BEREA, Ohio -- Five observations on the 2003 Buffalo Bills, gleaned from two training camp practices with the Cleveland Browns on August 1 and then a scrimmage between the teams on Aug. 2:
1. The Bills had one of the NFL's most unbalanced offenses in 2002, throwing the ball on 63.2 percent of their 1,054 snaps, and want to run more effectively this year. Good idea, if for no other reason than to keep quarterback Drew Bledsoe from getting hit so much. If Saturday's scrimmage was any indication, offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride seems determined to improve on a rushing attack that statistically ranked No. 24 in '02, as the Bills ran the ball well against the Cleveland defense. Travis Henry is a tailback with deceptive toughness and only four backs had more yards than he did last season, plus the Bills added Olandis Gary to serve as his top backup. That said, the weekend results were mixed for the Bills line, which did not fare especially well in the Friday practices. The unit was minus mammoth right tackle Mike Williams, out with an injury, and as a group didn't come off the ball all that tough. It's a unit on which, remarkably, four of the five starters once played left tackle. That means the natural mindset is more about finesse than physical play, and these guys are going to have to get a bit nastier. One player who clearly struggled was right guard Marques Sullivan, who got beat several times to the inside, and whose mind seems to wander at times. It won't happen immediately but don't be too surprised if unknown second-year lineman Mike Pucillo, who has bounced back and forth between center and guard, eventually competes for Sullivan's starting spot. This has the makings, don't be mistaken, of a very good line. And of an explosive offense once again. But in addition to the line continuing to improve, Henry, who had 43 receptions in '02, is going to have to develop as a receiver, too. Gilbride prefers three wide receivers on the field but, if he's going to save Bledsoe some punishment, has to become at least a little more conservative. It's perhaps a question of what 11th player -- a fullback (Sam Gash), a tight end or a third wide receiver (Bobby Shaw) -- make the Bills most functional and takes some of the load off the passing game. Much of the success Saturday came on draw plays against an overaggressive Cleveland defensive front. What the Bills need to do, though, is prove to the skeptics they can muscle up and knock people off the line.
|Drew Bledsoe was sacked 54 times last season in 16 games.|
2. It's not hard to miss just how easy it is to dismiss Josh Reed, the second-year wide receiver, and a short guy who will play a big role in determining the success of the offense. A former second-round pick and the Bills' No. 3 wideout in 2002, Reed has to fill big shoes, but seems more capable, at least from a physical dimension, of fitting into a pair of ballet slippers, rather than the clodhoppers the departed Peerless Price left behind. While he is listed at 5-feet-10 and 208 pounds, Reed appears much smaller, but Buffalo officials and teammates are confident he can make big plays. That said, he is a different kind of player than Price, who was a classic vertical deep threat up the boundary. Reed is more quick than fast, is adept at working the intermediate areas, and possesses good run-after-catch skills. He still looks more effective working out of the slot than outside and that means, despite the Bills' best intentions, their best formation is with three wideouts on the field. That would allow Bobby Shaw to play outside, and Reed to move to the slot, which would accentuate the strengths of both players. Consciously or not, the Bills sent two messages in the weekend combined workouts: On the first snap of a Friday morning "team" drill, Bledsoe dropped back and heaved a deep ball to Eric Moulds, who can still run past most corners. On the opening play of the Saturday scrimmage, and by design, Bledsoe completed a pass to Reed. It was as if the Bills were advertising that: (a) even without Price, they will not be afraid to throw deep in 2003; (b) Reed will be just fine in replacing Reed in the lineup. Notable, too, were the remarks of Bledsoe, who suggested he wouldn't mind putting the ball up 63.2 percent of the time this year, either. It will be difficult for Reed to author as many big plays as did Price, nearly impossible to replace the 94 catches the latter had in his breakout '02 campaign, but this appears to be a team that will figure out a way to compensate.
3. Much is being made of the three-headed battle at left defensive end, a competition that includes one old guy (Marcus Jones), one young player (Ryan Denney), and one rookie (Chris Kelsay). But the truth of the matter is, the Bills don't require a great player at the left end spot, because linebacker and quietly brilliant free agent addition Jeff Posey is going to be the primary pass rusher from that side in most "nickel" situations. What the Bills need is someone who can play the run, clog up people at the point of attack, and perform with a solid degree of consistency. All of that said, the competition for the starting job is a pretty intriguing one, especially since it involves Jones. Right upfront, I am going to confess that Marcus Jones is one of my favorite players, arguably the veteran who gave me the best interview I've had in the past five years. It was 2001, Jones was still with the Tampa Bay Bucs, coming off a season in which he posted 13 sacks, yet still immensely overshadowed by the three other tremendous defensive linemen on the roster. He spoke, for nearly an hour and with great candor, about how it felt to be exposed to the expansion list, how in training camp 2000, d-line coach Rod Marinelli acknowledged Jones had no shot to make the team. Marinelli implored Jones to practice hard in camp so that, when the Bucs eventually released him, the staff could, in good conscience, provide him a favorable recommendation when other clubs called to check him out. A couple players got hurt in camp, Jones was rescued from the scrap heap, and had one heck of a year. Of course, I digress in pointing all of this out, but tough, I'm running the keyboard here. Anyway, Jones is attempting to resurrect his career after having the controversial "microfracture" surgery on his knee last year. To say the "microfracture" procedure (in which holes are drilled in the knee in what essentially amounts to an effort to regenerate cartilage) has enjoyed mixed results would be kind, believe me. Jones is making great strides, though, and the investment of $200,000 that Donahoe made last year, just to get his rights and allow him to continue rehabbing while in the employ of the Bills, could turn out to be a terrific move. On the day camp began, Bills new defensive line coach Tim Krumrie, whose techniques are about as Byzantine as any in the NFL, jumped up on the veteran defensive end, piggyback-style. He ordered Jones to carry him for 30-40 yards, all the while leaning to one side, then the other. The object of the exercise was to see if Jones was favoring his knee. He wasn't, which is good news for Jones, and maybe even better news for the Buffalo defensive coaches. Denney is a guy to watch, too, because he was a second-round pick last year, and did very little as a rookie. Some people within the organization will concede the club just didn't handle him very well in 2002. The scribes who see Buffalo on a regular basis assess that Denney hasn't done much in camp. But in Saturday's scrimmage against the Browns, he recorded two sacks, held up nicely versus the run, demonstrated some toughness. You can tell even in a brief conversation with Denney, who is bigger than a year ago, that he wants to be good. The Bills are going to provide him every opportunity to be a player. Kelsay, who was one of the two other players Donahoe considered choosing in the first round, before he opted for holdout tailback Willie McGahee, is a big-motor kind of player. Buffalo officials are thrilled the former Nebraska star lasted into the second round. Kelsay is said to have the qualities of Rams defensive end Grant Wistrom, and there might be some similarities. To us, he looks a little like the Bills' starting right defensive end, Aaron Schobel. Just a guess, but Kelsay will probably be a situational player as a rookie and the Bills will try to bulk him up during the offseason.
4. Middle linebacker London Fletcher, the Energizer Bunny of defenders and a player who runs sideline to sideline pursuing ball carriers, might have 250 tackles this season. OK, that's an exaggeration, we concede. But with tackles Sam Adams and Pat Williams playing in front of him, Fletcher is going to have an awfully clean uniform in 2002, and won't have to get through too much trash on his way to the football. Adams reported to camp at a relatively svelte 340 pounds, which earned him a $150,000 bonus, and he will be a huge factor, literally and figuratively, in helping upgrade a Buffalo defense that was a woeful No. 29 versus the rush last season. Adams won't make many tackles, but he will occupy two blockers on nearly every snap, and just shut down the interior, creating the kind of gridlock normally associated with Southern California freeways. And that will make all three linebackers, but especially the omni-active Fletcher, very happy indeed. If Adams can go hard for just 30-35 snaps a game, Williams gets motivated by being able to play with his longtime buddy, and Buffalo develops a viable No. 3 tackle, teams should have a much more daunting time running the ball against the Bills' front seven.
5. No team had fewer takeaways than the Bills (19) in 2002 and, even with the upgrades on defense, the safeties have to start making some plays -- whoever they are. The Bills starting safeties in '02, Pierson Prioleau and Coy Wire, combined for zero interceptions, six passes defensed, no fumbles forced and nada recoveries last year. That's just not going to cut it. The Mutt-and-Jeff cornerback tandem of Antoine Winfield and Nate Clements has matured nicely. Clements came to camp more focused and physical than he has been in the past. Winfield, who is entering the final year of his contract (his agent is scheduled to meet with Donahoe this week to discuss a possible extension), has always been a guy whose feistiness overshadowed his lack of size. But, oh, those safeties! The team signed former Denver starter Izell Reese, a versatile defensive back whose best position might be free safety, but he hasn't made a move on a starting job yet. There are a lot of candidates, and it's way too early to predict the starters, but Buffalo has to get a couple of safeties who can steal the ball every now and then.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.