Position Battles to Watch

Everyone knows who the big names on the Bills are, especially after a certain splash in free agency. BFR's Adam Beilman takes a look at the positions where there is still indecision and where it'll be make-or-break for a lot of players in training camp.

Fullback/H-back

Poor Corey McIntyre. The good-not-great no-name fullback earned himself a name with recent legal troubles, despite the probability that the absurd charges against him are fabricated. He’ll be the butt of jokes of many a casual fan, and will probably also be battling for his job with undrafted rookie Travis McCall from Alabama.

McCall, as recently reported, was a rugged blocking tight end in college. Keeping the latter and releasing McIntyre would imply that the Bills would have no true fullbacks on their roster, but this is a distinct possibility as the I-formation fullback is a dying breed in the modern NFL. Recall that the Bills used Ryan Neufeld as a quasi-fullback in 2007.

Wide Receiver

Obviously Lee Evans and that other guy the Bills recently signed are ensconced in their starting roles, but there is a lot to be determined further down the depth chart.

Josh Reed is a very skilled slot receiver and will probably see a majority of the time in three wide receiver sets. The Bills claim they’re looking to utilize more spread and no-huddle offensive sets, which implies a lot of time with four or five receivers on the field. The other wideouts on the roster with a legitimate chance to make the team are James Hardy, Roscoe Parrish, Steve Johnson, and Justin Jenkins.

The team certainly won’t keep all seven players. Johnson, the former seventh-round pick, made the best impression last season and earned significant time at the end of the season. The Bills are very unlikely to give up on second-round pick Hardy, despite his slow progress and limited contribution last season. Because of his size and awkward route running, Hardy can only play on the outside and will see limited time as long as Terrell Owens is on the field.

Parrish and Jenkins have made their contributions primarily on special teams, the former as an NFL leading punt returner, and the latter as a gunner on the punt and kickoff teams. At least one will probably be the odd man out, barring injury or a training camp breakthrough on offense.

Tight End

Fourth-round pick Shawn Nelson was called the Bills’ “steal of the draft” by many analysts: a freakish athlete and a great receiver at a position that has been a non-factor in the Bills offense for years. It remains to be seen if Nelson will step up as a rookie in what appears to be a wide open race, but early reports say Nelson is having a hard time picking up the pro-style offense and the complex routes, let alone blocking assignments that will undoubtedly be more challenging than those he faced at Southern Miss.

The other options on the roster are the Dereks: Derek Schouman and Derek Fine. Both are former 2nd-day draft picks by the Bills in 2007 and 2008, respectively. Schouman started 12 games for Buffalo last season, but hauled in only 15 passes and one touchdown. Neither Schouman nor Fine is regarded as an exceptional blocker, and both have missed time with injuries, so it is to be determined whether each will step up as a better run blocker. Whoever does may also emerge as the starting TE. McCall is another option here, if the coaches become enamored enough with his blocking ability.

Left Guard/Right Guard/Right Tackle

In case anyone missed the seemingly perennial, if not weekly shuffling of the Bills offensive line, not to worry! It is back after a nearly two year aberration of stability, following the unceremonious losses of Jason Peters, Melvin Fowler, Derrick Dockery, and Duke Preston.

Langston Walker is working diligently to replace Peters on the left side, and Geoff Hangartner seems to be the choice at Center. That leaves four players, Brad Butler, Kirk Chambers, and rookies Eric Wood and Andy Levitre to fight for the remaining three spots.

Butler is almost a sure thing to start somewhere. He will most likely move to RT if both rookies are ready to go at the guard spots. If there is an injury or other bump in the road for either Wood (the first rounder) or Levitre (the second rounder), look for Butler to move to LG and Chambers to start at Tackle. Otherwise, early odds favor Levitre to start at LG and Wood at RG, which is a lineup that has a lot of potential, and also has the division’s defensive coordinators salivating over possible creative and confusing blitz packages.

Left Defensive End

All indications are that top draft choice Aaron Maybin will see a majority of time in pass rush situations opposite Aaron Schobel. It remains to be seen if he will be a full-time starter, or more of a pass-rush specialist in the rotation.

The Bills have veterans Chris Kelsay and Ryan Denney, who have alternated on the left side for the better part of seven seasons. Neither player is known for speed or athleticism, but both are smart players who have aided as run stoppers and the 6 foot 7 Denney has batted down a pass or two in his day. Both should easily make the team, considering the value of a depth on the defensive line.

Cornerback

Terrence McGee has emerged as a premier cover corner in the NFL, especially since giving up his kick return duties to focus on defense. The loss of Jabari Greer to free agency leaves last year’s first round pick and freakish athlete Leodis McKelvin to probably start on the right side.

The Bills preliminary depth chart has oft-injured Ashton Youboty in the second starting spot, and the former Buckeye has been a training camp star as of recent, but look for McKelvin to catch up as his coverage skills develop in the offseason.

Also on the roster are recent signee Drayton Florence, second year man (and aptly named) Reggie Corner, and late draft picks Cary Harris of USC and Ellis Lankster of West Virginia. Florence was signed from Jacksonville to be at least the nickelback, so a lot depends on how much Perry Fewell and the coaches like the rookie duo.

Expect the Bills to keep five corners total: McGee, McKelvin, and Florence are locks. If Youboty performs as well as he did last training camp and stays healthy, he should hold on and see reasonable playing time. That leaves Corner to battle it out with the rookies for the last spot in camp this summer.

Free Safety

Despite Ko Simpson’s pleas with police in South Carolina, he may not be “worth millions” in what should be a tight race for the starting free safety spot. Simpson was benched near the end of the season, having recorded only 66 total tackles and forcing zero turnovers in 2008.

Simpson’s legal troubles certainly won’t help him hold off George Wilson, Bryan Scott, and rookie Jairus Byrd.

Wilson played admirably in Simpson’s injury induced absence in 2007, recording 37 tackles and three total takeaways (two returned for touchdowns) in 12 starts. The 28-year old has certainly shown more big-play ability than Simpson.

Scott may emerge as the favorite to seize Simpson’s job. The 7th year journeyman started seven games in 2008, and played in all 16 between both safety spots and special teams. He recorded 68 total tackles, and was trusted in his deep coverage ability when Donte Whitner was forced to act as a hybrid cornerback in some passing situations.

The x-factor is Byrd, the former cornerback out of Oregon. Byrd was excellent in coverage in the pass-happy Pac 10, recording 17 interceptions in his three year college career. He recorded 83 tackles and defensed 19 passes in 2008 and was named the defensive MVP of the Holiday Bowl. He is being moved to safety because of a perceived lack of speed. If Byrd catches on quickly, he may supplant the veterans as the starter, much as Simpson did as a rookie in 2006.

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