The Buffalo Bills finished up their Offseason Training Activities and as fans anxiously await the start of training camp, there appears to be a few positions that will have serious competition throughout the summer. Here’s several of the battles to make the 53-man roster that I’ll be keeping an eye on throughout training camp.
No. 2 Running Back
Karlos Williams vs. Mike Gilislee vs. Jonathan Williams
Karlos Williams had an outstanding rookie year, scoring nine total touchdowns (seven rushing, two receiving) while gaining 517 rushing yards on 93 attempts (5.6 yards-per-carry) and added another 96 yards on 11 receptions. The 6’1” and 230-pound back seemed to be the cut-and-dry backup to LeSean McCoy heading into the team’s OTA’s, but he showed up extremely out of shape and was reportedly 20- pounds overweight.
Williams attributed the weight gain to his wife’s pregnancy, and while it’s not a good look to show up out of shape after the team selected another running back in the 2016 NFL Draft, training camp is a month away, so there’s ample time for him to get conditioned and compete in camp.
Mike Gillislee played just five games for the Bills last season, but was impressive in every single one of them. The 5’11” and 212-pound back out of Florida gained 267 yards on 47 carries, scoring three touchdowns and added another 29 yards on six catches.
Gillislee is a patient runner that showed a great understanding of the core principles of Greg Roman’s complex blocking schemes which resulted in several huge runs. He definitely made a statement at the end of the season and he deservedly should be in the conversation for the No. 2 job with Karlos Williams.
Jonathan Williams is an interesting candidate for a backup role as the rookie fifth-round pick out of Arkansas who fits the mold of “Greg Roman” running back, standing 5’11” and weighing 224 pounds. He rushed for 1,190 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2014 before tearing a ligament in his foot that forced him to miss his 2015 campaign.
Williams has ridiculous footwork for a back of his stature. His feet never stop moving and his low center of gravity make him a tough target to tackle—especially in space. His lower body strength and consistent leg drive allowed him to break tackles at ease and pick up big chunks of yardage.
Now, as a rookie he’ll have to prove himself, but much like Karlos Williams—who was also a fifth-round pick in last year’s draft—the best man wins. The Buffalo Bills offense will hang their cap on their rushing attack, so the backup running back position is definitely a battle worth watching.
No. 3 Wide Receiver
Dez Lewis vs. Leonard Hankerson vs. Greg Salas
The Buffalo Bills have their No. 1 and No. 2 wideouts set in stone with Sammy Watkins and Robert Woods, but after losing Chris Hogan to the New England Patriots during the offseason, there’s a heated battle for the slot and reserve wideout positions. The team currently has 13 wideouts on the roster, but in my opinion this is a three-way competition between Dez Lewis, Leonard Hankerson and Greg Salas.
Dez Lewis, the team’s seventh-round selection in last season’s draft only saw action in one game last year but the 6’4” and 220-pounder out of Central Arkansas has drawn rave reviews throughout Buffalo’s OTA’s. Rex Ryan had this to say about the 23-year old’s performance.
“For my money I think Dez Lewis, consistently, has done a great job,” the Bills head coach said. “You saw him. As the year went on, he kept getting better and better, but I think he’s made strides even from that point to now Here’s a guy, a young man that came in from a small college, but man, has he really taken off. And you can talk to any of our guys in the weight room and all that. He’s done a phenomenal job there, getting stronger, faster, and then, [the offense is] not Chinese to him anymore. Last year, I think there was a little of that.”
Hankerson was selected by the Washington Redskins with the No. 79 overall pick in the third round of the 2011 NFL Draft out of the University of Miami. A physical specimen, he stands 6’2” and weighs 210 pounds. He’s dealt with nagging injuries since entering the league and saw limited action in his first four years, sitting behind players like Santana Moss, Pierre Garcon, Julio Jones and Roddy White.
In those four seasons, Hankerson caught 109 passes for 1,435 yards (13.2 yards-per-catch) and nine touchdowns. 459 of his yards came after the catch.
Hankerson has got good size with a muscular frame that he’ll use to position himself in front of defenders and play physical in contested situations. He’s also got impressive speed and quickness for a player of his stature. He can cover a lot of ground and will eat up the cushion between himself and a defender on vertical routes in a hurry.
The most frustrating aspect of Leonard Hankerson’s game has to be his inconsistent hands. It’s been an issue since his college days, as he’ll often look to turn and run before fully securing the pass. In his four seasons during which he’s been targeted 169 times, Hankerson has dropped 15 passes. Here’s what Bills’ wide receivers coach Sanjay Lal had to say about Hankerson.
“Leonard is really smooth,” Lal said. “He’s one of our best route runners. If you’re an aficionado for the game, he’s just like so smooth you like enjoy watching how he runs routes. So very smooth, got sneaky speed, he’s a 4.4 guy, so again intrigued by him too.”
Greg Salas gives off a Chris Hogan vibe in the sense that he’s a bigger receiver with good athleticism that allows him to play both inside in the slot as well as outside on the boundary.
While he doesn’t have the size of the other three receivers he’s competing with, standing 6’1” and 206 pounds, Salas shares similar athletic ability, running a 4.56 40-yard dash, 6.65 second three cone, 4.10-second shuttle and posted a 37” vert and a 10’ broad jump.
Salas is a smooth route runner that’s ideal for the slot, as he has quick feet and gets in and out of his breaks in a hurry. Salas is familiar with Sanjay Lal from their time with the Jets and he caught eight passes for 167 yards last year before being picked up by the Bills late last season.
Sanjay Lal seems to be a big fan of Greg Salas, telling John Murphy that he was likely the reason the Bills won against the Jets last season, adding,
“He is a smart, savvy, excellent route runner. I don’t think we win the Jets game without what he did on third down for us. We’re really counting on him to come through, take another step, and really be the guy that when all else fails, Greg’s going to get open.”
Manny Lawson vs. The Replacements
With rookie first-round pick Shaq Lawson expected to miss at least six weeks of the regular season after undergoing shoulder surgery following the draft. This leaves Manny Lawson—who held down the SAM linebacker role opposite Jerry Hughes for most of the 2015 season—competing with players such as IK Enemkpali and several young “unknowns” that will be fighting not only for a starting or backup role, but a spot on the 53-man roster, such as Cedric Reed, Max Valles, Randell Johnson (who’s reportedly working at inside linebacker throughout OTA’s), Lavar Edwards, and undrafted free agent Eric Striker.
Johnson, Reed, Valles and Edwards have a combined 12 tackles and two starts under their belts, while Enemkpali recorded 13 tackles and two passes defensed in 11 games last season. Lorenzo Alexander, a veteran do-it-all defender saw time with the first team defense at outside linebacker during OTA’s so he’s another player to watch, but I’m excited to see how the front seven rotation shakes out this summer.
Starting Inside Linebacker
Preston Brown vs. Reggie Ragland vs. Zach Brown
After a fantastic rookie season, Preston Brown’s play took a significant step back last year as he struggled adjusting from Jim Schwartz’ simplified 4-3 scheme to Rex Ryan’s complex hybrid 3-4 that asks a lot out the MIKE linebacker. While OTA comments (especially made by coaches with a surname of “Ryan”) should be taken with a grain of salt, but apparently Brown has taken to the criticism he received and is taking on more of a leadership role on the field—communicating, getting guys lined up and according to the Ryan bros, looking like a “star.”
“This Preston Brown is gonna be a star,” said assistant head coach/defense Rob Ryan. “He’s been fantastic. He’s a vocal guy, he’s extremely smart, he knows the defense, he knows the ins and outs now. So he’s really gonna grow in this system.”
“I see it on the field every day. I see how he’s taking charge,” Rex Ryan said. “Everything that we’ve challenged him with, he’s accepted the challenge. Maybe he’s… he’s definitely met those expectations that we’ve set for him, or maybe exceeded them.”
Those who follow my work know that I was Reggie Ragland’s biggest cheerleader throughout the college football season and was blown away with the fact that he was able to be selected in the second round of the 2016 NFL Draft.
Hovering around 255 pounds, Ragland sure is a thumper and a force at inside linebacker. However, he’s got underrated skills in coverage and is a nice fit for Ryan’s pattern matching coverage concepts that won’t ask him to drop into deep coverage where he could be exposed.
Ragland is the type of player that sets a tone for your defense, a player that the Bills have lacked for years and he has the potential to be a star in this system that’s always been based around dominant inside ‘backers.
Zach Brown is the No. 3 inside linebacker in Buffalo’s 3-4, but he’ll likely see more time on the field than his “backup” label would suggest. With most base offenses operating out of “11” personnel (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR), linebackers that can cover in space are a necessity, and that’s what Zach Brown brings to the table. It’ll be interesting to see the different linebacker combinations we see throughout training camp based on the various personnel packages the offense shows.
3 Under The Radar Players I’ll Be Watching
LB Randell Johnson
Yes. I am a Randell Johnson fan boy. The 6’4” 245-pound edge rusher/inside linebacker has the physical traits of your prototypical 3-4 outside linebacker/pass rusher. Check out how he compares athletically to some of the top pass rushers in the league right now.
Now, obviously I’m not expecting Johnson to have the production that a Khalil Mack will, but after shining on special teams for the first two years of his career, he finally began to see the field at both outside and inside linebacker. If Rex can get six sacks out of Aaron Maybin, I’m sure he can find a niche for Johnson.
S Duke Williams
Duke Williams was the whipping boy of Bills fans last season—first for his blown assignment that resulted in a Rob Gronkowski score, as well as being chewed out by Stephon Gilmore and Nigel Bradham after angrily giving him his assignment prior to the snap. Then there was Jacksonville. I’ll stop. But I may be one of the last believers in Duke Williams, even as a role player. Known for being a big hitter, he’s rangy and athletic that had a solid year under Jim Schwartz and Mike Pettine. A lot of the defense—particularly the back seven—struggled last season, so here’s to hoping that Duke Williams has taken the offseason to absorb the playbook and possibly make an impact in 2016.
WR Robert Woods
Robert Woods has always shined when given the chance, but unfortunately, Greg Roman’s run-oriented offense means those opportunities are usually limited to games in which Sammy Watkins is hurt or the team is down significantly. Entering the final year of his rookie deal, you know Woods is going to look to prove himself. He’s a fiery player on the field and plays much bigger than his size.
He’s been a secondary target and with the addition of Charles Clay, he was relegated to a “blocking receiver” role last season. I can’t wait to see how he performs throughout camp.