For what seems like the millionth season (okay, so it’s only been 14 seasons ) the Buffalo Bills are expected to miss out on the postseason. Despite the disbelief from the media and those who do not bleed blue and red, optimism is perhaps at its highest levels in Orchard Park in recent years due to the talent acquired both in the draft and in free agency. Perhaps that 14-year spell could be broken. At the least, the Bills are due to produce their first winning season since 2004.
Sure, the season-ending ACL injury that star middle linebacker, Kiko Alonso, suffered recently puts a damper on things, but the acquisitions of Sammy Watkins and Mike Williams (wide receivers), Bryce Brown (running back) and Cyrus Kouandijo (offensive tackle) brighten the future a bit in Buffalo.
Despite the increase in talent the Bills have assembled, the upcoming training camp that begins on July 20 will determine how and where this talent will take the field. Below, I will take a look at three intriguing starting lineup position battles for this upcoming September.
#1: Right Offensive Tackle
The Bills had a bevy of talent at the running back position last year as the duo of Fred Jackson and CJ Spiller teamed up to lead Buffalo to the second-highest rushing total in the NFL in 2013. With the addition of the dynamic Bryce Brown, from Philadelphia, the Bills could claim the number one spot, but not without a little help from the big guys up front.
Last season’s offensive line was a revolving door due to both injury and inadequacy. Specifically at the right tackle position, Erik Pears was likely to be cut until projected starter Chris Hairston suffered a season-ending injury. This year, a healthy Hairston is projected to move to the left side, leaving Pears to fend off drafted rookies Cyrus Kouandjio (44th pick, second round) and Seantrel Henderson (237th pick, seventh round). Pears is a nine-year veteran and I foresee him getting the nod to start the season, but if Kouandjio, who had an illustrious career at Alabama, has a strong training camp, I think his talent will outweigh Pears’ experience. Henderson, who is infamous for his off-field issues (link) could either get cut or even win the starting job in the next season or two. The former No. 1-rated recruit in high school may have the most talent of the three, but the Bills have stated that his leash is short and he will have to change his ways if he will make it in the NFL.
#2: Strong Safety
Pro-Bowl free safety Jairus Byrd signed with the Saints this offseason, leaving his position, as well as strong safety somewhat depleted. Former strong safety Aaron Williams, who was a pleasant surprise for Buffalo last season, is expected to move to Byrd’s old position. Young safeties Duke Williams and Jonathan Meeks (both rookies last season) will battle Da’Norris Searcy for the starting job. Searcy has the most experience of the three, starting in 10 games over the past three seasons, but Williams may have the upper hand for the job.
Like Seantrel Henderson, his off-field issues plummeted his draft stock (he was taken in the fourth round of the 2013 Draft after initially projected to go in the first or second round), but his talent is undeniable. Formerly a sprinter, Williams can cover a lot of ground and at 6-foot-0 and 190 pounds, he has the size to hang in the NFL. The Nevada product competed in all 16 games last season, but did not start in any game. Expect that to change next season.
#3: Right Offensive Guard
During this year’s draft, the Bills made no bones about the holes they needed to fill. The hole in their offensive line depth was about as big as the holes they hope to open for their talented trio of running backs this fall. Now, after drafting three offensive linemen, as well as acquiring free agent Chris Williams, most recently of the Rams, the Bills are on their way to bolstering a shaky offensive line. Now, the problem resides in seeing where everyone fits in. Williams is very likely to assume the starting position at left guard, but the right side is not so certain.
The Bills drafted Cyril Richardson in the fifth round, a pick many regard as a steal. The Baylor product was the 2012 Big 12 Offensive Lineman of the Year and garnered mid-season All-American honors in 2013 from ESPN. Richardson has had trouble staying in shape and his lack of quickness could be an issue. Nonetheless, I expect a professional training and coaching staff to get him back into the shape that made him one of the top offensive line prospects just a year or two ago. Richardson will be in a battle during training camp, and maybe even beyond, with incumbent Kraig Urbik. Urbik has started 42 games in four seasons as a Bill, but that was just as much a product of a lack of talent as it was his merit. Like at offensive tackle, I would not be surprised if the Bills went with the veteran Urbik to start at the beginning of the season, but if he fails to get the job done early on, do not be surprised to see Richardson get a healthy amount of snaps, either as a backup or starter.