclimates but that is something better reviewed over the long haul of the full preseason schedule rather than after 1 game.  The 1st game will really be about young guys jockeying for position and fringe roster players fighting to live another week.  It will be interesting to see how conservative RG3 is in his first NFL preseason game, particularly against the Bills’ revamped and revved-up defensive front.  One thing is for sure – it’s great to see some NFL action again after a long off-season.  Enjoy the game.

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Buddy Nix is changing the blueprint in Buffalo

The Buffalo Bills announced a 5 year contract extension for WR Stevie Johnson today.  Johnson will get paid $36.25 million over the contract that will keep him in Buffalo through his 31st birthday.  Johnson’s 5 year agreement comes a few months after the Bills signed both QB Ryan Fitzpatrick and DT Kyle Williams to 6 year contract extensions.  They also signed starting RT Erik Pears, K Rian Lindell and LS Garrison Sanborn to 4-year extensions last month.  Last season they extended DE Chris Kelsay and SS George Wilson to multi-year deals as well.  Why is this news?  Because the Buffalo Bills have long been notorious for not keeping their players beyond their rookie contracts.

Fitzpatrick and Johnson will anchor the Bills offense for at least the next 5 seasons

Astoundingly the Bills have signed only 1 first round pick to a second contract since 1997.  That was WR Lee Evans who was traded to the Ravens two years into his 4 year extension.  11 players – RB Antowain Smith, CB Antoine Winfield, DE Erik Flowers, CB Nate Clements, T Mike Williams, RB Willis McGahee, QB J.P. Losman, SS Donte Whitner, DT John McCargo, RB Marshawn Lynch, and LB Aaron Maybin – were all cut, traded, or signed away in free agency after being drafted in the first round by the Bills.  Their track record hasn’t been too much better with players that were late round picks that they developed on their own either.  Late round gems like CB Jabari Greer and DT Pat Williams were lost in free agency.  T Jason Peters, a perennial Pro Bowler in Philadelphia now, was traded away when the Bills would not meet his salary demands.  Long story short is that this has been a franchise that has been spinning their wheels for over a decade.

That’s why Stevie Johnson’s re-signing was significant.  As mentioned before, Stevie is the 6th starting player re-signed by the Bills since Buddy Nix took over as GM in early 2010.  There were 6 starters in the Bills starting lineup last opening day with contracts expiring at the end of the year.  Only two, T Demetrius Bell and TE Scott Chandler, remain unsigned.  Buddy Nix said at his introductory press conference on New Year’s Eve in 2009 that he wanted to “draft ’em, develop ’em, and keep ’em here.”  So far he has been true to his word.

Williams' 6 year deal will pair him with fellow DT Marcell Dareus for the next half decade

For the first time in what seems like ages the Bills won’t enter draft weekend simply trying to fill the holes that they opened up by losing players in the off season.  It’s all about building depth, which is what good teams do on draft day.  It’s something that the Bills haven’t done in over a decade.  Now they can also go into the summer and start negotiating with the next batch of pending free agents which includes RB Fred Jackson, G Andy Levitre, and FS Jairus Byrd.  They no longer have the stigma of a team that doesn’t keep their players.  They no longer have the stigma of a team that doesn’t go the extra mile to build a winning team.  Will it finally start equating to wins in Buffalo?  Maybe, maybe not.  One thing that is certain is that they seem to be up there swinging and it’s definitely better to go down swinging then to go down looking.

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