After four full days of Training Camp, two of which were in full pads, the Bills have put together a string of very productive practices in the first Training Camp for Bills head coach Sean McDermott.
Although it hasn’t all been pretty, the businesslike mentality shown the first few days of camp have been a refreshing change from last year’s laid-back environment. Offense, defense, and special teams have been disciplined. There has been a noticeable absence of offside penalties early for all three units of the offense and defense, and I’ve been impressed with the aggression of the front four, led by second-year defensive end Shaq Lawson.
Let’s go over a few things that have caught my eye over the first few days.
Watkins is focused
The one thing that I’ve noticed since the first practice is Sammy’s attention to detail. Sean McDermott said as camp opened that the team would be limiting Sammy’s reps to keep him as healthy as possible and ready for the start if the season. Instead of sitting back and watching his teammates, Sammy has been working in lockstep with new Bills wide receivers coach Phil McGeoghan off to the side. They have been working specifically on top-of-route fundamentals, and Sammy has been extremely receptive to McGeoghan’s coaching.
It’s important to note Sammy’s relationship with former Bills wide receivers coach Sanjay Lal. Watkins was outspoken following Rex Ryan’s firing that the organization keep Lal with the new coaching staff coming in. When that didn’t happen, many worried that might negatively impact Watkins. So far, his relationship with McGeoghan has been noteworthy. We’ll see if that relationship continues to grow as camp and the year move along.
WRs behind Sammy/Zay have been unimpressive
There’s no questioning that Sammy Watkins is the class of this receiving corps going into the 2017 season. Second round pick Zay Jones likely comes in as the second-most talented guy at receiver on the roster. After that, I’ve been thoroughly unimpressed with the remaining group of receivers that includes Andre Holmes, Corey Brown, Rod Streater, Rashad Ross, and Walter Powell.
After signing Holmes to a 3-year deal worth just north of $5 million during the offseason, Holmes was expected to start the preseason as the number two receiver to allow Zay Jones to ease into the position in his first NFL Training Camp. After four days, it appears that plan may be changing, as Zay put together his best practice to date showing some chemistry with Tyrod Taylor.
The biggest issue thus far with Andre Holmes has been is hands. He’s simply dropping too many balls. I certainly don’t want to make it sound like I’m exclusively picking on Holmes, because almost everyone outside of Watkins and Jones have struggled with drops, but it appears to be more mental with Holmes. It appears he’s just fighting the football at times. What I mean by that is even when he brings the ball in, it doesn’t look natural. Here’s to hoping he can figure out whatever mental block is stopping him from consistently bringing in passes, but it’s one of the main reasons the Oakland Raiders moved on from Holmes in the first place.
Young LBs are getting an opportunity
Over the first three days of Training Camp, the linebacker group has been very consistent from first to third team. On the first unit, we’ve seen Ramon Humber (Will), Preston Brown (Mike) and Lorenzo Alexander (Sam) remain stalwart starters throughout OTAs and Training Camp. Behind them, the second unit (up until today) had been Tanner Vallejo (Will), Reggie Ragland (Mike) and Gerald Hodges (Sam). The change today saw rookie Matt Milano get his first action with the second team, bumping Gerald Hodges down to the third team.
At first, I assumed it had been a substitution they’d keep throughout practice, but after some rotations it appeared Hodges and Milano were switching off every other series. Milano made the most of his opportunity by picking off TJ Yates during team drills, while Hodges struggled to make a significant impact when he was on the field.
Up until this point, I had assumed Hodges was simply on the second team as he adapts to a new system after missing all of OTAs in the offseason, the idea being that he’d work his way into a starting role. After today, I’m not so sure that’s going to be the case. Milano and Vallejo are certainly going to get a shot to win a depth role at linebacker on this team, so Hodges is going to have to show a real knowledge of the system coming over from San Francisco, who played a 3-4 last season. Otherwise, he may be on the outside looking in for a roster spot, especially because Milano and Vallejo expect to have important special teams roles in 2017.
Running back depth may be an issue
After four days, there’s no question that the top two backs in this offense will be LeSean McCoy and Jonathan Williams. After that, I’ve been unimpressed with the cast of characters behind them. Joe Banyard, Cedric O’Neal, and Jordan Johnson make up the group behind McCoy and Williams, and none of them has made any real plays of significance in the early portions Training Camp.
Admittedly, fans may not get a real good look at the running back depth until preseason games get underway, but don’t worry. Help may already be on the roster. His name? Mike Tolbert.
Although Tolbert was really brought in as a second fullback and a short yardage specialist, he has impressed early on, flashing his patented bruiser running style. He’s also flashed some quickness for a 10-year veteran of the NFL. In my opinion, unless the Bills add another running back of significance, Tolbert will have a big role on this Bills offense in 2017.
As Training Camp rolls along, Cover 1 will have continuing coverage live from St. John Fisher College. Be sure to follow me and Cover 1 on Twitter @NateGearyWGR and @Cover_1_.