Postcard from camp: Bills
Even coming off a 6-10 season, the Bills have a secondary second to none
With T.O. gone, Lee Evans should reclaim his role as No. 1 receiver
If the offensive line doesn't improve markedly, the Bills are in trouble
SI.com has dispatched writers to report on the 32 NFL training camps across the country. Here's what Ben Reiter had to say about the Bills camp in Pittsford, N.Y. For an archive of all camp postcards, click here.
When on Sunday I arrived in Pittsford, N.Y., where the Bills have held their training camps for 11 years, I picked up the local paper and discovered a columnist who was not pleased that SI.com's Don Banks rated Buffalo as the 31st-best team (out of 32) in his pre-training camp power rankings. After nearly 300 words of explanation, the columnist concluded that the Bills, coming off a 6-10 season, should really be ranked no lower than 27th.
Thirty-first, 27th: the point is that expectations are not exactly high for this largely nationally anonymous team, even after an offseason overhaul that saw them hire a new GM in Buddy Nix, a new head coach in Chan Gailey, and many new assistant coaches (including defensive coordinator George Edwards). The Bills have not had a winning record since 2004, and have not made a playoff appearance since the Wade Phillips/Doug Flutie days in 1999, and are now faced with an AFC East that seems loaded with star power. "We're just going to fly under the radar," says running back Fred Jackson. "A lot of people are going to not expect us to do much this year, and we want to go out and make some noise and change that."
1. Buffalo's secondary is second to none.
The Bills' back four was devastated by injury last season -- the current projected starters, cornerbacks Terrence McGee and Leodis McKelvin and safeties Jairus Byrd and Donte Whitner combined to miss 26 games in '09 -- but the team still finished second in the league in pass defense, yielding just 184.2 yards per game. Now everyone's back, and everyone is relatively healthy, and that ranking might even improve. "I haven't watched every secondary in the NFL -- I've watched a lot of them, not all of them," replied Gailey, when asked if he felt his unit was the league's finest. "But I know one thing: they're a great strength of our team."
The group's star is probably now Byrd, the second-year man out of Oregon. Byrd gained some attention as a rookie by finishing tied for first with nine interceptions (in 14 games played), and perhaps even more when the AP held a re-vote for the Defensive Rookie of the Year award after winner Brian Cushing, the Texans linebacker, was revealed to have tested positive for PED's. Cushing won again, and Byrd again finished second. "It didn't really bother me," says Byrd, the son of 10-year NFL corner and current Bears assistant defensive backs coach Gill Byrd. "I was just going about my business. If something's not yours, you can't really get upset or bent out of shape. He had a great season, so there's nothing I can really say about that."
Part of the business about which Byrd went was creating a movement called Louder Than Words, in which he encourages people to use social media platforms to inform others of acts of kindness they've either witnessed or themselves performed, however small. "It's trying to get people to do good deeds, pay it forward," he explains. "A lot of stuff you hear about is negative, and I'm just trying to get people to do something positive, give a little of their time to help other people." You can check out Byrd's Twitter page here, and Facebook page here:
2. T.O. is gone, but there are plenty in camp who hope to replace him.
Lee Evans, after a season as Terrell Owens' sidekick in which he registered a career-low 44 catches for 612 yards, is again the Buffalo attack's top wideout. As for number 2? Take your pick. The Bills' training camp roster currently features no fewer than 10 wide receivers, and it seemed as if a different one was making a catch on every play the offense ran on Monday. Standouts included David Nelson, the 6'5" undrafted rookie out of Florida who was sometimes lost in the shuffle of the Gators' Tim Tebow-led offense; James Hardy, also 6'5", a second round pick in '08 who is returning from a torn ACL; and Chad Jackson, who has been a disappointment ever since the Patriots selected him 36th overall out of Florida in 2006.
The current favorite to win the No. 2 job, however, is Steve Johnson -- or, as he is also known, Stevie Styles, but more on that in a moment. Johnson has just 12 catches in two NFL seasons, and one of the last things that he did that most might remember was catching a last-minute, game-winning, 57-yard touchdown against Louisville that gave Kentucky its first win over a Top-10 team in three decades, back in 2007. (It's an event that he says he hasn't brought up to current teammates and Louisville alums Brian Brohm and Eric Wood -- "I'm pretty sure they know what's up, but I don't go over there and be like, yo, you remember that catch?" he says.)
Now, though, Johnson is primed to make an NFL impact. "When I got here last year, I thought Steve was one of the most impressive receivers we had on the team," says backup quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick. "Just smooth -- that's probably the only way you can describe him. Smooth. Getting off the jam, running his routes. He's a guy that's going to get a shot this year, and he knows it."
His smoothness extends off the field -- and this is where Stevie Styles comes in. Johnson's father produced hip hop music in San Francisco, he says, and he has a cousin with Akon's Konvict Muzik label, and Johnson himself loves to create music -- "whenever I'm bored." A video of a spoken word freestyle rap-slash-pep talk he gave to his teammates at Kentucky currently has nearly 500,000 hits on Youtube, and this spring he produced a tribute to his teammate Byrd called "Byrd Flyin High," which samples a similarly-named Juelz Santana/Lil Wayne track. He gave an impromptu performance of a verse outside the Bills' locker room on Monday.
Has the 58-year-old Coach Gailey watched Johnson's youtube videos?
"No," he says.
Might he watch them? They're pretty good.
"No. I'll take your word for it."
More concerned about Steve Johnson, football player, than Stevie Styles, rapper?
"Much more. That's right."
3. The offensive line remains a major concern.
It won't matter who ends up starting across from Evans -- or at any of the other skill positions, for that matter -- if the offensive line doesn't improve, and improve markedly, from last season. The line in '09 allowed 103 quarterback hits (the second most in the league) and 46 sacks (tied for fourth most), and was perhaps the central reason quarterback Trent Edwards -- who is in line to open 2010 as the starter -- spent most of his third season either ineffective, injured or on the bench, and why Owens only made 55 catches, and why the offense was, as a whole, the NFL's third least-productive.
The Bills, somewhat inexplicably, cut their line's anchor, left tackle Langston Walker, at the end of last summer's training camp, and they suffered for it. Unless this year's line -- which should feature second-year players Eric Wood and Andy Levitre at guard, unproven Demetrius Bell at left tackle and veterans Geoff Hangartner and Cornell Green at center and right tackle, respectively -- significantly outperforms expectations, it should be more of the same for the offense, even with a new offensively-minded coach in Gailey.
Andra Davis. Gailey and Edwards came in with the idea of moving the Bills from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4 one for the first time in nine seasons -- "Because I'm an offensive coach, and I know how many problems it gives us as an offense," Gailey explains -- but they weren't going to commit to it unless they could add the proper personnel. Davis, 31, who spent the first seven seasons of his career in Cleveland and played well last season in Denver, is an experienced inside linebacker in the 3-4, and he signed a two-year deal in March, sealing the transition.
The Bills hope their 3-4 alignment will help shore up a run defense that ranked 30th in 2010, and Fred Jackson says it could also pay dividends for the offense. "Every team in our division is a 3-4 team," he points out. "We're used to see it -- but being able to practice against it every day is just going to make us better."
C.J. Spiller, running back. Buffalo made the burner from Clemson the first running back to be taken in this year's draft (ninth overall) -- a move that surprised some, in that the Bills already had two very good tailbacks on the roster in Fred Jackson and Marshawn Lynch. As of Monday, Spiller was not in camp yet -- he was one of three first rounders (along with Detroit's Ndamukong Suh and Seattle's Russell Okung) who had yet to sign a contract. But when he arrives, and it should be soon, Gailey will have to find a way to get him the ball.
That will be a difference for the coach, who in his previous NFL stops has liked to rely on a single workhorse, such as with Emmitt Smith in Dallas, Lamar Smith in Miami and Larry Johnson in Kansas City. "I gotta change," Gailey says. "That has been one of my things that I have done in the past, but with three guys, if it turns out to be three guys, we've got to find a way to use all of them."
Jackson, a 1,062 yard rusher a year ago, should be the starter, but insists he's fine with sharing, to a point. "I'll be interesting," he says. "I think that all of us are going to touch the ball. But as long as I can go in and start the game and get us rolling, and those two come in whenever they're asked to and make plays for us, I think we'll do pretty good for ourselves."
"There are a lot of people here," said one observer on the sideline at the Bills' evening practice on Monday, "but you don't hear anyone. It's like a golf tournament."
A very different scene, indeed, from the rock concerts that were last August's evening practices, in which Bills fans screamed for everything that Owens did, however insignificant. "I guess there's less of the flashbulbs going off at night," says Fitzpatrick, "but it's been good. Everybody's working hard."
Roscoe Parrish, now in his sixth season in Buffalo, will be far more of a factor than he was last year, when he totaled just three catches for 34 yards for former head coach Dick Jauron. "He obviously has unbelievable quickness and speed," says an excited Gailey. "I mean, in the top echelon of the league. And it's incumbent on us to make sure that he touches the ball and is involved in the offense, and all that kind of stuff."
The Bill with perhaps the most to prove might be Aaron Maybin, the 11th overall pick out of Penn State in the 2009 draft who held out for the entirety of the team's training camp last August, and then did very little -- 12 tackles, no sacks -- as a rookie. "I love it, really," he says of the Bills' 3-4, in which he'll move from defensive end to outside linebacker. "I think it's a better fit for me, just because of the fact that this type of defense lets me get in space and do a lot more things that cater to what I do, and use my athleticism, my quickness, my speed and my explosiveness."
That Marshawn Lynch is still here is something of a surprise, given the presence of Fred Jackson and the drafting of Spiller. Lynch, who just two years ago seemed on the verge of becoming one of the league's top backs, will now likely play a complementary role, if he sticks around -- but he's saying all the right things, even if he's not saying very many of them.
He produced what was probably the easiest transcription job ever tackled by an NFL P.R. intern in a meeting with the media on Sunday. In responding to a question about whether he is receiving enough reps in practice, he said, simply, "I'm sweating." He also on Monday exhibited an interesting taste in t-shirts. "FIVE DOLLAR FOOT LONG," his shirt read, leading one to think he has a particular fondness for Subway until one noticed that printed below the words was a downward-pointing arrow. Oh.
The Bills entered last season with a team-wide guarded optimism, one that quickly eroded after a brutal 25-24 loss to the Patriots on Monday night of Week 1, in which they squandered a late 24-13 lead by allowing two touchdowns in the final 2:06. "That kind of set the tone to the season last year," says Fred Jackson. "If we could have won that game, it probably would have propelled us to do some better things."
It is going to be a difficult task for the Bills to start any better this season, as they face four of what should be the NFL's very best teams -- the Packers, Patriots, Jets and Ravens -- in their first six games. A win in any of those seems highly unlikely, and that should set the stage for a season in which the only thing Bills fans will be talking about will be where, exactly, among the league's bottom six teams their beloved team ranks.